A Walk in Westminster

A Walk in Westminster

Our first twenty-four hours in England were less than ideal. Much of this had to do with jet lag; we left Toronto at 7:20 PM and arrived at Gatwick Airport at 7:20 AM… seven hours after our departure. We both tried to sleep on the plane, but it’s a tricky thing to sleep sitting up. I must have succeeded, since I can’t account for all seven hours of flight time, but I couldn’t have slept more than an hour or two and didn’t feel very rested.

Our feelings were underscored by the reminder this wasn’t a vacation; we arrived in a foreign country with four suitcases, two backpacks, three shoulder bags and no one to help us. No living arrangements beyond places we could stay the first week or so. And pretty much no idea what the hell we were doing.

The first thing we did after our arrival was wait in line to get through the border. We arrived in a room with two massive lines; one for those bearing UK passports and one for all other passports. Neither line was shorter than the other. Apparently citizenship doesn’t help you skip the queues. I think we walked back and forth fourteen times before we got through the line, but my sleep-addled brain kept losing track.

I recall my initial crossing into Canada. We had to pull over and speak to a border agent. They had to issue me a visa. I had to sign a bunch of papers and answer a lot of questions. Our crossing into the UK was anticlimactic in comparison. The agent asked us each if we had a job and what my husband would be doing. This was less information that he needed and more small talk while he ran our fingerprints through the electronic machine. Then we each got a stamp in our passports and we were off into the wilds of England.

The next thing we did was take all four suitcases, two backpacks and three shoulder bags on a train from Gatwick Airport to London’s Victoria station. This is a commuter train, something we didn’t realize until we boarded. It wasn’t a fun experience.

We arrived at our residence tired and sweaty to discover our room wasn’t ready. But the gentlemen in the office did give us access to a shower (bless him!) and by the time we were both clean we were able to go up to our room.

This, I think, was the moment realization came crashing in; we were in a foreign country with nothing but the contents of our bags (pain in the ass as they were to lug everywhere). We had to somehow get those bags on a train to Portsmouth in two days time. We had to find a place to live, acquire a mobile phone, open a bank account and we were very, very tired. Through the haze of exhaustion I remember thinking what the hell have we done?

Needless to say, we learned a lot about moving to another country those first two days, but that’s a whole other blog post. We were in London for the first time in our lives and both of us were determined to enjoy ourselves, tired or not.

The university residence where we stayed the first few days was located only a few blocks from Westminster Abbey. While we wandered through the streets trying to take care of some of those initial tasks, we decided to explore Westminster Cathedral. The cathedral is open to the public for free between services. There are areas set aside for those who wish to prey, with signs asking the public not to disturb the faithful (signs we, of course, respected).

The foundation stone for the cathedral was laid in 1895 and it first opened in 1903. It is, in a word, resplendent. Tucked in a corner, out of the way of the bustling main street with its ultra modern buildings, the cathedral is impossible to miss when you pass. Outside, carvings of the saints lead to the doorway, over which stands a mosaic of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and two saints (Peter and Edward I believe). The mosaic depicts Jesus holding a book which I believe reads “I am the door; he who enters shall be saved.” Over all of it towers a proclamation in Latin: “Lord Jesus, King and Redeemer, save us by thy blood.”

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Upon entering, the altar at the other end of the cathedral filled our vision. I would call it spectacular. Beneath a grand archway sit several candles and a golden cross.

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The cathedral is filled with mosaics like the one outside. They grace the walls and the ceilings, as well as the podium from which the priest offers mass. Parts of the cathedral ceilings are left unfinished; the reason for this is that each new generation is supposed to contribute their own mosaic through the ages until the cathedral is finished.

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What I liked best about our visit was that this is obviously a place of worship. You could see where prayer benches had been pulled out and people moved between the parts of the church reserved for quiet prayer. Yet the doors stood open and welcoming to the public and there were signs explaining different things in the church and their significance.

A short walk down the road we found Westminster Abbey which dates back to the seventh century. Since 1066 it has been the traditional site for the coronation and burial of English/British monarchs. It is awe-inspiring, to say the least.

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(a close up of the carving above the door. Phenomenal.)

Unfortunately, it costs money to go inside, and we were too jet lagged to enjoy it. We decided to come back another day, though we did walk around the outside of the building to admire (and photograph) the stunning architecture.

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From there we ventured on to the parliament building.

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Having been to the Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa, we couldn’t help but compare the two. The decoration of the Canadian buildings is grander (we may be a bit biased, we were fond of the beavers), but the British Parliament building is impressive.

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Neither of us realized, until we saw it, that Big Ben is also part of the parliament building.

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It was still too early to sleep (we tried to beat the jet lag by making it till evening before sleeping), so we continued up the road past Whitehall, looking at the statues and monuments as we passed (there were a lot of them). For me, the most interesting thing about what we saw of London was the juxtaposition of ultramodern and historical buildings. You certainly don’t get genuine medieval buildings popping up around the corner in Toronto.

We passed some unsmiling gents in army uniforms on horseback (I believe they were located near a military museum). Eventually we found our way to Trafalgar Square, which I was definitely too tired to appreciate.

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On the way back to our residence, we passed 1 Downing Street (home of the Prime Minister), outside which a large crowd had gathered (we’re not sure why).

We sat down to rest our feet and get a bite to eat in our first genuine British Pub. We nearly fell asleep waiting for our food (not because service was slow, we were just that tired), then shuffled back to our residence to pass out. It was an exciting, if hazy, day and we’re both looking forward to a chance to go back and enjoy more of the sights.

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