Spotlight on London, England


             London is another of the world’s great cities. It is staid and proper, just like many Brits, but the people are helpful and there are a plethora of sights and attractions.  In fact, London is worth an entire week if travel plans allow. 

            The most visited attraction in the city is the Tower of London, which has an extremely storied history.  The Tower of London, located on the north bank of the Thames, near London’s Financial District, has been a home to England’s monarchs, a weapons storage facility, a treasury (it still holds the Crown Jewels), and, most famously, a prison.  Many an enemy of the state met his or her end, frequently by beheading, within the confines of the Tower.  The visitor is escorted though the complex by a resident “beefeater”, dressed in a uniform which is reminiscent of Tudor England. 

            Must sees on the visit include the White Tower, the dominant structure within the complex, which dates back to the 11th century, the Jewel House, which houses the British Crown Jewels, Traitor’s Gate, the entryway for prisoners arriving from Westminster Hall, and the Bloody Tower, so-named since it was the residence of Edward IV’s two sons whose bones were later found nearby, after their uncle, Richard III, ascended the throne.  One of the cells, the cell of “little ease” was so small (4 ft x 4 ft) that prisoners could not fully stand up, nor lie straight out. Imagine how uncomfortable it was!

            There are a number of places in London which are icons of travel — known and/or recognized all over the world.  These include Big Ben and Parliament, the seat of government in England.  “Ben” is actually the name for the bell, although the Bell Tower dominates the skyline here.  The architecture is neo-gothic and is both striking and exquisite in its detail.  The complex is huge, lavish, and ornate, and a tribute to the British who keep the area spotless.             

            Tower Bridge is one of the most distinctive and beautiful bridges in the world.  It has become one of the enduring symbols of London.  It is at the eastern end of the city and spans the Thames, very close to the Tower of London.  The “Tower Bridge Experience” provides lots of information about the history, operation, and construction of the bridge.  However, it is disappointing in that the top level is an enclosed area, instead of being outside for a great view.  Pictures can only be taken through a few tiny windows.

            Buckingham Palace is another “must-see” in London.  The palace is still the city residence of the Royal Family.  The public is allowed to view the state rooms, but not the private living quarters of the Queen, her family and guests. Perhaps most impressive is the “Changing of the Guard” which takes place at 11:30 AM every day from April to mid-July, then goes to an alternating day schedule for the remainder of the year.  During the summer months, crowds are huge so it is advisable to arrive early in order to stake out a territory.  It is quite the ceremony, but then the Brits are known for their pomp and circumstance. 

            Westminster Abbey is a beautiful church in its own right.  The exterior resembles the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but, inside, it is more like a museum or a mausoleum, in that it contains the tombs of, or memorials to, most of the kings and queens of England, as well as many other notables.  It is solemn inside because it is the burial place of so many, and pictures cannot be taken as a consequence.  Some of the special memorials are particularly elaborate, such as the tombs of Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.  Of special note is the Poet’s Corner which has busts or plaques to England’s famous literati.

            Besides these mega-attractions, there are many other places worthy of the traveler’s time and energy.  Harrods department store is one of the most interesting shopping facilities in the world.  Besides the architecture and the store decorations, almost anything buyable can be found here. Trafalgar Square is one of Europe’s great gathering places, with its fountain, its pigeons, and its sculptures.  London’s parks, such as Hyde Park and Green Park, are noteworthy since they offer a peaceful respite in a crowded, hectic location. 

            St. Paul’s Cathedral, the setting for the very public marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, was designed by Christopher Wren, the famous architect who practically rebuilt London after its devastating fire of 1666.  The church claims to have the second largest dome in the world (after St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City).  The interior, the setting for many lavish state ceremonies, is striking, especially the ceiling and dome. The outside of the cathedral is also very attractive, but it needs cleaning.

            British Airways’ London Eye, a large Ferris wheel on the south shore of the Thames River, offers spectacular views of the city.

            There are also, appropriately, some major museums in London. Most notable are the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (the Tate).

            The British Museum, on Trafalgar Square, is the oldest public museum in the world.  The most famous holdings of the museum are the Elgin Marbles, 5th century B.C. reliefs from the Parthenon, in Greece.  Other particular delights include a collection of Egyptian Mummies and the Lindsfarne Gospels, which date to the 7th century and are illustrated.

            Other sights in London include Piccadilly Circus, London’s equivalent to Times Square in New York City, a busy, garish confluence of streets, with numerous neon signs, which has become one of London’s great gathering places. Not too far away is Covent Garden, a group of London streets centering on the Central Market, a covered mall with numerous shops and stalls surrounded by a plaza, frequented by street performers and crowds of people.

             Across the Thames, tourists will find an exact replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater which offers productions year round, weather permitting, since the theater is outdoors. 

            One of the favorite excursions from London involves a cruise down the River Thames to Greenwich, England, home of the Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Observatory, the original home of Greenwich Mean Time, the time standard for the entire earth and the location which demarcates zero degrees Longitude. Boats leave from the Westminster Pier at various times throughout the day.

            Another, slightly longer, day trip is an excursion to Brighton, on the south coast of England to visit the Royal Pavilion, an unbelievably elaborate palace.  The architecture is Eastern and the furnishings Chinese.  It was used as a residence by King George IV, but when Queen Victoria succeeded him, she moved the royal quarters back to London, so the palace ceased to be a resort for the monarchy.  It was, however, purchased and restored to its former elegance by the city of Brighton, and is worth a hour or two. Brighton is also known for its beach.

            A third excursion is eastward to Canterbury Cathedral which is not only an impressive church, but is also a repository of a considerable amount of history, particularly involving the events surrounding the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 (his remains were housed here until 1538).  The church is also known for its medieval stained glass and the tomb of the Black Prince (son of Edward III).

            Still another excursion from London takes the visitor to Leeds Castle, certainly one of the most beautiful castles in all of Europe.  It is a classic, Medieval castle, complete with moat.  It is incredibly romantic and picturesque, with its varied-colored bricks and pleasant, spotless grounds.  The interior is meticulously decorated with extravagant arrangements of fresh flowers, as well as period furniture.

            An additional side trip from the city lies northwest at Windsor Castle, the residence of the English royals, which has a history dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, who had it built in 1070 AD. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world with its 1000 rooms.  Note in particular, St George’s Chapel, where ten British monarchs are buried, and the State Apartments, with its many historical treasures. When the Queen is in residence, there is a Changing of the Guard ceremony here which is as good as the one in London.


            Gary’s Gem:

                        1. For an unusual experience, have lunch in the “Cafe in the Crypt”, in the bowels of St Martin-in-the-Field Church, right across from Trafalgar Square.

                        2.  Take the “Big Bus Company” tour, a red double-decker that stops at numerous places on the tourist map.  The ticket holder may get off anywhere, sightsee, then hop on another bus to continue the tour.  There is also a narrator on each bus who describes the attractions.

                        3. A lesser known, but just as regal, ceremony is the “Changing of the Horse Guards” which takes place at 11 AM each day at the Horse Guards building behind 10 Downing Street.

                        4. In the Tower of London, the legend of the ravens predicts that if these birds ever leave the grounds, the Tower, and perhaps England, will fall. However, the resourceful Brits make sure that their wings are clipped to prevent them from flying away.
                        5. My walking tours of London can be found in the archives, on 9-24-08.


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