The Castaway Hotel: Book 3

Chapter 22: Palaces Galore

On Tuesday, we continued hitting the typical tourist attractions by going to what would turn out to be one of my favorite places, Hampton Court Palace. This was also one of the places Steve had mentioned to me as being one of his favorites and I couldn’t help but agree with him. Although it doesn’t seem to draw the same amount of attention as some of the other sites, it piqued my imagination as I made the tour.

As we went along, I informed the others that, “Thomas Wolsey, who was soon to become Cardinal Wolsey, commissioned this structure to be started in 1514. It is massive and contains 280 richly furnished rooms. As his stature and power rose, this Catholic Cardinal came into conflict with the King of England, when he opposed Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. This became a major battle between King Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church, which caused Henry to break all religious ties with Rome and form his own Church of England or Anglican Church.”

“Wasn’t she beheaded at the Tower of London?” Kevin asked, showing he had definitely learned and remembered something from one of our other stops.

“That’s correct,” I confirmed. “But Henry was a gentleman about it and brought in a French swordsman to do the job, at Ann’s request. She decided she’d rather have that, than have the executioner using the typical English axe, which wasn’t as sharp or reliable. You see, sometimes it would take several blows to do the job.” The boys reached up and grabbed their necks at this point, thinking about how that might feel, but they still seemed fascinated by it.

“Is that what happened to ‘Nearly Headless Nick,’ in the ‘Harry Potter’ books,” Dion asked, drawing the connection between what I was telling him and his literary pursuits.

“It might very well be,” I informed. “Although it doesn’t say precisely in the story about why Nick’s head didn’t come completely off, it might just be for that reason.” The boys all looked at each other, making faces and tilting their heads off to one side, imitating what ‘Nearly Headless Nick’ must have looked like, after that botched attempt.

“Anyway, lets get back to the story about this place. This all occurred during the time of the Protestant Reformation, so it wasn’t totally unheard of to break from control of the Pope in Rome, but that wasn’t what was so unusual. The most striking difference in this case was that Henry also proclaimed the reigning monarch to be the head of the church, instead of one of the clergy. This is still the case today, as Queen Elizabeth II is not only the Queen of England, but also the head of the Church of England. So, after Henry broke with the church in Rome, he confiscated all of its property, which included this structure, and then he proceeded to make it into one of his palaces. He enlarged it almost immediately and throughout his lifetime spent a great deal of his time here, preferring it to his other residences.

“As you will see when we get to see some of the rooms, Hampton Court Palace has secret doorways in various places, where doors have been built into and blend in with the walls around them. Henry liked to use these, at his own whim, to escape from having to see unwanted advisors or other unwelcome guests. When they would show up, he would pop through one of those doors and then turn up in another part of the palace, which saved him from having to experience a confrontation.”

“Do you think they’ll let us go through one of those secret passages?” Ricky asked, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye.

“I’m afraid not, champ, so you won’t be able to play any of your tricks on us by using one of them,” I joked, before getting back to the subject. “When Henry died, Hampton Court was used by his successors and remained a valuable property of the Royal Family. Over time, demolitions, alterations, and additions were made, including the 1540 addition of the huge astronomical clock you saw in the courtyard, but I guess that’s more than enough information about this place,” I concluded, getting numerous nods of agreement in return. Seeing their response made me feign a hurt expression and I immediately pulled an overly dramatic Sarah Burnheart, to let them know I was only trying to enlighten them, so they could appreciate their visit more.

From that point on, the boys were happy to walk about and investigate the palace. They were also greatly amazed by the size and magnificence of all of the furnishings that were evident throughout the massive structure. However, that seemed like nothing to them, once they saw the King’s staircase and the huge painting that covered the upper wall and ceiling. Viewing this, they were totally overwhelmed. It was certainly splendid and we could only imagine how much time and energy it had taken to create such a large and glorious work of art.

After leaving that area, we continued through the building, examining the various rooms and listening to various tour guides telling stories of its past. I think the boys were quite fascinated when they overheard one of the guides telling about one of the long corridors that led to the private chapel. The guide told those who were with him that Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, came screaming down this hallway, running toward the chapel, where Henry was said to be praying, after she learned she was to be executed for adultery. Hearing this, the boys suddenly realized she was another of those who had been beheaded at the Tower of London.

We were leaving the building when we found something equally as remarkable, the gardens and lawns. The grounds were beautifully manicured, with walkways leading down to the Thames River, and the sights and colors were inspiring. It didn’t take long before the boys also discovered the Hampton Court maze, which is made from large, full and well-trimmed hedges, and I allowed them quite a bit of time to run about this interesting feature. In fact, all of us tried our hand at navigating through it, from my youngest grandson to my oldest son.

The boys asked me if they should each take a little one with them and I told them there were enough of us around, it was a fairly confined space and there were enough others going through the maze that it shouldn’t be a problem. Therefore, each boy would be able to try this on his own. Hearing this, the boys waited and went off at intervals, so they wouldn’t be following too closely behind each other. That didn’t mean they didn’t run across one another while they were in there, because it is a very limited space, but they tried not to follow any one else and do this on their own – even the younger ones, to their parents’ slight discomfort.

We were like lab rats scurrying through the psychologist’s maze, running into dead ends and having to start over to find our way out. The boys thought it was a blast to go from one end to the other, and slowly we began to emerge from this unusual adventure. Eventually, however, I was required to go back in to rescue some of our little ones, mainly Nicky and Andrew, because they had become hopelessly lost in the collection of dead-ends and false pathways which proliferated within the design. I felt bad when I realized their predicament, because I heard them both crying and calling for me.

As I led my ‘lost boys’ from the grasp of the all-consuming shrubs, I emerged looking like the Pied Piper with the children of Hamelin. Not only did I have my own flock, but I also managed to pick up a few other strays along the way, making us quite a formidable group as we regained our freedom. After being thanked by the parents of the other children I had helped to liberate along the way, we took note of our current situation and looked at our watches.

None of us had realized how long we’d been there and how late it was getting, but we had already gone well past our normal lunchtime. Therefore, we decided our next stop should be to grab a quick bite, which would only be to tide us over until dinner.

After finishing our small and hasty meal, we agreed to take a walking tour of this area, to kill what time remained, before going back to the hotel and then out to dinner. We actually walked around that neighborhood for a couple of hours, and it was quite a relaxing and scenic stroll, before we went back to the bus and rode back to our hotel. At that time, we quickly washed up and a few even changed, before we selected what type of place we wanted to dine.

It was nothing elaborate but it did take care of our needs. After we finished dining, we went to Piccadilly Circus, which isn’t a circus with animals and such, but merely another famous section of London. We saw it first it the fading daylight and then got a totally different view of it, once it was lit up for the evening. The area was awash in the glow of numerous electric signs, streetlights and the illumination escaping from the numerous windows of the buildings that surround it. In the center of the Circus stands a great aluminum statue of Eros, erected in 1893 above a bronze fountain, and a barrage of cars and buses flowed around it almost constantly.

After we were satisfied we had seen all that we wanted to there, we went back to our hotel, exhausted from our day’s activities. All of us quietly headed to our rooms, ready for a little down time. Cole, Graham, Trey and Dion had the ‘sex room,’ but I was fairly convinced that little, if anything, would be happening in there again tonight. Just looking at them I could see they were dragging. We had done a great deal of walking throughout the day, taking in a wide variety of sights, and I could tell that their eyelids were already beginning to droop, even before they made it to their beds.

I learned later that Jordan and Nicky had talked their parents into letting them spend the night with Pat and Carlos, while Sammy and Andrew were in with Danny and Brandon. Ricky and Jay made sure they got to stay in my room and Ricky shared a bed with his big brother, while Jay slept with me.

Jay had matured a lot since our first vacation together and was also beginning to fill out a little too. He was no longer that gawky, spastic boy who we used to make fun of, but as I discovered that evening, he still seemed to enjoy any added attention from me. Since that first time when he announced he wanted me to sleep next to him, instead of constantly being with Ricky, whenever I shared a bed with that pair, he has continued to let me know he wanted us to remain close.

Now that he was in bed with me, Jay kept inching his way closer and closer to my body, until he was pressed tightly against me. Once our skin touched, he grabbed my arm, pulled it over his body and then wrapped both of his arms around mine, squeezing it tightly. I could almost see the grin spread across his lips as he did this, even though he was facing away from me at the time, and now his body almost melted into my own. That’s the way we eventually fell asleep.

The next day we had a quick breakfast, before leaving for Buckingham Palace. The Palace hasn’t been open to public tours for very long and its exterior isn’t all that impressive, just a large imposing, rectangular building. It’s when you get inside that your heart begins to race with excitement. The structure was originally the Buckingham House, built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1705. George III, who was King during the American Revolution, bought the house in 1762 and began adding on to it almost immediately.

Over the years, various other wings were added, but Queen Victoria was actually the first monarch to take up residence there. There are several statues of her inside the palace and a large monument to her out in front. Everything in the palace seems huge, elaborate and spectacular. It’s just hard to describe the enormous portraits of previous members of the Royal Family, all of the other beautiful works of art done by famous artists, and the humongous and elegantly decorated rooms. Everyone was quite impressed by the tour and we left the Palace grudgingly.

“Dang, I was hoping to see the Queen,” Jay announced, somewhat disappointed, after we walked out of the building.

“Hang on and I’ll run inside and get you an audience,” I announced, pulling his leg. Jay looked up at me and stuck his tongue out.

“Very funny, Pop,” he deadpanned, after drawing his tongue back where it belonged.

Even though we had finished our tour of the public portion of the building, we did not leave the grounds. Before we did, I made sure the boys were also able to witness the legendary changing of the guard. It was filled with pomp, rigidity and total concentration on the part of the soldiers, reflecting the centuries of tradition incorporated in this event.

“They look like robots,” Graham acknowledged, noting their stiff, mechanical movements.

“You might have something there,” I told him. “I wonder if the Queen has someone build them in her basement.” Suddenly, Graham shot me a look that might have frozen me to the marrow, if he’d had that power, as he thought I was making fun of him. Suddenly, I felt the need to clarify myself, so he didn’t keep that impression.

“Okay, sorry,” I confessed. “I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a joke about it. You’ve got to admit, the idea of them being robots was kind of funny,” I added.

“Not really,” Cole responded, in his brother’s defense, “and it wasn’t a very good joke, Dad.” Now, I felt duly chastised.

After a quick lunch, we took a look at St. James Palace, which had been built by Henry VIII. That might also explain the similarity of the feel of the place and its outward appearance, especially when you compare Hampton Court’s clock tower to St. James’ main entrance. Possibly, it was just the brick Tudor style they used, though I suspect there was more.

The boys, however, were more fascinated by the Grenadier Guards who are posted there, than the architecture. You know the ones, with the tall ‘Bearskin’ hats and bright red dress jackets, who stand so rigidly and unmoving when posted at Royal locations. I guess their particular style of remaining straight-faced and unmoved turned out to be an irresistible challenge to some of my troops.

“Bet I can make him smile, maybe even laugh,” Ricky announced to his brothers.

“No way!” Dustin countered. “Those guys are trained not to smile or laugh, even though many, many tourists try to get them to do so. They can get in big trouble if they do.”

“Well, I bet I can do it anyway,” my unflappable clown repeated.

“Go ahead and try,” Danny challenged. “I’ll bet he won’t even pay you any attention,” he added, giving a smug grin in anticipation of Ricky’s failure.

For the next few minutes, first Ricky, and then Ricky, Cole and Graham, did everything short of tickling the guard, trying to make him break from his rigid, stern gaze. They made faces, told jokes, shouted things like ‘watch out’ and ‘off to your right,’ before trying a more slapstick approach. They must have been at least a little amusing in their attempt, because plenty of passersby where grinning or chuckling at their antics, but the guard remained unfazed.

Finally, thinking they had more than enough time to play the role of ‘court jester’ and wishing to move on to something else, I announced we were leaving.

“Told you that you couldn’t do it,” Dustin sneered, feeling vindicated.

“I could have done it eventually, if Dad didn’t make us leave,” Ricky responded.

“Could not,” Sammy offered, unable to keep out of this bickering.
“Could too,” Ricky snapped back, making this sound like a childish squabble between younger children, before I told them all to hush up and get moving. Although they weren’t happy and their disagreement wasn’t settled, at least as far as Ricky was concerned, we moved on to our next stop, which was a boat tour on the Thames River.

Over the course of the boat ride, the boys learned the Thames was a major thoroughfare for London, throughout its history. Not only has it been the main source for commercial traffic, transporting goods in and out of the area, but it was used for private transportation as well, as people used it to move from one place to another.

This tour allowed us to see another side of many of the buildings we had already toured and viewing them from the river was impressive. Along the way, the boys discovered the Thames flows past the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, as well as Hampton Court Palace. That’s one of the reasons Kings and Queens even took boats when traveling between these places, since it was a direct route and far less uncomfortable than the bumpy ride they might have to endure, riding carriages over the rough dirt roads of that era.

Not only did we see many places we’d been to, but the ship’s tour guide also pointed out many notable spots we hadn’t visit yet. Although some of those places weren’t on our itinerary, I think the boys worried that I was going to lead them on tours of each and every one of those locations.

Although the ride was lovely, Ricky’s constant attempts to convince his brothers he could have been successful at making the guard crack up, if given more time, finally proved to be very annoying. After seeing the reactions of my older children to this constant give and take and listening to it for as long as I could, I finally spoke up.

“Let’s just drop it,” I advised him. “You are not going to be able to prove you could do that, although I’d be willing to bet you’d be unsuccessful, even if I left you there until next year. The pride and determination of those guards about adhering to duty is far greater than your ability to be the class clown.” Ricky looked hurt that I doubted his ability, but it did stop the annoying prattle about what might or might not have happened.

When the tour ended, we made our way to get a closer look at Cleopatra’s Needle, which was something else we’d passed along the way. This is a large obelisk, whose shape is similar to that of the Washington Monument, but not nearly as enormous, and was brought from Egypt during the height of the British Empire. The time of its creation has been attributed to the reign of Queen Cleopatra, hence its name. By the time we left there, it was time to eat dinner and then head back to the hotel.