My favorite way to experience a city is on foot. To walk and see and feel the heartbeat of the city as life happens around you. My mind clears. I’m not focused on anything in particular, but yet I notice everything - the colors, the sounds, the smells, the buildings, the trees, the people. For a moment I feel as if I am part of this great city. I feel as if it has welcomed me with open arms and is sharing it’s beauty, it’s energy, it’s pulse with me for a short time. I’m not naïve. There’s a lot I don’t see. Not everything is good here. I don’t see the everyday life struggles going on behind closed doors but I know they are there. I can only see the façade of this great city and feel the energy of it, and for now that is enough. It’s overwhelming, yet serene. It’s bustling, yet calming. It’s full of strangers, yet feels so warm and welcoming. That is what it feels to wander the streets of London.
The Great Walkabout
Saturday was going to be a day of sightseeing in London. The night before, back in the hotel, we planned out our route. The next morning, we put on good walking shoes, I stuffed a couple of water bottles into my purse, and we jumped onto the Underground heading towards Buckingham Palace, principle residence and primary workplace of the monarchy of the United Kingdom. We weren’t the only people who came to see Buckingham Palace this day.
We had planned our arrival at Buckingham well. Shortly after we got there, the Guard Band that precedes the Changing of the Guard ceremony came marching down the street.
Their band uniforms have an eerie resemblance to the uniforms of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards at her castle.
The band was followed a short time later by the guards themselves on horseback.
This procession marched down the street in their brilliant red uniforms, passing right in front of us and disappearing behind the gates of Buckingham Palace where the actual changing of the guards would take place.
We turned around and headed through St. James Park, another one of the eight Royal Parks in London, towards Westminster Abbey just a couple of blocks away.
Westminster Abbey is steeped in British history, being the site of many royal weddings (the most recent Prince William and Princess Kate's), funerals (Princess Diana’s funeral was held here), and coronations of British and English monarchs. It’s the burial site of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer among other notable figures. We didn’t go inside the great Abbey. Eric and I have been inside before and the girls, well let’s just say visiting another church in Europe isn’t high on their list of things to do. Someday, when they are older, if they come back to London, they will appreciate it more and they can visit it then.
Off in the distance we could see Big Ben. We headed behind Westminster Abbey where the Palace of Westminster sits on the banks of the River Thames, also known as the House of Parliament.
This magnificently ornate building is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the British Parliament.
It’s impossible to fit this enormous building into one photo from such close range.
And attached to the House of Parliament is one of the most iconic images of London - Big Ben. Did you know that Big Ben isn’t actually the clock but the bell inside the clock? Neither did I.
We crossed the mighty River Thames. It is possible to get the entire House of Parliament building in one frame from the other side of the River.
Just on the other side of the river sits the London Eye, also known as the Millennium Wheel because, you guessed it, it was formally opened on December 31, 1999. It’s the tallest ferris wheel in Europe and when it was constructed back in 1999, it was the tallest in the world. I can attest to its size. It is tall! Scary tall, and I’m not afraid of heights. Each air-conditioned capsule holds 25 people who are free to walk around inside and look at the spectacular view it gives of London. We didn’t ride on the great ferris wheel. Given the size, the girls were very hesitant, the lines were very long, and the tickets are expensive. I would have enjoyed it, but not with a child who was freaked out and crying the entire time because they wanted off. We’ve had this happen on rides before. Maybe next time.
We were going to follow the River Thames towards the beautiful Tower Bridge, another iconic symbol of London. There is a wonderful walkway that follows along the banks of the River that would take us right there. We couldn’t see the Tower Bridge at this point. It was around the bend in the River and then down a ways. I hadn’t realized how far of a walk it would be having failed to look up that little piece of information when we were planning our walkabout. But ignorance is bliss right? And we love to walk so off we went.
It wasn’t a dull walk mind you. We were in London after all. The scenery along the River Thames is beautiful and we had plenty of entertainment from all sorts of street performers.
This lady in gold is heading home after her shift is over. Or maybe to her next performing location. Her act is to stand perfectly still as if she was a statue on a box. Her costume was magnificent and if it weren’t for the eerily human eyes peering out of her head under the gold makeup, she would have truly been a statue.
Lunch! A hot dog and a bag of chips. Very American I know, but easy to eat while you walk and take in the sights. Not the cuisine we would normally do, but we were all hungry and didn’t really feel like sitting down inside for a meal just yet.
Another performer, or maybe a sand artist is a better description. His work was amazing, but this is England and it was sad to think that at any moment the skies could open and wash this beautiful sculpture away.
The Millennium Bridge. As we walked past it, the Harry Potter fan in me could see death eaters whizzing under the bridge causing it to fall apart and drop into the river below as they left a trail of death and destruction in their wake upon orders from their master, Lord Voldemort. In reality, the Bridge opened in June 2000 but didn’t stay open for long as there were reports of an uncomfortable swaying motion as you crossed the bridge. After only two days, the Bridge was closed for modifications to eliminate the wobble. It wouldn’t reopen for two more years.
We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre which sits just off the banks of the River Thames. The original Globe Theatre was built by Shakespeare’s playing company back in 1599. The Theatre you see today is a reconstruct which opened in 1997 close to the site of the original theatre.
Another street performer – a dancing boy. No, just kidding. The real act is the gentleman playing the tuba which flames shot out of every now and again. Now how does he do that? The little boy who didn’t look tall enough to be walking – he was just a spectator passing by who seemed to really like the tuba music and decided to join the act and show off his dancing ability. Together they drew quite the crowd and laughs.
Finally we made it to our destination – the great Tower Bridge, completed in 1894. What a majestic bridge this is. As we approached, we were treated to the sight of the drawbridge located between the two towers being raised to let a sailboat pass. This stopped traffic for a long time and in London, there is a lot of traffic. As it went back down, we made our way to the bridge to cross over on foot. which is a much faster way to cross this bridge.
Just on the other side of the River Thames sits the Tower of London. It looks more like a fortress than a tower to me, but that is the name. The Tower of London dates back to 1066 and throughout it’s very long history has served as a royal residence, a prison, its been besieged several times as its control is important to the control of the entire country, and currently it houses the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. We had hoped to get inside to see the Crown Jewels among other things but it was not to be. By the time we arrived after our long walk, it was mid afternoon and the Tower would only be open for a couple more hours. We were told the line to see the Crown Jewels was almost two hours long and for the steep price of admission, it wasn’t quite worth it on that day. Oh well, we still thoroughly enjoyed our walk along the Thames.
We grabbed some delicious warm roasted almonds from a street vendor to snack on and decided to head towards St. Paul’s Cathedral which would take us through the business district of London. As we started our walk towards the Cathedral, we passed this pub. Oh I just love the names of the pubs here in England! Not sure this one sounds very appetizing though.
London is full of amazing and interesting skyscrapers. This unique building which looks as if it is either broken or not completed at the top is called The Shard. I don’t think I need to explain why.
We actually passed it on our walk along the south bank of the Thames but since I am sharing skyscrapers with you here, I thought this was a more appropriate place for the photo.
The Leadenhall Building – also know as “the Cheesegrater.”
This is by far one of the coolest buildings I have ever seen. We called it The Egg, but in London it is know as The Gherkin. A gherkin is a specific type of small pickled cucumber. I bet the building process was a wonder to watch as this unique example of contemporary architecture took shape in the London skyline.
And this one we never figured out. Is it some kind of a heating/cooling system running all these huge buildings in the heart of London, or is it a piece of contemporary architecture intended to look like the mechanical innards of one of these great skyscrapers but actually filled with offices or apartments? In London, it could be either.
There were all sorts of beautiful buildings we passed as we wandered the streets of the business district,
and there were plenty of places to sit and rest our weary feet while Eric ran around taking photo after photo after photo.
Finally, after nearly six miles of walking, we made it to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
This great Cathedral was the site of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, held funerals for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and survived bombings during World War II. Again, we did not go inside. Eric and I were in this beautiful church many years ago, climbing 528 stairs to stand atop of the great dome for a view of London from above. You have to pay an admission fee to get inside of the Cathedral, and after six miles of walking, we knew the girls would not be interested in climbing 528 stairs with us again no matter how beautiful the view is.
By now, it was late afternoon and there had been very little whining despite the long trek we had made that day around London. Eric had been on his best behavior so a treat was in order.
Just kidding. The girls had been real troopers all day so we ducked into a cozy pub for a bit of a rest and some refreshments.
We had dinner reservations at an Indian joint in Soho so we jumped back onto the Underground and headed down a quiet side street to the Masala Zone where we enjoyed curries, naan, chutneys and a few things I’m not quite sure what they were but they tasted great.
As we left the restaurant, we ran into a surprise just down the street and let me tell you, it is a strange feeling when you are on a different continent and run into something out of the blue that instantly brings you a little taste of home, figuratively speaking of course (thought I needed to add that since we had just left a restaurant). Can you tell what store this is?
How about now?
To some of you, this will mean nothing. But for me, I grew up visiting the city of Red Wing, Minnesota that sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river on a regular basis, home of the great made in the USA work boot - Red Wing Shoes. In fact, we drive through Red Wing all the time when we are traveling to visit Eric’s brother and his family. My sister works for the Red Wing school district. So I have known the Red Wing Shoe brand my entire life and you can imagine my surprise when we ran into this store, a meer two blocks off of Regent Street, one of the most popular shopping streets in London where they usually sell shoes that look like this.
This is expensive real estate. Who knew Red Wing work boots are a fashion statement!
This was our last night in London so we strolled the streets taking in the lights,
passed by a double-decker party bus filled with colorful balloons and complete with a DJ in the front who was pumping out tunes for the entire street to dance to,
stopped at Hamleys Toy Store, a five-floor world of fun complete with kind of creepy life-sized Lego replicas of Prince William and Princess Kate at their wedding, alongside Prince Harry and Prince Charles (this is probably the closest we will ever actually get to royalty so I will take it - oh and sorry for the photo quality - this was taken with the camera on my phone),
and at last, we found ourselves back in the middle of bustling Piccadilly Circus.
It was late, but we weren’t quite done yet. There was one more stop on the Underground to make. We wanted to see Big Ben at night and it did not disappoint.
And across the River Thames was the spectacular sight of the great London Eye lit up in red. Now we were done. Time to head back to the hotel. What a great day in London. I don’t know if we will make it back again during our two year stay here in England. We have so many places yet to visit. Oh, wait – I have to come back. I never got my I LOVE LONDON t-shirt. I can’t buy an I LOVE LONDON t-shirt anywhere but in London, right?