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U.K. Travel Diary – Day 2

April 6, 2011

Day 2 starts off with our guided coach (don’t you DARE call it a “bus”) tour of London in the early morning hours.  Our tour guides, Carlotta and Seymour (I couldn’t have made those names up if I had tried) are very amusing, if only for the local insight they give about Londoners’ least favorite things: taxes, construction and street closures.  As Carlotta quips, “It’s as if they dig up holes in the street and then they all just RUN AWAY!”

The Victoria Monument in front of Buckingham Palace

We saw the usual touristy spots, driving by the Thames, the Tower and the various royal parks, finally stopping at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was technically off-limits to tours because it was Sunday services, but Jeff and I snuck a discreet peek anyway.  There was an audible noise when we entered.  It was my jaw hitting the floor.  Built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, St. Paul’s is a masterwork of design – literally fit for kings and paupers alike.  Such splendor is not to be found anywhere in America, although there is ironically enough an American chapel within St. Paul’s that is dedicated to the Americans killed in WWII.

We next stopped at the Royal Palace of St. James, which is where all great royal announcements have been proclaimed since the time of Elizabeth I.  There are guards everywhere monitoring the more Georgian Clarence House, which is the official London residence of Charles, Prince of Wales

in front of the palace at St. James

and Camilla, the Duchess of  Cornwall.  The Horse Guard marches from Buck House down the Mall to the end of the road.  All the Queen’s guards are active military men.  They serve one month rotations in the service of the crown, then they are off as Carlotta says, “to some tank in Afghanistan”.

We then went down the Mall to see the changing of the guard at “Buck House” (known to us Americans as Buckingham Palace).   The queen wasn’t in residence today, and it was beginning to look like rain, so Carlotta was worried the show wouldn’t happen.  The band started to play “Over the Rainbow” to the delight of Jeff and myself (Kansans abroad unite!), which was the kiss of death for the whole thing.  It immediately started to pour, disappointing both our tour group and a large mass of Japanese students. According to Carlotta, the “wet change” is merely a group of sad, wet guards running for the palace with little pomp and circumstance.  Oh, well.

the marching of the horse guards on the Mall

There is lots of restoration going on in London for both historical benefit and the upcoming Olympics.  It’s fascinating to watch.  The cleanup on St. Paul’s is almost complete, wiping away almost 200 years of coal dust leftover from England’s transition into the Industrial age.  Some original building faces haven’t been seen for centuries.  When then cleaned the National History Museum, for example, they were shocked to discover that there was actually pale blue colored patterned stone as well as the basic cream!

After our morning tour, Jeff and I took the Tube to Piccadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square, which is  a tacky mecca for tourists like ourselves, containing the fabulous Cool Britannia store, which has all the London memorabilia you could possibly want, whether that be an ashtray in honor of the upcoming Royal Wedding, or salt and pepper shakers that look like double decker buses.

view from the Thames

We next traveled to the British Museum, one of the greatest collections of antiquities on the planet.  The most popular attraction by far is the Rosetta Stone, which is right off the main entryway and has people crowded around it trying to snap photos from every angle (including myself).  This key to deciphering Egyptian Hieroglypics is just one of the museum’s many rare treasures.  A group of Greek protesters were out front trying to make the British people give back the Elgin Marbles, a collection of statuary swiped from the Parthenon by a well-meaning Brit ambassador back in the Regency era.    The marbles themselves are impressive, but I was most fascinated by the Nereid Monument, a Greek tomb re-assembled in the museum, which is intimidatingly awesome.

the Nereid Monument at the British Museum

There’s also the Sutton Hoo treasure, which is a stunning collection of Anglo-Saxon weaponry, jewelry and pottery from the Dark Ages that gives great insight into a “lost” time in history.

Overall, day two was a busy but fun day.

That night, Jeff and I discovered our new favorite show, Guy Builds a Boat, which is pretty much exactly like it sounds.  Imagine Mythbusters crossed with Rick Steve’s Europe and melded with Antiques Roadshow.  Guy and his buddy are restoring an old canal boat (England and Wales are full of used and unused canal waterways).  Along the way, they build their own replicas of Industrial Age inventions (yep, it is as cool as it sounds).  On the show we watched, they created a gas-powered water heater for their shower, then used it to blow up a loo.  AWESOMENESS.  BBC, I love you.

The Rosetta Stone

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