Our first stop in our 4-county European tour was London. After an overnight flight in which only one of us slept (I am convinced my daughter can sleep anywhere under any conditions, and yes, I envy that), we arrived sleepy but excited. Fortunately, I had been to London earlier this year, so I was familiar with the Gatwick Express and navigating the Underground. It’s pretty straight-forward and public transportation there is excellent. We arrived at our Airbnb with no trouble. We settled in quickly and then off we went to explore.
Queen Elizabeth rocks the neon for her 90th
Our arrival coincided with the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration, which we didn’t know about until we watched the news that evening in our Airbnb. I chalked it up to a missed opportunity to see some royal pomp and circumstance, but oh well!
What we did and saw
We opted for a combination of self-tours and guided tours. The guided tours were a great way to see loads of stuff in a relatively short time and learn about history, politics, architecture, and culture. It was also interesting to be in England in the days leading up to the Brexit vote – we got a much different perspective there than we probably would have in the US.
Here are a few of the sights we visited:
- “Royal London” with Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace
- Kensington Palace
- Windsor Castle
- St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Tower of London, with a ride on the Thames past Traitor’s Gate
- London Eye
- Churchill’s War Rooms
- Sherlock Holmes house at 221B Baker Street
We also made time to savor a pint and a meat pie in a pub, stop for tea one afternoon, and pose for goofy pictures in one of the iconic red phonebooths.
A prayer for peace and healing at St. Paul’s Cathedral
As I mentioned in my previous post, we learned about the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on our second day in England. We live just outside of Orlando so this hit very close to home, literally. We were in St. Paul’s when the Reverend (I believe that’s how the title their clergy) made a brief announcement and then requested a moment of silence while he lead the visitors in the church in a prayer for the victims and their families.
I have to say that it gave me chills. On the one hand, it was comforting to know that others around the world were mourning the loss of life and praying for comfort and healing but on the other hand, it was a surreal experience. No matter where violence erupts, I think most of us never expect it to be close to home. It’s something that happens to “other people” or “other places”. But for the deadliest mass shooting to happen so very close to home while we were so very far away made it even harder to absorb. I try not to dwell on these things, so in the spirit of that, I’ll close this topic for now and move on to happier things.
Favorite places: The Tower of London
One of my favorite places was the Tower – I would have loved to stick around and explore longer but that’s the downside of being on a tour. I read a lot of historical fiction and of course, the Tower figures prominently in many popular historical events. It was a pretty cool moment to boat right past Traitor’s Gate and to see the site of many famous executions. I did wonder what the ghosts of these people would think if they could see it now – their execution site is now an Underground station where millions of people come and go with scarcely a passing thought about being right under the hill where so many lost their heads.
Fun fact #1:
Beefeaters live at the Tower, along with their families, and get locked in each night until the next morning. It seems to be something like an all-expenses paid semi-retirement after serving with distinction in the military. Living at the Tower and locked in at night sounds deliciously creepy to me! 🙂
Windsor was also very cool and another spot we would have liked to linger at longer. The place is massive and retains many signs of previous monarchs and the times they lived in. Of passing interest is that the Queen was in residence the day we visited, as evidenced by her standard flying above the castle’s tower.
We took a day trip to see the ancient Roman baths in Bath, England (a really neat little town with a surprisingly vibrant vibe, considering how old the place is). The baths were impressive but the abbey stole my heart with its stunning architecture and stained glass.
Stonehenge, of course!
After Bath, we continued on to Stonehenge. I should note that London surpassed its own reputation for rainy weather to the point that even the locals were complaining about it. We were glad we listened to my husband and sacrificed some room in the carry-on for umbrellas – they got a lot of use here (and also in Paris).
We arrived at Stonehenge under threat of another rainstorm and sure enough, by the time we went from the visitor’s center to the henge, it was pouring. The weather made it hard to appreciate the view a bit, but it was impressive nonetheless. With the wind threatening to tear our umbrellas away, it was also hard to get a decent photo but we managed to capture a few including this one:
Stonehenge was my son’s favorite place – perhaps something to do with the amount of time he plays games like Civilization that made seeing this IRL a very neat experience for him.
One of the things I liked about Stonehenge is that it’s still in a natural state – no theme parks, strip malls, tourist shops etc have sprung up around it so it’s easy to transport yourself back in time. There is a distant road behind the henge and the word is that they are planning to close it and reroute it to remove any view of anything modern from the site. Fabulous plan, says I.
A cosmopolitan metropolis
London strikes me as a very cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of lots of different cultures and nationalities and a place where the old is neatly juxtaposed with the new, like this view of the “cheese grater” and an old steeple:
Fun fact #2:
There are not a lot of restrictions on new buildings but one that stands out are restrictions on how much of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral a new building is allowed to obscure. This gives rise to interesting shaped buildings like the cheese grater (above) and the gerkin.
I’ll close here with a few random photos and a hearty recommendation to visit London. I hope to go back and spend more time at Windsor and the Tower myself. A side trip to the English countryside is also on my list.