Day 13: London, Part 1: City of Westminster



Ya didn’t know it was a city, did ya? It isn’t – despite what all the street signs say – that’s apparently just how London refers to its boroughs. On Thursday we’ll hit the City of London in London. Very confusing. And yes, it’s boroughs with only 2 syllables, just like we say it.

So for our first official full day in London we decided to go classic and hit the iconic stuff. We both went to bed relatively early last night and both slept well. We had a simple breakfast in and made our way to the bus stop around 9:45. We’re taking buses more than subways because you can see more, and because one of our travel cards is not working right in the subways and there isn’t always an attendant to let you in the turnstile manually. So the bus has become easier because you just flash the card at the driver.

We did not go in here but it seemed fitting to start with a photo of Big Ben since it’s arguably the most iconic building in London, and was the first thing we saw when we got off the bus. “Big Ben” actually refers to the bell inside, not the clock, although the clock is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world. The tower used to be just the clock tower, now called the Elizabeth Tower, renamed for the Queen’s Jubilee. It sits at one end of the Parliament building where the House of Lords and House of Commons meet. The official name of the building is the Palace of Westminster; it was the residence of Kings & Queens in the Middle Ages. The original and even the 2nd one were both destroyed in fires; this version was built around 1835.

Side view of Westminster Abbey. We couldn’t get in this morning because it was closed to the public until 12:30. This apparently happens when there are special services going on.
St. Margaret’s Church, on the Abbey grounds, the official church of the House of Commons.
The front, typically called the West Entrance. The towers are “new” – added in the mid 1700’s, as opposed to the rest of the church which dates aback to the 1250’s. Kings and Queens have been crowned at this site since 1066.
That black door is the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms. They were located under the Treasury building, in the Whitehall complex – which is at least both of the buildings in the photo on either side of a plaza – where Cabinet offices and other government administrators are located. Downing Street is at the end of the plaza and just to your left.

I started reading the Churchill biography “The Last Lion” as a way to continue my study of WWII. It’s quite dense and in 3 volumes, so I’ve put it down at times and read other books in between for variety. I’m just about at the end of Volume 2, which appears to end towards the beginning of WWII. Some of the detail I just skim over but for the most part I’ve been very interested. He was born in 1874 and his father was the Duke of Marlborough; his generation witnessed the passing of English rule by nobility so there is an interesting Downton Abbey sort of thing going on in the background. He was a mix of contradiction on the surface at times, but there was always consistency in his motives: what he thought was best for the British people. Two large examples of that are his switch from the Conservative party to Liberal then back to Conservative. He was not an ideologue – he moved with the party he thought was headed in the right direction. He was also fiercely anti-Communist and loud about it in the 20’s and 30’s, so people’s head spun when the war storm was gathering and he suggested they strike an alliance with Russia. It’s because he was one of the first in Britain to clearly understand what Hitler was and knew that’s where the greater evil lied, and that they couldn’t do it alone.

Several things I learned from the books which were interesting to have as background going into this museum:

  • His mother was an American, and he’s always had great admiration for the USA and traveled here quite a bit long before WWII. But his loyalty was always to Britain. He has been called “50% American and 100% Briton”.
  • Especially during the 30’s when he was just a Member of Parliament and not in the cabinet, he made his living as a writer, both books and articles. His articles were syndicated and he was read all over the world. He got his start in his 20’s when he went looking for military action and turned himself into a war reporter for wars he couldn’t participate in. The strategy of war thrilled him like few other things.
  • He was in the Cabinet before the age of 40 and at the start of WWI was First Lord of the Admiralty. He was always interested in science and technology and their applications to war and was behind the creation of tanks during that war.
  • He was one of the first to speak loudly and often about the terrors that would be coming out of Germany, as early as 1934. But the rest of the UK was fanatically attached to appeasement and thought him to be a warmonger.
  • I have been the most surprised to learn that there were 3 distinct times that some combination of Britain, France and/or Russia could have stopped WWII from happening had they acted differently prior to the invasion of Poland, including just days before that. Each time his recommendations were ignored. The Prime Minister at the time, Neville Chamberlain, truly believed that he could put the right deal together to appease Hitler and attain “peace for our time.” Chamberlain didn’t want war and was willing to do anything to stay out of it; he figured Hitler would be reasonable if his some of his demands could be met because certainly he couldn’t want war, could he? Churchill was one of the few to understand that war was exactly what Hitler wanted, period.
  • There are many who believe that Churchill and Hitler were opposite sides of the same coin and that they were destined to fight each other. Hitler was actually afraid of Churchill and would campaign against him when he was just an MP, giving speeches about the crazy man in Britain who wanted war with him at any cost. The only other man Hitler was reported to be afraid of was FDR. FDR had read Churchill’s books on war and believed he was the only man who could stop Hitler. When it was clear war was unavoidable at the time of the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain finally caved to public pressure – which had shifted in favor of Churchill as his predictions started to come true – and put him back on the Cabinet in his old job heading the navy. FDR reached out to Churchill directly to offer his support in whatever back channel ways he could. This was a serious protocol breach because he by-passed the Prime Minister and was also campaigning as anti-war so he could win a 3rd election. FDR and Churchill both understood at the time Poland was invaded in 1939 that they would be allies. It is what gave Churchill confidence they would win, and he believed they couldn’t win without the US, especially since they had blown the alliance with Russia just days before. (I was the most shocked the learn that at the time of the invasion of Poland, Germany and Russia had agreed to a non-aggression treaty. Hitler changed his mind in 1941 and invaded Russia, and that’s when Russia joined the Allies.) FDR’s outreach was the start of what Churchill described as one of the most rewarding friendships of his life.

The Churchill War Rooms enshrine the bunker that was used to run the war in Europe from September 1939 to August 1945. After the war the lights were turned off and everything was left exactly as it was. It was several years later the the historical significance was understood and steps to preserve and remember it were initiated, yet it wasn’t made an actual museum until Margaret Thatcher opened it in 1984.

One of the first rooms you see: the Cabinet Room. The wood chair in the middle was Churchill’s. He was made Prime Minister in 1940.
The room of Brendan Bracken, a close friend of Churchill’s much of his life and his information officer during the war.
Churchill’s dining room.
The bedroom of Clementine, Churchill’s wife. He worked 18 hour days and essentially lived down here so by 1940 a room was created for her as well.
The famous map room. Churchill loved maps and had all kinds of things plotted daily – where troops where, ship locations, supply chains, etc.
Churchill’s bedroom. He also had a separate office there as Prime Minister. This room is next door to the map room. Notice the maps on the walls.

We were here for 2 hours and enjoyed it immensely. One of the most moving things was a video of interviews of civilians, some men but mostly women, who worked here during the time as clerks and secretaries. Very intimate insight into

  • the danger – although a bunker it was never as fortified as it should have been
  • the secrecy – no one in their personal lives knew what they did, just that they worked in a government office; one woman didn’t talk about it for 10 years after the war
  • the lack of sun – there were of course no windows, days were long and if they didn’t spend the night it was dark when they arrived and when they left
  • I was also very surprised to learn that the UK was on food rations all the way into 1954

After this we walked along St. James Park. We found a place a couple of blocks from Buckingham Palace and got panini sandwiches to eat on the lawn across from it. This has been the official royal residence since Victoria moved in in 1837. The building has been around since the mid 1700’s. It is not open for tours at this time, but will be later in the summer.

The changing of the guards ceremony occurs around 11:30 every morning; we were there about 1pm.
Really beautiful statue of Queen Victoria in the circle in front of the palace.
St. James Palace, sort around the bend from Buckingham. It was the royal residence prior to that; and prior to that it was St. James Hospital.
Picadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square, but not nearly as big.
That National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. We didn’t have time to go in today but will be back!
This blue rooster is bizarrely huge. Called Hahn/Cock, it was unveiled in 2013.
Horse guards on Whitehall.
Earl Douglas Haig statue in the middle of Whitehall. We first met this guy in Edinburgh; he was the Scot who was British Commander of the army in WWI.
Entrance to Downing Street; Prime Minister at 10. Public not allowed.

We’d made our way back around to Westminster Abbey by 3pm. As I said in an earlier entry – around our nonplussed reaction to Notre Dame – we’ve seen a lot of European churches and it takes a lot to impress us. This might go to the top of the list. It’s old – much of it around 800 years – beautiful, architecturally interesting, and steeped in more history than any we’ve seen. It’s still a functioning church with regular services, and the site for many royal ceremonies, including the funeral of Princess Diana and the recent-ish wedding of William and Kate. And lots and lots of famous people are buried here, I really had no idea. Lots of names anyone would recognize (Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson), many you wouldn’t, and of course lots of royalty. Elaborate tombs of famous royals were the most interesting, including rivals Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. You can see the full list here.

Photography is not allowed but Dan snuck a few in.

A courtyard in the middle. You can see the west towers on the right.
Taken from the opposite side of the courtyard above, with the other Parliament tower in the background.
Complete view of the tower on the opposite side of Parliament from Big Ben.
Bus ride home.

We went back to Lavender Hill and picked up Portugese BBQ for dinner and brought it back to the flat. It was a tremendous amount of food – we each got the special for 8 pounds; leftovers will be used at breakfast the next 3 mornings! We left again around 6:30pm for our first evening in the West End.

I had done a Broadway trip with Jon in 2011 an loved everything about that trip. In particular, I “got” that seeing something on Broadway has a different feel and quality to it unless you happen to see an original cast tour. So I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be this close to London theater and not take advantage of it. When I looked around for what was playing, I decided I couldn’t miss the chance to see a Noel Coward play with Angela Lansbury in the John Gielgud theater – all big names for theater people. The play was Blithe Spirit, an “improbable farce” with Lansbury playing a medium who brings back the dead first wife of a man in the home he shares with his current wife. It was very entertaining and wonderful to see 88 year old Lansbury in person and still working and doing very well. When she first came on stage the theater erupted in applause. At the intermission Dan commented he thought that was strange – why did they do that? I just said “because it’s Angela Lansbury.” He’s not as into that stuff as I am so the experience was a little lost on him. But he enjoyed it more than he thought he would and I was thrilled to be there.

 

We made our way home by bus and were back by about 10:30pm. It was a great first day in London.

Side note to Meher – re: the separate hot/cold faucets, the only one I had noticed before you asked was in the Edinburgh flat – the bathroom and kitchen sinks were like that and I thought it was odd only because the flat was so updated otherwise. The flat we’re in now isn’t like that, although it took me probably longer than it should have to figure out that in the kitchen the hot water was on the left, not the right. I just figured it was backwards like the roads 🙂 Most of the public spaces we’ve used are automatic single. Of course, tonight at the theater I noticed it – probably because you pointed it out! – but it didn’t really seem weird since we were in one of the older theaters in the West End. Now it’ll be on the brain and I will notice it more.
In the mean time, I found this.

And while we’re here: on the bus trip back from the castle to Edinburgh, the driver, Barney, entertained all kinds of questions and was quite good at answering a wide range of things. Dan asked about the driving thing and he said he didn’t know for sure, but it make sense to him that it had to do with riding horses – most people were right handed and you needed to be on the left side to joust and defend yourself with your right! It almost sounded like something he made up on the spot but he was quite satisfied with his answer. Here are some other thoughts on the topic, some which agree with him.

0 thoughts on “Day 13: London, Part 1: City of Westminster”

  1. Meher says:

    Enjoyed reading the bathroom "tap" article very much over my lunch – So glad London is treating you well!

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