Monday, June 20, 2016

UK trip II: Westminster and Whitehall

Day two:  This was the coldest day!  For a good part of our trip, the weather was cool and a bit showery, and I was more than okay with that (my hometown was having 95+ degree days, and I was thrilled to be missing them, as I happily told every Brit that tried to apologize to me for the weather).  This day was really cold and windy, though, and even I got a bit chilled.  We spent the day in the Whitehall neighborhood, mostly; first we took the tube to Embankment station so that we could walk by Charing Cross (which is a Victorian re-enactment of a medieval memorial to Edward I's wife Eleanor) and Lord Nelson up on his column before going to Westminster.  Walking down Whitehall, I was overwhelmed by buildings, statues, and massive monuments to the glories of Empire.  It's actually a bit disconcerting; it's so at odds with how we think today that is actually a bit surprising to come upon statues of, say, Clive of India.



Westminster Abbey is also overwhelming.  It's a glorious, huge medieval church, and it's also a hodgepodge of monuments and memorials to everyone you've ever heard of (and a lot you haven't), all piled up on top of each other.  You aren't allowed to take photos, so I don't have any to share.  These days tourists are directed through a particular route, so first there are lots of elaborate 18th-century things with allegories about death and resurrection, or the person's eminence in life (Neptune was a favorite figure, signifying dominion over the ocean), and so on.  Prime Ministers galore.  Tombs of eminent scientists.  Finally, we got to the central altar, which is where the cosmati pavement is.  I have a thing for this pavement (see this post), so I stood there looking at it for quite a long time.

After that, it was royalty time.  The kings and queens are mostly at one end of the church.  Elizabeth has a hugely fancy tomb with her sister Mary stuck in at the side.  Then it's on to Poet's Corner, where you can visit Chaucer, Johnson, and Handel, along with memorials to many others.  I snuck back to see the pavement again before we went in the direction of the exit, still seeing famous names at every other step (Isaac Watts! The Wesley brothers!).  We could not get in to see the chapter house, because--if you can believe it--it was closed for a Gucci photo shoot.  We could hear recordings of the Abbey choir coming from the room.  Odd.

After that, we visited the Jewel Tower, which is all that's left of a once-large medieval complex; now, it's just three rooms stacked onto a spiral staircase.  It's beautifully preserved, because it was used mainly as storage, so nobody ever bothered to mess it up by making it more stylish.
Jewel Tower
In the Jewel Tower


Boudicca and the Eye
On Westminster Bridge




We walked around the neighborhood--we had meant to peek into Parliament, but there was a lot of fenced-off area for construction and no visible means of getting in, so we dropped it and took a look at Westminster Bridge instead.  After getting thoroughly chilled in the wind, we walked back up Whitehall and waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms.

Line for War Rooms, with Clive watching over us.


The War Rooms is a museum located in the actual underground rooms that served as Britain's nerve center during the war.  It's a massive warren, quite a bit bigger than I expected!  There are map rooms and telephones and offices and bedrooms.  They've recently added a second museum that is just about Churchill's life, and it's really interesting too, though we were so footsore by then that we sort of skipped the more youthful sections.  I particularly liked the Enigma machine.  I bought a great book about wartime posters at the shop, and a tea towel.

Admiralty Arch

Gunnery wears a helmet and sits on a cannon.
We then walked past the Horse Guards arena, where they were preparing for some massive event.  Police everywhere (and some carrying guns like I'd only expect to see on South American police!), and flags for every country in the Commonwealth.  In fact, come to think of it, there were a truly remarkable number of flags all over the place.  Union Jacks all down the Mall, Royal Navy flags all over Admiralty Arch...it eventually dawned on us that it was Coronation Day and there was going to be some sort of big event.  Admiralty Arch, by the way, is proof that you can make an allegorical representation of just about anything; it has two statues, of Gunnery and Navigation.

We weren't done yet!  After a little rest and snack, we popped into St. Martin's in the Fields, where someone was rehearsing on a harpsichord, and took a look at the cafe in the crypt.  Then we crossed the street to Trafalgar Square, which is very crowded indeed.  That's where you go to see street performers, so my daughters got free rings made by a fellow who does that, and there was plenty of music (I like the music, but I'm not so wild about the amplifiers they all have now).  The latest thing in street performing is levitation.  There were three separate Yodas, and three or four other characters, all 'floating' and letting kids take pictures with them.  We took pictures with the lions below Lord Nelson, and left it at that.


Finally, we went to the Waterstones across the street--a wonderful bookstore, at which I could not spend nearly as much money as I would have liked.  First things first: I looked in the children's section for DWJ books and found two that needed replacing in my own collection, woohoo!  My Power of Three was bought 20 years ago, last time I was in the UK, and pages are falling out, so it was good to get a new one.  I bonded with the girl at the register over our mutual DWJ love.


Random thoughts and observations:
  • I was kind of surprised to see the zillions of England flags everywhere--not just for the Coronation Day stuff, but all over the place.  I eventually figured out that this was mainly because of Euro 2016, the European soccer championships, which was going on right then and of course everybody was for the England team.  Later on, there was a bunch of news about Russian fans attacking English and Welsh fans, and about tension between the England and Wales factions.  I'm sure everybody knows much more about this than I do.  Anyway, I had kind of gotten the impression previously that people didn't really like to fly the English flag any more.  Is soccer the exception to this, or is it more popular now?  I like flags, so I'm all for popularity of flags.
  • Besides soccer, the big news was about the upcoming referendum--should the UK stay in the EU or leave?  It's called Brexit (Britain/Exit) and we saw a whole lot of signs about "I'm IN" or "Vote Leave."  After just two weeks of reading all the news about it, I'm not informed enough to have an opinion.

4 comments:

Ruth said...

I like flags, too. (Don't you just love the Olympics? When people are patriotic about their country, but still come together and compete.) Anyway, so exciting. I'm enjoying your story.

Gin Jenny said...

I'm glad y'all got to see Westminster Abbey! That was one thing I almost missed when I was in London the first time, and I was really glad I hadn't. Seeing the monarchs' tombs, Elizabeth and Mary in particular, was just great.

And Waterstones! Lovely, lovely Waterstones! I cannot walk into a Waterstones, especially one of the big locations, without buying like twelve things. :p

Joy said...

Nice angle on Boudicca with the London Eye framing her!

Kristen M. said...

Ooh, maybe I should pause my search for a copy of Hexwood and actually buy one next year in person. That would be fun!