The American’s quintessential London

Anglotopia Day 20 – Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, and the Big Bus

I have to say, I geeked out over getting to visit Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament. I mean, if you’ve read my previous posts, you know I really admire Will and Kate, and getting to visit the abbey where they married in 2011 was pretty awesome.

Outside the Royal Wedding of 2011, numerous royal weddings and coronations have been held at the abbey since it was just sticks and stones. Notables through the ages have memorials and gravestones there, and I really, really, and absolutely recommend that you devote considerable time to your visit. The audioguide is a must to understand the significance of the sculptures, art works, tombs, stonework, and all the architectural elements of the abbey.

Needless to point out, I loved my visit there. Although very crowded, the audioguide drowns out a good bit of sound, and patience will have to be your guide as well. The abbey is absolutely stuffed full of history – royal, religious, artistic – and is simply a stunning piece of art itself. I sat in Poet’s Corner, mostly notable for the poets, writers, and musicians memorialized there, and marveled at the surround of pure talent in that one small bit of England. Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer, Hughes, C.S. Lewis … just to name a very few. Not all of them are actual graves, but many are monuments and memorials to the best artists of Britain. A truly humbling place to sit as a writer myself and a teacher of these works.

Westminster Abbey tips: Book a ticket ahead of time and print it out. The queue for tickets, in the middle of the week in July, was massive, and it probably would have meant an hour waiting in line just to get a ticket, let alone battling larger crowds by that point. By having a prepaid ticket, I skipped the queue, got my audioguide faster, and was able to “beat” the worst of the crowd through the beginning of the tour. Also, if you’re a collector of souvenirs, I purchased the official guidebook, and it added more depth to the audioguide as I walked around. Also, bring your own earbuds if you want to drown out the noise of others and have a bit more peace. I often find that the ones given out with audioguides don’t sit right on my ears, and the surrounding echoes of voices in yawning vastness of the cathedral would have made it hard to hear the commentary.

From Westminster Abbey, I ventured over the way to the Houses of Parliament, where I had pre-booked a ticket for a tour in the early afternoon. Again, I more or less wanted to learn about the rooms and the ins and outs of Parliament, not just walk around on my own, so the guided tour was great. We were able to visit rooms off limits to an audiotour, and our guide was very knowledgable about the history and process of Parliament. Since I was visiting post-Brexit, she offered particularly interesting insight into how Parliament would proceed with the vote.

Parliament was as beautiful and intriguing on the inside as the outside, and as I listened to Big Ben toll the hour, I could only sit and wonder what was going to happen with Brexit. And America. I’m writing this post-election 2016, and I will tell you – polarizing is a polite word to describe what is going on right now.

On to better things.

Parliament tip: Book a ticket ahead as tours and opening times can vary. The inner sanctums aren’t always available for visits from the public because of Parliament being in session. I do recommend the small group tour, as it gets you into a few more places than just having an audioguide.

I concluded my tour of Parliament in the cafe, enjoying a slice of Victoria sponge and a cappuccino. I am not a tea-and-cake person normally, but having travelled with a Brit on this most British whirlwind tour, I got used to stopping about, oh, two or three in the afternoon for a piece of cake (or other sweet) and tea or coffee. How can it be avoided, really, when all museums, tour sites, and major attractions feature not only a gift shop that one inevitably winds up in at the end of a tour, but also a cafe with Victoria sponge, cupcakes, caramel shortbread, gingerbread squares, lemon tarts, and the like? I mean, even as an American, how can I desist?

When in Rome, do as the Romans do?

The siren call of raspberry jam in thick slice of Victoria sponge or the particularly delightful squeeze of caramel between crisp chocolate and crumbly shortbread was just too much. I couldn’t resist. Ever.

To be honest, it wasn’t like I tried all that hard anyway.

Just around the corner from Westminster and Houses of Parliament was the first stop on some of the Big Bus Tour lines, so I jumped on again, this time to use it to explore more of the city and dive more into some of its oddball history – and considering how long London has been around, it has a lot of oddball history.

Along the bus route, I hopped out at Berkeley Square, residence of the most haunted place in Britain (according to the audio tour) and the nearby American Embassy. The Embassy was an intriguing place to visit, considering the sculpture garden with American presidents gazing down upon me and the 9-11 Memorial.

I zoomed past Picadilly Circus and its neon jumbo-tron screens, Covent Garden with theaters advertising many different plays and musicals, and other famous landmarks in England, all with the beautiful sunset as the backdrop to the end of a spectacular day of sightseeing.

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