British for a Day (or More): Reflections on Doing the Touristy Things

London has long held a prominent place in my imagination, jostling for space in there with Paris and Rome. At times London has the advantage, especially if I’m reading about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, the ambassador John Adams, or Churchill and the Blitz. It has been variously populated in my mind by Elinor Dashwood, any number of Dickensian characters, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and Harry Potter. And, of course, there’s Sherlock, the greatest of all the sleuths on the telly, calling London home.

I admit I geeked out when my London guidebook came in the mail and I glanced over the Tube map. St. James—Piccadilly—Baker Street—Hyde Park—oh my! What’s a girl to do when she wants to see all the things? Well, she just puts on her comfy walking shoes and indulges in everything British!

Good morning, Big Ben!

Since this was our first trip to London we tried to hit the essentials. I won’t bore you with descriptions of them all as, honestly, you can travel the world from your internet browser. But I do want to share the experiences that left me feeling happy to be British for the day.

The Birthday of a Queen

Our first day of sightseeing was a humdinger. On our Tube ride to Westminster, we were surrounded by Londoners dressed to the nines in top hats and tails for the men and high heels and wild hats for the women. Once street-side, these dandies moved en masse toward an undisclosed location. A friendly policeman told us it was the Queen’s birthday and that shortly “Trooping the Colour” would take place at the Horse Parade (which was just a fancy way of saying “The Queen’s Birthday Parade” was about to start). We moved on to get in line to see Westminster Abbey and thought, “Well, that was fun to see all of those people.”

Westminster Abbey overwhelmed all of my expectations. I’d been to a few cathedrals already and wasn’t thrilled at the nearly forty pounds it would cost to get in. But at the risk of sounding cliché, the Abbey was stunning and I was bowled over by the history packed into its every nook and cranny. It isn’t often that you can stand in a place where nearly a millennium’s-worth of monarchs have been crowned, married, and laid to rest. Every square inch of the Abbey is a monument to someone whose name is probably halfway familiar. My favorite area was the light and airy Lady Chapel; Mary I and Elizabeth I, sisters and rivals, are buried together here. I was somewhat heartbroken that photography wasn’t allowed and I hope to get back there sooner rather than later to absorb even more.

After spending a good hour or more in the Abbey, we decided to find our next stop, the Churchill War Rooms, which wasn’t far off near Downing Street. My husband suggested that we ask a policeman if the Queen was still around where we could see her. I never want to actually look like a tourist, so I shied away from this idea, saying that there was no chance she was around since all of the crowds were gone. But he, fearing nothing, walked up to the next smiling cop, who told us that in approximately fifteen minutes she would be coming out on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, just the other side of the park. So we went tearing off through St. James’s Park and came out near the Victoria Memorial fountain in front of the palace, where I happily gave my husband all of the credit. We magically ended up with a perfect view of the balcony and with more than a few minutes to spend thinking, “This is unreal.”

At one p.m. on the dot, the Queen walked out on the balcony following a fanfare. And as if that weren’t amazing enough, the rest of the royal family joined her a minute later. I like to think that, whoever the next reigning monarch may be, I have seen him (or her?). We cheered with the crowds during the flypast, happy to join the British on their special day, although when the red, white, and blue were in the air, there were a few cries of “USA!” and “Vive la France!” to be heard). Seeing the Queen and the royal family was quite a rush, one of those serendipity moments that could not have been planned better had we tried. We walked off in love with foreign travel, gladly forgetting that, the night before, we had arrived too late to eat any dinner and were nearly too hot to sleep in London’s record-setting heat.

We finished our first sight-seeing day at the Churchill War Rooms where we learned, among other things, that Churchill was quite the character and that we weren’t sure we would have liked him personally. But the Rooms were perfect for indulging that curiosity about what it would be like to be hidden underground beneath and behind floors and walls of concrete upwards of ten feet thick.

More reflections coming soon!