The notion of England as a gentle, fabled land freeze framed sometime in the 1930s, when community life revolved around the post office, the country pub and the local vicarage. The country is now better known for vibrant cities with great night life and attractions, contrasted with green and pleasant countryside and national parks. After several years of Tony Blair’s Labor government, “new” Britain is a country with a fresh and cuddly Royal family and all of the trappings of a leading economic power. Still, a country that gives a wig-wearing ex-junkie balladeer a knighthood must be doing something right.
London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First Worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won’t know where you are exactly, the names will at least look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, you will need to make maximum use of the Tube, London’s underground train system.
We love visiting London because it not only gives us an opportunity to spend an entire paycheck on dinner 😦 but also have dinner with friends and hang out in the trendiest parts of Piccadilly.
Tower of London
The Tower has been a castle, a palace and a prison during its long history and it remains one of the capital’s most important sights. A good introduction is provided by the free, hour-long guided tours that depart every half-hour, hosted by the chubby Beefeaters (more soberly known as Yeoman Warders).
The oldest part of the complex is William the Conqueror’s White Tower, begun in 1076. It now houses portions of the Royal Armories and the austere Chapel of St. John, which, dating from 1080, is the oldest church in London. Although popularly notorious as a site of aristocrat beheadings, only seven people were ever executed on Tower Green; a plaque in the center of the green records their names. The 19th-century Waterloo Barracks, north of the White Tower, contain the celebrated Crown Jewels, the centerpiece of which is the Imperial State Crown, set with a 317-carat diamond.
Despite its mock-Gothic appearance, Tower Bridge was actually a pioneering steel-framed structure. London’s most famous bridge, which opened in 1894, was once described as a colossal symbol of the British genius.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Half the world saw the inside of St. Paul’s Cathedral when Charles and Di tied the knot here in 1981. The venerable building was constructed by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, but it stands on the site of two previous cathedrals dating back to 604. Its famous dome, the biggest in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome, no longer dominates London as it did for centuries, but it’s still quite a sight when viewed from the river. Definitely try the whispering gallery, which carries words spoken close to its walls to the other side of the dome.
The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is unique in its coverage of conflicts, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present day. It seeks to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and war-time experience.
Living by the river at Whitehall aggravated William III’s asthma, so, in 1689, he and Mary, looking for a new home, bought this modest Jacobean mansion then known as Nottingham House. Wren and Hawksmoor (and, later, William Kent) were drafted in to redesign the building, which remained the favored royal residence until the reign of George III (he preferred Buckingham House). The future Queen Victoria was born in the palace in 1819, and it has latterly been known as the last home of Princess Di (only one of a number of royal residents). Lauren is pictured below standing in front of the entrance where numerous wreaths and flowers once were deposited as a memorial to Princess Di.
The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited churches in the Christian world. It’s a beautiful building, full of morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shivers down your spine when the choirboys clear their throats. In September 1997, millions of people around the world saw the inside of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di’s funeral service. Since then the number of visitors has increased by 300%, and the visit is now more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.
Over the entrance to the abbey, are the ten martyrs of the 20th century. These are people who the Church of England believe have contributed the most to benefit others. See if you can figure out who they are! There are also numerous memorials and headstones for some of the leading people of our time.
Houses of Parliament
The awesome neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament has been restored thanks to a recent spring clean of the facade. The building includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so the grandeur of the exterior is let down only by the level of debate in the interior (’hear, hear’). There’s restricted access to the chambers when they’re in session, but a visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time on the most recognizable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.
Sherlock Holmes Museum
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson lived in a Victorian lodging house at 221b Baker Street between 1881-1904, according to the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The house was built in 1815 and is listed by the Government to protect its architectural and cultural heritage. It is open as a museum dedicated to the life and times of Sherlock Holmes, and the interior has been faithfully maintained for posterity exactly as described in the published stories.
Five-thousand-year-old Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe, but it remains both a tantalizing mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience. It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known about the site’s purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not the site’s religious significance but the tenacity of the people who brought some of the stones all the way from South Wales. It’s estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch.
The downside of Stonehenge is that it’s fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes between new age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.
Windsor Castle, with its fairy tale turrets and towers, is the largest continually inhabited castle in the world. Since it was begun by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century to its prestigious stature as the ancestral home of Queen Elizabeth II today, Windsor has stood for nearly a millennium. Winsor originated as a motte and bailey fortification as part of a defensive program instituted by William the Conqueror after his victory in 1066. It was built on the only naturally defensive site on a ridge above the Thames Valley. The castle was used primarily for defense purposes until Henry II rebuilt the castle in stone, concurrently adding extensive expansions for Windsor’s use as a State residence. The basic curtain wall and the Round Tower (as pictured at the top of this page) were also begun by Henry II. Henry III is credited with the addition of 5 circular towers added to the curtain wall. He also remodeled his predecessor’s State apartments and added a new Chapel to the castle.
Warwick is situated near the center of England, a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. The key site in Warwick is, you guessed it, Warwick Castle! The castle at Warwick was founded in 1086 and is the finest medieval castle in England and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United Kingdom.
A fortified town (burh) was first established at Warwick by Aethelflaed, widow of King Ethelred, in 914-6. The town was fortified against the threat of Danish invasions. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror moved northwards from London, to subdue resistance in the Midlands and Northern England. He founded castles at Warwick and Nottingham, run by his Norman barons.
The golden city of Bath has been welcoming visitors for over 2,000 years. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Bath presents some of the finest architectural sights in Europe, such as the Roman Baths, Pump Room, and the Abbey. Definitely visit the Roman Baths where you can see how the Romans lived and even drink a cup of water pumped up from the spring. They sell it at the far side of the Pump Room from a little counter for 45 pence. Do not attempt to send it back when you suspect it is harbouring the remains of Jane Austen’s dog; it’s supposed to taste like that.
Directly adjacent to the Roman Baths is the Bath Abbey. There’s been a church on this site for at least a thousand years, but the present one is “only” 500 years old, celebrating its half-millennium in 1999. The carvings on the front show the dream of Bishop Oliver King who had it built (the last Tudor church in Britain before the Reformation). Angels climbed up and down a ladder to heaven in his vision, but the only way the stonemasons could distinguish between those upwardly and downwardly mobile was to make the ones descending do it head-first. Below are pictures of the Bath Abbey and The Roman Baths.
For centuries a country market town, it became a tourist center because of its association with William Shakespeare, who was born and died there; his grave is in the parish church of Holy Trinity.
The Shakespeare Center includes a library and art gallery (opened 1881) and a theater (opened 1932). Every year from March until October, Shakespeare’s plays are performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. We visited Shakespeares’ birthplace pictured below.