Our First(-ish) Day in London!

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Westminster Abbey

We finally all made it to the same place at the same time! We had our first day as a class today and it was PACKED, since we are trying to make up for the days we missed after our traffic-accident-flight-missing fiasco. I’m glad we got the opportunity to squeeze these extras in, though – Westminster Abbey was worth all the extra walking! It was beautiful; I wish I could have taken pictures inside, but it’s unfortunately not allowed. It was fascinating to see the centuries of history within its walls. Monks settled in Westminster in 960, and Edward the Confessor, a king of England who is also now considered a saint, dedicated the Abbey in 1065. His tomb lies near the altar. Westminster has since been used for royal coronations and weddings, and hundreds of other historical figures are either buried or memorialized there. From monarchs to fallen military to authors, scientists, and musicians, Westminster is a shrine to the important figures in the British monarchy and intellectual culture. My personal favorite monument was that of George Frideric Handel, a German composer who was “adopted” by England due to the great amount of time he spent working in the city of London. Handel is famous for bringing Italian opera to London, for his oratorios (for example, Messiah – “Hallelujah!”), and for hundreds of other works including Zadok the Priest, a fantastic choral and orchestral piece that has been used at every British coronation since King George II in 1727.  Listen to it sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir on Youtube here: Zadok the Priest — Choir of Westminster Abbey. I discovered memorial stones in the floor for a few other composers too, including Britten, Purcell, Clementi, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams. We discovered memorials in Poet’s Corner for authors we’ve discussed in class: Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, Robert Southey, and Robert Burns, to name a few. Shakespeare has a fantastic monument there, of course. I was also especially interested to see how many women were buried or memorialized in Westminster as well. Of course, the queens (Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots had beautiful chapels) and some of the wives of the nobility were buried there, but there were not many ladies in Poet’s Corner. 😦 Jane Austen and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) were two that stood out. Newton and Darwin are there to represent the “hard” sciences, and a stone tablet for Franklin D. Roosevelt was hanging out by the exit – the only American I saw there.

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Rambling in St. James Park.

Next stop was St. James Park, and what a perfectly gorgeous day it was for a “ramble in the park!” I have to say, I didn’t think St. James was quite as picturesque as Regent’s, which I discovered yesterday, but it was still beautiful. We strolled through the park until we reached Buckingham Palace, and after a quick picture break we headed in the direction of Soane’s House to find lunch before our tour.

Sir John Soane’s house was essentially an 18th-century museum, full of artifacts on display. We saw chunks of Greek and Roman sculpture, from tiny to huge, displayed on every inch of the walls, Greco-Roman urns, books packed into every nook and cranny, and a room full of paintings and Soane’s own architectural drawings. There was even a sarcophagus in the basement among Soane’s Egyptian collection (which we were unfortunately unable to access today). It was a great visual of some of the Enlightenment trends we’ve discussed in class, like collecting artifacts (obviously), an increase in the consumption of literature, and the incorporation of classicism into 18th-century British culture. Most interesting of all, to me, was Soane’s bust, plopped right into the middle of the house in the busiest room, looking very Greco-Roman and gazing proudly over his collections.

By the time we made it to the British Museum, we were all pretty wiped out, but it was still a fascinating display of British history. It was gigantic, so there was no way we could make it through the whole thing. Our main goals were to visit the Enlightenment room and find the “Elgin marbles” (which proved to be a challenge since they were

A lovely statue of Cupid, from the Enlightenment Room in the British Museum.

A lovely statue of Cupid, from the Enlightenment Room in the British Museum.

called “The Parthenon Sculptures” here!). The Enlightenment room was once King George III’s library, so once again – books books books! It was beautiful, with oak galleries and tall glass display cases holding thousands of artifacts and collections. Some of the same objects as Soane collected showed up here, like hundreds of cameos and sealstones, those distinctive black-and-tan Greek urns, and lots of Classical sculptures of mythological figures. I also really liked the scientific gadgets and the GIGANTIC tomes that were archives of collections, encyclopedias, and huge atlases that needed more than 100 volumes to complete. After the Enlightenment room I began the search for the “Elgin marbles” by browsing through the ancient Egyptian rooms and eventually making my way to Ancient Greece, where I found the Parthenon Sculptures and a brochure that explains the controversy surrounding them. Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, brought back about half of the sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon between 1801 to 1805. Some think the British “stole” the art from the Greek ruins, that they don’t represent British culture, and that they should be displayed in Greece. If you want to read more about it, here’s a link to the British Museum’s website: The Parthenon Sculptures. You can also access the Hellenic Ministry of Culture’s side of the debate via a link on the British Museum’s page; it’s always a good idea to get both sides of the story. After a tour of the other museum highlights including the Rosetta Stone, I was totally exhausted and ready to rest my sleepy feet. I don’t know about the rest of you all, but I am going to sleep well tonight! Looking forward to another awesome day in London tomorrow!

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