Friday the 12th of June
My previous night’s accommodation had been in the Royal National Hotel, a place far less luxurious than nights past but good enough to have me well rested by morning. I was in a triple share room with two girls named Stephanie and Ashlee, both only a few years my senior and also alone on their contiki tours. As the girls had both come immediately from their 24 hour flight from different ends of Australia, they were jet lagged and urgently needed to rest. That made for an early night and a long sleep, despite the constant wailing of police sirens speeding past and the broad daylight outside that did not fade until late into the night. Together we went for breakfast at Cafe Nero on the corner of the street and as I had booked my hop-on hop-off bus tour for the day prior to my departure from Australia, we parted ways until that evening.
The buildings of London reminded me of Antwerp but with less finesse and overrun with traffic. Stacked apartments reached seven stories high with a staircase out the front of each building leading to lower stories or the basement. History seeped from the city – clear indentations could be seen in a nearby church from the ricocheted shrapnel caused by the blitzkrieg of the Second World War. A mixture of wealth was evident in the buildings – minimalist designs with flat somber walls stood between ornately carved patterns surrounding statues of religious figures in the alcoves of others. The city had immensely congested traffic. It was evident the old streets had not been intended to facilitate such a large population as the footpaths were littered with cigarette buds and dumped trash and the air carried the smell of petroleum. The public transport system had been cleverly constructed with the underground simple to navigate and red double decker busses passing at short intervals along every street. The music of London was a cacophony of horns and speeding cars – the traffic could not be ignored.
As the recognisable peak of St Paul’s Cathedral came into view I descended the stairs of the Golden Tours coach and made my way into one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in my entire life. Tall pillars stretched from the checkered floors to the high domed ceiling that encased countless precious religious artworks. The first display was the baptismal font, resembling a giant chalice, located near the entrance of the church to signify that this was the beginning of new life. Statues of black stone were framed by marble columns and stained glass windows, symbolising service and sacrifice and resurrection, that coloured the light at the opposite end of the expansive structure. And the ceiling. Oh the ceiling! If only I could take photos as I don’t know where to begin to try verbalise the immense beauty of this intricate dome that was designed to look beautifully proportioned from whichever angle the viewer stands. The ceiling formed into high arches of intricate engraved patterns laced with leaf gold. Above this are impeccably detailed paintings depicting the life of St Paul; originally an atheist, he was converted to christianity when the voice of god spoke to him personally and he pledged to tell his story and spread the word of god. Beyond the nave of the cathedral was the quire, a sectioned area only accessible by the male choir of thirty boys and twelve men who sing daily to emphasise their religious faith.
All around us the transcendent architecture kept our eyes fixated; there was so much to see, you barely even thought to look up! But when you did… The outer circle of the dome portrayed the story of creation in glittering mosaics of every colour. Sixty million pieces of glass show the seven days in which the world was made missing only one feature: humans. As humans sing in the quire these images come to life with a thoughtfulness I have never before witnessed – I never want to stop looking up! During the blitzkrieg of World War Two, this English icon was under the threat of attack, yet prime minister Winston Churchill insisted that it “had to be saved”. Men were recruited to guard the cathedral and extinguish flame bombs – it was hit only twice and became a national symbol of survival still dominating the skyline of London today.
A significant feature of the cathedral was the multiple platforms from which one can view its interior. Two hundred and fifty-nine winding narrow steps rose to the Whispering Gallery in which one could whisper from one end of the platform and be heard thirty-two metres away at the other. Here I was at eye level with the crystal chandeliers at one-hundred and ten meters above the nave. The next level took me to the outside of the building and the last, a staggering five-hundred twirling steep and narrow steps reached the peak of the tower overlooking the city of London. Amazing detail could be seen in the city but I was slightly lightheaded from spinning and climbing through such a small space. Another five-hundred steps back down to the ground floor I found myself shaking. But I could not stop and relieve myself quite yet! The cathedral did not only have breath-taking architecture all around and above, but also below. The crypt was the largest tomb in Europe featuring the graves of people who, having had accomplished incredible things for the good of humanity, were inscribed below my feet. The layout of this area mimicked the top level but had an eerie atmosphere with little lighting and old withered flags hanging in respect of the deceased. It was an incredible experience.
Next stop: the Tower of London! A castle emerged from behind tall stone walls where a moat, now drained and replaced with greenery, had once stood. It looked to be a picture from a fairytale! Guards clad in red and navy uniforms sporting tops hats guarded the wide drawer bridge that straddled across the moat and into the cobblestone castle. Here, on display, were many attractions that had once been commonplace activity within its walls. An exhibit about the mint and the propaganda surrounding its recreation was displayed in the area that had once been its headquarters. Some of the rooms had also been used to hold offenders of high stature in captivity yet this punishment was somewhat luxurious in comparison to federal prisons. A popular conspiracy originating from within after the death of King Edward IV was the disappearance of his two children: they were said to have been brought to the tower and then murdered by their uncle so to remove any threats to his claim to the throne. Small skeletons where discovered within a chest years later suspected to be the remains of the boys. Today the tower also acted as a museum of armoury and the history of the fusiliers who were stationed there in anticipation of the First World War. The most popular attraction by far was the Crown Jewels! Sparkling gemstones glittered from all directions of the display hypnotising the onlookers into a state of permanent awe. These genuine artefacts, symbolic of the transferring of power from one monarch to the next during the coronation ceremony, were encased within glass and in a room protected by incredibly thick metal doors. I found the exhibit about the animals that had once been the pets of royalty within the Tower of London most entertaining. Exotic animals given as gifts from explores were at home here – polar bears, monkeys, lions, kangaroos and even elephants! The public was permitted to visit these attractions; this could prove hazardous however, for example, a tower ostrich died after swallowing a large nail fed to it by visitors that had the belief that these birds ate iron.
It was far into the afternoon when I was finally back onto the Golden Tours coach. The bus I chanced upon had live commentary spoken by a very entertaining gentleman who had practiced plenty of jokes to make the blue route more entertaining. We passed the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe (as the original building made of wood and a straw thatched roof had been destroyed in a fire that started when a cannon was fired from inside the theatre). We saw the London Eye ferris wheel which was only meant to exist for two years time but remained erect due to its success as a tourist attraction. As sprinkles of rain began to set in we drove by the river Thames and then a building that was upside down for the sake of modern art. Then! The impressive Big Ben! This title actually refers to the largest bell inside the Elizabeth Tower hence the name of the building is commonly mistaken worldwide. Westminster Abbey is said to be inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral as the pope who commissioned it wanted a place of worship as evangelistic. We also passed the home of the current Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace, in all its grandeur of stiff guards and walls decorated in leaf gold. Shit. I had missed my stop. All the awe-inspiring sight-seeing had me distracted to the point that we had come full circle on the tour again approaching the first attraction – from here I had to trudge back to the hotel.
The London Pub became our meeting point with the Contiki team and our fellow travellers. A quick briefing and a few drinks was enough to get us mingling with the 50 or so people who would be our company for the following fourteen days. The trip was finally beginning! Just one more sleep…