Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Walk in Westminster

Since I enjoyed the Inns of Court walk so much, I thought it would be fun for Josh and I to sample some other London Walks on our own.  Sunday afternoon we braved the hordes of tourists in Westminster to meet Graham, our guide for the 2:45 tour of this historic London neighborhood.  As you can see, it was a lovely, sunny day, which we haven't seen in a while, so tourists and locals alike were out taking advantage of the nice weather.

The nice thing about these walks is you don't have to book in advance.  You just show up at the specified Tube station at the scheduled time and locate the guide (who is holding up a bunch of London Walks brochures) and pay him the £8 fee.  They have them 7 days/week at various times of day and cover a broad range of topics and neighborhoods.  Maybe next time we can do the Harry Potter film locations walk, or the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour walk...

Anyway, we started out across the street from Big Ben, where Graham explained (as we already knew) that "Big Ben" is the name of the bell, not the clock or the tower.  He managed to time his talk about the clock tower so that it struck three just after he finished telling us that the chimes are a variation on a piece by Handel.
Graham introduces us to Westminster
It should come as no surprise that the iconic Parliament building was once a royal palace.  It stands in marked contrast to the government buildings that we are accustomed to in the US.  Even the Capitol seems quite drab (albeit significantly less ostentatious) in comparison.  Westminster Palace has been on this site since the 11th century, but has burned down and been rebuilt several times, with only a few remnants of the original structure. It has over 1,000 rooms and 3 miles of hallways.
Oliver Cromwell statue
The tall tower at the end is called the Victoria Tower.  It houses the parliamentary archives and the Sovereign's Entrance, where the Queen enters the building to open Parliament or for other ceremonial function.

Across the street is the Jewel Tower, one of the surviving structures of the original palace.  It once housed royal treasures -- hence the name -- but is now a museum.
Jewel Tower
Around the corner is St. Margaret's Church, which sits in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.  It is where the common people went to worship, as only the royals were allowed in the Abbey.  They don't allow photography inside, and the exterior is being restored, so I didn't get many good photos.
St. Margaret's Church
Westminster Abbey (rear view)
Graham took us to a park just south of Parliament called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we hung out with Rodin's Burghers of Calais.
The Burghers of Calais
We also passed by the Buxton Memorial Fountain, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in 1834.
Buxton Memorial Fountain
We ended up in a quiet residential area called Smith Square, with a deconsecrated church in the middle.  St John's is known as The Footstool, because it has four towers that make it look like an overturned footstool, and is now used as a concert hall.  One of the streets off the square, Lord North Street, was once lined with public bomb shelters, and there are still faded remnants of the signs directing people to them on each house. (Pavements = sidewalks)
At the end of the street was the headquarters of the Liberal Democrats.  I thought the bicycle was a nice touch.
Liberal Democrats HQ
To give you an idea of real estate prices in this neighborhood, the house at the end of this street recently sold for £20 million, which is nearly $33 million!
Only millionaires live here!
As expected, this area is dotted with historical markers.  T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), lived just down the street at one time.
We walked through the central courtyard of Westminster School, which dates back to the 14th century and is one of the top schools in England.  Many famous entertainers attended this school, including John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov, Helena Bonham-Carter, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Dido.
Medieval building at Westminster School
We as we came out the other end of the courtyard, we found ourselves right in front of Westminster Abbey (not a huge surprise).  I haven't been inside since I was a teenager, and my most recent attempt was thwarted by hordes of Royal Wedding tourists, so I'll have to go back sometime during visiting hours.
Westminster Abbey (front view)
Our tour ended there, so after thanking our guide and parting ways with the rest of the group, we walked over to St. James Park.  We stopped for tea at Inn the Park (which was out of scones again!), and Josh attempted (and thankfully failed) to consume a meringue the size of his head.  We were about to head home when we heard music and discovered a crowd of people soaking up the sun around a bandstand.  We found a couple vacant lawn chairs -- most parks provide them in the summer -- and listened to the concert for a while.
Bandstand in St. James Park
They played a few classical pieces, and theme music from Harry Potter and the James Bond movies, but it really got surreal when they launched into a rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.  The crowd really got into it, and you could hear people singing along: "Gallileo, Gallileo"
The Band
We thought our minds were sufficiently blown, but then we came across this statue of King George III that someone had embellished with a jaunty traffic-cone jester hat. 
King George III, champion of traffic safety?
As we passed through Trafalgar Square on our way back to Waterloo train station, we noticed that we had nearly reached the one-year mark for the 2012 Olympics countdown.  I may be back in that area on Thursday, in which case I'm sure I'll snap another photo.  I suspect London will be a bit of a mess for the next 12 months, as they scramble to upgrade the Tube and spruce the city up for the Olympics.  Hopefully the people of London will continue to benefit from all the improvements long after the Games have ended.
Only a year away...

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't believe the size of those meringues we saw in Whole Foods! Head-sized indeed!


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