Wednesday 7/3: Windsor Castle & Eton College

Wednesday began with the usual drill. The group then whizzed off to Windsor, along a tree-lined route that made me ache for Charlotte’s own streetside flora and fauna. However, any homesickness was relieved, at least temporarily, upon the sight of the castle erupting into view on my right, as if ripped right from a science-fiction fantasy, or an action-adventure thriller. (For some reason, the exotic growl of a vengeful promise from the lips of one Inigo Montoya came to mind. I remembered my essay, how I’d pictured gallantly eloping to those same rolling hills on some valiant quest, kicking butt and taking names. Windsor Castle encompasses a sense of magic that’s all its own–not only in a high schooler’s personal divulgences, but genuinely, out there in the real world.)

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I appreciated the audio touring device we received for free with admission, a small gadget, clipped to a lanyard, that we could plug our earbuds right into. I could listen to a track several times in a row if I wanted something run by me again, a convenience that I took advantage of on several occasions while waiting in line. I mean, queue. While queuing. Right.

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The view from the castle of the town was incredible. Miles of the sweeping circumambient terrain was visible: children playing cricket in a schoolyard, double-deckers whirling around bends where vendors had spread their wares, chipped dinghies bobbing languidly on the Thames. You really got the sense of how safe this place would have been during an attack. It’s the ideal location–invaders would both have been spotted long before they neared the walls, and the hill would have exhausted even the most highly trained combatants.

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After admiring the vista for a few minutes, we continued on.

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One of the first exhibitions was Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a project that was actually headed by the granddaughter of Queen Mary (who was married to Henry V), Elizabeth II. The two were very close, so she wanted to give her grandmother a gift that she would cherish, and miniatures were kind of the Queen’s thing. The house was completed in 1924 and features the work of some of the finest architects, designers, craftsmen, and artists of the time, commissioned to incorporate pots and kettles, guns, replicas of famous portraits, books, sofas, the newest gadget on the market: an electric vacuum cleaner. The house is fully furnished, with working electricity. There’s even a fully stocked wine cellar, and a strong room containing miniature Crown Jewels.

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The Royal Paintbox, an exhibition of works (including paintings and drawings) by the Royal Family, running now through January 26th of next year, was also source of interest for me. Some of the art was really intriguing, which sort of surprised me. You can’t be royalty and an artist! It’s not fair! But it is, alas, wholly possible… and the diversity of styles was, in itself, really a joy to see. Some of the nobles were more inclined to realism, some to cartooning, but none put exactly the same spin on their subjects. Photography was not permitted, but I’m sure a bit of searching around on the Internet will turn up some finds.

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Once the tour was completed, we had lunch down by the river and fed some belligerent swans (there must have been hundreds!) before splitting up and exploring the town on our own. Brandy and I stuck together, stepping into a few touristy shops, and then crossing over the bridge and scavenging around in a (relatively overpriced) antique bookstore, which offered some vintage newspaper comics that I liked. Afterward, Brandy’s hunger led us to a combination cafe and barber shop, where she purchased a lemon pound cake. A significant portion of which somehow ended up in my stomach.

Once the group reconvened, it was time for a ramble around Eton, albeit a guided one. It was actually a private tour, which was cool. Plus, our group is kind of a loud one, so it was really to everyone’s benefit.

I think my favorite thing about Eton (a high school, for anyone else who is as confused as I was! The term “college” doesn’t have the same meaning in the UK as it does in the States) has to be the school uniform. It’s just one of the elements left behind from Eton’s past, and it’s a traditional Victorian getup. (Top hats were also a part of the uniform up until 1948.) Today, the guys have plenty of opportunities to don more casual garb during their free time, but judging by the number of times admin’s offer to alter attire requirements has been declined, they don’t really seem to want to.

One thing the guide made us aware of was just how grueling a day in the life of an Eton student would have been circa the 15th through 19th centuries (the school was founded in 1440 by Henry VI as “the King’s College of Our Lady Eton Beside Windsor”–a name which, being the mouthful it was, many were thrilled to eventually shorten). The boys endured school days twice as long as those typical of today’s students. Younger boys often had to act as servants (then called “fags”) to their older counterparts. All students were served very little food (lots of mutton!), and would beg for leftovers outside of local pubs, and when that didn’t work, they would hide what they could beneath their floorboards, an undertaking that drew hoards of rats and must have seriously deflated the already minimal living conditions of the dorms. Lectures were often so monotonous that they would invent games to play quietly among themselves, like one that was evidenced by a thin channel left carved into one of the antique desks in a surviving classroom we visited: betting on which way and at what speed ink would run when poured from their pens. Today, of course, Eton is much nicer, offering full scholarships to 40 boys a year, single dorms for each student, and about 50 organizations, called societies, at any given time, run exclusively by the students.

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Above: What a traditional dorm looked like.

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Above: A bronze statue of Henry VI, the founder.

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The door where Prince William and Prince Harry, both of whom attended Eton, had their names professionally inscribed.

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After the tour, we were all pretty worn out, and headed back to the dorms to sleep until dinner. Definitely one of the most interesting days, however tiring!

Friday 7/5: The Last Night

Oh man, I’m sorry to not have posted everything I expected to today. We’ve been insanely busy, particularly with packing. (For the record: packing for a trip? Fun! Packing for the return? Not fun.) I will, however, be home tomorrow with no definitive plans for a week beyond sleeping and posting here. No guarantees that I’ll be up to the job tomorrow, but you can unquestionably expect a full report on the trip, including the days I’ve yet to chronicle, by the end of Sunday.

Again, guys, thanks so much for all your kindness and loyalty to this blog. And even though this trip has just about come to a close, I will be continuing this blog, so please stick around! I’m just getting started!

Tuesday 7/2: Christ Church, Oxford

After my usual morning routine (I’m sure you know it by now), the group was whisked off to Oxford, where–who’d have guessed?–we descended upon Oxford University’s Christ Church location, the largest of its kind and one of the most famous, with approximately 430 undergraduates and 215 postgraduates. The map of the area that we used:

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I’d known bits and pieces about Oxford before the trip, but our meeting with Mr. Worthington the night before truly opened my eyes to just how exclusive the institution is. Generally, only a few students are accepted each year, after concluding a rigorous application process involving a written appeal (grades, exam scores, letters of recommendation, “personal” A.K.A. academic statement”– no B-average students or SAT scores under 2000 sounded like the basic gist to me), and then a thorough overnight interview in December. (Aspiring English majors like me might, for instance, be asked how E.E. Cummings influenced later authors.) What really struck me was how very intensive an Oxford course of study sounded. Mr. Worthington explained that this university does not stress the “well-roundedness” that the States do. Oxford expects its students to select a specific channel of education, and follow it through all the way to graduation. Which, I realized as we were briefed, is awesome for kids who know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives and prefer to bypass detours–hey, more power to them. Not so awesome, however, for people like me, who might major in English and minor in illustration and snatch up a few history courses on the side and look into education and the didgeridoo while they’re at it, and are just generally less decided. Basically, I love writing. But I also love a lot of other things, and I don’t know if I’m willing to cram all my eggs in that basket. (Especially considering the dubious quirk of an eyebrow and twitch of a grin one earns when disclosing their interest in the pursuit of an English degree. “Oh,” I’ve heard in response, “good luck with that.”) Studying at Oxford sounds amazing; the English program (sorry to keep circling back to this) embraces authors from the medieval period to present day, and as, thusly, might well be assumed, seems to weave a taut tapestry of both history and literature. Tutorials once a week offer opportunities for essay prompting, focus questions, review, suggestion, etc. English graduates go into business, journalism, law, the media, and teaching careers, as well as further academic study.

Phew. Okay. Getting a little wound up here.

Anyway, it was a bit of a rainy day when we visited, so I ended up picking up a sweatshirt in the gift shop and throwing it on over my other one. It’s marvelous.

(I was tempted, also, to purchase some Alice In Wonderland gear. The author of the series, Charles Dodgson, studied, taught, and lived at Christ Church, and many aspects of his stories were directly inspired by campus life.)

Our tour consisted of a look around the Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the community and the school. It is the mother church of the Diocese at Oxford, and lots of special services that take place are attended by its Bishop. Here, he has his throne, or ‘cathedra,’ to which the cathedral’s name can be traced. During term time, the Cathedral Choir, founded in 1525 and made up of 16 boys and 12 men, sings throughout the week.

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Welcome to Hogwarts! Another highlight of the tour was the famous staircase where the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scene in which Professor McGonagall welcomes the first years was filmed. (My father will hear about this.)

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The Hall, at the top of the staircase, has its own claim to fame: it inspired the ornate dining hall in the films. It is described as the center of college life, a place where banquets are held, where the eyes of John Locke, a sprinkling of Prime Ministers, and other respected alumni peer out from their keepers’ wall-hung oil paint facsimiles.

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After Christ Church, we spent about an hour combing through the Ashmolean Museum a few blocks down, created in 1908 by combining the Oxford University Art Collection and the original Ashmolean. Today, coins, sketches, statues, musical instruments, and other antiquities are secured beneath its roof. Ivy and Julia (both from Houston) tagged along with me in the Chinese and Middle Eastern collections, admiring the tapestries and pottery on display. It was really remarkable how well the pieces had been preserved. Even rugs hundreds of years old looked to be in exceptional shape.

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The final focus of our journey was a swing by Christ Church’s Bodleian Library, which stores a copy of every book ever published in the country, the combined collections racking up a total of over 11 million printed items, 50,000 e-journals, and many more materials in various alternative formats. Pretty big responsibility, and something I’m very envious of the students for. All current members of Christ Church may use the library and borrow modern books.

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What’s unusual to me about the campus is the distinct absence of grass. These pebbles are about it.

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We dipped into the gift shop while there, too.

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I liked the door.

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A knitted chain was draped across the top of one of the campus fences. I’d heard of this being done in other places but never seen it! So that was cool.

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It’s interesting that the entire town adheres to the same Romanesque, Gothic style of architecture. I mean, of course we’d seen this in London as well, but perhaps the effect was bolstered by the more compact vicinity. Someone back home asked me last night what the biggest culture shock had been, and I think it’s this liberal use of stone. No other place looks like it. (That is, as far as I know.)

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We had a dab of free time before our bus departed, so I poked around in an antique shop called “Antiques On High.” It was absolutely jam-packed with glistening doohickeys. (So proud of myself for finding an excuse to use that word.) Jars shaped and painted to resemble faces, bagpipes, silver platters, and records all come to mind. I could sped an entire afternoon there.

Off to dinner! I’ll be back later tonight!

Monday 7/1: Selfridge’s & Regent’s Park

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:00 (to drink tea and write!), ran two miles, took a shower, and hopped on the bus headed for Selfridge’s, where we would spend an hour zipping from floor to floor, reveling in the shimmering Shangri-La of 21st century materialism that is Britain’s most famous department store–in fact, so voted the “best department store in the world.”

Seriously, Selfridge’s was immense, glistening from floor to ceiling, decked out in chrome and crystal. It felt sort of like Oz–like I might pass from the dazzling shoe department into the Emerald City at any given moment. I had never felt so American here before, loping around in my Nike shorts and tee, gangly, disoriented, and endlessly out-of-place, my faux leather backpack slung limply across my back and my plastic water jug dangling from my crooked ring finger, rather than clutched in my fist, as if in a gesture of feigned daintiness. I have been assured, in the past, that I do not have an accent or, for that matter, any sort of “vocal extremity,” but in that moment I deemed my voice grating and riotously wrong. Nails on a chalkboard. A donkey braying.

A conclusion that led me straight to where other 16-year-old foreigners undoubtedly drown their sorrows:

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The giant candy shelves.

And, consequently, a “candy floss” machine, which invoked childhood memories of Angelina Ballerina and her wonderful mishaps at the country fair.

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The food hall (“It sounds so much better than ‘food court!’ Brandy laughed) had dozens of sweets shops and delicatessens set up, all advertising delicious-looking items in their glass display cases.

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After Selfridge’s, we trekked over to Regent’s Park, where we admired the flowers and ate lunch on benches, taking photos all the while. (We were in Queen Mary’s Gardens, an inner district of the park that accommodates more than 30,000 roses of 400 types.)

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(Yellow roses! My favorite!)

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We had some time before the performance of The Winter’s Tale, so we strolled around the park with no particular direction in mind.

Lots of birds–over 100 species of waterfowl.

(Several hundred years ago, these birds might have been targeted by hunters, whom King Henry VIII ushered in by appropriating the area as a hunting ground during his reign.)

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I’m not sure what type of bird this is, despite my (admittedly weak) attempts to identify it online later. But there were several in the pond, diving and surfacing continually. It was very cute.

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Also a few herons!

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Two people brought an entire loaf of bread solely for the purpose of feeding the geese.

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This pretty duck was just sitting on the pavement, unflinchingly, as we passed. Just goes to show how good birds must have it in these London parks!

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A swan was preening itself in one of the smaller lagoons.

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We also saw the home of the British ambassador to the U.S. Which was huge. Not a bad gig.

We made our way back to the Open Air Theatre–the only professional outdoor drama venue in Britain, and a widely acclaimed one at that–just before the doors were opened and the audience began spilling in.

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I was thoroughly impressed with the performance. I was somewhat hesitant about the whole thing, mostly because we’d been informed the previous day that it had been advertised as both appropriate and entertaining for children ages six and up. What? A Shakespearean play that’s fun for kids? But, yes, the cast and crew pulled this feat off spectacularly, incorporating (principally as interludes after exceptionally humdrum slices of the show) interactive songs, raps, dancing, and even a stuffed sheep-shearing competition between groups of audience members. Something I really liked was the free movement of actors in and between the seats of the theatre. They weren’t afraid to grab hats off heads, speak directly to individuals, sit on laps, etc.

So that was basically Monday. The weather was amazing–sunny, warm, absolutely perfect. Thanks for the read! Now, on to constructing Tuesday’s retrospection!

Sunday 6/30: Globe & Tate Modern

Sunday began with 2 miles around the track, breakfast, and a shower, as usual. Then we were off to London where, I belatedly discovered, we would be delving into the International Shakespeare Globe Centre & Theatre before having a look at the Tate Modern Gallery.

The bus ride was quiet and relaxing. I read a bit of my new book, Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, by Gregor Muir. It’s an interesting find, and unique in that I kinda sorta bought it by accident; when I’d been picking out my final selections in the book shop on Friday, I’d actually intended to purchase “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” by Antonia Fraser, but by a lapse in scrutiny, I instead handed this one over to the cashier, underneath my other pick. Oh well. I am really enjoying it. It provides a helpful context for everything we’ve been learning in the past week. There’s lots of discussion of the economic climate of London (and even globally) throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and embellishment particularly on policies, politics, and revolution, through the critical eye of an artisan in the interim of a shifting creative era. I’m trying to read 10 pages a day; should take about 24 days, 20 as of now.

We arrived relatively early and killed some time on the pier, taking photos and giving our aching feet some brief solace. The sun on our faces and wispy clouds boded well for our rain-dreading American mentalities.

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Also some great shots of London from Bankside, across the Thames.

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So we entered with the promise of an hour of exploration, and I ambled along, reading up on as many exhibit pieces as possible and filing away the information in some distant corner of my mind, for when I could later cross-reference it with my authoritative Shakespeare: The World a Stage audiobook.

Currently under construction is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (so named after the project’s founder), an indoor theatre that will seat 340 and open on January 9th of next year with John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Loads of information available about this project in the exhibition, as the Centre is trying to up the hype, I’m sure.

On display was a timeline of Shakespeare’s written works, ordered by year of completion. Despite the noisy design, it was very interesting to see the historical events surrounding each.

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I was also captivated by this quote, as it seems to epitomize the true scope of Shakespeare’s influence:

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(There was a small-scale poster version of the quote in the gift shop, but the price was too high to appeal to my Oxford University sweatshirt-craving sensibilities.)

Shakespeare’s Will was also on display–lovely to see as I’ve heard a lot about it but never viewed it myself. My gaze flicked straight to his signature at the bottom right-hand corner; curiously enough, he signed this one under the name “Shakspeare.” This is one of only six discovered records of his penmanship, all of them nearly illegible signatures, and none of which are spelled in the “conventional” scheme with which we are familiar. This being said, funny that we should spell his name the way we do.

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Some other pieces in the exhibit that caught my eye:

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A model of the frost fair held in the winter of 1621 over upstream of London Bridge on the Thames when it froze over was exhibited. Climatologists called it the “little Ice Age” of the early 17th century.

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A few shots of the building…

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And then the tour. The Theatre was so cool. Of course, it wasn’t an exact replica–for starters, it’s located several hundred yards from the site of the original Globe–but as far as imitations go, it was pretty darn close.

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The stage was set for an afternoon performance of Macbeth at the time. The Theatre puts on shows every day from April through October. (And when the Playhouse is opened, shows will be available to audiences through winter as well!) I loved that the band came out and practiced during our tour, the traditional music really took me back in time. Also, the guide made sure to place special emphasis on the fact that, yes, it is possible to pull of Shakespearean productions with a stylistic twist–for instance, modern costuming or the use of a hip-hop soundtrack! I’ve seen one or two of these “New Age Shakespeare” productions before, and absolutely loved them.

Well, I’m very, very, very tired, so I’m going to sleep now. I will complete Sunday’s reflection tomorrow, along with today’s. Our plan for tomorrow is to visit Oxford University–fingers crossed for an affordable sweatshirt!

Slackin’

Good morning everyone! I want to apologize for the lack of posting yesterday. We were literally out all day, and got in late. I will be sure to fill you in on everything later today: the Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, Criterion Theatre and The 39 Steps, and all the hustle and bustle of Saturday night in London. It was definitely one of the best days yet.

I’m going to be honest with you here, I don’t know what we’re doing today.* Brandy doesn’t either. (We’re running on about five hours of sleep a night and limited water provisions, cut us some slack.) Hope you/I/we like surprises!

Bonus:

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Should be back around 5:45 (12:45 NC time)!

*7/3 edit: It just occurred to me that I could just have checked the itinerary that I posted here. Huh. This constant sleep deprivation-induced debility is really smothering my common sense.

Friday 6/28: Westminster Abbey

After our trip to Westminster Cathedral, the group convened briefly outside for a quick photo shoot with American Community School at Cobham’s photographer, who conducted some very artsy umbrella shots as we stood lined up in the rain. (At this point, I felt pretty dumb for dressing up.) Stay tuned, I’ll let you know where you can find those glamour shots posted.

Then we meandered along the alleys and walks, snapping pictures. I felt a bit like a lost puppy, no doubt looking wet, out of place, confused, and endlessly scruffy (special thanks to my fresh newsboy haircut for that one).

But it was a good time. We took the “long way” (also known, when it rains, as the very long way) to the Abbey, which revealed some exciting finds as far as sightseeing, including the MI5 building, the claim to fame of which is its detonation in Skyfall. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I can assure you that the blown-upness of the actual institution is remarkably nonexistent.)

So, how about some photos of our walk?

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Below, you can see the banner for the Royal Horticultural Society’s 100th Chelsea Flower Show, which took place from May 21st through 25th. (Fun fact: this year, the Geranium was awarded the distinction of “Plant of the Centenary”.)
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Below, schoolboys practice cricket in the park.

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I fell in love with pastel-washed flats today.

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Especially this pink and blue one.

(P.S: Getting fancy with the photo editing!)

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These climbing roses are my favorite addition to any home.

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So many plants outside these flats! It’s awesome!

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…And then back to London!

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At long last, we reached Westminster! The photographer shot a few more pictures of us, with Big Ben (sorry! Elizabeth Tower) as his backdrop. With a little time to kill before lunch, we all seized the moment and snagged a few pictures ourselves.

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Then we made our way inside the Abbey…

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…And we had lunch. Today, my sandwich combo was seasoned chicken, cream cheese, and cucumber slices. Deeelicious. (By the way, I believe we will receive £5 tomorrow and have the chance to seek out our own lunch in the city!)

As we corralled the group back together, I examined a stone engraving in the Abbey.

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Before long, we embarked in two separate coalitions, on a self-guided tour of the Abbey. I’m sorry to say that photography was not allowed, but notwithstanding, it wouldn’t do the experience justice. The tombs were incredible, and despite the aching in my feet and the impermeable crowds, I feel that I left with some quintessential understanding of humankind. Or maybe that’s just the slight dehydration talking.

For my fellow writers, the Poets’ Corner may be of interest to you. Although Geoffrey Chaucer, the first literary figure laid to rest in the area, merely earned the fate by serving as Clerk of Works to the Palace of Westminster, today there are nods to Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, and many similarly influential others.

There was also a small exhibit all about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, which of course I loved. More on this later.

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There was just a smidgen of free time left after the tour, so Brandy and I set off to take a look around Victoria Street, and a few small stores nearby, including a cafe, where Brandy bought a croissant, and I took pictures. Yum.

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We also stepped into a book shop, where I purchased a book detailing the origins of modern-day household items and one about the art community in London as it relates to young adults.

Also, you knew it was coming… the obligatory telephone booth photo. This one’s for you, dad.

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Tomorrow, we will be visiting the Houses of Parliament and seeing a show: 39 Steps. Can’t wait!