London, Baby!

December 9, 2021

Earlier this week, I took a trip to London. It was either a very short trip to London or a very long study break, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it was probably somewhat irresponsible, but I couldn't not visit London while I'm here in the UK. Exams will sort themselves out next week.

Even though the trip was short, I packed it full of sightseeing and have a lot to tell about. Feel free to take breaks as needed, and enjoy!

Monday, December 6

On Monday morning, I left St. Andrews bright and early to board my 5-hour train ride from Leuchars to King's Cross Station, during which I wrote the previous blog post but mostly listened to music and watched out the window. After arriving in London, I had my first experience on the Underground traveling from King's Cross to Paddington Station to get to my hotel.

The Underground is a strange thing. On the one hand, it's incredibly convenient and surprisingly efficient. During the whole trip, I was delayed only once, and it was easy to change lines and find another train that would take me where I needed to go on time. On the other hand, the Underground is surprisingly expensive (but that seems to be a theme with most trains here) and a bit uncomfortable. The trains move fast through unlit tunnels; each time you depart from a station, the whole train is thrust into darkness, shaking, squealing, and whooshing along the tracks. I can't say whether I liked it or not, but it was certainly a quintessential London experience.

I arrived at my hotel and checked in and decided that it was too late to sightsee. I was still feeling a little nervous about solo travelling in a big city, so I didn't want to stay out too long after dark. I looked up a restaurant nearby, but it was closed when I arrived, so I stopped in an Italian deli instead. I picked up a piece of salmon, some Greek salad, and some mille-feuille for dessert, then took everything back to the hotel to eat. After doing a little research about what I wanted to see the next day, I turned in for bed.

Tuesday, December 7

Tuesday was a full day of sightseeing, so I've divided this section up a little further for your ease and enjoyment.

Westminster Abbey

After grabbing a bite to eat from a coffee shop near my hotel, I took the circle line from Paddington to St. James's Park to visit Westminster Abbey. I was about 30 minutes early for my timed entry ticket, so I took some pictures outside and walked around the UK Supreme Court building and Parliament Square. This is a small grass mall with bronze statues, including the rather famous one of Winston Churchill overlooking the houses of Parliament. I was also pleasantly surprised to spot a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the Supreme Court.

Soon it was time to enter Westminster Abbey. This was probably the attraction I was most looking forward to seeing (as you can see from all the pictures); I remember seeing it on TV when I was about 10, having woken up early to watch the royal wedding before school. I'm also something of a church architecture enthusiast, so most of my trips include a visit to the most impressive church nearby. When I walked through the door, I was a little disappointed, as the visitor entrance looks nothing like the majestic scene from royal weddings and coronations. The thought crossed my mind that many people think when they meet their favorite celebrity: "I thought they'd be taller." After passing through a hallway of graves and memorial stones, however, my disappointment gave way to awe and delight. After turning a corner, you can suddenly see the poppies on the tomb of the unknown soldier on one side, and the high ceiling of the nave on the other. This is the scene I remembered from that early morning in fifth grade, when Mom and I watched the Duchess of Cambridge make her way down the aisle.

At this point it was about 6:00 am in Tennessee, and Mom had sent me a text message to ask how the day was going. I responded with a picture of myself outside Westminster Abbey, then sent a picture of the rood screen and said something about how it looks smaller than expected until you reach the nave. Her response: "You got to go in??!" As discretely as possible, I plugged in my headphones and made a FaceTime call to show her that I was, in fact, in Westminster Abbey.

After exploring the nave, I moved on to the Quire, the High Altar, and the Lady Chapel. The ceiling in the Lady Chapel is an absolutely marvelous piece of stonework; the intricate patterns are just mesmerizing. I also saw the tombs of several British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. There is a marble plaque by Elizabeth's tomb inviting visitors to remember those who died during the Reformation "for Christ and Conscience' Sake." I them moved on to Poets' Corner, where there are either tombs or memorial stones for some of my favorite authors, including C.S. Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Geoffrey Chaucer. I strolled through the cloisters, then took one last look in the nave before heading out.

Westminster Abbey

Lady Chapel

Ceiling in Lady Chapel

Poets' Corner

Cloisters

Quire (for the choir)

With the rood screen; Isaac Newton is buried behind me (!)

The Nave

The British Museum

After leaving Westminster Abbey, I decided to walk to the British Museum instead of taking the Underground. If you've traveled with me before, you may know that I don't care for big cities. This aversion started on a school trip to New York City, before which our guide warned us about the cast of characters (no pun intended) who might try to steal our wallets in Times Square, including people selling CDs, people giving out flowers, people giving out bracelets, and people dressed as Muppets. By the time I encountered a chain-smoking Minnie Mouse asking if I wanted a picture, I was convinced that everyone in New York was out to steal my wallet, and this fear applies to all other big cities. One of the few New York City moments of the day happened on the way to the museum. I think I must have been near the West End, as I was seeing lots of signs for musicals and stage doors. As I was about to cross the street, I saw the M&M's store to my right, the Chinatown arch to my left, and heard someone shouting into a megaphone about the end of days, the second coming, and the twin towers. I recovered quickly from the NYC flashback and pressed on for the museum.

When I arrived at the British Museum, I had no plan or idea of what I wanted to see. Instead of picking up a map, I followed the first sign for Greek and Roman artifacts upstairs. After perusing the Byzantine section, the Roman Britain section, and the Greek section, I found myself in a room with Egyptian artifacts. Ancient Egypt isn't really in my wheelhouse, but I can hang out with the Egyptians, so I kept looking around until I saw a granite stone with hieroglyphics on it. It was a reddish-brown color, so it clearly wasn't the Rosetta Stone, but it made me think about how I'd like to see the Rosetta Stone someday, which is probably in Egypt and definitely not at the British Museum. My thoughts then turned to my empty stomach and the vendor outside the museum selling candied roasted nuts. I decided to take a pause and run a quick Google search to check on the highlights in the museum to make sure I wouldn't miss anything before getting my candied nuts, and the first item in the first article I pulled up was nothing other then the Rosetta Stone. It was not in Egypt, it was downstairs.

I booked it downstairs, stopping to glance at some Ancient Greek pottery, and soon found myself looking at the Rosetta Stone. I stooped down and examined the Greek text at the bottom of the stone, reading the word βασιλευς: king. I can say without shame that I shed a couple tears there, awestruck that I was looking at the actual Rosetta Stone and could understand (some of) what it said. I have never put an item on my bucket list and had the satisfaction of crossing it off so quickly. It was incredible. Then, I left the museum and bought my candied roasted nuts, which were also incredible.

The Rosetta Stone

The British Museum lobby

St. Paul's Cathedral and the Globe

London is a tourism destination for cinephiles, and I had one spot on my to-do list that fits this pattern. I wanted to visit St. Paul's Cathedral, mainly to see whether it looks the same in person as it does in Mary Poppins. It does, but with less cinematic lighting and artfully placed old women feeding pigeons. I saw far more pigeons in other parts of town than I did here.

I had some time to kill before my next scheduled event, so I walked across a footbridge over the Thames to see the Globe theater, where Shakespeare's plays were first performed. The original Globe was burnt down in the 1600s, but the recreation that stands there today is still quite impressive and made for a fun photo-op.

St. Paul's Cathedral

The Globe, and a very excited Shakespeare nerd

Afternoon tea service

Afternoon Tea

When I started to think about dinner, it occurred to me that I should try to find a traditional afternoon tea service in London. This was more of a struggle than I realized, not because there are few options--there are many--but because I was wearing blue jeans, duck boots, and a rather soggy winter coat. Most places that serve afternoon tea are hotels with a dress code, so I was relieved to find an option in Piccadilly that had a reservation available and did not have a dress code. I arrived in Piccadilly about an hour early for my reservation, and it was raining pretty steadily, so I tried to find a shop to browse in to kill some time. After passing a Rolls Royce dealership, a Prada store, a Ralph Lauren store, and a jewelry store with honest-to-goodness tiaras in the window, I determined that none of the shops would tolerate my presence, so I settled on using the restroom in a Starbucks. Thankfully, the rain slowed down enough that I was not completely bedraggled when I arrived for my reservation.

The tea service included a pot of tea, two scones with clotted cream and jam, several finger sandwiches, and some small desserts. I felt very fancy eating it, despite my casual attire, and tried to remember all the table manners they taught us in junior cotillion, as if a bunch of adolescents in Middle Tennessee would regularly take afternoon tea. My favorite item was either the scone or a small pear tart; I may try to recreate those in my kitchen when I go home for Christmas.

Measure for Measure

While I was waiting to walk to my afternoon tea reservation, on a whim, I researched what was showing at the Globe. Measure for Measure was being performed that night, and there were a few tickets left. Measure for Measure is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and (strangely) the only one I've seen performed before, but not actually read. While sheltering from the rain under an awning, I called the box office and snagged one of the remaining tickets for that night's performance.

After finishing afternoon tea, I went back across the river to the Globe. The performance was not in the Globe itself, but in an adjacent playhouse designed to look like the Globe. One of the unique features of this playhouse is its chandeliers, which allow plays to be performed by candlelight. The candles were very authentic to Shakespeare's time, but the rest of the performance was not; the costumes and set decorations were designed after 1970's fashions, including aviator glasses for Angelo and bell-bottom trousers for Lucio. The cast gave a fantastic performance, and I'll never forget seeing a Shakespeare play *near* the Globe.

Wednesday, December 8

Buckingham Palace

After checking out of my hotel on Wednesday morning, the first item on the agenda was to see the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace. This is probably the most tourist-y thing I did while in London, and the crowds there were most unpleasant. The ceremony is not quiet and somber like the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery, so most people were talking and taking pictures rather obnoxiously throughout. Instead of holding my spot by the gate, I decided to move around during the ceremony, but I did enjoy seeing the guards march in, accompanied by a military band. When I had taken enough pictures (hopefully not obnoxiously), I walked through St. James's Park on the way to grab lunch and return to the train station.

King's Cross Station

My train back to Leuchars left from King's Cross Station, and I arrived about 45 minutes before it was time to board. I used this time to pick up some snacks and take a picture at platform 9 3/4, beside which there is a conveniently placed and overpriced Harry Potter gift shop. Then, I boarded my train and enjoyed some much-needed rest during the 5-hour journey.

On my way to Hogwarts

Buckingham Palace

Final Thoughts

It was interesting to travel through London by myself. I didn't feel unsafe at any point, which was good. It was fun not to have a strict itinerary and to be able to go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was also easier to plan activities without advance notice, since single tickets are more widely available than group tickets. However, it was strange and a little bit lonely not to have a travel buddy. I think I appreciate things more when I can see them through another person's eyes as well as my own, and waiting for things during a trip like this is more fun when there's someone to talk to. I also might have planned more activities in advance if I had been planning for other people besides myself. Furthermore, there was no one to appreciate my Parks and Rec and Friends references. :(

That said, I still had a wonderful time exploring London. Hopefully this was not a once-in-a-lifetime trip, since there is still so much more to see. I would love to come back someday and have another look!