Saturday, August 31 –
Do you fancy yourself a student of democracy and history? If so, no visit to London is complete without a visit to Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. But did you know you can see them all in one day?
When I previously lived in London, I had visited Westminster Abbey a couple of times and attended a session at the House of Lords. However, I had never before been on one of the public tours of Parliament. This morning I was excited to have this opportunity with both my brother and Dad.
From the Maida Vale neighborhood, we took Bakerloo Line from the Kilburn Park station to the Baker Street station. There we connected on the Jubilee line to Westminster for a tour of Westminster Abbey at 10 a.m.
Of all the buildings I have visited in the world, Westminster Abbey certainly contains more history than just about any other. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming how much there is to take in. If you are a history nerd, be prepared to spend several hours geeking out as you try absorb the British history surrounding you.
Westminster Abbey is a church, museum and final resting place of significant British figures. Additionally, it is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and British monarchs. Interestingly, it is no longer an abbey or cathedral but a “Royal Peculiar – a church responsible directly to the Queen. Admission is £18 and includes an audio headset. I recommend a minimum of two hours for the tour.
The history here inside is extraordinary. It’s location alone, directly across the street west of Parliament, attests to its significance. Visitors have a glimpse of the building’s importance before even entering. The Gothic design, intricately carved sculptures and enormous doors grab the attention of photographers before they venture inside. It’s a good thing because photos are not allowed in the interior.
The first church on the site dates back to the 7th century. Since 1066, when the last Saxon King Harold and first Norman King William the Conqueror were crowned, the coronations of English and British monarchs have been held inside. Since 1100, there have been at least 16 royal weddings at the abbey. Two were of reigning monarchs, although before 1919 there had been none for some 500 years. Construction of the present church began in 1245.
One interesting thing distinguishes Westminster Abbey from some cathedrals on the continent. Many historic cathedrals in countries like Spain, France and Germany seem more like museums. Tourists freely roam and take photos there sometimes forget they are in a house of prayer. That’s not the case here. In addition to no photos allowed inside the Abbey, every hour an announcement is made for a moment of prayer. They kindly ask all visitors to stop and bow their heads as the prayer is delivered. It’s a solid reminder to visitors that they have entered a holy place and that they are subordinate to God.
The stained glasses are simply stunning – in particular, those in the RAF chapel are dedicated to those brave airmen who defended the nation from Nazi invasion during World War Two’s Battle of Britain. The chapel is located at the eastern end of the magnificent Lady Chapel and marks a spot that was actually damaged by German bombs during the Blitz.
One fascinating stop is the resting place of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary. They were bitter rivals in life, but the two sisters rest in peace next to each other. Another highlight is Poet’s Corner, where some of Britain’s most famous poets, playwrights and writers are buried or memorialized in the South Transept. They include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, among others.
No tour is complete without seeing the coronation chair. King Edward’s Chair, the throne on which all English and British sovereigns are crowned, has been used since 1308. Until recently, it housed the Stone of Scone upon which Scottish kings were crown, but it was recently returned to Scotland. Upon exiting the nave, I highly recommend that visitors walk through the abbey’s cloisters. It is a truly beautiful and quiet oasis in central London with great views of Parliament.
After touring Westminster Abbey, Dad, my brother and I walked across the street to the Houses of Parliament – also known as the Palace of Westminster. In order to tour Parliament, you must make reservations in advance. A 90-minute guided tour costs £25 and includes visits to the House of Commons, House of Lords and other important parts of the building. Tours are available to visitors on Saturdays throughout the year and on most weekdays during Parliamentary recesses including Christmas, Easter and the summer. There is also a tour of the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben, but peculiarly, it is only available to UK citizens. Photography is not allowed inside on all tours, but here is video preview of the tour.
First we passed through heavy security at the Cromwell Green visitor entrance. Then we entered Westminster Hall and waited in line for our 12:30 p.m. tour.
Before the tour commenced, we had a moment to take in Westminster Hall. Beginning in the 11th century, the hall was the legal and administrative centre of the kingdom for centuries. Today it is the only part of the ancient Palace of Westminster which survives in mostly original form. The magnificent hammer-beam roof is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe.
Looking at the hall is like peering back into English history. The Hall was built to impress in 1097 under William II, the son of William the Conqueror, and was completed two years later. Numerous monarchs have sought to stamp their design on the hall. King Richard II commissioned Reigate stone statues in 1385 of all 12 kings preceding him and one of himself, which still sit atop the south wall.
It’s amazing to consider the history that has taken place in the hall. In 1305, Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace faced trial here and sat on a bench at the south end of the Hall, wearing a crown of laurels. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Following the end of the English Civil War in 1649, King Charles I was brought to trial in Westminster Hall, where he was convicted of treason and later executed. Additionally Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators met the same fate after their trials here in 1606.
Then we began our tour of the Houses of Parliament. The tour combines modern politics, history, architecture and art. Our knowledgeable guide took us on a 75-minute tour. Most of what we saw on the tour was built in the mid-19th century following the fire of 1834, which only spared Westminster Hall. Our tours began by following the route taken by the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament; from the Queen’s Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and Prince’s Chamber, into the majestic Lords Chamber. We then walked through the Central Lobby, Members’ Lobby and one of the voting lobbies before entering the Commons Chamber, the heart of British democracy. The guides did a great job with a basic overview for foreigners while also providing more context that would satisfy the questions of the most interested British citizens.
One thing I loved about the tour was how our guide tied the past to the present. She talked about living history that is being made at Westminster today. Our guide discussed upcoming referendums on Scottish Independence and the question of whether to continue British membership in the European Union. It gave us an appreciation of how the British government has to evolve with the times and stay in tune with the will of the British people today. While the United Kingdom does not have a Constitution like the United States, I observed a lot of influences that the British have had on the American legal system and civil laws. Overall, I thought these tour guides were better than the guides at U.S. Capitol. They are fantastic storytellers with a deep knowledge of history and a broad understanding of democracy in the Western world.
Upon passing through St. Stephen’s Hall, we finished our tour back at Westminster Hall. There we exited and took some photos of Elizabeth Tower, the most famous tower of Parliament. Inside it is the London landmark, Big Ben. For many years I’ve taken a shortwave radio with me and listened to the BBC World Service from remote corners of the world. I always felt like I was back in London when I would hear the BBC announcer and its slightly off-tone chime at the top of every hour – “gong … it’s 1:00 … this is London.”
After the tour, we walked down Whitehall, the famous road in the city of Westminster that runs from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square. Whitehall is surrounded by government ministries and is known as the center of Her Majesty’s Government. We passed by the Cenotaph, the British memorial to those who gave their lives in World War One. More than one million Britons died in the Great War and were nicknamed the “Lost Generation.” The Queen each year lays a wreath here on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to Armistice Day. Today it is also the national war memorial to soldiers who died in service to the United Kingdom in all wars.
We stopped for photos of Ten Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister. Then we walked to Horse Guards Avenue before crossing St. James’s Park. We watched tourist feeding pelicans by the beautiful lake before grabbing a pastry and drink to go at Inn the Park located at the park pavilion. Then we strolled down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. The Mall runs from Trafalgar Square in the east under Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace at its western end. Like other monumental boulevards such as Vienna’s Ringstraße or Paris’ Avenue des Champs-Élysées, it’s one of the prettiest streets in Europe.
I’d walked by the Buckingham Palace many times before when I lived in London, but I had never toured the palace. I was extremely excited to be touring the Queen’s residence for the first time. My Mom met up with us at the Constitution Street entrance for the 15:15 p.m. tour of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms. The tour is open only during the summer, lasts about 2.5 hours and costs £20.50.
Though it’s one of London’s landmarks and the official residence of the Queen, Buckingham Palace is not that old by London standards. It was finished in 1703 and didn’t become the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns until 1837. It contains a staggering 775 rooms. Of course, the palace also hosts Royal ceremonies and State Visits.
Our tour took us through the State Rooms, part of the working Palace used regularly by Queen Elizabeth II and members of the Royal Family for State entertaining.
After meeting our tour and going through security, we first entered the Grand Hall and walked up the curving marble stairs of the Grand Staircase. Then we visited the Throne Room with a beautiful arch supported by a pair of winged figures of ‘victory’ holding garlands above the ‘chairs of state.’ There was an interesting exhibit on the royal photographs centered around Queen Elizabeth II.
Then we entered the Ballroom, which is the largest multi-purpose room in Buckingham Palace. It was opened in 1856 with a ball to celebrate the end of the Crimean War. Along the East Gallery is where the Queen and her State guests process to the Ballroom for the State Banquets. Additionally, the Queen or Prince of Wales will bestow Investitures to recipients of British honors including knighthood here.
We then passed through West Gallery with four beautiful Gobelin tapestries to several great rooms overlooking the gardens. We toured the State Dining Room which has hosted many guests including presidents, prime ministers and foreign monarchs.
Another highlight was the Music Room. It’s here that the Prince of Wales, The Princess Royal, The Duke of York and Prince William were all christened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s also here where guests are presented to The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and the visiting Head of State.
Later we visited the White Drawing Room, which serves as a Royal reception room for The Queen and members of the Royal Family to gather before State and official occasions. One of our last stops was the Bow Room –near the entrance to the Royal Garden – where the Queen holds the arrival lunch for a visiting Head of State.
I would say the highlight for me was the Picture Gallery, which displays some of the greatest paintings in the Royal Collection – which itself is one of the major art collections in the world. It currently displays Italian, Dutch and Flemish from the 17th century including Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and Claude.
Another highlight was an exhibit on Queen Elizabeth II. It told her life story and featured a film of her coronation. It was interesting seeing the collection of the gowns and robes worn by the Queen at her Westminster coronation.
Upon leaving, we walked out around the lake and saw the Queen’s famous trumpeter swans. We walked down to Hyde Park and saw the relatively new RAF Bomber Command Memorial to the heroes of the Battle of Britain. It reminded me of some of the monuments on The Mall in Washington. It’s a poignant and beautiful tribute to war heroes that I highly recommend visiting.
Then we caught a cab from Hyde Park Corner to Leicester Square. The pedestrian-friendly in London’s world-famous West End is the center of London cinema and theatre. It’s also home to TKTS, formerly known as the Official London Half-Price Theatre Ticket Booth. It’s a great value for buying same-day tickets for about half the usual price. We had already booked tickets this evening at the Prince Edward Theatre to see Jersey Boys, which my Mom had picked out.
For dinner, we ate The Cambridge, a well known pub in the area. The Victorian building had the traditional English pub décor such as engraved mirrors along with two bars on different floors and an upstairs dining room. I had their famous fish and chips which was absolutely perfect with a pint of Guinness.
Afterwards, we picked up our tickets at the will call booth inside the Prince Edward Theatre. The theatre opened in 1930 and even featured the London debut of famed cabaret artist Josephine Baker and her famous Bananas Dance. It was later the London Casino before being extensively damaged by air raids in World War Two. Since its restoration, it has shown a number of high-profile shows. It’s absolutely beautiful inside.
Jersey Boys was very entertaining and told the background story behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Of course, I had to eat some traditional chocolate Häagen-Dazs ice cream during intermission.
After the show, we walked to Piccadilly Circus and did some shopping before visiting Trafalgar Square. Then we took the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Road in South Kensington. I showed Mom and Dad where I lived in London during my university years. I even found Caffe Forum, the café I frequented on Gloucester Road years ago. It’s a local favorite and oasis for value in a very overpriced part of London. A friendly local outside confirmed they had the best pizza in London. I used to have their pizza happy hour once a week for only £5! They also give you a free croissant with coffee in the morning. it’s an incredible value and a textbook example of how to run an independent cafe in a world full of overpriced cafe chains.
Upon showing Mom and Dad around South Kensington, we took the Circle line to Paddington and the Bakerloo line to Maida Vale and our hotel.
I don’t know if it’s possible to pack in any additional highlights into one day touring London. It’s a city I’ll never get tired of visiting.