Thursday, May 18, 2017

Getting your bearings

A typical first full day on-site for students involves a tour of their new city, so Wednesday morning we set out for a walking tour of the Westminster area of London. Our current group are from a university in Texas, so our tour guide would just call, "Texas! Gather around me here." The majority of the students are studying to be forensic scientists and since it would be topical for our afternoon tour, I wore this dress which caused him to refer to me all morning as "bones".

It was a typical grey and rainy London day, but we were all prepared with umbrellas and raincoats, and the students were real troopers with not one complaint among them from the weather. You'll have to excuse the poor quality of some of my photos, though, as I have only brought my phone with me and all the grey does not make for good pictures.

We began by the Palace of Westminster, the meeting place for Parliament. Here you will find the famous clock tower, commonly referred to as Big Ben even though Big Ben is just the large bell in the tower itself.

This site was originally a royal palace dating back to the 11th century, but fires have destroyed several iterations of it throughout the years. The current building was constructed from 1840-1870 and was designed to match the style of neighboring Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey has been the site of all coronations of English and British monarchs since 1066, with William the Conqueror, and more that 16 royal weddings have took place here, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The abbey is also the final resting place of many kings, queens, and national figures such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens... just to name a few. Our tour guide asked which contemporary figure we thought should be honored with a burial here, when the time comes, and my nomination is Sir David Attenborough (although I'm definitely not hoping it is anytime soon!).


We arrived at the Horse Guard Parade building just in time to watch the end of the changing of the guard. There are two types of the Queens Life Guards, the Life Guards who wear red and the Blues and Royals who wear blue and they switch off shifts at 11am Monday-Saturday and 10am on Sundays. We stood across the street from the actual ceremony so that we could watch the old guard file past on their way to back to the Hyde Park Barracks.

To watch a video of the Life Guards walking past us, click here

From there we walked around St. James' Park to have a view of Buckingham Palace, but we didn't go very close so I'll post photos after a later tour when I have better shots.
From St. James' Park, looking back toward the Horse Guard and London Eye

The long road leading to Buckingham Palace is called the Mall, but pronounced mal. St. James' Park runs along one side and several important buildings along the other, including Clarence House (home of Prince Charles), St. James' Palace (built on the site of a former leper hospital dedicated to Saint James the Less), and Marlborough House (the meeting place of the Commonwealth countries).  
Next to Marlborough House are these statues of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I, the parents of the current Queen. I am sure most of you have seen The King's Speech, so you know that he was not originally destined to be King and ruled during one of the most difficult times in recent history, World War II. Near these statues is a monument showing them visiting people of London's East End, which bore the brunt of the German bombings. In September 1940, Buckingham Palace itself was hit struck multiple times and the Queen said, "I am glad that we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."
Lions at the base of Nelson's Column
From the Mall we continued north through the Admiralty Arch, which leads to Trafalgar Square - the center of London. The square has a column dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson, who led the British navy to victory over the French and Spanish in 1805. On the corners of the square are four plinths, three of which are occupied with statues. The fourth one was originally intended to have a statue of Henry IV, but it remained empty due to a lack of funds. Since 1999, various works of modern art have been commissioned for the space and since September 29, 2016, it has held the work "Really Good" by David Shrigley. It is due to be replaced sometime in 2018.
Really Good
Our tour ended at Trafalgar and we had a break for lunch. Next to Trafalgar Square is a church called St. Martin-in-the-Fields which has a cafe underneath in its crypt, so my colleague and I chose to eat there. It is reasonably priced with a variety of options and it is interesting to eat under the vaulted ceilings with various tombs underneath you.
The church uses the money made from the restaurant to fund its upkeep and they pride themselves on offering free bathrooms to the public. If you travel much, I'm sure you can appreciate that as finding free bathrooms in large cities, particularly in Europe, can be a challenge.

For our next event, we had to split into two groups and I was in charge of the later entry, so I had some extra time to kill. I headed back to the Admiralty Arch to try to find the nose.
In 1997 artist Richard Buckley secretly attached 35 plaster of Paris reconstructions of his nose on buildings around central London as a prank and protest against the controversial introduction of CCTV cameras across London. Various myths grew up around them, with this one in particularly being said to mock Napoleon. Only about 10 of the noses remain, with 7 of them located in SOHO. Supposedly if you find all 7, you will have great fortune.

Next I met up with my group of students and led them to the Royal Academy of Surgeons for a guided tour of the Hunterian Museum. We were very lucky to schedule when we did, because this museum is closing in two days and is not set to reopen again until 2020.

No pictures were allowed, but the pieces were absolutely fascinating. The museum houses the collection of surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, who throughout the course of his life meticulously studied and dissected thousands upon thousands of human, animals, plants... whatever he could find. Our guide was a retired orthopedic surgeon who led us through the history of surgery and made my feel extremely grateful that we live in the age that we do. He got a great kick out of my dress and asked me where I got it because he wanted to buy one for his daughter, also a doctor. Then at one point when I was viewing an area independently, another employee came over to comment on the dress and told me not to stand in one place too long or people would start to think I was part of the display. :-D

There were jars upon jars of specimens, all several hundred years old. The museum originally had about 4,000 pieces on display, but more than 1,000 were destroyed when it was hit by bombs during the blitz. To get an idea of what it is like inside, click here. But be warned, some if it is not for the faint of heart.

After seeing the students on their own for the evening, I went to our office to meet another one of our London staff members and since I had a bit of time to kill before dinner, we went for a drink to get to know each other a bit. Across from Tottenham Court Road station, our nearest Tube stop, is The Flying Horse, which is the last remaining pub on Oxford Street and dates back to 1790.

After a quick drink, I ran through the rain down to Leicester Square to meet up with one of my oldest British friends. Kayleigh and I met the summer before my first year of college in her hometown of Bargoed, which is about 30 minutes north of Cardiff. My youth group at the time used to travel there for short term trips to support a church there in activities for young people. The last time we saw each other was the summer of... 2006? when she came to Texas for a visit. Our lives have changed quite a bit since then, but it was a perfect coincidence that she happened to be in London this week and we were able to meet up. We had a long dinner and I got to meet her lovely children, including her two daughters who entertained me with stories of their visit to the aquarium and were vying for my attention on the walk back to the Tube station, serenading me with Disney songs they knew. So cute!


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