When I emerged from the underground station near Big Ben, I was surrounded by thousands of people, most wearing red poppies in their lapels. Some wore medals pinned to their suits and military berets on their heads. Others were in uniform.
London bobbies were everywhere, guarding the barricades and warily eyeing the crowds. Whitehall and its side streets were closed.
It was Remembrance Sunday.
On this day, special services are held at churches and war memorials to honor the British men and women killed during the world wars and subsequent conflicts.
I could hear a military band playing in the distance. With others I strained to see dignitaries lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, a monument to the war dead.
From my location, I couldn’t make out the players, but learned later they included Queen Elizabeth, Prince Andrew, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prime Minister David Cameron, and several previous prime ministers.
At 11 a.m. Big Ben tolled eleven times. Two minutes of silence followed. Then a poem:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Two days later was the official Remembrance Day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, marking the signing of the armistice in 1918, the end of World War I, the day the guns fell silent. More street closures. More services. At Trafalgar Square, a memorial program was broadcast on live TV after the 11 a.m. moment of silence.
The Poppy Appeal was in full swing. Artificial poppies are sold each year by the Royal British Legion, the proceeds helping veterans and their families. Volunteers on street corners offered them in exchange for donations.
As I toured the city in the days that followed, history seemed ever-present.
I checked into my hotel in Belgravia near Victoria Station, my room at the top of five flights of narrow stairs. Plaques on buildings in the neighborhood mark the past residences of Frédéric Chopin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Brian Epstein, Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and Margaret Thatcher, among others.
The next day, the streets near Whitehall reopened and I visited Churchill’s War Rooms. During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill commandeered some basement offices between 10 Downing Street and Parliament to serve as the center for Britain’s war effort. The underground complex, known as the Cabinet War Rooms, was occupied throughout the war by Churchill, government ministers, military strategists, and staff.
The rooms were in use twenty-four hours a day as many staffers both worked and slept there. The complex included offices, meeting rooms, dining room, kitchen, and sleeping quarters. Unaware of the weather above ground, staffers consulted an information board in the hallway. During air raids, the report was changed to windy–tongue-in-cheek British humor.
The hub of the subterranean center was a map room and adjoining communications room, buzzing around the clock as intelligence was gathered and evaluated. Churchill’s war cabinet met in the bunker one hundred and fifteen times, often during German bombardments. The prime minister gave his famous radio addresses from the center. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the lights were turned off for the first time in six years.
The complex is now open to the public as a museum, compete with the original furniture, telephones, maps, even the pushpins. The rooms look as though not a tea cup or ashtray was touched in seventy years. A step back in time.
Warriors and poets
During Remembrance Day activities, family members of the fallen place small wooden crosses on the grounds in front of Westminster Abbey. Tens of thousands of them, sorted by military unit. Just inside the abbey is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed during WWI. This is the only grave in the floor of the abbey upon which it is forbidden to step.
Visitors may feel free, however, to walk on the rest. It felt odd to step on the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Many of the kings and queens of England are buried in the abbey, as well as military heroes, politicians, and poets.
The poets, writers, and musicians are buried (or memorialized) around Chaucer’s tomb, including everyone I studied in two quarters of English lit—Blake, Burns, Byron, Dickens, Keats, Kipling, Milton, Pope, Shelley, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Wordsworth.
Since 1066, the coronations of British monarchs have been held at Westminster. Queen Elizabeth was crowned there in 1953. The Coronation Chair, built in 1301, was designed to hold the Stone of Scone beneath its seat. The stone has been used in the coronation of every king of Scotland. In 1296, it was captured by Edward I and fitted into the chair so as to reinforce England’s domination over Scotland.
The Scots wanted it back. In 1996, it was returned to Scotland where it is kept between coronations. (I saw the stone last year on display at Edinburgh Castle.)
Westminster was the site of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and the Queen Mother’s in 2002. My dad, while posted in London during World War II, met the Queen Mother. He was walking down the street with a couple of other American sailors, all in uniform. She stopped her car, got out, shook their hands, and thanked them for their service.
Bodies in the basement
Since 1066, the Tower of London has served as a royal residence, an armory, a treasury, a zoo, the home of the Royal Mint, a public-records office, and the home of the crown jewels of England.
Also a prison. Three English queens, among others, were beheaded there.
The Tower has protected the crown jewels since the early 1300s. The regalia include the crowns, scepters, orbs, rings, swords, and robes that play a part in the ritual of coronation.
Included in the settings is the First Star of Africa, the largest flawless cut diamond in the world (five hundred and thirty carats). This and the Second Star of Africa (three hundred and seventeen carats) were cut from the Cullinan Diamond, the largest diamond ever found.
In 1483, two recently orphaned princes, ages twelve and nine, were lodged in the Tower by the man appointed to look after them, their uncle Richard. This was supposed to be in preparation for the oldest boy’s coronation as king. However, the brothers conveniently disappeared and Richard took the throne himself. No one knows for sure, but it is widely believed the uncle, King Richard III, had them murdered to clear his path to the throne. At least that is Shakespeare’s version.
In 1674 workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. They were assumed to be the remains of the princes. King Charles II had them buried at Westminster Abbey among other royalty. Their identities have never been proven.
Treasures of the Empire
In 1922 the British Empire governed a quarter of the earth’s land area and a fifth of its population. It was the largest empire in history. As conquerors have done before and since, the British gathered the cultural treasures of the world and shipped them home.
Much of the bounty is on display at the British Museum:
- Rosetta Stone, which cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs
- world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo (over one hundred thousand pieces)
- world’s largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside of Iraq (over three hundred thousand pieces), including ancient treasures from Persia, Syria, the Holy Land, Phoenicia, Assyria, Babylon, and Sumeria
- one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities from classical Greece and Rome (over one hundred thousand pieces), including marble statues from the Parthenon in Athens and elements of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
And much more. The museum has over thirteen million objects in its collection. Of course, it is impossible to see it all in one day.
I immersed myself in ancient artifacts while hordes of shrieking school kids ran from display to display to complete their scavenger hunts. The Egyptian mummies were the crowd favorite.
The museum has been criticized for keeping confiscated artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone. Organizations in Greece, Egypt and other countries have repeatedly asked for their return.
A brochure was available to offset the ongoing conflict surrounding the Parthenon sculptures. The museum’s position is that the sculptures are “part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.”
I took that as a no. Not going home. At least they display them for free.
Antique road show
London’s list of must-see sights is extensive. Over the next several days, I visited:
- Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the venue for the funeral of Winston Churchill and the wedding of Charles and Diana. At three hundred and sixty-five feet high, the dome is one of the highest in the world. Behind the high altar is the Jesus Chapel, dedicated to the Americans who died in World War II. The stained-glass windows contain images of the seals of all of the fifty states. I spotted Ohio’s.
- British Library, which displays more than two hundred rare print materials. I saw a copy of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455, the Magna Carta, pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Shakespeare’s First Folio, Handel’s Messiah (in the composer’s handwriting), and handwritten lyrics by the Beatles.
- National Portrait Gallery, a collection of almost two hundred thousand portraits of historically important British people. Subjects range from King Henry VIII to Mick Jagger, including royals, politicians, scientists, artists, philosophers, writers, and a few Americans.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a near-replica of the original built close to its actual site on the south bank of the Thames, where it was once surrounded by bear-baiting rings, saloons, and brothels. Those who paid a pence to stand on the dirt floor in front of the stage were called groundlings, a reference to a gape-mouthed bottom-feeding fish. (It is probably what they looked like from the stage.)
- National Gallery displays over a thousand paintings from its vast collection, including works by Van Eyck, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Rousseau, and Van Gogh.
A special exhibition of Goya’s portraits demonstrated his skill at capturing the psychology of his subjects. As someone said, “It must have been terrifying to sit for him.”
- Sherlock Holmes Museum, apartment shared by Holmes and Dr. Watson at 221B Baker Street. Okay, not really. The museum features a mock-up of what the fictional apartment might have looked like, located at the actual street address. The famous sitting room overlooking the street overflowed with Holmesian details, his stalking cap, pipe, violin, scientific equipment, and souvenirs from cases. I wanted to hail a hansom cab when I left.
Horse Guard Ceremony, known officially as the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard. I watched them face off, a squadron of Life Guards, wearing red tunics and white-plumed helmets, and a squadron of Blues and Royals in blue tunics and red plumes. The Four O’Clock Parade started in 1894 when Queen Victoria found the guards drinking and gambling while on duty. As punishment, she ordered them to be inspected every day at 4 p.m., apparently forever.
- Imperial War Museum, covering Britain’s war involvement from World War I to the present. The museum’s exhibit includes uniforms, flags, military equipment, weapons, and vehicles, such as a Supermarine Spitfire flown during the Battle of Britain. In 1936 the museum acquired a permanent home in what was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Bethlem’s notorious history as an asylum for those suffering from mental illness inspired the word bedlam.
I treated myself to a show in the Theatre District, Sunny Afternoon, a Jersey Boys-style musical that tells the story of the Kinks. Featured songs included “You Really Got Me,” “Lola,” and other hits. Woven into the musical are the Davies brothers’ sibling rivalry, management problems, their sister’s untimely death, failed marriages, substance abuse, and their ban from playing in the United States.
A punchline in the play demonstrates a typical European perspective. Kink Ray Davies is told by his manager the band is going to tour America. His response: “I don’t want to go to America! I don’t want to get shot!”
Next day, the shootings and bombings in Paris were all over the news.
My time in London was bookended by memorial services. When I arrived, the British were honoring those who died in World War I. When I left, they were memorializing those who lost their lives in Paris. Candlelight ceremonies were held in Trafalgar Square. Bouquets of flowers blossomed around the fountains.
Outside the Tate Modern I watched am older street performer begin to play “Johnny B Goode.” A group of high-school kids, probably a class on an outing to the museum, waited nearby for a bus. I was expecting ambivalence on their part, perhaps even eye-rolling.
But they engaged, circling the guitar player, listening, dancing, taking selfies with him, even throwing coins into his case. He happily repeated the song twice for them, then played Bob Marley’s “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright.”
The kids sang along and, for a moment, I thought, yes, maybe it will.