On the first morning after we arrived we immediately decided to go touring. Mom was teaching so we were to be alone on the first few days. We decided to follow the Southbank Walk suggested by the Lonely Planet. We arrived at the Westminister Station and as we exited were stunned by the sight of the clock tower and the chiming of Big Ben. That was the point we really knew we were in London.
We walked along the Westminister Bridge and were blown away by the view of the River Thames, Houses of Parliament and The London Eye. Images of the Thames, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are the images I (Paul) have grown up with my whole life. Therefore, when I arrived I was surprised at how much at home I felt and the tremendous affinity I felt towards this place.
The beautiful buildings that frame the Thames as it winds its way through London are also tremendous echoes of the majestic history of this city and the influence that this city once had (and still has) throughout the world. For me (Paul) the worst part was the London Eye. It may be London’s most popular tourist destination but it is an eyesore that doesn’t belong in these settings. We may go on the London Eye next week but it won’t change my impression of the structure.
So anyway, we lingered on Westminister bridge for a long while. Soaking up the views of the Houses of Parliament, the clock tower with Big Ben and the river. We slowly walked over the building and headed out towards the Tate Museum of Modern Art where there was a Salvador Dali exhibit. Having seen the exhibit in Taipei we didn’t feel compelled to go inside.
(London South Bank)
Now, just outside the museum we saw the most amazing sight: Human Statues! Queenie had seen these statues in New York but I (Paul) had never seen them. The make up on the first statue was so convincing that when we walked past the person we thought he/she was a real statue. When we saw the eye-balls of the statue moved we nearly jumped out of our skin. There were about eight human statues in all. Each of them did a special dance when pennies were dropped into their hat.
(Dancing to Say Thank You)
We can honestly say that we would not be able to do this job. How can these people stand still for so long? The patience and the discipline is amazing! Now, as we said earlier, when someone gives them money, they do move, but those movements are very rigid and set. We wondered how long they had to stand, how much money they would make doing it and what happened if the weather turned really bad, but of course they couldn’t speak so these questions remained unanswered.
Beggars or Buskers?
This leads to the second question, how many buskers and variations thereof are there in London? On our first morning walking through the streets we saw some side street performer or another nearly every 50 meters. We saw a guitarist, we saw the human statues, we saw a juggler who even juggled fire sticks, we saw a man making a sign on the beach asking for some money, we saw a South American jazz quartet, and this within the first few minutes of walking!
Over the past few days we have seen many more roadside performers with their hats out on the ground asking for a few pennies, while it does make walking along the street a little more interesting, we also felt guilty if we stopped to watch but didn’t give anything! Well, hopefully we will become de-sanitized in the near future so that we can enjoy the performances without feeling guilty.
First Pub Lunch
We continued to meander along the South Bank until we reached the Blackfriar Bridge. By this time jet lag had kicked in and we started to feel hungry. Right next door to the bridge was a charming pub called Doggets with a tremendous view of the river. So we went inside and settled down to our first of what has already been many pub meals.
The pub itself was everything that would be expected of an English pub: wooden décor, homely feel, great home cooked food including pies and fish and chips and many different kinds of ales and lagers. But once again, the view of the Thames was spectacular.
Foreigners in London
The only non-English part of the pub was the service staff. Our waiter was Polish. We were to find that many of the service personnel in London are indeed foreign. The lady providing information in the information booth was Romanian, our first cab driver, Mr. Shabaz, Pakistani, as are most of the restaurant owners in Mom’s neighborhood. The assistant at the Cambridge information office was Italian, the attendant in the Brent Cross shopping center fruit juice store was also Polish etc. etc. etc….
It seems impossible to find English people working in London. Most of the English people we guess work in offices and have other jobs, but they don’t seem to work on the front end of the service industry. Of course we know and have heard that London is a multi-cultural metropolis, but first-hand experience provides an excellent perspective on that reality.
The North Bank
The rest of the day we spent meandering up the Thames towards London Bridge, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. After leaving Duggets we crossed the Thames on the millennium bridge, walked up to St. Paul’s Cathedral, detoured back down to the river and continued walking along the north bank.
(View from the Millenium Bridge)
While we were walking we were able to get some great views of London’s modern architecture. Most prominent among these structures were the cucumber buildings and the half-sphere building that was designed to apparently maximize views of the river Thames. These modern designs provided a stark contrast to the Tower of London, where we arrived after about an hour.
The Tower of London and the Tower Bridge
Of course the Tower of London was inundated with tourists. So be it! We walked alongside the tower and looked at the battlements. We decided not to go in because we were too tired and jet lagged and we would probably not remember anything that was said to us. So we just enjoyed the view from the outside.
On the opposite side of the Thames were two modern battleships that provided an excellent contrast between old England and modern Britain. The Tower of London we guess represented the might and power of a previous era whereas the battleships represented the pride and strength of modern Britain, a country that has become less influential but is still a global power and major player in international affairs.
Just outside the Tower of London were two old canons pointed at the battleships. These cannons seemed also to represent the grandeur of the British military in times gone past. However, times have changed, the sun was out and we were tired and thirsty. We decided to sit and have some refreshments at the restaurant just below the Tower Bridge.
After about half-an-hour, we decided to leave and head off home. We would walk over the Tower Bridge, which is one of the quintessential images of England, old and new. Once again this structure is deeply rooted inside my (Paul) consciousness. It is an image that I have grown up with and something that has always been a part of my heritage (my father is a very proud Englishman) so finally walking across this icon of England was a brilliant feeling.
(View of the Thames from Tower Bridge)
The architecture is truly amazing and the fact that this building has stood for so many years and still functions properly as a busy thoroughfare is an amazing testament to the adaptability of the original architecture.
Anyway, we finally crossed the bridge in about 30-minutes and headed off home.
It was a brilliant day. The walk from Westminister to Tower Bridge is well worth the effort, especially on the first day of a trip to London. It gives a tremendous perspective on the old city and the architecture and history of this country. Of course we were fortunate with the sunny weather. Perhaps if it were colder, the walk would not be as pleasant.