Posted by: gabriellereneeleblanc | May 16, 2012

Lost in Londinium

I’ll never forget my first afternoon alone in London.

I rode the tube up to Tower Hill, grabbed a sack lunch from a vendor, and ate my meager meal sitting beside a giant sundial (more on this item later).

Just behind me and to the left stood stones of an ancient Roman wall—excavated remnants of what once surrounded the city of Londinium—and there, just up ahead, the most amazing sight of all:

The Tower of London.

It’s so much more than the name suggests. No mere spire: tis a medieval castle drawn directly from the pages of history. Though, through the beautification of restoration, it appears more like an illustration from a fairy-tale.

You may think I exaggerate out of a desire to wax poetic, but let me tell you: for a Southern girl, whose only sight of a palace was one of fiberglass in Orlando, Florida, the beauty nearly broke me.

One can almost imagine it as the seat of Camelot, it’s pennants waving in the breeze off the surrounding, rippling water, the pale stones glowing in the warm rays of an understated English sun…

Okay, yes—I do get a bit swept up in the imagery, but can you blame me? I’m sure the residents take it for granted, but to an American tourist the sheer amount of blatant history comes as quite a shock!

In The States, we have a very proud tradition of preserving things for posterity by paving over them. Now, there are the obvious exceptions in the cases of historical townships or memorial parks or the entire city of Boston, but if you go out seeking a site of significance in these United States nine times out of ten you’ll find yourself photographing a marker, not visiting a museum.

The most glaring example of this is my current “hometown” of New York City. Here nothing is of value unless it has a current market, and nothing showcases this more clearly than the ever-changing skyline.

Take a look at Times Square: see that towering behemoth on 45th and Broadway known as the Marriott Marquis? That monstrosity arose from the destruction of five (count ’em 5!) historic Broadway playhouses. Protesting this devastation was the New York beatnik cause of ’82.

Before that, why—how about Madison Square Garden? The current home of both The Knicks and The Rangers proclaims itself to be the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, but many don’t realize the modern structure’s first claim to fame was as the destroyer of the original Penn Station. (This was the “protester cause” back when NYC Beatniks were actual, original Beatniks, way back in 1963.)

The list goes on and on: the original Yankee Stadium (now a parking lot), Shea Stadium (also parking), the original Met Opera House (offices), the Drake Hotel (a vacant lot. Great job there, guys!), etc…

There are times when the city’s demented love of demolition depresses me (as I’m sure my lurid love of alliteration annoys others) but then I remember: it’s Manhattan! A city as varied as the toppings on their pizzas–and as inconsistent as the price of a slice. (Seriously, how can cheese be a dollar a slice at the dives off of 36th & 9th Street, but ya end up paying $2.75 at some chain near 48th?! Here’s my true lesson, folks—if you’re hungry and on a budget, AVOID TIMES SQUARE!)

“Out with the old, in with the new.” That’s how NYC’s always been.

As a perfect example, let’s take a brief look back in time at The New York Coliseum. This convention center stood as the only building of architectural merit in Columbus Circle from the early 1920’s until it was demolished in 2000 to make way for the garish and uninspiring Time Warner Center. Sad, perhaps, but not surprising—especially when one considers how, prior to the coliseum’s construction, the site had been home to The Majestic Theatre since 1903.

To quote a beatnik: “Nothing sacred, man!”

I’ve come to accept my native country’s love of purging for progress, but I cannot help but admire those that persevere with progression and preservation. (There’s that alliteration again. I’ll stop. Really.) The construction of new structures built with and around those of notable significance—an immersion of the present with the past—is one of my favorite things about cities in Europe.

London, in particular, seems to have perfected this. Joke all you like about the “erotic gherkin” or gripe about the London Eye, but to me these modern additions to the skyline add to the city’s collective charm. It’s like a world’s fair all to itself or, to toss in another Disney reference, an interactive “Spaceship Earth” where you can reach out and touch the past without fear of losing a finger.

When digging begins for a new construction and ruins are discovered, work is immediately halted until preservation and/or restorations options have been explored. What must be a true horror in the eyes of real-estate developers (those poor multi-millionaires!) is a wonder for the rest of the world, and has brought to the surface not only the before-mentioned Roman wall, but also the Temple of Mithras, and the remains of the original Rose Theatre (a part of which reopened in 2007 as a performance space—how amazing is that?).

All of these sights make up not even a fraction of London’s historical attractions. From the British museum (give yourself a full day, if not more) to Buckingham Palace (get there early if you wish to witness the changing of the guard) to Churchill’s War Rooms (I left this one to my historian Step Father); one cannot turn down a cobbled street without encountering some artifact or area of importance.

Remember that sundial I mentioned? It’s a beautiful work of art, surrounded by benches for mid-day picnickers, conveniently located just at the mouth of the tube station…but, more than just another adornment, it’s a timetable of important events: its circular base includes several brass sculptures depicting moments of consequence in the cultivation of the city.

(I’m sorry. I can’t help myself–the alliteration…it’s a sickness!)

Walk a few blocks down the hill and to the right, you’ll find another marker set in stone at the site of the Tower scaffold.

Don’t forget to take a look at that Roman wall, which dates back to the year 190 AD. (No, that’s not a typo. One, nine, zero.)

All this, and more, for the cost of train fare.

Now, to be fair, one cannot expect The United States to compete with Great Britain in terms of history. For goodness’ sake, the U.K.’s first laws protecting landmarks came about in 1882—when most of our buildings of historical merit, including those I mentioned from New York, had not even been born into blueprint.

However, one must appreciate a land which respects and honors the past. Not to say that deconstructing ancient architecture is the same as desecrating a tomb but, in a way, the ruins and remnants are the ghosts of a place that once was: and London remains, by far, the most haunted city I have yet to encounter.

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