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London Accompaniment

Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

Our inside joke started way back in the distant year of 2010, when MrElaineous was still known as Jon and I was just about to embark on the phase of my PhD euphemistically known as “writing up” (reality: “academic hell”). I had a paper accepted to an archaeology conference in Granada, Spain and Jon was interested in going as well; when registering for the conference I had the option to include him for events like the pre-conference drinks, conference dinner, and post-conference drinks. Yes, academics in general (and archaeologists in particular) like their libations.

When we arrived for the introductory drinks and collected our name tags, I was amused to see the job description that had been added to Jon’s: Accompanying Person. Little did I know then that he had plans to make the role permanent: a few nights later, between pre-tour drinks and a night-time tour of the Alhambra, Jon proposed. Since then, he has accompanied me to academic events across Europe and while I would attend the conference, he would have the chance to explore the city to his heart’s content.

Finally, the tables were turned when he had a convention in London … the MCM ComicCon to be precise. It has more costumes than an academic conference, but I imagine slightly less drinking. I tagged along as his accompanying person and, while he was getting his geek on, I had the opportunity to have my own adventures.

I started off by catching up with a friend out in Greenwich. This former village is located across the Thames and can be reached by a tunnel under the river. It’s home to the Cutty Sark (a former tea clipper), the Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian, the National Maritime Museum, the Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College, and some of the best views in London. MrElaineous and I only discovered the joys of Greenwich ourselves a few years ago (which, admittedly, is when many of these photos were taken), but it’s a place I am always happy to return to.

Visiting the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London

Above: The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 to carry tea between China and the UK, later serving as wool transport between Australia and the UK. Although her travelling days are behind her, the ship has been turned into a museum and is well worth a visit. 

Below: Why have just one lovely building when you can have two? The iconic buildings of the Old Royal Naval College are described by UNESCO as the “finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles”. I tend to agree! These were originally built at the turn of the 18th century as the Royal Hospital for Seamen. 

Visiting Greenwich, London

The next day he set off early to avoid the ComicCon queues and I had all of London at my doorstep, quite literally in the case of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. Our accommodation was only a five-minute walk from these landmarks, and while I had visited the former a few years ago, I had never made the time to go inside the bridge. The beautiful weather—and the promise of great views from the top—were all the encouragement I needed.

The first thing to note is that despite being an icon of London, this is not the London Bridge. There are 33 bridges that cross the Thames in London, and London Bridge is the next bridge to the west. And, despite claims you may have heard to the contrary, London Bridge did not fall down. A bridge has spanned the river in this location since Roman times, with a 600-year-old medieval stone bridge (Old London Bridge) being traded in for a newer model in 1831 (New London Bridge). It was this replacement that was sold to an American businessman in 1967, and he had it moved it to Lake Havasu in Arizona and rebuilt brick by brick. The newest of the bridges to bear the name London Bridge was opened in 1973.

View of Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh (1632).
Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

The Tower Bridge, however, takes its name from its location next to the Tower of London. Construction on it started near the end of Victoria’s reign, and it took 8 years to complete, finishing in 1894. After my experience in the Scott Monument in Edinburgh (more about that in a future blog post, I promise!), I was relieved that a lift (US readers: elevator) takes visitors up to the first stage in the north tower. Many of my fellow passengers quickly moved on to the tower walkway, but I stopped for several minutes in the first room, mesmerised by film footage from 1903 that showed London at the turn of the century.

It is perhaps the closest thing we have to time travel, a chance to see to see familiar landmarks through new eyes. Some aspects were very much of the time—a woman selling flowers a la Eliza Doolittle, double-decker buses being pulled by horses—but the general scramble of London life was still present and, in many ways, hasn’t changed. The style of clothing is a bit different—although the fashion for flat caps seems to be making a comeback—but the people who looked into the camera over 100 years ago would likely recognise the London of today despite the constantly changing skyline. If you have some time on your hands and want to disappear down a YouTube rabbit hole, check out some of the similar videos that are available: here and here are good places to start!

After viewing the film, the visitor enters the first of two walkways that have stunning views over the Thames and various London landmarks. A new(ish) addition is a glass walkway that allows visitors to seemingly stand in mid-air over the river and roadway below. As I walked on to it, an employee handed me a sticker: “Glass Floor: I did it!” I laughed and put it on my coat. I asked if many people did it; he shook his head and said, “No, they’re too scared.”

However, some certainly managed to find their courage by the time they got to the second glass walkway and its views over the Shard, HMS Belfast, and dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A mirrored ceiling has been installed to allow those with a fondness for selfies to easily take photos, and I enjoyed the resulting architectural funhouse effect.

Visiting the Glass Walkway, London, England

Next it was down the south tower and into the engine rooms where it was possible to see the massive technology that once powered the bascules (the bits on the bridge that go up and down). While MrElaineous had the chance to see followers of steampunk, I instead learned about the steam power and hydraulics that meant that the bascules could be raised to their full height in 60 seconds. Today, it’s oil and electricity that allow the bridge to be lifted at the touch of a button, but at the time of its construction this was the most technologically advanced bascule bridge in the world.

I then hopped onto another bit of updated Victorian technology—the London Underground—and crossed the city to pay a visit to the British Museum. I spent some time photographing the Roman sculptures and mosaics in the Enlightenment Gallery and then parked myself in the Members’ Room to make a start on this blog post while enjoying tea and the quiet hum of museum patrons.

Visiting the British Museum, London

In the evening, MrElaineous and I met up at what is perhaps one of the fanciest Starbucks I’ve ever come across, a round temple dedicated to caffeine in St. Katharine Docks. This was a chance for us to chat about our day, share photos, and show off what we had purchased in the course of our respective trips around London (him: board games; me: tea towels). All in all, I highly recommend accompanying: you get two experiences for the price of one and costumes are always optional.

Starbucks, St. Katharine Docks, London

In the US, the character in the red-and-white stripey shirt and bobble hat is known as Waldo; in the UK, he’s Wally (check out this link for a more detailed history of the famously lost traveller).  Either way, many thanks to Jon Paget for finding him and sharing this photo.

Wally: Found (photo by Jon Pageet)
Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy