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Colin and Gretchen O'Donnell stand in front of Buckingham Palace.

London calling: Couple spend whirlwind five days touring city

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London calling: Couple spend whirlwind five days touring city
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Somewhere over Wisconsin, at about 31,000 feet, the reality of where we were heading hit me, and I began to remember the city I hadn’t visited in 26 years. Back then, on a spring break trip with my parents, London was just a hop, skip and a jump from our home in West Berlin, Germany. But now, with children to consider and approximately 4,000 miles to cover, jaunting over to England for a few days is a much bigger deal.  


But it’s worth it.

My husband and I only had five days, which, admittedly, isn’t very long. But we made the most of our time, seeing and experiencing all that we could possibly cram in every day.

We began our whirlwind tour at Westminster Station, the Underground stop across the street from Parliament Square. As we ascended the stairs, the houses of Parliament came into view, and with every step they rose in all their glittering splendor until we stepped out onto the sidewalk — joining the throngs of people already there — and all we could do was gawk at Big Ben smack dab in front of us across the street.

To the left, the Thames flowed by, gray and chilly in the early spring air. The London Eye rose across the river. This Ferris-Wheel-that-isn’t-a-Ferris-Wheel has become a must-do in London.To the right sits Westminster Abbey, site of every coronation since 1066, when William the Conqueror first put himself upon the throne of England. Yes, history is in the very air you breathe in London, and we had stepped out into the midst of it.

We headed up Parliament Street toward Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. It seemed that every step brought new and fascinating sights. There was Downing Street, gated and guarded. There were horse guards, protecting St. James’s Palace, and there were more statues and war memorials than I could take in.  

Tourists and locals alike lined the sidewalks. As we approached Trafalgar Square, with the statue of Horatio Nelson dominating the skyline, we saw myriad schoolchildren climbing over the four famous stone lions and heard — just barely, over the traffic sounds — a bagpiper playing near the steps of the National Gallery.  

Trafalgar Square is called The Gathering Place of London.  Surrounding the square you’ll find the Gallery (where we had afternoon tea), St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Waterstones Bookstore and several foreign “High Commissions.”

We visited The National Gallery the next day. It is free to enter, though they do request a 4-pound donation. Do not take photos within the gallery. I learned this to my chagrin.  (In my defense I had looked for signs, but didn’t see any. That fact did not impress the docent.)

We also took a tour of the city that second day, riding aboard an open-air double-decker bus. This gave us a nice overview of the city and allowed us to “hop on-hop off” whenever we chose. We hopped off at St. James’s Park, where my husband visited Churchill’s War Room Museum — a fascinating look at the actual (and virtually untouched) World War II epicenter of strategy, where maps still line the walls, complete with pins marking battalions of the North Atlantic shipping convoy and naval locations.

I spent my time across the street at the park, where 30 different kinds of waterfowl make their homes and daffodils reminded me that spring really does exist in March in certain parts of the world.

From there we went back up Whitehall Street, aiming for a 40-minute ride on the London Eye. The Eye opened in 2000 to commemorate the new millennium. Though intended to be temporary, it proved quite popular and has become a much-loved part of the skyline.  It is a sedate round trip, offering fantastic views of the city.

The next day we took in the British Museum, where artifacts from around the world — many thousands of years old — fill the halls and draw millions of visitors each year. The Rosetta Stone, key to unlocking Ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics, greets you as you enter the Egyptian wing. Mummies and sarcophagi and statues fill out this wing, giving tantalizing glimpses into this ancient culture.

Not to be missed are the Elgin Marbles, bits of the Greek Parthenon that are not without controversy in these modern times, as Greece feels strongly that they ought to be returned to Greece. Upstairs you’ll find Roman and British history, which, given my genes, felt like coming home.  

I must insert a bit of traveling advice here. Twenty-six years ago I visited the British Museum. Back then, the Guttenberg Bible and other remarkable books were housed there. I assumed this was still the case. My husband, who did better research than I, knew the books are now housed in the British Library. I did not. I didn’t even think to check. So I missed out on some things I wanted to see, as we didn’t have time to get to the library. The moral of the story: Do your research.

Another fantastic museum — really, museums plural — is the Tower of London. We spent five hours at the tower, part of which was an hour-long tour from an official Yeoman Warder. These Beefeaters — who don’t know how they got the nickname — are all retired from the British military, and I heartily recommend taking one of their tours. But don’t — on pain of torture in the tower itself — videotape them.  

The Crown Jewels are housed here and are worth the looking, though I admit as an American they lack the deep connection that subjects of the queen probably find as they gaze upon the crowns, scepters, orbs and spoons. I loved one little girl’s comment, though, said in her lovely British accent, as we looked at the queen’s royal coronation robe: “Lordy. Isn’t it gorgeous?”  

More gorgeous to me were Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Abbey, where Benedictine monks began worshipping more than a thousand years ago, is monumental in size and scope. Touring the Abbey is a lesson in the British monarchy, as well as a review of composers, politicians and writers throughout British history. It costs quite a bit to tour (the cost includes a free audio guide) but the church is entirely self-sustaining, receiving no remuneration from the state or crown, so the cost seems reasonable.

We visited St. Paul’s Cathedral on our last afternoon and missed taking the last tour of the day by about 30 seconds. We quenched our disappointment by attending an Evensong service there an hour later, which truly was the highlight of my week. The echoes of the choir boys will forever fill my heart!

With one exception, the tiredness of our legs and feet from constant walking (often even having to stand on the Underground) kept us away from any London nightlife. But we knew we couldn’t go to London without going to the theater. At least two months before our trip, we ordered tickets online to see “Wicked,” the musical about the life of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was fabulous. The sets and costumes were phenomenal, and the voices of the cast blew us away.  

We spent our last morning viewing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. So did hundreds of other people. This meant that we didn’t get a perfect view of the actual switching-over, but we still got a great view of all of the regiments as they marched past us. The guards (still donning their gray winter greatcoats rather than their classic red tunics, much to my disappointment) were joined by the horse guards (who were in red, hooray!) and by two separate military bands, making the whole process an hour of pageantry that really ought not be missed. The queen was home — as proven by her own flag flying over the palace and the number of guards in attendance — but we didn’t catch sight of her or her family.  But that’s OK. I don’t know how to curtsey, anyway.

If you’ve never been to London, put it on your bucket list. Don’t expect to find quintessential England there — it’s more of an international city in many ways — but you’ll come face to face with history in a way that we never can here in America.Wear comfortable shoes, buy a guide book, plan ahead and bring a good camera.

Oh, and remember this: You can leave your sunglasses at home, but don’t forget your umbrella.