I’ve been to London a handful of times now. Every time we go, I feel a little more comfortable. I can navigate the Tube with more certainty, only checking the map on my phone three or four times between stops. Streets look familiar. I feel less like a tourist, even though that’s exactly what I am.
Samuel Johnson once famously said, “Once a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Well I’m not there yet. Not even close.
We knew that Sam’s parents HAD to experience London when they visited. We prefer to do a few things well rather than hurry through several sights, so that’s what we did: enjoyed a leisurely day full of the best of London.
First stop: Buckingham Palace
It’s only right to stop by and say hello when in the neighborhood… After getting off the Tube, we took a leisurely stroll through the city and Green Park, before realizing it was in fact time for the changing of the guard. The crowds had already formed but we snatched up a great vantage point and seat on a wall surrounding the Victoria Memorial roundabout. We dined on our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we watched the plumed hats of the guardsmen bob above the crowd, all the while serenaded by the guard band.
We were wrapping up our lunch as Mike noticed a row of important-looking vehicles approaching the palace. There were several dark security vehicles and, tucked in the middle, was the Queen’s state car and Her Majesty!
Plain as day, in the back of that roomy Bentley, sat the Queen. Her famous white curls adorned by a lovely pastel hat. She didn’t wave – the car zipped through the gates into the palace too quickly – and we didn’t have time to snap a picture, but we still counted it as eating lunch with the Queen. Not a bad start to our trip.
Changing the Guard was not yet finished but we grew antsy and, well, we had already seen the Queen, so we continued on. We passed through the beautiful St. James Park on our way to Westminster.
Westminster: Big Ben, The Elizabeth Tower, Parliament
Upon coming to London you just have to see “Big Ben.” Many of you might already know this, but I won’t feel like I’m properly informing you if I skip over it: The tower is not named Big Ben. It is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Big Ben isn’t even the clock face. Big Ben, though a suitable name, is actually the title of the largest bell within the clock tower.
Anyway, Elizabeth Tower hovers over the Thames at the end of the Palace of Westminster – an equally impressive and iconic sight. We were hoping to tour Westminster Abbey but, sadly, it was closed.
As we began to walk back to the Tower, we noticed many cars parked in front of the palace and a clear police presence. I approached a security guard and naively asked, “Hello. Is there an event of some sort going on today?” He chuckled and gave me a look of equal parts pity and derision.
“An event?” he haughtily replied.
I smiled stupidly as I realized what that “event” was…
He looked back at the looming building and replied, “Parliament is in session.”
DUH. Thank you. I’ll just hand back in my visa and be leaving…
But, despite my American ignorance, he kindly informed us that we could sit in on a parliamentary session for free if we just continued to the next entrance. A short walk and a security check later, we were in Westminster Palace on our way to sit in on a meeting of the House of Commons.
You first enter through Westminster Hall under an arching, wooden roof built during the time of King William II (est. 1097!!!). It has England’s “largest clearspan medieval roof” (thank you, Wikipedia) and has hosted many debates, trials and royal banquets. It has been used for lyings-in-state for many royals and even Sir Winston Churchill.
After proceeding through the hall, you are ushered through quiet hallways and stairs up to the public viewing area. Coats and bags are checked, and then you’re in. There are two separate chambers where the House of Lords and House of Commons meet respectively. We were there during a House of Commons meeting, so that’s the only chamber we saw. The public viewing area is a part of the actual House chamber but is separated by a large, soundproof, glass partition to block any projectiles or chants (friendly or malicious) from reaching the members. Conversation from the floor can be heard through tiny speakers mounted on the back of every bench.
The House of Commons is famous for its tense debates and animated members, but all we witnessed was a calm, even polite, discussion on water treatment plans. I was surprised to see only about 15 House members attending the session and about the same number watching from the public viewing area. After soaking in a few minutes of public policy and all it represented, we excused ourselves – out past the security guards watching horse racing on t.v. – and returned to the busy streets of London. As we continued on with our day, I wondered how many of the tourists we passed were just as oblivious as I originally was to the fascinating bit of UK politics occurring just behind the palace walls…
Final stop: The British Museum
Mike suggested we visit the British Museum and we gladly agreed. Though it was on our list, we hadn’t visited yet. After resting for a much needed sit and cup of coffee in the massive, sunlit atrium, we spent the afternoon absorbing all the history we could.
Even after walking the halls for a few hours, we only saw a small portion of what it has to offer. Because our time was limited we picked out what we specifically wanted to see and optimized our route around the museum. The highlights of the day were seeing the Rosetta Stone and the large mummy exhibit.
Our feet were aching, our minds were full, and we knew we had big things ahead (like PARIS), so we called it a day and headed home. More adventures to come!
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