Following the Crowd

Saturday, October 05, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

LONDON, England—Our ambitious plans to be at Westminster Abbey by 9:30 this morning were foiled when jet lag sedated us into sleeping beyond our intended wake-up time.  No one disputed the benefit of a couple of hours extra sleep, however, and when we left the apartment at 10:30, we headed straight to Buckingham Palace (pictured above), hoping to make it there in time for the famous Changing of Guard ceremony scheduled today for 11:30.
Yes, we knew it was one of London's top attractions.  No, we did not arrive early, as every guidebook advised.  In fact, the ceremony had already begun when we arrived at 11:36.  Nothing we had heard or read prepared us for the mass of humanity gathered outside Buckingham Palace, however.
Thousands pour in to see the queen's employees change shift.
Later we talked to an engineer from Washington state who said he had arrived an hour early only to find the crowd jammed at the fence was already three to four people deep with tourists from dozens of countries eagerly awaiting the opportunity to observe a shift change at the official residence of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.

A hundred yards away from the gates, the Victoria Memorial, a monument to England's longest ruling monarch, sits in the middle of the Queen's Gardens in front of Buckingham Palace.  Might that be a good place to try to watch the ceremony?  Thousands believed it might be.
A nightmare for security forces as crowd huddles around Victoria Memorial
For some reason we never fathomed, security guards managing the event wanted to keep people moving, even if they were just exchanging places from one section of the fence to another.  With an incredibly difficult task, they screamed and cajoled, joked and barked, and most people cooperated.  At times, the gates had to open to allow guards to enter or leave the forecourt.  Not only did this make the tourists more eager to jostle for a better look, it reduced space available so that we were packed so tightly together a pickpocket couldn't even manage to ply his trade.

View of the guards obtained by holding the camera well above my head from our position in the thick of the crowd.
In the end, we checked the event off our bucket list and rather wondered how it had gotten there to begin with.  The palace is closed to visitors at this time of year but the exterior was quite impressive in itself.  Both the fence and gates are covered with elaborate ironwork and gold leaf featuring royal monograms and crests.

Monogramming taken to a whole new level
Once the crowds began to disperse and we were able to escape from the crush, we checked out the Victoria monument from up close and admired the flowers still lushly blooming in the Queen's Garden in front of the palace.  One would suppose Her Majesty can command flowers to blossom there any time of year she wishes.

From Liz's house, we walked east through the 57-acre St. James's Park, the oldest of the royal parks of London.  In the center of the park is a small lake with two islands, home to a resident flock of pelicans which have descended from a pair which the Russian ambassador gifted to the monarchy in 1664. 

St. James's Park Lake
Walking through the park, we encountered a couple of interesting locals.  First we met Peter, who was eager to talk with us Americans.  He has a train trip planned across the U.S. on Amtrak and had some questions about ticketing, stations, and so forth.  He was a bit taken aback when we explained that Amtrak stations are few and far between and often have very little in the way of services—quite different from rail stations in Europe.

Margaret feeds squirrel as tourist photographs (L) and Peter reacts to our inquiry about photographing him
As we were sitting on a park bench later on, quite a feat on this busy Saturday afternoon, we saw a lady walk up to an area nearby and begin feeding squirrels and birds.  In no time, Margaret had attracted the attention of passing tourists, smoothly drawing them into her catering activity. A frequent visitor to the park, she clicked her tongue, and squirrels scampered down from their perches in nearby trees, knowing a friend had arrived with snacks.  Jeanne joined in, too, hand-feeding a peanut to one of the little creatures. 

Continuing east, we arrived at Westminster, where we were confronted with a dazzling array of iconic British institutions and symbols—Big Ben's tower, House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the familiar red telephone box, and dozens of red double-decker buses.  And, like at Buckingham, hundreds of tourists everywhere.  Add in plenty of locals, too; this was Saturday afternoon.  Things were quite crowded.

Jeanne calls in, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben's tower, royal symbols on House of Parliament
By the time we reached the area, Westminster Abbey had closed for the day and Parliament's tours were all booked.  After a delicious lunch at Westminster Abbey's Cellarium Café, we stopped in for a brief visit to the Jewel Tower, one of only two surviving sections of the medieval royal Palace of Westminster.  Built in 1366, the tower was a repository for the private household treasures of the king.

The Jewel Tower, its moat now drained, survived the 1834 fire which destroyed the remainder of the palace.
From the tower, we wandered around Parliament and down to Victoria Tower Gardens, a public park along the north bank of the River Thames.  The park is adjacent to Victoria Tower, the southwestern corner of the Parliament building.  After spending some time in the park, we decided to investigate a two-hour overview bus tour of the city, so we rode the Tube to Charing Cross and walked to Trafalgar Square to locate the visitor center for one of the bus lines.  Again we were faced with an unexpected huge crowd. 

Trafalgar Square
This popular public space was playing host to Japan Matsuri, an annual event that brings people together to enjoy Japanese food, music, dance, and activities.  Navigating our way around this throng, we obtained the information we needed to plan for our tour tomorrow.

With weary feet that had walked another four miles today, we hopped the Tube back to Holland Park and our apartment, stopping along the way at the local Tesco grocery store for some dinner supplies, and finally breathing a sigh of relief to be away from crowds for a while.

Ms. Magnolia's Manners Tip of the Day: 
"When you are in a crowd, do not push and shove.  And keep your hands to yourself.  You know your mama taught you better."

Jeanne, aka Ms. Magnolia, and Ken waiting for the train in High Street Kensington Tube station
Victoria Monument near Buckingham Palace
Jeanne at Buckingham Palace