Games people play: Football

Sunday, January 27, 2013

It was a real stroke of luck, the fact that the first football match I've ever attended ended up being not just a Premiere League game, but a game between Chelsea and Arsenal, a somewhat classic rivalry.  It was thanks to the triplets, of course.  The wife of a friend of a friend recently gave birth to triplets, hence the friend of a friend, who has Chelsea season tickets, won't be allowed out of the house until approximately 2028, hence the tickets were offered to my friend Jeremy, who kindly invited me along.  Thus it was that I found myself sitting in the stands at Chelsea's famous grounds - Stamford Bridge - on the snowiest Saturday London has seen in a very long time.

The entrance to grounds at Stamford Bridge

These tickets were especially coveted because Chelsea are in the Premiere League - the top tier of English league football.  I confess I have been perpetually mystified by the English football league system.  Premiere league, Championship League, FA Cup, (no to mention the UEFA cup and all those European teams...) It's all a bit difficult to grasp.  So as a public service I'm going to try to explain it here, with the aid of Wikipedia, and a very enlightening conversation had over dinner a few weeks ago.  Deep breath... here goes:

English League football is a massive system of interconnected leagues playing in what's often described as a pyramid structure, with the very best teams at the top of the pyramid, and more and more weaker and weaker teams making up the base.  At the heart of the system is the concept of promotion and relegation.  The teams at each level of play are not fixed at that level but can move up to the next level or down to the level below, depending on their performance each season.  Usually the top three in each division are promoted and the bottom three relegated each year.

Most people are familiar with the Premiere League, which is made up of the top 20 teams in the country.  Below that is the League Championship, then League One and League Two (Old timers will known these all as Divisions One, Two, Three and Four, but those names were not sexy enough for TV.) Together these four divisions comprise the professional clubs.  However, below that are another TWENTY layers comprising a total of more than 140 leagues, 480 divisions and nearly 7,000 teams.  It is a BIG pyramid. In fact, England has far more football clubs than any other country in the world, regardless of size or population.  (This is similar to Canada's stats on hockey.  Canada has more than 10 times as many registered hockey players per capita than any other country.)

The most beautiful thing about the English football league is that the super-highly paid professional players for Chelsea and Arsenal and Manchester United and such are in the same overall system as a small village team like Puddlemere United Amateur Men's Saturday Football Club and Benevolent Association.  It's kind of charming.  And, if Puddlemere really pulled their socks up and worked their way up to at least the tenth layer, they might eventually end up competing against a Premiere League team for the Football Association Cup, better known as the FA Cup, which is the grand prize in English League football.  It's a bit like the Montreal Canadiens playing a beer league team from Porcupine Plains for the Stanley Cup. I love that.

(There are actually other rules that might eliminate Puddlemere from mounting a challenge for the FA Cup, such as the lack of an appropriate stadium for hosting home games, but let's not allow that to cloud the essentially egalitarian nature of the whole thing.)

So that's the English league system.  Zillions of teams, promotion, relegation, FA Cup.  The other thing that's always puzzled me is why Premiere League teams occasionally hop over to the continent to play Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.  It turns out that the English League is part of another, larger league you may have heard of - the Union of European Football Associations, better known as UEFA.  The top four teams in the Premiere League play against the top teams in the leagues of other European countries, competing in the UEFA Champions League (Particularly confusing for those who've just got it sorted out that the ChampionSHIP League is the second tier of the English Football League.  Try to stay with me.)  Again, I find this strange.  To trot out the hockey analogy again, this would be like the Edmonton Oilers hopping over to Finland to play one of the top Finnish club teams, in parallel with the regular season.

Having got all that sorted out, let's get back to Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea FC. Jeremy and I fetched up there after a drink in the Chelsea Ram, an appropriately partisan pub en route to the grounds.  (Correct terminology here: football is played on a pitch not a field, and the stadium is often called the grounds).  We had tickets in The Shed, which is the nickname for the south stands and home to the most ardent Chelsea supporters.  I was expecting to spend the afternoon slowly perishing from hypothermia - it wasn't THAT cold, but anyone who's attended a CFL game knows that sitting mostly motionless in an open stadium during a snowstorm is not the most comfortable experience.  Luckily, it turned out that our seats were quite sheltered, and much warmer than expected.

Me in The Shed displaying an unflattering pose, wardrobe choice and expression.

I'd actually been worried that the game might be cancelled - it was snowing quite heavily, and it just didn't seem likely that men in shorts would take to that sort of thing.  However, apparently the revenue that Premiere League teams get from television rights is so great that they go to some lengths to ensure that weather is not a factor.  This means that the pitch itself is heated to prevent snow building up, which seems highly extravagant in this climate, but nonetheless did the job, as you can see.

Snow in the air... no snow on the pitch

Sitting in The Shed was fun.  The Chelsea supporters had an impressive repertoire of chants that they employed for the entire game.  Some were quite simple, like the old favourite "Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea... etc." sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.  Along with that was the popular "We know who we are! We know who we are! Champions or Europe! We know who we are!"  (This because Chelsea won the aforementioned UEFA Champions League in 2012.)

The Chelsea fans also made use of this little tune for a few other ditties, including a clever one importuning Arsenal's famous French manager Arsène Wenger with the words "We want you to stay. We want you to staaay. Arsène Wenger we want you to stay."  I'm guessing they think he's a bit crap and hence the longer he stays at Arsenal, the better for Chelsea.

The game was enjoyable and though I've never been a big fan of football, I was impressed with the ball control those guys exhibit.  And I managed to get a reasonable grasp of the notorious offside rule and we got to see all three goals relatively close up, including one successful penalty shot by the famous Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard (who has his own chant, of course).  And luckily the score was always in Chelsea's favour, which made things much more fun in The Shed and got the fans chanting all that much more.

Our view of the goal. I was surprised at how close the stands are to the pitch.

Though the day was cold, I wouldn't have said no to a nice cup of beer to drink while I was watching the match, but it was not to be so.  This is because "drinking alcohol within sight of the pitch has been against the law since 1985, when it was banned in a bid to curb drink-fuelled hooliganism." (Quote from here)  In fact, the drive to reduce hooliganism has had impacts all over football.  For instance, it's normal to segregate home team fans from visiting supporters, and clubs will reserve a certain section and a limited number of tickets for opposing fans.  This meant that the small group of Arsenal fans at my game were tucked into a corner of The Shed making a loud little patch of red in a sea of Chelsea blue. (Oh, and when we were planning our day out, Jeremy took great pains to express how important it was that I not wear ANYTHING red.  I can't tell you how grateful I was that the only toque I have is bright blue.  Phew.)  In the bad old days, during the worst eras for hooliganism, fans were even segregated on their way to and from the stadium.

Hooliganism also used to be more prevalent in the days of the terraces.  Stamford Bridge, as with all top-flight grounds in England, is what's called and "all-seater" stadium, meaning that every person in the place has a place to sit.  This won't seem strange to any North American readers, but in the UK it used to be common for football stadiums to have standing areas called terraces.
"...terraces were located in the areas behind the two goals as a cheaper alternative to sitting in the stands, which were traditionally located at the sides of the field. Naturally the price of standing in the terraces was much cheaper than a seat with the result that over the decades they became the most popular spectators' area for younger working class men and teenage boys to watch the game."
Terraces were banned following a tragic accident at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.  At that time it was common for terraces to be divided up with high steel fencing between sections and with fencing between the terrace and the field to prevent both home and away fans from invading the pitch.  At an FA Cup semi-final match in 1989 overcrowding in these penned-in terraces resulted in a massive human crush that ended up killing 96 people and injuring a further 766.  An inquiry into the disaster resulted in the removal of perimeter and side fences in terraces and eventually in the move to all-seater stadiums that are now the norm.

Now they deploy lots of bouncers around the edges of the pitch to stop fans from invading after the game.  The people in green are photographers at the edge of the pitch.  The people in yellow are bouncers, crouched down to stay out of sightlines but ready for the end of the match.

And though hooliganism is much much less common now, as we left the grounds after the game, I noticed a local pub had signs in the windows reading "Home fans only".  It may be a long time since overcrowded terraces and over-boozed yobs itching for a fight meant that you could expect a brawl between rival fans as a matter of course, but people are still twitchy.

I don't think I'll ever be a big football fan.  After a lifetime of hockey it just seems the field is too big and the action too slow and the players too prone to writhing around on the ground when lightly jostled.  Also, being a football fan over here seems to require an intensity of devotion I have a hard time mustering for anything that's not edible.  Even so, I'd go to another game if the opportunity arose.  And there's no denying the deep love that the English have for the game at all levels, and the inescapable place it has in the country's psyche.  One look in any of the daily tabloids will confirm that.  Me, I think I'll be checking out a few home games of the Streatham Redskins, who are handily located at a rink just behind Brixton tube station and whose tickets can be had for a mere £8, which is a long way cheaper than the Premiere League.

But back to Chelsea v. Arsenal.  With the game safely in the bag and Chelsea fans happily streaming out of the grounds it was time for the long trip home.  Transport For London doesn't cope well with snow, and the snow we've had this week has been persistent.  Still, it was fun to see the hundreds of snowmen gracing Clapham Common as I rolled past on the bus, and the walk back to the house was pretty, and my bedroom was warm, and I was ready for a cozy night in.

Rush Common in the snow and twilight.

Tourist Stuff: The Monolith Tour

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Karen: "Steve wants to see some monoliths."

Me: "What, like Stonehenge and stuff like that?"

Karen: "Exactly."

And thus, the Monolith Tour was born. It was only fair really. Steve was going to allow himself to be dragged to afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, so the least we could do was set aside a day to do something that he was genuinely keen about. (Actually we could have done far far less, but we are nice people. Also, monoliths are cool.) So I set about devising a plan to ferry us about the Wiltshire countryside, where everyone knows the best monoliths - or at least the best ones within striking distance of London - are located.

Stonehenge is the obvious target of course, but the trouble with Stonehenge is that it's generally crammed with tourists and completely cordoned off so you can't actually get up close to the stones themselves. Real monolith aficionados know that the place to go for big rocks is Avebury, a tiny village 17 miles north of Stonehenge and the site of largest stone circle in Europe. It's also easily accessible, being about a two hour drive from London. That's where we started.

(And yes, we did drive.  I was going to include the story of the car rental here, but as with all my driving experiences in the UK it was so ridiculously frustrating that the tale ended up comprising about a third of the whole post and pushed the word count up over 3,000 so perhaps I'll just save that for another day.)

The standing stones at Avebury actually form three circles, a huge one with a diameter of greater than 330 metres, and two smaller circles inside it. It's also got a henge, a term which has nothing to do with stones and actually describes a large ditch surrounded by an earthen bank. The stone circles are inside the henge and were constructed around 2600 BC for reasons unknown, but thought to be ceremonial or ritualistic.

Here you can see just how big a 330m stone circle is, since this is just a corner of it. The small pointy cairns mark the spots where stones are missing.

Like most of these neolithic sites, Avebury has sustained some damage over the millennia, likely starting with the rise of Christianity in the medieval period, when villagers in Avebury toppled several of the stones, which were seen to be pagan and devilish. (They also managed to crush an itinerant barber-surgeon in the process.) The destruction reached its peak, though, in late 17th and 18th centuries, likely due to the rise of puritanism when "The majority of the standing stones that had been a part of the monument for thousands of years were smashed up to be used as building material for the local area. This was achieved in a method that involved lighting a fire to heat the sarcen, then pouring cold water on it to create weaknesses in the rock, and finally smashing at these weak points with a sledgehammer." (Wikipedia, of course)  They sure knew how to have a good time, those Puritans.

Nevertheless, there's still a lot to see at Avebury. For instance, there's the Alexander Keiller Museum, named after the wealthy businessman and archeologist who, in the 1930's, managed to combine his personal fortune and his interest in archeology by the simple expedient of buying big chunks of Avebury so he could preserve it and do his excavations in peace. He also re-erected a lot of the stones that had merely been pushed over (as opposed to being turned into gravel). And, in a lovely tie-in to last week's blog about afternoon tea, Keiller's fortune came to him because he was the sole heir to the Dundee marmalade business. Nonetheless, with a heavy schedule and miles to go before we'd sleep, Karen and Steve and I skipped the museum in favour of wandering around the giant stone circle which slices through a corner of the village itself. (We did, however, patronise the National Trust Tea Shop where they had the best flapjacks I have ever tasted, bar none.)

Avebury is fantastic because you can walk right up to the stones, which I did.

I was happy because I'd just had a passable latté and the best flapjack ever. 

After Avebury I'd cleverly scheduled a stop at the fantastic but lesser-known West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a site I first visited when I lived in the UK in 1988 and rented a car with a few friends to do our own Monolith Tour. A barrow, for those who haven't read "The Hobbit" is essentially a man made hill built over a gravesite. Therefore, even the most cretinous of readers might be able to deduce that a long barrow is a particularly long hill, built over a long gravesite, which is exactly what West Kennet is. It's one of the many Neolithic burial sites in the area, which is dotted with the hummocks of hundreds of stone age graves.

This is NOT the West Kennet Long Barrow. This is Silbury Hill, just down the road from Avebury and on the way to West Kennet Long Barrow. It's a prehistoric, man made hill (the tallest Europe). I'm sure I climbed it in 1988, but that may be complete bullshit (Nairobi Rob - do you remember if we climbed the hill?). At any rate, it's closed to the public now so all you can do is take a picture and comment on the vast amount of water surrounding the base. Have a look at that water, it becomes important in the next paragraph.

About two minutes drive down the road from the big hill was the lay-by for the West Kennet Long Barrow. I recall the barrow being very cool in 1988, and current images indicate it still is. It predates Stonehenge by about 400 years, and was in use as a burial place for more than a millennia. Comprised of heavy stones that make up a a multi-chambered tomb, you can actually walk right in and poke around in the chambers that once held human remains. In that way it was much more fun than Stonehenge, so I was determined to show it off to Karen and Steve. The site itself is about 500m off the highway, so it requires a short walk. In 1988 there was no path, you just struck out across a field full of guard cows until you got there. Now there's a proper path, but that didn't really help us this time.

Karen testing the waters. It was, in fact, the wettest summer in the UK since record keeping began, meaning that unless we'd thought to bring hip waders, we were not going to see the barrow without needing to employ a vigorous backstroke.

However, through the magic of the Internet you can get an inkling of how cool the inside of the barrow is. Though I'm pretty sure the prehistoric people who built it did not install the skylight that allow for such good interior lighting.

Thwarted at the West Kennet Long Barrow we had no choice but to head to our lunch stop early, a pub lovingly chosen by me to fulfil a rigorous set of criteria set out by Karen. It had to be a proper country pub: dark and low-ceilinged, with real ale, and with ploughman's lunch on the menu. The Ship Inn in the Village of Upavon not only ticked all those boxes, it also had a thatched roof, working wood burning fireplace and a pub dog. And, it turns out, the largest portion of fish and chips any of us had ever seen. Large enough to excite comments from passing diners. Large enough that Steve actually found a harpoon point in his fish.

Karen in the pub.  Pint, fireplace, ploughman's lunch on the way.  Content.

Steve's enormous fish and chips. I might have been lying about the harpoon, 
but it is overhanging the plate on both ends.

Thus fortified, and slightly ahead of schedule, we made our way to Stonehenge. I should add that by this time Steve was driving, and doing a fairly credible job of things despite never having driven in the left before. Though he was a bit put off by the exceeding narrowness of the roads and the exceeding nonchalance of the local drivers, who tended to pass with a combination of casualness and speed that indicated they were likely not as worried as we were about returning their fancy rental car without expensive gashes down the sides. And he had a tendency to drift a bit too far left, making those of us seated on the left slightly twitchy. Then against I'm no Mario Andretti either, so I'll jsut shut up about Steve's driving.

So: Stonehenge. I hope this won't be news to anyone, but I'll do the obligatory backstory anyways. Stonehenge is the remains of a Neolithic ring of standing stones and surrounding earthworks, dating back to about 2,000-3,000 BC. There are loads of theories about what it was for, but the alignment of the stones to various important dates on the solar calendar and the discovery of cremated remains on the site indicate that, like Avebury, it had religious or ritualistic significance.

I bet you already knew what it looked like...

Stonehenge comes on you suddenly, being bizarrely close to the highway. (Which reminds me of a story told to me by a tour guide about an American tourist visiting Edinburgh Castle who asked why they'd built the castle so close to the airport.) The site is now managed by English Heritage, who charge a modest £7.80 admission fee, which includes a very good audio guide. Sadly, it's been a long time since tourists could wander freely among the stones; visitors are now restricted to a roped off pathway around the site, through it's not miles away from the stones themselves. And apparently, if you book well in advance and pay a premium you can get access to the circle itself outside normal opening hours, but even then touching is not allowed. This is in stark contrast to the Victorian era when you could not only walk among and even climb on the stones, they'd actually rent you small hammers so you could chip off a souvenir to take home. Fantastic!

Karen did say that we got closer than she was expecting.

For all it's wonder and grandeur - and it really is quite wonderful and grand - there's only so much time you can spend contemplating a bunch of big rocks from a distance. And though the audio guide is good, it only takes about half an hour to feel like you've got everything you can from Stonehenge and also sufficiently depleted your camera's battery and storage capacity. So with an unexpected window of daylight left at the tail end of the afternoon, we dashed off to one last, bonus site in nearby Salisbury.

Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral is a magnificent structure, built in the 13th century over a span of just 38 years, and is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in England. It also possesses the tallest spire in the country and, significantly for Karen, was one of the two cathedrals that served as inspiration for Ken Follett's novel "Pillars of the Earth" (Which I also read and enjoyed, having inadvertently purchased the Kindle version from Amazon last year in a "one-click ordering" mishap.) We got to the cathedral in time to have a look around, and it really is quite brilliant.

You really have to give those medieval builders credit. The height of the ceiling inside the choir is more than 80 feet. And the spire reaches to over 400.

And, in the kind of random happenstance that occurs gratifyingly often in a country so bathed in history, Salisbury Cathedral had one last treat to offer we humble colonials. It turns out that the Chapter House of the cathedral is home to the best-preserved of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta. I think this is what really put us over the top for the day. To see several world-class Neolithic sites, squeeze in an awe-inspiring medieval cathedral, and then find out that, by the way, we could just have a gander at the Magna Carta before we headed home left us all a bit dumbfounded. (No photos allowed of the document itself, unsurprisingly, but I can say it's smaller than you'd expect and the writing is really tiny.)

So the mood was good as we punched coordinates into the satnav (GPS) to get us back to London. We didn't even get discouraged by the stubborn refusal of Digital Debbie to allow us onto the motorway - a quirk that had added at least an hour to our morning journey. Instead, we sought out and found the M3 ourselves and resolutely refused every effort of the satnav to get us to exit for Basingstoke, or Farnborough, or Guildford, or any other of the back roads en route. It was only the next day, about 5 minutes before I returned the rental car, and after I'd ignored the satnav directions all the way to Heathrow Airport and back, that I realized we'd had the stupid thing set to "avoid main roads". No wonder. Still, despite the navigational challenges, and the disappointment of missing the excellent West Kennet Long Barrow, I think I can safely say that the Monolith Tour was a success. 

And that almost wraps up the Adventures with Karen and Steve episode of the blog, though there is one more thing I need to tell you about... so do not adjust your dial.

GRUB!: Afternoon Tea

Sunday, January 13, 2013

There are a lot of things that are just quintessentially, even stereotypically English.  Red doubledecker buses.  The Queen.  Cricket.  Pubs.  Queuing.  Humour so dry it’s in danger of blowing away in a light breeze.  The desperate need never to be seen to be “making a fuss”. And, of course, tea. I’ve already blogged about Cream Teas, but we haven’t yet delved into that most British of meals, the Afternoon or High Tea.  So in our continuing series of Adventures with Karen and Steve, today we’re going on a very special trip for just about the poshest tea imaginable – at Fortnum & Mason.

Fortnum & Mason is a department store in central London specialising in luxury goods, mostly food.  They apparently invented the Scotch egg (a topic for another GRUB! post some day) but are best known for their wide selection of teas and for their fancy food hampers which are popular as Christmas gifts and at high society events like the Henley Regatta and Ascot. With prices ranging up to £500 each, and filled with fancies like quail’s eggs, smoked salmon, champagne and artisan cheeses, it’s safe to say that I’ve never ordered a hamper from Fortnum’s, though I do make regular visits at Christmas time when the extensive range of posh biscuits, chutneys, chocolates and preserves makes it a great place for yummy treats to take home to the colonies.  If you want a choice of seven different kinds of honey, look no further.  And the Wall o’ Marmalade alone is worth the trip.

A tiny section of Fortnum’s Wall O’ Marmalade.  They have TWENTY ONE kinds.

Fortnum & Mason also have several restaurants at their premises on Piccadilly.  There’s a wine bar in the basement, a combination ice cream parlour and café, a “deluxe brasserie”, and something called The Gallery.  There is also, of course, the recently refurbished and renamed Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.  And so with friends visiting who wanted to go for a proper afternoon tea, where else could we go, really?  (In fact, we briefly considered using a coupon I had for a hotel somewhere in deepest, darkest west London, which would have been less expensive, but not nearly so perfectly perfect.)  Anyway, Karen declared that it was to be F&M, so menus were perused and reservations were made for a proper afternoon tea on New Year’s Eve.

As Fortnum’s menu so elegantly puts it:

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 9.36.36
As you can see, an Afternoon Tea is very much a complete meal, whereas a Cream Tea is only about the scones. (And the clotted cream of course. Never forget the clotted cream.)

There was some worry that a mere tea wouldn’t be enough to fill us up.  Though to be honest, it wasn’t “us” we were worried about it was “Steve”.  So to smooth things over I promised that if he was still hungry when we finished we’d stop for a kebab on the way home.  As it turns out we needn’t have worried.  At all.  More on that later.

On arriving at the tea salon on the top floor, we were first greeted with the sound of a grand piano and then by a gentlemen who took our coats and led us to our table.  Naturally, the table setting was elaborate and immaculate.  And, in keeping with the company colours of F&M, ran heavily to well-polished silver and turquoise.

Posh salt and pepper shakers.

I'm not going to lie to you.  Afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason is, er, not cheap.  The set menu, which included your choice of tea, finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, cakes, and selections from the dessert trolley, came in at a whopping £42 per head.  That's not even including the optional "upgrade" to Single Estate Tea (as opposed to Classic Blend). It's not the kind of thing one could do every week, unless one had a trust fund.  Nonetheless, for a special treat it was acceptable.  Karen and I both ordered the classic afternoon tea, but Steve chose the recently introduced "Savoury Tea" option, which featured the same finger sandwiches, but had a ham & cheese scone and a sundried tomato & herb scone and included some really tasty savoury hors d'oeuvres instead of cakes.  The savoury tea is a choice Fortnum's recently devised in order to lure more men into the Tea Room, and I can imagine it working quite well.  Certainly I don't remember Steve having any complaints.

Karen at tea (and the piano guy in the background)

First we ordered our tea from the extensive selection, and which came as loose tea brewed in a proper teapot.  We were also provided with individual tea strainers (and an extra pot of hot water).  It's not a difficult concept, the tea strainer.  Before pouring your tea, you're meant to place the strainer on top of your cup and pour through it to catch any loose leaves.  Easy. Explain to me then, why I managed to repeatedly pour myself a cup full of leaves while my tea strainer sat neglected in its special drip-catching cup?  It's like I have some kind of very specific tea strainer amnesia. I almost had to ask for a fresh cup, so replete with leaves did mine become.  (In fact, we decided that in an extreme Tea Emergency Fortnum's likely had a crack team of tea rescuers who would rappel in from the ceiling wearing morning dress to replace my cup before disappearing back into the shadows, until they're needed again to properly furl an umbrella or polish someone's solid silver nosehair comb.)  In the end I cleverly poured the entire contents of my teacup back into the pot, leaves and all, and refreshed my cup with strainer in place. Luckily I don't take milk.  But really, why was that so hard?  Regardless of my difficulties, the tea was very good, and we drank lashings of it.

Traditionally, the food elements of an afternoon tea are served on a tiered cake stand with each course on it's own plate.  Here's what the classic tea looked like when it arrived:

Tea for two!  Finger sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, cakes on top.  There was even a separate stand for the scone accompaniments - clotted cream, strawberry jam and a brilliantly delicious lemon curd.

It doesn't look like a ton of food for two people does it?  We were all sceptical.  However, we dove in quite happily, starting with the sandwiches, working from the bottom up in the traditional fashion.  Steve favoured the cucumber and mint, but both Karen and I agreed the smoked salmon with creme fraiche was best, with roast beef and horseradish cream not far behind.  Next came the scones, and I have to say that the combination of lemon curd and clotted cream for topping the scones was inspired.  Definitely superior to the jam, though I did try both.

By the time we got through the scones Karen and I were both starting to feel quite full, likely as a result of having drunk 8.7 gallons of tea along with our modest menu.  However, we put our heads down and sampled the cakes on the top tier.  Steve, meanwhile, had completed all three of his tiers and was looking for more.  Luckily, it turns out that the F&M afternoon tea is something of an all-you-can-eat affair, though I'm sure Fortnum's would never phrase it that way.  Earlier we'd noticed that the table next to us had been offered and received an extra plate of sandwiches with their tea.  With the threat of a kebab looming, and with our server offering "more of anything", we decided to take her up on the offer and got a second plate of sandwiches, with no additional charge appearing on the bill.

Me at tea, trying to look vaguely like I belong.  Look, I even had French cuffs!

After those were gone, and even though we were in various states of satiety ranging from unexpectedly-pretty-much-full (Steve) to not-even-another-wafer-thin-mint (me and Karen), we couldn't resist a look at the "Highgrove Cake Carriage" and ended up sharing around a slice of cherry bakewell tart, some kind of walnut torte with buttercream icing, and a piece of unbelievably rich chocolate ganache something-or-other.  It was at this point we reached a level of debauchery not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire, when Steve smeared the remains of the clotted cream onto the remains of his chocolate ganache creating a few mouthfuls of such extreme decadence that it was simultaneously horrifying and yet genius. His comment: “Why didn’t I think of this sooner!”

Steve, The evil genius.

And so our work there was done.  There was nothing left to do up settle the bill (ouch) and waddle down the grand staircase and into the rain.  We had a leisurely walk to Selfridge’s as we came to grips with the idea that we would never eat again.  And then we got back to the house and I had a nice nap. Miraculously, we managed to rouse ourselves later that evening in time for an expedition back into the thronging hordes of central London where we rang in the New Year by watching the fireworks on the Thames from Lambeth Bridge.

NYE Fireworks
Note: this is not one of our photos.  Our vantage point was off to the side and obscured by a large lamppost and a load of cretinous morons videoing the whole thing on iPads held above their heads.  But we were there.

Even more miraculously, we had a bit of dinner before we left.

Tourist Stuff: The Tower of London

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It was a long week here at GSWPL World Headquarters. First there was a trip home from Canada that went so disastrously badly that it really deserves a whole blog post, which I may do when I've worked through the whole thing in therapy.  For now suffice it to say that I arrived about 26 hours later than scheduled after two cancelled flights and a detour through Houston, Texas. (Also, if you have any choice in the matter, please, for the love of God, DO NOT fly with Lufthansa.)  I barely got back in time to greet my friends Karen and Steve who arrived at King's Cross Station on the Eurostar about six hours after I arrived at Heathrow. We then proceeded to cram a month's worth of sight-seeing into six days which was lots of fun but generally exhausting. All this means that I'm a bit done in, but have lots of touristy things to blog about.  So today it's (finally) time to dive into one of London's top attractions, which is also one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city: The Tower of London.

Tower Panorama
In case you didn't know this (but really, how could you NOT know this?) the Tower of London is a bloody great castle on the north bank of the Thames, as shown in this fancy panoramic photo from Karen and Steve's fancy new camera.

It's more properly known as Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and has existed in one form or another since just after the Norman conquest in 1066.  Started by William the Conqueror as a means of exerting control and displaying power when he gained the throne, the first building constructed was the White Tower.

The White Tower, whose walls range between 11 and 15 feet thick.  It's currently the home of seemingly endless floors of exhibits on arms and armour, and the gift shop, which is quite appropriately housed in the lowest level of the White Tower, once a torture chamber.

Through the medieval period the Tower was expanded, gaining an inner and outer curtain wall and a moat.  Different monarchs built, modified, added to and changed the tower throughout its history and it's been used not just as a defensive fortification but also a royal residence, treasury, observatory, mint (the kind that makes money, not the after-dinner variety), zoo, armoury, military barracks and, of course, a prison.  The current look of the fortress is largely thanks to 19th century works that restored several of the older towers but also (controversially) removed several “important structures” to generally make the place more pleasing to the Victorian eye.  As early as 1901, more than half a million tourists were visiting the Tower every year.  Today the figure is two million, which, judging from the usurious admission fees, means they must be positively raking it in.

Karen and Steve and I headed to the Tower first thing in the morning.  It opens at 10am and we arrived not long after, which was a wise thing because it filled up fast after lunchtime.  We nosed around the place for a little before gathering for the 11am Yeoman Warder’s tour.  The Yeoman Warders of the Tower are popularly known as Beefeaters (the ones on the gin bottle) and are recognisable by their fancy dress.  They are NOT, as our man took pains to point out, costumed tour guides.  In fact they’re properly known as the Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Extraordinary, which is a bit much to put on a epaulette if you ask me.  All Yeoman Warders are retired senior non-commissioned officers with at least 22 years service in a branch of Her Majesty’s armed forces, each of whom have been awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.  In total there are 37 Yeoman Warders and one Chief Warder who actually live with their families in accommodation within the Tower, which is unbelievably cool.

Accommodations within the Tower.  Apparently they do pay utilities and Council Taxes, but their rent is only £100/month.  They're also required to own their own property outside the Tower, so they have somewhere to go when they retire.

Technically, the Yeoman Warders are responsible for looking after any prisoners in the Tower and for safeguarding the Crown Jewels, but in practice they act as tour guides and are a tourist attraction in their own right.  The Yeoman Warder tours are certainly a highlight of any visit to the Tower and are (thankfully) included in the cost of the ticket.  Our guide was the 389th Warder sworn in since the order was formed by Henry VIII in 1485 and as a former Sergeant Major in the Army he had no difficulty in making himself heard.  Apparently he's known around the Tower as "Whispering Dave".

Whispering Dave, standing in front of the Water Gate.  He's in his everyday uniform.  The fancy red one from the gin bottle is reserved for special occasions.  (Also, apparently the Beefeater Gin people send each Yeoman Warder a bottle on his or her birthday and take them all for Christmas lunch. Nice.)

The Yeoman Warder tour was excellent - just the right mix of fact and fun and just the right length (about an hour).  Whispering Dave told us about a the moat, which essentially operated as a big open sewer flushed by the tide each day.  Thankfully it's now dry and currently hosting a public skating rink.  We also learned about the prisoners held at the Tower and the executions on Tower Hill, just to the North of the Tower itself.  Most executions were hangings, since beheadings were reserved for the gentry.  And you needed to be very special to be beheaded inside the tower itself.  The most famous person separated from his or her head inside the Tower was Anne Boleyn, who was executed by a swordsman imported from France in 1536.  She's buried in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, inside the Tower, which we visited with Whispering Dave (which, mercifully, had seats and heating).

And for those who think that the Tower has merely been a tourist attraction since the 19th century, you might be surprised to learn that in 1952 East end London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray were held there.  Also, in the 1930s the Bell Tower was refurbished just in case they needed somewhere to stick Adolf Hitler, and the Queen's House in the Tower was used to hold Rudolph Hess for a few days.

While wandering around with Whispering Dave we also saw these guys:


There are currently seven ravens in residence at the Tower of London, tended by a Yeoman Warder called the Ravenmaster.  The ravens are maintained at the Tower because of a legend that claims that if the birds ever leave the Tower will fall, and the monarchy along with it.  So powerful was this legend to King Charles II that when he was asked by the Royal Astronomer to remove the ravens from the Tower because they were interfering with his work the King ordered that at least six birds should always remain, and had the Royal Observatory relocated to Greenwich.  Now the ravens have their lifting feathers trimmed, which doesn't stop them flying but unbalances them enough that they tend not to stray too far (though this didn't stop one raven, appropriately named Grog, from escaping to an East End pub called the Rose and Punchbowl in 1981).

After Whispering Dave's tour we headed straight to see the Crown Jewels, which are housed in the Waterloo Barracks, built in 1845.  Judging by the fences installed to corral tourists into a queue of epic length, we must have timed things perfectly and fairly breezed through. Unsurprisingly, no photos are allowed in the exhibit, which starts with several rooms of history about the coronation ceremony and displays of less revered artefacts, presumably to give you something to look at when you're shuffling forward in an endless queue.  The Crown Jewels displayed at the Tower are the genuine article, still used by the Queen on ceremonial occasions, a fact attested to by the impressive steel vault doors you pass through en route to the jewels themselves.

Star of Africa
The most important pieces include the Imperial State Crown, which is worn for the opening of parliament; the Sovereign's Sceptre, adorned with the enormous 530 carat Great Star of Africa diamond; the solid gold St. Edward's crown, most recently used at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953; and the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, which is set with the infamous Koh-i-noor Diamond.  The room housing the most precious pieces has two tiers.  You can linger as long as you like on the upper tier, but, amusingly, if you want to get up close to the display cases on the lower tier you have to stand on a moving walkway that slowly slides you past each case, thus ensuring you don't linger and back the queue up all the way across Tower Bridge.  Other than the dazzling opulence, I found the most interesting thing about the Crown Jewels was their obviously handmade quality.  Solid gold is a bit dull when compared to shiny gold plastic, and the hundred of gems set into each piece weren't always perfectly lined up like they'd be in a machine-made knock-off.  They are, in short, both stunning and charmingly imperfect.

When we emerged from the darkened splendour of the Crown Jewels we ventured into the White Tower, but by this time all three of us were flagging; it was definitely lunchtime. (Though in fairness I'd been whining about being hungry since about ten minutes after we'd arrived.  I was also dying for a coffee, which I could have got at the traditional 13th century espresso bar between the southern inner and outer walls.) However, this full-time tourist business is not for the faint of heart so we soldiered on through the White Tower, William the Conqueror's first edifice and the central defensive structure of the whole complex.  Among other things, it's thought to be the place where the princes in the Tower were interred, possibly after being murdered by Richard III (indeed, two small skeletons were found there in 1674).  It currently houses the aforementioned endless displays of arms and armour, including a suit of Henry VIII's armour, a whole lot of weapons, a ridiculously garish dragon sculpture.

One of the random displays of armour

Inexplicable dragon sculpture with claws made of revolvers.  What?

After making it through that we had to brave the gift shop, which was mostly awful. However, it did have a really excellent build-it-yourself paper sculpture of an executioner that actually moved.  When you turned the crank the executioner lowered his axe and the poor guy's head actually came off and fell into a basket!  Excellent.  I can't believe I didn't buy that.

How great is that?

Also, Steve tried on a funny hat.

We tried to go around a short stretch of the castle's battlements, but by then the crowds were ridiculous.  After ending up in a bottleneck at Brass Mount tower we bailed out by rebelliously ignoring the "No Access" sign on a stairway that led us back down to the castle grounds and then to freedom/lunch.  We'd been at the Tower for about four hours.  If the weather had been warmer, and if Steve and Karen hadn't had other things to see that day, and if we'd been smart enough to bring snacks, and if we didn't mind battling the crowds, it would have been quite easy to have stayed for several hours more.  There's a whole museum dedicated to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers that we didn't even glance at, and we could have done a guided tour of the White Tower, and there was a special exhibit on the Royal Menagerie of animals that was housed in the Tower for 600 years... and so on.  As it was we were all happy to move on, Karen and Steve for a quick lunch and thence to Westminster Abbey, me home for a much-needed nap.  After all there was a lot more to come, which you'll hear about in next week's blog.