Monday, 7 March 2016

In search of mythology and ravens: a trip to the Tower

Connections, connections; links and connections. Back in November, The Other Half and I spent a few days on the Normandy coast, in Deauville.

Last year’s health-based fun and games had rather left us in need of clean air. But during our stay – the first time either of us have been to that part of the world – we visited Caen.

And there, we saw both the remains of the castle built by William of Normandy and the place where the remains of his remains are said to be buried after originally being disrupted and tossed around a little in 1562, during the French Wars of Religion. This grave now holds a single remaining thigh bone.

For Brits, William is better known as The Conqueror: 1066 and all that.

So it was intriguing to see how differently the French see him (heroically – certainly in that part of the world), as opposed to our rather more conflicted view.

But just over a week ago, with The Other Half away for work and time on my hands, I decided to head back into William territory and to the Tower of London, the iconic fort he founded in 1066.

Crows atop the trees
I haven’t visited since – oh, 1971, on the eve of my family’s departure for Mossley after living for three years in west London.

I remember the Bloody Tower, the crowds and my sister (three years younger) crying so much that we left quickly.

A return – rather longer – visit has been in my mind for some time. But in the event, it was spurred less by the William connection than my growing love affair with Norse mythology and not least, Huginn and Muninn.

Those, for any readers not in the know, are Odin’s ravens. Huginn represents memory and Muninn, thought. The All-Father sent them out to fly around the world each day, yet dreaded that they would not return.

Some scholars speculate that this is an idea of fear of not being able to come out of a shamanistic trace. But for a modern reader, it could also suggest someone afraid of losing their memory and capacity to think in age.

Morning sun over the Tower of London
A god fearing Alzheimer’s or dementia. That is a rather poetic idea: in other words, this is a god who is more than a touch human; not perfect; flawed.

As I really get into reading the Norse myths, that’s one of things I love about them.

The gods are human – and are certainly not the supposedly perfect (and boring) gods of the monotheistic big three from the deserts of the Middle East.

And so it was that, on that Saturday morning, I peeved the cats by getting up early and heading out toward the Thames.

Passing first through a nearby park, it was almost eerily quiet. Rows of crows topped the naked trees, chorusing a cawed greeting that echoed across the grass.

Get inside as early as possible
For a moment, as though on the periphery on my senses, I could almost feel the German woods again.
A short journey on the newish overground train to Whitechapel and then a further two stops on the District line brought me to Tower Hill.

There was a chill to the air and the late winter sun was battling through the clouds as it climbed above the Tower itself – a building that seems squat by comparison with the glass and steel that girds it – as in so much of the capital these days – on three sides, with the Thames flowing past on the fourth.
HMS Belfast is to the left on the far bank, with Tower Bridge just a little to the right.

I was early. Too early, indeed, even for the ticket office. A hot chocolate in one of the surrounding buildings warmed me through, before I started a queue at one of the ticket booths.

A few moments later, I ducked past a gathering of grockles and, after a quick bag check, found myself heading through the gates.

Traiters' Gate
There was hardly anyone around: if you want to feel atmosphere within these walls, then early in the day is when to find it, when it’s still enough so that can almost hear the old stones breathe.

With only a limited idea of which way to head, I turned toward the Bloody Tower’s entrance before being halted in my steps by a deep, throaty call from just beyond a wall nearby.

The ravens were calling.

Backtracking, I made a quick left, then another – to find myself at the foot of the grass that slopes down from the White Tower, facing these magnificent, mythological birds in their smart, new homes (by Llowarch Llowarch Architects and just nominated for the RIBA London regional architecture awards 2016). 

According to some sources, ‘most’ people refer to a group of ravens as a ‘flock’, which is rather unpoetic of them, given that the alternative collective nouns are ‘unkindness’ and ‘conspiracy’.

Armour inside the White Tower
Incidentally, their smaller, park-living corvid cousins are sometimes referred to as a ‘murder of crows’.

It’s a small conspiracy at the Tower: the nation-preserving six, plus two reserves, for safety’s sake.

It was nine, but Somerset-born Porsha died in late January, at the tender (for a raven) age of eight.

It’s indicative of the esteem and affection in which the ravens are held that they are buried within the Tower’s walls.

In the early days of WWII, with Hitler having taken an early lead, two of the Tower’s ravens had to be put to sleep after being badly injured in a bombing raid. It brought the number to just four.

There are those who have speculated that this accounts for Britain’s loss of empire in the years following the war.

All this seems to have stemmed from Charles II’s time when, after complaints from the royal astronomer that a rather larger unkindness of ravens was disrupting the royal stargazing, the king decided that six would be kept and the astronomer royal banished to Greenwich.

White Tower, grey day
They can fly, but since some of their feathers get a regular trim (akin to a haircut), they don’t go far – although a couple of years ago, one did make it as far as Greenwich!

I stood watching them for some time. After an attempt to sketch them – difficult at best and made harder by the cold – I nipped into the nearby ‘ravens shop’, where I discovered that there was no certainty that they would be let out and, if they were, it was likely to be around lunch – some time off.

Looking back at the cages, one suddenly appeared to be empty – for a moment, I wondered whether a large crow was one of the ravens (as did the shop staff) – before one of the shop staff suggested that, if two had been let out, they’d be likely to be up around the ‘coloured cannon’ or on Tower Green.

Off I sped, but to no avail. At which juncture, I decided to have a look around the White Tower, which was engaging enough, as it holds part of the Royal Armouries collection.

Coming out, I was contemplating heading off when I noticed a very large black bird hopping around on the grass slope. Back off around to Tower Green, I arrived in time to see a very big black bird perched on the edge of a bin, rooting around inside.

Merlina rooting (note trimmed feathers)
The bench next to the bin was empty. I sat down quietly, as near to the bin as possible, and got the camera ready.

This, I learned later via the Ravenmaster on Twitter, was Merlina (born in South Wales in 2005).

She rooted for a while until she pulled out a piece of banana, placed it on top of the bin and scrutinised it carefully, before picking it up again, hopping down and taking it to a small pond on the grass behind.

There, she dropped it in the water, twiddled it around a bit with her beak and then retrieved it – doubtless in an effort to assess when that had rendered the banana edible.

'What do you mean this isn't meat?'
Hopping the short distance to Tower Green itself and the site of the scaffold, she hopped around the back of another bench where a young couple were munching crisps, with me in stealthy pursuit.

As I was standing at the side of the bench, she hopped up suddenly onto the arm, sending the crisp-crunching female into paroxysms of squealing terror.

The girl ran – then ran back to grab her rucksack. Her boyfriend went with her.

In the meantime, I – having not run – was snapping away. And as though to reward me for not being a squealer, Merlina stayed on the back of the bench for quite a few moments, allowing me the opportunity to snap some wonderful shots at close quarters.

'She ran away quickly enough ...'
After she’d had enough and hopped off, I – grinning like a loon by this stage – went to take a remarkably crowd-free glance at the crown jewels. They’re quite surreal, to be honest, and I found myself musing that they looked like something out of a theatrical production.

But then again, that’s precisely what they are.

It was an enjoyable and educative visit. But you can keep the bling – I’ll take Merlina and the gang over them any day.

• To follow the Ravenmaster on Twitter, go to @ravenmaster1.

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