Our first full day in London ended on a very successful note. We enjoyed some of London’s top attractions without incident and were able to navigate the streets of London without getting lost; and when we did miss a street or lose sense of direction, we the map we were given at the tourist office pointed us in the right direction. But we still had a lot to learn, about our environment as well as each other.
We were dead tired by the time we returned to our tiny room on Guilford Street. Our feet sore and aching and exhausted from a day of exploration and discovery, we took time out to refresh ourselves and settle in for a long night of playing cards before it came time for one of us to fall asleep; signaling the end of the evening. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door; not knowing who the person was (all of us being in the room), we curiously opened the door thinking it was housekeeping. However much to our surprise it was UK student who was roaming the halls looking for people to go on a pub crawl. For his sincerity and eagerness, the majority of the group (myself included) decided to hang back and call it an early night (hoping to get up around 8:30 the next day) while Andy went ahead and joined in the pub crawl. Over a half hour later Andy returned, with a dejected look on his face. We were perplexed because he was back so soon; but when he explained to us why it all made sense. Apparently they spent some time unsuccessfully trying to get others to join in this impromptu pub crawl; after which they took the tube to Leicester Square; at which time the organizer asked for five pounds for wrist bands before Andy decided to head back to the hostel. Note to all travelers, you’re not the only person who likes your money; people will take any advantage to scam you out of some cash, no matter how small. If the person organizing the event was able to get at least 4 people to go; he would have made almost the equivalent of $50.00 just by giving away cheap wristbands.
You should be wary of people who offer you deals that are too good to be true, they could be after your money. However there are some deals that are worth taking advantage of. The way we found out about the all day rail passes was from Andy who was given one for free shortly after he arrived in London. Since the rail passes are good until 1 am, when tube travel is at a minimum, people who no longer need them willingly give them out to others who do. Not only are the rail passes good to take, extending the offer is also a common courtesy. Other good deals revolve around attractions. Lucky for us, we had our London Passes which let us into everything we wanted to see, but if you don’t have one or go to a sight that doesn’t accept a London Pass, you could still get money off if you ask if the Concession price includes students. A Concession is anyone who does not fit in the price range of Adult, Child or Group, and can include senior citizens, the disabled and students. The concession policy may vary depending on site and in some cases you may need to pay the adult price; but this is only slightly more than concession. A good rule of thumb when travelling in general is to be a shrewd tourist. Make sure you research the prices of each site beforehand and see if the money is worth the attraction, at the same time ask if there are special rates that could benefit you in the short term and save you money.
Our second day in London started at 10; after grabbing a coffee and breakfast from Costa and heading to the tube station at Russell Square. Today’s trip would be to Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Benjamin Franklin’s House and The Globe Theatre. Although the itinerary appears daunting, in fact many of the sites we only wished to take pictures of (The Franklin House and The Globe being the only two we wanted to tour). The tube for Russell Square dropped us off at Westminster Station; in the heart of the capital. As we walked out we were greeted by the imposing structure of the clock tower of Big Ben, with the Houses of Parliament behind and Whitehall to the right of us. Although “Big Ben” has been used in reference to the tower, it is actually the name given to the bell, shortly after the completion of the clock tower in 1859. The tower was designed by Augustus Pugin; who fell into a bout of madness shortly after completion of what would be his final masterpiece. The clock turned 150 years old on May 31st 2009 and today stands as a testamate to Pugin and Victorian engineering and Neo-Gothic style. The clock was meant to be an addition to the new Parliament; that had just been completed, in the same style. There is a wonderful exhibit inside the clock tower that talks of the history of Big Ben from conception until today, however we had a full day ahead and had a lot to do. Across the road from Parliament is Westminster Abbey; where the crowned heads of England have been crowned and St. Mary’s Cathedral; where the members of Parliament would go to church as well as the resting place of Sir Walter Raleigh after his death in the Tower of London. Unfortunately for us, Westminster Abbey did not accept the London Pass and with a concession rate of £12.00 (three pounds under the regular adult price), we decided to just visit the gift shop, St. Margret’s and took as many pictures of the outside as possible. Moving from Westminster Abbey, our group split up; Andy to explore on his own, while the remaining four of us walked through St. James’ Park to Buckingham Palace. St. James Park is a quaint outdoor park located just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t go into explore further, we noted the beautifully manicured gardens bedecked with colorful flowers and beautiful sculptures. Across the road is the Guard’s Museum which has many exhibits pertaining to the history of this famed regiment whose guards patrol Buckingham Palace and have become a symbol of British national identity. Several yards beyond St. James’ was the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace; the residence of the Royal Family. This palatial home was first built in 1703 by the Duke of Buckingham and later acquired in 1761 by George III.
Although King George had bought the home, he did not live in it (leaving it for his wife Charlotte instead). It was not until 150 years later that Queen Victoria became the first monarch to permanently reside in the home. The day we went the palace was also closed for some unknown reason; however the flag was at full mast showing that the Queen was in residence. To see this beautiful home and the surrounding gardens made me feel awestruck as it is a true symbol of the power of the English Monarchy; although its power has been limited over the past several centuries. It’s unbelievable that within a few hours we saw some of London’s most famous landmarks and our day had just begun!
Moving from British politics to American, our next stop took us to the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street. Between 1757 and 1775, Franklin lived in this modest three story brick home on London’s south east end where he developed some of his most famous inventions such as the Glass Armonica and Bifocals as well as harnessed electricity with his kite experiment. Ironically it was also here where Franklin fought for equal representation of the colonies during the turbulent years of the Stamp and Tea Acts and stands as the only home of Franklin’s that still survives.
Our tour started with a brief introduction by a docent and then a short film on the role of the home as a boarding house during the time Franklin resided there. Next we were introduced to a costumed guide in the role of the daughter of the housekeeper who knew Franklin who then led us through various rooms of the house which had films with sound affects showcasing each part of Franklin’s life in the home. The guide was excellent and played her role very well; it was all the more impressive in that she was in perfect sync with the audio so that it was almost as if she was interacting with the real Benjamin Franklin. If you are expecting a home with an interior decorated during the time Franklin stayed, you’re out of luck. Seeing as the home had been lived in by Franklin for an extended period of time and until recently has been turned into a museum, it is impossible to interpret the home at any one period of Franklin’s life, therefore the decorations are kept at a minimal, but the experience and tour are certainly worth it! My favorite part was seeing some of Franklin’s personal items; such as his bifocals, wallet and several letters written from the home. This house is a shining testament to the impact Franklin made on America and indeed the world.
After our visit to the Franklin House, we decided to head over to the Globe Theatre in Southwarke; but before doing so needed lunch. A few yards from The Globe Theatre is The Real Greek, a fantastic little Greek restaurant that serves authentic Greek food and delicacies for affordable prices. The souvlackie was great and proves that England is not just “Steak and Kidney Pies” and pub food. After a satisfying lunch we headed further back in time to Shakespearean England and the flowering of English literature.
Although the original theatre burned down in the mid 17th century, the reconstructed Globe was lovingly crafted using period construction techniques over the course of 27 years. This mammoth task was directed by exiled American actor Sam Wannamaker and would not be possible without a large amount of money from investors of high re-known to ordinary people. The visitors center shows how the building was constructed from the planning phases, to the completion of the thatched roof; as well as the many costumes, props and musical instruments used to bring the spectator back over 400 years to the time of Shakespeare. The tour then took us to the interior of the theatre itself and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. Walking inside the Globe was like taking a trip back in time with hand hewn floorboards, thatched roof and sturdy roof beams. The hand painted stage was the definite centerpiece; two columns made from single logs dating over 400 years old were turned into columns and marbleized using period painting techniques to add a splash of color to the stage. Figures and designs were also painted on and around the stage area (with trap doors to raise and lower actors where need be). One can only sit back and imagine being there in the early 1600’s and being astounded by the violence of Romeo and Juliet or the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing after paying an amount equal to a week’s salary to see it.
It was getting late by the time we returned once again to 21st century London, but we still had plenty to do. Next to the Globe and literally in front of the Millennium Bridge is the Tate Modern Art Gallery. This museum houses a large collection of modern, post-modern and impressionist art and has ongoing travelling exhibits throughout the year. The museum is free to enter and is open until 9pm; so if you see many sites closing after 6 but are still thirsty for more sightseeing than this is the place for you! Although there were plenty of van Gogh’s, Picasso’s and Dali’s, there was not enough to keep me interested; sorry I am not one who believes hanging silver with dental floss from the ceiling is a “juxtaposition of life and fantasy”, and the special exhibits did not accept London Passes so we decided to catch up with Andy and go out to dinner.
We met Andy in Trafalgar Square; he had apparently come across a free concert series at St. Margaret’s Church nearby and checking out the National Gallery on Trafalgar. We immediately began to scope out places to eat; all for naught as it was 7pm on a Friday night and most of the pubs were packed. In such occasions we relied on MacDonald’s; which serves food past 8 and gives a place to sit. There we deliberated over what we would see before the night drew to a close. Andy suggested that we visit the National Gallery; not only was it free, but also offered a wide range of art from the medieval to modern era with some of the most famous paintings in history on display. With that we quickly woofed down our “small Macs” and headed off for the museum.
Like the Tate Modern, the National Gallery was open till 9 and free. It also had a wider selection of art from all around the world and from all major periods of art history. By walking its halls one can view the major changes in artistic thought and creativity. My favorite gallery was the English masters of the 18th century. Seeing William Hogarth’s “Marriage Ala Mode” up close really hit home for me. As fan of 18th century culture, I’ve seen his engravings and paintings in books many times. His attention to detail and the way he designed his paintings as a series that told a story can be considered the earliest form of “Pop Art”. What’s more, my Julie; who had never seen his work, really got into the images and was curious with how the story progressed in each. It’s heartwarming to see someone who has never heard of an artist you like automatically get sucked into an image, it made his work seem new to me and I took each painting in.
Before visiting the National Gallery, I never thought one could fall in love with a painting; I thought art was something to be admired, to be studied and observed. I thought art was to be placed on a historic plane and compared; who influenced who, what image was groundbreaking enough to be engraved into national memory, but after viewing “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842), my views changed dramatically. It was just after seeing a grouping of Gainsborough’s in the English Masters wing that I decided to go on my own; while Jen, Julie and Laura took a break. As I walked into the French school wing I saw to my right I saw her. Her hazel eyes staring into me, her face with that welcoming expression of youthful curiosity and her right hand almost beckoning me, she seemed more real than just a painting, as if she was just standing there frozen in time. Le Brun had made a career of painting in the salons of Paris throughout the late 18th and early 19th century; even marrying a wealthy art dealer. By the time she painted her self portrait, she was 27 years old, but looked not a day over 20. It might have been the result of artistic bias on her part, but it nonetheless kept me entranced enough to stare at the painting for 15 minutes. I knew now why people find the Mona Lisa so entrancing, but to me she was nothing compared to the 1780’s painter in a straw hat.
By 9pm the museum had cleared out and we looked out over the lights of Trafalgar Square turning its fountains into a purple hazed light show and the column of Lord Nelson (who won the battle which the square is named after) silhouetted against the lights of Big Ben and mini-cabs. We took the tube to Russell Square and glanced at the postcard of the painting that had entranced me at the gallery until we arrived back at the hostel and awaited our final day in London.
Author’s Note: As I was writing this I drew a parallel between my admiration of the painting and love of living in Europe. I came here at first as a student who came for a specific goal of learning, only to return home in December to graduate. But with each passing day I’m falling more in love with the idea of eventually going to graduate school with the possibility of living here permanently. I dont know whether this is possible in the near future or not, but what is for certain is that night walking out of the museum i made a wish for myself; tossing a pense into the fountain. I know anything and everything that has happened to me up until now has been another checkpoint in moving towards my dreams. Anything I can imagine myself doing I know I can make it possible and that evening at the gallery changed me, it changed how i view the world and myself. With each passing day I am not only discovering a new part of my physical world, but also my inner spiritual world, and that has been the theme of my study abroad experience from day 1.