Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Can't Find the Front Door Tour

Twenty years ago I went to London. I lived there for three months as a student. I lived in a row house with a bright blue door, in the East End of London (famous for Jack the Ripper and EastEnders) with five other girls - three British, two other Americans.

On October 1, 1987, one of my American friends and I decided to spend the day as typical American tourists. The rest of the time we weren't tourists - we were living there, riding the tube and the buses, shopping at Sainsbury's, going to the local pub (the Essex Arms). But on this day we decided to just do some good old fashioned sight seeing in the center of London.

What follows are some excerpts from that day and why if you ever see a tour company called "Chris and Wendy's Excursions" run the other way (but luckily we aren't planning on starting a tour company, so you should be safe).

We made our way to the center of London and got off at a tube station that seemed promising. "Westminster" - after all, there was Westminster Abbey - this should be a good place to start. Emerging from the underground station we noticed a large clock. Upon consultation with each other (this tour required a lot of consultation with each other) we decided that this was Big Ben - and took pictures of it and got our bearings on our map.

We noticed that the police were blocking off the street and a large crowd was gathering - across the street from what we determined was Westminster Abbey. Something big seemed to be about to happen. Wendy (my touring partner) joined the crowd and said "I'm just going to stand here for a minute and pretend that I know what is going on." I joined her, but after a few minutes of blissful ignorance, Wendy casually asked someone, "Why are we all standing here."

"It is the annual changing of the judges," we were told. "It takes place once a year on October first. They are having a special service for the judges in the Abbey now, and then they will cross the street to their cars."

So we stayed and watched the robed and wigged judges cross the street in an atmosphere of pomp and circumstance.

We decided to come back to the Abbey when the crowd had dispersed and visit another site first. Studying our map we decided to walk through St. James Park toward Trafalgar Square - but we went the wrong way.

We saw a large monument in the distance and walked toward that. It turned out to be Queen Victoria's statue. She looked rather stern. She was on a circle completely surrounded by traffic, but we managed to avoid getting hit as we ran across the street to it.

After careful deliberation and consideration Wendy and I decided that the changing of the guard does indeed take place at Buckingham Palace and that the rather ugly building in front of us was indeed that Palace. It was not time for the changing of the guard, and as nothing too interesting was going on there, we headed back to the Abbey - where the crowd had dispersed.

We went back to where we had been and approached the Abbey only to find that there was no public access, only a sign saying "Use West Entrance." Not having a compass with us - and no usable sense of direction, we didn't know which way to point ourselves to find that. So on the theory that if we walked around the building, we'd eventually get to it, we started out.

The first thing we encountered was the Jewel Tower. This tower no longer held the Crown Jewels, but it did hold the Standards of Measurement, so we took a good look at the official gallon and yard before moving on.

Moving on in the direction we had been going required us to climb a low fence. Which we did. But something about this venture didn't seem right. Didn't thousands of people visit Westminster Abbey every day? They all didn't have to climb over this fence did they? What were we doing wrong?

We came to a corner and turned. Now we were on a quiet street with a wall on one side - the wall surrounding the Abbey. There was an opening in the wall and a path leading up to a door. We went up the path and stopped in front of the small, residential looking door. There was a doorbell.

A little careful deliberation led us to the conclusion that the main door of Westminster Abbey would not have a doorbell, and we opted not to ring it, but to continue the search for a way into the church.

We came to a larger opening in the wall, and groups of school boys in academic robes walking past, this seemed promising - at least there was a courtyard. And people. Lots of people. And a large entrance into the building. Finally. We'd found it - a way into Westminster Abbey.

So we proceeded in, but did notice that every one else seemed to be walking towards us, and that all of the grave markers on the ground were facing the other direction, yes, we'd walked in the exit.

But as we continued our backward tour through the Abbey we finally did come to the entrance, and made note of it for the next time (because this was our outdoor tour day - we were planning to come back another day - to take inside tours of the buildings- and that my friends is a whole other story which I'll share some day.)

After Westminster Abbey we found the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge - both without incident. Then there was only one thing on our list of 'must sees' for the day. St. Paul's Cathedral.

We studied our map again and headed in the right direction. We actually found the cathedral without any problems - although it had proven to be quite a long walk. However, once again, when confronted with a large building - we didn't see any front entrance. Knowing that at the Abbey we had gone to our left when confronted with this problem, we decided to go to the right this time.

And - yes - you guessed what happened - after walking seven-eighths of the way around the building we finally found the famous front steps of St. Paul's. We went up - only to be told that we couldn't go inside because it was 5:30 and the building closed at six.

With this day as proof, Wendy and I decided that we could never open our own tour company. But it was certainly more memorable than simply easily walking in the front of every building we came to - and more interesting. And I have always wondered - who would have answered had we rung the doorbell we encountered at Westminster Abbey. Hmmm.


Leticia said...

What an interesting story!
I was a a twenty something college grad spending 6 months in London from fall of '86 to spring of '87.
I lived in Stoke Newington(N16) but had friends from church who rushed home from Mass to watch the Eastenders.
I did a bit of touring London myself, but never saw the changing of the guard or Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.Too touristy!

Christine M said...

I never saw Madame Tussaud's either - but we did see a lot of shows - something like 15 in 11 weeks. - I was there in the fall of 87. Funny how you were there right before I was, Leticia.