London is a world city in the truest sense of the world. The average Londoner is probably Senegalese, Pakistani, Aussie, Austrian, Mexican, Peruvian, Sri Lankan or even English. This makes the unmistakable martial quality of the physical London – most of the city consists of buildings, memorials, names and places that are reminiscent of wars and victories and plunder from the times the English invaded your country – rather incongruous. As if to make up for centuries of invasions and predations, the modern Londoner feels like a direct result of every nation, civilization, race, tribe, brutalized by empire. But enough sermonization from a former colonial subject!
A visit to London is a visit to tons of memories from a thousand stories digested and internalized from books, movies and lessons. Here are a few things that struck me and stuck with me from my London sojourn.
It’s big, it’s unmistakable, and we’ve been answering questions about Big Ben in London since we were in school. So naturally, we hurried to see it as soon as we could. We stepped out from the Underground, and there it was, looming over us like some great big time-beast with its single benign eye.
It’s currently missing from the London skyline, having been completely covered with scaffolding for some maintenance work that is expected to take a couple of years. We had the singular opportunity of listening to the last chimes of Big Ben as it was being stopped. A picture with the Big Ben is a must for any visitor to London, and this has been the rule long before selfies became a thing!
The Tower of London
The Tower of London is a castle which, apart from being of historical significance, is also home to the Crown Jewels of England. These are on display to the public, but are stored in safety and guarded by the Queen’s Guards. The Queen’s Guards are drawn from a few regiments, and on the day we were visiting, the Grenadier Guards were on duty.
Of the residents of the Tower, perhaps the most pampered are the ravens. There are a dozen of them who call the Tower home, and part of the duties of the Yeoman Warders is to care for them. They were proper celebrities, posing for the thousands of tourists. The belief that the ravens’ presence in the Tower is essential for the royal line to continue in power keeps them well taken care of!
The weapons on display at the Tower are all property of the Royal Armouries, the United Kingdom’s National Museum of Arms and Armour. The collection at the White tower in the Tower of London includes the Line of Kings – the personal armour of all the monarchs of England.
The most fascinating part of any visit to the Tower of London is the guided tour you will be taken on by one of the 36 Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, who live there. To be selected as a Yeoman Warder is a great honour, and the men and women are those who have put in at least 22 years in the British Army, achieved the rank of a Colour Sergeant and won at least one medal of honour. We had the wonderful experience of hearing about the Tower from Yeoman Warder Shaun Huggins, a brilliant storyteller who kept us engaged and interested throughout the tour.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
I have always been quite fond of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and actually visiting it in person was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. My fascination with the place began with my name – I am named for St. Paul (this is in the hidden, unused part of my full official name, not part of what you see!). When I was in college, I became interested in Wren and his churches, and of course, St. Paul’s is the crown jewel.
I also had the good fortune to be visiting during one of the Summer Lates, the few evenings in a year when photography is allowed and encouraged within the cathedral.
As I wandered around, I was struck by how much of a War Church it was. Every part of it commemorated a military victory or personage, most parts of it were built from the plunder from various military victories, much like most of historical London.
The other thing that struck me was how welcoming the clergy were. The churches I have been used to are usually houses of bigotry which excel in making outsiders feel ill at ease and like they are trespassing. Here, in one of Christendom’s biggest churches, we felt welcome and at ease. So much so that I actually attended the Compline, something I haven’t done for more than a decade now.
Standing under the great dome and looking around, I got goosebumps as I was literally looking around at the greatest monument to that great church designer, Christopher Wren. Right under the dome on the floor is a dedication that reads, “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” meaning if you want to see a monument to Wren, just look around you.
Any visit to London has to include the great museums, and it did for us as well. Cultural, historical and art treasures from all over the world, systematically plundered over all the years of Empire, have found their way into the the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The V&A was especially interesting to me, as it had several personal items that were used by Jahangir and Shah Jahan, as well as the famous Tiger automaton that was Tipu Sultan’s favorite toy.
Of course, a short visit is hardly ideal to appreciate the extent of the collections, and we had to make do with seeing the highlights of each of the museums.
London is a fascinating city, and definitely on my list of places to return to.