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I was getting very tired of the constant London cloudiness, but the past few days have been “postcard days” as you can see from this new panorama that I took of the River Thames from the Waterloo Bridge on Friday.

Before coming to London, I bought Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in London.  This beautiful weather inspired me to do two of these walks.

On Friday, I did walk #9 that encompasses Covent Garden and parts of the Theater District, ending up down by the River Thames near Charing Cross.  After winding past two historic theaters, the Theatre Royal and the Lyceum, the tour took me to Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, right by Waterloo Bridge.

Today, Somerset House is an arts and cultural center.  One wing also houses part of King’s College London.  The building’s courtyard contains fountains during the warmer months and an ice-skating rink during the winter.  Somerset House is also the home of London Fashion Week.

Somerset House courtyard

The history of Somerset House is also quite interesting.  This part of London was always a fashionable area in which to live.  In the early 1500s, bishops and nobility owned nearby mansions.  After Henry VIII died in 1547, his son, Edward VI, was only 9 years old and too young to rule.  As a result, the kingdom was ruled by the Regency Council, which was headed by Edward’s ambitious uncle, Edward Seymour.  Uncle Ed decided he needed a great palace and set upon building the first grand Somerset House to suit his high rank.  Using some of the stonework from the demolition of churches and monasteries under the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he had the first Somerset House built.  Unfortunately, he was unable to really enjoy his new palace because he was eventually accused of treason and beheaded at Tower Hill in 1552.

Following Edward Seymour’s death, the palace was used by the Royal Family, including Elizabeth I and several other queens.  Oliver Cromwell also died here.  Eventually, by 1775, the Tudor palace fell into ruins and was demolished bit by bit as today’s Somerset House was built.

On Saturday, Michael and I did Frommer’s walk #11 through Clerkenwell, a neighborhood that is very close to our flat.  We especially enjoyed discovering St. John’s Gate and the Museum of the Order of St. John.  This order is related to the Knights of Malta.  We managed to catch the last part of a tour conducted by an entertaining costumed guide.

St. John's Gate, Clerkwell

The Order of St. John has a rich history.  All that survives today from the original priory is this gate house and the nearby Priory Church of St. John.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, some of the priory’s stone work was used to build Somerset House.  Over the years, the gate house was used for many different purposes before the modern Order was reinstated under Queen Victoria in 1888.  For example, during Shakespeare’s time, the gate house was the office for the Master of Revels.  Shakespeare had to come here to get licenses to put on his plays.  It is believed that several of his plays were rehearsed here.  Later, a publisher and a tavern also occupied this site.

As he described the history of the priory and the Order of St. John, the guide took us to the 12th century crypt of the church, one of the earliest Norman crypts that still exists in England.

12th century crypt of Priory Church of St. John

Saturday afternoon, Michael and I headed down to “legal” London.  We wandered around the Royal Courts of Justice and Lincoln’s Inn.  Then we had a quick look around Sir John Soane’s Museum, an eclectic collection that is hard to describe.  After dinner, we caught a bus up to King’s Place to hear a concert.  Great and busy day!!

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