After enjoying the sights of Victoria Station, the first stop on our walking tour was Westminster Cathedral, one of London’s few Byzantine buildings. Fundraising efforts in the second half of the 19th century allowed for a construction start in 1895 and the church was completed eight years later on the site of a former prison. The really unique characteristic of this church is its striped red-brick tower which stands 87 m (285 feet) high. Standing on the piazza in front of the church we got a great look at the front façade of this extraordinary structure.
The impressive Byzantine façade of Westminster Cathedral
We continued our stroll through London’s Streets and on Buckingham Gate we came by the Royal Mews, one of the finest working stables in London which holds the royal carriages, including the Gold State Coach which has been used at every coronation of the British Monarchy since George IV. Continuing our walk up Buckingham Gate we noticed that throngs of people were gathering, and as we came around the corner, I realized we had reached the front of Buckingham Palace.
A big crowd is waiting at Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guards
As luck would have it we had arrived just in time for the Changing of the Guards, one of London’s most important tourist attractions. Thousands of people had lined up outside the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace and were peering inside to find any signs of royalty. Being of short stature myself I was pretty much out of luck and was unable to catch any glimpses of any monarchs. Instead Andrea and I enjoyed the view over St. James’s Park, which features a small lake with two islands: Duck Island and West Island. London’s parks and gardens offer a serene escape from the frenetic rush of city life.
St. James’s Park
As we strolled further north we arrived at the Mall, a ceremonial route that connects Buckingham Palace in the west with the Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square in the east. More than one million people lined the Mall in 2002 at the occasion of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II.
Right in front of Buckingham Palace is the Queen Victoria Memorial, a white marble statue constructed in 1911 to honour Queen Victoria, one of Great Britain’s most popular monarchs. A large line-up of people was forming along the Mall now, and everybody was awaiting the arrival of a parade which featured soldiers from a variety of different member countries of the British Commonwealth.
The Queen Victoria Memorial
We continued our walk up the Mall past the Admiralty Arch, a large arched office building with three tall gates for road access and two lower gates for pedestrian access between the Mall and Trafalgar Square. From here we turned right onto Whitehall, the centre of British government and administration. We stopped at the Horse Guards, a beautiful Palladian-style building dating back to the 1750s that used to be the headquarters of the British Army and was used as communications headquarters by the Navy during WWII.
Standing on guard
Continuing our stroll on Whitehall we walked past Downing Street, which is the location of the residence of the British Prime Minister. Past the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum we then reached Parliament Square which is flanked by Westminster Abbey, London’s oldest and most important church, on the south side and the Houses of Parliament on the east side.
The Houses of Parliament
Somehow, through absolutely miraculous timing, we just got to this spot a couple of minutes before twelve noon, just as the Clock Tower, colloquially (and incorrectly) referred to as “Big Ben”, was getting ready to ring its bells for twelve o’clock. We set up shop on Westminster Bridge from where we had a perfect view of the British Airways London Eye as well as the Houses of Parliament. With a height of 135 metres (443 feet) the London Eye or Millennium Wheel is the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe and an extremely popular tourist destination. More than 3 million people visit it every year.
The London Eye
And sure enough, right at 12 o’clock the Westminster Quarters, the world famous chimes, started ringing, followed by 12 rings of the Great Bell, the actual “Big Ben”. The bell was never officially named, but according to legend, its nickname was inspired by Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the commissioner of works and had placed the order for this massive bell in 1858. Since the first version of the bell suffered a crack, the 14 ton bell was recast, but even the second version cracked as well. Today, Big Ben has a distinctive, slightly off-key tone. We could not believe how lucky we were to have caught this acoustic landmark of London right a noon time.
“Big Ben” rings twelve
It was barely mid-day now and we had already seen so much. But our whirlwind London sightseeing adventure was to continue. To get an even better feel for the city we were planning to go on a sightseeing tour with Thames River Cruises that departed from Westminster Pier. Cruises are a great way of getting to know a city from a totally unique perspective, and I was looking forward to exploring London from the river.