Travelling Hopefully

11 January

First day of holiday, and of course I was destined to wake up with a headache. Fortunately my train ticket entitled to me to travel on any off-peak train, so I didn’t have to rush to the train station. I left home around 10.15am, walking down the road to the bus stop. Although I have a neighbour who often gives me lifts to the train station, I only had a backpack with me, and so I thought I’d save the favour for another international trip.

There was a short walk from bus station to train station. The day was cold and grey, but not raining. I took the train into Euston, underground to Oxford Circus, and bought some food in Marks and Spencers before going on to the youth hostel.

As I checked in, the woman at reception said, ‘I have bad news and good news. The room you booked with your friend had a problem with the sink, so the room can’t be used. So you’ll be in a four bed room, but still only the two of you.’ Good news indeed, as my friend was going on to Switzerland after our week in London and therefore had extra luggage.

I settled into the room and tried to ignore my continued headache. Friend arrived around an hour later and sorted herself out, also pleased that we had the larger room. And there were two bottom bunks, of course.

I cooked dinner in the hostel kitchen. Well, okay, I boiled pasta and heated up a sauce. We washed up afterwards and went to our room to chat and catch up on emails.

12 January

Headache did not disappear overnight. We had breakfast, and I put my head down for twenty minutes whilst friend went to Boots to buy mouthwash. The short nap did me a lot of good, and I felt less subdued as we left the youth hostel around 10am.

Our destination was a Horizon 22, a viewing platform recently opened on a high rise building in London. Tickets are hard to come by, usually snapped up shortly after release. The fact that the visit is free probably helps to explain the demand. We made our way on underground and then on foot, reaching the very well staffed venue shortly before our 11am time. We went through the equivalent of airport security, bags scanned and walking through a metal detector. I had a pocket tripod with me, and this had to be left behind for collection later.

A lift whisked us up and we emerged to admire great views over the Thames, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and the old NatWest building. The day was grey, but visibility was good. We could spot the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. We took a seat and had hot drinks from the small cafe. 

Departing the building about an hour later, we made our way to the Guildhall. In 1998, the remains of a Roman amphitheatre were discovered. What remains are the bottom walls of one of the entrances. The original amphitheatre was a wooden structure, built in 70CE. By the early 2nd century the structure had been enlarged and could hold up to 6000 spectators. The arena was used for public executions, animal fights, and gladiatorial combat. From the 4th century onwards, after the Romans had left, the amphitheatre was dismantled and used for building materials. 

The display of the walls was accompanied by digital projections of athletes and stadium seating. Glass floors permitted views of the drainage system.

We ate our packed lunch on benches in the locker and cloakroom area. Then it was back out into the cooler air for a walk down to the Thames and the Southwark area. We crossed the river on the Millennium Bridge and went into the Tate Modern. I had hoped to see a Rothko painting, as I have never understood why a painting of just one colour should be admired. A friend had told me that seeing a Rothko on-line or in print did not do the work justice, it had to be seen in person. Sadly, upon enquiry, we discovered that the museum’s Rothkos are all currently elsewhere. 

After a walk through a current exhibition of modern art, including some video installations which did very little for me, we headed back out to walk along the Thames. After passing the Globe Theatre, we walked down Bear Gardens, so named as this was where the bear-baiting arena had once stood. In 1613 the bear pit was replaced by the Hope Theatre. The Hope Theatre only lasted three years before the bear pit returned. Bear-baiting and bull-baiting were finally banned in 1835.

We continued down Park Street, previously called Maiden Lane when it was the red light area. The original Globe Theatre was on this street, and the now bare area is marked with an outline of where part of the theatre had stood. Shakespeare was both an actor and a shareholder in the Globe. 

The remains of Winchester Palace stood further down the street. The Palace was the London residence of the Bishops of Winchester from 1150 to the mid-17th century. Part of the foundations and the west wall, with its 14th century rose window, remain. 

Our final visit was to Southwark Cathedral. We had a very welcome cup of tea in the cafe before going inside. The cathedral dates from 1220 and holds the tombs of John Gower (a friend of Chaucer), Edmund Shakespeare (William’s younger brother), and Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. William Shakespeare worshipped at the cathedral, and John Harvard, founder of the university of the same name in Boston, Massachusetts, was born in the area and baptised as an infant in the cathedral. 

The sun was beginning to set as we made our way to the nearest underground station. The lights from the office buildings and St Paul’s were cheerful against the grey skies. We navigated our way back to Oxford Circus, bought food for our evening meal from Marks and Spencers, and returned to the youth hostel to settle in for the night. 

13 January

Woke up with a better head but still achy neck. 

Today we headed out to Highgate Cemetery. The cemetery was opened in 1839 to meet the need to bury the dead of the ever-growing city of London. At the time, the dead were being buried in shallow, shared graves which was unhealthy for the living. In addition. ‘resurrection men’ were pulling bodies out of graves to sell on to medical schools for student doctors to learn anatomy. At the time, a dead body belonged to no one, so no crime was thus committed. Understandably, people wanted the assurance that their loved ones would not be dug up and sold on.

Seven cemeteries, now known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’, were built. High walls and gates protected the dead from grave-robbers. Fifteen acres were set aside for Church of England burials, and two acres for non-Conformists. The formal grounds were a popular place for days out during Victorian times. In 1854 a further nineteen acres were purchased, to the south east of the original area. Both sides of the cemetery are open for burials, and the current cost is £20,000 for a burial of a body.

Over time the cemetery fell into disrepair. Self-seeded trees and bushes have grown up around the monuments and gravestones. Wildlife has thrived. A finch and a robin flew into a bush near me at one point, and ring-necked parakeets screeched at each other as they flew overhead. Foxes also frequent the grounds. In 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was set up, and in 1981 they purchased the freehold. The charitable trust is slowly restoring parts of the cemetery.

We had a guided tour which lasted just over an hour. The day was dull but dry, and I was glad of my hat and gloves as we walked around the west cemetery. We were shown interesting graves, including the one of the first burial. A highlight was the Egyptian Avenue, built during a time of great interest in Egyptian history and architecture. Very wealthy families had catacombs in the entrance tunnel-like structure and in the Circle of Lebanon reached through the entranceway.

After the tour, we bought hot drinks and took them with us to the east cemetery. After dropping down to look at Karl Marx’s grave, we looked carefully and found the grave of Douglas Adams, the author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Pens had been left as tributes, along with a towel and a jar of tea. 

We exited the cemetery and made our way to Highgate village. We walked past Lauderdale House, once the summer retreat of Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwynn. Old houses stood grandly opposite the house, and I dread to think how many millions they must cost now. As we went downhill, we passed a lovely area in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J. B. Priestley once lived. Francis Bacon lived in a mansion nearby. In March 1626 he suddenly decided to discover whether snow would preserve meat. Buying a chicken, he stuffed the carcass with snow and caught a chill, which brought on bronchitis. He died on 9 April 1626.

The day had warmed slightly, and we were able to pack gloves away as we headed into Hampstead Heath. The park spreads over 800 acres, and is a mixture of grass land, trees, and lakes. A mixture of tarmac and dirt paths provide plenty of room for walkers, runners, and happy dogs. More parakeets argued overhead, occasionally flashing past in swoops of green. 

We passed bathing pools (didn’t see anyone using them) and up Parliament Hill for sweeping, if somewhat misty, views over London. Continuing on to Hampstead village, we left the park to walk up to the high street. Hampstead has had many the famous resident, including John Constable (he is buried in the parish church of St John’s), John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Galsworthy. 

A short break in a tea shop eased tired feet, as we’d not sat down all day. We ventured into several shops, including Waterstones, before going on to eat dinner at Côte Brasserie. I had an excellent ribeye steak, washed down with a Normandy cider. 

Afterwards, we made our way back to our hostel by underground and by foot. After a long day, it was good to collapse in our room.

14 January

Still slightly achy neck, but much improved. 

An earlier start to the day. We left the hostel at 9am and made our way by underground and on foot to Westminster Abbey to attend the 10am service of mattins (morning prayer). By 9.40am we entered the Abbey, so we went to the ladies for quick comfort break. I finished what I needed to do before my friend, so I went back outside to admire the views from the cloisters. A security guard came up to challenge me. ‘Are you here for the service? We don’t allow people to look around and take photos.’ I responded, ‘I am here for martins, I’m just waiting for my friend to finish in the loo.’ Rather than be challenged again, I went back into the ladies to wait for my friend to finish.

We went into the Abbey, and were told to go up the area near the high altar, on the left of the choir. I realised that we were sitting in the area in which the coronation of King Charles III had taken place, which made me shiver in a way which had nothing to do with the temperature (which was warm enough for me to take off my coat). 

Martins is very much a non-participatory service. By scanning a QR code, you could pull up the service. The choir was excellent, and the musical settings lovely. The only congregational response was the Apostles’ Creed. No sermon. Rather disconcertingly, ‘cherubim’ was misspelt ‘cheribin.’ The service took all of twenty five minutes. The staff didn’t seem to mind people taking photos afterwards. I donated on the way out.

We made our way up to Trafalgar Square to the National Portrait Gallery, passing by Horse Guards in time to see the changing of the guard. After hot drinks in the cafe, we visited the exhibition of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. I have to say that I was unimpressed by the majority of the photos. I failed to see why a good number of them were considered worthy of an award. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never progressed beyond short listing for competitions, I simply don’t understand what judges are looking for!

After eating our picnic lunch on benches inside, we used our trusted London walks book to make our way to Covent Garden. We admired some lovely apartment blocks (debating which flat we’d buy had we the funds), the gateway which had once led to the Thames, and the King’s Chapel of the Savoy. The sun finally emerged, after several days of grey, to slash light on upper levels of buildings. We also saw a number of tents housing the homeless, and people bringing food to the. We visited a traditional pub, sitting in a small booth to enjoy beer from an oak cask (me) and and soda and lime (my friend). My friend had wanted a cup to tea, but the pub had run out of milk!

We arrived at Covent Garden, one of my favourite places in London. A four string quartet played in the lower levels, and man juggled swords nearby. We browsed the craft stalls, admiring the handicrafts but not buying any.

Slowly making our way to Oxford street, we walked through the areas nearby, including Chinatown. The streets were busy, people obviously enjoying the day out despite the cold weather. My friend was becoming more and more desperate for a cup of tea. We made our way  back to the hostel, where she was finally able to top up her caffeine levels.

I made my own evening meal as friend was having dinner out with another friend. Probably against hostel rules, I enjoyed whisky from a bottle I’d brought with me in my room whilst I worked on photos taken during the day.

15 January

We woke up to clear blue skies and chilly temperatures—3 degrees Celsius. Ensuring we had our hats and gloves with us, we walked to the Elizabeth Line station of Tottenham Court. At Canary Wharf, we walked through the area of shops and offices to the Docklands Light Railway. Shortly thereafter, we disembarked at Greenwich Maritime.

Greenwich, now perhaps best known for the Meridian line and Greenwich Mean Time, was once the site of the Palace of Placentia. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both born in Greenwich, and Henry VIII was baptised in the parish church. 

We walked through the high street and checked the market, which was shut. Further up the road we admired the outside of St Alfege’s Church. Alfege was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century and murdered by Danish invaders on the site of the church in 1012. The Danish invaders had offered to ransom him for 3000 gold marks, but Alfege refused, knowing that this vast sum of money could lead to starvation for the population. After six months, the Danish lost patience. Alfege was killed in a traditional viking way, namely being tied up and having ox bones thrown at him. The current church was built in 1714.

We walked up Crooms Hill, admiring the grand Georgian houses. Benjamin Waugh was one of the local occupants. As the founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, he successfully campaigned for an act of Parliament allowing children who were abused to be taken away from their parents and into protective custody. 

After passing a Catholic church with a wonderful patronage (‘Our Ladye Star of the Sea’), we continued up the hill to St Ursula’s Convent School. Trees blocked what would have been a good view of south London. A large house nearby had belonged to General Wolfe, who had captured Quebec from the French in 1759. 

An avenue of lime trees, planted to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee in 1977, led Blackheath, a plateau of grass with the village of the same name in the distance. The wind was quite strong and chilly, and we hastened along the brick wall to take an entrance into Greenwich Park.

We walked through the park. The ring-necked parakeets were far more obliging than those of previous days, posing nicely on nearby trees in the sunshine. At the Planetarium, we bought hot drinks in the cafe and had our snack lunch. Visiting schoolchildren filled the space with noise all out of proportion to their size.

Work was being done on the park near General Wolfe’s statue, so we had to admire the glorious views from behind metal fences. Canary Wharf Tower, the National Maritime Museum, the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich Power Station, and the O2 stadium were all gleaming in the sunshine. On our left was the Old Royal Observatory, commissioned by Charles II in 1675. 

We made our way down the steep hill and back into Greenwich town. The winds had quite chilled us, and we were quite glad to go into the National Maritime Museum. After attending a talk on the Spice Islands, we visited the Polar Regions exhibit and one about Nelson and his various battles. 

Afternoon sunlight was bathing the Old Royal Naval College buildings once we left the museum and walked down to the Thames. We had a beer and crisps in the Trafalgar Tavern, sitting by a window to admire the views along the river outside. A short stroll then took us to Greenwich Pier, where we embarked on the River Bus for the hour long journey to Westminster Pier. 

The sun was setting, the lights coming on for the various buildings along the Thames. A glorious red and orange sunset lit up the sky in the west. I braved the cold to stand on the outside deck, taking photos of London landmarks such as St Paul’s, Tower Bridge, and the Millennium Wheel. At Westminster we disembarked and made our way back to the hostel. Deciding to be lazy, we bought ready meals to heat up in the microwave for our dinner.

16 January

I’d developed a cough over the previous day, and this interrupted my sleep a couple times in the night. The symptoms eased after breakfast and we headed out into another fine but cold day. 

Today we decided to follow a walk in Bloomsbury. The Dukes of Bedford laid out the area as a residential district in the 17th to 19th centuries, and the area gave its name to the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. Many fine Georgian buildings, most of which are now offices rather than homes, sparkled in the sunshine. Amongst the famous who have lived here are Thomas Wakley, founder of the medical journal The Lancet, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, and Charlies Dickens. 

The area is also important in children’s medical history. The Foundling Hospital was established in 1742 to take in abandoned children. Great Ormond Street is the site for the Hospital for Sick Children. This was founded in 1852 by several doctors as up until then there had been no hospital places for children. Nearby was the former Italian Hospital, originally set up to serve the area’s Italian community.

We stopped for a coffee at an Italian cafe in Russell Square Gardens before carrying on. St George’s Gardens. The ground was frozen underfoot as we admired some of the old graves. Anna Gibson, Oliver Cromwell’s granddaughter, was laid to rest in one of the tombs. 

The church dedicated to St George was actually a short distance away. We went inside, intrigued to discover an exhibition of original artwork by Charlie Mackesy, taken from his book ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’. The author is a friend of the church’s vicar. I particularly liked a painting of the prodigal son (or as Mackesy prefers to call it, ‘The running father’) painted on a prison door.

A short while later we reached the British Museum. After lunch in the Museum Tavern, we went into the British Museum. My friend wanted to see the Egyptian section, so we spent some time there before enjoying a cup of tea. At my request, we went to see the Benin Bronzes. I had come to hear about them due to the debate as to whether they should be returned to Nigeria. They were quite charming and intriguing, a mixture of sculptures and plaques which had once hung outside buildings. 

We headed back to the youth hostel for a light dinner. A little later we made our way to the Novello Theatre as we had tickets for the musical ‘Mamma Mia’. Our seats were in the Dress Circle, giving us a high up view of the stage. We enjoyed the performance. In particular, the actor portraying Donna had a stunningly powerful voice. Her rendition of ‘The Winner Takes it All’ was magnificent. 

17 January

We rose a bit earlier than normal as this was our last day in London and we needed to vacate our room by 10am. After breakfast we packed up, something a bit more complicated for my friend as she was travelling on to Switzerland in continuation of her break. We checked out and left our luggage in lockers at the hostel.

Through my Member of Parliament, I was able to obtain tickets for a tour of Parliament and to afterwards attend Prime Minister’s Questions in the Public Gallery. We gave ourselves plenty of time to take the underground to Westminster. 

The Houses of Parliament are also known as the Palace of Westminster, which gives a clue as to the history behind the present building. The first royal palace at the site was built around 1045 by Edward the Confessor, deliberately near Westminster Abbey. Originally the palace was the principal residence of England’s monarchs. Administrative bodies also met at Westminster. A fire in 1512 destroyed the royal apartments, so Henry VIII and his family moved into the Palace of Whitehall. In 1834 Westminster was affected by a bad fire, following which the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. 

The two chambers of the British political system, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, came into place over time. The House of Commons dates from around the second half of the 13th century. Property owners began to send representatives to Parliament to present petitions to the king. In the 14th century these representatives, the ‘Commons’, began to sit in a separate chamber, or ‘House’ from that used by the nobles and clergy, the ‘Lords’. 

Originally the ‘Lords’ was the more powerful House. Over the centuries this has changed. By the late 17th century the House of Commons had gained the sole right to initiate taxation measures. Although the House of Lords retained its veto power over bills passed by the House of Commons, several challenges by the elected government culminated in the Parliament Act of 1911. Since that time, a majority vote by the House of Commons can override the Lords’ rejection of a bill.

Today the House of Lords remains an unelected chamber. In addition to hereditary peers (nobles who have gained their seat by right of birth), the most senior bishops of the Church of England are members, as well as people given life titles (which cannot be passed down to children) by the Prime Minister. Life peers are often drawn from previous members of the House of Commons, as well as those who have experience in a particular field, such as businesspeople or scientists. There is some debate whether this chamber should be elected, as is the House of Commons, as well as whether in a society which has people of many religions (as those of none) Christian bishops should have a seat in government.

As one would hope, security was quite tight. We went through airport security level of checks. Not only were knives not allowed, neither were banners nor padlocks. The latter is to stop people from locking themselves within Parliament as a means of protest. 

We met our guide in Westminster Hall. This very cold part of the building is where many high profile people have laid in state after their deaths. Plaques on the floor marked that this includes Sir Winston Churchill and various monarchs, most recently HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Our guide directed our attention to an installation in the Hall. Titled ‘New Dawn’, it was designed by Mary Branson in 2016 and represents the many people and groups involved in the votes for women movement. The artwork is made of back-lit glass ‘scrolls’ inspired by the rolled Acts of Parliament. The votes for women was often seen as a ‘tide of change’, and the lighting of the installation is linked to the tides of the Thames River. The number of scrolls lit is only one at lowest tide, and all are lit at highest tide. After this point, no photography was allowed.

Our tour took us into each chamber, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The former features benches of green leather-covered seats (some showing signs of wear) and the latter red. We weren’t permitted to sit down in either. Standing inside each was, for me, quite a moment. I was born in the USA, emigrated as an adult to the UK in 1988, and became a British citizen in 1993. As I am no longer a US citizen, it was moving to stand inside such important chambers of the country which is now my nation and my home. 

There are 650 members of the House of Commons. Even the Prime Minister has a constituency. The Speaker of the House keeps order during debates and, as the Speaker is meant to be neutral, s/he resigns from his/her party when elected Speaker. It used to be the tradition that, during a General Election, no one ran against the Speaker in his/her constituency. This has not been the case in more recent years.

There are 798 members of the House of Lords. As per the House of Commons, there isn’t room in the chamber for all of them to meet at once. I’m aware that the Lords Spiritual, the Church of England bishops, have a rota system as to whom goes when to the House of Lords. 

We had time after the tour for a comfort break and to collect our tickets for Prime Minister’s Questions. We watched the Speaker’s procession through the Central Lobby, where the police inspector on duty shouted out ‘Hats off, Strangers’ as the Speaker of the House walked through, accompanied by the Commons' Doorkeeper, the Serjeant at Arms with the mace, the Trainbearer, Chaplain and Secretary. 

There is room for 100 people in the Public Gallery (previously called the ‘Strangers’ Gallery’). So there was quite a crowd of us heading up the stairs for the viewing area. We had to leave bags and mobile phones behind before going through more security. I emptied my coat pockets under the watchful eye of a guard.

Prime Minister’s Questions occur every Wednesday from noon when Parliament is in session. These are meant to finish in thirty minutes, but can sometimes overrun. 

The Gallery gave a good view of the House of Commons, through a large piece of glass which prevents anyone from gaining access to the chamber. We sat on the benches and watched as the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, argued with the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Kier Starmer. The main debate was over the Rwanda Bill, namely the Conservative government’s attempt to deport those who enter the UK illegally to Rwanda to face screening there. The government’s argument that, as happened under a similar policy enacted by Australia, this would discourage those who try to enter the UK through unofficial channels (such as small boats from France). 

Afterwards most of the Gallery emptied, although people could stay. The public can ask for access to the Gallery when Parliament is in session, and will be allowed in if there’s room. Prime Minister’s Questions is most popular, and it’s advisable to apply for a ticket through one’s Minister of Parliament. 

My friend and I headed back to the hostel to collect our luggage. I managed to catch a train earlier than I’d hoped, and made my way back home via bus and on foot. During the evening my cough and snuffling became worse. Rather selfishly, I’m pleased the cold held off until the end of my holiday!

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