UK Trip: Day Three

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This is an impeccably dressed Englishman at the railway station going off to Ascot to see the horse races. He’s just taken off his hat which you can see on the chair in front of him. Royal Ascot is a five day horse-racing event which is attended by the Royal family, the more affluent aristocrats, the nouveau riche,  and anyone who is or aspires to become a Big Name in the UK.

The rail and Underground stations offer free newspapers to their patrons. It’s the Metro in the morning and the London Evening Standard later in the day.

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Our first stop was at Westminster Abbey, which was built in 1066 when William the Conqueror first invaded England from Normandy.

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It had been used as a monastery till the 8th century until it was restructured and substantially expanded by King Edward III or Edward the Confessor. Photography was prohibited inside so I’ve to hunt for words to describe the awe-inspiring heights inside, the tall slender arched columns, the intricately designed ceilings and the elaborate burial chambers of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It is thought-provoking to think that these vast structures were constructed in medieval times, when most peasants and artisans( who formed the majority of the population) were living at subsistence level and all but the richest landed gentry and nobility were living in relative poverty.

What is intriguing about Westminster Abbey is that along with kings, several common men and women who have achieved distinction in their varied fields are buried here. There is a Poet’s Corner where over 40 writers are buried and several others are commemorated including Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Tennyson etc. Famous scientists including Isaac Newton, as those readers who’ve read the Da Vinci Code would know.

This is an interesting epitaph I chanced upon:

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We also saw a small chapel especially for the RAF airmen who gave up their life in the Second World War. There is a beautiful ledger recording the names of all the Allied airmen who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain. The stained glass in the windows even had RAF officers in uniform seeing visions of Resurrection.

 

Next we went for a special guided tour of the UK Parliament which is adjacent to Westminster Abbey. The UK Parliament is housed in the Palace of Westminster.

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It’s the building complex to the right of Big Ben. After elaborate safety checks we were ushered into a vast cool hall/lobby. We set off for the House of Lords and its surrounding chambers first. This section is dazzlingly ornamented in gold with gilded lobbies and furniture. The House of Lords itself was rather small considering that there are currently 820 peers. I understand most members rarely attend unless its something they’re interested in.

The seats in the Upper House were in deep red leather where-as in the House of Commons they were a dark rich green. The House of Commons is far more business-like and sober in it’s ornamentation. This House was also rather small considering that half the world was once ruled from here. There were plans to expand when it was being rebuilt after the Blitz (in WW2) but Churchill felt it would dilute the quality of debate. The Speaker’s chair is in the middle with the Treasury and Opposition benches facing each other. The distance between them is of two sword-lengths and there’s a red line on either side which shall not be crossed. Storming the well of the House is strictly prohibited. The senior party leaders and ministers sit in the front bench. An interesting fact I learnt was that anyone not sitting on the front bench is a backbencher.

Then we moved to St Stephen’s Hall which was the only place where photography was permitted.

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Those statues are of famous parliamentarians like John Hampden, Robert Walpole, William Pitt, Charles James Fox.

We stepped outside Parliament to Parliament Square, a small square of grass fronting Parliament surrounded by noble leaders and visionaries of the Commonwealth. Mahatma Gandhi’s statue was recently installed and it has been given a special place, directly opposite Parliament.

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The famous South African general Jan Smuts:

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And, of course, an aggressive Winston Churchill:

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A tribute was being held at Parliament Square to mourn MP Jo Cox who was shot dead yesterday.

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We next went on a Thames clipper cruise which was also covered by the London Pass. We went on a 40 min journey from Westminster Pier to Tower-bridge Pier. On the way, we were guided by a most enthusiastic commentator who was also a crew member. He claimed his family had been in the river ferrying business since the time of Henry VIII. This was very important business because till the early 1800s London Bridge was the only bridge spanning the Thames on it’s entire course.

This bridge is officially called Waterloo Bridge but Londoners know it as Ladies bridge because it was entirely built by brave women during World War Two.

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We went to the Tower of London where the Crown jewels are kept . Most of the jewels (including the Kohinoor) come from India. Most of the Crown jewels and other Coronation ornaments were destroyed after the English Civil War(1642-1651) when the monarchy was abolished by Oliver Cromwell. So most of the Crown jewels seen today were assembled in 1860 when the monarchy was restored under Charles II. Photography was prohibited here.

Then we went to the Tower Bridge Exhibition and saw how the Tower Bridge was built in 1895 and how the engine rooms hydraulically raised the bridge for vessels to pass. It is a true marvel of Victorian engineering.

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