Walking across the Millenium Bridge tonight (well, it was more like jogging to get out stiffness after three hours as a groundling), I was hit by one of those occasional yet profound moments of realization that I was in London. These moments are few and far between, but when you get a moment to step back and look across the Thames and the glowing lights of the city with St. Paul’s dome looming above you, for example, these realizations can hit you like a ton of bricks.
Similar and not unrelated to the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feelings are the somewhat more frequent instances of understanding the true amount of history behind London and England themselves. In the past few days, I have seen Stonehenge, Roman baths, Medieval cathedrals, prisons, and fortresses, a Shakespeare play, the Jane Austen Centre, the Cabinet War Rooms, and the Tate Modern. The sheer number of years represented by those few landmarks and events is mind-boggling and can serve to disorient the visitor (especially when the visitor comes from a country that’s only approximately 200 years old). I find it interesting to note that I have an almost reverse levels of admiration for the feats and landmarks viewed: I found it utterly astonishing that ancient peoples were able to move stones weighing many tons across empty fields and then arrange them in circular patterns, but I was unimpressed and even disgusted by the artwork of Paul McCarthy digitally projected on a wall with cutting-edge technology at the Tate Modern. I found the stark, bleak nature of the Cabinet War Rooms and the hard work done there to show the strength and resilience of a country under siege, but I found the crown jewels and the grandeur of the monarchy, both past and present, at the Tower of London to be grandiose and over-the-top for a country that is notorious for a “stiff upper lip” and a “keep calm and carry on” sort of mentality.
I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that the sheer nature of hundreds and thousands of years of history (encompassing invasion, multiple great civilizations, and admirable resilience) on a single, small island weighs heavy on a mind that comes from a vast, expansive country with little history at all that can’t even get a healthcare system sorted out. As we now know, you cannot dig down in London without finding something Roman, Medieval, or even prehistoric, yet they still build on and up, layering the present upon the past, and preserving and commemorating as best they can. In my mind, England is a country that seems to be mostly defined by its past, whereas even though America has a shorter history, it seems mostly defined by its present, including its current political standings, fads and trends, and financial influence. London’s ever-changing face and composition always seems to have the same resilient heart, rooted in thousands of years of invasions, shifts in power, influxes of people, devastating disasters, and new technologies, and it appears able to carry on through anything.
Tags: Museums · Churches and Cathedrals · Chelsea
Sorry to finally be blogging about Wednesday’s events today, the new blog link wasn’t working last night. The number of interesting trips and tours have begun to snowball this week, and blogging about them in a timely way has gotten a bit more difficult.
That said, I feel as though I must write about my experiences on Wednesday, which for me included both Westminster Abbey and the Churchill Museum/Cabinet War Rooms. I’ll echo what I think everyone’s opinion of Westminster Abbey was: unfathomable, in both size and historical importance. I had not realized just how much of the church is dedicated to graves and memorials. It felt overwhelming to be walking from Newton to Darwin to Elizabeth I while flying past David Lloyd George, Edward Elgar, and other very important people for whom the tour just had no time. Certainly no public building other than Westminster Abbey gives an impression of the richness and grandeur and power present in the totality of English history.
And yet, personally, I think I probably got as much out of the Cabinet War Rooms as I did the Abbey. One of the most amazing things about World War Two, I’ve always thought, was that something as powerful as 20th Century Great Britain was brought so close to annihilation, and survived not through brute force but rather determination, cooperation, and strong and unwavering leadership.
Seeing the Abbey and the War Rooms in the same day meant seeing Britain’s at its most epic and powerful and at its simplest, starkest, and truly finest. (Here I’m using juxtaposition, a strategy never before employed on this blog). The Rooms themselves, for those who’ve not yet seen them, are presented with simply an audio guide and some signage, (rather than overblown multimedia) which I think serves them well. Even recreated, they do not appear visually impressive as they were reserved for the PM, the Cabinet and important staff, and there was a minimum of space under the concrete/steel buffer. If one didn’t know the decisions made and the speeches given from that place, one might find it unremarkable.
I might not have recommended the Churchill Museum adjoining the War Rooms if it were on its own. It does gloss over the poorer choices of his career and has quite a confusing setup and superfluous multimedia. My favorite part, frankly, was the loop of video from his remarkable memorial service.
On the tube home I was thinking how tremendous it is that the nerve center of Britain could be confined to those dozen or so rooms in 1940, and only 13 years later it could be back in all its splendor at Westminster Abbey for the coronation of a new queen (with nary a toilet flush to be heard).
The man who spoke these words has been criticized, revered, idolized, and forever memorialized in Britain and throughout the world. His contributions (and faults) are integral to history books and will remain as such so long as people study the twentieth century in any capacity. This man was Winston Churchill. His life and legacy, traced by the recently opened Churchill Museum (located in the equally significant Cabinet War Rooms), was one among many stops on today’s venture out to the city.
What a fascinating life this man led. Certainly, many know him as the Prime Minister who essentially led Britain through WWII. The years of his (first) term in office were some of his finest and most recognized moments. I’ve studied Churchill before stepping foot in the Museum (If you haven’t seen it, you must go – it’s worth every pence) and knew that he led an illustrious career in the British government throughout the early 1900s. Throughout his life he wrote books and articles, he painted, and he traveled. He went on to serve as Prime Minister once more in the 1950s but soon retired due to his declining health. The life he led was unconventional but provocative enough to grab the spotlight as one of the most influential leaders of the last century. I certainly agree with Kelley (“All Around Westminster”) that all politicians have their faults and not-so-proud moments, and Churchill is no exception. I do not and will not idolize Churchill, but, admittedly, just his persona alone demands your attention.
"Cheer up! They will forget _you_ but they will remember _me_ always."
This museum, attached to the Cabinet War Rooms, gave such a profound impression of life for government officials during the Second World War. Moreover, if Winston Churchill had to crawl through these narrow halls for meetings underground during bomb raids, one can’t even imagine what it was like to be stuck above ground (or at least above the thick slab of concrete and steel that guarded the War Rooms). As a student endlessly fascinated by culture, politics, and leadership of Britain, Europe, and the United States (few among a growing list) during the twentieth century, this museum gave me some new perspective on Britain during the war.
I feel I would be doing the Westminster Abbey and St. James Park some injustice if I failed to mention how astounded I was when I saw them. The architecture of the Abbey and the awe-inspiring space it occupies could make anyone feel small and insignificant. The tombs and busts of individuals line every wall and, to add some eerie sense to the building, every walkway. The eroded stone of tombstones embedded in the floor felt sacrilegious; take, for instance, standing on the grave of Charles Dickens, which felt powerful and odd at the same time. The hundreds of people in the Abbey had headsets stuck to their ear, which, at the time made sense. After some reflection, one could have wandered without tour guides or headsets and have had a similarly profound experience.
St. James, too, had some remarkable qualities. The most striking is it’s sheer size. A pond cuts through the middle of the park and stretches far into the distance. At one point, you couldn’t hear or see anything but the park. The people, too, add an interesting flavor to the area. No one sat in the hundreds of chairs in the space (and rightfully so – you must pay to sit down in the chairs, apparently), so they opted for lying down in the grass. Some were loud businesspeople eating their lunch, some were on a run, and others seemed dazed and confused as they wandered. It definitely attracts a variety of people, but, as already noted below in Audrey’s post “Peace out from the park,” the open gates of the park may be limiting other people given its location, among other reasons.
How did we possibly manage to fit all of this in one day?
I am constantly finding myself in awe of something new in or about London. This morning’s subject of choice; statues. London has more statues than any other city I’ve ever been in, and I’ve visited my fair share. It’s not just the free-standing statues of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, or General Montgomery that I saw just this morning, but also the finely-carved monuments and memorials to the Women of World War II, the Guard’s Memorial, and the Cenotaph. However, the greatest haven to carving in the British Isles I’ve encountered yet is Westminster Abbey.
- Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is stuffed to the gills with statues and monuments to famous dead Britons. Sure, it’s kind of neat to see and praise the wonders of gravity at Sir Isaac Newton’s monstrous memorial, but is it really necessary for him to have such a large grave in a church full of other important people? On the flip-side to Newton’s tomb, Charles Dickens was buried in a very simple plot of ground… erm, church floor… that only recorded his name, date of birth, and date of death. Plain and simple, but did he really have any good reason for being buried in Westminster Abbey other than being a famous author? I was confused as to why these people, albeit extremely important in their own rights, would be buried in a place where they would have little-to-no affiliation with the Kings, Queens, and other nobles interred or no real connection to the Anglican faith. On that note, I also couldn’t help but wonder if any of the people buried at Westminster before the formation of the Church of England would be appalled to know their permanent resting place changed faiths on them! (Random thought, I know.)
After leaving Westminster, a group of us decided to go explore St James’s Park. As this was my first London park, I don’t have very much to compare it to. There were people everywhere posing for pictures, feeding the birds, chattering on in their native languages, and relaxing on park benches. The thing that struck me most about St James’s Park was the landscaping of gorgeous, brightly coloured flowers. They were so well tended-to and made the experience of strolling along extremely pleasant! There were also ponds with numerous types of water fowl and educational signs that showed pictures of what animals are indigenous of the area. However, due to the close proximity of Buckingham Palace and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk located in the area, St James’s Park is definitely a bustling tourist attraction.
Flowers from St James's Park
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk
Just off of St James’s Park is the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. I am a big fan of the history of Britain during World War II and the Blitz, so I was really looking forward to climbing into the depths of Churchill and the Cabinet’s own bunker. Thankfully, I was not disappointed! There was something very surreal about walking through the rooms with the provided audio guide and standing just feet away from where some of the most influential and comforting speeches of WWII were made by Winston Churchill.
However, the entire experience was not all sunshine and daisies. I had a big issue with the part of the bunker devoted to the Churchill Museum. Churchill was not a saint, please do not make him out to be one. There was little-to-no information provided on Churchill’s faults throughout the entire museum. I like Churchill as a historical figure and find much of what he accomplished in his various offices simply incredible, but he screwed up on more than one occasion. I was particularly frustrated with the portrayal of Churchill during the Dardanelles campaign during World War I. Churchill was the First Lord of the British Admiralty and in an attempt to “bring an end to the war quickly,” he sent Anzacs into battle poorly equipped and with incorrect maps. Although Churchill did resign in the aftermath, the museum would lead you to believe that the entire catastrophe that led to the loss of so many Anzac lives was not at all Churchill’s fault. (I also would have liked any information on Churchill’s relations with Ireland at the time of the Blitz, but alas, apparently it was not deemed as important.)
My day went from a fascination with statues in Westminster Abbey to walking in a building encased with steel and concrete. Although these things seem to be quite different on the surface, there is something that connects them; Churchill. They were Winston Churchill’s War Rooms and the Abbey bears a plaque commemorating Churchill. There is more than just this surface comparison, though. In times of great need, people turned to Churchill and to their church for reassurance.