42 km’s walking in 2 days added up to some very tired legs. But I realised my ambition to see some of the best sights of London.
The train from Gatwick took me to Victoria Station. From here it was a stroll to Westminster Cathedral. Built in the Byzantine style by John Francis Bentley in the late 19th century, it is certainly unique among London churches and worth a visit. The cathedral is free to visit (donations welcome) and has a gift shop. The stations of the cross are by Eric Gill and are the cathedrals main draw besides the fine architecture.
A £6 fare will give you access to the tower, the top which is reached by lift, with commanding views over the local area. Is it worth it… it’s questionable. It was a dull morning and the views from other London landmarks is better. But I’m a sucker for a tower.
Buckingham Palace was my next port of call. The palace itself only opens to the public during the summer months but the highlight here is the ceremonial changing of the guard. I advise to do what I didn’t, arrive early and get a good spot. My suggestion is on the steps of the Victoria Monument, get there at 10:15 for the 11 am ceremony. This elevated position will give you a good view of the processions approaching from Spur Road as well as the grounds of the Palace. Failing that a selfie stick (I hate myself to mention this) will get you some good shots from the footpath outside the Palace.
I wrestled with the idea of visiting the Queens Gallery and the Royal Mews, but conscious of time, I marched to Westminster Abbey. The wealth of history that is associated with this building ensure that anyone even with a passing interest in the British Empire will not be disappointed. 1000 years of history are well represented.
I cannot recommend highly enough a visit. Only twice have I felt this level of awe in a place of worship, at the Notre Dame and the Sagrada Familia. Admission was £20 if bought online, which includes a free audio guide. Guided tours are available too, but if you are struggling for time, the audio guide allows you to pick and choose what is of interest. Sadly photography isn’t allowed within the Abbey.
One can amble through at your own pace. The floors and walls are crammed full of commemorations to people who have served the British empire. From scientists, explorers to poets and playwrights, those who shone in life are respected here in death. For me the highlights are the architecture of the nave, the fantastic screen that takes one through to the beautiful quire, the altar with its Cosmati Pavement, and the succession of monuments in the North and South Ambulatory. My personal favourite was the Death from the Nightingale Monument, which was chilling in its depiction.
The Lady Chapel, a church within the church, is perhaps the jewel in the crown. Featuring the tombs of Elizabeth 1 and Mary Queen of Scots, it is the church of the order of the Bath. The banners of Knights hang from above the stalls at the side of the nave. Attention is rightly drawn to the ceiling, where wonderful craft has produced the most elaborate fan vaulting. It is amazing in its complexity and beauty.
The last stages of the tour take one through the cloisters, the chapter house and the very early Pyx chamber. These were an integral part of everyday monastic life. Returning from the cloisters the coronation chair is on view behind a glass partition. Perhaps I expected the Iron Throne, but this was a few swords short of it. It’s a little underwhelming considering the weight of history carried on it. For more info check out Westminster Abbey.
Next door to the Abbey is Dean’s Yard another sight worth a few shots.
With the Houses of Parliament on my right, and a heavily scaffolded Big Ben, I made my way north, zigzagging through streets, passing Churchill’s War Rooms, the now heavily guarded and inaccessible Downing Street, the Household Cavalry Museum (a good place to catch a minor changing of the guards in the morning) where fine horses stand to attention street side, Admarality Arch and onwards to Trafalgar Square.
After a quick refuelling stop in Pret A Manger, consisting of some super fruit, a sandwich and a coffee, I traversed London’s Chinatown to Piccadilly Square and Soho. I absorbed the colours of the West End before satisfying my curiosity to seek out the Liberty Store on Marlborough Street.
No I hadn’t come to shop, it is a Tudor revival building, the frontage of which was built from the wood of 2 ships. It’s a grade II listed building. Check out the clock with its mechanical workings as it strikes the hour. The building received some criticism at the time of construction, but I’m entranced by all things Tudor in style.
My last stop of the day (or so I thought) was the British Museum. A vast collection of artefacts await, sourced from all corners of the planet, and organised according to the great civilisations that ruled them. Several hours are needed to view it, and luckily being a Friday it was open till 8, so I was afforded it. The building itself with its magnificent central plaza is a treasure. A string of cafes and shops circumference the central plaza. Admission is free, donations suggested, but at least shell out for a colour map. The whole museum warrants exploring. I found of particular interest the Friezes from the Acropolis in Athens, the Egyptian Rooms, centred on the Rosetta Stone and the mysterious mummies. The stone carvings from Amarvita were a highlight as was the exquisite collection from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The whole collection is as marvellous as any in the world, and at this price unmissable.
Jaded I made my way back to my hotel using a combo of the underground and my poor tired legs. As a solo traveller, the Holiday Inn Express satisfied my needs, reasonably priced, decent breakfast, excellent central location and a clean spacious room for 1. After a soaking shower, where I debated whether I would be able to walk the next day, I made the short walk to the Tate Modern, to find some dinner. There is a bar and a restaurant on site, one too simple and one too refined for what I had in mind. I settled for a burrito after I left. I’m not one for modern art, but entry is free, and the museum makes excellent use of what was previously a power station. The roof gives one access to excellent views of the area. My final act for the day, I went to earn some well earned shut eye. For day 2 of my trip…