It seems unfair to stuff a week in London into one post, but most of my time (this past April) was spent at the National Archives, the British Library and a few other research sites, so I only spent a day exploring. I had also spent a week in London in 2004 and (unsurprisingly) the city was unchanged.
For the purpose of this post we will go through the city in a circle, and technically we are not in London at all. We are in Westminster, a suburb of the ancient city, but the government buildings and palaces are there, so we all conveniently call the area London, by default. Here is your humble correspondent at Buckingham Palace – official residence of the Queen.
I happened to be there the week of an international conference, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in which prime ministers from current and former British colonies came to chat and pose for photos. Here is the view of The Mall, which is the street leading from Buckingham Palace to the National Art Gallery, and beyond. I assume the placement of the flags was based on population, with those of Britain, Canada and Australia closest to the Palace, behind me in the photo
and the flags of Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (on the left) and Brunei and Antigua (on the right) farthest from the palace, which stands in the distance. You may notice there is no car traffic, because they street is usually closed on Sundays.
Going farther up The Mall is Trafalgar Square, home to the National Gallery of Art, but I am remiss to explain why I did not take a photo of the gallery. Instead, I took one of the Canadian Embassy. Its official name is High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom, which is not nearly as impressive as the building itself.
Turning back from The Mall we go down Whitehall, leading to the government buildings. Halfway between Trafalgar Square and the houses of Parliament is something called Horse Guards Parade, the place where men in jovial uniforms and shimmering helmets ride in on horseback, to the delight of tourists. This is the parade area. For the purpose of the photo, this was taken on a side street, with Whitehall on the other side of the buildings.
Farther down Whitehall is the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets, and (again) the space is so confined I had to take a photo from across the Thames River to get the full effect. The famous clock tower called Big Ben is under renovation, and obscured by scaffolding. On the left of the large tower with the flag, in the distance behind the trees, are the towers of Westminster Abbey.
Now imagine you are in the same place I was when I took the photo: the southern bank of the Thames River. We will proverbially turn around to the sight of Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ranking clergyman in the Church of England (a.k.a. the Anglican Church). This is the side of the palace that runs along the river. The modest black door leads to a courtyard behind the wall, then goes to the palace archives, where I did some research for a book. It was in this archive that I found a letter written in 1762 which warned that the American colonies might someday want independence. It happened fourteen years later, of course.
To the right of the photo above is the brick guardhouse, built about 1495, and here is the same guardhouse from the front. I had mistakenly thought this was the entrance to Lambeth Palace itself, because it looks so old. Alas, it is not. Beside it on the right is a former church called Saint-Mary-at-Lambeth, now turned into a museum of gardening.
Now we will cross over the Thames River again and go on to a better known religious site, Westminster Abbey. It is across the street from the Palace of Westminster – where Parliament meets, remember? – and it is also in a rather confined space, so I had a devil of a time (pun intended) finding the right spot to get a photo of the whole building.
It is here that many in the royal family are buried – Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V, Mary, Queen of Scots, and others, along with some bishops and nobility from hundreds of years ago. It is beautiful and dark and spooky inside, but one thing that struck me about the site is this: the British charge twenty pounds (each) for tourists to enter Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a mile or so away, while the French charge nothing for tourists to enter the equally famous Notre-Dame, and other medieval churches in Paris.