Saturday 6/29: Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, & Criterion Theatre

(Sorry about the wait on this one, guys. Luckily, we returned to the dorm fairly early today, so I have a little extra time to write.)

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:30 and ran 2 miles. Breakfast included chocolate-filled croissants, which was, of course, very exciting. I showered and pulled on a new shirt (yay!) and we boarded the bus.

The ride was the usual hour, give or take thirty minutes. We arrived just down the street from the Houses of Parliament, and with time to spare. This warranted a stroll through the Victoria Tower Gardens, the sunshine streaming down on us through the cool air. People cycled past. A man played fetch with his dog. It was so peaceful, I could have stayed there for hours.

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In addition to picture-taking, we made sure to pay our respects at the Buxton Memorial, a stone erection that bears resemblance to a gazebo, commemorating the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Originally located in Parliament Square, the Memorial was moved in 1957 to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1807 Act abolishing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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There was a lovely view of the London Eye from the edge of the River Thames! (We’ll be riding it on July 4th! This constitutes an Independence Day celebration, right?)

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Parliament peeks through the trees as we approach, its high-seated flag fluttering in the breeze…

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Such an incredible building.

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Richard I greeted us in front of the House of Lords, where he has been perched on his whinnying horse for over 150 years. Major conservation work was just completed on his likeness four years ago.

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We all managed some great shots as we filed in through a thorough security check.

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Just beyond the small, tree-lined courtyard outside of the entrance to Westminster Hall, Elizabeth Tower dwarfed us, an enormous glistening beacon.

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And then, finally, we entered the Hall–the oldest surviving portion of the Palace, as most of the others burned to the ground in October of 1834. (An echo of this disaster was hearkened when the Common Chambers were, again, reduced to little more than molten ash during a 1941 air raid, when their conservation was deemed less vital than that of the Hall. Our tour guide would later relay to us with a smirk that “the stories of great buildings are often the stories of great fires.” Indeed, London’s track record is certainly a testament to this quip.) Over a thousand years of history loomed before me, stretching into the rafters and filling the cracks in the stone, pressing against the glass panels in the lofty windows. Suddenly, I felt so tiny and unimportant. This was where London was truly born.

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We had a tour scheduled for around 10:45, and the guide led us through, and familiarized us with the building: the Robing Room, where the Queen dresses in her Imperial State Crown and ceremonial robes before gliding into the House of Lords, the Royal Gallery, used for state receptions, dinners, and ceremonies, decorated on either wall by a Daniel Maclise mural illustrating a pivotal moment of the Napoleonic Wars, the Lords’ Chamber, lavishly garnished in red and gold, woolsacks arranged in tiers and tasseled with gilded fringe, the Central Lobby, where the four corners of the UK touch, the Members’ Lobby, where Winston Churchill’s dangerous scowl and hip-bracketing fists are immortalized in stone, and the Commons Chamber, which can accommodate only 427 of the 650 Members of Parliament at a time. Personally, I felt myself drawn to the art–for instance, the chivalric value-personifying vignette pieces in the Robing Room, demarcated by runes reading “hospitality,” “generosity,” “mercy,” “religion,” “courtesy.” I was also fascinated to hear about the State Opening ritual dating back to the Civil War wherein the official of the House of Lords called “Black Rod” is sent to summon the Commons, and has the doors to the Chamber shut in his face. He then knocks again, three times (there is visible wear in the woodwork by cause of this), at which time the members of this house acquiesce and file into the Lords’ Chamber. The ritual is symbolic of the Commons’ independence from the corruption of the monarchy.

Lamentably, photography was not permitted in the Palace, so I have only words to hand on, but if you ever have the chance, I recommend paying it a visit. I definitely feel that you get the bang for your buck.

Shortly after the dismissal of our tour group, we clipped along through Parliament Square (the traffic was absolutely terrifying–too many electric bikes!) and wound our way around to St. James’s Park, passing, on the way, Abraham Lincoln’s effigy, carved out of bronze. This is a replica of the somewhat controversial original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, created by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Anyway, St. James’s turned out to be a wonderful place–for us as we nibbled at our sandwiches and, I’m sure, the hundred billion other park transients, as girls attempted wobbly handstands and young couples nuzzled one another in the grass. (“Londoners don’t understand Frisbee,” Ms. Nichols chuckled at one point, eyeing a band of teenaged boys repeatedly tossing a yellow disc slantwise and yelling in thick French accents when it inevitably plummeted into the ground and rolled, in lazy circles, to a halt.) We even saw some baby swans, while the estate is home to 29 other species of waterfowl, including mallard, golden eye, tufted duck, shelduck, and wigeon. (Not to be confused with pigeon… although there are plenty of those too.)

When we finished lunch, it was time to see Buckingham Palace!!! This was really exciting for me so I took a few pictures, to say the least.

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The group then continued toward Piccadilly Circus, crossing through what Mr. Worthington dubbed the “Ritz” area. Here, Ms. Nichols and the students trailing furthest behind erupted into animated shouts as we turned a corner–apparently, Russel Crowe had walked past them.

Here are a few shots from that part of our walk:

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(Right around here, we discovered an excellent photo opportunity. Below, the letters crowning the box stand for “Elizabeth II, Ruler/Royalty.”)

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Lots of these little blue plaques around London, as constituents of its blue plaque scheme started in 1866. This is believed the be the oldest of its kind in the world. Each plaque serves as a link between influential persons of the past and the places where they lived and worked.

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Long live the Queen! As we entered Piccadilly Circus, these banners flew high, recognizing the reign of Elizabeth II’s 60th anniversary this year.

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Upon our entry to the district, we were tossed into an enormous, sweaty, throbbing mass of people, absolutely crammed together for the LGBT Pride March, an event that the majority of us, myself included, weren’t expecting. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am an immensely ardent advocate of all things gay rights-related, but the lack of elbow room was deeply unsettling. Especially as a tourist.

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Thankfully, our clan managed to find its way through the Underground to the other side of the road, at which point we split into coteries of two and three and did some of what we like best–shopping. (Even still, I didn’t buy anything.) Many students ducked into Lillywhites for sportswear, while Brandy and I tag-teamed Cool Brittania, after escaping from the commotion into a health chain I’m becoming increasingly familiar with called, quite simply, “Eat.” We even got a few photos of the parade from the shop’s upper level seating space.

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Everyone met back again in front of Criterion Theatre, where we received our tickets for The 39 Steps from Mr. Worthington. The theatre was petite and cozy, and our seats were great.

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To be “ruthlessly honest,” (as Mr. Worthington says) I was skeptical about the show at first, but it ended up being fantastic, and very, very funny… despite the clear overtones of undeniably British humor, to which I don’t typically respond. I loved it. Arguably most impressive was that a cast of only four managed to effectively take on dozens of roles throughout the hour-and-a-half-long performance. Time and again, these talented players pulled off ingenious stunts, through comedic timing, the employment of “human props,” and breaking the fourth wall. The show conveyed all the cinematic wonder of a film, complete, even, with angle shifts through clever use of visual illusion and a willingness to play with the audience’s perspective. When wind needed to blow, the actors fluttered their coats; when a train needed to move, they rocked rhythmically back and forth. And sure, these tricks sound old hat, but what really lit up this staging was that everything was done in a very humorously self-aware manner that seemed to forge a bond between the actors and viewers. There was no “I’m playing a role,” but rather, “I know you know I’m playing a role.” If that makes any sense at all. Anyhow, I’m very interested in picking up a copy of the book by John Buchan, which the play is based on, if I can hunt it down.

After the show, we had about an hour of free time for dinner and what have you, so Brandy and I settled on Chipotle (a conservative choice, I know, but I needed a burrito like air). For the next half hour, we discussed the possibilities and mechanics of time travel while dipping into pinto beans and guacamole, before scoping out a gelato joint a few blocks down and ordering rosemary orange and salted caramel, and vanilla biscuit, respectively. Perfect accompaniment to our mutual quiet observation of the whirlwind of activities outside the shop, lit by the last flushed light of the sun as it fell across the cobblestone below.

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Before the group left London for the night, we watched a street performer juggling knives and unicycling across a quivering tightrope. As I tugged anxiously at my hair and ground my teeth, Brandy whispered breathily beside me. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” But I guess that’s what London is all about–the magic of not knowing. This city is wrapped in mystery, dark figures in alleyways and unusual smells, profiles in windows and graffitied witticism sprayed against stones of Roman origin, street musicians with no names, crumbling towers with far too many. You could live here for a lifetime and not know the half of it. Two lifetimes. Ten. Exploring a town that built the world as we know it is a joy in and of itself, even if the fact of the matter is that I’ll hardly make a dent in the history books.

Uppity poeticism aside, Saturday was amazing. Now to begin crafting today’s chapter…

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