Oh, London. These two days have been beyond belief. I feel that we've hardly scratched the surface. We'll be leaving tomorrow with so many unanswered questions and with so much left to discover... but at least that gives us a huge reason to return, someday.
London has the greatest contrast between the old and the new that I've ever seen. With its magnificent museums and centuries-old buildings everywhere, along with its ultra-modern, towering structures, this city strikes me as the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated, historical, up-to-the-minute, metropolis that I could imagine. In just 48 hours we've explored its streets in coaches, double-decker buses, underground, and by foot. And while my feet ache and my eyes are strained and my world has grown so much bigger, I still feel as small as an ant and as ignorant as ever.
Our first order of business yesterday was to learn how to ride the Tube. With a group as inexperienced with trains as ours, this turned out to be quite the experience. After piling in and piling out and jostling and falling and leaving some behind and holding maps upside down, we finally got somewhat of a grip on it. We've got the phrase "Mind the Gap" permanently memorized, at this point. We'd take a bus to catch a train to walk to another station to catch that train in order to catch another train in order to catch another bus. That's how we did it. We've seen London from the sky, from the ground, and beneath it. What an adventure!
Our morning tour was guided by the most British, most polite, most lively character I've met so far. He brought us by the parks, across the bridges, alongside the majestic museums and governmental buildings, toward the iconic Big Ben, Tower Bride, and London Eye, and to the gorgeous St. Paul's Cathedral. As we stood in the sun beneath the massive dome and towering pillars, we were serenaded by a wonderful band who gave the whole thing an ethereal atmosphere. Of course, their royal playing didn't quite match the speech about the restrooms and meeting times that our guide was giving us at the moment, but gave us a good laugh, nonetheless. We decided that with strong trumpets and horns and brass instruments and an authentic British accent, even pointing out the directions to the washrooms can sound as inspiring and courageous as the battle speech of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.
Riding the London Eye was fantastic. Seeing the sprawling city from 135 meters above the River Thames was surreal. The day was bright and sunny, and the 35-minute revolution above the city of London was a wonderful addition to our tour. We enjoyed street performers, singers, magicians, mimes, and illusionists stationed at all areas of the streets. The smells of food and the sounds of music and laughter made the day feel nothing but magical.
After our ride, we visited an unexpected area, one that changed the mood quite a bit. Our guide called this the home of London's new subculture. We entered the long, dark tunnel and at first were simply admiring the graffiti covering every square inch. We were told that the graffiti is entirely painted over every week or so, with all the street artists that visit it. As we walked further in, out of the light, we heard the echoing, droning sound of a lone electric guitar. The metallic notes vibrated in our throats and covered our arms in goosebumps, and we slowed our pace. There was a fence that ran width-wise across the tunneled road. As we approached it, we saw through to the other side. This was the subculture. It was packed with teenagers and young adults, scantily clad, looking dazed. The smell of the place gave us a clue to what the area was most commonly used for. We caught the eyes of the people. Some laughed at us, some swore at us, but I found that most of them looked at us with almost an inviting eye. It was half taunting, half alluring. There was no question as to how often the area was used for drug activity, and while we only stayed for a few minutes, it was long enough to understand the situation. For starters, the tunnel is no secret. It's not at all hidden from the public. In fact, it's just a minute's walk from the London Eye, the city's most popular attraction. The darkness of the atmosphere was overpowering, and it was crazy to realize that nobody bothers stopping the issue, because they realize it's hopeless. The addictions and the mindsets are so deeply embedded in this subculture, it's impossible to rid of it, completely. I guess they're just left to do what they want. I mean, they're not hurting anybody but themselves, right?
It was horrible to see, but also made me much more resolute. Sin is everywhere. It's in every underground tunnel and alleyway, and it's in every church, as well. There's no escape from this nature we've been born into, except in the name of Christ. Even the most beautiful cities and posh neighborhoods, this terminal disease is as strong as ever. It's real and it's powerful and it's the emergency that we should be fighting against. Firstly, we should be fighting it in our own lives. We should be striving to live in the Light of Christ, and not in our sinful jacket we once wore. Those clothes don't fit us anymore. Secondly, we should be spreading the message of His grace and forgiveness. It's the one thing that can dig us out of the grave we're all in. London needs Him, Canada needs Him, the world needs Him.
We were privileged to be able to have a walking tour of London which highlighted only particular areas. We called this the Harry Potter Tour. It was so much fun to be whisked through the light drizzle in the evening and visit the places that inspired the settings of the book series, and the places that were used in the films, as well! It included a ride on the double decker bus, and even a quick ride on the tube to visit the infamous Platform 9 3/4. The story came alive as we surrounded ourselves with J. K. Rowling's imagination.
In our second day, which also yielded impeccable weather, found us busing out to Windsor Castle. I wonder if our tour managers purposely planned to bring us to castles that were successively larger and more elaborate. Of course, Windsor is something special as it is still in use, today. In fact, the flag of the Royal Standard that was flying in the wind on top of the tower signaled that Her Majesty the Queen, herself, was in the building. Windsor was more of a town than anything I've seen yet. Surrounded by great walls and filled with the most amazing-smelling gardens and the loveliest displays, it's no wonder it's the Queen's favourite place of residence. Her 'weekend getaway,' I suppose. It was so neat to go inside a working castle, as all the others we've been to have been cold and dark and bare in the inside. Here, the floors were lavishly carpeted, and the walls were adorned with giant paintings, suits of armous, statues, furniture, and weapons. The giant chandeliers hanging from the ceilings bathed the whole place in a warm glow.
The other day, when we had visited Buckingham Palace, we unfortunately had just missed the famous Changing of the Guard. In fact, we had missed it by about two minutes. It was incredible, regardless, but we had been a little disappointed that we couldn't see the daily formality. However, it became clear that God's fingers were at work the entire time. When we reached Windsor Castle on Sunday morning, our guide was greatly surprised to hear that, for some unknown reason, there would be a Changing of the Guard that day- something that never happens on a Sunday! So not only did we get to see it, but we got to see it right up close! Buckingham Palace had been more crowded than anything I'd ever seen, and we would have been at the back of an insane crowd of hundreds of people. At Windsor, as I was walking through the great halls, an employee came up to me, personally, and asked, "Would you care to see the Changing of the Guard?" Of course, I did. She led me through a restricted passageway and showed me a shortcut through the castle to the grounds. The door spat me out at the front of the crowd, immediately in front of the gate, and I was blessed to be able to watch the whole thing from start to finish! The band played a royal rendition of Danny Boy, and the marching and shouting and music sent cascades of shivers down my spine every few seconds. Simply glorious.
We rode the Tube to 221b Baker Street, home of the marvelous Sherlock Holmes. I'll admit I let my geeky side loose a little in the quaint little shop as I eyed the pipes, the quill pens, the ink cartridges, the magnifying glasses, and every other novelty. In the evening, we were treated to something spectacular at King's Cross Theater: The Railway Children. It turns out this theater was built around an old train track. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before! The stage was long and skinny, and ran straight through the middle of the audience, whose seats went up the sides. In the middle of the stage, slightly underneath, was the railway track. Rather than having curtains draw or the stage blacken during scene transitions, they simply had portions of the stage that rolled along the track! They used smoke to imitate the train, the whole room rumbled, and characters would simply roll in and roll out. It was absolutely brilliant. Immediately before the intermission, they brought out the big guns. A real, working Steam Engine! The thing was incredibly massive and was actually driven forward by the conductors. The whole experience was unreal. The creativity and ingenuity was baffling! The actors were perfect, the story was sweet, and it was an all-around impressive performance. Such a great way to end our last night in London.
It's hard to acknowledge that we're leaving in the morning. Rather painful. It's only been ten days but it truly feels like ten months. It's practically impossible to believe that we were all the way over in Ireland just a few days ago. With everything that we packed into every 24 hours, we might as well have been here forever. The idea of returning to the prairies is horribly unappealing, but horribly necessary. There's nothing I would have changed about this trip, except the length. I've learned so much. Gained so much. Done so much. I'm tired, yes, but these four beautiful countries have done nothing to lessen my wanderlust.
All these memories will surely be flooding my mind for many weeks to come, and I'll long to be back in the villages and cities that we've visited, but these experiences and encounters are priceless. This trip has been worth every cent, as I knew it would be. Good-night for now, London!