Lesson Three: The Tower of London, Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and more

On the Monday after returning from Paris, I was able to go to the Tower of London with one of my classmates after we were finished with our morning classes. Once we arrived, we were met with a flood of tourists and the hot sun and both were almost too much to endure! Despite that, we went on a tour with one of the Beefeaters named Chris, who was actually the Ravenmaster of the Tower. According to the Tower of London’s official website, King Charles II decreed that there must always be six ravens present at the Tower, otherwise the “kingdom would fall,” and there are currently seven ravens located at the tower. During the tour, Chris showed and explained to us the different highlights of the tower, one of them being the famous spot where three of England’s queens were executed. Anne Boleyn in 1536, Catherine Howard in 1542, and Lady Jane Grey in 1554 were killed in the same spot in the middle of the courtyard to ensure that it was a private execution, according to the official website. All three women are buried in the church that is also located inside the Tower, along with hundreds of other unmarked bodies. Towards the end of the tour, he explained that the name “beefeater” was still unclear to the staff, but it is believed that the name comes from the fact that because they were part of the royal guard, they were paid with all of the beef they could eat. Once we completed the tour, we went straight to line up to see the crown jewels. The exhibit was much larger than I expected, full of gold and silver pieces from past kings and queens, and we were able to get on a conveyor belt to see the last queen’s crown which she wore during her coronation.  The Tower of London was definitely a place I would wish to go back to, just because the grounds were well kept, the staff was wonderful, and the historical significance blew me away.

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On Friday I went on a Golden Tour to Leeds Castle, Dover, Canterbury Cathedral, and finally Greenwich. We left for the bus at around 7 in the morning and were out for about 12 hours, and it was so much fun! Each site was beautiful, but Leeds Castle was definitely my favorite.  Once we were off the bus, we were offered small glasses of mead, as it was King Henry VIII’s favorite drink. Having never had mead before, it was definitely an experience right off of the bat. We then walked around the castle and through the wine cellar. We went through each room carefully so we could take as much time as we wanted without missing the bus to the next site. The official website of Leed’s Castle says that this castle has been used for many different occasions, such as Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon’s palace, and is still used as a meeting place today. The last owner, Lady Baillie, made sure to leave the castle as a place for all to see, and so it is now open to the public. Along with viewing the castle, we had a few extra minutes to spare and went through the remains of the mill right near the entrance. There was also a peacock roaming the grounds, and he came up so close to us, as if he wanted to model for the guests. We were able to get some fantastic pictures out of this experience!

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After this, we drove to Dover where we sadly only spent a short while. This seaside town is home to the White Cliffs of Dover, and we were able to view them from the area we stopped in front of. Dover was a town I wish I could have explored more fully, but due to time constraints we were unable to go up to the castle. We then arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, a location I was able to recognize thanks to The Canterbury Tales. The inside of the cathedral made my jaw drop! The ceilings were massive, and though I am beginning to get used to the elaborate English churches, I was still amazed by the size. The historylearningsite.co.uk reveals that the steps through the church are worn down in some places because of the pilgrims that have traveled far and wide to get there. Some of these pilgrims even went up and down the stairs on their knees as a form of prayer.

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Our last stop was at Greenwich, which was located about an hour and a half away from Canterbury. Again, we were unable to spend much time at this location due to the fact that we had to catch the river boat back to Embankment, but we did learn much about the National Maritime Museum located in this district. According to their official website, they are the largest maritime museum in the world, and this was evident due to the sheer size of the entire museum. We did not get to go inside, but we did marvel at the building before we made our way to the river cruise. While I was glad to get back to the college after such a long day, I do wish I could’ve spent longer in each location because I feel I did not get enough out of the experience.

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Lesson Two: St. Paul’s, Speaker’s Corner, Kensington Palace

The past week has been quite eventful and I’ve barely paused to take a break. In London, it’s hard to get bored since there’s always something to do or an assignment to complete. For example, this past week I’ve only had one day where I’ve stayed in to work on a paper, but otherwise I’ve been running around the city to see something new.

The first Sunday we were here, the entire group took a trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral for their 11 am service.  The church, which was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London between 1675 and 1710 according to St. Paul’s  official website, was full of beautiful murals and a massive dome in the main area of the church. While I’m not religious myself and have only attended a handful of services in my lifetime, I enjoyed being a part of such a large congregation where they made it known that anyone of any faith was welcome in their church. I also enjoyed seeing this aspect of the Christian faith, the more formal side of things with the multiple choirs and the procession before the service even began. After the service, we went to Hyde Park to check out Speaker’s Corner. It was definitely a sight to see, and I almost wish America could have something like this, though I doubt it would ever work out so well. The entire idea of someone standing on a stepladder shouting out their opinions while the crowd might jeer at them was completely new to me. What didn’t surprise me was that a majority of the speakers were ranting about religion in a manner that was almost frightening because they were so aggressive. I’m very happy I had the opportunity to check it out, but it was definitely a side of London I hadn’t seen before.

The rest of the week was a blur. I saw two shows, Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, which were both amazing. I ended up seeing both shows on the same day, so in the afternoon I saw Les Mis with a few of my classmates, and then after we ate a quick dinner we went to The National Theatre and saw Strange Interlude with the rest of the Modern Drama class. Les Mis was the show I’ve been looking forward to seeing the most, primarily because an actress/YouTube creator I admire, Carrie Hope Fletcher, was in the show playing Eponine, and also because I very much love the story and characters. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Les Mis has been the longest running musical in the world, going on for over twenty-five consecutive years. While the show was fantastic, we were seated in the top balcony and therefore it was hard to see and we were able to see some of the backstage area. Despite that, it definitely lived up to my expectations and I even got a reply to a Twitter message from Carrie after the show! Once we were through with that, we went to a restaurant near The National and then watched Strange Interlude. I enjoyed reading the play very much, but watching it was a whole new experience. This production went with a more humorous tone, whereas I had imagined the show to be very serious and dramatic. Despite this, I did enjoy the play, especially the sets which were eloquent and caused my jaw to drop a few times! There is one transition where they moved from an apartment to a yacht, and this was performed so smoothly and quickly I’m surprised none of the crew made a sound!

Outside of the theatre, I did a few other activities, such as visit Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace. The gardens were beautiful, but we were not allowed to enter part of the area near the Palace, but I was able to get plenty of pictures.

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Once we were inside, we paid for our tickets and made our way around the many exhibits. My favorite was the one that had just opened, which had many of Queen Elizabeth II, her sister Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana’s dresses from previous decades. The exhibit had just opened that day, July 4th, and so we were able to have a first look. It was amazing to be able to get so close to each dress and see what styles were most popular in the past, and some of the dresses were ones I could see people wearing now!

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We were able to see the King and Queen’s State Apartments as well, which felt very ancient due to the loud and creaking floorboards, but I felt like there were still people living there. This area of the palace was opened to the public in 1899 after being renovated, according to the official site, and it seems like they haven’t made too many big changes since because of the older atmosphere that still remained.  One thing we learned from one of the workers was that Prince William and Princess Kate were planning on moving in in only a few days, so it is amazing to think I am only a few blocks – if that – from royalty!

The day after, I left with three other girls to go to Paris, France. At first, we weren’t sure what we had signed up for; Paris was much different from what we all had expected. The city was dirty, the people were very rude and crude towards us, and we did not feel nearly as safe as we did in our area of London. However, once we were in our hostel which was only a few blocks from the train station, we felt a lot better because of the security guards posted right outside and the friendly staff. The hostel was brand new, so it was very clean and lovely, and the beds were extremely comfortable! We only had a full day in Paris, so we packed as much as we could into a very small window of time. One of our stops was the Lourve, where we went through the Ancient Egypt exhibit and finally found the Mona Lisa, which according to the Louve’s website was a commission that Leonardo Da Vinci did of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife. The painting was much smaller than I had imagined, and once you finally were able to get to the very front of the group of people trying to get a glimpse, you were still quite a distance away, so it appears even smaller. However, it was still a beautiful painting to see in person and I’ve very glad I had the opportunity to see it. After that, we made our journey to the Eiffel Tower where we got off of our bus and spent nearly an hour taking pictures, eating, and shopping at the base of the tower. Unfortunately due to time constraints we were unable to go to the top, so that will have to be saved for another visit. Overall, my trip to Paris was quite an experience, but I’m happy to be back in London. 

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Lesson One: Parliament, London Pride, and more

Entering into our second week of being in London, I have hit the ground running and have done so many things in these few days. I’ve already been to two plays, soon to be four, along with many other popular stops in this city.

The two shows I’ve seen so far have been Children of the Sun and The Woman in Black, which are two vastly different plays which evoked completely different emotions from me. Children of the Sun, one of my required shows to attend for my Modern Drama class, takes place in early 20th century Russia involving members of the upper middle class who don’t seem to realize the chaos that they have inadvertently caused right outside their front gates in the town. This show was written by Maxim Gorky in 1905, and he wanted to showcase the “self-absorbed intelligentsia” side of the Russian elite (The Guardian).  The Woman in Black is a thrilling play within a play telling the story of a man’s encounter with the supernatural after attending the funeral of a former client. The Woman in Black is based on a novel written by Susan Hill in 1983, made its London theater debut in 1987, and sold out in its first three weeks (The Guardian). Both plays were of exceptional quality and made me realize how many different kinds of theater there are. In the past, I have mostly seen musicals and the plays I worked on with my community theater, but I have yet to see many plays with this sort of quality.

This weekend was also jam-packed with sightseeing and citywide events. On Saturday morning, the entire group attended a tour of Parliament, which was fantastic. At the beginning of the tour, we were lead into the Great Hall, which remains the oldest part of the building. According to the History Network official website, the Great Hall was built between the years of 1097 and 1099 by William II, and it was the largest hall during that time period. Inside, the ceiling was constructed with exquisite detail with angles carved into the wood and holes, which are now covered up, where smoke would go out from the fires placed inside during festivals and parties. Moving inside, we walked down the path that Queen Elizabeth takes every year when she makes her appearance at Parliament in the House of Lords. One interesting thing we learned on the tour was that she must send a servant to the House of Commons, the other House of Parliament, but they slam the door in his face due to tradition. According to our tour guide, Nick, this tradition dates back to the ruling of Charles I, who tried to storm into the room in an attempt to arrest five of the members of the House. However, since he was not allowed the authority to do so, they kicked him out, and now whenever the servant of the Queen (or King) comes in, they slam the door in their face and they must knock three times and invite the entire House of Commons. After that, we took a tour of both Houses and then were returned to the spectacular Great Hall.

Once our tour was finished, we went to the London Pride Parade that was happening that afternoon. Three other girls and I went straight to Trafalgar Square after eating a quick lunch at a noodle bar, and were able to get right against one of the barricades. We waited for around two hours before the parade finally ended up in our area, but we spent most of the time chatting with two British citizens about the parade and where we were from. Once the parade started, it was extremely exciting to see all of the different groups represented, from elderly gay citizens to young people, to even Muslims and Christians (I was surprised to see the latter groups at this sort of event). I was also surprised to see that there were no protesters, or at least in the area where I was. All I could see was love and acceptance and celebration. I got tons of pictures, but unfortunately my camera and phone both died halfway through the parade, but I did also get some stickers from members of the parade and from the many booths only twenty feet from where we were standing.

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This was my first pride parade, and I felt so proud of the acceptance from this entire community of people. I know back home people are not this open about their sexuality or gender identity due to fear; and many of those people are my friends or classmates, so I was overjoyed to see that many of these people had been able to find recognition and wanted to spread the message of love rather than hatred. According to the official BBC website, this year’s parade was one of the biggest in the past decade, with over 150 organizations taking part in the festivities, and this may be due to the theme being Love and Marriage, which has to do with the Equal Marriage Bill being considered in Parliament around this time.

Intro To London

I have arrived in London! After wanting to travel abroad (mainly to England, in fact!) for as long as I could remember, I’m still in shock that I’ve made it here. At first, I thought I’d be going through a roller coaster of emotions, but I’ve mostly been extremely excited to be here. It all feels like quite the dream! Every day has been packed with new places to see and new experiences to be had. Just being on the tube for the first time was exciting, despite having to stand for the entire journey from the airport to out stop! I wasn’t able to feel my feet, but I had a better view of the city I was coming into to the first time, so it was completely worth it!

One of the main events I’ve done so far is go to the Victoria and Albert museum, where I went on their introductory tour. I didn’t expect the museum to be nearly as large as it was, and it was packed full of beautiful exhibits. I actually gasped when we entered the room containing the giant Raphael Cartoons, which depicts scenes from the Bible involving the Apostles. The ceiling was much higher than I was used to – the North Carolina Art Museum couldn’t compete with what I was seeing! One of my favorite exhibits we were able to attend was what the museum called the “Gold Rooms”, where a couple who passed away about 10 years ago donated their entire collection of gold objects. Our tour guide Elizabeth informed us that it took the pair around 30 years to collect all the pieces, which consisted of many different kind of dishes, over 200 small boxes, and two tables. One of the tables depicted the big cities in Italy, including Florence and Rome.  The entire museum would take hours or even multiple trips to explore, so I vowed to take another day and go back.