London: Not all pigeons are unwelcome

Refreshed after a mostly solid night’s sleep we returned to central London to pick up where we left off the day before. We passed through Trafalgar Square again on our way to Buckingham Palace. Upon entering the square this time my eyes were immediately drawn to a large bird sitting on a stand about four feet off of the ground in the center of the square. Too big to be a raven, definitely not a pigeon, could it be … “God save the Queen, it’s a hawk!” Noticing the jesses and bells on its legs I knew this bird wasn’t a tourist on its way to catch the changing of the guard. Rather, it was the changing of a guard in it’s own right. Just as I started to jest to my family, “I guess that keeps the pigeon population down” it hit me: it really does keep the pigeon population down. Looking around I quickly spotted the bird’s trainer, and we went over for a chat.

The City of London does employ live falcons — in this case, a Harris Falcon — to keep the pigeons out of Trafalgar (nearer to Parliament they’ve electrified the statue of Winston Churchill to keep the birds off). While we were there the Harris was fed by his trainer and didn’t actually have to swoop on any pigeons — mainly because there wasn’t one in sight. For action, then, the trainer kept sending the Harris off and then sneaking himself behind the Mall Diva before silently signalling the bird to return. The result was the bird would fly directly at her head before lifting just enough to land on the trainer’s glove. The fellow indicated it was because she had such a sweet smile. Or did he say, “shriek”? No, I’m pretty sure it was smile.

Of course, not all pigeons are unwelcome. We’ve been feeling especially plucked since our arrival and the fact that pounds seem to melt away by the second here; unfortunately this has nothing to do with reducing my robust frame. When I was here in ’79 the exchange rae was about the same, but somehow things didn’t seem that difficult to do on my student budget. Of course, I was paying for just one person then, but my alcohol consumption was much higher. Now it’s ?3 for this, ?8 for that, and ?20 or more for just about every attraction. You can basically double the figure to get the dollar conversion, so that a tuna salad sandwich (called a tuna-mayo sandwich) that seems reasonable at first at ?3.50, suddenly becomes harder to swallow. We knew going in that London was going to be expensive and we’d have to bite the bullet if we were going to do much of anything (we’re dropping $40 a day just on Tube passes). We’re trying to be wise about things but the girls are already tired of seeing us scratch our heads and do the math everytime they want an ice cream. I don’t blame them, because we came here to have fun and do different things. Fortunately, the burn rate for the rest of the trip should be slower (it better be!).

We could have saved some money on dinner tonight by eating at the local KFC or Pizza Hut which had some fairly low prices advertised on their windows — but we don’t even eat at these places when we’re in Minnesota, so we’re not going to do it here. We ended up at an Indian restuarant (one of my wife’s favorite cuisines) where we saw a number of dishes that we’ve never seen on the Indian menus in the Twin Cities — and a few extra levels of heat as well.

We decided against going inside Westminster Cathedral, but did opt for riding The London Eye (mainly because of Tiger Lilly’s big, imploring eyes when faced with the chance to ride a 400 foot high ferris wheel). It was worth noting that at the end of the ride, or “flight”, security guys entered each pod with long-handled mirrors and checked under the bench and in the overhead portions. As for the ride itself, the view was great but I don’t know that I’d do it again. Something I did do again, however, was the Tower of London tour, lead by an actual Beefeater Guard. Tradition is important to the Brits, so it was no surprise to hear our guide repeat the same joke that was told by one of his predecessors in ’79 while describing the gate next to the river where prisoners were brought into the Tower; it’s called the Water Gate.

The Tower is still fascinating, even when you’re just getting a small slice of it’s bloody history. It was a dangerous life then for those who were kings (or queens), wanted to be kings (or queens) or were in the line of succession. On top of that, traitors were not suffered (though they were made to suffer). Today’s political knife fighting and poisonings almost seem mild by comparison. And yes, we were asked to leave the Tower by one of the blue-suited Beefeaters. True it was closing time, but his request did come just after the Mall Diva recited her Monty Python bit (see her previous post). I didn’t even get a chance to take her picture on the battlements!

Another attraction worth checking out is Kew Gardens. We spent nearly the entire day there today, and it is spectacular. We’ve visited and thoroughly enjoyed the New York Botanical Gardens and the one at Wave Hill outside of New York, but I think Kew is another level above that. The grounds are so invitingly laid out that you just want to plunge in and walk through everything — and the best part is that you can! This is a place that cries out for you to walk barefoot through the grass, and that’s just what you can do (and what the Diva and Tiger Lilly did). Not to be missed if you’re ever in the vicinity.

Tomorrow we wind up this leg of the trip. We’re on our way to an apartment on a working olive farm and winery in Tuscany near Firenze. To commemorate the trip so far I’ve included some shots of the girls around London. If you want to see lots of pictures of historical things, buy some postcards. If you don’t mind shots of my daughters near historical things, click on the highlighted text immediately below. Positioning your cursor over the photo will reveal a caption; in most cases clicking on the photo will enlarge it. The next time you hear from me I hope it will be from Tuscany!

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