Last week, after being in England for a full 6 days, I FINALLY made it to London! Another dream come true on this trip! The farm I’m staying at is only 40 miles or so from the city and close to transit lines, so I tried pacing myself, knowing I could return frequently. I still covered a lot of ground though, and by the end of the day my feet and I agreed we’d done ourselves proud!
First stop: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment!
Technically, I saw a bit of Westminster (including the abbey) before arriving at this top destination. It took me a bit to find my way from Victoria station.
I was lucky enough to arrive a little before 8:00 in the morning, which meant I still had some beautiful morning light, and the streets were relatively tourist free. Mostly I was surrounded by people in power suits bustling off to work. My favorite time in a new city is in the early morning before the crowds take over. It gives me an entirely different perspective of a place.
I followed the Rick Steves’ audio walking tour of Westminster, which is was a delightful introduction to London and full of interesting facts. It was easy to follow, beginning at Westminster Bridge and ending at Trafalgar Square. The only problem was that my day started so early that when I reached Trafalgar Square at the end of the tour, it was still over an hour before the National Gallery opened. It was for the best though. I was starving so I killed time by scouting down breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
When the gallery opened at 10, I was able to walk right on in. One of the benefits of free museums is no queues! Sadly that was the high point, as none of the 4 paintings I especially wanted to see were on display. Due to a staff shortage many of the rooms were closed. I was able to peer through a door and see my Degas from a distance, but that was as close as I got. Rather than staying in the Gallery of Disappointments, as it’s now been dubbed, I left to take a stroll down the Mall to stake out a good vantage point for…The changing of the guard!
I had been on the fence for awhile about this particular British tradition. Watching a bunch of men in fancy uniforms essentially punching in and out for the day in front of the palace didn’t seem like it was worth all the hype. However, I had the time and was in the right area, so I figured why not? I’d also read up enough to know that I could stand along the Mall between St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace to see the fanfare in street and not fight the ginormous crowds in front of the palace gates, so that’s what I did.
There were enough guided tours beginning to camp out along the street that I knew when I was in the right area. I joined up with one of them that had a prime spot and waited for about 10-15 minutes next to a group of tourists from Mississippi. Hearing that strong southern accent at such a British event tickled my sense of irony no end.
The parade itself was short and sweet. We watched the horse guards retire and then the procession of the band heading toward the palace. I got my pictures to satisfy my travel portfolio and I was done. While seeing these men in their, admittedly impressive, uniforms was definitely a spectacle, I think I enjoyed the crowd watching even more.
With item two checked off my list, I strolled through St. James Park to catch the tube to…Borough Market.
Borough Market is London’s oldest and best food market, dating back to the 13th century. Today it is a gastronome’s paradise, filled with food stalls selling anything and everything your pallate desires: seafood, nuts, pastries, meats, produce, cheeses, breads, ethnic foods, olives, wines, and more. The smells and colors and textures, not to mention the tastes (hurray for free samples!) are an assault on the senses in the best of ways. Between sampling, photographing, and stopping for lunch, it was a perfect way to kill a couple of hours before moving on to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
It turned out I misread the start time of my London Blitz walking tour, so I had an extra 30 minutes to kill, which I did quite happily lounging in the shade on the back lawn of St. Paul’s. Yes, there were lots of pigeons. Yes, I was singing “Feed the Birds” in my head the entire time.
I met up with my walking group easily enough at the appointed time. The tour was through London Walks, and they have a variety of walks focused on numerous topics and/or areas of interest throughout the city. Their guides are all highly qualified, and I had heard wonderful things, so I was very excited about this walk. I’m pleased to say that it lived up to the hype! We spent a couple of hours walking around the City of London. Most of the remnants of the Blitz are gone now with new buildings taking the place of the destroyed ones decades ago, but you can still see shrapnel scars on the exterior of St. Paul’s and there’s a lovely garden nearby in what once was a church that was destroyed during the air raids. Now only 3 skeletal walls remain.
London is full of war memorials and monuments to important people in it’s history, but there was one memorial we saw on our tour that touched me more than any of them. It was the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park. This little memorial was set up to commerate the selfless deeds of ordinary citizens. Reading through the various plaques was quite touching, and many of them dated back to the late 19th century. Especially moving were the plaques dedicated to children, some no more than 10 or 11 years old who died saving a younger friend or sibling from catastrophe. I never would have found that park or memorial on my own, which is one of the reasons I find these walking tours such a great value.
Following the walk I was able to go into St. Paul’s for their Evensong service. While there is a fee for touring the Cathedral, it’s free of charge to go in for worship services, and I enjoyed sitting in that marvelous space (sorry, no photos allowed) and listening to the service. One thing I wasn’t aware of, not being Catholic, is how much standing and sitting is done during the service! My aching feet, which had been literally pounding the pavement all day, were a bit dismayed that they had to continue to stand during a good portion of the evensong. Still, it was a nice way to close my first day in London.
Coming up next on Rachie Discovers London: exploring the boroughs of Kensington and/or Hampstead, and possibly a visit to Westminster Abbey!