We landed in Heathrow airport at about 11am London time, which meant it was close to 5am for us. I slept 4-5 hours in the plane, but I was still exhausted. The excitement of the fact that I was finally in London hadn’t hit yet, and we were greeted with stereotypical movie-in-London weather: windy and pouring rain. We staggered, half asleep, out of Heathrow onto our chartered bus, greeted by the programme director Katie, and began the 40 minute drive to the house we would be staying in. Despite being tired, I still stayed awake and talked with a few friends, as the realization of London began to set in (mostly because we realized we were indeed driving on the left side of the road). Upon arrival at the house, we quickly unloaded our luggage (in the heavy rain) into our rooms and headed to a lunch/breakfast meal–lunchtime in London, but our bodies felt like it was morning and were craving breakfast! While we ate we had a quick basic orientation–house code, wifi password, etc. To help us get over jet lag, they didn’t give us any time to rest and pushed us on out into the pouring rain.
In my community group (half of the 12 students here) led by Liz, the resident assistant, we explored the immediate neighborhood, which included several cafes, a tube stop right by us, and several grocery stores such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco. Waitrose is in a place called an arcade which, as Liz was quick to tell us, does not include games. It was a few restaurants and shops along with Waitrose, and is almost like what we in the US call a strip mall, except it’s covered (presumably because of the weather). We also purchased our Oyster passes to ride the tube. The entire group met up, and we rode the tube with Katie to the Westminster stop, right by the Thames River, Big Ben, London Eye, and Westminster Abbey. After we got out of the underground, Katie left us with a “Dinner starts at 7, have a good night!” and then was off to her home (she is from London and lives a bit north of where we stay). On our own, my friends (Sam, Sam, and Rae–yes, two Sams. The four of us will heretofore be referred to as The Group) wandered around–looking at Westminster, taking pictures of Big Ben, checking out the London Eye though not riding yet, and walking up and down the Thames.
In front of Big Ben on a rainy day
Big Ben and the London Eye
The Thames River
After about 30 minutes of walking around (in the rain, but still fun), The Group headed back to our house on the tube–we managed to navigate our way without getting lost, so that’s always a positive! Dinner that night consisted of a community dinner of pizza bought from a wonderful Italian restaurant in the nearby arcade.
After dinner, we each went to unpack and rest for a little bit. Most people went to bed around 8:30 (thank you, jet lag) but The Group stayed up a little bit later. I talked to Rae as she unpacked, and eventually the four of us met up to watch Doctor Who–a must in London! Unfortunately, we were up significantly later than everyone else, and we discovered just how squeaky the floors of a house built in the 1860s can be! We quickly gave Sam H his birthday present, and then finally agreed that watching Doctor Who was not going to happen that night. The boys returned to their floor, but Rae and I stayed up and watched part of an episode–we couldn’t resist! Finally, much to late, we went to bed.
Today The Group received our smaller orientation. We are also the Student Assistants, and a large part of our responsibilities include setting up breakfast Monday-Thursday mornings. We began that today. After breakfast was Orientation I and a Safety Orientation, which was given by a local police constable. It was all useful information, if not the most exciting. Then we had about 2 hours to get lunch before our next activity. The Group walked to Waitrose. It was our first time be able to browse an English grocery store, and it was fun to see the many differences. First of all, the UK does not use nearly as many preservatives in their foods as in the US, so on average things you buy in the grocery store last about 3 days. I discovered that in the US the nice yellow color of cheese is actually because the companies dye it yellow–here all the cheese is white, except for some orange cheeses that in the US we would refer to as red cheeses. We decided to get sandwich stuff for lunch, choosing the cheaper options so that we each only ended up spending about 2 pounds for lunch–not a bad deal!
After eating at the house, we met at 2 for a walk with Roger. Roger is our next door neighbor who has been helping our university in London for years. He took us on a 3 1/2 hour walk around the wider neighborhood, but he is so absolutely wonderful and the walk was so unbelievably long it deserves its own post, so that will come shortly.
Needless to say, after walk from 2-5:30, we were exhausted and hungry. While some went out to eat, The Group joined up with two other girls named Nicole and Sarah, and we went to Sainsbury’s to pick up dinner and the breakfast foods for tomorrow. Pasta is by far the cheapest option for a big group, so we picked up a large bag of that and some sauce and returned to the house to make this. Again, it only cost each of us about 2 pounds for a wonderful dinner, and the company was even more wonderful.
Enjoying a dinner of pasta and homemade garlic bread
We had a rousing discussion after dinner, debating everything from movies to books to politics–all friendly of course! While Nicole and Sarah departed to go on a walk, The Group finally managed to watch an episode of Doctor Who in the TV room. Afterwards, we all said goodnight and returned to our rooms.
Today was our first chance to prepare the breakfast on our own, and we think we did a pretty good job. Afterwards was Orientation 2 and 3, mostly about living in London, the culture here, and the differences in learning and teaching styles, since we are technically here to take classes. We had a short lunch break, during which The Group ate leftovers from sandwich stuff with Nicole and Sarah. I made my first cup of tea in England, a wild berry flavor, and it was delicious!
After lunch, we rode the tube to Westminster Abbey, where we were given a tour by a Blue Badge London guide. Blue Badge guides go through an intense test and know pretty much anything and everything about London, so the tour took about an hour and a half and it was amazing.
The outside of Westminster Abbey
Pictures aren’t allowed to be taken inside the chapel, but outside the chapel is the cloister and a small courtyard area. According to the guide, to not walk on a buried body at Westminster Abbey, you would have to be able to fly. Many of the graves are in this outside cloister area.
The ceiling of the cloister
Looking up at the inside wall of Westminster Abbey from the cloisters. You can see the green of the courtyard, which the cloister forms a square around (no walking onto the grassy area though)
Our guided pointed out this particular grave to us–the plumber of the abbey!
From outside Westminster Abbey looks huge and magnificent, towering upwards. Inside, the greatness seems to come from not the height but the decorations and all the areas and rooms you go through and explore. We started in the main chapel, where they still hold services. The coronation chair, also used today, and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior are in this area. Beautiful stained glass windows line the walls, all commemorating somebody, from ancient historical figures to modern day heroes. One key figure is King Edward 1, later St. Edward the Confessor, who in the 1040s began construction of the abbey. The paintings, stained glass, architecture and overall bigness of it makes one feel small and humble, realizing how great God is and how insignificant you are. It is plain to see why the church is so famous, and I am excited to attend a service there to be able to worship in a place of such history and such religious significance.
Walking forward there is a smaller altar, and to the left of it is a small cluster of graves of famous scientists, including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Often the graves cluster in sections like this, mostly because one famous person was buried there and then many other in his or her field wish to be buried near them. Beyond this section is the front of the chapel– a gorgeously decorated altar and stained glass. Continuing beyond here is room after room of graves of famous people and other historical sites. The architecture of the entire building is simply amazing, from the tiles on the floor to the intricacy of the ceiling. One particularly interesting place was the room that contains the flags and helmets of everyone currently a knight in the Order of the Bath, which still exists today, though they don’t ride around in armor and chain mail like they used to do. The previous knights have a small tile with their crest that is under the current knights’ helmet and flag (which today are just symbolic). Looking at the registry of knights, the most recent one, in 2013, was actually a woman.
Entering another hall, we found many more graves and memorials (to just be memorialized there is a huge honor). This cluster of graves/memorials was my favorite–the writers. Often referred to as the Poet’s Corner, Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to be buried there, and memorials to T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carrol, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, and many, many more cover the floors, walls, and windows. The graves of several famous authors and playwrights include Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Olivier, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and, my favorite, Charles Dickens. It was overwhelming and thrilling to be in a place where so many great writers have been honored, many awarded with the Order of the Merit, the highest honor an author can receive. I was humbled and ecstatic to be able to go there.
Shortly thereafter, the official tour ended, and the chaperones left us to make our way back to houses after we were done. The Group continued on to look at the chapter room, which began as a meeting place for monks and then more recently was where Parliament met before they had their own space. Pictures were allowed in here, and it too continued beautiful stained glass windows.
The window above the entrance to the Chapter room
Outside the Chapter room was an exciting small feature– the oldest door in all of England.
It was built in 1040 and is still here…we got to touch it!
From here we went to the abbey museum, which contained various artifacts from that time period. The most interesting of these were the death masks of various famous people, which are made from laying plaster over the dead persons’ face and creating a mold, which is eventually painted to look exactly like them. From the museum we were able to go to the college gardens, a small but beautiful green area
We then went to the shop, where I bought a lovely mug, and then met Nicole and Sarah at Sainsbury’s to buy dinner. We decided on hamburgers, which turned out to be absolutely delicious. Afterwards, The Group worked on planning our fall break trip (we have a week for travel) and then I left eventually to go to bed.
So far my time in London has been amazing, and I can’t wait to see what comes next!