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London: A city of surprises

| Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008

LONDON -- A flash of Hollywood cut across Leicester Square in London as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth arrived in limos for the world premiere of the movie "Mamma Mia!"

Flashes were firing as hundreds of tourists surrounded a roped-off area set aside for the stars to make their entrance into the theater. With upbeat, plinky-plink ABBA blaring on loudspeakers, people sought autographs and a glimpse of Hanks, the producer, as well as the stars in the movie.

A scene like this is one of the many surprises you might encounter in this city, rich with international flavor and steeped in the history of Western civilization.

Start at the Tower of London, built by William the Conqueror in the 12th century. Right, that's the 1100s, and it's hard for most Yanks to fathom how old many of the sights in London and the rest of Europe are compared with U.S. history.

Contrary to popular belief, the Tower of London wasn't just a place for executions. In fact, only seven people were beheaded there -- and only six of them officially. There were public execution spots throughout London for hangings. Beheadings typically were for treason, and hangings for ordinary criminals. The one unofficial, or extra-judicial, beheading: In 1483, the Lord Hastings, after mouthing off to the new king Richard III, was executed on the spot.

According to our registered tour guide, Heather Davies, the tower's uses are delineated by the name "Mozart."

• The tower was and still is a Museum.

• It served as an Observatory in the 1600s.

• It was a Zoo in the 1200s, with a few lions, leopards and an elephant available for the public to see.

• It was an Armory.

• It is a residence for the legendary Ravens -- still a famous sight at the tower. Supposedly, if the ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall.

• And it was a place for Traitors.

There is Traitor's Gate, a forbidding entrance where those who had threatened or displeased the realm were brought in by boat. But after the 1600s, there were no executions until the 20th century, when German spies were shot at the tower.

There is another famous aspect to the tower.

"It's where the queen's bling is," Davies told us. The Crown Jewels are one of the tower's main attractions. An amazing 23,578 gems make up the Crown Jewels. The Imperial State Crown alone has 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies.

You can also see the Royal Armories museum, with flint blunderbusses from 1675, armor breast plates, helmets -- pikes from King Henry VIII's arsenal -and a suit of armor standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall that belonged to a 14th-century duke of Lancaster.

Jack the Rip-ahh

One evening, we take a Jack the Ripper tour. It's supposed to be spooky, conjuring up images of the 1888 Whitechapel murders. You do get to see a part of London, the East End, which most tours would otherwise ignore. Of course, you do it at twilight, and winding through the narrow streets and alleys of what had been London's French Quarter, it is eerie to see the places where Jack's victims lived and died.

This is not part of Davies' tour. It's a side trip your tour group can arrange.

While intriguing, you probably can learn as much about Jack the Ripper on the Internet.

Our tour emphasizes the theory that Sir William Gull, the royal surgeon, committed the five murders to cover up for Prince Albert getting one of the victims, a prostitute, pregnant. There are plenty of other theories.

Hampton Court Palace

Eleven miles southwest of London, the Hampton Court Palace is a must-see. Extravagant gardens. An elaborate maze. Medieval kitchens. A residence for Henry VIII and some of his wives. A chapel where Henry worshipped and where he was presented with a letter accusing his young wife, Kathryn Howard, of "unchaste" behavior prior to their marriage -- for which she was subsequently executed at the tower in 1542. She was No. 5 of the six wives.

The palace once belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. When he lost favor with Henry for being unable to secure an annulment from the pope for Henry's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry took over the palace.

It's a great break from the city streets of London. Tourists lounge in the sun in an outdoor eating area of a first-rate cafeteria that offers a wide variety of food, including, of course, bangers and mash -- Cumberland sausages and mashed potatoes smothered in a rich gravy.

One of the most stunning items here is the Astronomical Clock built into one of the walls overlooking a courtyard. At the center is the earth with the sun revolving around it. The clock shows the number of days since the new year. It tracks movements of the moon, and according to "Hampton Court Palace, The Official Illustrated History" (which you can buy on a tour) its "most cunning device was its ability to tell the time of high water at London bridge, useful information at a time when tides governed travel to and from the palace."

What's stunning is that the clock was built in 1540. This one item hints at the awesome power and wealth of 16th-century royalty.

The palace is famous, perhaps, because of Henry VIII's escapades, but other monarchs used it, as well. It was a refuge from London when bubonic plague outbreaks hit London on four occasions from 1592 to 1665, according to the official history.

During a civil war in the mid-1600s, the Parliamentarians seized the palace, and radical Puritans stripped the chapel of the trappings they identified with Catholicism.

Riding the 'tube'

The first time you hear it, you wonder, what the heck was that• But every time a subway door opens with people exiting and getting on the train, there's a recorded message blaring, "mind the gap." It means to watch your step.

London's subway system is relatively easy to navigate, compared, let's say, to Paris'. It seems safe, compared, let's say, to New York's. But it can be mind-boggling in terms of the transfers you need to make. Definitely, carry a map with you.

Buckingham Palace

No trip to London is complete without watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. You need to check ahead of time, though your tour guide or on Web sites, whether the ceremony is taking place. From May through July, it's a daily event, but it's every other day through the rest of the year.

We saw the Welsh Guard, one of five regiments that conduct the ceremony. The guards in "bearskin" hats and red tunics are active soldiers and some of the most elite troops in the British army. They're carrying automatic weapons, not ceremonial rifles.

It's called changing the guard or guard mounting. A new guard takes the place of the old guard.

It starts at 11:30 a.m., and it's advisable to get there early. Each guard changing is accompanied by a guard band.

Tourists hustle along the street to get photos from different locations.

The changing of the guard began in the late 15th century.

It's exciting -- and vintage London.

Our tour guide, Heather Davis, can be reached at by e-mail .

If you go

Hampton Court Palace : It's actually southwest of London, but worth every pound to go there. The Tudor palace is most often associated with King Henry VIII, but it was the center of court life for more than 200 years, according to Hampton Court Palace, The Official Illustrated History. You can get there by subway, bus, boat or train. It will nick you 13.30 pounds ($25); 6.65 pounds ($12) for age 5 to 26; free for younger than 5. There are discounts available for groups.

The Tower of London : A must-see stop in London. You'll see where royal traitors were executed, the Crown Jewels of the kingdom, Beefeater Guards, Traitor's Gate, and a museum with King Henry VIII's arsenal. You'll see re-enactments of historical events. Admission is 16.50 pounds ($31); 9.50 pounds ($18) for ages 5 to 16.

Changing of the guard: The ceremony takes place at 11:30 a.m. sharp in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace . Get there early because the crowd can be huge. Photos are permissible and it's free. The event doesn't take place every day, so check ahead.

Westminster Abbey : The 700-year-old building is open Monday through Saturday but closed Sunday to tourists because it is still an active church used for services. It has been the coronation church of the British Monarchy since 1066. Tours are available, but check ahead. We didn't, and it was closed off to visitors on a weekday for security because Price Charles was visiting.

Restaurants Try the Fish Club for top-shelf fish and chips. 189 St John's Hill, SW11 1TH; details: 020 7978 7115.

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