Castles of the UK: Tower of London

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After leaving Warwick Castle behind, we travelled down to London for a couple of days. To be honest, I don’t think we scheduled enough time for this massive city, and so we had to be very picky with what we went to see… and the Tower of London was always going to make the list! However, we had tickets to see The Lion King that night, and when we arrived at the castle later in the day than initially planned, we knew that our time there would be short. We decided to make the most of it by following a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) on one of the free tours.

The Yeoman Warders have actually been at the Tower of London since the 14th century, and since then, have lived with their families inside the walls of the castle. In fact, Mint Street, to your left when you first enter the castle, is the main residential area today. Each Yeoman Warder does their own research and develops their own personal style before taking tours. Our particular Beefeater, I’m sorry to say I can’t remember his name, had a very dry, sarcastic style, and after getting a general feel for the crowd, focused on the bloody stories of imprisonment and execution… which was perfectly fine by me!

After meeting just inside the main entrance in the outer bailey of the castle, our guide led us through the Byward Tower and onto the section known as Water Lane. To our right was the River Thames and the notorious Traitor’s Gate, and to our left were two infamous towers; the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower. Here, our guide told us how prisoners condemned to death would enter the castle through the gate before being held inside the castle. When their final day came, they would be taken to Tower Hill and beheaded in front of a crowd of people. Their bodies would then be paraded through the city on an open cart as a warning to others, and their heads impaled on a pike onto London Bridge… very gruesome, and, thankfully, a practice from long, long ago. Both Anne of Boleyn and Thomas Moore entered the castle through Traitor’s Gate before their executions.

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However, the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower is not without its own horrid history. The Bloody Tower is linked to the Princes in the Tower; the two young sons of King Edward IV who were supposedly imprisoned, and later murdered in the tower. Supposedly, the boys’ uncle committed this crime, which allowed him to take the throne. Today we remember him as King Richard III. Meanwhile, the Wakefield Tower was where King Henry IV was murdered during the War of the Roses. He was attacked in the chapel, supposedly in the midst of prayer!

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After hearing these awful, but fascinating stories, our guide led us through a gate under the Bloody Tower- I believed he said it was the original portcullis- and into the inner bailey of the castle. Here we finally saw the White Tower; the original fortification on the site, and one of the famous symbols of London city. However, it was to the Tower Green where our guide led us. He first labelled the buildings around us, before talking about the very spot we were next to; the place of private execution for ten people. No doubt you’ll recognise some of the famous names; Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII; Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of the same man; Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine-Day Queen’ who was nominated to the throne by Henry’s son, King Edward VI, but later overthrown by Queen Mary I. Others who shared the green as a place of execution include Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn but actually executed along side Catherine as her lady-in-waiting; Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury supposedly involved in a Catholic invasion; Robert Devereux, convicted of treason following a failed coup de’tat attempt; William, Lord of Hastings, a contender for the throne in the eyes of the same Richard who supposedly murdered his nephews; and Farquhar Shaw, Samual Macpherson and Malcolm Macpherson for their role in the Black Watch‘s mutiny. Whilst we stood at the Green, our guide finished the tour with the tragic story of Lady Grey, who was only sixteen years old at her time of execution. Despite her young age, she showed a great amount of courage on her day of execution, and it was clear that the Yeoman Warder telling her story saw it as the most regrettable act to ever happen on the Castle grounds.

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With the end of the tour, we asked for advice on what to do in the castle with our limited time left. We were recommended a quick tour through the White Tower, before going to see the Crown Jewels, if the line had died down. We agreed and made our way across to this famous landmark. Here I’d like to pause a minute to admire the history of this 900 year old keep, which has always played a bigger role in history than that of a prison and execution ground.

Of course, as with many other castles we visited in the UK, the history of the White Tower starts with William the Conqueror. Starting in the 1070s, and completed in 1100, the fortress was originally built to intimidate the unruly London mob, and to proclaim the power of the new King. At this time, this would have been the first building of its kind in London, and would have dominated the skyline for miles, something, I think, that can be still appreciated today by staring up at the building. The castle, however, was never a favourite royal residence, but rather a stronghold and fortress.

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The castle was first significantly expanded in the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272) with the Wakefield and Lanthorn Tower built. Their original purpose was as the royal apartments when the young boy stayed there in times of civil unrest. Henry also ordered a massive curtain wall on three sides, which was reinforced by nine new towers and a moat. This wall today encircles the inner-bailey, as King Edward I, his son, built a second wall around the first. By this time, the Tower of London was already in regular use as a prison for political prisoners, and its secure nature made it the perfect place for storing official papers and valuables, and for a major branch of the Royal Mint to be established. During the War of the Roses, the Tower probably enjoyed its closest ties to royalties; King Henry VI held tournaments within its walls, and the Tower saw coronation celebrations for King Edward IV and victory parties for King Henry VII.

King Henry VII also added royal residential buildings, while King Henry VIII erected a large range of timer-framed lodgings for the comfort and enjoyment for Queen Anne Boleyn in the 1530s (ironically, she stayed in these lodgings whilst waiting for her execution). From this point on, however, the castle both ceased to be an established royal residence and remained relatively unchanged. The number of political and religious prisoners increased with Henry’s break from Rome until the time of King Charles II.

From the mid-1600s onward, the castle featured a permanent garrison, installed by Oliver Cromwell, and was also the headquarters for the Office of Ordnance. The castle continued to function like this, relatively unchanged, until the 1800s, when the Royal Mint left in 1810, the Menagerie in the 1830s (which formed the nucleus of what later became the London Zoo), the Office of Ordnance in 1841, and the Record Office in 1858. During the two World Wars, the Tower was again used for a prison and execution ground, particularly for foreign spies, and was also damaged considerably during the Blitz.

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Today, however, the White Tower houses the Royal Armouries, a nod to its long history as a military storehouse. I loved the ‘Line of Kings’ armour display, show casing some of the finest armour ever made for English Kings. This is a display that was put together during the 1800s, and, something I found rather hilarious, actually originally contained many historical inaccuracies to present the most interesting display. Luckily, the line as been reformatted today, so it’s both impressive and accurate! There are also displays about the institutions that were housed in the castle over the years, the treasures of the Royal Armouries in the former Great Hall, and a large collection of guns, mortars, trophies, pikes, swords, and muskets. Separate to the armoury, but also in the White Tower, is St. John’s Chapel, which has survived complete from the Norman times it was originally built in!

With such a collection, it’s really no surprise that by the time we life the White Tower, we had to get a move on to the beautiful Lyceum Theatre. This meant no Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia (although I did get to see the Crown Jewels of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle). This was, regrettably, just one item in a longer list of things we didn’t get to see… the ‘Medieval Palace’ (interiors of St. Thomas’ Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Lanthorn Tower), the Chapel Royal of St. Peter and Vincula in the inner bailey, the Beauchamp Tower containing prisoner’s graffiti (and named after a famous family we’ve already met), the lower section of the Wakefield Tower detailing the history of torture in the castle, the story of the Princes in the Bloody Tower, the wall walks, or even meeting the famous ravens of the castle!

To be honest, I am disappointed in our limited time spent at the Tower of London. If I had the option to go back to the entirety of the UK and see only one site again, this castle would be my first choice. So much more than a prison, I was completely blown away by the years of history. To think I stood in the same place where the wives of King Henry VIII stood all those years ago! Of all the castles, this is the one that left the biggest impression on me, and I can’t wait to get back and spend a full day there!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Warwick Castle

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Sorry for the silence over the past couple of days… it’s that time of year when you still want to relax, but also need to gear up for the new year!

The day after visiting Nottingham Castle, we travelled further south for the famous Warwick Castle. We had to squeeze this castle into an afternoon because we also visited the nearby Cadbury World in the morning, because chocolate. In the long run I’m glad we put these two together, because we certainly needed to do a lot of walking for all the chocolate we sampled!

Upon fist arriving at Warwick Castle it was very clear that this castle was going to be much different to the others we had visited (except perhaps Alnwick Castle), as it is very, very commercialised. This isn’t much of a surprise as the castle was sold to The Tussauds Groups in 1978, and later incorporated into Merlin Entertainments in 2007. However, the commercialisation isn’t necessary a bad thing, as the companies have been directly responsible for the painstaking restoration of the castle to its current glory.

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However, don’t think for even a second that Warwick Castle was never a “real” castle. It has a long and very impressive history. Ethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great, was amongst the first to recognise the geographical importance of the site, ordering a fortification to be built in 914. William the Conqueror also recognised the point, ordering a motte and bailey castle to be built in 1068. Incredibly, two features of the landscape are the remains of this castle; the mound on which the keep would have been built, and a sunken ditch outside of the castle. Warwick Castle enjoyed the height of its fortunes under the de Beauchamp family, who owned it for 181 years. Since then, the castle has fluctuated between ruins, stately homes, and even the base for party weekends! Today the state rooms are staged to show off different time periods, and the scene is set well with the addition of life-like mannequins. I also was very impressed by the collection of weapons in the Great Hall!

What I discovered in my visit to Warwick Castle is that when you are talking about the castle, you are talking about a building that has played host to some of the most influential men in history. The two that stuck out in my mind were Richard de Beauchamp,  who oversaw the trial of Joan of Arc; and Richard Neville, also known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, who deposed two kings; King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Scary, important people!

Impressive history aside, there are plenty of other things to do and see at Warwick Castle, and there were two that struck me in particular. The first was the jousting demonstration. The castle was actually granted a jousting licence in 1194, and it’s the same licence that allows them to joust today! To get to the display, we exited the Central Court, walked behind The Mound and down to the Avon River. There we crossed the bridge to get to the River Island. The island actually has a long history as the spot for entertainment; in the 1890s it housed a menagerie inhabited by Japanese deer, Chinese geese, an emu (Australia represent!), raccoons, ant bears, and even a baby elephant! However, on this day in August, it was a crowd of people and a few horses that used the space. The jousting display had a plot line, but to be honest, I was there for the precise horsemanship and showy sword fighting… which is exactly what I got! The knights were very impressive both on and off the horses (and easy on the eyes, which always helps!), and the squires were fantastic at keeping the crowd entertained. Definitely worth the visit if you’re at the castle, although I recommend getting down there early as they block the bridge when the island is full!

After the jousting, my Dad and I decided to take on the wall work. Don’t let the 500+ steps put you off… it really isn’t as hard as you’d think! We first climbed Guy’s Tower, 39 m (128 ft) tall, and completed in 1395. From there, it’s across the wall, through the Gate House, and up Caesar’s Tower, 44 m (144 ft) tall and completed in 1350. Both towers offer their own unique historical events and beautiful views of the castle buildings and surrounding town. Both towers are also unusually shaped for English towers; Guy’s Tower is polygonal whilst Caesar’s Tower is quatrefoil.

Unfortunately, after completing the wall walk, it was near closing time and we had to make our way out. I’m both happy and unhappy about only giving Warwick Castle a half-day. Whilst I didn’t get to see everything, I did prioritise the things I wanted most. I don’t think it would have been easy to tear myself away from the birds of prey display, grounds exploration, gardens, archery, trebuchet display, castle dungeons, and fighting demonstrations if I had the whole day there! But luckily the castle caters to people like me… with some fancy looking accommodation, so you can spend as long as you want there!

To me, Warwick Castle seems like the place that would have something for everyone; important history, fun activities, and wonderful demonstrations. Be sure to put it on your attraction list if you’re heading off to the UK for a holiday! But if crowds aren’t your thing, get there as early as you can, because there will be crowds and lines everywhere!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Bamburgh Castle

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It seems I originally scheduled this post much earlier than usual.  To anyone who saw the rough draft, my apologies! Moving right along, the day after visiting Edinburgh Castle and its wonderful military tattoo, we left Scotland behind and drove to Bamburgh in Northumberland to visit its castle. This area is known for its local puffin population, but sadly we missed out on seeing any whilst we were there.

The first thing that struck me about the castle was just how spectacular its setting, and therefore its views, were. Situated right on the coast, as I explored the castle the views included shots of the pretty little Bamburgh village, the rugged sand dunes, the flat, wide beach, and finally out to the water, and across to Lindisfarne Castle on the Holy Island. I really could have spent the whole day walking along the castle walls and the Battery Terrace!

However, Bamburgh Castle has more than its pretty views going on. The site itself has been important for many, many years. In fact, the first written reference to it is in 547 A.D., although archaeological digs still underway at the site tell us that people and structures were there much earlier. The castle once played a very significant role in royal and ecclesiastical matters; the inner-ward of the castle was built in the 12th century and once housed a chapel that held a precious relic of Saint King Oswald. The ruins you see there today are of the 12th century apse of the chapel.

Interestingly, Bamburgh Castle was the first in England to fall to cannon fire. During the War of the Roses, King Henry VI sought shelter in the castle. However, the siege in 1464 by Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, led to the collapse of the castle’s walls. It never again regained its previous status, but obviously remained a key strategic point; the great guns on the Battery Terrace were once prepared under the treat of Napoleon invading Britain in the 1800s. This invasion, of course, never happened.

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The castle deteriorated but was heavily restored by various owners during the 18th and the 19th century.  In fact, it’s the story of two of these men that I found most interesting during my exploration of the castle.

The castle eventually worked its way into the hands of Dorothy Foster in 1701, and after her death, her grieving husband set up a trust fund in her memory to restore the castle and support the village of Bamburgh. Fifty-six years later, Dr. John Sharp, a trustee of the fund, oversees the restoration work in the castle. This man achieved many remarkable things that benefited the lives of many. His control over Bamburgh Castle saw parts of the castle transformed; a free school for poor children; a pharmacy, out patients surgery, and hospital; and the opportunity for the poor to grind their crops in the castle windmill. Dr. Sharp also organised meat, milk, and coal to be distributed to the poor. If that wasn’t enough, he also created a coastguard system based in the castle for the treacherous waters below. Thought to be the first of its kind in the world, this system included firing guns during foggy weather, a watch system, beach patrols, and chains to haul ships to safety. Dr. Sharp also provides accommodation for shipwrecked sailors and pays for a respectable burial for the bodies washed ashore. Despite his control over the fund, much of this was funded by his own money. Certainly a man to aspire to!

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Despite Dr. Sharp’s good work, the castle did find itself in financial difficulty, but a purchase in 1894 by Lord William Armstrong proved to be its saving. Lord Armstrong had built up substantial wealth through various industries, including ship, plane, train, and automobile building, and gun making, most notably the Armstrong Gun. He donated heavily to libraries and museums and funded the building of many hospitals. He also founded the University of Newcastle! Lord Armstrong heavily renovated the castle with the intention to make it a home for retired gentlemen. However, the castle never saw this purpose as the Lord passed away before it was completed. His nephew who inherited the castle decided to keep it as a family home, and you can visit its magnificent state rooms today. In honour of his uncle, Armstrong House was created as a retirement home in Bamburgh village, and still exists today.

 

Well, that was my visit to Bamburgh Castle, with its breath-taking views and its story of two very remarkable men. If you happen to pass by the area, I strongly recommend stopping by to take in the atmosphere. I only wish I had longer there to get out onto the beach!

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Castles of the UK: Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle! It’s long been a place I’ve wanted to visit, and I was so excited when we arrived in Scotland’s capital. We were staying just off the Royal Mile, so we were walking distance to this critical monument of Scottish history and identity. We were up early on a Saturday morning to get to the castle early. Not just because it’s a popular attraction in Edinburgh, but also because the Fringe Festival was running, and there were crowds everywhere. We were at the gates of the castle before the opening time, but it was already crowded! Luckily we had fast-track passes (due to our purchase with Historic Scotland, more information here if you’re looking to do the same), so we were in straight away!

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The first thing we did was admire the views over Edinburgh. Trust me, this was something I could have done all day! It’s no surprising that Castle Rock, on which the castle is built, has been used as a fortress site since at least 100 AD… you can see everything! I particularly liked the views looking out over the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife beyond, as well as back towards Athur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. Stunning!

We set out to explore the castle, starting with the prisons. The castle has actually housed prisoners from 1758 through to World War Two, although not consistently. What I found very interesting was just how many different nationalities were imprisoned in the cells… French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Danish, Polish, German, and even American! The cells are set up to look authentic for different time periods, and you can even read actual graffiti carved by prisoners, many, many years ago!

We next entered Crown Square to visit the most sacred parts of the castle; The Great Hall, The Royal Palace, St. Margaret’s Chapel, and the Scottish National War Memorial. The Great Hall was first built in 1511 for King James IV. The hall was later converted to a barracks, and its great beauty hidden. However, today its interior is the most striking in the castle. I was quite swept away with the exposed 500-year old wooden beams towering above my head, the bright red of the walls, and the display of weapons everywhere!

The Royal Palace was next, and this is famous for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, King James VI of Scotland and I of England in 1566 (for my visit to Queen Mary’s childhood home, Stirling Castle, please click here). The Royal Palace also houses Scotland’s Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs for hundreds of years. Understandably, you can’t take photos in this part of the castle, but they were certainly a sight to behold! If you keep an eye on the queue from outside the Palace, you should be able to slip in when it’s relatively quite… we had enough time to admire everything!

We next went into the the War Memorial followed by St. Margaret’s Chapel. The chapel was once exclusively used by the royal families of Scotland, and dates to 1130, making it the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh! Whilst the stain-glassed windows are more recent, the decorative arch around the altar is original. It’s hard to believe that this holy place was actually used as a gunpowder store in the fifteenth century, its original importance only rediscovered in 1845!

After one final look out over the city from the Half Moon Battery, we had to move on from Edinburgh Castle, although we could have stayed to visit the National War Museum and Regimental Museums. We only had a day and a half in Edinburgh, and there were many sights we wanted to check out.

img_3107However… that’s not the end of our time at Edinburgh Castle! We returned that night for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the reason why I fell in love with the site in the first place! The line to get in was long, but moving very quickly, so we were soon in our seats, a couple of rows back and right in the middle of the parade ground. I wish I had a second set of eyes, because I wanted to look at everything! The Lochiel Marching Drill Team from New Zealand, Jordan Armed Forces, Nepal Army Band, and Hjaltibonhoga Shetland Fiddlers were amongst my favourite performers, but nothing could top the mass pipes and drums at the end of the evening. The atmosphere was rich, reaching its peak when we held each other’s hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. I will never forget the whole evening for as long as I live!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Balhousie Castle

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After leaving Stirling Castle, we drove to Bridge of Earn, a small village just out of Perth, Scotland. We spent two nights here in the start of the highlands, and I wish we had time to travel further north! Our main motive for coming here was to visit the Glenturret Distillery, Scotland’s oldest distillery. However, it also meant we could tick off a couple of castles that I was really looking forward to.

The first was Balhousie Castle in Perth. As soon as we pulled into the car park here, I could see that the castle, just like Wray Castle, was relatively new. In fact, the newest extension to the building was only added in 2011! But there was a castle on the site, perhaps as early as the fourteenth century. In 1624, King Charles I granted the lands and Barony of Balhousie to Master Francis Hay, and it remained in the family for over 300 years! However, there were many times when the castle lay empty, and by the early 1860s it was in a dilapidated state. Although the oldest building today dates from the seventeenth century, most of the castle was rebuilt in the early 1900s.

It was during the 1960s when The Black Watch, the most famous of the Scottish Highlander regiments, permanently established their Regimental Headquarters and their Museum at Balhousie Castle. Today, the castle is “The Home of the Black Watch”, still housing the regimental history… all the way back to 1739! If you don’t know who the Black Watch are, you probably don’t know your military history, because they have been involved in just about every near-modern and modern military conflict you can think of… War of the Austrian Succession (1745), the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Indian Rebellion of 1857, World War One (1914-1918), World War Two (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), and even the Iraq War (2003-2011). They were also the last British military unit to leave Hong Kong in 1997. That’s a very long and very impressive history! The Black Watch are identified largely by the red hackle worn on head-wear, and the distinct dark tartan.

Since my Dad is a military nut (he’s ex air force), and I’m a history lover, I was really excited to check this place out. We were fortunate to visit whilst the “Poppies Weeping Window” were on display, marking the first centenary of World War One. Thousands of hand-made ceramic poppies poured from a tower window of the castle to the ground. The effect was dramatic and breath-taking.

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After admiring the view and speaking to the volunteers outside, all of them former Black Watch members, we headed inside to buy our tickets for the museum. There were two options; entry, or entry and guided tour, and we went with the latter. It was money well spent. Our guide, the archivist of the museum no less, was absolutely fantastic. He gave us so much information about the Black Watch, their development, and the role they played throughout history. He had an interesting or quirky story for just about every item we came across, and he kept us entertained the whole time. Honestly, if this is your thing, you can’t go wrong with the guided tour. You can still explore the museum leisurely at your own pace afterwards!

 

I have to admit, once I was inside and on the tour I was pretty distracted that I didn’t take any photos inside. But that’s okay, because I had a wonderful time. If you’re as much of a military lover as I am, and you happen to be in the area, be sure to pop into Balhousie Castle. You won’t be disappointed!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Stirling Castle

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After our adventures in Cumbria, we crossed the border into Scotland. We stayed in Glasgow for two nights before heading into the beginning of the highlands. We needed to pass through Stirling to get to our final destination, and we decided that Stirling Castle, as our first ‘real’ castle, would be a worthy stop. Just like Wray Castle, we first glimpsed the building from afar. Driving on one of the major motorways, I could see a large castle perched on top of a isolated cliff-face. “Could that be it?” I asked nonchalantly, screaming with excitement on the inside. It was.

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Our car climbed the steep hill and we passed through Stirling’s old town before parking within the castle grounds, buying tickets and starting our exploration. Despite the rainy and windy Scottish “summer day”, the castle was bustling- we even had to wait ten minutes to get into a parking spot! It didn’t take me long to realise why the place was so popular. We started with the Queen Anne Gardens, a little terrace that was converted to a bowling green in the 1620s. It offered us stunning views over the Scottish landscape. The rain held off long enough to perch on the wall and just soak in everything I could see. Everything was just so green! A little plaque told us about the oddly shaped earthworks we could see were once impressive gardens in the 16th century. I could just about let my imagine go wild and picture what the countryside once looked like!

As rain threatened again, we scurried into vaults that house the Castle Exhibition. These rooms told us the history of the site and Stirling Castle itself. As a key feature of the natural landscape, it’s not surprising that ancient tribes of Scotland have long used the site as a stronghold. As the town grew in importance, so did the site, and in 1110 King Alexander I of Scotland used the spot to dedicate a chapel. From there the castle’s had a very bloody history, passing frequently between English and Scottish hands through the Wars of Scottish Independence. In fact, the castle’s been involved in at least eight sieges! Many Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling Castle, perhaps the most famous was Mary, Queen Scots. Both Mary, and her father, James V, actually grew up in the safety of the castle. Much of the castle buildings we see today date from the 16th and 17th centuries, due to the significant works of three James; James V, his father James IV, and his grandson James VI (you may also know him as James I of England). The castle was also given a bit of a spruce up in preparation for Queen Victoria‘s visit in the mid-1800s. The exhibition was set out really well and the short, but detailed, history lesson  given to us was very interesting and allowed us to contextualise everything we were seeing.

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With the weather clearing again, we passed through the battle-scarred Forework Gatehouse and into the central bailey of the castle. Here we had even more gorgeous views and could see some of the key buildings of the castle (more on that later). I had a quick look through the Palace Vaults, full of exhibitions about castle life for children to enjoy (admittedly, I also enjoyed both the Musician’s and Tailor’s vaults). There was also an Access Gallery to allow individuals with mobility difficulties to experience parts of the castle they may not be able to access. On the other side of the Vaults was the Ladies’ Lookout, with, you guessed it, even more stunning views.

From outside we went into the Royal Palace, beautifully decorated in a 1540s fashion, and possibly similar to how it once was when James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, lived there. I was surprised at just how colourful all of the rooms were! I really liked all of the details over the fireplaces as well, especially the famous Stirling Unicorn in the King’s Bedchamber. The other colour that catches your eye in the palace is actually on the ceiling in the form of Stirling Head replicas; metre-wide oak medallions carved with famous historical figures including Kings, Queens, Roman Emperors, and biblical and mythological characters. I pretty much spent my whole time in the room looking up, they were fascinating! Another great work of art in the palace is the Stirling Tapestries, hanging in the Queen’s Inner Hall. Replicas of the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn‘ tapestries, they are certainly impressive, even as a modern addition.

You can also access the Great Hall from the Royal Palace, through what would have been exclusively the royal entrance. The Great Hall, the largest of its kind in Scotland, is just as impressive as you’d expect. In stark contrast to the Palace, the ceiling beams here are exposed and unpainted, somehow making the impressive room more modest that what it would otherwise appear. One thing that I loved throughout both the Royal Palace and Great Hall were the staff in period costume playing instruments, giving talks, and demonstrating what the castle would have been like a few hundred years ago. Something so small really brings the whole place to life!

The other key building of the castle that we visited was the Chapel Royal, dating from the 1590s. Its most well known feature is the hand-painted frieze which includes a fake window. I was surprised to find it a rather small and modest chapel and it reminded me very much of the Great Hall. James VI’s son, Prince Henry, was baptised in the chapel.

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The other places we visited in the castle included the Stirling Heads Gallery and the Regimental Museum. The gallery told us everything we wanted to know about the Stirling Heads and also houses the original heads, but also pointed out some other architectural features of the castle. I was particularly interested in the statues of mythological and historical figures that made up the Prince’s Walk, which is mounted on the outside walls of the Royal Palace. The museum is dedicated to the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment, and definitely worth the stop for lovers of military history.

I absolutely adored Stirling Castle, and would recommend a visit to anyone in the area! With stunning views, interesting history, beautifully restored rooms, and even activities for children, it has something for everyone, plus more. I wish we had more than an afternoon there, because I would have loved to go on a guided tour, see the Great Kitchens, and take the wall walk down to the Tapestry Studio. I would have also really loved to explore Stirling’s Old Town, including Argyll’s Lodging, a 17th century townhouse that can be entered with a ticket from Stirling Castle. If I ever get a chance to go back to Stirling Castle, I will certainly be looking to do these things!

-S

Geek & Eat: Japan

Here’s the last of my Geek & Eat posts. Hold onto your seats, because Japan is going to be a loooong one…

GEEK!

OTAKU

Alright, let’s get straight into it. You like anime? You think Japan has anime in every nook and cranny of the country? Trust me, you’re not far off. You can buy anime merchandise pretty much everywhere. This is especially the case for really popular titles; One Piece and Attack on Titan are the two I saw everywhere when I was there. When you visit well-known landmarks, such as Osaka Castle or the Tokyo Sky Tree (amongst others), you’ll usually find an anime character hugging or posing with the landmark in the souvenir store. Usually it’s a key-chain or something else small, and only the most popular characters are used (you’ll find Luffy and Chopper everywhere). Other cheaper (and sometimes tacky) anime-related products you can find are gachapon! These are basically vending machine-dispensed capsule toys. There’s lots of different types (not all are anime-related; you can find some pretty hilarious ones!) and you’re basically gambling on what you figure/variation you’ll get for each line of toys. WARNING: They are very, very addictive. You’ll tell yourself you’ll just want one or two, and before you know it, you’re actively seeking them out. You find them in gaming centres mostly, but they’re pretty much everywhere. There’s also plenty of anime-related products in department stores (but they’re so much more!) such as Loft or Tokyu Hands, as well as toy shops and souvenir shops. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy!

If we’re talking anime heaven, then, naturally, we are talking Tokyo. Akihabara is probably on your list if you’re into anime. Selling everything from figurines to manga to body pillows, there’s bound to be some sort of merchandise you’ll want to pick up. A couple of things to keep in mind when visiting; Akihabara is very, very big. And there are a lot of places you’ll probably want to check out. We’re talking multi-level gaming centres and stores, maid cafes, and other themed cafes. Basically what I’m saying is: have a plan. Of course you’ll want to explore at your own pace, but if there are certain places that you really want to check out, you’ll need to have the self-discipline to drag yourself out of a store and continue on your way. Alternatively, plan to have multiple days here! Another good Tokyo location is the area around Ueno Station. There you’ll find Yamashiroya, a cool toy store, but there are plenty of other similar stores in the area. Finally, there’s the Ghibli Museum for all you Miyazaki Hayao fans out there. There are a couple of exhibitions inside the museum, but sadly, not all of the text is translated to English. However, just the joy of visiting the museum is enough reason to go! They’ve really thought through the building a lot, and nothing feels untouched or ordinary. If you’re ready to be swept up in the magic of Ghibli, then you should be buying your ticket already! Note that the ticket process is a little complicated, but you can find lots on useful information on their website.

 

Now otaku isn’t all anime, so I’m going to take a moment for two other things that are well loved about Japan; kimono and youth fashion. There are several places where you can rent out kimono in Japan, but by far, Kyoto is the most popular place for tourists to do it. This was particularly the case in the Higashiyama district, where there there are a lot of stores to rent (and buy) them. Don’t be afraid to have a look around; some places include doing hair and/or makeup, some charge extra for shoes or bags, some have time limits on how long you can take the kimono. We spent somewhere in the region of ¥8 800 ($110 AUD, $85 USD), so it’s not cheap, but also not horrifying expensive. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m full-blooded Caucasian. I was a little nervous about wearing a kimono, and a little cautious as to how Japanese people would react. Throughout the duration of the day I wore one, I got maybe two unpleasant side-glances. However, the overwhelming excited and encouraging responses I received from people more than outweighed the two nasties. There were older ladies waving excitedly at us when we walked by, and a massive group of middle-aged ladies (who had just left a temple) telling me in broken English (and my understanding of maybe three Japanese adjectives) that I looked pretty. If that doesn’t convince anyone who’s worried about offending others, then I don’t know what will! And boys, don’t think that this is just a girly thing to do, because there were plenty of places that rented male kimono out as well. One of the people travelling with me was a Caucasian male, and he also received a lot of positive responses when wearing one (one group of girls asked for a photo with him). The whole experience of picking out the clothing and decorations, getting dressed, and then feeling stunning the whole day is definitely worth it! As for Japan’s fashion, Harajuku in Tokyo is the place to go (although undoubtedly there’ll be similar youth hot-spots in other cities). You’ll see lots of street fashion and lots of shops so there’s plenty to see and explore! The best day to visit Harajuku is on a Sunday, so make sure you’re in Tokyo on that day!

 

ASIAN POP CULTURE

Everyone probably already knows about Japan’s massive pop and rock scene, and drama and movie scene (and if you don’t, you’re missing out!). Obviously, you’ll be able to easily get your hands on CDs, series, and the like, once you’re in Japan. I’ve heard that merchandise can be a little bit harder to obtain, but you can be guaranteed to find some in youth areas such as Harajuku in Tokyo or in Akihabara. If you’re a fan of the girl-group(s that comprise) AKB48, you can also visit their cafe in Akihabara and watch one of their performances!

If you didn’t already know, K-Pop is a big thing in Japan. There are certain groups that are more popular there than others (Big Bang rules over all, as usual), but if you are really seeking out something K-Pop related whilst in Japan, you will probably find it. For example, Tokyo’s Korea Town has merchandise, music, and dramas (I didn’t actually visit, having just come from South Korea). In other places, you can find some unusual K-Pop merchandise (of sorts). We often saw Big Bang’s teddy bears in gaming buildings, and I even found and EXO gachapon! With some K-Pop groups touring Japan fairly regularly, keep on the look out for shows you might to go to! We used Japan Concert Tickets to buy our tickets, since we didn’t have a Japanese address and couldn’t read the websites. The website was reasonably priced, the person I was emailing was very helpful, and it’s all very legal and trustworthy. The actual concert was amazing, the crowd was really energetic and excited (although hardly anyone clapped, which completely threw us off after the first song!), and there was a merchandise stall at the concert. Despite not being able to speak Korean or Japanese, we still enjoyed ourselves, so that gives you an idea how great it is!

HISTORY BUFF

If you’re visiting Osaka, you should definitely squeeze in a visit to Osaka Castle. The castle played an important role in Japan’s unification in the 1500s, but was mostly-destroyed during the Meiji Period. The main keep you see today is a restoration of the 1928 restoration of the castle. It’s not unusual for buildings in Japan (and other parts of Asia) to be rebuilt over time due to damage from war, civil unrest, fire, or earthquakes (most buildings are, after all, made of wood), so don’t let the more recent build put you off! After exploring the pretty grounds, you get in the elevator up to the top floor and then work your way down. The interior of the castle is actually a museum, focusing on the castle’s history and the life and achievements of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (certainly a very interesting character!). Beautifully kept and informative, it’s worth the visit!

Kyoto, considered the “thousand-year capital”, is just bursting with attractions for those of you seeking out history. There are countless temples and shrines to visit in the city, so I’m not even going to try and mention all of them. Instead, I’m going to talk about the Higashiyama districts; one of the city’s best preserved historical areas. Narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and lots of traditional merchant shops, it’s got the atmosphere you’re craving. It’s also a popular spot to rent kimono, which only adds to the feeling! Major attractions in this area include the Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Tofuku-ji Temple, Kennin-ji Temple, and Kodai-ji Temple, amongst many others. There’s plenty of other attractions too; I visited the Entokuin Gardens and Temple and the site of the Goryo Eji Tonsho. The area’s very compact, so with good planning, you can see a lot in a day!

There were two places we did as a day trip from Kyoto that may interest you history buffs out there. The first was to Nara Park. Apart from some very intense deer, the park has a lot of religious buildings including Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and the Kasuga Grand Shrine. There’s also other smaller temples and historical buildings and gardens… that’s a lot in a small space! The other day trip was to Himeji Castle. This castle is considered one of the best examples of surviving Japanese castle architecture. The castle has an incredible perch on top of a hill overlooking Himeji, and the grounds of the castle, with a large parade square, are equally impressive. The inside of the main keep is relatively empty, with signs drawing your attention to the main architectural features of each floor. Elsewhere, there is plenty of information about the castle’s long history. Be sure to also explore the West Bailey Palace, a more recent (1618!) addition to the castle!

Finally, Tokyo. Now Tokyo has its Edo-Tokyo Museum (amongst many other museums) and Imperial Palace, but unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to visit them.  We did, however, visit Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s been rebuilt several times, but the location itself is obviously an important spiritual place for the city. The Asakusa Shrine is also adjacent to the temple. Leading to the temple is Nakamise, a line of various shops that features traditional crafts as well as more modern souvenirs. There are many interesting attractions in the area, including Hanayashiki, which claims to be Japan’s oldest amusement park. We didn’t get to visit here, but I plan to next time! Tokyo is also a good location for day trips, and heading up to Nikko is a great option for history-lovers! Toshogu Shrine, with its beautifully decorated carvings, is breathtaking… and I’m saying this without seeing the main Yomeimon Gate (under restoration)! There’s plenty of other things to see in the area, make sure you grab a map from the train station and plan out your day!

EAT!

Just like I’ve said about every other country in these posts, Japan is the place for food! If you’ve had Japanese food before, then you probably have dishes you want to try already. The most popular dishes (e.g. sushi, tempura, tonkatsu, etc.) you can find easily, and noodle restaurants commonly specialise in one type (udon and ramen are the most common). Make a list of what you want to try, and cross it off as you go! Another thing to note is that different areas in Japan have different specialities. We tried the houtou noodles in Fuji when we were there, and they were delicious! If you’re travelling around while in Japan, be sure to do a little research to find what you should be trying where! A little less luxurious, but still an interesting experience in itself, is the food from convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, or FamilyMart. Apart from the snackage (definitely check out the ice-creams!), there’s also light meals available; bento boxes, onigiri, various types of breads, and many, many others. The quality is better than what you’ll find in western countries, and it’s cheap! I particularly loved the onigiri with karaage chicken! You’ll also find drink vending machines everywhere in Japan. Offering warm and cold drinks, and ranging from various teas, energy drinks, soft drinks, and milky drinks, they’re an incredibly convenient and fun way to try some of Japan’s popular drinks! Finally, if you happen to be visiting a temple or shrine during a festival, be sure to keep an eye out on the food stalls. Apart from popular regulars like takoyaki, yaki soba, and dango, you’ll find lots of other interesting food! A lot of the times, you’ll play some sort of game or draw a coloured stick to determine something about the food you’ll get, such as the number of eggs, toppings, or the number of treats you’ll get. A very interesting test of luck!

A couple of other “everywhere” places that are worth trying are some of the chain restaurants. If, like me, you’re from a country like Australia where there aren’t many big American chain restaurants, Japan is a country where you can enjoy them. We’re talking Denny’s, Starbucks, etc. It may just be ‘anytime’ food for others, but it was exciting for me! Japan, of course, has its own chain restaurants. We tried out a couple and found them really delicious. For some good quality Japanese curry, Coco’s Curry House is a good choice. You can customise your meal easily, including size and spiciness, and, considering I don’t particularly like Japanese curry but I enjoyed eating here, you can rest assured that it’s delicious! If you’re craving something more western-styled, Mos Burger is a chain restaurant. Their burgers are quite tasty, and served with chips and a drink if you buy in a meal. It’s very delicious, and a competitive alternative to McDonalds! Finally, Yoshinoya is a chain restaurant that specialises in gyuodon. This is essentially bowls of rice or noodles topped with beef (although lots of variations). The restaurants are usually quite small, and you get in and out fairly quickly. The bowls are cheap and pretty tasty!

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Spice guide in Coco’s Curry House

Finally, on to more specific locations and restaurants. I found that the teppanyaki in the Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto, amongst others) area was the most delicious. In Namba and Shinsekai in Osaka, there is a high concentration of teppanyaki restaurants, so if you’re in the area, check them out! You’ll find similar things on each menu, but usually there’s variations in ingredients for things such as okonomiyaki and yaki soba. Eat at restaurants that seem the busiest! In Kyoto, there are two very specific noodle restaurants that we went to that were amazing! Both are located on the main north-south road in Higashiyama (I believe it’s called Higashi Oji Dori). The udon place Mimikuo (small white building, very close to the Yaska Shrine complex) served some incredibly delicious noodles! If you’re a fan of udon, or you want to try a Kyoto-style dish, this is the place to go! The staff spoke very good English and you’re given bibs to wear while eating! The other noodle place Abura Soba Nekomata specialises in “oil noodles” (better described as soup-less noodles). This place is further up the road from Mimikuo, but well worth the walk. Follow the restaurant’s suggestion to add an onsen tomago (slow-cooked egg) to the dish, follow their instructions in the menu on how to eat, and enjoy! I loved the noodles so much, I ate here twice, and still dream of the food! Moving on to Tokyo, where there’s a lot to eat. However, I’m just going to talk about one thing; crepes in Harajuku. They’re a very big thing, and you’ll get overwhelmed both by the number of stalls selling them, and the number of options! As with anything else, follow the crowd to the popular places, even if it means waiting in queues. You won’t be disappointed!

Well that’s it for my Geek & Eat posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them! Have you been to Japan? If so, how were your experiences there? Did you find a cool anime figurine you’ve been dying for, or visit a really interesting, historical place? Or did you have one of the best meals of your life? I’d love to know!

-S