It was the fall of 2009 and I was planning a trip to London, England to visit my niece and her fiancé. I would have time by myself to go off and explore the city and take in the
tourist spots, so I had researched and come up with an itinerary. I was excited and pumped to be visiting Europe for the first time. But even more exciting for me, was a side trip my niece and I had planned to Paris with our mothers. The truly one thing I had always wanted to see, since I was a little girl and seeing photos and learning the history, was The Palace of Versailles. The Hallway of Mirrors, along with the enormity of the castle and grounds, lead to many day dreams of wandering through this palatial place. This trip was going to be grand!
Now in AA, I have learned to live in one day at a time. However, we have a saying, plan for the future, but don’t plan the results. This was to be the biggest lesson on this trip. On my list of must see and do were of course, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Shakespear’s Globe Theatre, The Crown Jewels, London Bridge and I wanted to see the Changing of the Guard. My niece’s home was under major renovation and they had no internet, so off to the nearest café I went to search on line and make a hard itinerary for my four days of exploring. I quickly found out that the Queen’s Guards would not be in London and so there was no Changing of the Guard while I was there. All four days! However, I could visit Windsor Castle where they were, which was out-of-town. I was disappointed until my nephew-in-law suggested he drive us out to Windsor Castle on the weekend. Yes, I will get to see it! And so off I went on my first day, having done the research to know that if there was something you wanted to see, you had to go first thing in the morning and only plan for about two major things each day. First stop was Westminster Abbey. It was closed to public viewing that day. Really? Okay, I’ll just have to adjust. I’ll come first thing tomorrow morning. I then booked a walking tour of downtown for another day. So, next stop would be Buckingham Palace, as I adjusted my itinerary to the changing circumstances. There I stood, with the rest of the tourists on the edge of the property, looking through the gates at it. It was not quite the experience I had expected. Oh well. Next was Piccadilly Circus and the Soho Market from there. But for the final part of my day, I decided to see the crown jewels. I know what I am like with museums and such, so I figured I would not need much time. So off to the Jewel Tower I went.
This part, I am embarrassed to say, I did not research. As I entered the small Tower, I went through the entire building very quickly, but did not see the jewels. Hummm, where could they be? I mean, this is the Jewel Tower and I read they housed them here. So down I went to the employee and I inquired about the crown jewels. They were taken out in 1512 he told me. “15:12?” I said, looking at my watch which read 15:43 hrs. I told him how I have been missing everything so far while in London and how very disappointed I was that I just missed these. He then patiently explained to me that he meant the year 1512 and told me the crown jewels were on display at the Tower of London. Boy, did I feel like a wanker, even though I wasn’t sure what it meant! Put Tower of London on that to see list.
Readjusting my plans again this day would be the Tower of London followed by The Globe Theater. I had no idea what the Tower of London was as I had not researched this attraction. I only knew it housed the crown jewels but I had no idea how big it was, nor the enormous history of the place. As I walked to the entrance, there was a ceramic Poppy Installation, marking 100 years since England’s involvement in WW1. Each poppy represented one British death in that war, 888,246 persons. It was truly breath taking. I was suddenly captivated and catapulted into an era long past. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, and much to my surprise, I spent quite a bit of time observing the crown jewels and just relishing in their majestic beauty. This place had not been on my list of attractions to see and I am so glad I did go, for it ended up being a favorite experience that I might otherwise have missed. Now off to The Globe for a tour. When I arrived I was told there would be no tours that afternoon. “But I checked the website!” I cried. They advised that on this day each week, they only had tours in the morning. They were very sorry, but not as sorry as I. So I walked around the area and before I knew it, I was at a the Borough Market, the area of the original London bridge. I was a little surprised because as most people think, I thought the Tower Bridge was the original London Bridge. But the original London Bridge had been rebuilt and was modernized in the 1970’s. I learned about the history of the bridge and how people built their homes on it and lived in communities there. I was fascinated and captivated – again. So, while there, after having my first fish wrap, I decided to do the London Bridge Experience. An immersive re-enactment of the lives and experiences of the people over the 200 years of its history. As I paid for my ticket, a young lad grabbed my hand and said I was just minutes behind the last group. He had me enter a side entrance and he said I could catch up. He then opened a door and thrust me in. When the door closed, I was in total and complete darkness. Yes, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. And there was no sound either. I was alone, in deafening quiet and blackness, and I tried not to panic. So, I just started walking, my hands outstretched and as I felt a wall. I just kept following the wall. The longer I was in that darkness, apparently lost and alone, the harder it was to quell the panic. But I just focused on following the wall. About 10 minutes later, I came to a room that was dimly lit. It was staged with some barrels and had two doors. Behind the first door, harsh light illuminated what appeared to be a supply closet. Behind the other door – darkness again. I stood there perplexed wondering what to do, when all of a sudden, an unseen door opened and a different young lad said “What are you doing in here? Come with me” And before I knew it, he had lead me to the group I had not found. I finished the tour, having sold my lamb for grain before running from the great fire that killed so many people. I did enjoy it immensely. I just chalked the mistake up to another unplanned adventure among the many that were piling up on this trip.
It was 10:00 when I reached the Westminster Abbey. The line-up was already huge. As I approached, I was told by an employee that they were closing early today at 12:30 hours and it was unlikely anyone beyond this point would be admitted today. I was, of course, beyond that point. Humm, I had a couple of hours to kill before meeting my guide for the walking tour. I decided given my luck, I’d just call and confirm. Yes, we were still on for 1:00 pm at Trafalgar Square. So off I went exploring. I decided to head back to the area of London Bridge which I had not explored fully and I happened upon a very old church, the Southwark Cathedral, serving as a church starting in 1106. Wow, Canada is so young in comparison! I was overwhelmed at the beauty, history and the age of this Gothic styled building. The original wrought iron candelabras still hung throughout the church. This was by far, a place I was so happy to have stumbled upon, another unplanned attraction. I enjoyed it so much, I did take my mother here on another day, to see and experience it. But I had a walking tour booked and I made it back to Trafalgar Square on time. And I waited and I waited. I wandered around, enjoying the buskers. Finally at about 1:20 pm I called the tour guide. I was informed there would be no tour today because there was a strike were she was located and she couldn’t get into the city today. She wanted to rebook, but I was unable to. We would be heading to Paris tomorrow. So off I went again, on foot, exploring.
I saw a long bridge and found St. Pauls’ Cathedral at the end of it. I entered the building and found out it was £20 to enter. I didn’t want to pay to enter, but something stopped me. There was a feeling, maybe a peacefulness. I’m not sure, but I decided to pay and enter. I am so glad I did as it became another of my absolute wonderful memories of London. I was awed and astounded by the sheer beauty. I walked through the church, up to the Whispering Gallery and down to the crypts. I looked and passed by so many people of distinction, honor and historical importance buried and revered in their last resting place. I was so touched and overwhelmed. It was truly a spiritual experience for me. As I quietly left, feeling quite full spiritually, I decided I still had a little bit of time and I could walk around Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings. I noticed a museum, the Household Calvary Museum, a tribute to the Queen’s horsemen, her personal guards and the men who are given the honor of preserving the ceremonies. This turned out to be a true gem in my journey, an unexpected pleasure as I toured the museum and spoke to some of the workers there about the life of the Cavalry. I had served for five years with the Chiefs Ceremonial Unit and loved the tradition, honor and showmanship of this type of unit, somewhat similar to the guardsmen. In fact, the workers had shared their experience of coming to Canada for the Vancouver Olympics and training with Honor Guards from all over Canada, something I never knew. It had been quite a fulfilling day. A day of unplanned activities. Again, plan for the future, but don’t plan the results. Just turn left when you hit a wall.
It was 5:30 am and we were rushing to catch our train to Paris. We would spend one night there. The main attraction was a day planned at Versailles before returning on the late night train to London. As we entered Paris, I called the tour company as instructed, to ensure the tour would be on time for the next day. It wasn’t. There was a strike being planned by the employees at Versailles. A one day walk out, tomorrow. I was crushed and so disappointed. The one thing I had really wanted to see was not going to happen. The entire Paris side trip was only for that purpose. So, I turned left again at that wall. My niece and I decided we had never seen a catacomb before so that’s what we would do instead. As we entered the catacomb, in French was inscribed Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”) and a plaque explained that over 6,000,000 people were buried here. As we ducked through the doorway to enter, I said to my niece, “Six million is the same number of Jewish persons killed by Hitler.” We would only see 1/8 of that, but I kept it in mind as we wandered the tunnels. It was both fascinating, creepy and beautiful all at the same time. However, there came a time in this 2km walk that eventually my mind said, body after body after body after body. Enough. Enough already! The visual image of actually seeing what six million souls would look like was extremely overwhelming, and we were only seeing 1/8 of that number. When we came out, we walked a bit in quiet, taking in the magnitude of what we had experienced. Yet another unplanned gem in my travels. Besides, I might not see Versailles, but I would see a castle, Windsor Castle and the Changing of the Guard on the weekend.
As we headed toward the highway, my nephew-in-law, my mom and me, in his large Land Rover, I just cringed as he passed cars with only an inch or two to spare. The vehicle is a huge one to have in the small and cramped streets of London. A Fiat or Smartcar is much more sensible. But I decided to just close my eyes till we were out of the City. We were on our way to Windsor Castle were I would finally see a Castle and see the Guards ceremony. “What was that?” I asked, hearing a very loud thud, as the car came to a slow stop. The transmission apparently as we were later to find out. But there, at the side of the road, halfway between London and Windsor Castle, we would need a tow. The trip was off and here was another adventure that had not been planned for. As luck would have it, as we went back home, my nephew-in-law had locked his keys in the house and we were locked out. Breaking into an old Victorian row house in London entails climbing many six foot stone walls before being able to enter your own yard. I suddenly missed the chain fences of Canada!
So my trip, meticulously planned around the specific sights I wanted to see, just did not materialize. I made the plans but didn’t plan the outcome. I turned left each time I hit a wall and I ended up having absolutely wonderful, life changing experiences. I wouldn’t take back any of it for a second. I was so busy trying to stare at the shiny and glistening diamonds, I almost didn’t see the smaller gems that came onto my path. My trip was spectacular, at times spiritual and definitely deeply moving. It was also exhilarating, exciting and adventurous. And in the end, I determined I would see Westminster Abbey before leaving. So, the only way that was happening, I attended Sunday Service lol! But I was introduced to Even Song while in the Abbey and I fell in love with this singing. My lesson was this; don’t become so fixated on the outcome. It is the journey that truly matters. Be flexible and turn left when you hit a wall. There just might be something there you were meant to see and or experience. And even as I say that, you know I am already planning my next trip to see the sights I didn’t get entry too, and especially to Versailles!