A Travellerspoint blog

Day 1: A Landing in London

sunny 80 °F
View European Adventure, June-July 2010 on coolmcjazz's travel map.

Welcome friends! After a whirlwind trip from DC, with pit-stops in St. Louis, Dallas, and Toronto, I have ARRIVED in London, and am thoroughly crashed out from a packed first day of viewing many things which are MUCH taller than me.

A few rules I want to make for myself in keeping this blog:

1) I want to write EVERY day. (Even if I don't POST every day., though that would also be nice.) I don't know when I'll get back to this land, and as I plan on filling each day I want to have a record of where I've been, what I've seen, and who I've met.

2) I want to stick to the facts. I'd like to keep to a minimum any endless, wordy pontifications about the meaning of life and how I'm "finding" myself along this solo European adventure. (That won't happen anyway.) Just a record.

3) I'm not going to upload EVERY photo I take on the main page. Given how many I took in the first day alone, I wouldn't impose that much viewing on anyone, especially given my rank amateur status operating this brilliant yet mysterious new toy of unlimited potential. I'll post a larger collection in the "photo gallery" heading (if you want a more complete account of my overindulgent photo-taking, please visit by clicking on the right under "more photos") and just pick out a few highlights for the main page.

Keeping all these in mind... here we go!

I embarked from Dallas after a return engagement performing at the Corpus Conference, having staged a one-man show based on the fascinating Thomas Merton, written by theologian Anthony Padovano, also in attendance. Another wonderful experience with a terrific group of people (including my parents!) I flew first to Toronto for an uneventful 3-hour layover, save for a would-have-been-comical-where-I-not-so-hungry food service misunderstanding involving my lack of interest in mayonnaise (blech) on a veggie burger. On the tarmac and ABOUT TO EMBARK when lightning starts up and all ground crew must abandon positions. We sit there waiting out the rain... for 2 hours and 40 minutes! A slight annoyance, but we eventually get in the air. On the way, I strike up a wide-ranging conversation covering the gamut from globalization to vegetarianism (we're the first served... score!) to Messiaen's organ works (!) with John, a very interesting London native, and executive director of War on Want, a London-based charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, who had been in Toronto giving speeches in protest of the G20 meetings. (Look it up.) And I've made my first local connection. Hope to meet up with him later in the trip! Amidst dutifully trudging through my camera book, and watching Canadian sitcoms (Erin Karpluk is destined for Hollywood stardom), documentaries (factory work in China and Trappist cheese making in Quebec), and quirky/wonderful/moving Oscar-nominated short films (I'm learning this absolutely brilliant opening monologue), I barely get more than an hour of sleep on the 10 hour flight. (I am paying for this now. The adrenaline of the new and unfamiliar is my fuel.)

We arrive in London and after a the jokester customs officers grant me entrance into this land of my ancestor's oppressors, I scan the Tube map and figure out how to make may way to Waterloo, where I will find my temporary base of operations, due to the generosity of Des Kennedy, Washington, DC's favorite Irish director. (Des brilliantly directed Scenes from the Big Picture for Solas Nua, a show I was fortunate to be in in 2007, recently named by the Washington Post as "One of the Top 10 Shows of the Decade." He also just opened Johnny Meister and the Stitch in Washington, which I will see when I return.) I arrive at Waterloo station and call Will, Des's very friendly and helpful housemate, who gives me directions from the station. I hear "pass by the cart with fruit and veg..." and my mind instantly flashes to Wallace & Gromit. I arrive at apartment (sorry, flat), where Des's other housemate Tony welcomes me and shows me around, and I flop out. Resolving to only rest for 30 "or so" minutes, I plunge headfirst into a 3 hour nap, and wake up at 3pm London time, sleep-deprived, jetlagged, yet blissful at the thought that this is DAY ONE.

After some Thai food at a small shop down the street, and a quick photo pass by the Old Vic, I walk toward the center of town. (Apropos of nothing, I'm told that the historic part of London is called "town," while the financial district is called "the city.") I'm quite fortunate in that the area I'm staying, Waterloo, is a fairly short walk to town, and on the way in I snap a few shots of storefronts and awnings.

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I turn a corner and I'm bowled over by a lengthy, gleaming palace-like building in the distance, with a mighty golden tower in front; my immediate reaction is "well, whatever that is, it's IMPORTANT." I walk across the bridge which connects the two banks of the Thames and stop for a moment to take in this famous body of water, inspiration to countless poets and painters. I start noticing signs which say "Westminster Station" and I'm thrilled that my first major stop in London will be... the historic church of Westminster Abbey! I snap a number of photos along the bridge, spending time waiting for (other) tourists to clear the shot. I stand in front of the glimmering, very tall edifice and make a quick call home. "Mom, I'm standing in front of Westminster Abbey! I'm here safe!" (Also, "This costs me $1.29 per minute so I can't really talk!") She advises me about a website for couch-surfing in Paris, which I aim to take a look at later. I continue walking around the corner, trying to find an entryway, and when I come upon a side gate, the way in is blocked by an official-looking, yet friendly man. I say "Hi. Is it possible to go in and just walk around?" Guard: "Well, the Parliament is in session and there's an hour queue to observe." Me: "Oh, I thought this was Westminster Abbey?" Guard: "No, this is the House of Commons." Me: "Haha, OK. Forgive me. I'm A TOURIST." (Obviously, without my telling him this he would NEVER have known this.) "Uhm... where is Westminster Abbey?" "It's just around this way – it's closed now but there's a mass going on which is quite nice." It's official: I HAVE CONFUSED BIG BEN FOR WESTMINSTER ABBEY. Feeling rather like certain Midwesteners who commonly mistake the US Capital for the White House, I walk around toward the backside of the actual Abbey. Score one on the Clueless American Quotient.

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After taking a number of photos outside the Abbey, I amble around to the front gate, where I'm notice a young guard blocking entry for inquisitive tourists with cameras. I spot a flyer that mentions a 5:00 mass with music of Palestrina and Byrd and I'm instantly interested – I ask "is it possible to go in to hear the music?" "Yes, but you must stay until 6:00." "No problem!" and I'm in. As I stride past the other camera-toting Americans I feel I've pulled off a major swindle.

As I walk in I have a similar gut-wrenching feeling to that first time entering St. Peter's in Rome – my gaze soars upward and the senses are overwhelmed with visual stimulation. Ancient slab memorials everywhere, ornate greens and golds, and an architecture which points toward the skies. I walk around aimlessly until someone directs me to a seating area in the back, separated from the main service going on in the front of the church. I grab a seat on the center end of an aisle and slowly other tourists fill in the chairs around me. I'm handed a program and the reverberant sound of voices softly saturates the entire building. This is an evensong mass, typical of the Anglican worship day – I read that masses like this have taken place every day in this very space for around 1,000 years. The music, which alternates with spoken and monophonic intonations of prayer by the main presider, is stunning, perfect. I'm reminded to breathe and just take in the surroundings, especially as photography is strictly prohibited and although my photographer's eye is lustily leaping around the space sizing up shots and angles, I recognize I won't have a concrete visual remembrance of this visit. You know, say what you will about the restrictive dogmatism and historical oppression of established religions, but these people know how to throw up a building.

At one point during the service, I lean over to the two 20-something women (French, maybe?) with Harrod's shopping bags sitting next to me and whisper: "Did you see who's buried right over there?!" I indicate a large memorial about 30 feet ahead of us on which an angel balances upon a stone globe. French girls: "No." Me: "Isaac Newton!" Girl: "Who's that?" She nervously darts her eyes to her friend, who shrugs. Me, slightly thrown: "He... invented gravity." Instinctively I make a slight swooping downward gesture with my hand, meant to stand for gravity. Girl: "Oh." I'm not sure which I'm more confused by – their unfamiliarity with one of the great minds of Western civilization, or by my patently unfactual scientific summary of Newton's most famous achievement. As I silently ponder whether Ben Franklin also invented electricity, the Harrod's girls grow weary of Tomkins and Byrd, and after the next piece they gather their bags and ilicitly scurry out. As Palestrina's sublime Tu es Petrus fills the space with polyphony, I'm feeling fortunate the timing worked out so that I was able to hear all of this. The service draws to a close, and the male choir in their black robes and male celebrants (save for one woman) in flowing red and white ceremoniously process past us in the tourist section. I'm struck by what feels like the timeless nature of this ceremony – that aged British faces like these have led and sang in austere services such as this for hundreds of years without much alteration. I'm thankful for things that aren't "new" - that I'm visiting a place where maintaining ritualistic tradition is a valued priority. I think there's great spiritual value in this.

After the ceremony, with the knowledge I probably won't make it back in (according to a sign, the church "would never charge worshipers an entry fee," but does charge 15 pounds - around $25 US - to tourists), I attempt to walk against the flow of traffic (Midwesterners on a choral field trip, I believe) toward the Newton memorial, and after a few minutes am advised to walk toward the back exit. I stop to light two candles – one for my late friend Dan Shea, and one for my Aunt Betty, who passed away last January. Her generosity is funding a good portion of this trip - plus, she loved to travel in Europe so this adventure is a nice testament to her. Outside, I snap a number of want-to-be-artsy photos using my spare lens which I really don't know yet how to use. There's an impressive line of "20th century martyrs" along the top of the entryway which includes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. Thankfully, George W. Bush is nowhere to be found.

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After a walk past the "Democracy Village" rather noticeably filling the large lawn adjacent to Parliament and the Abbey, a tent city with all variety of anti-war signs (my favorite is "Police: We Love You"), I continue walking the streets of downtown, and end up inside a pub (or "free house"), The Lord Moon of the Mall, whose signage proclaims itself an "authentic English pub." (I find this claim consistent of many of the surrounding establishments.) I order some food and a beer - a package deal – and am treated to my first glorious, hand-poured true British ale (a Ruddles Ale), a half-plate of thick cut, scrumptious fries (er, "chips"), and a steaming, microwaved veggie burger. Figuring two out of three ain't bad, I finish my food and continue walking, ending up in St. James's Yard, where two costumed guards are "keeping watch." Not sure what they're watching, but they're doing a fine job of it. After consulting a posted map, I decide against continuing on toward Buckingham Palace (I've more days here and am getting tired), and head back toward Waterloo. After a stop for photos at Trafalgar Square, which my trusty Wikipedia iPhone app tells me is the "4th most visited tourist attraction in the world," and a gaze at the façade of the National Gallery (hope to actually go inside another day), I head back toward the river. Crossing the suspension bridge over the Thames, I grab a few more photos of Big Ben and Parliament. (I realize that due to my earlier error, I'm slightly disappointed I didn't get to use my prepared line upon seeing these places for the first time: "Look kids, Big Ben. Parliament." Classic.) Also, the "London Eye," which at first glance from a distance appeared to be a large Ferris wheel, up close is a quite impressive structure, though seems a clear tourist magnet. I resist its urges to carry me skyward and make it back to the flat. It's around 9:00 and Des's friendly housemate Will is now home, and agrees to accompany me for a pint out to The Windmill, a local pub recommended by Des, found in a closeby area known as "The Cut." We sit at tables outside and I have two, both traditional hand-poured (very cool to watch this) British ales (a Ringwood Boondoggle and a Brakspear Bitter), which means little carbonation, smooth malts with the perfect, bitter snap of British hops, and a rich, frothy head. Will, though a native New Zealander, has lived in London for 16 years, and gives me the lowdown on other things to see and gives some keen advice (and a handy map) for the rest of my journey.

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I wake up this morning with an aching head, my body disobeying our express agreement to not feel any morning-after effects of alcohol over this trip. Apparently two English ales scarfed down within an hour is too rich for my blood. This does not bode well for wine-tasting in France. However, this time I've spent writing and eating a tasty breakfast in Greensmith's, a charming market across the street from the flat, has cured me. It's 11:30 local time – onward to Day 2!

PS – Rest assured... this will be the LONGEST entry I write. Promise!

Posted by coolmcjazz 05:47 Archived in England Tagged photography Comments (5)

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