Places of interest


Pix & notes: The Thames

The characters in both my historical mystery series often find themselves on or near the Thames, the great river that runs through London. My Professor Moriarty rows for exercise. He’s a memberthames-map of the London Athletic Club (founded in 1863.) I’ve had him rowing from the Stamford Bridge to Putney and back, about 4 miles. Rowing is good for thinking, one would think, and can be a solitary sport, which is why I chose it for him. He rowed for Cambridge too.

The Thames was the major metropolitan thoroughfare for my Elizabethans. I have them walking a lot, because I can’t deal with horses, narratively speaking. Horses are people in themselves, requiring names, appearances, and personalities. Then you have the grooms, stable boys, and someone to hold the beasts when you reach your destination. All these people expect tips and need  names. Many paragraphs squandered just to get across town! So, no horses. Besides, most of the places they go — courts, palaces, theaters, prisons — are near the river.

Where’s that wherry?

When my Elizabethans venture any farther from Gray’s Inn than Westminster (or strike northeast into the City), they take a wherry.wherry I find one reference in my google results saying you might pay 3 pence for the trip. Presumably that would depend on how far you were going and how many people you were with. The standard craft could hold 5 passengers and two oarsmen.

Wherries were manned by members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Lightermen moved goods on and off lighters — flat-bottomed barges.

John Taylor was a wherryman who wrote poetry, some of which has survived. Someday I must drag this man into a book. Francis would not appreciate a wherryman spouting poetry at him as he journeyed up or down the river. Not sure I would either. Imagine a cab driver regaling you with his latest oeuvre on the way home from the airport. But go read one of Taylor’s poems and decide for yourself.

Up a winding river

oxfordThe river begins in Gloucester at a place called Thames Head. I’ve never been there. I have been to Oxford, for a short visit. I took this picture outside the Oxford University Physic Garden, which I now learn is on the River Cherwell, not the Thames, although the Thames is also more canal-like at this stage. If you hopped into one of these boats and headed downstream, you would eventually find yourself in London.

The Thames is 250 miles long; not as long as the Severn, but wholly within England. (The Severn runs through Wales as well.) It’s a tidal river, meaning the sea pushes in at high tides and rushes out at low ones. The difference between high and low is 23 feet! The river is tidal all the way up to Teddington, which is west of Richmond Palace and east of Hampton Court. This map shows train stations, not vanished palaces, unfortunately.

If I were a wherryman, I would charge more to row into the rush of an incoming tide. Such things were probably regulated, this being an essential service. Although they weren’t very good at enforcing their many regulations.

On the Agas map, I count seven places labeled ‘Kay’ (quay) or W (wharf) on the north bank east of London Bridge. There are ten to the west, not counting private palaces like the Savoy or Bayard’s Castle, which have their own piers, quays, or wharfs. (I fail to grasp the difference between these things.) The ones on the map are public wherry-landings, I think. You can walk down and flag your boat, like hailing a cab. You always have to get off at London Bridge and walk over to the other side to catch another wherry. It was very dangerous to “shoot the bridge”  — navigate between the narrowly-spaced piers. Nobody would do this.

London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston-upon-Thames until 1729.  It’s about 13 miles by car on the A3, which is not at all what I wanted to know when I tried to google up the distance. There’s a definite bias toward utility and against curiosity on the Internet; have y’all noticed that?

Using the Thames Path Distance Calculator, I get roughly 29.3 miles. That’s a heckuva hike! I would have to stop twice along the way, making it a three-day walk. A sturdy young lad in Bacon’s day could do it in two, but of course he wouldn’t. He’d take the direct road, or beg his master for money for a wherry.

The river is tidal for most of that distance, so if the tide was going out and you were rowing downstream, you could make the journey in, uh… I have no idea. This is the kind of micro-fact that I long to know, but can never figure out. If you know, please write and tell me. Seriously! I spent quality time trying to figure out how far up and downriver Moriarty could row in his scull in thirty minutes or so, and I would love to know how long it takes Francis Bacon to get from Westminster to Blackfriars, for example, under different tidal conditions.

London Bridge to Kingston-upon-Thames
29.3 miles walking along the Thames Path.

There are now 32 bridges between the Tower and Kingston Upon Thames, including railway-only bridges. Only 16 of them had been built by the time of my first Moriarty book (1885.) Here are the Tower Bridge (1894) and the Richmond Bridge (1777), photos taken by me in the new millennium.



Pix & note: Fontainebleau

I visited the magnificent Château de Fontainebleau in May. It was a gorgeous sunny day, hot by mid-afternoon, even by Texas standards. Fabulous rich blue sky for photography! We went in the middle of the week, but being a World Heritage Site, it was full of people, including many groups of French schoolchildren sitting on the floor listening to their teachers.

A few words to the wise traveler

It’s a big palace; there’s room for everyone. You travel in a single line through the rooms, looping back at one point, confusingly. There are people fore and aft, but you can tuck yourself out of the path to study some detail or soak it all in. Everyone is very tolerant of photography these days. Though it is hard to take pictures of whole rooms, there are so many people and the light is pretty dim.

My usual strategy is to get to these places at opening time. Alas, I planned poorly. It took forever to find the right place in the Gare du Nord. You’d think there’d be signs for tourists going to a World Heritage Site, but no. Mom and I had to wander across three floors even to find an information desk that could give us the correct information. Then we needed correct change to buy tickets from a kiosk and had to run fast to catch the train. “Vite, vite, Madam!” the lady cried to my 86-year-old mother. Luckily, she’s fleet of foot.font2

Also, buy your tickets in advance, for the specific date you will go. France is lovely, there’s no denying it, but something is always on strike, half the things you want to see will be closed and the rest will be understaffed. There was 1 (ONE) woman working the ticket desk at this World Heritage Site on a sunny day in May. We waited in line for 40 minutes. Luckily, I had this fancy window latch to contemplate while we stood stock still for no apparent reason. This is what we call detailed craftsmanship.

It would also be a good idea to bring food and water. The restaurant was closed and there is no cafe. All they had for lunch was French breakfast tacos (ham and cheese crepes) served from a cart. So it’s France, so it’s excellent ham and cheese, but still.

History of the magnificent palace

Fontainebleau started out as a hunting lodge, convenient to the large royal forests around Paris. In 1137, it was called Fontem Blauhad, believe it or not, which means the spring or fountainhead of a person named Blizwald. Wikipedia tells us this with a straight face, so we must believe it.

Francis I (1494–1547) turned the hunting chateau into a palace of exceptional splendor. If you think that window latch is stylish, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! Not one square inch of this place has been left undecorated. Also, we find the ‘F’ for ‘Francis’ absolutely everywhere, in case later generations forgot who built the place.

Every monarch from Francis to Louis XV (sweetly known as Louis the Beloved) added their own touches. The Beloved died in 1774, just before the whole monarchy situation went south. The palace is vast; we only get to tour a portion of it.

Francis is the one who imported the new Renaissance architectural style to France, as interpreted by his architect, Gilles le Breton. It’s a brilliant style; quintessentially French and handsome. Paris is full of buildings like this. That’s a large part of its eternal charm.

French Renaissance style

There is a still a large and scenic forest called Fontainebleau, to which Parisians regularly resort. I didn’t see it. If I’d been on my own, I would’ve done some hiking in there. But this wasn’t a research trip. I dragged my mother out to this busy place because it was there in Francis Bacon’s day. He probably spent some time there in his late teens. His cousin, Robert Cecil, certainly visited on diplomatic missions in the 1590s.

We start with an overview, swiped from the web somewhere. I do not have an aeroplane.

The red arrow on the right shows the entrance (lockers, tickets, guards). The other arrow shows where you exit. The display rooms run in a line on the second floor (first in British terms). We walk along to the horseshoe stairs and then go through the gallery connecting the front palace to the rear palace and then take a right (hook a roscoe, in Chicago terms). The chapel is on the other side there somewhere. I must confess the topography has me foxed. I’ll scan and post the floorplan. 

Enter on the right; exit on the left.
Extra housing for courtiers
The famous horseshoe staircase
One more long shot and then we’re going inside.


The tour

The main idea is to regulate the flow of tourists, both modern and, I suspect, early modern. Elizabeth’s palaces were tourist attractions in her day; no reason this one wouldn’t have been. One of the functions of a magnificent palace to is show foreign visitors how magnificent you are.


Let’s see. The yellow building in the lower right portion of the palace houses some exhibits about Napoleon, which are very interesting unless you are focused on the late 16th century. Napoleon who? says me.

The bookshop is the last stop on the tour, unhelpfully, so I didn’t have this plan while we were cruising through. The thing that most interested me was the progression of rooms leading to the monarch. First the outer guard room, relatively plain (nothing here is really plain), then the inner guard room, for guards of greater rank, one supposes. Then we have presence chamber, private presence chamber, reception room, bedroom, another bedroom, and then we exit through rooms in the reverse order, ending with another guard room. Or that’s how it seemed to go.

It was hard to take pictures of rooms and I don’t want to scan the whole book. So we’ll just dip into the photo pool and take potluck instead of trying to reproduce the tour.


A place to confer and to wait.
Armless chairs for ladies in huge dresses.
The gallery where we stroll in bad weather and mingle in all seasons.
The minstrel gallery in the great ballroom.
The chapel, shorn of all religious frippery.
The mind-blowing library.


The people who invented Art Nouveaux must have seen this.
A typical bit of wall.
A typical bit of ceiling.
Some famous person’s bed. Note the mirror on the inside. Kinky? Or just vain?
His Majesty will see you now.
A lion AND a dragon, in case you thought Francis was a wimp.
This, because artists can be hard to keep on topic.
This, because Francis could have ridden an elephant everywhere if he wanted to — which he didn’t.
The little angel who said, “Meh.”
This guy just sits in the gateway, mouth eternally open, with his oddly Vulcan ears.


The Château de Fontainebleau. 2008. Connaissance des Arts.

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