I recently had a chance to visit London on business travel. I stayed in a hotel near the Westminster Bridge. I had some free time on the first and last days of the trip, so I made my way around the city to see the sights.
On the first day, I walked across Westminster Bridge past Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, landmarks that are centuries old. I felt like an intruder–like I wasn’t supposed to be so close to these historic sites where so many notable men and women walked about and lived their lives. There are so many people of historical significance buried at Westminster Abbey, it is mind-boggling; people like Sir Isaac Newton, Oliver Cromwell, Jane Austen, and Sebert, King of the East Saxons, was supposedly buried there in AD 616. As I strolled through St. James Park near Number 10 Downing Street, I imagined Sir Winston Churchill doing the same, blowing off steam. Walking so close to Buckingham Palace was equally unnerving. The sight the Union Jack raised high, signifying Her Majesty was living there at that very moment, gave me reason to pause and reflect. A few more steps, and I passed Apsley House, the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon at Waterloo.
I loved the painted reminders on the street at every crosswalk, reminding me to “LOOK LEFT” or “LOOK RIGHT”. Very courteous and helpful people, these Brits.
In fact, I would suggest cordiality is an endearing quality of the English. I wish we were more like them. I was in a souvenir shop waiting to make a purchase behind a loud and obnoxious American. The vendor very patiently put up with the mindless chatter and commotion this uncouth American was spouting out. I rolled my eyes and heaved a sigh.
The last place I visited that day was the British Museum. To get there, I hiked past the Horse Guards. I think the “Horse Guards” is like the war ministry, but there are literal horse guards as well. These are men mounted on horses, stoic, like the firm-faced guys in the redcoats and bearskin caps who don’t move a muscle. Even the horses are stoic.
The British Museum is amazing. I’ve never been so close to so many ancient artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Cyrus Cylinder telling of the fall of Babylon at the hands of the Persians, the Black Obelisk of Shalamassar III, the Mummy Case of Cleopatra, Assyrian Winged Beasts and many other relics I’ve only read about or seen pictures of in encyclopedias. If I wasn’t so tired (jet lag, and a lot of walking that day), I could’ve spent hours there, looking up each piece, carefully checking my notes, trying to remember each item’s significance.
Then I had to do “work” for a couple of days–which actually was pretty cool as well since it was the Farnborough Air Show. Farnborough is a quaint little suburb of London with 57,000 inhabitants. When the air show comes bi-annually, the town is overwhelmed with tourists, aviators, and geeky aeronautical engineers from all over the world. It took local transportation two days to figure out how to shuttle people back and forth from the train station to the show. I saw the behemoth Airbus A380 and the military A400M fly several times that week, as well as F-18s, Gripens, and the Eurofighter, each doing tricks at lightning speed–amazing feats of engineering.
I know it rains a lot in London. But the first day of the show, they were deluged. They had to cancel the show because the grounds flooded. At one point, my colleague and I were stranded, unable to get to our belongings because a foot of water separated us from our chalet.
In the evening, my friend Pierre chose the eating venues. We ate at a traditional pub the first day, and I got a shepherd’s pie and a pint. I can actually eat European breads without them wreaking havoc in my digestive tract like bread in the states. It was quite delicious. Pierre selected a “Modern English” venue the second night. (I was not fooled –“Modern English” food is really French). On a different night, I had a cheesebreadish appetizer called Halloumi, which was absolutely phenomenal. Come over to my house sometime; I’ll make it for you.
We took a cab to Pierre’s choice the next night. That’s when I learned about “The Knowledge.” It sounds mysterious, but it’s really just knowing how to get around London. All the cabbies are supposed to know the town by heart, not requiring a GPS. I think I have “The Knowledge” of Cedar Rapids. Impressed? Don’t be.
I had caught a little cold, so on the last day, my germaphobe colleagues shooed me away from the show early and sent me back to the hotel. I didn’t feel great, but I couldn’t sit in my room. I grabbed a city map, put on my running shoes, stuffed some snacks and a water bottle in my backpack and went off to do some exploring.
I began at the National War Museum, the front yard of which was a beautiful garden surrounding a daunting display of 15-inch naval guns. The stuff they have there is amazing. They had a copy of one of Rommel’s battle maps from the African campaign, complete with his handmarkings. There was also an unexploded mine bomb the Germans had dropped on London. I had no one with me, so I could dwell on the things that interested me most–very enjoyable.
I noticed how many children were in that museum, actually paying attention, looking at artifacts, no cellphones in sight. What a pleasure.
After the museum, I determined I would hoof it over to St. George’s cathedral, with its iconic dome made famous by the WWII photograph–fire and smoke all around, the indomitable dome remaining intact. It took a while (I made a few wrong turns!), but I finally got there. Truly amazing. I strolled around the cathedral, continuously gazing up at the elaborate sculptures surrounding the dome itself. As I came around the north side, I noticed a small archway, which I made my way through. Once through the arch, the scene opened up into a busy public square, complete with a large, center fountain, ping pong tables and an enormous, outdoor TV with about hundred lawnchairs facing it. On the TV was some noteworthy politician I couldn’t make out. I grabbed a sandwich and sat down on a bench, observing. My map told me I was next to London’s stock exchange. Sure enough, lots of suits. But there were families too–parents, grandparents, and kids–and many people casually watching the politician talking on the telly. That’s another thing I noticed about Brits–they love their politics. Their new prime minister moved into Number 10 Downing Street while I was there, which was the talk of the town.
I finished my sandwich and pushed on. I wanted to at least see the Tower Bridge, which I did. I crossed London Bridge (which supposedly had fallen down–all lies). My daughter tells me the actual London Bridge is somewhere out in the Western United States. Go figure.
Back on the southern bank of the Thames, I wanted to find an easy way back to my hotel. I discovered this wonderful, meandering walkway down by the river. I think it’s called the “Thames Path”. What a cultural experience! I passed churches that were centuries old. I saw taverns and outdoor restaurants with people enjoying the beautiful weather. There were apartments. I saw a replica of the Globe Theater where they put on plays now and then. I saw a skateboard park, sidewalk performers, and street musicians. Walking the Thames Path was the most homogeneous, cultural experience of all time.
Gazing across the river, I couldn’t help but notice London’s striking mix of old and new architecture. There were modern, odd-shaped and contorted office buildings just down the way from old St. George’s. The Millennium Bridge (made famous by one of the Harry Potter movies) stretched out before me. I grabbed my sketch pad and pencil, found a quiet place just feet above the lapping waves of the Thames, and drew the featured image from my vantage point.
I like London. I like the people there. They live moderately. They are busy people, but well-connected. They have a unique heritage that instills in them a sense of pride and ownership in their little island. I’m glad they are our friends.