Sun Apr 16 – Mon Apr 17
We had just one day in London before heading to Canterbury where we will begin our long walk. There is so much to see in London that it was difficult to know what to choose. We clearly weren’t going to be able to do too much. We decided to do the Open-Top Bus tour which wold give us a glimpse of many things, and to get off the bus at Tower Bridge to do a tour there & then visit the nearby Tower of London.
The morning was fine with scattered clouds but it was very cold, especially considering that it’s mid-spring. I wore a wool singlet, shirt, wool thermal & two fleeces. On the open bus I added a raincoat, scarf & beanie to try to keep out the cold but to no avail. After about two hours (it was a long ride) when we arrived at Tower Bridge we were both freezing, Pete even more than me because he had a bit less on than I did. We went to a nearby pub for a coffee to warm us up & for an early lunch. It was so good to thaw out!
We steeled ourselves for the cold again & ventured back outside to make our way to Tower Bridge. What a beautiful, elegant structure it is. It was built between 1886 & 1894. The high level crossings were originally designed as walkways so that the public could still cross the Thames while the bridge was open. This function was ceased in 1910 due to lack of use.
Today those walkways get a great deal of use because they are a key area of the tour of the bridge for tourists. As well as providing wonderful views along the river, they house a display & information about other interesting bridges throughout the world. Best of all they are enclosed by glass so it was nice & warm.
The old engine room which powered the mechanism responsible for raising & lowering the bridge was also open with an interesting, well explained exhibition with machinery that has been so beautifully preserved that they almost looked new. The bridge was opened & closed using steam driven engines that raised & lowered counterweights which operated the mechanism. Now, it’s controlled electrically.
Having seen the bridge we recrossed to the north side of the river to visit the Tower of London which was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman conquest of England. It’s a much bigger complex than I had imagined & it is the central tower, the White Tower, the oldest structure, that gives the complex it’s name. It has been used as a fortress, a prison, a grand palace, an armoury, the treasury, a menagerie, a public record office & the home of the Crown Jewels of England – quite a variety!
Just inside the entrance was the old mint display where we learnt about the old coins, how the mint workers used to dilute the quality of the gold & silver to steal for themselves & about the measures taken to stop them.
A walk around the battlements gave some lovely views back to the bridge & in every bastion there was some kind of display. After a once around we decided to join the long queue for a look at the Crown Jewels. It took us half an hour to reach the display but we didn’t think that we could come so close without making the effort to see them. The collection includes not just crowns, but other items used in ceremonial life as well. There are some amazing jewels in the collection, the most famous of which is probably the 530.2 carat Cullinan I diamond, the Great Star of Africa, in the Sovereign’s Sceptre. It is the largest colourless cut diamond in the world. The crown of the Queen Mother, although not adorned with any famous diamonds, is set with 2,800 diamonds so it really sparkles.
We finished our tour by visiting the Royal Armoury housed in the central White Tower, so called because it was traditionally whitewashed since 1240 in the reign of Henry III. The whitewashing was stopped 400 years later after the Great Fire when Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding much of London. He didn’t like the whitewashing & ordered it stopped & it’s never been painted since then. The Armoury has been housed there since the late 1400s when armour was both made & stored there.
There are quite a few suits of armour mounted on horseback. They are part of a 400-year-old exhibition. The Kings of England were displayed on beautifully carved wooden horses. We were told that the magnificent white horse which Henry VIII rode got a bad case of woodworm & had to be ‘put down’. Henry now stands & has a large grey wooden horse, part of one of the biggest collection of 17th century wooden horses anywhere. It is an impressive display although only a small portion of the collection is shown at any one time.
By the time we finished there we were fairly well exhausted so we rejoined the open top bus for the remainder of the route. As well as being very cold it tried to rain on us a couple of times. Fortunately it didn’t rain enough to really wet us. It had been a very good day which we topped off with a very ordinary Italian dinner served with veggies cooked well beyond anything a self-respecting Italian would be satisfied with.
After only about 3 hours sleep for me – I haven’t adjusted to local time yet – we were up and away by 6.30 to catch the train & bus to Canterbury. The clear air was very cold (predicted 2° to 11° today). We arrived in Canterbury, had coffee then went to drop our backpacks at our Airbnb host’s place. Vivien had kindly allowed us to drop them there even though check-in was not till 2 pm.
Canterbury is a lovely old town. The centre is pedestrianised so it was great to wander unimpeded through the narrow streets. Our first stop was Canterbury Cathedral because it was the most important thing for us. As we were commencing our walk the next day we needed to get our ‘Pilgrim Passports’ stamped. We asked at the gate where tourists have to pay to get in, & to our surprise, we were allowed in free because we are pilgrims. We spent about 2 hours exploring the massive cathedral & its grounds. My one disappointment was that we could find no mention of Sigeric, the archbishop whose documented journey has provided today’s route for the Via Francigena, other than in a list of all the Archbishops. We asked one priest & two guides about him & were surprised to find that we knew more about him than any of them did.
Founded in 597, the cathedral is one of the oldest Christian structures in England but it was completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077 & has been modified & added to several times since then. Luckily it survived several bombings of the town during WWII (one of the guides said that the Germans would leave the churches because they helped them to identify the towns) but lost quite a lot of its old stained glass windows when the cathedral library, adjacent to the cathedral, was destroyed by a bomb. There is a lot of restoration work going on both outside & inside so there was plenty of scaffolding but it didn’t really detract from the overall grandeur of the building.
When we’d finished there & had some lunch we walked the old streets then went to find a few more of the sights. The Westgate Towers have stood over the road to London for 6 centuries & are England’s oldest surviving Medieval Gateway. The ruins of the Norman Castle looked interesting but we couldn’t get into them, we just got the view from outside the fence.
From there we headed for home but stopped at St Augustine’s Abbey on the way. It was founded in 597. It fell into disrepair in the 16th century after Henry VIII dissolved all Catholic monasteries. Now only ruins are left. Our last stop was St Martin’s Church, founded in the 6th century, it is claimed to be the oldest church in the English-speaking world.
In the evening we’d organised to meet a fellow that Pete ‘knows’ through his hobby of helping people with Excel spreadsheets on an Internet forum called MrExcel. We met Derek & his wife Steph for drinks after dinner & spent a really enjoyable hour & a half chatting with them. That brought our evening to a close. It had been another wonderful but cold day.