Our colleague Marie C. recently traveled to London for the first time, and recounts highlights from her extended layover, Anthony-Bourdain style (but maybe more touristy than gritty). –Frances B., Blog Editor
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in this great city, if only for a few hours. Instead of feeling overwhelmed that the only available plane tickets to Ireland included a long 10 hour layover in London before reaching the Emerald Isle, I felt excited that I was finally going to visit the city I’ve read about! I armed myself with London: A Social and Cultural History 1550-1750, my Cambridge Panda, and my trusty map—ready to take on the iconic city.
As it would happen, rain (whodathunkit?) delayed our flight from New York two hours, providing us even less exploration time than we anticipated. But when we got there, the sun was shining and the Tube was running efficiently, so off we went, leaving Heathrow Airport behind for a couple of hours.
Forty-five minutes later, we were “refresh[ing] ourselves in the network of royal but open space comprising […] Green Park and St. James’s Park” (353). It seems as though we visited London at the perfect time: just before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on a beautiful, hot, sunny day. At first we were a bit disappointed that this giant obstruction kept us from seeing Buckingham Palace, but this feeling faded when we realized that was where the Diamond Jubilee Concert would be held a little over a week later!
We continued our short-lived London adventure by walking like the “fashionable promenaders” (358) of Bucholz & Ward’s book through the picturesque St. James’s Park, complete with views of Parliament through the trees and the London Eye. Although we had a map, we rarely referred to it because we were too busy greedily trying to see all that London had to offer. Luck was on our side; when we were done wandering through the park’s luscious greenery, we were hit with a great view of Big Ben!
We soon found our way to Westminster Abbey. “Apart from those towers, erected in 1745 from designs by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the exterior of the Westminster complex is little altered from what it was in 1550” (359). Anywhere else, its gothic beauty would seem overpowering, but it seems so at home in London. The fact that its been standing for so long, witnessing the coronations, weddings, and funerals of many monarchs and serving as the final resting place for honorable Brits— kings and poets alike—shows this city’s rich history and undying love of creativity and ingenuity.
Alas, as time wasn’t on our side, we couldn’t go into the Abbey to see the Poets’ Corner. Instead, we walked around this massive structure, taking in its architectural charms, accented by colorful flowers. After a quick pit stop in the Abbey Book Shop, which was populated by book after book about Will and Kate, we continued through the Dean’s Yard. I still don’t know, even to this day, if we were allowed to walk through it! There was a group of students celebrating the end of the school year with food, pictures, and laughter, and we realized we were getting pretty hungry. We walked out of the Dean’s Yard and onto Great College Street; we marveled at the fantastic line of Georgian-style buildings and followed this narrow street down toward Parliament.
As we neared the intersection of Great College Street and Little College Street, the Palace of Westminster came into view. I was startled to find out that this isn’t the first Westminster Palace; in fact, the original burned town in 1834: “The nineteenth-century palace, with its distinctive Clock Tower and Big Ben’s famous chime, has become a symbol of London, of Parliament, and of the nation, even more famous than St. Paul’s” (359). For Americans, this is certainly true. Once we beheld this iconographic structure, we felt like we had finally seen the quintessential London in all its splendor.
Now, I know that there are a quite a few things we didn’t see, but between Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament, we think we effectively hit the big wigs on our short walking tour. We followed Great College Street to Victoria Tower Gardens—after all, any bibliophile would tell you that you can’t visit London without seeing the Thames! We relaxed on a bench facing Westminster Bridge, discussing everything we managed to see and relishing in this city’s unique history. As London points out, Wordsworth stood on Westminster Bridge and stated that “Earth hath not anything to show more fair” (362), and that sentiment still carries weight today. There is nowhere else in the world like London, and that in itself should be a reason to visit!
There were only two things left for us to do before we boarded the tube back to Heathrow Airport: Take a picture in one of those infamous red phone booths and eat some traditional fish and chips at a local pub! While Panda didn’t partake in the latter, he certainly was adamant about getting into one of those phone booths.
Marie Cummings is a library marketing extraordinaire for the Press. She actually spent most of her UK trip in Ireland.
Be sure to check out more London snaps on Facebook.