May 25, 2016
Ah, Wednesday. I’m feeling much refreshed after a 10 hour night’s sleep. This morning, “class” was a bus tour of London via private coach. Our tour guide, Lauren, thought everything was “brilliant,” including our bus driver, Paul. We began our tour in Bloomsbury and winded our way throughout the city down narrow streets. We were able to see such sights as Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, as well as gain some insider knowledge on the city’s history. Half way through our tour, we got off the bus and were able to witness the foot guards’ rehearsal for the processional that will occur on the Queen’s Official Birthday on June 11. Her real birthday was actually in April, but they celebrate in London for the better weather. It’s 57 degrees today, which is like winter for a Texan, but hey, I’m not complaining. At the rehearsal, I made friends with a beautiful police German shepherd, who liked neither horses nor drums. She is an attack dog, but police are hesitant to give their dogs that official title because “attack dog” does not encompass all of the dog’s skills. She is also able to find your keys if you lose them in the park. After rehearsal, the foot guards march down the Mall to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. The Union Jack means that the Queen is not in today. The Queen prefers to live at Windsor Castle, which is about 20 miles outside of London. So, if the Union Jack is up, she is probably there. Or out grocery shopping. You know, normal stuff you do when you’re a monarch. However, if the royal standard, a red and yellow flag, is flown, the Queen is in. She was indeed in today. After the changing of the guard, we returned to the bus and continued on for another hour or so to see the more modern parts of town, including the MI6 building featured in the most recent James Bond movies. I’m not allowed to disclose whether we did or did not see any spies. But ya, we saw spies.
Here’s a couple of fun facts that we learned on the bus tour:
- London is built on a clay foundation. This is part of the reason why most of the buildings do not rise higher than three or four stories. Today, they have advanced in engineering and do have some skyscrapers to speckle their skyline. Also, London was not built on a plan; buildings were constructed out of necessity by location, so this explains the juxtaposition of architectural styles that I commented on in yesterday’s blog.
- London doesn’t have a lot of space. There’s a lot of traffic and a housing shortage. This is a pretty well known fact. But what you may not know is that many people choose to live outside of the city limits as well, sometimes commuting up to 2 and a half hours every day! To cut down on congestion, London has implemented a 12.5 pound fee to every car that enters the city limits. This toll must be paid every time you enter the city and must be paid by the end of the day.
- London is known for its squares. A lot of the time, squares have parks that serve as a communal garden or backyard for local residents, since hardly anyone is lucky enough to have private green spaces.
- Bloomsbury houses the headquarters of the University of London which has 37 (!) individual colleges. By comparison, UT Austin has 18, and the University of Arkansas has 10.
- Although Piccadilly Circus is the British equivalent of Times Square, Londoners gather at Big Ben to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
- The foot guards (the guys with the red coats and funny hats) are in active military service. Ceremonial duties such as changing of the guard is only the first part of their training before they are posted abroad. There are five different regiments of foot soldiers, distinguishable by the different colored plumes that they wear on their bear skin hats, which are made from real Canadian black bears.
- We saw a dead body. Not kidding.
Following our bus tour, we all walked to Leicester Square to purchase our half price theater tickets for the evening. I will be attending Les Mis with one of the faculty members on the trip. Other faculty are going to see Guys and Dolls, and the other students are all going to see The Woman in Black, which has been running in London for 27 years!
Lunch was a portobello mushroom burger from the Shake Shack in Covent Garden where Eliza Doolittle sold flowers in My Fair Lady. For now, I’m back at the hotel relaxing and writing. It still hasn’t completely sunk in that I am in London! But I am beyond ecstatic to keep exploring and learning here!