www.richard-seaman.com / Travel / United Kingdom / London / Highlights

Highlights of London

British Museum   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Six million people visit the British museum every year, making it London's most popular tourist attraction.

It was built in the first half of the nineteenth century, at a time when Britain's empire building activities were putting more and more peoples and lands under British control.

This was also a period of incredible curiosity in many different areas including science, technology and history.   The military and economic strength of the country allowed private collectors and the government to amass first rate collections of artifacts from many of the world's major civilizations, including the Rosetta stone from Egypt, the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Greece, statues and tablets from Mesopotamia as well as Maya and other cultural items from Central America.

Buckingham Palace   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

For centuries British history largely revolved around the kings and queens of the day.

Nowadays real power lies elsewhere, but there's still a very strong royal presence throughout the city.   The focal point is Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the queen, which is next to St James' Park, about a kilometer or so from the houses of parliament.

The park is open to the public and is home to a large collection of live birds from around the world which was started during the reign of Charles II.

statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace

Queen Victoria is a former inhabitant of the palace, and you can still find her sitting in front of her old abode.   Her long reign saw the United Kingdom reach the peak of its power, allowing its inhabitants to boast that "the sun never sets on the British Empire".   Ironically, things might have been different if Victoria's German consort, prince Albert had his way.   Albert was politically very liberal and he sided with liberal politicians who abhorred the idea of empire building.   But Albert died young, and Victoria spent the next 40 years of her reign preserving his memory by keeping his clothing and other personal belongings handy in case he returned, building monuments to him like the Royal Albert concert hall and the tacky gold plated Albert Memorial, and encouraging the militarists and adventurers who delighted in the idea of empire building.

The outcome of all this was that English became the dominant language on the planet, and London became the wealthy and powerful center of a vast empire.   The Victorian era also became synonymous with prudery and about the only saying of hers that anyone remembers nowadays is "we are not amused", though the exact circumstances of its utterance are now a matter of debate.   It's not apparent whether she would have approved of the rampant display of nudity going on just behind her, but since they're clearly angels then it must be OK.   No doubt that charming little cherub isn't leering nastily, but is instead just concerned that the rather distracted angel might catch a chill.

soccer fans and mounted guardsman   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The English have always been very class conscious, which is one reason why my parents emigrated to New Zealand.

While the royals and the upper class were doing their thing, the lower classes developed their own culture with its peculiar traditions and pageantry.

The woman standing next to the guardsman looks every bit the expression of a third element of society, the middle class, looking up to the royals and down on the working classes.   It's been said that the queen and her generation of the royal family are more middle class than the middle classes, not because they look up at themselves but because they are the greatest adherents to middle class moral and social values, whereas the upper classes and the lower classes both do what they feel like rather than what conventional morality says they should.   The shenanighans of Prince Charles, Lady Di, Fergie and their offspring are one more sign of the breakdown of this class system.

Houses of Parliament   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The houses of parliament, with one of the most misidentified sights in all of London on the right-hand side.

Although the clock tower is commonly referred to as "Big Ben", that is actually the name of one of the bells within the tower.

Immediately behind parliament is Westminster Abbey, where many kings, queens, poets, writers and other famous inhabitants of the UK are buried.   Many of London's most interesting buildings, statues and other historical items are located within a short distance of the Thames River, with most of them concentrated in an easily walked stretch of the river between parliament and Tower Bridge, which is another widely misidentified landmark.

A sphinx on the Embankment with the London Eye across the river

The Embankment is a wide footpath which follows the Thames river from the Houses of Parliament to Tower Bridge.

This sphinx is one of a pair which stand fairly near Parliament, and between them stands "Cleopatra's Needle".   The sphinxes are recent castings and Cleopatra's Needle doesn't really have anything to do with the Egyptian Queen of the same name, however it is a genuine Egyptian obelisk dating from the reign of Thutmoses III around 1450BC.   It was one of a pair found in Heliopolis and given to the British as a gift in 1819 by the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali, but they refused to pay for it to be transported until 1877.   The pontoon it was on capsized during a storm off France and six people died, but it remained floating and it was eventually towed to London.  The other obelisk of the pair is in Central Park in New York city.

The damage you can see on this sphinx's pedestal was caused by a bomb during the war - the first world war!   This happened on September 4 1917, during the first raid made by German planes against London.   There's similar damage from world war two preserved on the walls of the Victoria and Albert museum.

St Paul's cathedral

Further east, and just a short walk away from the river is St Paul's cathedral, the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren.

The Great Fire of London in the middle of the 17th century was a golden opportunity for Wren, and he used it to design a multitude of interesting churches.

It's rather amazing that St Paul's is still standing, since the area all around it was largely flattened by German bombers during world war two.   Much of the glass in the windows was blown out, but the structure survived virtually intact.   There's a statue, scarcely visible beyond the most distant tree on the left-hand side of this photo, commemorating the work done by London firefighters during the Blitz.

Apart from St Paul's and Westminster Abbey, the other must-see church in London is a bit west of here and a bit nearer the river, the Temple Church, so-called because it is in an area called The Temple which has traditionally been associated with lawyers and barristers.   The Temple Church is much older than St Paul's, it was constructed by the Knights Templar during the 12th century and is the only round church in London - one of only five round churches in the whole of the UK (another is the Round Church in Cambridge).

The Whispering Gallery in St Paul's cathedral   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here is perhaps the greatest achievement of Christopher Wren's labours - the Whispering Gallery under the dome of St Paul's cathedral.

The gallery is accessed via long flights of narrow steps, and it's even possible to go to an outside viewing area at the top of the dome - 530 steps in all from ground level.   As you can see, the dome is huge, second only to the dome of St Peter's in Rome.

This area is called the Whispering Gallery because if you whisper (rather loudly) with your face perpendicular to the wall, someone on the other side of the dome can clearly hear what you're saying.

Roman wall near the Tower of London   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

St Paul's and other buildings in London are very impressive for someone coming from a country like New Zealand which has no ancient buildings or other structures, and where no world shaking historical deeds have ever been done.

However St Paul's hardly rates as ancient history in London.   I've already mentioned the 12th century Temple Church, but it's 200 hundred years newer than the White Tower, part of the complex making up the Tower of London.   However even they are relatively recent compared to other artifacts which can be seen nearby.

For instance, right outside the Tower of London is this section from the original Roman wall around the city of Londonium.   It was the Romans who founded the city, and who built the first London bridge - it wasn't until Westminster Bridge was built in 1749 that there was more than one road across the Thames.   The original Roman bridge is long gone, having been replaced several times over the last two thousand years but other evidence remains, including the Temple of Mithras, or at least its foundations, which were excavated in 1954 just down the road from St Paul's.

Tower of London   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here's the Tower of London, dominated by the huge square White Tower, which was started by the invading Norman king William the Conqueror, who was the victor at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Once the home of kings and queens, the Tower of London included barracks for soldiers and arsenals for weapons and explosives, and was a place of imprisonment and execution for men and women who found themselves on the wrong side of the ruler's favour.   Many of them were taken inside through the entry to the Traitor's Gate visible near the river.

It remained an active military establishment for many centuries, and was even used during world war two as a prison for Rudolph Hess and an execution ground by firing squad in 1941 for German spy Josef Jakobs.

Tower of London crow and Tower Bridge   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The Tower of London has a number of permanent inhabitants.

There are assorted ghosts of royal and noble lineage, including Anne Boleyn and the two young sons of King Edward IV who many believe were murdered by their uncle, who thus became King Richard III.   Then there are the 36 Beefeaters or Yeoman warders, best known for their red and gold outfits, whose job it is to guard prisoners and the crown jewels.   Finally there is a small flock of ravens, one of which you see here.

It's said that as long as the ravens remain here, England is safe from invasion.

Tower Bridge

As you can see from the previous photo, Tower Bridge crosses the Thames right next to the Tower of London.

Although it looks ancient and is often misidentified as London Bridge, it was actually built in 1894 of steel and was merely faced with stonework.

The June 1894 issue of The Builder called Tower Bridge "the most monstrous and preposterous architectural sham we have ever known" and said they would just be wasting photographic plates if they published photos of it.

You can tour the workings of the bridge to view the equipment which raise and lower the bridge deck and to go across the walkways between the towers, which provide an excellent view along the river.

London Town Hall

Between my two visits in 1999 and 2002, someone decided to plonk this thing down next to Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames.

It's the new London city hall, seat of power of the Greater London Authority, which is the successor to the Greater London Council, shut down in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher because its head, Ken Livingston and his cohorts were too leftist.

For 14 years London was the only major city in the world with no central administration, but in 2000 Londoners once again elected a mayor, by the name of Ken Livingston!

the London Eye   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The London Eye is another recent addition to the scene, looking for all the world like a giant bicycle wheel, 135 meters (443 feet) in diameter.

It's also sometimes called the Millenium Wheel because it's one of a number of projects built to celebrate the new millenium.

Like several of these it turned into something of a financial black hole, however it remains far more popular than most of the other projects.

view from the London Eye   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The London Eye is a must-do on any visit, with great views over the central area of the city.

A single rotation takes about 30 minutes, slow enough that the wheel doesn't even need to stop as one set of passengers departs a capsule and the next set enters.

In this photo you can see Cleopatra's Needle on the riverbank on the left-hand side and the dome of St Paul's cathedral on the right-hand side.

As you can clearly see from the previous photo and others on this page, the myth that the United Kingdom suffers from poor weather is a complete concoction, designed to keep uncivilized colonials from flooding in and spoiling the place.

If you do decide to flood in, you can find a lot of excellent hotels in the Greater London area at Trivago.   Unfortunately, as you probably realize, the weather can be hit or miss.   The photos on this page were all taken in July, the middle of summer, when rain occurs on only about 2 out of 10 days, but I've also visited in April, the middle of spring, when the weather was good.   All of the concrete and asphalt in the central city result in a temperature about 5 degrees celcius above the area outside the metropolitan area, so it can get surprisingly hot.   There are many guidebooks devoted solely to the attractions of London, I found the Lonely Planet Guidebook very thorough and useful.

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