The Bank Holiday

“Bank holiday” was not a part of my vocabulary until last week, but now I think I’ll use it for the rest of my life. It’s exactly what you think it is: the banks are closed and everyone has the day off. It being my first bank holiday, I had no idea what to do. Leave the city? Spend the day in the park? Where will the crowds be? In the end I made the most tourist-y decision possible: the Tower of London and Kensington Palace for the day.

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View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from the Tower of London

To me, the Tower and it’s surrounding area epitomizes London. It’s a 1000 year old fortress built by William the Conquerer; it saw the coronation and later the execution of Anne Boleyn; it holds an incredible collection of crown jewels; and more recently it held the medals before the 2012 London Olympics. At the same time it’s surrounded by the skyscrapers of London like the Shard (the tallest building in Europe). Only London could put the two buildings in the same skyline and make it seem perfectly natural.

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The Shard as seen from the Tower

We jumped in line to see the Crown Jewels right away, following the advice of the woman at the ticket counter. Apparently she gave the same advice to everyone else since the line wrapped around the building. We accidentally cut in front of some people before they politely told us to move to the back of the line. It was like A Christmas Story when they’re waiting to see Santa.

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Waiting to see the crown jewels

The wait to see the crown jewels is very similar to the wait for Splash Mountain. The line wraps around outside several times and you think “That wasn’t so bad! We’re almost inside!” But then there’s another line for 20 minutes, but you don’t mind because you’re out of the sun and now there’s stuff to look at. They give you the Sparknotes history of the monarchy and the jewels like Disney gives you whatever story leads to the ride. About half-way through there is (what can only be described as) a crown jewel hype video– lots of intense choral music plays as paintings with past monarchs wearing their jewels fade in and out. In the next room there is this odd animation about the coronation process. Really? We’re about to see the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and you’re saving money with this cheap animated video?

They know how to keep the crowds moving though. Once they lead you through the room that has the coronation spoon (to hold the anointing oil and not for the coronation porridge as we’d all predicted) and QEII’s gold robe, you get to the jewels in a massive display case. They put the lines onto a short moving sidewalk like in the airport so you glide by and can’t crowd around. Pretty brilliant.  When they remove the Imperial State Crown for the Opening of Parliament, they just put in a small sign that reads “In use.”

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The ravens: legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, the British empire will fall (so they clip their wings).

Once we hit the main attraction, we explored the outer walls that included an exhibition on the zoo animals (lions and tigers and bears- oh my!) who used to live in the Tower. Apparently one king had a pet polar bear, and occasionally they would put a robe around it and let it swim in the Thames. After that it was an overpriced lunch at the cafe but it was so nice to have something that tasted homemade, it was worth the price.

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Part of my delicious, overpriced lunch
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Memorial to those executed at the Tower including Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both married to Henry VIII
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The White Tower that featured an exhibition on armor and displayed pieces belonging to Henry VIII
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Traitors’ Gate: how all prisoners arrived at the Tower (including Elizabeth I)
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Just a cool stained glass window in the medieval palace
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Queen Victoria in front of Kensington Palace

After spending most of the morning at the Tower, I took the Circle line farther to Kensington Palace. Having watched The Young Victoria the night before, I was so excited to see Queen Victoria’s childhood home. They have several of her dresses from her youth and one of her mourning gowns she wore after Prince Albert’s death (they also have the small tiara she always wore at the Tower). They also display some of Emily Blunt’s — er, Queen Victoria’s diary entries from her life with Prince Albert. A lovely exhibition overall. After that there was a small exhibition called “Fashion Rules” featuring dresses worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. Kensington is kinda girly now that I think about it.

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the Queen’s dresses
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They used these really cool paper costumes in other parts of the Palace

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Once I saw a guide, I had to ask “Where do the current royals (i.e. Will and Kate) live when they’re at Kensington?” Apparently those apartments are on the other side of the “Queen’s Apartments” exhibition. They also rarely give notice when they’re coming, but the place is so big the palace can be open when they’re in town.  Also Prince William hosted a party in part of the “King’s Apartments” exhibition with dancing in the gardens, or so the guide told me. I wonder if it was on a bank holiday.

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They know what sells.

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