Taking a Boat trip down to Greenwich has to be one of the best days out in London, but unless you know exactly what you want to do when you get there, it’s worth dropping into the excellent Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre first before dashing off like a headless chicken.
If you’re anything like me, a day in Greenwich will be nowhere near enough, but for the purposes of expediency, I’m going to start my virtual tour of the town at the Old Royal Naval College, which the visitor centre is part of.
Greenwich has an exceptional maritime history, and next to the visitor centre is the Old Brewery, which used to supply sailors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen with their daily allowance of 4 pints of beer, but which now serves people like you and me, and although I suggested coming to the visitor centre first, I’m also suggesting that you leave the Old Brewery bar to last – otherwise you might not end up going anywhere.
If the outcome of WWII had been different, and London had been beaten into submission instead of Berlin, then imagine if you can, what Whitehall would look like now: Wilhelmstrasse is (or was) Berlin’s ‘Whitehall’.
The road runs for one and a half miles between the Marschallbrucke on the River Spree down to Hallesches Tor in Kreuzberg, but the most interesting part from a historical point of view, is the section between the bridge and Niederkirchnerstrasse where the Berlin Wall split the city into two.
Originating from the time of King Frederick William I, this once wealthy residential thoroughfare, developed into Prussia’s main government district with many of the buildings being taken over by the state, including the Palais Schulenburg for Otto von Bismarck’s Chancellery.
At the end of WWI, the area came under the control of the Weimar Republic, but on 30th January 1933 there was a new Chancellor – Adolf Hitler, who immediately set about building a new chancellery for the Third Reich at the junction of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss Strasse.
After Hitler’s suicide in the Chancellery bunker and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the street found itself within the Russian sector as far as Prinz Albrecht Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Bomb damage and the Battle for Berlin had left the area in tatters, and as neither the Russians nor East Germans had any reason to save whatever was left, the land where Prussian palaces once stood, was now either part of No-Man’s Land separating East and West Berlin or built upon with Eastern Bloc architecture.
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile to the castle is Holyrood Palace – the British monarch’s official Scottish residence.
Sitting under the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has been a Royal residence since 1503 when King James IV decided to convert the Royal Lodgings of Holyrood Abbey into a home fit for his new bride, Margaret Tudor.
The original Augustinian Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I, supposedly after a hunting trip. Legend has it that he was thrown from his horse after being startled by a deer and was saved thanks to the appearance of a Holy Cross (or rood) that beamed down from the skies above. Whether you believe this miracle or not is up to you, but at least that’s one of the theories as to how Holyrood got its name.
Raids by the English during the mid-16th century destroyed many of the Abbey buildings and by the end of the Reformation all that was left of any consequence was the nave, which required some serious restoration for the Scottish coronation of King Charles I in 1633. The Chapel Royal, as it became known, was used for Catholic worship during the reign of James VII (and II of England), but by the 18th century, for various reasons, had suffered so much damage that it fell into terminal decline.
The remains of the nave can still be seen today as part of the tour of the palace.
Anybody coming here for an insight into the life of John Knox may well come away disappointed. Having said that, I think it’s still worth a visit as long as you’re not expecting to see a building closely associated with one of Scotland’s great historical figures.
The John Knox House is also part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre which is quite apt really because it’s not entirely certain that the famous reformer actually ever did live here. If he did it was only for a very short time. I think it would be more appropriate to call it the James Mosman House.
James Mosman was the owner of the house in the mid-1500s when he was jeweller, goldsmith and keeper of the Royal Mint for the Stuart kings and queens. He was a staunch Catholic and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots at the time she was forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son James VI.
He joined a revolt that took Edinburgh Castle, but in 1573 was arrested and hanged at the Mercat Cross next to St. Giles Cathedral for treason.
Hovering over the top half of the High Street is the crown shaped steeple of St. Giles’ Cathedral.
Technically speaking it’s not a Cathedral at all as there is no Bishop, so officially it’s known as the High Kirk.
Architecturally, it’s not one of Europe’s outstanding ecclesiastical gems even though it’s been here since 1124. The main reason for that is because what we mostly see today is just a couple of hundred years old after some major restoration in the 19th century.
That’s not to say that it’s not worth visiting because this is the church where John Knox was minister when he helped bring about the Scottish Reformation during the 16th century.
It’s also the church where King Charles I decided to introduce the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to the Scots in 1637. Fury erupted and the following year the National Covenant was signed which reminded the King that he may have been the King of Scotland but he was definitely not the head of the Scottish Church. The outcome of his interference led to the English Civil War and ultimately his life when he was executed in Whitehall in 1649.
To conclude my tour of Edinburgh Castle it seems appropriate somehow to finish with the magnificent Military Tattoo.
As its name suggests, the event is based around the Scottish armed forces, but don’t let that put you off because it’s more to do with kilts and bagpipes than warfare. That said, there is also a solemn side to the proceedings, especially towards the end when recognition of those who have lost their lives in combat are remembered.
For the most part though, it’s an extravaganza of music and dancing, and not just from Scotland either. In fact, it involves more international participants than you might have imagined.
The first Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle took place in 1950 and has grown from strength to strength ever since. The spectacle has become extremely popular and consequently in order to get a good seat, or even any seat, it’s best to book well in advance. This also applies to hotels as well at this time of the year, as it coincides with the Edinburgh Festival.
Edinburgh Castle Pt 5 - The Military Prison and Prisons of War
I’ve been inside many prisons over the years – as a tourist I hasten to add – and there are another two here in Edinburgh Castle near Dury’s Battery.
Firstly, there’s the small Military Prison and then the larger Prisons of War, which I found to be the more interesting of the two.
The Military Prison was built in 1842 for the incarceration of soldiers from the local garrison who would be held in solitary confinement in one of the dozen cells. Later this was extended to sixteen with separate ablution facilities.
In reality this prison was like a cut-down version of civilian prisons elsewhere.
The Prisons of War are somewhat different in as much as that they housed foreign prisoners from a series of different conflicts during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
These large vaults are situated under the Great Hall and Queen Anne Building and had been used for various purposes from stores, military supplies, barracks and even kitchens and a bakery.
After the Royal Palace and the Honours of Scotland, the next must-see part of the castle is the Great Hall which is located next to the Palace in Crown Square.
This grand ceremonial hall was completed in 1512 for James IV and used for entertaining dignitaries with great banquets, but all this fine dining and drinking came to an abrupt end when Oliver Cromwell took over at the helm in 1650 and converted it into barracks.
When the New Barracks were opened in 1799 the hall was converted into a military hospital, and then in 1886 it was restored to something like its former glory.
The one thing that isn’t Victorian though is the hammerbeam roof which has been here from the beginning and one of the most important in Britain. Another original feature is the Laird’s Lug (Lord’s Ear) which is a grilled opening above the right-hand side of the fireplace. It was used for eavesdropping and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to the castle in 1984 his security team insisted that it was bricked up.
Around the perimeter is an impressive collection of weapons and armour on loan from the Royal Armouries.
Edinburgh Castle Pt 3 - The Royal Palace and Scottish Crown Jewels
If there’s one part of the castle that shouldn’t be missed it has to be the Royal Palace and the Scottish Crown Jewels.
The Palace was at the heart of the royal castle from the 11th to the early 17th centuries and probably an extension to David’s Tower.
On the ground floor, the most important event to take place at the Palace occurred on 19th June 1566 when Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a son who became King James VI of Scotland after her abdication thirteen months later.
Mary and her husband Lord Darnley were living at Holyrood when rumours circulated that the father of her unborn child was David Rizzio, her Private Secretary. Shortly afterwards Rizzio was murdered at Holyrood and Darnley was the chief suspect. To make matters worse Mary was catholic and the country was now protestant and so she came to the safe haven of the castle to give birth to the future King James VI and I of England. The birth took place in a small room next to her own chamber.
James became King of England in 1603 and left Edinburgh for London. The Palace became neglected, but for a solitary return in 1617 to celebrate 50 years on the Scottish throne, the place had a facelift. The birth chamber was re-decorated (which still shows the same decorations today) and new rooms were added including the Laich Hall.
On entering the castle you’ll be given a map which follows the easiest route up to the top, which is not only wheelchair and pushchair friendly, but also follows a numerical sequence.
Passing through the Castle Gates will bring you to the Argyle Battery where everyone stops for a view out across he city. It’s a natural thing to do, but there are even better views higher up, so it’s not essential to stop here if there are too many people milling around, and you can always stop here on the way back.
Next to it is the One ‘o clock gun and the Redcoat Café which is a convenient place to have a quick coffee and make some plans on what you want to try and see while you’re here, because as I said in my Introduction you may not have time to see everything.
The One ‘o clock gun is fired everyday at one ‘o clock except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. The spectacle is similar to what happens at Greenwich, but with a twist.
Over on Calton Hill, at the top of Nelson’s Monument, is a time-ball, which just like its London counterpart, was introduced to help ships (in the Firth of Forth) to calibrate the time with the sun in order to aid navigation. This, of course, was when timekeeping wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The ball was dropped at precisely 1 o’clock and as long as the weather was clear enough then everything was ok – but the weather in Edinburgh isn’t always clear enough – and so a gun was used to compliment the visual aid.
Apparently, due to the speed of sound, it takes 10 seconds for the signal to reach Leith, and the ships took this into account when setting their timepieces. You may want to do the same because for the gun to be heard out in the Firth of Forth it means that you may not want to stand right next to it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!