Tuesday, September 25, 2012

London: Westminster, War Rooms, and Watering Holes

Our first tourist attraction in London was Westminster Abbey, which never fails to impress with its ornate Gothic design and iconic facade.  Here, history is palpable--and that is not hyperbole for a site that has served as host for the coronation of every British monarch since 1066.  Those interned within Westminster include so many notable historical figures that it is incredible, and not only royalty is represented.  The remains of famous national figures such as Charles Darwin and Issac Newton also rest within the Abbey and taking in the assortment of engraved plaques and expressive busts is overwhelming.  One popular wing, the Poet's Corner, is crowded with memorials to famous writers, beginning with Chaucer.  Perhaps particularly moving is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified soldier from WWI.  Of the many graves in Westminster, his is the only one that is forbidden to step on.

An equally gripping attraction is Churchill's War Rooms.  An underground warren of rooms from which Churchill guided the British war effort, the well-preserved displays bring into sharp focus the dedication and commitment of the Brits who labored to help win the war.  Huddled below ground, and shielded from German V-missile attacks by a five-foot thick concrete slab, these brave men and women toiled around the clock to promote and protect Allied interests.  From the Map Room, military officers from each branch were responsible for preparing daily intelligence summaries for the King, the Prime Minister, and the military chiefs of staff.  Churchill conducted 115 cabinet meetings from the Cabinet Room and maintained a grueling personal schedule, albeit one in which he did not neglect his beloved cigars or favorite drink.

The storied British Museum houses an astounding collection of, well, just about everything.  I have now visited three times, for hours on end, and know that I have just begun to scratch the surface.  Always interesting are the Egyptian antiquities and the famed Elgin marbles.  I'm not going to weigh in on the longstanding dispute between England and Greece over ownership of the sculptures, but simply note that wherever they are housed their haunting beauty will remain timeless.  That the centuries-old eyes of a carved horse can still captivate the viewer is astonishing. 

A small sample of the Elgin Marbles

Rosetta Stone

No visit to London would be complete without a pub crawl, or two.  We enjoyed several in Mayfair, then headed to Fleet Street for some standard pub grub--a Scotch egg, chips and fish (with mushy peas), and steak and kidney pie.  Our nightcap was at the storied Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, reputedly London's oldest pub.  Although we strolled though the many dark rooms of the multi-storied pub, mindful of the low, dark beams and dim lighting, our favorite perch was atop a stool in the cheerfully cluttered first floor bar.  The jovial barmaid regaled us with many stories, including those involving a stuffed parrot named Polly.  She claimed that the bird--when alive--was capable of cursing in seven languages and was the basis for the famous question, "Polly want a cracker?"  I don't know if she was pulling our leg or not, but after my third pint I believed every word she said.

                                                                Red Lion, Mayfair

Guinness at the Old Cheshire

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