Travel To Relax – London Historic and Dynamic
Hi, I’m Rick Steves back with more of the
best of Europe. This time we’re having a jolly good time and enjoying lots of royal pageantry…In
London. Thanks for joining us. This time we’ll see the “Old London” and….The
Enjoy some of the city’s traditional pomp… Hop a double decker bus ride to Christopher
Wren’s magnificent St. Paul’s…Shop for a jaunty hat…Checkout the vibrant scene in
Soho…Ponder some of England’s greatest names in Westminster Abbey, Discover treasures in
the British Library and straddle the zero meridian in Greenwich. But first, we’re checking out the Changing
of the Guard at Buckingham Palace-beautiful weather, lots of royal pageantry, and a huge
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
is a fine introduction to London. While no longer ruling a vast empire-London is still
a capital of regal traditions. This time-honored ritual still stirs English hearts. And, while
you have to be very tall or very early to actually see the guards change…I get a kick
out of watching what seems like every tourist in London gathered together in one place at
the same time.
Today, England’s royal family calls Buckingham
Palace home. But for centuries they lived closer to the River Thames…Where, in the
11th century, King Edward the Confessor built the first Palace of Westminster. Over the
centuries, that palace evolved to become this building and an icon of modern democracy. Eventually, representatives of local communities
or “commons” gathered here to be near their king.
They began meeting independently as
the “House of Commons.” And to this day, Britain is ruled from here…In the Houses of Parliament. Visitors are welcome to queue up for a free
look at either the uppity House of Lords or the rowdier House of Commons in action. Like much of the most medieval-looking architecture
in Europe, this is actually over-the-top faux medieval. It’s Neo-Gothic…Built in the 1800s…The
All across Europe Neo-Gothic was a reaction
against the neo-Classical Age of Revolution, which challenged royalty and religion. With
this less-cerebral, more romantic style, Victorian England reaffirmed its royal and Christian
roots. People call this famous tower, Big Ben. But
Ben is actually the 13-ton bell behind the clock.
Here’s a fun way to make your sister
envious… Rick: Hi Jan. It’s Rick. An enormous royal palace once stretched all
the way from Big Ben to Trafalgar Square at the end of this street.
While the palace is
long gone, its name survives; Whitehall-today Britain’s most important street. The British
Empire-which at one point ruled nearly a quarter of the world’s population-was managed from
here and a Whitehall walk is filled with reminders of England’s proud and hard-fought history.
Stately reliefs and stern buildings seem to celebrate “the empire upon which the sun never
set.” As it has for centuries, the Royal horse guard
still keeps the royal family safe. And if you’re here at the right time, you’ll enjoy
the ritual changing of this guard as well. Prime ministers-like Winston Churchill-have
long lived and worked on Whitehall.
Here, Churchill is wrapped in the iconic trench
coat he wore as he led Britain through the dark days of WWII. Duck under sand bags and descend into the
Churchill War Rooms. This was the secret underground nerve-center of the British government’s fight
against the Nazis in the desperate Battle for Britain. Shut down after victory in 1945,
and ignored for decades, it’s open today as a fascinating time warp for visitors to explore.
Audio guides give it meaning.
Audio Guide: On the morning of the 16th of
August 1945, the day after VJ day and the end of the war, the map officers tidied their
desks, switched out their lights for the first time in 6 years and went home. And that’s
the way the room stayed. You’ll see the room where Churchill famously
took his short naps. In this room the progress of the entire war was followed as the day
by day movement of troops and convoys was charted.
And this room was the communication
hub from where Churchill maneuvered Britain to ultimate victory. The adjacent museum introduces you to Churchill-the
man. It brings the colorful statesman to life-complete with his trademark cigar, bow tie, cognac-he
loved his drink, and famous hat. You’ll get a taste of Winston’s irascibility,
wit, work ethic, even the industry of kitchy knicknacks he inspired.
Back out on Whitehall there are monuments
to other great English war heroes and at the end of the street at Trafalgar square is a
memorial to the greatest English war hero of them all. The one-armed, one-eyed, and
one-minded Admiral Horatio Nelson looking out to sea. The year was 1805. Napoleon with his mightly
army was poised on the other side of the English Channel, preparing to invade.
thousand miles away off the coast of Spain, Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet at
the Battle of Trafalgar. Because Britannia ruled the waves and Napoleon was stopped. Bronze battle reliefs-made of melted down
French cannon-decorate the column. These huggable lions are a hit with visitors.
Trafalgar Square marks the very center of
London. Big Ben is just over there. Buckingham Palace is about a ten-minute walk that way.
Soho, where all the entertainment is, is that way. That is the National Gallery with the
best paintings in Britain.
Right there is St. Martin in the Fields-a church famous for
great classic concerts and the charity work that it does for this community. Big as it is, London’s easy to get around
in. And, once you’re oriented, riding its double-decker buses can be both efficient
For me, enjoying the view from the top deck is one of the great treats of this
city. We’re entering the historic core of London,
the one-square-mile district locals call, simply, “The City.” While only a few thousand
people actually live here, its 9 to 5 crowd numbers half a million. This is Britain’s
Wall Street, thriving with big time commerce and packed with banks. “The City” is also packed with history.
monument commemorates the devastating fire of 1666-which started here and burned down
nearly all of London. These reliefs show in heroic terms how city leaders came together
determined to rebuild. The great architect Christopher Wren was chosen to spear-head
the project. And the city that rose from the ashes of that
fire was decorated by the Wren-designed spires of some fifty churches.
Christopher Wren spent
four decades-the rest of his life-working on his grand vision. The centerpiece: this mighty cathedral, St.
Paul’s. Today, it’s the symbol of London’s resilience: its rise from the Great Fire and
of London’s survival of the Blitz of WWII. The church is one of the world’s biggest.
Wren accentuated its spaciousness by the lack of decoration…Notice the simple ceiling…And
the clear glass lighting everything evenly.
Today, only the west end of the church keeps
Wren’s original vision. In the 1800s, Queen Victoria called St. Paul’s “dim, dingy, and
ungodly” so the east end of the church was then slathered with Victorian bling…Beautiful
Victorian bling. While the church’s survival in WWII was almost
miraculous, the apse of the church did take a direct hit and was destroyed.
rebuilt as the American memorial chapel to honor our nation’s contribution to the defense
of Britain. We see Jesus, Mary, and…George Washington. The American iconography includes
stars, stripes and eagles. And hiding behind birds and plants native to the USA…It’s
Rocket circa 1958, shooting up to the stars. The British are grateful to their WWII allies.
The Roll of Honor lists the 28,000 American servicemen based in Britain who gave their
lives. Climbing the dome is like climbing a 30-story
building…With no elevator. And the reward…
A commanding view of London. Christopher Wren spent nearly half his life
working on St. Paul’s. At age 75, he got to see his son crown his masterpiece with this
London has thriving shopping districts. Oxford
Street is lined with big department stores. It’s fun to feel the energy of this dynamic
city. And Piccadilly, the city’s most touristy square, has a magnetic attraction all its
With its tipsy-yet-somehow-balanced statue
of Eros in the center, this is where worlds of temptations fan out in all directions. While Piccadilly seems tacky, just a few steps
away is a more elegant slice of London. And to enjoy this, we’re joined by my friend
and fellow tour guide, Brit Lonsdale. Brit: This is a lovely street to come down,
if you want an alternative to all of the big shopping centers.
Rick: Jermyn Street, right? Brit: It is, yes, Jermyn Street after Dr.
Henry Jermyn who was the Earl of St.
Albans. And it’s full of lots of little, very individual,
quintessentially English shops. It’s really worth coming down here even if you haven’t
got the money to buy all those wonderful things that you see.
Rick: Just if you want to window shop it gives you a little elegant slice of London culture.
Brit: Yes, absolutely. And a lovely flavor, yes…We’re walking past Swaine Adeney & Brigg.
This is where members of the Royal Family buy their umbrellas, gloves and whips.
Rick: Whips! Oh, for horses.
Brit: Yes, of course. Bates Hats still sells bowlers and top hats
as it has for a century. Brit: This is Bates, one of the lovely old
shops on Jermyn Street. And they sell wonderful hats here.
This is a lovely top hat that you
can see here. That’s the sort of thing that you might wear if you were going to the races.
Rick: Oh, going to the horse race. Brit: It’s going to set you back a bit.
Rick: So what would this cost me? Brit: About 330 pounds. Worth every penny
though, it’s beautifully made.
Rick: Oh, my goodness, just under $500. Nice,
a top hat for the races. Brit: Now, the hats that you can see hanging
on the wall here, these are Panama hats and they’re the sort of thing that you might wear
in summertime when you’re watching cricket, you know traditional British occupation, the
crack of leather on willow, sitting on the river at Village Green with your Panama hat…
This is a bowler hat. Years ago this is what you wore when you went to work.
It was a standard
item of hat wear. If you worked in financial institution in the city in the oldest part
of London you would wear a bowler hat. Nowadays… Rick: If you were a banker you had to have
Brit: Oh, definitely. Definitely. More Laurel
& Hardy I think! Rick: Laurel & Hardy!
Brit: A little more Laurel & Hardy than banker. Simply wandering around London as evening
approaches and people come out to play is an experience in itself.
Soho is particularly
lively. The people-watching is fascinating and talk about variety…. Rick: This is thriving with restaurants.
Brit: Yes, we’re in Soho. It’s full of excellent restaurants.
It’s a big center for media,
the arts. There’s a big gay community here. Always humming, always buzzing. One of the
marvelous things about London is that it’s such a mix.
We used to have an enormous empire
spanning the globe and as a result lots of different nationalities came here. This part
of London is the part that we call Chinatown. Rick: Dim Sum, this is the place.
Brit: Definitely. And of course Soho’s all about theater.
There are at least 30 theaters
within a 10 minute walk from this spot, running the whole gamut: musical, comedy, Shakespeare
even. We’re staying on a delightful-and peaceful-street
in South Kensington. Hotels in London are expensive -choose carefully. In my London
guidebook, I recommend the family-run Aster House.
It has a friendly staff. And my room
provides a good home base. To stretch my budget-especially important here in London, I stock it with
a few groceries. The conservatory has a sunny Victorian elegance.
And a genteel breakfast
here is a fine way to start your London day. A short taxi ride away is Westminster Abbey.
This most historic church in the English-speaking world is where kings and queens have been
crowned and buried since 1066. While it was first built in the 11th century, much of what
we see today is 14th century. When there’s a royal wedding, the world looks on as, amid
all this splendor, thousands of Britain’s glitterati gather under these graceful Gothic
The centerpiece is the tomb of Edward the
Confessor, who founded the abbey. And, surrounding Edward, are the tombs of 29 other kings and
queens. This is the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I. Her royal orb symbolizes she was queen
of the entire globe.
The abbey is filled with the remains of people
who put the Great in Britain-saints, musicians, scientists, and soldiers. For lovers of English
literature, strolling through Poets’ Corner can be a pilgrimage in itself. King Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, with its colorful
windows and fanciful banners, has the festive air of a medieval pageant. The elaborate ceiling
is a fine example of fan vaulting-a style that capped the Gothic age.
At the far end, a wall of modern stained glass marks the Royal Airforce Chapel.
the fighter pilots of all nations who died defending Britain in 1944. With saints in stained glass, heroes in carved
stone, and the remains of England’s greatest citizens under the floor stones, Westminster
Abbey is the national church and the religious heart of England. London’s subway-fondly known as “the tube”-is
one of this planet’s great people-movers and easy to master: To avoid slow-moving ticket
queues, buy your tube pass from machines. Then, simply swipe yourself in and out…Until
your prepaid account needs topping up.
Follow signs to the right platform. Visualize
the layout of the city and remember: Lines are labeled north, south, east, or west. Each
train line has two directions and therefore two platforms. Signs list the line, direction,
and stops served by each platform.
Because some tracks are shared by several
lines, signboards announce which train’s next and how many minutes till it arrives. Final
destinations are displayed above the windshield. And always…Mind the Gap…Mind the gap. Once on board, you can track your progress.
Confused? Many of the locals…Speak English.
Our stop is King’s Cross. Helpful signs show
the best street exit for you, saving lots of walking. The British Library’s right this
way. The British Library is the national archive.
The statue of Isaac Newton measuring the immensity of the universe symbolizes the library’s purpose:
to preserve the record of man’s endless search for knowledge.
The massive building fills 180 miles of shelving
with over 12 million books. For sightseers, only one room matters-The Treasures Room.
It showcases early gospels on papyrus; the first complete New Testament-written in Greek
from the 4th century; Illuminated manuscripts-with pages lovingly illustrated by monks-some of
the finest art from Europe’s Middle Ages; and the Gutenberg Bible-from 1455. Gutenberg’s
revolutionary movable metal type made printing affordable. By bringing information to the
masses, this innovation helped power Europe into the modern age.
The Magna Carta-from 1215-documents the first
steps toward government by people rather than kings…And the king was forced to hang his
seal on it. Cases are dedicated to the titans of English
literature… Showing, for instance, early editions of Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll see precious musical manuscripts: a
hand-written score of Handel’s Messiah…A Beethoven work tracing his stormy creative
And hand-written Beatles lyrics. Ponder the evolution of maps: In 1350 this
world view came with Jerusalem at the center. By 1550, with this, you could plan your next
trip to England. London is growing and its underground is growing
Historically most London attractions have been contained within its downtown Circle
Line. But there’s a new Tube network emerging and it’s clear that London is shifting east. Each morning a thunderous high-tech work force
surges into a district called the Docklands. Once a gritty industrial harbor, then a neglected
no-man’s-land, today the Docklands has been transformed.
It fills a peninsula created
by a bend in the Thames with gleaming skyscrapers springing out of a futuristic people zone.
Canary Wharf Tower is one of the mightiest skyscrapers in all of Europe.
Workers enjoy good public transit and plenty of green spaces for relaxing. The entire ensemble
sits upon a vast underground shopping mall. In the 1700s the Thames riverfront in Central
London was jammed up with shipping in downtown London while this end of town was an industrial
zone-stinking industries like glue making and chemical works and so on-located conveniently
downwind from London. So, in about 1800 to clear the shipping out of downtown London,
they built what was the world’s ultimate port.
The Docklands organized shipping for the vast
British Empire. Evoking the days when Britannia ruled the waves, the old West India warehouses
survive. But rather than trading sugar and rum, today they house the Museum of London
Docklands and a row of happening restaurants. London’s Docklands illustrates how in order
to fully experience the energy of a great city, you often need to get out of the historic
old town and explore its modern business district.
Further down the River Thames is Greenwich.
Since many of its sights are free and it’s cheap to get here on the tube, it makes for
a great budget day out. While still well within the city limits of
London, Greenwich feels like a small town. Visitors enjoy lively market streets and fascinating
museums. Tudor kings, who ruled in the 15th century,
favored their palace at Greenwich.
Henry VIII. Was born here. Later kings commissioned the
top architects-Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren-to beautify the town and palace. Old Royal Naval College was originally a hospital
founded by King William and Queen Mary in 1692 to care for naval officers.
navy’s gone and the lavish place is open to the public. Originally intended as a dining hall for retired
navy officers, this sumptuously decorated room features one of the largest painted ceilings
in Europe-112 feet long. It’s a big propaganda scene, glorifying the building’s royal founders
and their defeat of the French. Under his foot, William’s crushing a dark figure with
a broken sword…Louis XIV.
He’s handing a red cap (representing liberty) to a woman
holding the reins of a white horse (symbolizing Europe). Another woman hands him an olive
branch, a sign of peace. The message-which you can see without craning
your neck thanks to this handy mirror: King William has granted Europe liberty by defeating
the French. A stately park turns an adjacent hill into
an inviting people zone.
From its bluff visitors enjoy sweeping views of Greenwich, the Docklands,
and the distant London skyline. Crowning the hill is the Royal Observatory, founded in
the late 1600s by King Charles II. Its purpose: improving maritime navigation
by more accurately charting the night sky. Visitors gain an appreciation of how exciting
breakthroughs in astronomy and timekeeping led to Britain’s mastery of the sea.
For ships to know their location while at
sea, mariners needed to know the precise time from a reference point on the globe. With
this, they could solve what was called “the Problem of Longitude.” After a huge effort,
in 1760 John Harrison built this clock and figured it out. And by 1772 this fine timekeeper
was portable and functioned without a pendulum-critical because pendulums don’t work at sea. Along with marking global time, Greenwich
marks the earth’s prime meridian.
Outside the observatory, visitors line up to grab
a photo as they straddle the line-to be at precisely 0 degrees longitude, with one foot
in the east hemisphere and the other in the west. A trip to London makes it easy to see how
this city truly is where the world comes together. I hope you’ve had a grand visit with us here
in London. This is one city that’s certainly worth coming back to again and again.
Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’! 6.