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March 18, 2017: The Big Day aka my only Full Day in London
I woke up right at 6am. This was my one full day in London and I was going to make the most of it. At 6:15, I left my lodging in Knightsbridge and headed out to walk around. I walked through the neighborhoods of Belgravia and Pimlico before reaching Westminster.
There, I got breakfast, snapped some pictures of Big Ben from the Westminster Bridge and checked in for my Parliament tour at 9, which I had booked about a month before the trip.
I cleared security and met my tour guide in Westminster Hall, a cavernous room built by the Normans in 1097! We then walked through a series of unbelievably ornate rooms.
Probably 50% of the tour was focused on the annual tradition of the Queen’s opening address to Parliament. She arrives in a stagecoach then goes to a “robing room” which is the most ornate room I’ve ever seen. Then she walks into the House of Lords to give a speech while wearing a 2-pound diamond-encrusted crown. Before giving the speech, the Queen invites the House of Commons to hear. However, due to an event in 1642, the Monarch is forbidden from entering the House of Commons, so she sends a man named Black Rod. Black Rod walks over to the door of the House of Commons, which is locked. He then bangs on the door with his staff (the divots from years past are still there). Then the Members of the House of Commons walk over to hear the speech from the doorway to the House of Lords.
While tour guide claims that the UK’s government has three wings (Monarch aka Sovereign, House of Lords, and House of Commons), the House of Commons actually has all the power.
Formalities aside, bills are introduced into the House of Commons via committees and undergo two readings. After the first reading, the MP’s (Members of Parliament discuss and debate the bill in detail. These debates happen in the Commons chamber where the two parties “Government” and “Opposition” sit on opposite benches facing each other. The Prime Minister sits on the Government side in the front row.
After the second reading, they vote. In order to vote, the MP must physically walk through a narrow passageway in one of two rooms next to the Commons chamber within an 8-minute window. One room is for Yes (Aye) votes and the other for No. Because the act of voting is a physical act, interesting scenarios have played out over the centuries with physically disabled MPs have been carried through the passageway on stretchers.
If the bill passes, it then goes through formalities that can only delay a bill’s enacting. First it goes to the House of Lords. The House of Lords is not made up of elected officials and obtain their seats through various ways including being appointed by the Monarch, being a bishop of the Church of England, being skilled in a field of study, or inheriting the membership from a parent. Often former political leaders will become members of the House of Lords. The number of Lords fluctuates and many Lords do not even show up at Parliament.
The Lords will debate the merits of the bill and will vote to either pass the bill or to amend the bill. However, their vote is purely advisory- the House of Commons does not have to accept the revisions. That said, the process of voting in the House of Lords can delay the passage of a bill by quite some time.
Once a bill is finally passed, it is given to the Queen to give the symbolic Royal Assent to officially become law (the last time the Royal Assent has not be given was in 1708). Finally, the law is written on a scroll and stored in a tower in Parliament.
It was very cool to learn about how Parliament works. Despite having heard a lot about it at school and in the news, I actually had no knowledge of the mechanics.
After the thorough Parliament tour, I walked over to Westminster Abbey- a huge church right next to Parliament. The line to enter was about 45 minutes long and admission was 20 pounds, but I made it in. Worth it! In addition to being an amazing church, the Abbey is also the location of every coronation of the British Monarch since William the Conqueror in 1066. It is also an indoor cemetery for most every famous British person born before 1900 including many of the Kings and Queens of old.
Many of the burials are in the floor of the Abbey itself. Strolling by, a volunteer casually mentioned that I was stepping over both Charles Darwin’s and Isaac Newton’s graves. I then saw many of the Royal graves and finally Poet’s Corner where every author I was forced to read in high school was buried. The whole tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
From Westminster Abbey, I whisked over on the Tube to the British Museum. This museum contains relics from other civilizations around the world collected by the British over the centuries. It is widely considered the greatest anthropological museum if not the greatest museum in the world.
For about three hours, I wandered around the museum with my friend Katie, who I met in a hostel in Zambia. Our favorite spots, which happened to be the most popular, were the Parthenon marbles (actually part of the Parthenon), the Babylonian art, and the mummies.
Having seen the major attractions I set out to see for the day, I now had some time to wander around town. Starting at the British Museum, I walked through Covent Gardens, a busy market/food court. This area was swarmed with people. Next to Covent Gardens, was the London Transport Museum that showcased the incredible history of London’s famed buses, trains, bridges, and non-existent horse-drawn carriages. At the end, there was an exhibit on the incredible upgrades coming to the transit system in the near future.
Heading further south, I reached the Sommerset House, a huge palace surrounding a stone courtyard. Inside, there were numerous art exhibits including one really interesting one on climate change and how it will affect us.
The south side of Sommerset House faces the Thames, so I strolled along the Thames and its many parks in the Victoria Embankment. It is unbelievable how many things are named for Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. I’m curious how much influence she really had or whether she got lucky to rule for a very long time during a period of much change, the Industrial Revolution, and the architects/city planners/forces that be figured it was a good idea to name things after her.
I crossed the Thames at the Golden Jubilee Bridge and checked out the Southbank. Much like Piccadilly Circus, Southbank had swarms of tourists and almost theme-park-y attractions like Shrek’s Adventure 4D Theatre and the perpetually crowded London Eye Ferris wheel. Eventually, I reached the Westminster Bridge and walked back over the Thames to Big Ben, completing a 6-ish mile loop around Central London.
There was still daylight, so I kept walking up to Trafalgar Square, a huge public square with a giant column where 7 different roads meet in a traffic circle. While pretty, it is not easy to walk around.
I pressed on going further west through the narrow alleys of Soho and eventually reached the Green Park Station. There, my feet were starting to give out, so I took the train back to Knightsbridge and took a nap.
At 8:30, my host family took me to dinner at an offshoot of the Soho House with their friends who happen to be a Count and Countess in Poland. We had a great meal before heading back home where I passed out.
March 19, 2017: Final Morning and the Airport
My quick trip was coming to an end- this was my final day!
Unfortunately, most attractions open late on Sundays. The only museum opening before 10 am was the Churchill War Rooms which opened at 9:30. I got there at 9 and waited around as a line formed behind me. At 9:30, I was let in.
During World War II, Winston Churchill ran the British War Effort out of a 50-ish room “warren” of offices hidden way underground in a bomb-proof shelter. The place was gigantic. Interestingly enough, while Churchill had a bed there, he only slept there 3 nights during the entire war. The museum takes about 1-2 hours to thoroughly go through which includes a large “Churchill Museum” that is unrelated to the rest of the exhibits.
Finally, it was nearing 11, so I ran over to St James Palace, formally the location of the Royal Court, but functionally a combination of royal offices and residences. There, a group of soldiers with tall hats and a marching band walked out of the palace courtyard and onto the street. The soldiers had a police escort, which I think is sort of funny.
The soldiers marched all the way to Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen. There, the soldiers were greeted by thousands of screaming and cheering tourists armed with cameras and selfie sticks.
Somehow, I maneuvered my way to the palace gate and watched as they entered the gates and stood in the entryway. The soldiers then stood in formation as the band was met by a second band. Then, the band started to play “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from the musical Hairspray. Because this was so unexpected and so not “British” compared to everything else I had witnessed thus far, I burst into laughter to the confusion of the many tourists who had no knowledge of the musical.
With that, it was time to head back. I walked to the train station, went to Knightsbridge to say a final goodbye and headed to the airport. In the security line, I happened to run into a college friend. At 3:30pm, I boarded the 11-hour flight back to LA.
While it was a very short trip, I had a blast and would do it again in a heartbeat. London had so much to offer and I only scratched the surface.