Double Deck This: Hey, Kids! It’s Big Ben, Parliament, and the Queen! Touring London with a Personal Guide!
02.06.2004 - 02.06.2004 -5 °F
Wednesday, June 02, 2004. We had arrived in England late on the 31st of May and spent our first full day taking it slow with our dear friend and tour guide Naomi in Guildford, where she lived, about ½ hour south of London. Fully rested and ready to rock and roll, we headed out really early (that is, 9am for us non-morning people!) for London. Naomi had paid careful attention to the weather report and advised us it would be ‘bloody hot’ that day and we should dress accordingly. We by that second day had realized that what was ‘bloody hot’ to Naomi translated to ‘a bit on the cold side’ to us. Although Naomi had lived by us in the warm tropics of Zihuatanejo, Mexico for a few years, she had been back in England far too long and forgot what it was like to those of us who think of weather in terms of cold, cool, normal, hot and bloody hot as follows: Cold= anything under 70 degrees Fahrenheit, Cool= between 70 and 80, Normal= between 80 and 90, hot between 90 and 95; Bloody Hot being anything over 95 degrees; bloody cold just plain does not exist in the region where we live. Just a TAD bit different than the English weather! With that in mind, we had our long sleeved shirts and jackets ready as we headed to explore London, for the first of our 3 day trips there. We would have better weather for a bit on our second trip there on June 21, returning once more to London on July 19th, our last full day in England.
RED PHONE BOOTHS, BLACK TAXIS, THE TUBE, THE EYE AND THE UNION JACK: WELCOME TO LONDON!
London, the capital of the UK, has been an important settlement for two millennia, going back to its founding by the Romans. Later came the Danes, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, William the Conqueror and the Medieval Times; many famous buildings from that era still exist. We got off the train at Waterloo, walked around the station towards the Thames River, and there was every modern symbol of England all within eyesight: The Underground, a red phone booth, a black taxi, red double decker buses, British flags for sale on a corner kiosk full of souvenirs and the London Eye staring across the river at Big Ben. For our crash course in modern London history, a few words on each:
RED PHONE BOOTHS: There was a contest in 1924 to design a phone booth to protect British callers from getting soaking wet (good marketing strategy; they would of course then spend more time on the phone call and more money); an easily identifiable red booth was chosen-easier to see at night; more fun for crazy tourists to have their photos taken in. Not of course to be confused with the blue police box used by Dr. Who to travel across time, and much more attractive than the ugly aluminum/glass ones used by Superman. As we had already seen one the previous day in Guildford, it was no longer a big deal to us, so we moved on…
BLACK TAXIS: More accurately-motorized hackney cabs- are not only quite famous, they are also unique as their drivers must pass a test called ‘The Knowledge’ to show they have an intimate knowledge of the streets of London. I would like to see that happen in any part of the New World, as most American taxi drivers have just arrived in the US and therefore could not possibly know their new city after 2 days, and in Mexico... well, finding a driver who has a real driver’s license would be akin to a miracle.
THE UNDERGROUND, AKA: THE TUBE: The world’s oldest subway opened in 1863 (a few of the trains are a bit newer than that); it is also the world’s longest metro system. In 2003, over 5 billion hamburgers had been sold in the USA, and one billion passenger journeys were recorded having ridden on The Tube. We would add ourselves to those numbers on our 2nd and 3rd trip to London, making it one billion and 2 in 2004.
RED CROSSES AND UNION JACKS: Ask the average tourist (okay, American) what the English flag is, and 9 out of 10 (or maybe 99 of 100) will point out the Union Jack. BEEEP! I’m sorry, you have failed to advance to Final Jeopardy... The flag of England is the St George's Cross. The red cross has been an emblem of England since the Middle Ages and the Crusades, and is the base of the United Kingdom flag-the Union Jack. In defense of my countrymen, it does not help those who have not passed the flag test when the London souvenir kiosks fly only the Union Jack!
THE LONDON EYE: The world’s 2nd largest Ferris wheel at 443 ft has 32 capsules which hold 25 people each; it takes 30 minutes to complete a cycle. Takes a bit longer if you want a second rinse cycle. Looking at it, it barely seemed to move an inch and at first I was not convinced it was operating. Awesome views of London are to be seen from above, although be forewarned everything will of course look the size of ants at that height. Nosebleeds free of charge. Champagne rides available if reservations are made in advance (someone’s idea of the perfect honeymoon?); less expensive ‘beer and a shot’ rides are in the works. Discounts available for those willing to ride without seatbelts or protective siding. Naomi had wanted to take us up for our initiation to London, but when, upon arrival, we was told that there was an hour wait in line on top of the 30 minute tour, making a total of 1.5 hours for us to get 2 blocks. The idea was vetoed (a sigh of relief from Vidal, who turns green and gets motion sickness by just looking at Ferris wheels), and we headed straight for one of the other big symbols of London: The Original Tour Red Double Decker Bus.
DOUBLE DECK THIS: THE ORIGINAL TOUR
How cliché to tour London on a red double decker bus, no? Naturally. But I think part of the fun of traveling is doing the cheesy thing every so often; we all need to allow ourselves to let our hair down at times and play the typical tourist (as long as it is not the typical Ugly American Tourist). So when Naomi told us that was part of her plan for us, we were totally up for it. The Original Bus Tour had live (as opposed to dead) guides giving commentaries along the hop on-hop off-route. The ticket was good for 24 hours and included a few other goodies, such as a river cruise (we didn’t use) and a few walking tours- such as the Beatles tour (that we wanted to return another day for, but never did); there were around 90 stops total on the routes. The plan was to do The Yellow Route and get the lay of the land so Vidal and I could come back on our own another time. The chosen stops for the day would be #1-Changing of the Guards, #2-The British Museum and #3- The Tower of London; anything else would be a bonus. We crossed the river to the bus stop, got our tickets, maps and seats Up Top.
HEY KIDS LOOK! THERE’S BIG BEN! THERE’S PARLIAMENT!
I am amazed-no- appalled - at how many people have no clue what the above line means. 'National Lampoon’s European Vacation' should be part of everyone’s travel, tourism and/or history class, and a MUST for anyone travelling… anywhere. My only gripe about our bus commentator was that she did not repeat that famous line for us as we went around the roundabout in front of Big Ben and Parliament (it really should be part of the tour). Big Ben is the world’s biggest chiming clock with 4 faces (is that better than being called two-faced?); each clock’s face is 23 ft. in diameter. Big Ben is actually the name of the 16 ton main bell inside the tower. It is part of the Palace of Westminster-AKA Westminster Palace-AKA Houses of Parliament, where the 2 houses of the Parliament (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) meet. I grew up seeing London in movies and TV all of my life-from the older King Arthur and Robin Hood to the ‘more recent’ Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and let’s not forget, Monty Python; Big Ben was almost as familiar to me as Chicago’s John Hancock and Sears Tower, thanks to the magic of television. For that, seeing Big Ben-Parliament up close was an unbelievable thrill.
♪ SHE’S A BUCK… HOUSE, SHE’S MIGHTY MIGHTY LETTIN’ THOSE GUARDS ALL HANG OUT… ♪
It was a Tuesday. We figured the mass of family tourism had not started yet, as most kids were still in school. Weekend tourism should have been over by Monday, so by Tuesday, we should have been safe. The Changing of the Guards was to commence at not 11:30am, not 11:25am, not even at 11:26am- but at precisely 11:27am. And unlike Mexico, we were in England where things start on time, or “Off with their heads!” Boy, were we in for a big surprise when we showed up at 11:15am, and there were already close to fifty million people already there. We pushed and shoved our way up front and commandeered a couple of the Royal Horse Guards’ horses, Vidal and I doubling up on one so I could manage the camera, to the delight of the crowd… Oops! Caught daydreaming again! We politely excused ourselves and made our way to the edge of the palace’s outer gate; a much better view as we were then only behind 2 million people. Unlike in Mexico, I did not tower over the crowd at 5’ 6½”, but we did have 2 advantages: First, on the other side of the gate we had a full-on view of the funky furry oversized hats of the guards who were changing (shifts, not clothes), second- I had Vidal’s strong shoulders.
Before someone harps on me about the furry hat comment, let me get off on one of my trivia kicks: the 18 inches tall Guards hats are called Bearskins, each weighs one and a half pounds and is made from the fur of the Canadian Brown Bear; some are over 100 years old and passed down in the family- as a tradition or a traditional joke, I’m not sure.
The Changing of the Guard takes place in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. We were unable to see the Palace and just barely able to see the huge Victoria Memorial in the center of the queen’s Gardens, as 1.5 million tourists had apparently slept overnight there to grab those front row spots.
It was more than a parade; it was a free living historical museum. In a nutshell, the new guard marches to the Palace to take over for the old guard, all to the lovely beat of a military band. There was a bunch of inspection going on with questioning and Chinese water torture, all the while the band played on.
The band is known for mixing up the music and occasionally playing contemporary songs. For example, the day we were there, I swear I heard as part of their repertoire ‘Killer Queen’. I could go on and on about the details of the ceremony, but why spoil the fun? At the bottom of this story is a list of Internet sites, including the Royal Family’s official:
-where you can purchase your very own DVD for more information. Don’t go to the site expecting to get information, you will be told to buy the DVD. Must be a recession going on in the Royal Family as well, huh?
Our trip took place in 2004, with everyone still on alert for terrorist attacks. England has had their share of terrorism for many years, although I by no means imply anyone could or should ever be used to it; American Sandy and Mexican Vidal were not accustomed to terrorism threats at all. Vidal saw an unaccompanied bag in the middle of the crowd right after the end of the big ceremony; our hearts raced as we searched for the nearest policeman to report it. They rushed over and quickly, professionally, quietly dispersed the crowd; thank God nothing came of it… We decided that was our clue to go to our next stop, the British Museum. We went back to catch the Double Decker Bus, catching glimpses of a few other places of interest along the way.
SPEAK UP: HYDING IN THE PARK WITH A BANG
Our route took us past the beautiful Hyde Park. The guide pointed out the park was one of the Royal Parks of London, famous for its Speakers' Corner, of which we also passed by. Speaker’s Corner has become a traditional location for demonstrations, including but not limited to the Suffragettes (did they sing ‘Sister Suffragette’ from Mary Poppins?). We sat in traffic while we were passing by the Park, when suddenly we heard a few sonic booms in succession, which sounded to Vidal and I like bombs. Still a bit nervous from the ‘unaccompanied bag’ experience a few minutes before, we could not understand why nobody else seemed to be panicking; were they all wearing ear plugs, did they not hear the sonic blasts? What was the deal? We asked the tour guide, who explained that veterans were practicing for the upcoming D-Day 60th anniversary celebration. We would be in Cranleigh on that date, appropriately, amongst veterans.
WINDING YOUR WAY DOWN BAKER STREET…
We got off the bus at the Baker Street stop before winding our way down to the British Museum. Fans of our dear Sherlock may recall his address of 221B, but alas, no such address exists; we did our detective work. There is however a 9 ft statue; I had read it claims to uncannily resemble the real Sherlock Holmes. Hmm. How does one resemble uncannily a real fictional character? That’s elementary, my dear Watsons, to say that is a mystery…
THE MUSEUM OF STOLEN GOODS
I am a fanatic of ancient history, have been as long as I can remember; fascinated by the Egyptian culture ever since I was able to write. I imagine that is thanks to Sunday afternoon movies and/or Peabody's Improbable History- of the Bullwinkle show. Suffice it to say the British Museum was on my list of Must Dos in London (actually, it was the only must, anything else was just a bonus); how could I pass up the chance to see the Rosetta Stone or the controversial Elgin Marbles? The British Museum was Britain’s first national museum. It belongs to the public and has been a museum of history and culture since the 18th century; it houses the world's largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo and the largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. It is home to (or prison of, depending on which stand you take) millions of objects, the most famous and controversial of which being the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. I side passionately with any country that has had their history pilfered or outright pirated away from them; it is their history and they have every right to it. As much as I love wandering aimlessly and purposefully through the halls of history museums, I see no reason, other than $$, why they can’t make deals with the mother countries to have the pieces returned after making exact copies to keep for themselves. Of course, that didn’t stop me from wanting to roam the halls of the British Museum…
COULDN’T THEY HAVE LEFT BRAD PITT IN?
We entered the museum’s Great Court, to our delight they had on display a few of the costumes used in the 2004 movie, ‘Troy’. We admired the details for a few seconds (the fact one was worn by Brad Pitt may have made Naomi and I stare a few seconds longer, wondering why he was not there to model his very masculine dress and Mohawk helmet), we went directly to the Ancient Civilizations exhibits: Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and Rome.. What we saw, I was not prepared for. I had known the museum had quite a collection, but had no idea of the size of the collection or the size of many of the objects. My mouth hung open the whole time, wondering to myself (probably out loud, knowing me) How on earth were these pieces transported here? Who in their right mind could have brought themselves to moving these priceless historical objects from their homes at the risk of harming them? So much history, so many pirates…
THE STONE THAT SPOKE THREE LANGUAGES
In the not so ancient history of Egypt: After the defe at of Napoleon and the French in Egypt in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities that had been collected to that point by the French were confiscated by the British army and presented to the British Museum, including the Rosetta Stone. In addition, the Museum acquired more Egyptian antiquities from excavations for another century until changes in Egyptian antiquities laws led to the suspension of exportation. In a nutshell: Brits beat the pants off Napoleon’s men then took from the French what the French stole from Egypt; the Egyptians are pissed off at both. The Brits kept hauling away the goodies they dug up until the Egyptians finally got wise and wrote a law saying they couldn’t. One can argue that had the Brits not grabbed the goods from the French, the Rosetta Stone would not have ended up in the British Museum to later be translated and from there, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics would not have been discovered. But the French can’t cry in their wine over their loss of the Stone, as it was actually a French archaeologist who, while working with the museum, made the discovery. It didn’t take long for us to find the Rosetta Stone, in fact, it took me quite by surprise as I found myself facing it in the midst of a room crowded with objects; I had expected for its significance for it to be in a small room by itself. We found it in the first hall we had entered, Room 4. It was not as large as I had expected it to be, and hard to believe there are actually 3 languages on it. But there it was, in all its glory. Silently, I thanked it for being the key to unlocking Egyptian hieroglyphics for me, as I some day would of course become a famous archaeologist.
WHEN COWS - OR IN THIS CASE - BULLS FLY
We went onward from there to Ancient Near East/Nineveh to be greeted by colossal winged bulls at the entrance. Colossal lions and tons of other statues were around every corner; what’s the deal? Did they just pick up the entire country and have it all relocated to England? Ancient stone panels depicting the lives of cultures long gone were simply fascinating to me; I could have wandered through for hours. Next were the Greek and Roman rooms; another open mouthed gawk at the Nereid Monument- a reconstructed Lycian temple from around 380 BC, complete with stolen statues. Further into the Greek rooms, Naomi pointed out to me that nearly all the heads had been chopped off of the Greek statues of women, but the heads of the men had remained. We wandered through several rooms, each confirming her suspicion. How strange! Did Ancient Greek women have bigger brains, bigger heads whose size became too much for the statues and fell off?
HOW THE GREEKS LOST THEIR MARBLES
The last room in the section was, appropriately, the Elgin Marbles. Although in a long room separated from the other Greek pieces, attention was not called to the fact that we were looking at the famous (or infamous) marbles. The Elgin Marbles, AKA the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of 17 life-sized classical Greek marble sculptures and other pieces from the Parthenon, which include half of the sculpted frieze which was once wrapped around the great building. British ambassador Thomas Bruce, who happened to be the 7th Earl of Elgin, obtained a letter of permission from the Ottoman Empire to remove pieces from the Acropolis. By 1812, he had removed half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures. Much of England was in an uproar, calling Elgin scandalous, having used his position to acquire antiquities for his private collection, and his actions vandalism; some pieces had been hacked up for easier transport. Despite the public outrage, people were attracted to the magnificence of the pieces, and the British Museum bought the collection from Elgin.
In a nutshell: Lord Elgin had his cronies take axes and saws to the Parthenon to fill up his hall in the huge home he built back in England; when under scrutiny, showed a letter from his mommy giving him the okay to do it then sold the treasure to the British Museum, laughing all the way to the bank, no doubt.
SHOULD THEY STAY OR SHOULD THEY GO?
One of Lord Byron’s famous poems, ‘Childe Harold's Pilgrimage’, which was a vehicle for Byron's own beliefs, describes his criticism of Elgin:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy moldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behooved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Cursed be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
The Elgin Marbles are of course claimed by Greece and backed by UNESCO among others for restitution. The legality of the removal of the marbles from Athens by Elgin has been debated for over 200 years; he supposedly had permission to take them. The original permission letter ‘disappeared’ shortly after the removal of Elgin’s trophies, and only a copy from memory was produced in Parliament (a letter from his mother?). But for 200 years, the British Museum has steadfastly refused to return this or the Rosetta Stone (Finders keepers, losers weepers; nah, nah nah nah nah!). Some of the reasons the museum has given for retaining the collection are quite entertaining:
*The British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. AKA: The Finders Keepers/ Piracy Made Legal Act
- More than half the original marbles are lost and therefore return of the Elgin Marbles would not complete the collection in Greece. Hmm, good point, but it should also be pointed out that Elgin took over half of what existed at the time…
- But that would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world! The expression, ‘Finders-Keepers’ once again comes to mind, although it seems ‘Piracy’ may fit the Elgin Marbles dispute more accurately.
My insatiable thirst for historical/hysterical knowledge left me quite thirsty for water. I stopped staring at the Marbles to step out of my archaeologist wannabe world for a minute, saw that Vidal and Naomi were about to pass out from hunger, so we quit the museum and headed out for a bite to eat.
TAKE YOUR WEARY DOGS AND DUCK IN TO THIS TAVERN
Around the corner from the museum, we spotted the 18th century Museum Tavern- renamed after the opening of the museum from the much more original name, ‘The Dog and Duck’. Apparently they wanted to add humans to their list of unusual clientele; it specialized in good old English fish and chips. Perfect! That would be one more thing to check off of my Things To Do In England list! We plopped our weary butts down; I was so excited I was about to experience fish and chips in London. Naomi and I ordered fish and chips, Vidal, who typically enjoys trying new dishes, ordered a hamburger... I thought for a moment I was sitting across from my dad, who was famous for ordering hamburgers in every ethnic restaurant we took him to… The food was excellent. Naomi wanted to show us a bit more on foot, so we walked over to Covent Garden.
WOULDN’T IT BE LOVERLY TO RUN IN TO MS. DOOLITTLE IN THIS GARDEN?
The 17th century Covent Garden was once host to the greatest market in London from the 15th century until 1974; becoming the most important after the great fire of London of 1666. Covent Garden is the only part of London licensed for street entertainment (if you have a cone to play, you can play it there); it was also the host of the 1st Punch and Judy show, in 1662. The small church of St Paul, having a long and close association with the theater community and known as the actor’s church, is at one end of the piazza. The Royal Opera House has an entrance on the piazza; the Soho District is just around the corner. The market and Royal Opera House were given fame in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, where good old professor Henry Higgins meets Eliza Doolittle selling flowers. There was a crowd in the spacious piazza watching the street entertainment, which included human statues and a guy whose claim to fame was that he played the traffic cone; his sign said you were welcome to take a photo or ask for a song, but it would cost you. Would your payment be listening to him play? Covent Garden may no longer have the largest outdoor market in London, but they certainly have quite a large indoor one now; it is basically a craft market. We looked at candles and whatnot, the photograph stalls caught our eye and we purchased a lovely B & W photo of Big Ben.
JUDY, JUDY, JUDY; HOW’S ABOUT A PUNCH?
We went upstairs to the very popular Punch and Judy Pub, sat on the balcony (it was bloody hot) to people and traffic cone player watch for a bit, before heading back to catch the 5pm train back to Guildford, having spent a lovely day (and all our energy) exploring London.
For more information:
London Travel Card: http://www.londontravelpass.com/transport.asp
The Double Decker Bus Original tour: http://www.theoriginaltour.com/
Changing of the Guard: http://www.changing-the-guard.com/
The British Museum: http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/
The Rosetta stone: http://www.egyptologyonline.com/rosetta_stone.htm