It’s all about baby steps, right? It may not be big, but here’s an article I recently wrote for Cheers! a newsletter published by Kingston University specifically for its contingent of North American students.
“Hunting for History: the top 5 traditions to see in London…for free!”
In a modern city like London, it’s easy to forget just how much history there is all around us. Between the museums and markets, gardens and green spaces, there’s never any shortage of things to do. But I’ve found that experiencing the traditions that still exist today is what has made my time in England most meaningful and truly different from my North American upbringing. Coming from a country whose written history begins only in the early 1600s, the rich traditions British culture is steeped in is something I try to remember and take advantage of whenever I can. And with so many great traditions to experience for free in London, the only thing that’s left to work out is logistics.
1. Old Bailey Public Galleries
The gilded arms of Lady Justice are extended wide over the dome of Old Bailey, a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right. Inside the Central Criminal Courts, the principle of blind justice that she stands for is carried out on a daily basis. Your seat in the Public Galleries will give you a bird’s eye view of the courtroom–the twelve members of the jury, the high-backed, green leather seats, and the UK Royal Coat of Arms hanging above the judge–with the Latin phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense reading, “Shamed be he who thinks ill of it.” The black-robed solicitors wear wigs with curls that look like wood shavings and address the judge as “My Lord” or “Your Honour.” Their proceedings are rooted in the original medieval court founded in 1585, but were more firmly established in 1673, when Old Bailey was constructed after the Great Fire of London. Although it has undergone several transformations and reconstructions since then–with the present building dating from 1907–the court’s commitment to justice has remained the same. The open public galleries are an excellent way to experience a different legal system at work.
How to get there: From Kingston, take a London-bound Southwest train to Waterloo. Then, take either Bus 4 to St. Paul’s or take the Waterloo and City line to Bank, switching to the Central Line to St. Paul’s. Old Bailey is a short walk from the station–follow signs to the Central Criminal Court.
Note: You are not allowed to bring any electronic devices into the Public Galleries–that includes mobile phones, cameras, iPods, etc. Either leave them at home or at Bailey’s Cafe Deli across the street. They charge £2 to hold your items during your visit.
2. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
“Say hi to the Queen for me,” rang the words of several of my friends before I left for England. While I might never get close enough to the Queen herself for such a conversation, it is possible to witness the troops that are responsible for protecting her and her home in London. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the most well-known traditions you simply can’t miss while living in the UK. When you watch the guards march deliberately and exaggerated, their right arms swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, their bearskin hats standing stiff and their red coats as bright as winter berries, you’ll be witnessing a tradition that’s been in place since 1660. When the royal residence was moved to Buckingham Palace in 1837, the sovereign’s household troops stayed at the old St. James Palace and since then, have continued to march down the Mall to relieve the Old Guard.
How to get there: Take a London-bound SouthWest train to Clapham Junction and then change to Southern rail from Clapham to Victoria. Buckingham Palace is a short walk from Victoria station–just follow the signs!
Note: From Spring to Autumn, the Changing of the Guard takes place everyday at 11:30am, however from Autumn to Spring, it alternates every other day. Consult the schedule on http://www.changing-the-guard.com/ before planning your visit and be sure to turn up early to secure a good spot in the crowds.
Related events: You can also view the Household Cavalry. The Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at takes place daily at 11am (10am on Sundays) and the Daily Inspection at 4pm.
3. Evensong at Westminster Abbey
Crossing the threshold of Westminster Abbey is a step into the past, your footsteps echoing on the marble floor as you approach the High Altar. Light is diffused through the rose windows and the organ’s strains fill every corner of the Abbey’s many filigreed arches. When the choir begins, it’s easy to think there’s no sound more beautiful on earth. It’s been this way since 960, when Westminster Abbey was first founded, but the present building wasn’t constructed until 1245. The history of evensong at the Abbey begins with the arrival of Benedictine monks in the tenth century, and the daily worship they began continues today. Attending evensong is not only a free way to view the inside of such a historically significant building, but also a chance to be part of a tradition that stretches back into an earlier millennium.
How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Abbey is right across the street from the Underground station.
Note: Consult the Daily Services schedule on http://www.westminster-abbey.org/ for service times. Evensong is held at 5:00pm daily during the week and 3.00pm on the weekends.
4. Debates in the Houses of Parliament
Soft afternoon sunlight filters through rows of stained glass windows, reflecting off the exquisitely gilded throne in the House of Lords. Oral Questions have just begun and from your seat in the Public Galleries, you can see that the padded, red leather benches on the floor of the House are filled to capacity. Unlike MPs who meet in the House of Commons, members of the House of Lords are not elected and are unpaid, but the role they play in lawmaking and legislation is still crucial. Parliament began meeting as two distinct houses in 1341, but a number of acts throughout the centuries have revised and refined the role of the House of Lords. Visiting debates in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is not only a rewarding look at a different system of government, but also a way to view a beautiful, historic building–from the the detailed mosaics in the Central Lobby to the vaulted ceilings and statues of St. Stephen’s Hall.
How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Houses of Parliament are a short walk from the Underground station.
Note: Only UK residents can reserve tickets to visit the debates. Overseas visitors must arrive early to queue. For more details regarding sitting times and dates, visit http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/attend/debates/.
5. Key Ceremony at the Tower of London
“Halt! Who goes there?” the armed sentryman calls out. You can hear the jingle of the keys as four soldiers approach escorting the yeoman jailer, the light from his lantern dancing against the fortress walls. The jailer confirms that he holds the keys of Queen Elizabeth and they are allowed to pass. This brief exchange is one of London’s oldest traditions–the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. For nearly 700 years, the ceremony has taken place every night–no matter the weather and even during the worst bombing raids of World War II. The soldiers and jailer walk away from Bloody Tower, their arms swinging and boots stepping, and lock both the outer gate and that of Byward Tower, securing the fortress for yet another night. Our guide for the evening, a yeoman warder named Colin, tells us this is one of the oldest and shortest ceremonies in the world. “It’s pure history, people don’t realise you are a part of history here.” Don’t miss your chance to be a part, too!
How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Northern Line to Embankment, and then change to either the District or Circle line to Tower Hill. The Tower of London is just opposite the station.
Note: The Tower of London website advises requesting tickets up to two months in advance. Visit their website at http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/whatson/ceremonyofthekeys.aspx for more details about how to request tickets.
Good luck on your hunt!