Beginning my second full week in London, I have a lot to look back on. I am finally settled into my room, can sleep through the tube noises outside of my window, and the pizza man at Whole Foods already knows my order. Even though I am comfortable in my new home there is still a lot for me to discover.
St. Paul’s Cathedral:
I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral and participated in their Sunday service. The dome of the cathedral, one of the largest in the world, is easily spotted from areas around London and was one of the first things I noticed when I first arrived. According to Foder’s London Travel Guide, the dome crowns the center of the cathedral and rises to 364 feet. You are allowed to climb to the top but because I was there for a service I did not have that opportunity. There is a statue of St. Paul himself outside of the cathedral by the west entrance and he has witnessed many famous processions. The funerals of Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill were all held at the cathedral. Also, the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was held here. The royals must really like this particular cathedral because the jubilees of Queen Victoria, George V and the present Queen Elizabeth were celebrated at St. Paul’s. This magnificent building was created by Sir Christopher Wren who said “I build for eternity” and sticks to his word when it comes to this cathedral. My Foder’s travel guide of London gives a brief history of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in 1710 it took 35 years to complete because of much controversy and argument. The original plan was for Sir Christopher Wren to restore the current St. Paul’s but because the Great Fire had destroyed so much of it he had to create a new edition. It took three plans to finally get approved so they could start the building process. The cathedral, as a whole, is a beautiful creation and when looking up from the inside, the dome looked endless. There are four unofficial sections of the dome at St. Paul’s. The first section at 99 feet is the Whispering Gallery. It gets its name because if you whisper something to one side of the wall it is heard seconds later on the other side. Next, at 173 feet is the Stone Gallery. It is on the outside of the cathedral which gives great views of the city and the River Thames. The Golden Gallery is the next point on the dome. At 280 feet it is the highest point of the outer dome and through a hole in the floor gives a long view down inside the cathedral. Lastly, at the very top is a ball and cross which sits at 23 feet high and weighs about seven tons. I thoroughly enjoyed the service just because it was a new experience for me, but also being surrounded by the beauty of the cathedral made the service more sentimental. I highly suggest a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral to tour, walk to the top of the dome or sit in a service.
Wicked the Musical:
I saw the musical Wicked at the Victoria Apollo Theater four days ago and I still get goose bumps when I think about it. It was my second time seeing the musical but it had been so long ago I forgot about the entire second act. Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz and focuses on the relationship between Glinda, the Good Witch, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. It premiered on Broadway in October of 2003 and because of its success numerous other productions have been started worldwide. According to the official website of the show (wickedthemusical.com), the original Broadway production won three Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards and in addition to that the cast album received a Grammy. The musical begins before Dorothy’s arrival and often references the story everyone knows about her journey in Oz. The musical pieces used in this production are outstanding by themselves. Many of the people in the audience knew the songs even if they had not seen the play. Songs such as “Defying Gravity’ and ‘For Good’ are some of the popular songs from the musical. Each song deserved a standing ovation and it was hard to resist not giving them one until the end. The set was amazing and very detailed. I thought this musical was interesting because it explains what happened before The Wizard of Oz and connects to the original story while having a different story line.
Every year around the end of June and early July thousands gather to watch the world’s best play tennis at Wimbledon. About ten minutes north of the tennis courts is Wimbledon Common, the biggest pasture left in London with fields of wild and beautiful grassland. There are stables that offer riding tours and in the middle of the commons is the Wimbledon Windmill and museum. When I visited Wimbledon Commons I had seen the tennis matches earlier in the day. It was great to see the open land of the Commons as I had been surrounded by so many people earlier that day. The official website (www.wpcc.org.uk) claims that The Commons are made up of about 1,140 acres of countryside that are “an area of calm and tranquility in the midst of the urban sprawls.” The Commons have woodland, scrubland, heathland, mown recreation areas and nine ponds. When I visited I took a nice, short hike around The Commons and saw a few of the ponds. It was refreshing to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city while not being so far away from the city.
London is home to numerous famous and royal parks—Holland Park is one of them. It has only been open to the public since 1952 because it was formerly the grounds of an aristocrat’s house according to my Foder’s Guide of London. There are three main sections of Holland Park. The northern part of the park is filled with trees and offers nature walks among trees planted in the early 18th century. The central part of Holland Park has manicured lawns where you can often spot a peacock when you visit. The southern part of the park has room for every sport lover to enjoy with cricket and football courts, a golf practice area and tennis courts. New to the park is a giant outdoor chess set for all ages to play on. I enjoy walking through Holland Park because there is always something new to do from watching children play “football” or looking for peacocks, which is rare sight for me to see.
On the west end of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens is Kensington Palace. It was bought in 1689 by Queen Mary and King William III and royals have been living there ever since in the private section of the Palace. Recently, Princess Diana lived at the Palace with Prince William and Prince Harry after her divorce and now Prince William and Princess Kate are preparing to move in with their new child. On March 2012 the Palace announced the plan for a twelve million pound refurbishment that would involve new “visitor routes,” new exhibits on Queen Victoria, King’s State Apartments, the Queen’s State Apartments and a special exhibit on Princess Diana’s dresses. When I visited Kensington Palace I toured the palace and exhibit on Queen Victoria. The tour took me through the rooms of the Palace starting in the Queen’s State Apartments and continuing to the King’s State Apartments that were still decorated in time appropriate design. My favorite part of the tour was the exhibit on Queen Victoria. She reigned for 64 years and lived in Kensington Palace for most of it. According to the official website of the Palace (www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace), this exhibit is inspired by her journals and features many of her personal objects in rooms where she once lived. I found this exhibit interesting because you got to take a step inside of her life while standing where she used to live.
London has many things to offer from outdoor experiences to historic sites. I have enjoyed experiencing things locals experience, such as the parks, while still visiting things specific to London such as Royal Palaces.
I have only been in London for a week, but by the looks of my feet it would look like I have been here for more. I have walked what seems like every street in the city, but I know there is more for me to explore.
Tower of London:
Riding across Tower Bridge on the double-decker bus I noticed one building that stood out from all the others. The Tower of London is surrounded by modern condominium and office buildings, but draws all of the attention. This is an important building to the city of London and is filled with history, horror and the jewels of the Queen. Being the home of the heavily protected Crown Jewels was not the original purpose of the Tower of London. According to our Tour Guide and Beefeater, the Tower has been home to royals, the first zoo of London, barracks, a mint for producing coins, and an armory. We took a guided tour around the grounds starting at the Western Entrance where we met our Tour Guide, who was dressed in traditional Beefeater attire. I enjoyed this tour because our guide told stories about the grounds rather than rattling off multiple facts. We learned from our tour guide of all of those who had been beheaded in the Tower as well as famous prisoners like Sir Walter Raleigh and Anne Boleyn. After our guided tour we visited the White Tower. In the middle of the grounds is the White Tower which now features many weapons and armor on display. Across from the White Tower is the Waterloo Block where they keep the Crown Jewels. These jewels are guarded by members of the Army and the glass cases they are in is said to be nuclear bomb proof. Looking at the crowns, orbs and staffs that are encrusted with large gems actually hurt my eyes. I literally could not believe my eyes because of the size and luster the gems had. The view from Martin Tower is a great view to have of London because you are standing in an ancient castle-like structure looking out on a modern and growing London. The Tower of London may hold the Crown Jewels but its rich history may make it worth more than the jewels it holds.
The Orangery is a beautiful place to have afternoon tea in London. Located beside Kensington Palace, it was built during Queen Anne’s reign as a greenhouse, according to my travel book, Foder’s for London. I took afternoon tea at The Orangery where I had the choice of ten different teas. I had a seat outside with a lovely view of Kensington Gardens and the Palace. We were given our own tea pot and tray with assorted sandwiches and biscuits. While it is rather pricy for my idea of what tea should be, The Orangery is known as one of the less expensive places to go in town for tea. The experience left me feeling like a royal as the china was decorated with crowns and I could look at Kensington Palace, the new home to Prince William and Princess Kate, while I enjoyed my tea and biscuits.
The gardens of any palace are usually magnificent and Kensington Gardens are no exception. Located a few blocks away from my London home in Kensington, the gardens are behind Kensington Palace and connect to Hyde Park for a total of 625 acres in the middle of the city. Kensington Gardens have beautifully landscaped grounds that leave plenty of room for a blanket or picnic, which is what I have done many times in my trip. There are many walking paths including the Diana Memorial Walk which flows into Hyde Park. The Sunken Garden, built in 1908, is the home to many blooming flowers such as tulips, wallflowers and pansies in the spring, and geranium, cannas and begonias in the summer, according to the Palace website. Princess Diana was a resident of Kensington Palace and loved the land so there are many memorials for her in the park and gardens such as the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, Diana Memorial Walk, and the Diana Fountain. Another famous royal in the park is the Prince Albert Memorial that sits on the edge of the garden grounds at Kensington Road. According to my travel book, the statue is painted gold and is surrounded by marble statues which represent his interests and amusements. Prince Albert was the beloved husband of Queen Victoria. They lived at Kensington Palace which is why she had the statue made in his memory placed there in the park.
The other side of Kensington Gardens is named Hyde Park. The bigger side of the 625 acres is where many of the attractions are located. The Serpentine Bridge, built in 1826, is what separates Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The Serpentine and The Long Water are the two bodies of water in the middle of the park. You can rent a boat to paddle around in The Serpentine, which I hope to do later in my trip. The Serpentine Lido is open to swimmers from June to September and during my visits to the park has always had a dozen or so brave souls who jump in to enjoy the water. My Foder’s travel guide says that each Sunday since the 1827 legislation of public assembly, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park provides an outlet for debate to all that want to come and listen or speak their mind as well. My experience with Speakers’ Corner was educational because I learned what people care about – not just politics but religion and race are still a controversial topic for everyone. During my visit to Hyde Park I also noticed the many different activities of the people in the park. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon so there were many families with picnics, people exercising, rollerblading, sleeping and just about every other outdoor activity you could think of. I plan to make Hyde Park a regular destination during my time in London.
Tour of Parliament:
The Parliament building sits on the River Thames and is often considered a landmark of London due to the large clock tower connected to it known as Big Ben. We learned in our tour that while the buildings all look as though they have been around since the beginning many have been rebuilt due to destruction. In 1834 Parliament had to be rebuilt due to a fire and during WWII the House of Commons was damaged from bombs and had to be rebuilt. In the Parliament building it was very obvious that the class system is still important in London today. There are two houses, the House of Lords and House of Commons. The architecture of the two houses, connected by a few hallways, even shows the differences between the two classes. The guided tour takes you through the steps the Queen takes as she opens Parliament once a year. The tour begins in the room used just for the Queen to put on her robes. She steps into the House of Lords and takes a seat in a chair, raised six inches higher than her husband’s, to read the plans Parliament has for the country that year. Being in the same room the Queen has been in and in the rooms Parliament is still held in astounds me.
Each experience I have had in London has provided me with new information and sparked new interest in a variety of subjects. There are many more adventures to be had in London and I hope I can learn more about this culture and history I am surrounded by each day.
After a total of 13 hours of travel time I finally arrived at my home for the next month Heythrop College. Located in the picturesque neighborhood of Kensington, Heythrop already feels like home. I still have to pinch myself because I cannot believe I am in London and that I have only been here for three days! I already have a great feel for what the city and I owe that to the double-decker bus tour we took on the first day. It showed us the streets of London and different side of the city – all while driving down the left side of the road! That tour has already been a great help because I used the things I learned the following day while navigating down the Thames River with no map or cell phone! I have seen so much of the city in only three days but I know it could take a lifetime to see all of London. Let’s see how much more I can explore in five weeks!
“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
― Samuel Johnson