Memoirs of a Young Traveler: London, Day 2

On my previous trip to London, I got stuck jumping up and down trying to see over peoples heads as the British guards marched down the street for the royal tradition. After about 15 minutes of standing there, the bulk of the ceremony was over and at most I saw the top of those silly British military fur caps. Military tradition may not be my forte or even pique my interest, but being in London, I decided I should try to see more than hats this time.

Somehow I got lucky with my seat: right up in front against the rail, with no worry of my view being obstructed. So I stood and I waited. The police stopped the traffic in front of Buckingham Palace and the sound of drums began to emerge. The guards strode down the street, funny hats and all, and then went through the gates to Buckingham Palace. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that A.A. Milne’s poem wasn’t echoing in my head, with his drawings of Christopher Robin dancing before my eyes: “They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace/Christopher Robin went down with Alice.” But, despite young Christopher Robin egging on this grand idea of the guard, it really wasn’t that exciting. It’s mostly just a lot of marching and stopping and drum beating.

And yet, despite how uneventful it all really is, there is something nice about it. After all these years, after all the advancements in technology and the changes in the world’s political environment, there still remains this one tradition. Every day, rain or shine, they march to Buckingham Palace and change the guard.

Buckingham Palace was the perfect jumping block to head towards Big Ben and Parliament and Westminster Abbey. I strolled through St. James’ Park—the Queen’s park—past ornate buildings and exhibits, even got mistaken as a local.

When I’m visiting a new place, more than looking like a tourist, I hate feeling like tourist. Most of the time, I don’t need to go into every building, and even with my love of photography, I do not need to photograph everything I see. First and foremost, I want to feel the pulse of where I am, get a sense of the culture, the driving force of the people and atmosphere I’m in. It means taking my time going from point “A” to point “B.” Sucking in every detail, from the way the street curves, to the way the people around me walk. It means looking at the details instead of the big picture. Being in London, and truly experiencing London for the first time I had to go to the tourist sites, see the famous spots I read about in history books and see in the news. But, as I strolled along from site to site I tried my best to capture what the city was really about. So this is what I did as I meandered from Buckingham Palace to Parliament. I just took in the city.

***

Big Ben is a photographer’s dream. As I approached the building I don’t think I saw one angle or one type of lighting that reflected poorly on the building. From wherever I stood it was photogenic. The same was true of the Parliament buildings. I could have stood for hours simply taking photos of these two structures, from different angles, in different lighting.

That would never have been possible though. The mass of people circling through the area made it virtually impossible to stand for more than 5 seconds in one place. People shuffling in and out of their offices. Tourists pushing and stumbling over one another to get the best view. Protesters gathering to ensure the government hears their opinions.

You think you’re witnessing some of the most beautiful buildings you’ve ever seen, and then, you turn around. Across the street, covered in all of its history, exuding this sense that it belongs, is Westminster Abbey. I had the unfortunate coincidence to arrive only a week or two after the Royal Wedding, an event I cared very little about, so the area was encircled by even more tourists than I assume typical, for a weekday. The moment you turn around and see the abbey though you’re filled with awe. I barely noticed the giant Somali protest on the edge of the abbey grounds, they were drowned out by the building’s presence.

As much as I had loved the British Library earlier in the day, Westminster Abbey was the highlight of my second day in London. It combined all the things I love about traveling and being in a foreign place: exquisite architecture, history, culture, photography.

The moment I stepped into the Abbey I felt like I had been taken back in time about 500 years. The whole thing is absolutely breathtaking. Every corner I turned there was something unique or some great figure either entombed or immortalized: Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Issac Newton, William Shakespeare.

There were people roaming around speaking loudly, pushing by as though the building was simply a pit stop on a long list of places to see before the end of the day. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have a long itinerary for the day myself, but there was something about Westminster Abbey that made me quiet and contemplative, something that tugged at me as though it was trying to keep me there. If I hadn’t had such a short window of time to spend in London, and a laundry list of things I had to see before I left, I probably would have spent the remainder of my day there. I wonder if the people who passed up going inside realized what they were missing?

It is an extreme shame that they do not allow photographs inside the building. All the nooks and crannies, the hidden corners, it’s a shame I couldn’t somehow brings those back and show everyone. Because, I think every person who walks through, really walks through, sees something different. Everyone is walking away with their own Westminster Abbey. Catching and clinging to different parts of the history, to different religious aspects, to different parts of the architecture.

***

After spending almost 2 hours wandering the halls of Westminster Abbey, I made my way to Trafalgar Square. Beyond the huge column with Admiral Nelson on top, I was not entirely sure what to expect. What I found, however, was a sea of people. Everywhere you turned people were taking staged photographs or meeting up with loved ones who had been wandering around in different areas. It’s a watering hole. The perfect place to stop and rest your feet after walking and standing for hours.

I’m not a fan of extremely busy places, so I didn’t stay long. And, having little knowledge of British military history, I could hardly appreciate Nelson’s column. Regardless though, I paused for a few minutes to catch my breath and stand and stare at the outside of the National Gallery, a building, which I’m sure, if I had more interest in art museums, would have been amazing. Just from the outside you could tell if was beautiful inside.

As I stood there, and thought about all the buildings I had seen so far that day: Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, not to mention all the buildings along Whitehall, and the National Gallery, it made me sad that we don’t make buildings like that anymore. We build now to get the buildings up. We build for efficiency not beauty. A sad thought considering today so many people travel to see the exquisite architecture from times long ago. I doubt that people will stop travelling in the future simply because the buildings of today are not as beautiful of the buildings from hundreds of years ago. But, architecture can say so much about the culture of a people. With our lack or sculpture and detail, our clean lines, our reliance on concrete, are we as a culture becoming boring? I hope not.

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