Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Travels to London, England

London is the capital of England and the most populous city in the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south east of the island of Great Britain, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. It was founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium. London's ancient core, the City of London, largely retains its 1.12-square-mile medieval boundaries. London is a leading global city in the arts, commerce, education, entertainment, fashion, finance, healthcare, media, professional services, research and development, tourism, and transportation.

Keith and I recently visited London in March.   We flew over night from IAD to Heathrow.  It was just before Spring, but the weather was sunny and cool with some spotty showers.  We stayed in the Victoria neighborhood, which is a 5-minute walk to Buckingham Palace and a convenient location for all the other major sites.

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, is a large, mainly Gothic abbey church and is one of the United Kingdom's most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, however, the building is no longer an abbey nor a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of England "Royal Peculiar"—a church responsible directly to the sovereign. The building itself is the original abbey church.

Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster and is usually extended to refer to both the clock and the clock tower as well. The tower is officially known as Elizabeth Tower, renamed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2012; previously, it was known simply as the Clock Tower.

Nearby is Buckingham Palace - the London residence and administrative headquarters of the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. We caught the Changing the Guard to view the colorful spectacle and British pageantry. The ceremony lasts about 45 minutes between 10:15-11:45am on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from January to March, weather permitting.

St. Stephen's Hall in the House of Parliament

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One highlight we did was take a tour of the UK's House of Parliament followed by stylish afternoon tea beside the River Thames.  It was cool to see inside where the the two parties debate, but I mostly enjoyed the traditional table service afternoon tea, held in one of the riverside rooms in the House of Commons, called the Terrace Pavilion. The Parliament's award winning chefs created a tempting seasonal menu of savories and sweets made freshly on site which combines tradition with a modern twist.

Tower Bridge is a combined bascule and suspension bridge in London built in 1886–1894. The bridge crosses the River Thames close to the Tower of London and has become an iconic symbol of London. The Tower of London, officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, is a historic castle located on the north bank of the River Thames in central London. It houses the armory and the famed Crown Jewels.

View of the stage dressed for Taming of the Shrew with the thatched roof behind.
For more history, we checked out Shakepeare's famous Globe Theater. Located on the bank of the River Thames in Bankside's Cultural Quarter, Shakespeare's Globe welcomes thousands of visitors to experience world renowned productions of Shakespeare every day. Built in 1599, the original version was destroyed by fire in 1613.  It wasn't until 2014 that the theater was reconstructed about 200  meters from the original site. Guided tours run daily and last about 30 minutes - definitely worthwhile, especially if you're a theater fan.

We also visited the secret WW2 bunker and museum that tells the story of Winston Churchill’s life and legacy, called the Churchill War Rooms. The museum comprises of the Cabinet War Rooms, a historic underground complex that housed a British government command center throughout the Second World War, and the Churchill Museum, a biographical museum exploring the life of British statesman Winston Churchill.

There are many other sites to see in London proper, but since we were there only a total of 3 days, we took a day trip via bus out to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the ancient Roman city of Bath. I highly recommend this tour! We started at Windsor Castle, home to the British royal family, for a tour of the State Apartments and St. George's Chapel. It is notable for its long association with the English and later British royal family and for its architecture. The original castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Since the time of Henry I, it has been used by the reigning monarch and is the longest-occupied palace in Europe. The castle's lavish early 19th-century State Apartments were described by the art historian Hugh Roberts as "a superb and unrivalled sequence of rooms widely regarded as the finest and most complete expression of later Georgian taste". 

We then continued west to Salisbury, home of the mysterious Stonehenge rock formations. This prehistoric monument consists of a ring of standing stones, with each standing stone around 13 ft high, 7 ft wide and weighing around 25 tons. The stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, although they may have been at the site as early as 3000 BC. One of the most famous landmarks in the UK, Stonehenge is regarded as a British cultural icon. It's mystical aura is intriguing -- what was it for? A burial ground? A calendar? A place of worship or healing?  We may never know...

Finally, we arrived in Bath, known for its elegant Georgian architecture and Roman baths.  This city is in the ceremonial county of Somerset, England, and became a spa with the Latin name Aquæ Sulis ("the waters of Sulis") c. AD 60 when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley of the River Avon, although hot springs were known even before then. Bath Abbey was founded in the 7th century and became a religious center; the building was rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries. In the 17th century, claims were made for the curative properties of water from the springs, and Bath became popular as a spa town in the Georgian era.  You can still drink some of the warm spring water during the tour.  It was a bit salty, with hints of minerals and a faint odor of sulphur.

There is so much more to see and do in London-proper.  For more London eats check out my restaurant reviews. We really enjoyed the mix of old history and modern in London.  Have you visited London before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!


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