Travel: How history comes alive in London – News
Every nook and corner of the capital has a story to tell
“London itself constantly draws me in, excites me, gives me a play and a story and a poem with no problem except that I have to move my legs through the streets… Just walking around London is the greatest recreation,” wrote the author Virginia Woolf on Her Muse: The City of London.
Really, I found most people alone somewhere in this vibrant city. Whether it’s relaxing is debatable, as visitors are often struck by this city’s rich history, pageantry, art and endless attractions.
The city is a paradise for typical sightseeing tourists and in many of its spacious green areas also offers loners moments of soul searching. With its towering trees and rolling grasslands in the heart of London, just a few minutes’ walk from the imposing Buckingham Palace, Green Park offers Londoners and tourists alike a relaxing spot.
But the green recreation areas are also suitable for workaholics. As I sat trying to be one with nature, a fashionable young lady sitting next to me on the bench finished her telephone interview. Whether she got the job is unknown, but she certainly did it in the most beautiful setting!
Indeed, there is beauty to be found in London. More than 100 museums and 800 art galleries present their exhibits, including many rarities. And people often get tired traversing the vast grounds of the museums. Even then, most don’t want to miss a look at the exclusive treasures like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Rosetta’s inscriptions enabled scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Interestingly, the stone was discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799 near the town of el-Rashid. When Napoleon was defeated, it became British property.
Another priceless exhibit is Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower painting in the National Museum, which was splashed with tomato soup by environmentalists as recently as October 2022. For Van Gogh, the sunflowers symbolized “gratitude”. For me, looking at it carefully, the three different shades of yellow made me want to fill my life with more color and happiness.
However, the joy vanished for a while as I walked out to Trafalgar Square just outside the National Museum. The biting cold gave me goosebumps, but as I watched young and old bravely climb the giant lion statues to strike the perfect pose in front of the imposing Nelson’s Column, my trembling good mood gave way. The column, erected to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, stands in Trafalgar Square, one of London’s busiest squares and visited by tourists all year round.
However, art is not limited to museums alone. You can discover colorful street art in East London’s Shoreditch or Brick Lane. Simultaneously abstract and expressive, I felt that these graffiti spoke a very different language and sparked cries for change.
But some things never change. Like some of the unique English traditions. And it would be sacrilegious to miss it.
Like the afternoon tea ritual, a national obsession and a ceremonial way of indulging in quintessentially British culture. For a classic afternoon tea there are umpteen options, one of the best being the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason, with 82 teas, freshly baked cakes, unbeatable scones and “tearistas” who expertly guide you through the experience.
Another must is a visit to the theater – performances range from glamorous West End musicals to experimental supporting actors. The West End is home to some of the longest running musicals and plays such as The Mousetraps, which has been running at St Martin’s Theater since 1974. And the best way to buy tickets is to go online or wait for the last minute cancellations.
London is also one of the world’s leading cities for shopaholics, with iconic luxury stores like Harrods and Selfridges.
But don’t leave without a visit to a London pub. Their 2,000-year history and legacy aside, pubs are places where Britons, who are widely regarded as reticent, literally relax and talk and talk – even with strangers. And for me, that day felt most familiar to me in a pub in Covent Garden, where I could chat to my heart’s content. And believe me, the lonely in London syndrome I felt at first just seemed to melt away. I finally seemed to have grown fond of London.
Leave the hustle and bustle of London behind and take a one-hour train ride from Paddington Station to the university city of Oxford. Scholarly, industrious were words forming in my mind as I watched students basking in the sun on the roadsides and reading books in the corners of the huge windows of the famous Radcliffe Camera – the domed Baroque rotunda library built by physician Dr . John Radcliffe of Yorkshire.
Completed in 1748 in the English Palladian style, the Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodelian Library and is considered a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture. One of Europe’s oldest libraries, it is one of the country’s six copyright libraries – and is entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK. Only Oxford students and academics are allowed into this sacred library, leaving many would-be disappointed.
As I crossed the Hythe Bridge over the Cherwell River, the City of Dreaming Spiers came into their own. Its stunning architecture, ancient monasteries, churches, historic university halls and the imposing Sheldonian Theater built in 1669 as a place for university graduation ceremonies overwhelmed me with intricate work. The theater’s painted ceiling is exquisite and depicts the triumph of religion, art and science over envy, hatred and malice.
The Bridge of Sighs, directly opposite the Bodelian Library entrance, is a covered skyway linking the old and new quadrangles of historic Hertford College over New College Lane. An architectural marvel that was supposed to be a replica of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, but instead resembles Venice’s Rialto Bridge.
The Grand Colleges are mostly not visible to visitors, but a glimpse through their imposing gates is enough to make anyone want to study there at least once in their life!
Not to be missed is Blackwell’s Book Shop, one of the largest bookstores in the world. They have 3.5km of bookshelves in their basement, the Norrington Room!
While the reading tradition in Oxford is fascinating, so are the healing traditions in England’s first spa town – Bath.
A little over an hour by train from Paddington Station brings you to the historic city of Bath, set amidst the rolling green hills of the Avon Valley. The Romans took advantage of the city’s thermal heritage and transformed Bath into a spa town in the 18th century. In this day and age, however, the long line at the spa can be a deterrent. Either you need to have a ticket ready or you need to have loads of patience if you want to take a dip in the hot springs.
I turned away from the spa, but the stunning beauty of Bath Abbey and the small town in general calmed my feelings. According to legend, God dictated the shape of the church to Bishop Oliver King in a dream. And that history has been immortalized in the eccentric carvings on its west front.
Walking deep into the old town I found Bath a bit crowded (holiday season) but spectacular. Many others went too.
Fascinated by the beauty of a small, picturesque chapel in the rolling countryside and the green valleys in the distance, I stood back in awe as Bath’s most enduring imagery – the Pulteney Bridge – came into view. It’s unusual, unlike any other bridge I’ve ever seen. Especially its curved horseshoe-shaped weir. The bridge includes shops and was built in 1769. Originally a toll bridge and border between communities, the bridge was built on the condition that fresh water could be channeled from the hills to the town houses.
The quaint bath surprised me at every turn. And the final knockout was the Royal Crescent, which is said to be Britain’s most majestic street. Designed by John Wood the Younger, the Royal Crescent was completed in 1767 with its arch of 30 houses to accommodate the nobles visiting Bath. Bath has eight crescents, but the Royal Crescent is the grandest.
As the fading sunlight fell on the Crescent, I caught one last glimpse of this incredibly beautiful city that we almost missed because of the rail strike. And I wondered why Britain, which wielded power over a vast empire, is now threatened with an economic crisis. But my love for London (UK) has only just begun.