I had pre-booked a double-decker bus tour and had to find the tour office to pick up my ticket. I was told it was about a 10-minute taxi ride or a 40-minute walk so I decided to walk to get my bearings.
With my map in hand, I headed down Monmouth Street which turned into St. Martens Lane. The sun was shining and the city wasn't fully awake. I first came upon Trafalgar Square. Its a big square that was built in remembrance for a fallen British Navy Admiral and often is the site for concerts, festivals and protests. Its also home to the National Gallery Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
St. Martens Lane turned into WhiteHall St. which is where many government buildings are, including 10 Downing Street (home and office of the British Prime Minister). Ahead of me I saw what appeared to be "Big Ben" which is the clock tower at the end of the House of Parliament. I came upon a street corner where to my surprise, "Big Ben" was actually "Little Ben" -- "Big Ben" was located to my left and was much larger than I expected. I learned that its proper name is St. Stephens Tower. "Big Ben" is the name of the 2-ton bell within the tower. It was really beautiful to see it with the sun rising in the background. The architecture of the entire complex, incluidng the Houses of Parliament, is intricate and was built by hand. Its brilliant and was ahead of its time!
Next I headed down Victoria Street and came upon Westminster Abbey, which is a 900-year old church. Its where the British coronations are held and has been the site of many royal weddings and burials. On the grounds of Westminster Abbey are other chapels and buildings, including a gift shop. The morning was still early and the church wasn't open so I couldn't go in.
I continued down Victoria Street, looking for Buckingham Palace Road. The ticket office was in some square on that street. I was looking for an actual park-like square. I wasn't seeing it on my map, but I figured was I heading in the right direction.
Soon, I realized that I had been walking for almost an hour and still couldn't find the tour office. I started asking people for directions - first a security guard at a store. He didn't know where the square was, but pointed me to Buckingham Palace Gate. Nope, not the same address. I continued down the street and asked a few other people who knew nothing. Soon I saw an ad for the tour so I called the phone number on the ad but just got an answering machine. Ok so that was a waste of about $5! I got the feeling that I was headed toward a less desireable part of town, so I decided that my best bet was to head back towards Buckingham Palace Gate.
I came upon Buckingham Palace where there were large gatherings of people lining up for palace tours. So I walked up to the ticket office and bought a ticket. Apparently, Palace tours are only offered during the summer when the Queen is on summer holiday. The Palace is never open to the public when she's in residence. I went right in and started an audio tour of the Palace States Room. Cameras were not allowed so I'll try to recount the tour as best as possible.
We entered into a corridor that led to the Grand Courtyard. Dignitaries and official guests are received in this square by carriage/horseback. To our left were the private residences of the Queen and Prince Philip; ahead of us were staff residences; and to the right was the residence of the guy who manages the Queen's finances. We entered the Grand Foyer, then climbed the Grand Staircase. We learned that the palace was designed by a guy named Nash. His intricate design and attention to detail is rich and regal, and everything is very old. Its exactly how I imagined it would be. We moved through a series of statesrooms, dining rooms, drawing rooms, portrait galleries, etc. All had its own individual significance and housed historical vases, tables, items dating back to the 15-16th centuries, etc. I found the narration very enlightening. My favorite story was of the Music Room which displayed a baby grand piano and had doors that opened out to the Queen's Lawn. We learned that the Queen's Lawn had been bombed by German fighters during WWII. The King and Queen Mother were in residence at the time, but refused to leave and abandon their people. The entire tour lasted for about 90 minutes.
I wasn't sure what to do next, but I figured I should continue in search of my tour since I'd already paid for it. I met a policeman who told me to head toward the Royal Mews (stables) where I would find tour buses in the area.
Sure enough, I found my tour but learned that I still needed to get to the tour office to get a ticket. So I hopped on a tour bus and after seraching for another 30 minutes, finally found the office and got my ticket. I headed out to the nearest bus stop where I handed my ticket to the tour worker. The man just stood there for a few minutes after I gave him my ticket, not saying a word or doing anything. I wasn't sure what to do next so I asked him if I should just get on the bus that was parked in front of us. Suddenly the man started yelling at me and bit my head off, going on about how I wasn't to get on a bus until he told me I could and how all Americans were impatient. I calmly explained to him that I had been searching for the tour for hours and wasn't able to find it, nor could anyone else direct me to it. He responded by saying, "And who's fault is that?" It took EVERYTHING in me not to respond with what I was thinking. I held my tongue, thinking that I didn't know anyone in this country and there would be no one there to bail me out of jail if I spoke my mind.
What I was really thinking was that...well if you really want to know, email me and I'll get on my soapbox with you on this issue...Anyway, I took my voucher from him and headed to the next bus stop where a nice British boy directed me to the bus I should get on.
The tour was pleasant and very informative. The tour guide was a really cool guy who was very educated on the history of the area and brought a lot of humor into the tour. It was fascinating to see all the sites and learn about its histories since I love history so much. But mostly, I was grateful to be able to sit for a couple of hours. One thing I found noteworthy was that West London is considered to be "young London." Huh? Isn't this the Palace, Parliament, etc - all of which were several hundred years old? Well, "old London" is the East London, which is several thousand years old, but much of which is being renovated in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. This put in perspective for me that the US is a very young country in comparison to the rest of Europe. We've accomplished much and enjoyed much success in our short existence relative to the old European countries!
After the tour, I took the London Tube (subway) to Knightsbridge to go to Harrod's Dept Store. I had no intention of shopping, but in the spirit of "All Things Diana," I went to see the memorial created for Princess Di and Dodi Fayed. Harrod's is owned by Dodi Fayed's father and he built a tribute in their memory. Since this week is the 10th anniversary of their death, he moved the memorial to a window display where many paid their respects by leaving cards and flowers at the window. I even signed the condolences book.
By this time it was almost 4 pm and I was exhausted. I took the Tube back to my hotel and met my boss who just arrived. We headed out to dinner, then walked about Seven Dials and Covent Gardens. We went to the Covent Gardens Market which is a huge marketplace with vendors selling various goods. Its very much like Fanuiel Hall in Boston. This area is full activity and excitement! I recommend this area to anyone visiting London for business or vacation - I LOVE it!
Here's some of the photos I took today: http://picasaweb.google.com/njnakamura/London