Friday, March 29, 2013

London Calling

(A Yank) Walking the "Swinging City"

"Watch it, bub."
The chronicling of my recent adventures in Europe continues as I share some photos from my explorations in London.  I walked so much but saw relatively little in the broad scheme of things.  Soaking in the World War II theme of my travels, I mentally visualized the city shrouded in thick, black plumes of smoke as it became enveloped by Luftwaffe strikes during the Bltiz.  Remnants of these war wounds can still be found in the forms of structural damage on London residences and memorials.  At the same time, I envisioned more nostalgic scenes while walking the blustery streets of the metropolis.  I imagined homesick GIs wandering those alleys and avenues seventy years earlier.  They indulged in pub crawls, tried to get lucky with British girls, attempted to translate their currency, and took in the numerous sites.  (Over five million illegitimate babies were born in the United Kingdom during the war.)  A period booklet that I purchased, entitled Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, declares, "It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies" and "never say bloody!"  Fair enough. 

Get a taste of the GI night life by checking out this newsreel celebrating the popular Rainbow Corner aka "Little America" club in London.  Many other sites have not changed in the seven decades since.

Murrow in London.
One site which retains much of its visual appearance from the war era is Trafalgar Square.  Nelson's Column, dedicated to Admiral Horatio Nelson in the early 1840s, both celebrates his 1805 victory and mourns his concurrent death at Trafalgar.  Ironically, a statue of George Washington stands not far from the base of Nelson's shrine.  Much like Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral, this memorial became an image of national fortitude in the face of Germany's repetitive bombings in 1940-41.  So noteworthy was the column as a British icon that Hitler hoped to have it relocated to Berlin as a war trophy following the Reich's victory.  (Ahem.)  As we moved past the enduring pillar, I could not help but think of reporter Edward R. Murrow's "This is London" broadcast that he delivered from the neighboring St. Martin in the Fields.  The church's crypt was converted into a bomb shelter, and Murrow notes the silhouette of Nelson against the air spotlights.  Listen to this captivating piece of journalism here. 

Much quieter today.
Completed in 1894, Tower Bridge remains one of the classic images of Victorian Era London.  The bridge, spanning across the River Thames, was a focal point for German bombers during the Blitz. 
Somehow, it miraculously survived.  As the photo above testifies, countless blocks of homes and businesses were leveled into oblivion.  Dangers from these raids lingered for decades to follow.  In June of 1987, construction workers accidentally unearthed a 2,200 pound Luftwaffe bomb that had been lodged some twenty feet beneath the earth for over a half century.  Hundreds were forced to evacuate until the device could be properly disposed of.  Images such as above, in addition to Murrow's broadcasts, captured and horrified the imagination of the American public in the years and months leading to Pearl Harbor.  Sadly, I never had the chance to see this famous draw bridge rise, even despite the fact that my hotel was right next door.  Oh well, perhaps on another trip.

Also right next to Tower Bridge is the infamous Tower of London.  Built in the 1060s in the wake of the Norman Conquests, the stone fortress has been home to a veritable whose whose of famous (and some unfortunate) personalities of British History.  Not only has it been the home of royals, but also a prison for leaders such as Henry VI.  Guy Fawkes was tortured and signed his forced confession here in 1605 for his role in the failed Gunpowder Plot to detonate Parliament.  Likewise, Henry VIII's (second) wife Anny Boleyn was beheaded here in 1536.  By the dawn of the 17th century, the Tower was a place where you did not want to find yourself.  This photo shows were past meets present, as the new "Shard" skyscraper and construction cranes arise from the Tower's background.

Only a short distance from the Tower of London sits this millenniums-old foundation from the time of the Romans.  Constructed circa 50-100 AD, it was definitely one of the most ancient things I observed during my travels.  The thriving city of "Londinium" prospered for many decades as a vibrant port of international trade and business.  This old pile of stones undoubtedly witnessed many of those commercial ventures.

Firing on the Normandy Coast.
Right across the River Thames floats the HMS Belfast at anchor.  I caught this photo of the United Kingdom Naval Ensign fluttering on her deck with the Tower of London in the Background.  Setting sail in 1939, the light cruiser witnessed some of the most pivotal events of the Second World War.  In anticipation of the Normandy invasion, Prime Minister Winston Churchill intended to sail on the Belfast to observe the naval bombardments of the coast as well as the amphibious landings to follow.  At the insistence of Dwight Eisenhower and the King, Churchill waited until things calmed down a bit.  Even so, the ship still played an active role on D-Day, firing its heavy guns in the barrage preceding the beach landings.  Now a floating museum operated by the Imperial War Museum, visitors to the ship can participate in immersive and interactive exhibits throughout nine decks of the famous vessel.

Speaking of WWII, one can hardly not think of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery when considering Great Britain's military history.  I snapped this one from our moving bus.  As the Allied antagonist of the equally egotistical George Patton, Montgomery helped pound Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps into submission, was adept at ruffling the feathers of colleagues, and was later mired in controversy for his unanticipated slow advance into Normandy following D-Day.  My favorite Monty story, however, originates from his colorful trip to Gettysburg with Eisenhower.

We in the states know Westminster Abbey for all the lavish Royal Weddings that take place inside there.  But the church is also the burial location of some of the UK's most distinguished leaders, intellectuals, and artists--including Winston Churchill.  During the Blitz, some 60,000 sandbags were packed in and around the structure to protect sacred idols, statues, crypts, and other treasures.  A May 1941 blaze caused by German incendiary bombs barely spared this London landmark.  Four costly years later, over 25,000 celebrants gathered here in prayer to commemorate the end of the war in Europe.

Parliament was also severely damaged on many instances.  As is stated on it's website, "Between 1940 and 1941, both Houses of Parliament were in fact convened at Church House in Westminster due to a fear that the Chambers might be bombed while the Houses were sitting. The Palace was damaged by air raids on fourteen different occasions during the war."  Buckingham Palace too did not escape damage in these tumultuous times.

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Oh, and speaking of Parliament, do you want to bear Big Ben chime?  It certainly has a sweeter sound to it than those air raid sirens Edward R. Murrow heard in 1940.

Parliament Square is a courtyard featuring flags of UK commonwealth nations from all over the world.  Also circling this patch of grass are statues of notable leaders include viscounts, earls, and prime ministers.  To my great amazement, a statue of none other than Abraham Lincoln was included in this elite circle of British leaders.  (You can see him slightly in the left corner of the photo.)  Placed there during World War I, I imagine the dedication of the sculpture was meant to be an act of conciliation between the U.S. and Britain--once enemies and now allies.  Fittingly enough, a statue of Nelson Mandela stands only feet away from the 16th president.  Two emancipators side by side.

After a very cool but too brief visit to Churchill's War Rooms (to be featured in an upcoming post), we worked our way through the majestic buildings of the government district not far from Parliament.  We noticed something very striking in comparison to our own capital in Washington: far less security and way more access to the sites.  Maybe we Americans are a bit more paranoid?  Anyway, from this point our small group began its long trek back to our Tower Bridge Hotel on the Thames.

Once we reached the riverside, we came across this most unusual obelisk.  Upon closer inspection, we discovered that it was none other than Cleopatra's Needle--first erected in Egypt around 1450 BC!  Presented to England in the early 19th century, the column did not reach its spot here in Westminster until the 1870s.  There is an original twin of this one in New York City's Central Park and another in Paris.  The pock marks on the stone is shrapnel damage from a 1917 German bombing raid during the First World War.

Large sphinxes sit on both sides of the needle.  London Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral stand in the background amidst the modern skyscrapers and flats.

Further along our riverfront walk, we were presented with a closer look of the massive dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.  One of the most recognizable places of worship on earth, the place has survived one disaster after another through four centuries, including massive fires and war.  More than anything else, it reminds me of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Many of you perhaps best recognize St. Paul's because of this iconic photo during a bombing run in December of 1940.  One gargantuan bomb struck the building but it did not detonate.  This site too was important to British wartime identity--thanks in part to the enduring nature of this image.  One writer of the time noted, "damage to the fabric [of the church] would sap the morale of the country."

As one can imagine, a bevy of fascinating sites dotted the riverfront.  Here, a 20th century reproduction of William Shakespeare's famous Globe Theater sits across the Thames.  This structure is built on the same location as the two originals, which respectively burned and shut down in 1614 and 1642.  From this building emerged the scourge of the modern high schoolers English classes!  Ah, but with age grows taste--hopefully.

One museum along our walk which I was very disappointed not to see was the Britain at War Experience.  Decked-out as a war era building (with a mock V2 rocket lodged in its side no less), this was a museum with many entertaining and interactive displays.  Sadly, it permanently closed in January due to the redevelopment of the nearby London Bridge Station.  Hopefully this museum will find a new home in the coming years.

At last it was time for a much deserved and greatly needed feast of fish and chips at The Dickens Inn, only a short walk from our hotel.  The building is a renovated warehouse and brewery from the 18th century, but it still retained much of its archaic, colonial era charm.

And here are some of my fellow group members.  Most of the twenty-five travelers I spent the next week and a half with were history buffs, history students (at the other table), or history faculty with ties to the Civil War Center at Shepherd University.  Initially knowing only one other person on the trip, I am glad to say that all of these knowledgeable folks have since become good friends.  (Look at all those empty plates!)

Following my hearty serving of fish and chips, I walked along the now illuminated banks of Thames.  This is one of my favorite photos from the trip.  The night was a cold but relaxing one.  Even with this full day, there's still more to share from my adventures in London.  We'll explore those other journeys in our next posts.  Bully!

1 comment:

  1. What a great and once in a lifetime visit! Thanks for posting the photos and descriptions of all these great places to see in London.

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