The Tower of London is the greatest tourist attraction in the world.
Don’t even try to argue with me. Crown jewels, suits of armor, legendary ravens. Tales of murder, treason, torture, beheadings, religious conflict. All told to you by the best tour guides in the world – Yeoman Warders, commonly called Beefeaters.
I’ve been six or seven times since 1980. I’d go again at the drop of a hat.
This time, my wife Grainne and I get to take our good friends Jim and Stacey with us. My son Pierce and his fiancé join the party.
Today’s tour guide is Dave – or as he likes to call himself Whispering Dave – because of his booming Sergeant Major voice. He’s got jokes. “Let’s be heading this way,” (beheading, get it?!) he tells the visitors as he moves from one part of the tower to another.
Corny puns aside, Dave tells gripping stories of the disappearance of the two young princes, of how Anne Boleyn’s lips were still moving in prayer as the executioner held up her severed head. Gruesome, true tales that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Once the dark stories ended and tour is over, we head out for a walk along the Thames River on this brilliantly sunny, warm August day. I lived in England for 10 years. I know how rare these days can be, so we intend to enjoy it to its fullest.
We mosey down to London Bridge, and walk south to the famed Borough Market. I’m amazed by the scene of trendy restaurants, green grocers, wine, cheese and merchants. Amazed, because for two years in the 1990s, I would take the train to London Bridge Station, walk through that area to my office at Southwark Bridge.
Believe me when I say this area has been transformed for the better in the last 20 years. There was so much energy and fun in the air as Londoners and tourists mixed, enjoying lunch, a glass of wine or just a good snoop around the many stalls. It’s shocking think that less than three months ago, terrorists struck this place, killing and wounding innocent people.
But then again, the British people have always been among the most resilient on earth.
Grainne and I say goodbye for the afternoon to our friends and head up to have afternoon tea at a museum called The Wallace Collection. Sitting only two blocks north of Selfridge’s department store, The Wallace Collection is housed in a beautiful mansion on Manchester Square. Being experienced afternoon tea consumers, Grainne and I skipped lunch knowing that our plates would be filled with sandwiches, scones with jam and butter and a variety of little cakes. We were correct.
This is another of those “off the beaten path” places that you have to check out. The museum is free. The afternoon tea is half the price of going to one of the fine hotels in town. And the atmosphere is lovely.
We waddle back down to Bond Street station and catch the tube to Green Park. From there, we enjoy a perfect walk on a perfect English summer’s day. Green Park – my favorite park in London – is filled with both Londoners and tourists. They sit on lawn chairs. They sit on the grass. Some practice yoga. Another man, who Grainne guesses is a budding bartender, practices juggling and catching bottles in an acrobatic fashion. Swans swim through the ponds. I soak it all in.
We arrive back at our hotel – The Conrad – near St. James Square where more old friends await us. Jonathan and Sarah Kirk, along with their sons Cameron and Kyron greet us with open arms. I’m particularly thrilled that Kyron gives me a hug. One – he’s my godson. And two – last time he saw me, he ran in terror as I tried to hug him.
We talk. We laugh. We walk next door and order a pint. And we swear – WE SWEAR – we will not let so much time pass between visits again.
Grainne and I end the evening with another quiet dinner with Pierce and Ghazal. After a week in London, I feel like we just arrived. I’m so thankful for the many life-long friends we made while living there. And I’m even more thankful to see our son head-over-heels in love - and engaged - to such a beautiful lady.
Thinking through the events of the day, we have seen (or at least heard about) some of the darkest moments in our history – from murders in the Tower of London to the fatal attacks at Borough Market. But we’ve also seen beauty and love from both our friends and our surroundings.
And love wins. Always.