Nephew Nick, who was present when it happened, asked me to tell this story. He and his mum, (my sister Pat) had travelled down from Scotland and were staying with us. We decided to take them into the city one day to do some touristy stuff and, looking back on it now, I have to say it’s remarkable that the events unfolded as they did because, if it had not been for a series of coincidences, this story would never have been told. I’ll explain as I go along.
Coincidence one was the fact that Pat and Nick had come to visit in the first place! At the time Pat lived out in the wilderness on the Black Isle, north of Inverness and she’s never liked towns. I don’t remember the reason that convinced her to discard her country tweed and don her city finery, but it would have to have been momentous or she’d have remained on the Black Isle making jam and candles and swatting midges.
The second coincidence was the family’s decision to go and do something touristy in London; a place that none of us would deliberately choose to go – ON PURPOSE! (We hadn’t always felt that way about the city, it was simply a natural reaction to the experiences we’d had in the umpteen times we’d been there). We’re all small-town hicks, unused to crowds and the masses of people who are endemic to big cities, where the souls one encounters are either rude, I-left-my-manners-at-home-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-think-badly-of-me-for-behaving-like-a-baboon tourists or just-shut-up-give-me-your-money-and-go-wait-in-the-queue-until-you’re-called tour operators / coffee shop, restaurant, shop staff who are sick to death of the people they are paid to serve behaving like baboons.
I’m generalising of course; not every tourist is a baboon and not every server is an obnoxious jobsworth, but there are enough of them to absolutely ruin your day if you happen to have a run of bad luck and meet too many of them in a short period.
Nevertheless, we made the decision to go into London, specifically to the London Dungeon, on that day largely because my children (who weren’t children any more, and hadn’t been for a several years) harboured a resentment over the fact that years before – when they were children and we were visiting London (as tourists) for the very first time – I had promised to take them to the London Dungeon but ended up taking them to the Imperial War Museum instead.
If your family is anything like mine, you will also have experienced the frustration of getting a medium-sized group of people out of the door in a halfway decent time. You’ll understand the exasperation of finding out that someone,who should have bathed hours ago hasn’t (so everybody else’s ablutions are delayed) and then, when you finally think you’re there and you can leave, you can’t because someone suddenly realises they have to go to the toilet – that sort of thing! Needless to say, by the time we finally stood before the city block where the London Dungeon is located, the queue for it went around that block eleventy seven times. Given that it was well past ten o’clock by then, it was highly likely we would be spending the entire day in the queue and it was as likely that we wouldn’t even reach the entrance by the end of the day.
Enter coincidence number three; an angel appeared!
We were beholding this award-winning queue, wondering what we were going to do with ourselves (now that we’d made the journey) and just as I was about to suggest a repeat visit to the Imperial War Museum (more for Tish and Nick’s benefit that anyone else’s – one visit there in a lifetime is really quite enough) divine intervention saved the day.
The cherubim (who was actually a young mortal male dressed and made up to look like a ghoul – so it wasn’t immediately obviously that he was an angel) made his presence known by politely clearing his throat just behind me and saying, “excuse me, are you thinking about joining the queue to see the London Dungeon”?
ME: (No, we’ve come here to look at the queue) “Well, we were thinking about it but we will probably go and do something else instead”. (He’s clearly a tout for something or other. Is that a sheet he’s wearing? Hmmm, he can see we’re about to leave and he’s going to try to persuade us to stay)
TOUT: “The London Dungeon is said to be haunted”.
ME: (What’s his angle?) “Really? Well, none of us believes in that sort of thing”.
TOUT: “The dungeons are about a thousand years old and the ghosts of some really evil people are said to haunt them – Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd and, of course, The Torturer himself.”
ME: (Mmmm hmmm, yeah right. Unless the next words out of your mouth are “sir, it’s your lucky day you and your entire party have won a prize to be fast-tracked to the front of the queue”, this conversation is over) “A thousand years you say?” (nonchalantly) “I visited a Roman town in Italy that’s a lot older than that”. (that makeup he has around his eyes is actually quite cleverly applied. It makes him look genuinely ghoulish)
TOUT: (Looking suitably impressed) “You’re clearly a man who likes history”.
ME: (This young man is going to go far) “Well, it so happens that I do”.
By now, the family had drawn around, curious to know what we were talking about.
TOUT: “Well sir, how well do you know the history of the London Bridge?”
ME: (What has this guy been smoking?) “Well, I know the old one was sold to an American!” (and I’m no American buddy so don’t even think of trying to sell me the current bridge. Why on earth is he talking about London Bridge?)
TOUT: (Looking surprised) “That’s quite right sir; very good, but did you know there has been a London Bridge for more than two thousand years?”
ME: (Wow, I didn’t know that but, thinking about it now, that’s pretty logical. London’s a very old city. But why the hell is he telling me about London Bridge?) “Wow!”
TOUT: “Yes. And a lot of people have died on that bridge so it’s even more haunted than the dungeon.” (Looked pointedly at the queue) “this queue is very long. You’ll be standing in it all day and it’s unlikely you’ll ever get to the front.”
ME: (Tell me something I don’t know buddy. I wonder how far we will have to walk to get to the Imperial War Museum? I’d rather be visiting the dentist today than doing this!) “Yeah, you’re probably right mate!” (I’ll suggest the War Museum to Pat. I’ll tell her they used to make their own jam and candles during the blitz. If I have her on board the rest of them will be easier)
TOUT: “…. queue for half an hour.”
ME: (Eh? What did he say?) “Sorry mate, what did you say?”
TOUT: “I said, if you want to experience a very interesting historical adventure you should try The London Bridge Experience. You won’t have to queue for more than half an hour.
ME: (Half an hour? That’s amazing. It’s probably miles away and costs the earth!) “How far away from here?”
TOUT: “About a minute – it’s just over there” (Points over there)
ME: “How much is entry?”
TOUT: “Well, if you use this voucher …. how many in your party, six?” (scribbles something on the voucher and hands it to me) “you can take advantage of a special offer and get a bulk discount and……blah blah blah”
ME: (This guy is heaven-sent. This is going to work out half the price of the Dungeon tickets and we won’t have to queue all day and we won’t have to go to the war museum again and it’s only over there. He’s an angel.)
We followed the directions he gave us and found our way quite easily to the correct place where we joined the back of a queue that had formed just underneath the A3 (the approach to the London Bridge), which was less than thirty metres long. The entrance to the exhibition was clearly visible just ahead on our left. NOTE: I believe the London Dungeon has now relocated and is now a little further away.
After about ten minutes of static immobility some doors opened just ahead of us and a group of people emerged then, soon afterwards, the entrance doors at the head of the queue opened and we shuffled forward quite rapidly as people started disappearing inside. But, just as suddenly, the doors closed again and we stood for another ten minutes before the exit doors opened again and the process repeated itself.
It was an hour (still way better than the time we’d have needed to wait for entrance to the dungeon) before we at last found ourselves passing, with massive anticipation, over the threshold into THE LONDON BRIDGE EXPERIENCE.
****SPOILER ALERT ****
On the off-chance that you may one day want to visit the exhibition for yourself you probably shouldn’t read any further. I’m not going to tell you every detail of the experience but, for the story to make sense, it’s necessary for me to give some details that may spoil the experience for you. Bear in mind this did happen a few years ago so things may have changed now. Be warned though,
****SPOILER ALERT ****
Firstly, the Experience is billed as being an immersive theatrical experience bringing together history and horror, education and fun which, in layman terms, means actors are employed to teach you the history of the bridge. The tout we’d met had been only one of a great number of freelance thespians that existed outside the exhibition itself. They wandered up and down the queue whipping up the crowd and telling us to prepare to be scared out of our wits, “because” they said, “not everyone has what it takes to survive the experience”! By the time the double doors opened to admit us we were in a fairly animated state of anticipation and excitement.
Our expectations were still high when the doors closed behind us and sealed us off from the outside world. Our group, about twenty-five strong, was in a large antechamber with television sets mounted on the walls loudly broadcasting a video on a loop that alternately played a spooky rendition of London Bridge Is Falling Down, welcomed us to the London Bridge Experience and a documentary about the history of the bridge and then started again at the beginning. It was a little underwhelming! We were in that ante-chamber for about ten minutes and, by the end of it I knew the video backwards and I wanted to go home.
Finally, just as the group was getting restless (someone suggested, in a slightly panicked tone, that we’d been forgotten) the doors were flung open and a bloke in costume dramatically welcomed us, once more, to THE LONDON BRIDGE EXPERIENCE, then asked us to follow him before turning on his heels and exiting from whence he’d come.
We followed him into a set that was decked out to look like a library. We all huddled together while the actor, who introduced himself as Mr. Brownlow, stood behind a lectern on a low podium. When everyone had settled down he started talking, rather theatrically, about what adventures we had in store for us. Just before he finished he sadly declared that he would be unable to join us on our tour (his duties wouldn’t allow it) so he would need a volunteer to act on his behalf; a proxy Mr. Brownlow.
Coincidence number four. My family was standing very close to his lectern which is how it came to pass that Adam became, for the purpose of our tour, Mr. Brownlow. When the doors on the other side of the library opened to admit our group, real Brownlow told all of us to follow proxy Brownlow, who’d been given instructions, to the next stage. Thereafter, upon arriving at a stage the resident thespian would ask our Brownlow to identify himself and when we departed it was he we would have to follow.
Brownlow’s role, as well as being our unpaid tour group leader, was to be the designated scapegoat for every demonstration along the tour. So, if someone had to be beheaded for example, Brownlow was our guy.
There’s one last observation I have to make before I get to the nitty-gritty of the story; the actors were never going to qualify for acting awards in any way shape or form. They were so appallingly bad that I was kicking myself for allowing myself to be lured here and was actually yearning for the dungeon queue, which I could at least leave if I wanted to. Having stated that however, it’s only fair to remind you how awful it must be for those actors to do that job. Imagine having to speak the same lines, over and over, day-in-day-out, every ten minutes or so. Seeing brand new faces every ten minutes yet unable to interact with anybody beyond the limitations of their roles. Groundhog Day! I did not blame them at all for their lack of enthusiasm; I felt sorry for them.
Eventually Brownlow led us from a set made up to look like a medieval monastery (where the actor threatened one of our group with death if he spoke again without being invited to do so – he wasn’t joking either; I could see in his eyes that he meant it) into a set that was made up to look like an Iceni/Roman battlefield where our group was welcomed by a very enthusiastic actor, who seemed genuinely delighted to see us. I surmised it was his first day on the job.
ENTHUSIASTIC ACTOR: (Welcoming smile, arms outstretched, dressed in Celtic battle garb) “Welcome everybody, welcome to the world of fierce Queen Boudicca, who dares to challenge the might of the Roman Empire. Where is Brownlow?
ADAM: (Standing next to me at the front of the group because he was accustomed to being singled out and having to make his way to the front) “Yeah, that’s me.”
ENTHUSIASTIC ACTOR: “Well come on up here sir, your services are needed.” (Gestures encouragingly)
ADAM: (Takes a couple of steps forward where E.A. places his hands on his shoulders and spins him around to face the group)
E.A. (Proceeds to give history lesson using
Adam Brownlow as a mannequin) “’The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours” (Drapes Adam Brownlow in Iceni clothing) “The wool cloth material made on the loom is then sewn together using a bone or metal needle and wool thread.” (Hands Adam Brownlow a bone needle) “The Celts also love to wear jewellery made from bronze, gold, tin, silver, coral and enamel.” (Drapes costume jewellery over Adam Brownlow) “Celtic warriors carry long, or oval-shaped shields, spears, daggers and long slashing swords made of iron. The Celtic warrior’s deadliest weapon is his long sword, which he whirls around his head and brings crashing down on the enemy.” (Takes the bone needle from Adam Brownlow and hands him a sword) “Go on, wave that around your head”
ADAM: (Hoists sword and waves it awkwardly around his head)
E.A. “Celtic shields are made of oak, covered in hide or felt, and have a central strip of iron. They are very heavy.” (Hands
Adam Brownlow a shield) “These shields are not only for protection; they are also deadly weapons which are used to disable the enemy. A heavy shield smashed down on an enemy’s leg will break the bone for sure, and once that has happened the warrior can no longer fight.”
Enter last coincidence!
I very rarely wear long trousers but, coincidentally I was that day. If I had been attired, as I usually am, in a pair of shorts it would have been obvious that I was wearing a prosthetic leg and, had that been the case, things might have turned out differently.
Adam Brownlow, gesturing towards me) “Go on, there’s your enemy, go and smash that shield down on his leg and break it.”
ADAM: (Caught my eye and tossed it back to me)
I: (Caught Adam’s eye and tossed it back to him. Adjusted my stance so my betrousered leg was easily accessible)
ADAM: (Hoists heavy shield and runs towards me) “Aaaaaaaggggggh. Die you Roman dog!” (Smashes shield into proffered leg)
ME: (Dramatically, as if in great pain) “Aaaaaaaggggghhh” (Bravely remain standing and say nothing)
HALF OF OUR GROUP: (Ignorant of my prosthesis) *GASP*
OTHER HALF: (Also ignorant) “Hehehe”
E.A. “YOU COMPLETE AND UTTER IDIOT! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU THINKING? (Snatches the shield from Adam and simultaneously murders him with his look. Turns to me) “Are you alright sir? I’m so sorry” (Turns back to Adam) “YOU IDIOT. I DON’T BELIEVE YOU JUST DID THAT!” (Turns back to me) “Are you alright?”
ME: (Wincing and grunting through the pain) “Yes, I’m okay”
ADAM: (Grinning from ear to ear, finding it very difficult to contain his mirth)
I always feel a bit sorry for my victims when I’ve played a practical joke on them and this unsuspecting actor was certainly no exception. The poor guy was undoubtedly thinking about a massive lawsuit that was about to come down on his head and he was probably wondering which one of his colleagues was responsible for choosing that BABOON to be Brownlow.
When the ten minutes was up (fortunately for him, quite soon) and everybody shuffled out, Adam and I (again by mutual unspoken agreement) remained behind to let the poor fellow know he had just been pranked.
He didn’t take it well at all. “Why does this sort of thing always happen to me?” he shouted to no-one in particular as he stormed out of the room.
I like to think our victim will one day be a truly great, internationally acclaimed actor and that one day, when he’s asked what the most memorable moment of his career has been he will relate this story and be laughing about it. I’d hate to think that our practical joke made him give up acting to become an accountant or something as boring. That’s the beauty of life though isn’t it? You never know what’s waiting for you just around the corner.