If you have not figured it out by now, I love to travel. I also do a lot of traveling for work. This means I get to combine my passion for travel with my passion for work. I am an international human rights attorney. I also work to make sure that religious freedom rights are protected at the Olympic Games and the World Cup Soccer Tournaments. As a result of my work I have been in London at least a seven or eight times.
In fact, I was in London with my family on Friday and Saturday, the 7th and 8th of September 2001. We left there on Saturday and took the Chunnel Eurostar Train to Paris. On Monday, the 10th of September 2001 we left Paris and returned to our apartment in Strasbourg, France. It is strange because in retrospect my wife and I have talked about how obvious it was that something unusual was going on. We were at the Hyde Park Intercontinental Hotel and the hotel was filled with middle eastern men and their families. There were meetings in the hotel lobby all day on Saturday and a lot of whispering going on. At the time we noted that it seemed strange, but it was not until Tuesday the 11th of September 2001 that we put it all together.
That trip and its aftermath aside, I love London. I was there for the 2012 Olympic Games, working to protect the rights of missionaries and street ministers around the city. London is a fun city. First of all, they speak English and that makes it seem more manageable for Americans. Second of all, they love Americans, as long as we are not being ugly Americans—something we will talk about in another blog.
You must remember when you are walking around London that they drive on the left side of the road. This means that you have to be very careful because your instincts for looking before you cross a road are exactly the opposite of what they need to be. This is so true that in central London they have written which way to look on the road at the edge of the sidewalks.
The main thing is to use caution. You are in a huge city that is full of traffic and you should use extreme care at all times. Otherwise, relax and have fun, after all, you are in London.
One of the places you have to see, I see it every time I am in London, is the Houses of Parliament. This complex is well worth walking around and viewing from the street, getting inside in the modern world is no easy feat. On the corner nearest the Westminster Bridge that crosses the Thames sits Big Ben, the clock that is known the world over. It is the most recognizable symbol of London. Take your time, walk around, enjoy the park across the road, enjoy the Thames River, enjoy the statute of Abraham Lincoln. Then, step into the red phone booth just across from the entrance to the Houses of Parliament and imagine a world long gone before everyone had a cell phone.
When you are facing Big Ben look to the right and you will see Westminster Abbey. Next to Notre Dame in Paris and the Sistine Chapel this is probably the most famous church in the world. It will cost you a few pounds to walk through the Abbey, but it is well worth the price of admission. This has been the site of some of the greatest moments in western history. Among the famous folks buried here you can see the markers of King Henry V, every Tudor except Henry VIII, Edward the Confessor, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens. Over 3,300 people are buried here so explore the Abbey.
Walk the covered lanes outside and enjoy this enclave in the middle of what we consider London. There is a nice little shop just to the left of the front entrance if you are facing out. Wander through the shop.
Another cannot miss site in London is the Tower of London. Just off the Thames River at the Tower Bridge, the bridge everyone thinks is London Bridge, sits this little gem of London. Guarded by the Beefeaters. Building on the fortress known as the Tower of London began in the 1070s when William the Conqueror decided he needed a secure location in London. Since then it has housed Kings and Queens in times of rebellion and war. Today it houses the Crown Jewells which are a sight to behold.
These grounds also were home for Hitler’s Adjunct, Rudolf Hess, who flew to England during World War II for reasons that have never been fully revealed other than that he believed he could strike some kind of peace between England and Nazi Germany.
King Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn was imprisoned here in 1536 and ultimately executed after being found guilty of treason and adultery. The Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula is the burial place of many other famous Tower prisoners, including two other queens of England, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey.
I have the distinct good fortune of having a good friend who is a retired Scotland Yard Detective. In fact, he was one of the founders of Scotland Yard’s Human Trafficking Division which has since been absorbed into other departments within the police department. As a detective he has access to the Tower of London on a certain night of the week and he can bring guests. When I am in London, I go with him.
Many people do not realize that the Tower is a thriving community, even at night after the last visitor has departed and the gates are locked. The Yeomen Warders and their families live on the premises. As does the Resident Governor and a garrison of soldiers. There is also a doctor, a chaplain, and yes, a pub on the Tower grounds.
At the end of each day there is a locking of the Tower ceremony that is attended by a select few people. When I am with my friend, I am also allowed to drink at the pub with the Yeoman Warders in their private sanctuary. There are auctions of Tower and Yeoman memorabilia. The only hard and fast rule is that when you buy a drink for yourself, you must buy a drink for a Yeoman. All in all, it is one of the finest evenings I ever spend in England. Tom Clancy is an honorary Yeoman.
No trip to London is complete without a stop by the Abbey Road Studio of Apple Records where the Beatles did a lot of their recording. If you are there it is best if you take your picture walking across the street just like John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It is even better if you are with one retired Scotland Yard Detective who was also a carrier of the Olympic Torch in the Torch Relay that proceeded the Games in London. It gets even better if he is there in his official uniform with an official torch from the relay.
Then there is St. Paul’s Cathedral. One must take the time to wonder through its vast interior and enjoy the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren. Enjoy the underground Crypt or walk along the Golden Gallery over 100 yards above the street. There is plenty to do here, so plan to stay for the whole morning or afternoon.
The current Cathedral was built between 1675 and 1710. There has, however, been a cathedral at this location, the highest point in London, for more than 1400 years.
Housed in the library of St. Paul’s is one of three remaining first editions of William Tyndale’s English language New Testament. Long before the King James Bible was ever translated, in 1526 Tyndale’s New Testament was published and was the first ever English language Bible in the world.
Tower Bridge, by day or by night is an amazing place. Look at it from the many vantage points along the way, but also take the time to walk across it. There are few things more amazing than to be on the bridge under the rails, crossing the Thames River, with cars crossing through the middle while you are safely on the sidewalks at the edges of the bridge. While you are there climb up one of the Towers to enjoy a great view of the Tower of London and on up the river to the Palace of Westminster. There is no need to rush, this is a moment you will want to savor.
London by night is even more grand than by day. Walking along the Thames, there is a pathway on the south side of the river that lets you walk from Tower Bridge to Westminster Bridge virtually the entire way by the edge of the river, is a stroll to remember. Even the parts of the pathway that lead you away from the river take through a part of London that seems to be from days gone by. This pedestrian only zone is a must do for any trip to London. Besides, you want to ride the London Eye, visit the London Aquarium, and look at old ships that are docked along the way.
There are plenty of places to sit and relax. There are coffee shops, including a Starbucks near Tower Bridge, and sandwich shops along the way. If the weather is nice make an afternoon of the trip.
No trip to London would be complete without a trip to Buckingham Palace. These days there are tours of the Palace that can be made for a price. Or you can stand at the fence like the rest of the world and watch the guards, stand motionless and somber. Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 and expanded over the years. It is the London home for the Monarchy and their administrative headquarters in London.
You will want to witness the changing of the guards which occurs every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 11 AM. The individual guards change out every two hours and though less of a spectacle it is well worth being present for this event.
The Palace always has a crowd in front of it, but it is easy enough to get to the fence for photos and a better view. The double decker open top tour bus stops here, so Buckingham Palace is easy to get to. I love walking to the Palace from the Horse Guard Parade Grounds. It is a short walk up a broad avenue that affords great views of Buckingham Palace every step of the way.
Trafalgar Square is another must see location in London. It was built as a memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. In the center of the memorial is Nelson’s Column which is surrounded by four huge lion statues. Nelson’s Column is 169 feet tall. It serves to honor Horacio Nelson, the commander of the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can see the Thames River and Big Ben from the Square. There are a couple of fountains to add to the park feeling of the Square and a large open area to walk without fear of traffic.
It serves as a gathering place for many folks and the National Gallery sits on the northern edge of the Square, so there are many people coming and going all day long. The Gallery houses some great pieces of contemporary art. The Square is a great place to climb on the lions or sit on a step and watch the hectic nature of London all around. The regular double decker London commuter buses are constantly coming and going adding to the hustle and the bustle.
St.-Martin-in-the-Fields Church sits along the eastern edge of the Square and is well worth a moment or two to pop inside and say a prayer.
Trafalgar Square is considered the exact center of London, by legislation, and thus, the place from which all measurements to London begin.
The final stop for our purposes is Piccadilly Circus. A mini Times Square the Circus is aptly named as this place is almost always bustling with activity. A number of roads meet here, making traffic always crazy. The theater district is here, making the pedestrian crowds and the taxis crazy. For some reason, people just come here to hang out or they are always passing through. There are some great stores around the Circus and I always take some time to walk through them and enjoy everything London has to offer.
All of this is amazing, but it is only the beginning. We have not even talked in detail about taking the open topped double decker bus that stops at all of the tourist sites and is always one of the best ways to explore a new city. We also have not talked about the great parks that are found throughout London, whether it is Hyde Park, Green Park, or St. James Park, you must take the time to relax in the open spaces of London.
There is also the London Aquarium located right near the London Eye which you must do. There is Shakespeare’s Globe Theater which has been rebuilt to its historic exactness. And there is the department store Harrod’s. When you stop into Harrod’s say hello to my good friend Steve who is the head of their security department.
It is not my purpose to suggest that this is all there is to see in London. London is a city that should be explored and made your own. Take a taxi, but also walk. Whatever you do, spend some of your time on the London Tube, what we call the subway. Ride for a few stops and then just pop above ground and see what you find.