By now, most of you have arrived in the UK to begin your incredible journey. This email contains a list of things you MUST, selected and curated by ME. I’ve made at least ten trans-Atlantic crossings that have included the UK, including 5.5 weeks of UK and Ireland last summer. My list is totally DC-centric. But I’m going to give you the ins and outs and help you make the most of these suggestions.
In order of what you MUST do:
Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament will not be open whilst you are in the UK. Don’t even try. But if you find yourself in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace during the daily late-morning Changing of the Guard, it’s a decent spectacle and enjoyable enough, although swarmed with tourists, mostly Asian. I would avoid.
OK. Now the real scoop:
You will be in London for the Queen’s official birthday, known as the Trooping of the Colour. You MUST attend. On Saturday, June 14, stake out your place on the Mall by 10.30 at the latest. At some point you will see marching bands, the entire royal family, and finally the HM the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh riding by in a brougham. An hour later, they will all return. Then you will walk down the Mall and stand at the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. You will be rewarded with a balcony appearance by the entire royal family. You will remember this for the rest of your life.
Westminster Abbey is the ceremonial heart of the Church of England, even more than St. Paul’s Cathedral. The best way to experience the Abbey is at Evensong, one of the daily sung evening services, since this is what the Abbey does best. I will research and suggest several dates. You should arrive no less than 30 minutes before the service and ask as you enter the building to sit in the Quire. You will be within touching distance of the boy sopranos this way. Be reverent. Dress nicely. And be prepared to weep tears at the splendour, majesty, and sheer beauty of what you experience.
Westminster Abbey should also be a two-hour tourist visit. The Abbey is not open on Sunday. Arrive no less than 30 minutes before the doors open, then pay for the guided tour. You will not be displeased. The Abbey is the burial place of Henry V, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and of course Edward the Confessor, along with Chaucer, Handel, Isaac Newton, and thousands of other notables. The place is thronged with noisy tourists about an hour after they open. Get there early. And don’t miss this slice of what makes England England.
The Prime Meridian, where you can stand with one foot in the Western Hemisphere and one foot in the Eastern, is at Greenwich. Take the Thames Clipper downriver to Greenwich, then take in the Cutty Sark as well as the Royal Observatory with the Prime Meridian. At the Observatory, do the entire tour. And be certain to have your photo taken with two feet in two different hemispheres. To return to London, take the Thames Clipper return service, or the Docklands Light Railway. While in Greenwich, a few miles but light years away from London, visit the Royal Naval College.
For sheer pulsation of people, Picadilly Circus and Leicester Square are the bomb. You’ll be there over and over, especially since Leicester Sq is the heart of the West End theatre district.
You MUST stop by Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday when folks are talking about whatever they wish.
Preserved and splendid houses exist all over London. To see a wonderful example, visit Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Marlborough. I love this place. And the state of Napoleon is incredibly statuesque.
You MUST make the short rail hop outside of London to see Windsor Castle. I’d leave London at 9 so you get to Windsor by 9.45 and are among the first in. Take your time at the Castle. It’s a self-guided tour. And SO worth it. Visit St. George’s Chapel. Have lunch in a tiny tea room or pub adjacent to the castle. Windsor is the Queen’s favorite residence. You’ll see why.
If you have opportunity for a day or weekend trip in the UK, take the train to York to see the Shambles, York Minster, the Yorkshire Dales and the like.
On Saturday or Sunday, you MUST take in the Portobello Road Market. This starts as early as 8. We have NOTHING like it here in the US. Don’t miss this. You’ll spend the entire morning there. http://www.portobelloroad.co.uk/
London is filled with nightlife, and activities for all tastes. The pubs are mostly homogenized now, with central ownership, but you’ll still experience the style and likeness of Old London. The gay scene is really not centralized at all, but you’ll find pockets of places to be. The theatre scene likewise is spread out somewhat. Do check out the Theatre section of Foyle’s Books, an independent and fabulous bookseller at 113-119 Charing Cross Road, just up from Cambridge Circle or down from the massive Tottenham Court Rd Tube station.
If you want something off the beaten path, the Handel House Museum in the high-end Mayfair shopping district is well worth an hour. http://www.handelhouse.org/
You’ll already be instructed to visit the Globe, the V&A, the British Museum, and such. I’m going to suggest that you don’t miss the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. I love this place!
If you wish to see the Crown Jewels and such, the Tower of London is the place to be. Check out the Tower website, and arrive before they open. Skip the Beefeater tour (which you can join later) and go directly to the Jewel House, where you can pass by the Crown Jewels as many times as you wish when the line isn’t long. The line isn’t long early in the day. But one hour after the Tower opens the line extends halfway to Paris. Once you’ve seen enough of the Jewels, join a Beefeater tour in progress and enjoy yourself. Then explore on your own.
One of my favorite things last year was my necro-tourism tour, where I started at St. Paul’s Cathedral, then made my way through various churches in the City of London, up toward the Barbican, and then on to the burial grounds where major poets are interred. I’ll leave it to you to recreate my path. https://jeffreycarter.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/dead-white-guys/ Do your research. You’ll see a lot of the City as you make a tour like this.
Bottom line: you will find that you run out of time in London, and if you get away for a weekend or two, you will have less time that you wish in this magical city. Many people find London cramped, gray, and dreary. I find it invigorating, splendid, and insanely beautiful. But cities can wear you out. London is not for the faint of heart. You’ll be staying in a nice section of town. Find the darker corners. Venture out late at night. Turn corners and take risks and don’t worry. A bus or Tube stop is always nearby.
And remember to look RIGHT before crossing the street!
I’m filled with suggestions. Let me know what more info you need.
One other thing: as soon as you can after you arrive, make your way to Leicester Square, then walk (follow the signs) down the short two blocks to Trafalgar Square. Standing in the huge plaza in front of the National Gallery, and looking south, you will be rewarded with your first sighting of Big Ben. And you will cry. Then walk down Whitehall toward the Clock Tower and Big Ben, and have your picture taken in front of the Houses of Parliament. You will thus prove to your parents, and the world, that you have arrived in the heart of the universe, London.
Jeffrey R. Carter, DMA
Saint Louis, Missouri
PS – I have over 140 blog entries that mention London. Many were written in or around London. Peruse at leisure:
PPS – Send me pictures! Especially one of you with Big Ben in the background.