London - final pit stop

Trip Start Apr 30, 2006
Trip End May 14, 2006

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Friday, May 12, 2006

A Different London

Click here to view my recent pictures from London

My first point of business upon arriving in London and checking into the Belgravia B&B (very nice and 'reasonably' priced by London standards at a mere 88 per night) was to go and pick up my orphaned wallet that my aunt sent to me by courier. This rather embarrassing moment occurred as I was boarding the train for London and after reaching for my wallet, I realized I had left it on the counter in my aunt's flat. After a moment of panic, I dashed up and over the train platform to catch my aunt as she was leaving to inform her of my predicament. Thankfully, she had cash on hand and was able to lend me sixty pounds sterling (luckily, I had my credit card in my money belt). This was not a good start for my train journey to London.

This trip to London was really a bonus. As I had spent considerable time here before on business, I had seen most of the key sights such as The British Museum, Tower of London and Big Ben. This time around, I wanted to explore some offbeat places (in addition to one or two tourist traps I had previously missed).

I started out amongst the hoards of tourists at St Paul's Cathedral. I was impressed with the architecture of St Paul's even after recently visiting York Minster and Prague's St Vitus Cathedral.

Sir Christopher Wren was the architect of St Paul's and really outdid himself on this one. The massive dome of St Paul's defines this landmark in the London skyline and is as impressive inside. While standing inside at the cathedral centre, I was able to look straight up at the breathtaking painted scenes and designs that decorated the massive dome's interior.

My challenge of the morning was to get up to the top of the dome. After 259 steep steps, I arrived at the Whispering Gallery; so named because the dome is so perfectly round that, even the softest whisper travels all the way around back to you. Feeling somewhat brave, I ascended a further 100 steps to the next level and stepped outside to clear views of the London skyline and the River Thames. The ascent of this last section was tricky as the steps were a spiral, stone (and somewhat slippery) staircase. However, the view was worth it!

Underneath St Paul's is a crypt containing tombs and memorials of many famous British citizens including the Duke of Wellington (his stone coffin was so huge a hole was cut in the floor to lower it), Lord Nelson and Florence Nightingale. Amongst the memorials was the non-descript tomb of Christopher Wren (as per his last wishes) and a dedication to Sir John A. MacDonald (yes, Canada's one).

From one famous church, I headed to another, St Mary Le Bow that has a special place in London lore as only those Londoners born within earshot of its church bells are deemed 'true' Cockneys.

After a brief stop for a pint at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, I had my Da Vinci Code moment of the trip when I entered the Temple Church and came upon a series of stone effigies buried into the floor. The monument pays tribute to the Knights Templar order and served as a location in the DaVinci Code book and film.

While visiting the church, I half expected to see Tom Hanks and his geeky haircut run around the corner looking for clues to solving the DaVinci Code - but I guess I will have to wait for the movie for that one.

All this running around left me rather hungry! I found a Marks and Spencers takeaway where I picked up some supper and then headed to Buckingham Palace. I plunked myself down on the fountain steps across from the Palace and started to chow down on my food and beer. Aside from the many pigeons and other tourists, I enjoyed my supper with the Queen even if I had to serve myself!

The next day following a full English breakfast, I took the Tube (the nickname given to the London subway) to Portobello Road market in Notting Hill to check out the many antique and bric-a-brac dealers. The market stretched for miles, had everything imaginable from high-end antiques, and baked/produce goods to regular Joe Blogs selling junk from the boot (trunk) of their cars.

From there I headed to the Royal Hospital Chelsea for a visit with the Chelsea Pensioners. This is a hidden gem as not only was it quiet (for a Saturday I was the only visitor in sight) but also you can talk at ease with the Pensioners in the museum and church.

The Royal Hospital site is a self-contained community with apartments for the pensioners, a top-notch hospital, church, dining hall, gardens and walking grounds and even a pub to discuss old war stories. The many features and 'perks' of the Royal Hospital were quickly pointed out to me during a lengthy and animated conversation with the chap overseeing the museum that day.

While visiting the museum, I chatted with one of the pensioners. He explained their history and gave a tour of the many medals and artifacts in the museum. He also explained to me that to become a resident, one must have over 20 years of distinguished service in the British Army, be of good character but unfortunately have no immediate family to care for them. This may be one reason for the strong sense of brotherhood and pride within these men.

This strong sense of pride is evident as the many accomplishments of the pensioners are repeatedly mentioned. For example, at last year's world famous Chelsea Flower Show, the flower garden display created by the Pensioners won the major awards of the show including Visitors Choice and Best in Show. This feat is even more impressive when you consider that the typical Pensioner is well over 75 years old and requires the assistance of a cane to get around.

My visit ended at the church designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. Here a pleasant and smartly dressed Pensioner decked out in his finest regalia greeted me. His ceremonial uniform consisted of a bright red long coat normally only worn on their annual parade or when royalty visit.

Cultural Interlude
My afternoon entertainment was a theatre show called Embers featuring (drumroll please) Academy Award winner, Jeremy Irons. The only downer was my realization that the FA Cup final (soccer) was on TV at the same time as the show. My only hope was for the game to go into overtime!

Once the curtains lifted, I had an up-close view of the play. By the way, did I mention that my seat was two rows back and dead centre? There was no one between the stage and me as I sat in amazement at the performance before me. Other than a 15-minute intermission, Jeremy Irons went non-stop for over two and a half hours on stage without skipping a beat. What a masterful performance!

After exiting the show, I headed across the street to the first pub I could find to catch what was remaining to the FA Cup final. With only a few minutes to go the underdog West Ham United were leading Liverpool by a goal and the West Ham fans in the pub were singing in jubilation at the prospect of an upset victory. The already electric atmosphere hit a power surge when the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, hit a cracker and scored the most amazing clutch goal I have ever witnessed. After the wonder goal, the pub erupted as the previously quiet Liverpool fans went beserk. Liverpool went on to claim victory much to the despair of the crying and downtrodden West Ham fans.

I experienced the full gammet of British culture that afternoon from the refined London Theatre to the raw passion of football with beer in hand at a London pub.

The London Night and the Ceremony of the Keys
After the sunset, a different London is revealed. Main monuments along the River Thames including the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge appear even more imposing and dominating as they illuminate against the darkness of the London night.

On my final evening in London, I attended the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. The ceremony is the official closing of the tower and has been performed nightly (even in wartime) for the past seven hundred years.

The tower lockdown starts when the chief warder of the yoeman guards (aka 'beefeaters') walks with a big set of keys and a lantern where his escort guard meets him. They then march forward to lock the outer gate and finally the inner gate. At this point, the Tower is locked up for the night. Now you may ask how I got out if the gates are locked. More on that later.

They then march forward where another guard on duty screams a challenge of 'HALT, Who goes there?' The chief warder responds 'The Keys' to which the guard replies 'Whose Keys.' The chief warder in turn responds 'Queen Elizabeth's Keys.' Well this seemed to be the magic phrase as the guard responds "Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys - All is well' and allows the chief warder to pass. What a foolproof security system!

The escort guard moves up the hill, passing under the Bloody Tower arch, where several other guards and a bugler meet them. As the bell tower strikes 10 o'clock, the bugler plays the last song for the night. At the completion of the song, the warder leaves to lock up the keys and the guards are dismissed.

I suppose you are wondering how I was able to get out of the Tower of London after it was locked-down. Unfortunately that cannot be revealed as it is a closely guarded secret and I swore an oath of secrecy to the Queen and Beefeaters under threat of being drawn and quartered and having my decapitated head placed on a spit in front of the Traitors Gate! (Ok, the last part is a slight exaggeration).

This was my last evening in Britain and it was, amazingly, the first evening of rain. I walk to the Tower Bridge amongst some Newfoundland style RDF (rain, drizzle, fog) where my final view was looking down the River Thames into the dark and peaceful, misty London night. This moment of tranquility is a satisfying end to my two-week adventure across Britain and the Czech Republic.

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