August 27, 2012

I booked a tour of Westmister Abbey this morning, and so I was in the city nice and early. The tour was scheduled to leave at 9:15 sharp from the west entrance of Westminster. I got off the Tube at just the right stop, found Westminster, and started walking. When I got to the west side of the building, however, there was no entrance. Confusedly, I walked around to the front of the building (no small feat, as it takes up several city blocks) and looked around. Still no tour group. And not even an identifiable entrance.

It was then that I suspected I might be in the wrong place. And so, with only ten minutes before the tour started, I began walking around, looking for signs, pretending I was the professor in The Da Vinci Code. I was like, “hmm… Westminster… I thought it was the large building with all the pointy bits… but I was wrong…” Walking faster, heart pounding, tourists at my heels. Must find it in time! “Westminster. Westminster Abbey. Westminster ABBEY! An abbey is a church! That pointing building isn’t a church! That must have been the Houses of Parliament! Now I’ve just got to find a church… THERE IT IS!” It was like the most boring chapter of The Da Vinci Code ever.

OK, first thing about Westminster Abbey: it’s gorgeous. Second thing: it’s full of people. Dead people. Like, people are entombed EVERYWHERE. And these aren’t just any people. I’m talking about Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Isaac Newton, George Frideric Handel, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin, Thomas Hardy, Robert Blake, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Laurence Olivier. Oh, and Queen Anne, Charles II, Edward I, Edward II, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, George II, Henry III, Henry V, Henry VII, James I, James VI, Mary I, Mary II, Mary Queen of Scots, Richard II, William III, and dozens of legendary princes, princesses, dukes, earls, barons, and lords. WHA??? Incredible.

It was all actually kind of beautiful, in a way. The people of England are literally part of the building. On Isaac Newton’s marker stone, it reads “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton.” And isn’t that what a cathedral is? Mortals in search and support of the sublime?

(Fun fact: Oliver Cromwell was buried at Westminster Abbey until he was tried of treason by Charles the II, when he was disinterred, hanged, decapitated, and reburied at an unknown location. Yep, they tried, convicted, and sentenced to death a dead body.)

Visitors to Westminster Abbey are now allowed to walk through the Arch of Queens, which is the ornate screen separating the west end of the church from the high altar. It was fun to secretly pretend to be royalty as I walked through. (Fun fact: the Coronation Ceremony has been the same since Edgar, the first king of England, was crowned in 973. And here’s another neat thing: the coronation chair has been used for almost every coronation since the time of Edgar. It’s old and wooden and marred, chipped gold paint, in perfect disrepair. I’m not one usually impressed by things like chairs, but the history of this particular chair is rather awe-inspiring. As Shakespeare would write in Richard II “This royal throne of kings… this seat of Mars…”)

Upon leaving Westminster Abbey, I ambled through St. James Park on my way to Buckingham Palace, where I spent some time watching the guards in their scarlet jackets and tall bearskin hats. They alternated between marching and standing as still as tiny toy soldiers. (One little girl, peering through the gates next to me, asked her dad, “Why are they so small? Her dad tried to explain that they weren’t small, they were just further away than they seemed, but the little girl just flat-out wouldn’t believe him.)

Man, how do the guards occupy their minds while standing stock-still for hours at a time? And I mean absolutely, perfectly motionless. And another thing: after seeing hundreds of pictures of the Queen looking so regal, I wonder if she ever hangs around in sweatpants? Eating ice cream? Or is that too undignified for her to do, even privately?

After Buckingham Palace, I took a double-decker bus up to Shepherd’s Market, where the streets wound narrowly through small pubs and shops, the bricks and stone blackened from the days of open fires. I explored, pretending to be either Oliver or the Artful Dodger.

And then it was on to Trafalgar Square, which I had somehow missed in my two full days of wandering. And — wow — is it ever beautiful. So large and grand and clean, an open square dotted with fountains and monuments, bordered by pristine and regal buildings.

All of the British museums are free, so I popped into the National Gallery for about forty minutes, seeing the entire thing at exactly my speed (for art museums, this is usually very, very fast.) I did, however, stop to linger at the painters I recognized: Botticelli, da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Bruegel, Monet, and Cezanne. It was pretty neat to see originals of so many iconic paintings (a couple of which I had hanging in my college dorm room).

I went to a pub for dinner. In an effort to eat the food of every country I visit, I have been having a lot of traditional English food. Maybe a bit bland, yes, but I have the palate of a five-year-old, so I think it’s delicious. Bangers and mash, chicken pot pie, fish and chips, bread pudding. Yummm.

I saw War Horse tonight at the New London Theatre on Drury Lane, which completely blew me away. The horses were all puppets, often animated by four or five puppeteers each and they were INCREDIBLE. Took my breath away. Seriously, youtube “War Horse in the West End” to see some amazing video of the puppeteers at work. And hey! There was ice cream at intermission again! This time, the concessions actually came into the theatre with it, selling it from the front and the back of the house. I think this might be a thing.

Since the show ended late and I’m going on a day trip out of London early tomorrow morning, I decided to crash at the Picadilly Backpacker’s, right off of Picadilly Circus. I am currently writing in the common room, listening to drunk nine-teen year-olds not-so-subtly try to get in each other’s pants. Ah, city hostels…

Tomorrow: Salisbury and Stonehenge!

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