Wednesday, 28 January 2015

"I am not an adventurer by choice, but by faith." 

-Vincent Van Gogh

Hello all! My name is Mina Thomas, and I am a sophomore from Western Kentucky University currently studying at Harlaxton College. I am so honored to be a member of our blogging community here at the Manor this semester! I would like to share with you my favorite - and busiest - day of my first London weekend! Enjoy!

16 January, 2015
After reaching the hotel last night, we headed to bed in preparation for an early morning. We started today with a meeting in the hotel lobby at 8:50a. Then, our group traveled to the tube together, and began the day with my first “first” – the use of public transportation. The first train that came to the platform could fit everyone in the large group but four of us, so we were left waiting for the next one. Everyone else was incredibly nervous, but I felt confident, so I took charge and led us on. Though it wasn’t incredibly difficult, we made it safely to the transfer stop, where our group stood on the platform, waving at us. After that, one of the professors stuck close to us, promising not to lose us again.

As we exited the underground, we made our way up the stairs, chatting and admiring the local posters and graffiti of the walkway walls. At the top, we turned the corner to view an incredible skyline of London; The Tower of London on our left, with modern, glass buildings across the Thames. It was absolutely breathtaking, with ravens and seagulls sharing the currents above us.

Upon entering the Tower, we discovered there was only a 15 minute wait until the next beefeater tour. So we talked with the professors and one another, taking loads of selfies with the Tower wall and of course, Tower Bridge. The beefeater arrived and after a few jokes, (I’ve noticed that the British enjoy making fun of the French), he informed us that more people had been to the moon than had worn the beefeater uniform, and explained how incredibly prestigious his job is; to serve the Queen. One of the requirements to become a beefeater is to serve in the Royal Army for at least 22 years; this man had done 25. I also learned that they have expanded the housing to include families, so the beefeaters can continue to live with their families while they serve in the Tower.

He took us around to show us the glass pillow fountain, marking a spot where only 6 people have ever been executed, including Henry VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn. We got to go into the Queen’s chapel, and though it was small, it was a powerful experience. After leaving the beefeater and thanking him for a lovely tour, our small group went to see the Crown Jewels. I had never realized how vast the Jewels collection was! It was not limited to jewelry, crowns, and swords, as I had anticipated, but extended to golden plates, mugs, even spoons! There was even a drink basin large enough to hold 144 bottles of wine! *hiccup* As we picked our jaws up off the floor, we continued across the street to White Tower, to see the armor/weapons on display. The armor was incredible (Henry VIII was a huge man!) and the sight of the soldier’s armor next to the armored horses could be appreciated by anyone, if for no other reason than it was shiny.

As we made our way out, we were all starting to grow hungry, so we decided we would try to make our way to Buckingham Palace and find food there. Unfortunately, this was the point of the day where we displayed our American ignorance by assuming Buckingham Palace was anywhere close to Tower Bridge. Not. Even. Close. As we walked around, trying to find it, we made our way onto a pier, where there was a pop-up market with all sorts of food and drink. We bought some empanadas, (they were divine!), and continued walking about, completely clueless. Once we had finished eating, we realized we had no idea what we were doing, so we asked someone for directions, who smiled politely while directing us to the nearest underground stop. Puzzled, we consulted our handy-dandy tube map to discover we were about 8 stops away, so we took the lady’s advice and hopped on the Tube to Westminster.

We took the Westminster exit, and arrived 15 minutes before 2 in the afternoon. As we walked out into the day, our first sight was of the London Eye. As we ran to take pictures on the steps in front of it, we turned to see Big Ben in all of its glory, connected to the majestic Parliament. We crossed the street (being sure to look right!) and each took plenty of pictures with the lovely skyline. Then we waited to listen to Big Ben, and we all agreed that it was one of the most beautiful sounds we had ever heard.
Once we had recovered, we began to make our way down the street, and walked right into the entrance for Westminster Abbey. I took pictures there with each of my red towels, before walking up to the entrance. There was a charge to enter, so no one in my group wanted to go in. No worries though, I have promised myself that I will go in the next time we visit the city, whether I go alone or not! Instead, we went into St. Margaret’s next door, the chapel open to the general public for services. As I walked up the center aisle, quiet as a mouse, I felt the power of the building surround me, and began to cry at the velvet rope. I longed to approach the altar, but accepted defeat, as I walked around the rest of the chapel. It was an incredible sight, with the stained glass and antique benches. I cannot even fathom how it would feel in the grander scale of Westminster.

After leaving the tourist shop connected to the Abbey, my friends and I continued down the way, assuming, once again, we were close to Buckingham Palace (we were once again mistaken, and did not make it there on this trip). Instead, we found a number of interesting side streets, complete with street performers, vendors, and of course, a book store. We made a lot of stops, exploring and killing time until our Parliament tour (where we needed to be at 4:00 for a 5:00 tour). Around 3:45, we began to make our way back to Parliament, retracing our steps back past Westminster and up to Big Ben and the London Eye. Despite the backtracking, nothing seemed even the slightest bit less impressive; still shining in our eyes with absolute glory.

As we entered Parliament (after numbing our butts on the freezing stone wall outside), they led us through security. Once through security, it was back out to the bitter cold, where it had begun to rain. We then sprinted the 50 or so feet to the door of the visitor’s entrance, opening the doors into the Great Hall; the oldest remaining section of the original building.

While walking through the building, I loved looking at the architecture and decorative art used throughout the building, including one room decorated with elaborate paintings of each of the monarchs from the Tudor and Windsor lines. For those of you who like to play cards, I learned a fun fact about the Queen of Hearts: King Philip and Queen Mary were the only two monarchs presented to be truly and deeply in love. (They are the only two in the hall to face one another.) When Queen Mary died, King Philip wanted to commemorate his wife, so he contacted a playing card painter, and asked that her portrait be included as the Queen of Hearts. Hers is the only face based on a true monarch.

When we had gathered again in the Great Hall, our tour guide stopped us on the stairs to talk. As I looked around the room, I noticed a small, gold plaque on the center of the steps. The plaque was marking the spot King Charles I stood to hear his execution sentence. So of course, I had to stand on it.

Leaving the building, we noticed the rain had stopped, but the night was already dark. It was an incredible sight to walk out of Parliament to see Big Ben and the London Eye lit up. We had already discussed going to Trafalgar Square after the tour, so we made our way up the same street that led us straight to the center of the Square. It was absolutely beautiful!

As we made our way up to the glowing fountains, it began to sprinkle again, and fearing a downpour, we scanned to find the nearest place to explore. The National Gallery was directly ahead, so we walked across the Square until we reached the steps. The building was not incredibly spectacular, but the artwork it housed was incredible! As we strolled about, we saw works by Monet, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci. One of my friends realized that his favorite painting was on display here, (The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Ike), so we went to see it.

When everyone was feeling like moving on, I saw an advertisement for Van Gogh. (For those of you who do not know, Van Gogh is my favorite artist, and one of my favorite people, of all time). I approached one of the servicewomen and asked where I would find the Van Gogh display. She directed me, and I took off sprinting down the halls to the opposite side of the building. As I turned the corner and began to walk down the hallway, my mind was racing and silent all at once. It was as though my thoughts had been muted, and though I could feel my brain working, I couldn’t speak its language.

I walked for what felt like ages, though it was probably only minutes, through large, open rooms, with arches instead of doors, eyes frantically searching for the right room number. At the end of the hall, I caught a glimpse of the number as my eyes slid down, landing on the painting in the center of the wall in the next room. At that exact moment, my legs became disconnected from my body, and I moved forward as if in a dream. All I could think was, “is this real?” Am I really standing in a room holding the careful brushstrokes of the greatest impressionist painter of all time? Suddenly, I noticed I was stopped right in front of the painting, close enough to see each individual line and each layer of color. I looked to the center of the vase, and began to weep, as I saw “Vincent” in elegant script. There were twenty or so strangers in the room, and my new friends, who may have thought I was crazy. But as I stood there, I was overcome by the beauty and majesty captured in a simple vase of sunflowers, and there was nothing for me to do but weep.

And I am glad I did. Because the pain I felt in my chest, as I held my breath to stop, and the puffiness of my eyes, as all of the happiest and saddest emotions in the world raced through me, proved to me that it was real. I was no longer looking at a photocopy; I was looking at the canvas that had once been touched by Vincent Van Gogh himself. I was in the same room as his fingerprints. Me.

After that, there was nothing left for me to do. Nothing could top what I had just experienced. So we walked around the Square a bit more, enjoying a sit-down dinner at a little Italian restaurant - run by a family from Naples - and hopped back on the Tube to head to the hotel. All the while, I reflected on my day, memories floating in and out of focus, certain ones brighter than others; the National Gallery blinding in glory. 

It was indeed a full, rich day in London!

Mina Thomas