Mind the Gap
Oh, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was amazing, even the bits where I ran into the legendary London rudeness. I loved the Tube, I loved Trafalgar Square, and I loved Westminster Abbey. Special thanks to everyone who strongly recommended I take a London Walk.
But, I'll start at the beginning. Heathrow Airport is fascinating, but not as insane as everyone says it is. (Then again, I *wasn't* getting on or off an international flight, so who am I to talk?) It has this very busy and hectic feeling to it, though, and I could tell it's one of the busiest airports in the world. Lots of people, all sorts of different cultures and languages being spoken, and I was so glad that there's a Tube station right in the airport. It was very easy to get there, and I ended up grabbing a Super Saver Day Pass and heading into London with a minimum of fuss. My only disappointment was that no pidgeons turned up on the tube, as they apparently do on a regular basis.
It was trying to get from Picadilly Circus station to Trafalgar Square that I ended up having problems. (Which is sad, really, as it's not that far.) I couldn't find a sign telling me which direction to go, and I just eventually shrugged and picked one. I picked almost exactly right (always nice), and ended up staring in awe at everything. It seems London is just... bigger than everywhere else I've been. More flashy lights, more people, more traffic. There's just so much... more to it. It's hard to explain, really, but that's just the way it is. I got that sense here a lot more than I did when I was in Shanghai, although that may be because of the areas of Shanghai I was in, rather than any difference between the two.
Trafalgar Square is also larger than life. (How can it not be?) The place was full of people milling around, tourists taking lots of photos of themselves, and just a sense of business. They were in the process of setting up for the big New Years Eve thing, I assume, since fast fences were going up, and things were being covered. Everything there is much bigger than I thought it would be... huge lions at the foot of Nelson's monument, huge amounts of pidgeons, a huge fountain with huge mermaids, and huge steps up to the National Gallery.
Sadly, you can no longer feed the pidgeons at Trafalgar Square, as they "are a nuisance and cause damage to the square", which I'd heard elsewhere but can't deny being a bit disappointed by. Oh well... I wouldn't want to be the one picking up after them.
The National Gallery itself was a delight, and I'm so glad I went. Like most museums in the UK, it's free. The theory is that the works of art belong to the people, and so everyone should be able to see them. I think this works out much better than the system back in Canada, where everything seems so expensive to enjoy.
The Gallery also offers a free tour (which I highly recommend) that goes through the various rooms, showing off specific paintings and works, explaining why they're signifigant and what's important and interesting about them. It's about an hour, and will show you five painting from various areas, as well as explaining a bit about the layout of the museum. It's like taking a very good art history class, really, with the attention to detail.
I think my favorite part, though, was that they had the painting Virgin of the Rocks. I love that painting... I remember seeing it when I was 17 and in Paris, and so now I've seen it twice and I still love the detail in it.
After that, I started heading towards Westminster. I had a plan of seeing the abbey, then doing one of the tours of the area, and then coming up with something else to do afterwards. It wasn't a very solid plan, which is good because it didn't work out that way. I had misread the times on my tour, and thought I'd be able to get it about an hour later than I could. Once I realized, I abandoned the lineup (right near the front!) to Westminster Abbey and headed towards the meeting point.
This was an excellent choice, and I cannot recommend London Walks enough. The two-hour walk was funny, fast paced, full of great historical tidbits, and just a lot of fun. My guide ended up doing these hilarious Winston Churchill impersonations. I'm sure you've all heard lots of Winston Churhill-isms. ("Winston, you're drunk!" "Yes, and you're ugly, but I'll be sober in the morning!"), and they're absolutely hilarious when done with an accent. The man doing the tour was tall and slim, and he'd puff himself right up, and hold his jacket just so, whenever he did one.
The tour talked about everything from the rule of Richard the Lion Heart being the 'break point' of British Law (everything before that is said to have been done since Time Immemorial) right up to Post World War II London. He talked about the Suffragette movement in the UK, London during the Blitz, and about the Parliment when it's opened by the Queen. He also talked about why Westminster managed to survive when so many other Abbeys were destroyed by Henry VIII. This man has an obvious love for the history of Westminster, and I understand that all the tours are like that. It was so much fun, and so interesting, leaving me wishing it hadn't ended!
So, I technically didn't get a good look inside Westminster Abbey. I say technically because after the tour was over, I decided to go to the Evensong Service held there. I'm not part of the Church of England (I'm not Christian), so I wasn't really sure what to expect.
The service was beautiful. Everyone sits in the nave at the center of the Abbey, and the choir filters in. All of the prayers are sung, and the music would ring out through the whole abbey. I can't even describe it for you. It was beautiful, and moving, and so incredibly welcoming. They write out how the service is performed, and explain what's happening and why things are done. It's so easy for a visitor to participate in it, and if you do get to London, you should take the time to go.
After that, it was rush rush rush, back to the Tube (I almost managed to get lost on the way back because I took a different station and had to change trains), back to Heathrow, and back on the plane.
All together I think I was gone about 16 hours or so. It feels on paper like I didn't do much, but I had such an amazingly time, and I never stopped moving until I got back to my flat. I bought a million postcards, and refrained from buying a Tom a t-shirt that said "My Friend went to London and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt". I got a look at the famous Horseguards from a distance (they don't move, either, and I'm sure that the job must be the worst job in the security forces), and of course I popped into the Embassy, as I've said before.
But when I got home... I went to sleep. Sleep is always good.