One morning in mid-May I got up before the rest of the family, donned my coat and resolutely marched through blustery winds and driving rains in order to be the first in line to gain entry to a church.
No ordinary church, to be fair (Westminster Abbey was dedicated on my birthday, give or take a thousand years), but this little expedition still labeled me.
I’m a lover, not a fighter. A History Lover. With a capital “H” and a capital “L.”
London was made for the likes of me. London is for (history) lovers.
By time the church doors opened (forty-foot high arches of graceful carved stone, the heavy wooden doors themselves surmounted by sculptures of the apostles, reaching ever higher to a large bas-relief representation of God Himself, replete with a whole retinue of stone guardian angels flitting about), a lineup of hundreds snakes down the sidewalk behind me.
That’s why, for two or three brief minutes, rushing down the nave to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I have the place to myself.
It is still, somber, overpowering, dim, ancient, moving and, for those too-brief minutes, transcendental and silent as the tomb.
The latter reference, if you’ve ever been here, is apt. Maybe forty minutes in I notice a huge monument to General Wolfe and ask a docent if that’s really his tomb. He disappears, returns with a book called “Who’s Buried Where” and shakes his head sadly: just a memorial. But there are more than enough actual tombs here – seems like have the illuminati listed in the book recline within these walls. Between Handel’s tomb and the sarcophagi of so many kings and queens I’ve stopped counting (though Elizabeth I’s funerary home is particularly noteworthy), I feel like I’m in a necrophile’s seventh heaven.
Which brings me back to that other-worldly feeling, those first transcendental moments by myself staring skyward more than two hundred feet. I’ve only ever had this feeling before: the morning I meditated at the brink of the Grand Canyon.
On that day it was nature’s constructs that punched me in the spiritual stomach. Today it is man’s.
Were I to cease my revelation here I’ve still offered sufficient evidence for London’s primacy as the Holy Grail of any history-lover’s quest. But this is only the first episode in today’s saga, today but one entry in a whole week of hunting history.
This afternoon we (my family’s finally deigned to join me) visit the Tower of London.
We reflect in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula where Anne Boleyn’s buried, we stop and pause in a sun-dappled courtyard where countless heads were rudely separated from their bodies. Just inside the chapel’s door is a chilling list of those who were executed here.
We stroll through a medieval great room where one king was reputedly poisoned; we stop in a narrow room reached by a claustrophobic spiral staircase where a murder at the behest of another king was executed.
We stare out at a stone bastion built by William the Conqueror a millenium ago; we march in cadence with a Beefeater in characteristic uniform (they got paid in beef in olden times: who would of thunk it?) down a cobblestone path before stopping at the Traitors’ Gate.
But our voyage through time doesn’t end there.
Dusk finds us huddling in a stone-arched passageway both spooky and ominous. Big surprise there: we’re doing the Jack the Ripper walking tour.
“An alley just like this,” says our guide, an ex-pat Ontarian named Delianne Forget. “They discovered Jack the Ripper’s first victim right here.” She scrolls down through an IPod and lifts the screen toward us. It is a gruesome R-rated picture of a maimed and bloody corpse.
We follow her through more alleys; we pause in the black shadows nineteenth-century buildings.
In one alley Forget describes in clinical detail how Jack the Ripper repeatedly slashed one victim’s throat before disemboweling here. She points dramatically at a young woman in our group. “He slashed her throat the first time” – pause – “exactly where you are standing!”
Jack was not a nice man. But he was a chapter in the story of a city that oozes history – if a macabre one – and tonight’s search for his ghost is a worthy and surprisingly fun diversion, fitting culmination to a day that’s a of metaphor for my weeklong quest for history.
Samuel Johnson once wrote “by seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.”
My own pithy observation may not be so elegant, but it’s equally valid.
“London is for (history) lovers.”
- I love the way we did London: we took both our grown sons (Shaun and Adam) and did the Airbnb thing. Two bedroom apartment walking distance from the sights, clean, reasonable and hosted by Gordon, who was so hospitable I HAVE to give him a shout-out. Try to get this place if you go: contact Gordon directly for availability at Gordon.firstname.lastname@example.org