The next leg of our trip included London. We had heard that driving in the city limits is an absolute impossibility, so we checked our options for long-term parking at a “car park” north of the city. Stanmore Station, with access to the Underground, included a large car park, so we tried our luck to find a space. We got in on the weekend, Saturday afternoon, and there were only a few spaces available. We were able to buy several days worth of parking.
Melting in the heat, we got help from the Underground ticket agent to buy single trip tickets to Putney Bridge, our Tube stop southwest of the city center. We had booked a flat a five minute’s walk from the Tube. The smoldering subway ride brought back memories of my trip to NYC last year. However, I was not familiar with orienteering on a metro system. I was very grateful that I had brought my own little Underground route map, which I had ripped out of a travel book I bought at a thrift store before I came. I used it numerous times.
Exiting the subway, we had trouble finding our apartment and even gaining access. It took three people to get the key to work in the lock. The rest of us, dripping with sweat, gravely surveyed the open windows in the flats all along the street. We entered the cramped apartment and smiled icily at each other. (Our emotions were all running a liiiittle high. We were POOPED to say the least… we were tired, hot, hungry, there was no air conditioning, and the apartment was in no way what I would call swanky.) But. Considering it was London, we didn’t do too bad.
We displayed fortitude and went grocery shopping and out for pizza. I splurged on my own pizza at Pizza Express, the hippest pizza joint in the U.K.! Okay, so it was only the second pizza joint I had been to, but it was amazing. The design of the restaurant is sleek, modern, and fun. And the food is exceptional! I ordered the “Emilia” pizza, which is chestnut & closed cup mushrooms on a goat’s cheese, garlic oil, and mozzarella base, finished with rocket (what Brits call Arugula), Gran Moravia cheese, fresh lemon juice and black truffle oil. I have no idea what black truffle oil is, but why else do you think I ordered it?
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Sunday morning at the Tube station, we got our Oyster cards (the universal, reloadable metro card for London, which is £5, refundable) and made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist at 11 a.m. (Attending a service is one way to get into the cathedral for free. We also, of course, wanted to attend a worship service since it was Sunday.) We ended up meeting with some of our friends from Oasis! A group of five guys had stayed an extra week in England, too, and London was their last stop.
Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, but I can say that its interior is one of the most stunning cathedrals that I have been in. As we waited for the cathedral choir to enter, I was numb. I felt as if I couldn’t even grasp or understand the beauty of its interior. It was so otherworldly, I had no reference point for it. Yet I was determined to utilize all of my senses and to try to really “see”… …the gold, the paintings, the pillars, the intricate carvings, even the space… all multiplied in architectural harmony and symmetry. Here lay the evidence of the wealth of a nation.
The most memorable sense I have is: light, gold, space, and splendor.
Had I not attended a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I think I would not have understood the architecture. Its grandeur (and for once I get to use the word “grandeur” in its fullest sense) probed me to ask “Why?” “For what?”
(Yes, I have been accused of being too functional when it comes to art. I guess I feel the need for integrity. Many times I find myself asking “What’s the point?” in relation to art.)
In any case, asking “Why?” at St. Paul’s Cathedral was seemingly answered in the Sung Eucharist. Joining in the liturgy, hymns, and prayers, I was able to relate this (what seemed like) inaccessible beauty back to God.
In that splendor, I could have felt insecure. But there was an element of community by attending the service… by joining the cathedral choir, organ, and congregation in singing in unison the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise” and by partaking of the Lord’s supper with believers from around the world.
Tourists, church members, and our little group sat in chairs in the “crossing” under the dome. We greatly enjoyed the cathedral choir (including the boys choir) and the Haydn mass. We were also delighted to find that the 3 o’clock Evensong included John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” We definitely decided to stay. (Orientation for non-music nerds: Tavener is a popular contemporary British composer whose piece “Song for Athene” was performed at the funeral for Princess Diana. His music is religious, sparse, and meditative. Tavener passed away last year.) Once again, I enjoyed the Evensong, especially the Tavener piece. For the first time I understood the piece as death and Heaven. Hearing it in this space, I finally connected the last line to the splendor of Heaven after death. Here is the text:
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.
Life: a shadow and a dream.
Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.
We were inspired, in the truest sense of the word, when we left the cathedral.
The Mennonite Game
We ran into random Mennonites from Pennsylvania at Evensong at St. Paul’s. Some of them were our mutual friends, whom we vaguely knew were traveling in England this summer. It’s a small world.
Next stop, Camden Market! Honestly, we were a little freaked out by it. Pickpocket warning signs everywhere, and its garishness reminded me of Chinatown in NYC. It was pretty trashy. But fun for souvenirs, nonetheless.
We spent the evening planning our city route for the next day. Kim bought this awesome little foldy London map that was a lifesaver for us many times. It included a map of famous landmarks AND the closest tube stops.
Monday morning was 221 Baker Street! We literally just went into the gift shop because the line to get into the “museum” was already 100 feet long.
Deliberating over which museum to go to, we carelessly chose the British Museum because it was free. Let me tell you, there’s a reason it’s free. It’s one of the worst museums I have been to. The lighting was terrible, the presentation in places was embarrassingly dated, and it was hot and crowded. For some reason I was thinking there would be more British-y things, but instead, it was like Great Britain was saying, “Yeah, we conquered the world and ruled it for a while. Here’s all our crap.” And that’s what the museum was. Little bits of culture from empires and other countries. I really wished I would have gone to an art museum instead. But. I did see a hunk of the Rosetta Stone. I had to force my way through ten Europeans taking selfies with the thing til I could actually catch a glimpse of it through the smudged glass.
Only Steph and I wanted to go the Tower of London (to see the crown jewels!), so we established a meeting place with the other girls and trucked off toward the Tower and the London Bridge. This was the only time during our whole trip that A Great Problem happened. For the most part, we had had exceptional travel safety and orienteering. Considering none of us had working cell phones, and the only way we were communicating to family was through Apple technology and spotty wifi, it’s actually a miracle that we made it back in one piece. (I might brag here that I went this entire four weeks with no electronic devices, internet, or social media. I didn’t have a smartphone or an ipad to take along, and I relied on friends’ devices only for very occasional facebook blips. It was… cleansing, lol.)
We thought the Tower closed at 5. It was currently 4. That was a lot of “seeing” to do in an hour. We found out once inside that it closed at 5:30. And it was dazzling! THIS! THIS was the iconic Britain I had come to see! Armor and jewels and towers! Yes!
We decided our friends outside could wait a bit. Later, we went back to the meeting place at 5:45, and they were nowhere to be found. We waited, and waited, and waited. We walked around. We got food. We waited. We searched. We looked. We walked the Tower Bridge. We came back. We got worried. We got upset. We searched again.
To make a long story short, we found out after two and a half hours of searching that, at 5:30, they had returned to our flat (an hour’s Tube ride out of the city center) hoping we figure it out and come home too.
And they had made pizza.
And we had eaten dry sandwiches from a grocery store.
And it was our last night in London.
We tried to calm down.
It was late.
It was our last night in London.
We were starving.
So Steph and I lived it up at the Minories Pub (and by that I mean we ordered water.)
We ran into a problem Tuesday morning. We had to check out of our flat at 10, and it was really out of our way to take our luggage all the way back to the car, but we still had sightseeing to do. We could have dropped our luggage off at a bus or tube station (certain stations will hold your bags for a fee), but Kendra and Sarah were done with the city, so they took our bags and went back to Stanmore for the morning.
Kim and Steph left for the London Eye. (Which I chose not to go on because I deemed it a $50 ferris wheel tourist trap.) I headed out alone for Westminster Abbey.
I wasn’t sure which exit to take out of the tube station, but I picked one, and as I climbed the steps, soaring above me was Big Ben!
I converged with the throngs, and headed toward the Abbey, location of the 2011 Royal Wedding. I was debating between going in or not (by this time, I was running out of money, and the $30 price tag was a bit steep), but I decided to go since I had come this far. I waited in a very long line for half an hour. Again, no photography allowed. It was also very crowded. I got to see the graves of Chaucer, Darwin, Dickens, kings & queens, Mary Queen of Scots, Rudyard Kipling, and Isaac Newton. It’s all very intimate. You would think they would be in this large outdoor graveyard, but they are actually buried underneath the cathedral. The carved slabs functioning as grave markers are actually the flooring of the cathedral.
I personally prefer the light interior of St. Paul’s over the Gothic interior of Westminster. But. Part of that has to do with the times in which they were built. St. Paul’s was rebuilt in 1669 after the Great Fire. Westminster, on the other hand, was finished in the early 1500s.
We made our way to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament before walking by St. James’s Park on our way to Buckingham Palace.
When we arrived at Buckingham Palace, there were crowds of people, a marching band, and little red men. The British are coming!
We spent some time in Green Park before heading out of the city.
I will take a break of all this royalty to say that we, as Mennonites, were a bit of an anomaly in England.
We were a traveling Amish freak show. Especially the choir. People were very puzzled, perplexed, amused, or curious. Honestly, the pointing and the stares came off as a little rude. England was especially bad, compared to Ireland. We got really good at answering questions of “What’s that thing on your head? What ARE you?” There were two tracks, really, depending on which sort of person asked. “Have you heard of the Reformation?” In which case, we’d do the crash course in church history. Or the classic, “Have you heard of the Amish?” (if the person seemed non-churched) and then we’d carelessly align ourselves with bad characters from poor, misinformed reality T.V. shows. Most of the time it felt like a lose/lose situation. Sometimes I get asked this question and I’d really like to turn it around. “Well, who are YOU?” How can anyone answer that question in 30 seconds flat?
Leaving London, we met a parking attendant at the car park who asked us first if we’re Romanian. (?) We talked about the Mennonite church, and he soon opened up about his own life. His partner died tragically in a car accident 18 months ago, and he’s struggling very much and asking God some very real questions about why his partner had to die but yet evil people are kept alive. He was very pleasant, yet very honest. We spent a long time talking to him, sharing some of our own experiences and ending up praying with him. This was one of the more positive interactions of meeting people on the street. If you think about it, pray for Mickey.