On our last full day in London, the group divided again, with some exploring the Natural History Museum (and bringing back interesting stories from the Animals Inside Out exhibit). Another group went to the Tower of London. The oldest complete structure is the White Tower, built in 1078. (The castle in its current form was finished in the 1200s.) It was originally constructed as a royal residence, but has since become far more famous as a macabre symbol of the bloodier bits of the history of the British monarchy, thanks largely to its use as a prison (mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries) and the execution on the Tower Green of a variety of well-known royal figures, such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, and the imprisonment of Queen Elizabeth I (by her cousin Queen Mary I) and, later, Guy Fawkes. The Tower currently contains the Crown Jewels, as well as formidable displays of armor and weaponry. Also on the grounds is the museum of the Royal Fusiliers, which contains a history of conflicts in which they were involved–among them a total of 35 deployment to Ireland between 1970 and 2007. (The display describes the Fusiliers role as changing from “counter-insurgency to peacekeeping,” an interesting–and British-tinged–interpretation that would undoubtedly differ from a similar summary by the Irish ‘insurgents.’) The museum also includes trophies captured by the Fusiliers on some of their deployments, such as life-sized busts of both Hitler and Mussolini.
After exploring as much of the Tower as possible, we found a pub for lunch, and watched the Queen’s carriage procession down the Mall on television. After lunch we raced to Millenium Bridge, over the Thames in central London, to watch the flyover (or flypast, as the British call it), which was unfortunately short, due to bad weather, but still incredible, featuring both antique and modern aircraft. We then had some free time, which we spent doing some last-minute shopping (serving the secondary purpose of keeping us out of the chilly rain). After dinner most went out for a last drink as a group before packing for our departure for home.
the White Tower
Guard outside the building containing the Crown Jewels
Bust of Benito Mussolini captured by the Royal Fusiliers
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This morning, our group separated, so everyone could choose an option that they were most interested in seeing: a group went to the National Portrait Gallery, another to the Imperial War Museum, and a third to the British Museum. The gallery is housed in a building dating from the 1800s, and is was originally intended as a historical feature rather than an artistic one. However, your narrator explored the British Museum–home of the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles (originally from the Acropolis complex in Greece, mainly the Parthenon), many mummies and ancient Egyptian artifacts (including The Book of the Dead), and countless other cultural treasures from around the world (ancient samurai swords from Japan, huge amounts of Greek and Roman artifacts, the library of George III, and a temporary exhibit focusing on the history of horses through the ages via artwork). As we discovered, the museum requires at least two days to see properly–the sheer volume of artifacts on display is overwhelming. After doing our best to see the exhibits which interested us the most (and vowing to come back and devote the appropriate amount of time), we headed off to lunch and to meet back with the others for a tour of London on a double-decker bus.
The bus tour was valuable as a quick overview of the main historic district of downtown London. We passed the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall, both commissioned by Queen Victoria after her consort Prince Albert died of typhoid in 1861. We also saw the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and stopped near Westminster Abbey to briefly wander around Parliament Square and see Big Ben nearby.
After the bus tour was over, everyone had some free time before dinner. After the meal, the Jubilee concert was to take place, including performers such as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Paul McCartney, and a speech by Prince Charles. Since getting anywhere near the actual concert (held at Buckingham Palace) was impossible, some chose to brave the crowds in Hyde Park to watch it on a jumbo screen, and others opted to watch it on television from the hotel or a nearby pub.
Group at the Imperial War Museum
photo by Tim MacDonald
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Having spent the night in Leeds, we packed and left early on the last leg of our journey to London. After a rainy ride and a much-appreciated bus switch, we were delivered to our hotel in the city. After a short break, we collected our tickets for the London Underground (aka the Tube) and made our way to London Bridge to vie for a spot from which to watch the parade down the river Thames of the royal barge, followed by scores of smaller boats. Even in the light rain and chill of the afternoon, the excitement of the city to kick off the Diamond Jubilee celebrations was palpable. Celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year of rule, it was an occasion of great import to the Londoners and to most subjects of the crown.
However, the obvious pride the occupants of the city took in the ocassion threw into sharp relief the more restrained–perhaps forced–festive appearance of places like Belfast in Northern Ireland, still divided into Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods seperated by ‘peace fences.’ (As a rule, Protestants favored the monarchy/union with Great Britain, and Catholics opposed it.)
After disentangling ourselves from the herd of residents and other visitors trying to escape the rain after the parade, we made our way back to the hotel to meet for dinner.
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Today, the group left Edinburgh behind and headed to York. Upon arriving, we discovered that the city was both quaint and packed with people. We inched through narrow cobblestone streets of shops and cafés, among which were also bits of the history of the city–which was first settled in 71 AD. One such place, sandwiched between gift shops, is the shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow, in the former residence of Margaret herself, who was arrested in 1586 for harboring Catholic priests and executed. She was canonized in 1970. After visiting the shrine, the group continued its progress toward York Minster.
Although the first recorded church on the site was built in 627, the current structure–one of the largest in northern Europe–was finished in 1472. Over the centuries it was damaged in a variety of places and ways, but has been thoroughly restored and houses some of the largest medieval stained glass windows in the world. After being briefly introduced to the particular points of interest in the cathedral by Margaret, we were given time to explore it ourselves; then the group split up, with some going for shopping and lunch and some heading for the Viking Museum.
York was controlled and inhabited by Vikings between 866 and 945, when the last ruler (Eric Bloodaxe) was driven out by King Eldred in pursuit of a unified England. The museum contained some fascinating artifacts from the Viking society, such as jewelry, weapons, armor, tools, and articles of clothing–all remarkably preserved and restored. It also comprehensively explained how archaeologists were able to use their findings to infer how people lived at the time–what they ate, how their homes were built and what they looked like, how they made tools and from what materials, how the village was laid out, and much more. Some students also explored the city walls. While the walls were first built in 71 AD when Romans settled in the area, the surviving stonework dates mainly from the 12th-14th centuries. Later in the afternoon, everyone met back at the bus, and continued our journey towards London via Leeds.
photo by Jordan Novick
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Our second day in Edinburgh opened with a guided tour of the city, Holyroodhouse Palace, and Edinborough Castle. Our tour guide was the incredible Keith, a charismatic Scotsman, in a kilt (which, as we learned generally comprises at least nine and a half yards of cloth). He gave an enthusiastic tour through his city, regaling us with tales of famous former residents, such as literary figures like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. We also heard about the history of Holyroodhouse Palace.
After leaving the palace, we headed for the castle. Formerly the home of generations of Scottish royalty, it now holds the Scottish crown jewels and the National War Memorial. We visited the jewels, toured the apartments where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI & I, and saw the one o’clock cannon firing. After the cannon, we split into smaller groups and explored a variety of places (after pictures with a genuine Highlander). One group went for haggis, climbed the Sir Walter Scott memorial, visited an American Civil War memorial, and climbed to a partially-finished replica of the Parthenon with an incredible view of Arthur’s Seat.
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Today we got up quite early to make it to a ferry to Scotland. After two hours on the ferry and three on the bus, we arrived in Edinburgh. As soon as we got into the city, we began a brief walking tour led by Margret. First we visited the grave of Grayfriar’s Bobby, a dog who was so attached to his master that he refused to leave his side after the friar passed away and was subsequently buried in the churchyard.
photo by Taylor Koerner
After wandering through the rest of the graveyard, we paid a visit to the church of St. Giles, a Presbyterian church where John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian church, once preached.
Having exhausting the church, we toured Mary King’s Close. Closes were extraordinarily narrow alleyways between high buildings, and were home to businesses and residential homes alike. Over the decades as the city grew, some closes were built over, until they were eventually underground. Mary King’s close was one of these; its namesake was an such an influential businesswoman at the time that the name remains.
After dinner, the group was exhausted from a long day of traveling and wandering through Edinborough. And so, with the castle to look forward to, we checked into our hotel.
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This was a big day–our visit to Londonderry. Known as Derry before coming under British (Protestant) control in 1613 under James I, it was the site of the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972. As we arrived in the city we were met by a guide, who took us on a tour of the city. We started in the area of town known as Bogside, where the events of the battle began and the massacre took place. In 1969, the Royal Constabulary attempted to disperse protesting Irish Nationalists, and riots broke.out. the riots lasted roughly two days and sparked riots elsewhere, and are now seen as a defined starting point for the period of time called the Troubles. In 1972, the British Army attacked a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march, killing thirteen. Today there are memorials to the dead, as well as murals in the area depicting civil rights leaders.
We walked along portions of the ancient city walls as our guide described sieges (to which the city never fell), and stopped to visit an old cemetary at the small Church of St. Augustine just inside the wall. It was built on the site of what was St. Columba’s abbey in 543 AD.
Our guided tour ended shortly thereafter, and the group.divided, some choosing to explore the Bogside district and memorials and others visiting the Peace Bridge. According to the BBC, “The bridge was funded by the EU’s Peace III programme under the Shared Space initiative which supports projects that bring together communities that have been formerly divided.”
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