Saturday, June 25, 2011

2011 Tour - Day 5: The Tower of London and London Bus Tour

Having spent our first night in host homes, there was excitement in gathering this morning to share stories. Our lovely hosts are mainly from the Holy Saviour Church community in Hitchin or from the Stevenage Choral Society in Stevenage. Members of the Stevenage Choral Society, under the direction of Trevor Hughes, visited Maryland for four days in 1996 and gave their own concert at DUMC. This was a chance for some on tour, including Walt, Peggy, and Kenny Sue, to reconnect with old friends.

One group of five youth shared that their host was a book collector, and the house contained over 11,000 books, including over 1,000 first edition Penguin Publisher books dating back to 1920. They felt motivated to stay up late reading!

A whopping 19 of our boys and men stayed at a UK Girlguiding Retreat Center, which normally serves the equivalent of our Girl Scouts. They were warmly greeted by two women in pink polo shirts who showed them around the facility that had pink walls and beds with pink sheets. This two-night stay is helping our guys get in touch with their feminine side. :-) Seriously, this lodging has turned out to be absolutely wonderful for the group and they are pleased to be there.
After a 30-mile bus ride to downtown London, we crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge that first opened in 1894. We were dropped off in the rain at the famous Tower of London, which was a formidable royal fortress and Medieval palace. Privileged life there included the Royal Menagerie holding exotic wild animals such as a polar bear and a lion. The fortress is better known for the many tortuous acts and atrocities that occurred there. Upon the death of King Edward IV in 1483, a younger 12-year-old Edward was next to take the thrown. The Duke of Gloucester had Edward and his 10-year-old brother brought to a tower in preparation for Edward's coronation. The boys mysteriously disappeared, and historians have recorded that allegedly the Duke had them murdered to gain the thrown for himself. The tower has long since been called the Bloody Tower.

On a happier note, the Tower London holds the Crown Jewels, priceless symbols of the British monarchy that are under armed guard yet available for public viewing. Ornate christening fonts, communion plates and chalices, and royal orbs and scepters are on display, but the incredible jewel-encrusted crowns truly have the "wow" factor. There are crowns through the ages, most weighing several pounds. To keep the line of visitors moving, a moving sidewalk carries tourists past the crowns. Queen Victoria had a more demure, rounded, diamonds-only crown that can be seen in famous paintings. Queen Elizabeth II has a large silver crown with purple velvet, heavily decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. The sparkle effect is dazzling.

The royal "Beefeaters" are easy to spot in their distinctive red and black uniforms. On their chest is the symbol "E II R" as is commonly seen on objects in any British royal setting. The symbol stands for Elizbeth Regina the Second (Regina is Latin for queen), who is Queen Elizabeth II.
Ravens are said to be the symbol of guardianship of the Tower of London. Legend says that if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom and fortress will fall. The birds are free to roam, but they are pretty much held captive with clipped wings and ankle bracelets. Rest assured, the kingdom is safe.

Our afternoon activity was a driving tour of London sights, and guides named Gary and Alec joined the buses to provide narration. On the Silver Cricket bus we were told the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament had started, and that accounts for the damp weather, as it always rains during Wimbledon. We saw glimpses of many famous sights, with only a sampling mentioned here.

Lower Thames Street was the location of a tragic fire in 1666 that started in a baker's shop and destroyed nearly all of London. No building was spared - 87 churches alone were burned to the ground. Sir Christopher Wren was the court architect when the city was rebuilt, and he designed dozens of beautiful churches that stand today. We drove over the current London Bridge. When the original bridge needed to be replaced, it was sold to a US entrepreneur in 1967 and now stands in Arizona in the US (of all places!). We passed Fleet Street, known as the "street of ink" due to the newspaper and telegraph business once being centered there. Covent Garden was originally known for its flower and vegetable gardens, which have become boutiques and restaurants in recent times. We learned that the infamous Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who murdered 11 women in 1888 and was never caught, performed these horrific acts in just three months. We saw the intriguing Inside-Out Building where the insurance institution Lloyds of London is housed. Built in 1980, the style is innovative in having all services - elevators, stairs, electrical power conduits, and water pipes - on the outside of the structure. We drove past the street that was used in the Harry Potter filming of Diagon Alley and Gringotts, the Wizarding Bank.

At St. Paul's Cathedral, we were able to briefly stretch our legs, and we took a group photo on the steps leading up to huge wooden doors. St. Paul's, with its enormous dome, stands 365 feet tall. Many people think of this as the most important church in England. Having been the target of bombing in World War II, it stands as a symbol of hope, resilience, and strength. The brothers John and Charles Wesley, who are key to the Methodist faith and thousands of hymns, took communion at St. Paul's many times. Among several royal weddings, Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married here. St. Paul's is celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2011.

The sun had come out by the time we stopped at Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of British sovereigns since 1837. Everyone happily snapped pictures of friends as we stood near the golden statue of Victoria. We saw the soldiers of the royal guard in their red jackets and Canadian black bear fur helmets on duty in front of the palace.

Back on the buses, we passed Constitution Arch, which commemorates Britain's victories in the Napoleonic Wars. The monument is the Angel of Peace restraining horses that are wildly pulling the Chariot of War. This absolutely encapsulates the theme of our tour, Peace In Our Time!

After a full day of London traffic, we were pleased to be back in our host homes for dinner and a casual evening. Delicious home-cooked meals were prepared, such as honey-mustard chicken or meatballs, with mashed potatoes, peas, cabbage, or cooked carrots. We were blessed to have the opportunity to really visit with our host families. We learned about walking clubs and the vast network of well-maintained paths that thread their way through the English countryside. Most of all, we felt the love of community that brings strangers together and forms a bond of friendship.

Update on Sue Constantinides: Many thanks to all for your concern and prayers. Sue is recovering and will rejoin the tour in the morning. Praise be to God!

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