I finally made it to London, and it was wonderful. It really was. London is a city I’ve dreamed of for years (mostly because I read way too many Gothic novels). And it didn’t let me down.
But unfortunately, I had my first major mishap in all of my solo travels: I had my wallet stolen, which contained all my money and cards. Luckily (unluckily?) I was on my way to the airport to fly home at the time, so it didn’t put a damper on my trip. What it did do was wisen me up a little, which is never a bad thing. Having been on as many solo trips as I have, I let my guard down for one minute. And that’s all it takes. Part of it was because I was exhausted (you’ll see why after you read this post), and part of it was just bad luck.
I’m planning on writing a different post with more detail about what happened, what to do if it happens to you, and some precautions you can take to avoid it happening in the first place, so this will be a rainbows-and-butterflies-only story. Read on for everything I managed to jam in in a week.
Day One: Camden Town, Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill, St. Dunstan-in-the-East
First of all, let me say this: if you want to do London right, get the London Pass. I’ve talked to friends about it, and their response has been that it’s too expensive. Fair enough if you have a short time in London, or you’re not into seeing the more touristy sites. But if you’re like me, and you want to see absolutely EVERYTHING, it’s a great value for money. You get into all the attractions without having to stand in line to buy a ticket, plus it comes with bonus things, like free travel to and from faraway places and entrances to exhibits. I got the three-day pass and planned other, free, things during the days I didn’t use it, like this first day, when I arrived in London and didn’t have a full day to explore.
I flew into Southend Airport because it was the cheapest flight. DO NOT DO THIS. Southend is ridiculously far from London proper, which isn’t different to some of the others, but there is no express service, so I ended up paying as much or more for the train as I would have for a closer flight, and also lost a lot of time that way. Try Stansted or Gatwick instead, which both have expresses into the city center.
The first place I had decided to go was Camden Town. I wanted to see the canals, and I also like to roam around markets sometimes. I was hoping to find some cheap vintage clothes and some good food. I’d heard the market talked up on Pinterest and Instagram, but to be honest, I wasn’t super impressed. The food was good – I had Mexican, which I have been craving like a maniac since I left the States – but the merchandise was overpriced and a little dingy, especially compared with my favorite markets in the world (so far), the ones in Moldova. However, the canals were beautiful.
I walked on up past the canals, searching for Primrose Hill and the amazing view it offers of the city, recommended to me by my friend Ruxandra, who is a travel genius. I stumbled on Regent’s Park first, though, and just walked around in the sunlight, watching people play football on the grass. I always try to go to the major parks of each city I visit. It’s a great way to take a break during your travels. London has so many, though, that I may have overdone it a bit.
The hill is smaller than I expected – it’s just kind of there in the middle of this small, square park – but the view did not disappoint.
I tried to give myself more moments to just reflect on what I was seeing and doing, because I had a lot planned and didn’t want to stress myself out. This day was probably the most relaxing I spent, and it continued when I got back to London Bridge, which is where I was staying.
Scouring Pinterest for tips on what to do in London months back, I’d come across St. Dunstan-in-the-East. People said it was a ruin, a quiet place in the middle of the city. I got the idea that it was some kind of church.
It turns out that it’s a church originally built in 1100, but more famously rebuilt by architect Christopher Wren in 1631 (much more on him later). The beautiful old church was so damaged in the Blitz that the city of London turned it into a park, with trees growing in the middle of the nave and ivy trailing down the walls. It quickly became my favorite place in the whole city. I would go there in the early morning to sit quietly and read my book, and was even filmed there one morning by the London Garden Trust! I’m expecting to become an international sensation any day now.
You can see the damage the bombs inflicted on the church in the photos. Most of the buildings I visited while I was in London were the same. Except for Hawaiians, non-combatant Americans never really had the realities of World War II hit home for them, but cities like London still bear the scars. In places like St. Dunstan-in-the-East, though, I think the city is more beautiful for them.
Day Two: Shakespeare’s Globe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The Monument, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Both of my parents are educators, so I was pretty much raised on Shakespeare. The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet, and I hated it because of all the whining and angst (and I was kind of emo back then, so if it had too much angst for me, it had TOO MUCH ANGST). Luckily, I later came across what are in my opinion, the best plays: Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth (in that order). I like the comedies okay, but I think Shakespeare’s tragedies deserve the praise they get as paragons of the English language.
So unsurprisingly, the first thing I did on Day Two was to take a tour of the rebuilt Globe Theatre, a replica of the building where Shakespeare once put on his plays. I learned several interesting facts: hazelnuts were the main snack food of the day (sort of like popcorn), the groundlings (the people who paid a penny to stand near the stage) peed where they stood rather than go outside, and theatres were usually located in the red-light districts of London, across the Thames, because they were deemed immoral.
Of course, we also got to see the inside of the theatre, but no plays were being performed. (More on that later, it’s not like I was going to London without seeing a play at the Globe). This was the one thing in London which was exactly how I imagined it:
Incidentally, the theatre is open-air, with a thatched roof, and was built using the same tools and methods they would have in Shakespeare’s day.
Next, I moved onto a far grander building, the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s less well-known than Westminster Abbey, but most people instantly recognize it when they see it, because it’s a fixture of the London skyline. It’s where Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married, and it’s also where the state funerals of Winston Churchill and the Duke of Wellington were held. It, too, was designed by Christopher Wren, just after the Great Fire of London.
I didn’t know this until I took the tour, but there are actually two domes at the top, the outside and inside domes. They’re separated by a brick cone, so that the dome appears much smaller from the inside.
The tour took about an hour, which is a long time, but it’s a must if you enjoy church architecture and history as much as I do. We were shown Wren’s spiral, self-supporting staircase first (he employed this style a lot; you can see a picture of the one in the Monument on my Instagram page), which has been used in Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban and Sherlock Holmes.
Then we were led out onto the floor, which was amazing – probably the biggest church I had been in up to that point. Notice the black and white flooring, which is all original.
Queen Victoria, however, wasn’t super impressed when she visited for the first time. She called it a “dirty, smoky place” – which, admittedly, it probably was because of all the coal dust that covered everything in London at the time. The brick of the cathedral was cleaned thoroughly by carefully sponging off the bricks, though, and today, it’s gorgeous.
I learned that there were a group of watchers who would sleep in the cathedral every night during the worst of the Blitz, trying to guard it from damage. Although it was hit by two bombs, it survived mostly intact. It was later discovered that one bomb, which didn’t explode and was taken away and defused, would have destroyed the entire cathedral if it had gone off.
After the tour, which included a trip to the crypt to see the resting places of Admiral Nelson and Wren himself, I went up to the Whispering Gallery, which is located at the base of the dome. Its name comes from the fact that you can whisper anywhere and the sound will carry all the way around.
Then, I climbed up to the top of the dome for another great view of London. This was the first of many climbs that day, which made me realize how out of shape I am.
My next stop was the Tower of London. If you haven’t guessed by now, my strategy was to try to separate the days by areas of the city, so that I could minimize travel time. I spent most of this day in the London Bridge/Monument area. I was kind of afraid of the underground before I came to London, but I couldn’t escape it, so I learned how to use it. And it turns out, it’s pretty easy. Moral of the story: embrace the metro. (And don’t worry, it wasn’t where I got robbed. That was the bus. Buses are the worst.)
Anyway, I took the good old metro on to the Tower of London. First misconception: it’s not really a tower. It’s more of a large complex of forbidding-looking buildings.
The spires you can see at the back are those of the White Tower, basically England’s first royal palace, started by William the Conqueror in 1066, the same year he won the Battle of Hastings.
The best thing to do once you get to the tower is to take a tour with a Yeoman Warder. These guys aren’t cheesy tour guides paid to ham it up about all the grisly things that have gone on in the Tower over the centuries. They’re actually members of the British armed forces, who must serve a number of years before even applying to become Yeomen.
That being said, of course the gruesome tales weren’t in short supply. First we stopped at Traitors’ Gate, which is where enemies of the state were brought before being executed. Many such executions took place at the Tower, notably Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, both queens of England – the latter for only nine days. Both are buried in the chapel within the complex.
Other royals who met their end here include twelve-year-old Prince Edward V and his brother, ten-year-old Richard, who were killed by their uncle and buried behind some stairs so he could become king. There were two boys about that age in our group, and they looked a little green around the gills after that story. But the good news is that though there were hundreds of people imprisoned in the Tower over the centuries, only seven people were executed. Most, like the then-Princess Elizabeth, survived to fight another day.
In addition to the chapel and White Palace, there is also the Jewel Tower, where the Crown Jewels are kept, and where you can see older crowns and sceptres and the like made specifically for monarchs like Victoria. Fun fact: all of the current crown jewels date from 1649. If you’re wondering where the older ones are, Mr. Oliver “Satan” Cromwell had them melted or sold during the English Civil War. I mean, I get that a transition to a constitutional monarchy was probably better for England in the long run, but why destroy history to do it??
There are also the seven ravens who are kept inside the complex. Legend has it that if they ever leave or die, the country will fall, so as you can imagine, they’re taken very good care of.
The most interesting part of the complex for me, though, was the torture chamber. I feel like maybe I need to put a disclaimer in my “about” section that says “I am not a serial killer.” It would just save time at this point.
The chamber had your standard iron maiden and rack, as well as a curious contraption called the scavenger’s daughter (definitely don’t Google that). It seems, though, that torture wasn’t used as often as we like to think, mostly because it wasn’t an effective method of getting information out of people.
After I’d checked out every building in the Tower, I strolled along the Thames for a while before heading onto my next destination, the Tower Bridge Exhibition. I’m a little ashamed to admit that until I started researching London, I thought Tower Bridge was London Bridge. But it’s definitely not. I walked over that bridge about a thousand times, and I can tell you that it’s probably the least impressive of all of them.
The Tower Bridge, however, is pretty cool. It was completed in Victorian times, and there’s an exhibit about its construction telling how many people it used to take to run the steam-powered drawbridge (it only takes one now, to press the button). If you want a good view of London, this isn’t the best, but it’s kind of cool to stand on a glass walkway and see the Thames below your feet.
I photographed the bridge at various times, but it was looking particularly great that day, with blue skies:
I probably should have just stopped after that, but I only had three days on my pass, after all, and I could still fit in the Monument before it closed. The Monument was built by, you guessed it, Christopher Wren, as a memorial to the city’s survival after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s an enormous Doric column with arrow-slit windows. The gorgeous self-supporting staircase has 311 steps up to the top, from which you can look down onto London’s nightlife if you go about 5 pm, like I did.
It was a great way to end the day, but my legs felt like they were going to fall off. I sort of meandered slowly down to Fleet Street, where I had decided to have supper at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest still-operating pubs in London. It, too, was rebuilt after the Great Fire, and Charles Dickens was a famous patron. In fact, it’s believed that he refers to the Cheese in A Tale of Two Cities. Pro tip: Don’t go to the left when you go into the restaurant. That’s the super-fancy dining room, and you’ll need a reservation to get in. Go downstairs to the pub area, which is full of people eating, drinking, and just generally having a good time.
I tried bangers and mash for the first time (spicier than I was expecting), and even met a waiter from Bucharest, and was able to talk to him in Romanian for a bit. After that, I finally, finally, decided to go get some shut-eye.
Day Three: Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Palace, Boat Ride on the Thames
In all my study of World War II, I’ve always been very moved by what the British people went through. And I’ve always been fascinated by Winston Churchill. He was kind of an old curmudgeon – definitely not the nicest guy at times, but he led a nation through its darkest hour.
The Churchill War Rooms are the set of underground chambers from which Churchill and his staff directed the war. They’ve been preserved just as they were left in 1945. They’re also veyr popular: I got there early, just as they opened, on this day, and still ended up waiting about 30 minutes.
My favorite room was the map room, which is where Churchill and his staff plotted out where all of the German positions were and planned their own offensives. Next to the war rooms is a small museum about Churchill’s life. He was really quite an interesting character, and I learned that he basically invented the romper (or “siren suit,” so called because you could put it on over your pajamas during a nighttime air raid), because he was too busy to be bothered with putting on two pieces of clothing. You’re welcome, ladies.
Seeing the places where people lived and worked during one of history’s darkest moments was fascinating. You hope that you would be someone who would stand up and take action, but you never really know until it happens. There were so many brave people in Britain, especially in London, who were having their lives torn apart, who didn’t know if they would win this war, but refused to give up.
After my visit to the Churchill War Rooms, I wanted to keep the war history going with a visit to the Imperial War Museum, and somehow sort of accidentally stumbled onto Downing Street instead. It was a little bit of a bummer, since Big Ben was completely under construction and you couldn’t see it at all, but it’s still an iconic landmark.
Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided I’d visit Westminster Abbey next (don’t worry, I eventually made it to the IWM. Obviously.). This is probably the most iconic church in the Western Christian world besides the Basilica di San Pietro – and one of the oldest still in operation. All I really knew about it was that every English monarch since William the Conqueror in 1066 has been crowned there, and a bunch of my favorite authors are buried there.
You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, which made me sad at first. However, as those of you who follow me on Instagram know, they hand you an audio guide at the beginning, and you get to walk around and listen to Jeremy Irons tell you about a thousand years of British history, which is just about the best thing ever.
My two favorite parts of the Abbey were the Quire, which is where the famous choir sits to perform, and the Lady Chapel, which has a gorgeous ornate ceiling that looks like lacework. I also got to see the grave of my favorite poet of all time, Tennyson, and the tombs of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and Edward the Confessor. It was mind-blowing to be in the company of so many famous people from so many different eras. I’ve studied the medieval history of the Catholic Church in Britain pretty extensively (let’s be honest, what part of history am I not into?) and it was thrilling to be at ground zero.
Inspired by all the connections with royalty, I next went in search of Buckingham Palace. I guess I sort of pictured it being in the heart of London for some reason, but it’s more of a country house on the edge of St. James’s Park. Sometimes, when you visit a beautiful place, your soul responds with an outburst of feeling. That did not happen for me at Buckingham Palace. My soul went, “Meh.”
Maybe I had just already been spoiled by too much cool architecture and history, but I just wasn’t feeling it. What I was feeling was the nearby St. James’s Park, a photo of which is the featured photo for this post. The English certainly know their way around gardens and parks, and there’s a lot in this area. I went to Hyde Park next to see the roses and ducks.
Hyde Park is also home to Kensington Palace, which is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate and William). They had a bunch of exhibits centered around Royal women, such as Queen Victoria and Princess Diana, which I wanted to see.
They went through the story of Victoria’s life, from the morning she found out she was now the Queen of England when she was eighteen years old (I couldn’t even dress myself in matching colors at eighteen), to when her husband passed away and she insisted on wearing black for the rest of her life because she missed him so much. Britain’s had quite a history of strong female monarchs, which is very fascinating coming from a country which still hasn’t had a female president yet.
My favorite exhibit was the one about Princess Diana, which showcased some of her most iconic clothing and explained the thought that went into each piece and the statement she was trying to make. I love fashion, but I never really thought about how careful someone like her was when selecting what to wear. She tried to wear local British designers as much as possible, and wanted to be known as “more of a workhorse than a clothes horse.” She did a lot of work for charity and did a lot in the 1990s to raise awareness about AIDS, landmines, and mental illness, which I deeply admire her for.
After I left the beautiful little palace and Hyde Park, I finished my day with a boat ride from Westminster back to London Bridge Pier on the Thames. I really enjoyed being on the river. It smells pretty gross, but after a thousand years of everybody dumping things you don’t even want to think about in it, I’d say it’s doing well.
Day Four: Windsor Castle, HMS Belfast, Imperial War Museum
I was a little wary of going to Windsor Castle so soon after the royal wedding. I was sure it would be like Disneyland on the 4th of July (packed to the gills, in case you were wondering). I got the early morning train to Windsor so I could get there right as it opened.
Only I was on the wrong train. Google Maps had directed me to a spot within the city, which the kind attendant at the gate told me was probably a casino or something, after I spent a couple of minutes alternating between wandering from one side of the station to the other and trying to recalibrate my phone’s GPS. With his help, I was able to find my way to Paddington Station, and from there, to the lovely town of Windsor.
It was, of course, still decorated with garlands of flowers and the Union Jack. But there were relatively few people there, at least compared with what I was expecting. It was a lovely, sunny day, which I imagine is just as rare in England as it is in Ireland.
I went to St. George’s Chapel first, which is the home of the legendary Order of the Garter, a chivalric order founded in 1348 by Edward III. Most well-known royalty are members (including the Queen), as well as foreign monarchs who are admitted as “Stranger Knights,” like Emperor Akihito of Japan and Felipe VI of Spain. You can get “degraded,” or demoted, by acts of cowardice or taking arms against the Queen. I’m guessing those were more of a problem in the 1300s than they are today.
Then I went inside the state apartments, which are lovely, of course. There was a fire that damaged one of the wings in 1992, so a lot of restoration work had to be carefully done to make new sections of rooms look just as old as the ones that were still intact. It was so expensive that Buckingham Palace was opened for the first time to tourists to help pay for it.
The last thing I saw was the famous Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, which was built in the 1920s for, you guessed it, Queen Mary. Despite the name, it’s a collection of some of the best-crafted miniature pieces, some of which actually work, like the servants’ vacuums and shotguns (!).
I really liked Windsor Castle, even though the Queen wasn’t home (she usually only stays there on weekends). It’s got more of a country feel than what I’d seen up to this point in London, and it’s definitely a lot different than the castles I’ve seen here in Ireland, which are mostly uninhabited ruins.
After I got back into the city, I decided to get my military history back on. A permanent landmark on the Thames that most people don’t know about, probably because its grey hull matches the color of the water, is the HMS Belfast, a giant destroyer ship which fired some of the first shots on D-Day. I’d never been in a floating museum before, so this was a really cool experience. You make your way up and down the decks, examining the many rooms and finding out what life was like for the personnel stationed on the ship.
There was a turret gunner’s experience, detailing an officer’s account of what it was like to be there on D-Day, when the Belfast bombarded Normandy from its positions in the open sea. The gunning room shook like it would have when its guns fired, and the noise was deafening. All in all it was a very unique museum, and one that I highly recommend if you’re into military history.
I had now seen two of the three war museums operating under the Imperial War Museum flagship in London: the Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast. Next on my list was the third: the actual IWM. It’s located in the old Bethlem Royal Hospital, a psychiatric facility whose infamous nickname, “Bedlam,” is now synonymous with chaos and disorder.
But I found no disorder here; just a fascinating display of weapons, recreations, stories, and history on display since the museum first opened in 1920, one of the first of its kind. They have whole floors dedicated to World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the Holocaust, including a lifesize trench model on the World War I floor. That one was my favorite. It’s my favorite war to study, and there always seems to be more information on World War II for some reason.
The Holocaust exhibit was particularly heartbreaking and fascinating; it features a model of the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the famous British artist Gerry Judah, one which I can say from personal experience is very accurate. This article on Judah’s website tells how he recreated a particular day of arrival for a community of Jews from eastern Europe, using photos from an album left behind by SS officers in the wake of the Russian advance. The exhibit also told the stories of many others we don’t normally think of as being part of the Holocaust, such as Roma gypsies, who were also rounded up by the Nazis.
I stayed literally until closing time, trying to see everything I possibly could. I also bought a stupid amount of books at the bookshop, because that’s what everyone in my family is getting for Christmas.
Day Five: National Gallery, Stonehenge
I started out this day at the National Gallery. Fun fact: many museums in London are absolutely free, such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery (which I didn’t make it to), and the British Museum. I saved these for when my London Pass had run out.
My artist sister would absolutely hate me for saying this, but over several trips, I’ve developed a strategy for seeing art museums (or any museums, for that matter): I read about their collections online, pick out the pieces I want to see, and then only see those while I’m there. It’s not that I don’t want to see everything; it’s that I literally can’t. So here’s a slideshow of the National Gallery’s greatest hits (or at least paintings I personally found interesting):
I love da Vinci just as much as anybody else, but I’d have to say the Botticelli was my favorite; I just like the way he paints facial features and movement. I can’t explain it. I also really liked Rosetti’s painting of the Annunciation. I’ve always enjoyed his poetry, but I hadn’t known he was such a good painter. Incidentally, he used his fellow poet and sister, Christina Rosetti, as the model for Mary.
After the National Gallery, it was time to head to the bus station for my tour of Stonehenge. Here’s my advice: don’t book a half-day tour. There’s so much more to see at the site than just Stonehenge, which I didn’t realize. It would have been cool to wander around all the burial sites in the woods nearby, but I just didn’t have time.
The site itself is not what I was expecting. First of all, you’re just driving through the plains of Salisbury on your tour bus, and it just pops up out of nowhere. You can see the whole thing from the highway.
Also, you can’t just walk right up to it. They have a good portion of it roped off because if people were to step on the ground immediately around the stones, they would probably cave in. Which is fine – it makes for better photos.
I also learned that the Druids did not, in fact, build the structure, even though they’re most often associated with it. It was built before the invention of the wheel by early Neolithic peoples, who used antler picks to shape the rocks. Also, like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a solstice component – at a certain time each day, the sun shines through one of the lintel posts and lights the whole structure.
You can only sort of see it from the picture above, but there are some smaller stones scattered around the ones that make up the structure. These were carted all the way from Wales (no one knows how, so probably aliens), and are reputed to have magical healing powers.
During this tour, I met a lovely lady from Corsica who spoke French, and I spent the next hour or so trying to remember all the French I never really learned, while she did the same with English so we could attempt to communicate. Some of the best parts of trips are when you meet new people and share an experience. That’s one benefit of traveling solo.
Day Six: British Museum, Hamlet
The British Museum is probably the biggest museum I’ve ever seen. If I lived in London, I’d go once a week to a new wing, and just take my time with all the cool stuff they have. And there are plenty of exhibits:
As you can see, the whole thing looks kind of like a greenhouse, with wings off to the sides. And it definitely felt like a greenhouse the day I was there. It was ridiculously hot.
I went to the Africa wing first. This was incredibly interesting, because African history is one thing I haven’t studied a ton, but I definitely decided to after this. The masks were particularly cool, and they also had a few modern sculptures by African artists which were amazing:
I recommend getting a map as soon as you get into the Museum. It lists the most famous items in each wing and where to find them, as well as the times of the Eye Opener tours. These are special 30-40 minute tours given by a guide in a particular wing of the Museum. I definitely suggest taking one in an area you’re interested in, like I did in the Egyptian Wing. I actually learned a lot about the early civilizations before the Egyptian Empire as we know it. I also checked out the Greek, Roman, and medieval wings and saw the Rosetta Stone, the Lewis Chessmen, an Easter Island head, and a bunch of other stuff.
After the museum, I headed back to the Globe to see my favorite play of all time, Hamlet. Seeing a play here is one of the best deals you can get in London, because while a ticket for a West End show can be upwards of 80 pounds a ticket, you can stand in the “groundling” area of the Globe, right next to the stage, for only five pounds. I was a little worried about this, because I was already exhausted from all my walking, but the play was so fascinating that I didn’t even feel it.
They had cast a male Hamlet and a female Ophelia, but they didn’t allude to it at all during the play. The tour guide had explained during our tour that it was just a way of exploring gender in theater, just like they did in Shakespeare’s time when women weren’t allowed to play parts and most of the female roles were acted by young men. It was a really interesting take, and I thought the acting was amazing.
This ended my last full day in London. For my last day, I’d planned a trip to one of the most famous medieval towns in Europe: Canterbury.
Day Seven: Canterbury Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury Town
Most people go to Canterbury for one of two things: either the Canterbury Tales, or the famous cathedral. I read the Canterbury Tales, but it wasn’t my favorite in medieval literature (sorry, Dr. CR). I did look at Canterbury Tales-themed attractions, but saw that they hadn’t received good reviews online and were pretty touristy (in a bad way), so I passed. It was (surprise surprise) the cathedral I was going to see. And it didn’t let me down.
Like Westminster, you could literally spend all day inside this place. Its claim to fame is that it’s the seat of the Anglican Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a title you’ve heard of because one of said archbishops, Thomas Becket, was brutally murdered inside the church. Henry II, the monarch at the time, was friends with Becket, but apparently also got annoyed with him quite a bit because he was so zealous. The story goes that after hearing Henry shout in exasperation, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” four of his knights, who were zealous about something different (murder) went and killed him in the cathedral.
After this, Henry was so sorry for what happened that he paid penance by walking to Canterbury barefoot and letting the monks there whip him. The Catholic Church made Thomas Becket a saint, and pilgrims came from all over the Christian world (and many still do) to see his body, until this was removed by Henry VIII. Today, all that stands there is a small candle that’s always lit.
St. Augustine himself was the first bishop here, beginning in 597 when the cathedral was founded. He also founded an abbey in Canterbury, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The stained glass in the chapel is beautiful. It’s some of the earliest work we have examples of (the late 12th century!!) and miraculously survived Henry VIII, Cromwell, and both World Wars. During the Second World War, the windows were carefully taken out of their frames and stored in the basement to prevent damage.
There are also some newer examples from 1957, made by the Hungarian artist Ervin Bossanyi, that I liked a lot:
Canterbury is a huge cathedral complex, with cloisters, gardens, and a giant room called a chapter-house where the monks used to meet. It was very peaceful and quiet when I was there, maybe because it was around 10 in the morning.
The cathedral also has a beautiful fanned ceiling below the bell tower that reminded me a bit of the Lady Chapel in Westminster, and a nice choir area which was unfortunately empty. The famous choir only sings very early in the morning or at night, so I missed out.
After I had toured the beautiful cathedral for a couple of hours, I went out into the city to look for St. Augustine’s Abbey, which was also founded by the Roman saint in 597. This is just ruins, although most of the foundations still remain.
The abbey fell into ruin after they stopped using it in 1538 during the English Reformation. St. Augustine came to England to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. The local king, Aethelbert (totally naming a kid that), even though he was a pagan himself, was married to a Christian, Bertha, so he was a lot easier to convince than Augustine probably expected. She later became a saint for her role in establishing Christianity.
I also went to see Bertha’s chapel, St. Martin’s, which her husband had refitted from an existing Roman church when she came to marry him, and which is the oldest church still in use in the English-speaking world. But it was closed that day, so all I got to see was the outside.
After I got through visiting approximately every religious site in Canterbury, I explored the old town a little bit. The buildings in the town center are very cute and medieval, and there are some beautiful parks and gardens, and I just kind of wandered around the streets eating ice cream and looking at them all. That’s really the most fun you can have while you’re there.
And there you have it. That was my week in London. Stay tuned for more posts about my summer travels, how to avoid being robbed, and my upcoming move to Poland.
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