Thursday, September 16, 2010

London: The Eternal City

I stepped off the train in Paddington Station and struggled through the pandemonium. Was it really more than 30 years since I had last been in London?

I bumped my suitcase along narrow crowded streets enveloped in the smells of restaurants, the sounds of British accents and the blaring of traffic. Everything seemed so compact, old and, well, grimy. The ubiquitous black taxis I remembered were now emblazoned with gaudy advertising. Double-decker buses rumbled past. I was excited.

After unpacking in a room barely larger than a closet at the Olympic Hotel, I strolled to Hyde Park. The Albert Memorial soared skyward like an over-decorated rocket whose carvings and elaborate wrought-iron-work still celebrate the halcyon days of the Victorian empire. Across the street the rotund Royal Albert Hall watched sedately.

I crossed Exhibition Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum and visited the Nehru Room to see an unusual and controversial exhibit: a model tiger eating a British soldier. A short walk took me to the cathedral-like Natural History Museum. An enormous dinosaur skeleton dominates the huge domed lobby.

Next morning, I took the tube to the Tower of London, the home of the British crown jewels. The ramparts gleamed in the sun as I imagined the many bloody executions in centuries past. I meandered across the colourful Tower Bridge. Up river, the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel, turned slowly, an in-your-face modern landmark.

An amble westward along the Thames took me into the business section, where the crowded streets were full of people in natty suits. I went into the Guildhall and said hello to Gog and Magog, the mythical founders of Britain.

Another brief saunter carried me to Christopher Wren’s awe-inspiring St. Paul’s Cathedral. I planned to climb to the dome but, sadly, it was closed.

What a city! Simply too much to see! The tube transported me to a crowded Covent Garden where I savoured lunch at the White Lion pub. At Leicester Square many booths offered cut-rate tickets to the numerous West End theatres.

Then I found myself in the pigeon-infested Trafalgar Square with its towering statue of Nelson and bordered by the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Field church. Soon after I arrived at one of my favourite places, the Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall. Sabres flashed and horses whinnied as the guard of bright-red-coated soldiers and horsemen changed.

At the Houses of Parliament I pushed through the heavy crowds and yellow-jacketed constables of a protest march. Big Ben chimed from above as I strode onto Westminster Bridge, which offers the best views of the splendid Gothic architecture of the parliament building.

The next two days flew by in a blur: Portobello Market on Saturday morning; the British Museum and the famous Elgin Marbles; Little Venice Canal, a peaceful quiet oasis lined with long, narrow houseboats; dinner at an Indian restaurant; Buckingham Palace.
Too soon it was over and I was at Paddington Station. As the train pulled out, I thought of how little London has changed. Perhaps it’s more polyglot, with more foreign accents, but just as exciting as always, bustling and bursting with history and culture. Only we people change, we revolve through this grand city in our brief lives. But London endures. London is eternal.

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