It was midnight on January 20th when we landed in London Gatwick airport. We were tired from our lengthy, cramped flight, sandwiched between airplane seats, and wanted more than anything to get through customs and be fast asleep in our London hostel.
Having filled out our landing cards we waited nervously in line toward the customs gate, preparing ourselves to face the intimidating officers. We were a bit anxious, not that we had anything to hide, but the mere presence of a customs agent tends to make one feel as if one does. We were both called up to one of the kiosks and were greeted by a wary face with eyes that peered deep into ours in an attempt to read our very souls. The Agent found us, a young Canadian couple, to be extremely suspicious and possibly a risk to the security of the country. He threatened to tear our bags apart in search of CV’s or other papers that would give evidence that we were seeking to work in the UK and trying to immigrate illegally. For at least 15 minutes we tried to soothe his suspicions and convince him that Canada is just fine for us and we have no desire to move to the UK. I brought up the fact that I have relatives in England (though I’m still not sure just how distant they are) and that I was interested in seeking them out, which for some reason seemed to calm the wrath of the customs agent. Perhaps he couldn’t think of any reason why someone would simply want to tour England.
“I’m going out on a limb trusting you blokes here….” said he, and after stamping our passports, we were at last allowed entry into his realm. What a relief!
It was a long night and another couple of hours before we finally arrived at our hostel near London centre at around 3:30 am. Next time, I think we won’t choose the midnight flight just to save a few pounds. It’s not worth it!
Having just left the quiet, Finnish countryside, the great city of London was an overwhelming shock. In the few days we spent walking London’s streets, we got a real taste of the city’s overpopulated, fast-paced, smog-filled atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, London is an incredibly efficient city. Like clockwork the businesses and trains run smoothly and on time every morning when the population wakes up and the rat race begins. One must be careful not to get stepped on during rush hour when a cluster bomb of citizens charge single-mindedly towards their most crucial appointments.
Why Londoners call their metro system “The Tube” became instantly clear to me on the ride from our hostel to our first attraction of the day. The subway cars were small, cramped, stuffed full of people, and like a tube of toothpaste, these people were squeezed out a little at a time at every stop. Even outside of rush hour there was never any room to sit, and standing was impossible without hunching over (though that could be because I’m just abnormally tall). I can’t imagine that getting up every morning, cramming into the Tube for an hour just to get to work, and doing the same to go back home, could be a very pleasant existence. But London is just like any of the big cities of the world where people are used to the race, the crowds, and the competition, and I shouldn’t focus so negatively on the sacrifice of serenity for the thrills of city life.
During our time in London we were able to snatch up a free walking tour that took us to several important sites accompanied with engaging, and sometimes comical, stories.
We started at Buckingham Palace, and after witnessing the changing of the guard (which wasn’t THAT big of a deal), we were told the tale of the legendary Irishman, Michael Fagan, who caused the 20th century’s biggest royal security breach.
At around 7.00am on Friday morning, 9 July 1982, Michael Fagan, who was by then a 33-year-old unemployed decorator whose wife had just left him, scaled Buckingham Palace’s 14ft perimeter wall (topped with revolving spikes and barbed wire), shimmied up a drainpipe, and entered the palace through an unlocked window on the roof. Fagan found the kitchen and spent the next half an hour wandering around the palace eating cheese and crackers. He spent some time resting upon the royal throne while drinking a bottle of white wine. Alarm sensors had detected his break in, but the head guard on duty was quite new at his job, and believing the alarm to be faulty he shut it off. Michael Fagan eventually wandered into the Queen’s bedroom, where Queen Elizabeth II was sleeping, sat on the edge of her bed, and proceeded to have a lengthy conversation with her discussing all of his problems. The Queen was only able to raise the alarm when Fagan asked for a cigarette. She calmly called for a footman, who came in and held the unexpected intruder until police arrived. In the end, Michael Fagan wasn’t imprisoned or even charged! He got off scot free and had a great story to tell.
Arriving at the site of Big Ben (now officially named Elizabeth Tower, though no one calls it that), the clock tower attached to the Palace of Westminster, we were told the story of The Great Bell. Cast in 1856, the first bell, at a weight of 16 tonnes, was transported to the Big Ben tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its progress. After reaching its destination, through much difficulty, the gargantuan bell was then tested (having just thought it may be a good idea) but unfortunately the hammer cracked the bell beyond repair. Two years later the second bell was cast, though this time a bit smaller at 13.5 tonnes, with ideas of practicality rather than grandiose in mind. This bell was pulled 200 feet, all the way up to the Clock Tower’s belfry, a feat that took 18 hours. This new bell first chimed in July 1859, but in September it too cracked under the hammer, a mere two months after it officially went into service. For three more years the Great Bell was taken out of service until someone finally decided to do a quick-fix repair job rather than to go through the painstaking process of transporting and replacing the bell for the third time. For the repair, a square piece of metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell was given an eighth of a turn so the hammer struck in a different place. To this day Big Ben’s bell is still cracked and has always chimed with a slightly wonky tone.
The tour took us to many other exciting parts of London, but I soon got tired of following the group and wanted to break off to do some exploring of our own.
Ashleigh and I had got wind of a few special artifacts that were being held at Britain’s greatest museum, which was also free to enter, and so we started for it immediately.
The British Museum was established in 1753, and its permanent collection, numbering some 8 million works, is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence. The building holding the museum was spectacular on its own, an enormous structure of 75,000 square metres and constructed in the Greek Revival style, which emulated classical Greek architecture. We explored the museum for hours, up until closing time, and we still barely scratched the surface of that its magnificent collection. Egyptian sarcophaguses and Assyrian sphinxes, Greek vases and Japanese katanas, this museum was a treasure trove of ancient relics of cultures from all around the world. We gazed in wonder as we strolled through room after room of antiquities the British had collected for hundreds of years which were now stored inside one museum. The Rosetta Stone, the keystone that allowed us to decipher the ancient Egyptian language, was probably the most popular exhibit in the British Museum, but there were other artifacts just as rare to see. We saw the “Parthenon Marbles”, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. In 1800 Thomas Bruce took this collection back to Britain for safe keeping ;). We found the “Assyrian winged bull gateway”, originally from Khorsabad, modern Iraq, about 710 BC. These huge stone figures were bought for the museum in 1850. We got to look upon other world famous treasures, like the Lewis Chessmen, the Statue of Ramesses II, and the Benin Bronzes. I also saw a suit of armour made out of crocodile skin that I thought was pretty cool.
Before leaving London, Ashleigh and I made a point to visit a couple other more whimsical sites.
221B Baker Street was a necessary stop. At the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes series, addresses in Baker Street did not go as high as 221. It was later extended, and in 1932 the Abbey National Building Society moved into premises at 219–229 Baker Street. For many years, Abbey National employed a full-time secretary to answer mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. In 1990, a blue plaque signifying 221B Baker Street was installed at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, displaying “Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective”. Today the museum displays exhibits in period rooms, wax figures and Holmes memorabilia, with the famous study overlooking Baker Street as the highlight of the museum. Ashleigh and I were unfortunately unable to enter the museum as it was closed by the time we got there, but we were excited nonetheless and got our pictures beside the front door in the most Sherlocky pose we could manage.
At Kings Cross station we found the entrance to platform 9 and ¾ where the famous wizard Harry Potter would catch the train to Hogwarts. There we tried to push our trolley through the magic wall but it got stuck halfway. Feeling embarrassed, and a little crushed, I decided to wander into Ollivanders’ shop nearby to find a special magic wand for myself. The old man seemed friendly at first; he picked out a wand for me made out of Unicorn hair and rainbow dust. I gave it wave and miraculously a ribbon of fire streamed out. It burnt mostly everything. Old man Anders seemed strangely upset, so I thought we should leave, though not before Ashleigh purchased a scrumptious chocolate frog.
Our three day stay in London was memorable, but I was eager to get out of the big city and back into the country. I can’t wait to explore haunted castles, ancient Neolithic ruins, quaint English Pubs (dark English beer!), and secret stone villages long forgotten by the modern world.