I woke up on Saturday morning intending to do a free walking tour put on by Undiscovered London that I had learned about on a map that they were giving away at the hostel. I thought it would be a great way to learn more about the city and see several of the sights that I had wanted to see in the process.
We met in Green Park by the statue of Diana the Huntress at 11 AM (they also do a tour at 3 PM) and were split up into groups for an English-language tour and a Spanish-language tour. I think our guide’s name was Dale and he educated us a little on why Green Park is so green by telling us a story about how King Charles II was caught by the queen picking flowers for his mistress. Angry about what she had discovered, the queen ordered all the flowers in the park to be dug up and that’s why, compared to other parks that have elaborate gardens, all you see here are grass and trees.
Afterwards, we went to Buckingham Palace, where we learned how to tell if Queen Elizabeth II is in residence or not based on the palace’s flag. If it was the Royal Standard, then the Queen was home, but if it was the Union Jack, then that meant that she was away. When we went, it was the Union Jack. This practice is actually relatively new and stemmed from the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Before, the Royal Standard was the only flag to fly above Buckingham Palace and it would never fly at half mast. After Princess Diana’s death, public outrage that the flag was not at half mast caused the Queen to change the protocol to what we have today.
Another thing I learned? Queen Elizabeth II just became the UK’s longest reigning monarch.
On the way to our next stop, we saw a group of horse guards coming down the street towards Buckingham Palace. That was pretty cool.
Close to Buckingham Palace is the Clarence House, Prince Charles’ official London residence.
A little further is St. James Palace, home of Princess Beatrice of York, seventh in line for the throne. She is Prince Andrew’s oldest daughter and Prince Andrew is Queen Elizabeth II’s third child and Prince Charles’ brother. There’s a little glimpse into this royal family tree for you. We also learned a little about King Henry VIII, who commissioned the palace, and his six wives, whose fates you can remember through the mnemonic device, “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”. One of the most interesting facts that I remember was regarding King Henry VIII’s search for his fourth wife. Tired after his previous three marriages-gone-wrong, he had portraits of women sent to him so he could choose who he wanted to marry next, in a sort of medieval form of tinder.
While we were there, a motorcade led by police came out of the gates and drove past. Our guide said that it had to be somebody important, but we never figured out who.
The next place that we walked through was Pall Mall, which I only really recognized as a cigarette brand, though it is also apparently a street on the UK version of Monopoly. Well, it’s a street in real life too and it’s a pretty expensive one. This is where rich people come to live.
This led us through to Waterloo Place, named after the battle with Napoleon. There, you can see steps that were used by the Duke of Wellington to mount and get off his horse as well as the Athenaeum Club, an exclusive club where you can’t just buy your way in. You have to actually prove your worth and show that you have accomplished something important. You also had to be nominated by current members and then go through this whole process to become a member.
Next up on the tour was Trafalgar Square, which I had visited the night before. All of the Malaysia Night banners and signs were taken down and replaced by signs for a Japan-related event that was taking place while we were there. That was quick. Our guide pointed out the anatomically incorrect lion statues and the column depicting scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar, where the square gets its name. Admiral Lord Nelson led a victory against the French and Spanish, even though he had less ships, by changing traditional war tactics which usually had ships fighting in parallel lines. Instead, Nelson ordered his ships to move perpendicularly and cut through the enemy ships, breaking up their formation and allowing the British to take the victory.
There was also a gruesome and morbid story about what happened to Admiral Lord Nelson’s body after he died. He was placed in a cask filled with brandy (or some other alcohol) to transport his body back home to England, but by the time he arrived, it was found that a hole was drilled into the barrel and the sailors had drunk all the brandy inside (plus whatever other liquids may have been floating around in there from a dead body). Ugh, it grosses me out just thinking about it and I feel like I automatically grimace every time I read that sentence.
After Trafalgar Square, we went to the Admiralty Arch and looked for the nose that had been attached by Rick Buckley in 1997. Buckley had been protesting the introduction of CCTV cameras and thought that the government was being too nosey, so he attached several noses to quite a few buildings around London. The one on the arch is one of the few that still survive and some horse guards think it is good luck and rub it when they pass.
Speaking of the horse guards, we went to Horse Guards Parade afterwards, a parade ground where people can also visit and take pictures with the horses. There is a clock that overlooks the parade grounds with a black smudge on where 2:00 is which is supposed to mark the time when King Charles I was executed for treason.
We passed by Downing Street, where you can find the residence of the Prime Minister, and then stopped by Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey is the site of coronations, royal weddings, and funerals. I think that the last major event that happened there was the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton back in 2011.
Finally, we hit our last stop of the tour, the grassy area by the Palace of Westminster, to talk a little about Big Ben and the Gunpowder Plot. First off, Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the clock. The actual tower is called the Elizabeth Tower. What does Big Ben have in common with the Liberty Bell? Both were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and both have a crack. Big Ben still rings today, crack and all.
Now for the Gunpowder Plot. Back in 1605, there was a plan to blow up the House of Lords. The plan went awry and one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was discovered with 36 barrels of gunpowder. He, along with some of the other conspirators, was charged and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot eventually developed into a celebration known as Guy Fawkes Night in which an effigy of Guy Fawkes is set on fire. Brutal.
After the tour ended, I decided to just walk around some more, seeing if I could find anything interesting. Well, I found a polar bear.
Apparently, I was in front of Shell’s London office and this polar bear was set up by Greenpeace to raise awareness about the oil company’s drilling in the arctic. It was pretty cool and there was a person inside that moved the head around. I’m totally down for more polar bears and less oil drilling.
I also came across a market in the Southbank Centre where I bought a bruschetta with mozzarella, prosciutto, and something else, but it was delicious and I was again thankful to run into an event where I could buy good food at good prices.
After that, I went back to the hostel for a break. I had decided to buy a ticket to a pub crawl at the walking tour earlier and wanted to get some rest before the night started.