England, 1981, Part 4

London, Wednesday, 3/18/81

We took the Tube to Green Park and walked down to Buckingham Palace to watch the Changing of the Guard. There are two places where the Guard changes. The changing at Buckingham Palace takes place a couple of times a week, and is supposed to be the more elaborate ceremony. We got there at 11:00 for the 11:30 ceremony, and there was already a sizable crowd. We were able to get a good spot on the step of the monument in front of the Palace, from which we had a good view of the processions into the courtyard.

The first procession was a military band, escorted by Horse Guards, which came up the mall behind us and into the courtyard. They were followed by another group of guards who came on foot up Buckingham Palace Road, on our left. Finally a procession of carriages came up the mall and entered the Palace. It appeared that the carriages were carrying members of the Nigerian delegation to an audience with the Queen. A short while later the carriages came out empty and left. Then the Military band set up in a semi-circle around the main gate and began playing. Two groups of guards were in formation on either side. At the rear of the courtyard, immediately in front of the Palace, are the guardboxes. While the band played, two groups of two guards each, one group carrying banners, marched back and forth in front of the guard boxes. This went on for fifteen minutes or so. Finally, at 12:00, the guard changed, but you had to look closely to notice. Then the band and the guards paraded out in formation. I guess it is one of those things you have to do as a tourist, but it really wasn’t worth the time and bother.

After the ceremony we walked down St. James Park, stopping to rest and to watch the many species of ducks residing there. We then went to Horse Guards Parade, where the other changing of the guard takes place daily. Horse Guards Parade is at the end of St. James Park, and as you enter the Admiralty is on your left. We walked through the arch to Whitehall, and then down Whitehall to Parliament Square, where the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are located. Along the way we stopped to take a picture of #10 Downing Street. We then reached Westminster Palace, where Big Ben is located, and which is the home of the Houses of Parliament. At the Visitor’s Gallery entrance to the House of Commons, a sign said that the next session of Commons would begin at 2:30. It was then 1:50, so we joined the line, which was quite long.

In the line we met a woman from California, whose husband is British, and who is studying here before they return to the U.S. in April. She gave us some tips, such as the guided boats which travel on the Thames. At 3:00 we were admitted to the building. They only allow small groups of twenty or so at a time to enter. We were searched electronically and our bags opened (which they do everywhere) and were seated in a waiting room, where we were told by our California acquaintance to be patient, as there would be a further wait. To pass the time I gave Cheryl a short history of Parliament, various English kings, and sundry matters. This went on for some time, as we were not admitted until 4:00. When we got to the Stranger’s Gallery (as it is called), we found the floor rather sparse, with only about 2 dozen M.P.’s present. We listened for about one hour to a debate concerning the economic problems of Northern Ireland, with Secretary of State Atkins defending the government’s position against the “Queen’s Opposition”, as the minority party is called. As we left. I spoke to the attendants and discovered that the session for the day doesn’t start until 2:30, but on the average runs until midnight, and is open to the public throughout. When we hit the street, there was no line. I think that the smart thing to do is to plan on going in the evening after dinner to avoid the lines. The debates may be more spirited then, as well.

We crossed the street to Westminster Abbey, but had to wait ten minutes for evening services to end. We then toured the main chapel building, which is immense. The ceilings are so high you could have weather inside. The building is really a giant cemetary, with both tombs and memorials to various notables. Some sections are set aside for politicians, scientists, musicians, and poets. To the front is the King’s Chapel area, which has side chapels all around where the aristocracy are buried. In the very front the royalty are buried, and we saw the sarcophagi of Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry III, Henry VII, Richard II, Eleanor of Castile, Edward VI, James I, George II, Charles II, William and Mary, Edward I, Edward III, and Henry V. A most interesting tomb was that of King Sebert of the Saxons (d.616). They are not certain that it is his tomb, but the legends have it that way. The legends also have him as the founder of Westminster Abbey.

The most famous part of the Abbey is probably the chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, the king whose death in 1066 led to the Norman Conquest. In this chapel is the Coronation Chair, within which the Stone of Scone sits. The Stone was taken from Scotland by Edward I in 1296, and tradition has it that this is the stone on which Jacob rested his head at Bethel. The first sovereign crowned in this chair was Edward II, and all subsequent coronations have taken place here. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries no special care was taken of the chair, with the result that graffitti is carved all over it. The chair sits in front of the Stone Screen, which is carved with scenes from the life of St. Edward. George II was the last monarch to be buried at Westminster Abbey; since then all monarchs have been buried at Windsor.

We only saw a small part of the Abbey, which is a complex larger than the church building alone. But it was a good time to be there, since Wednesday night is the only time photography is permitted in the Abbey. Because of this, we did not have time for the nice dinner we had been looking forward to, and had to grab a quick bite at the McDonald’s near the Tottenham Court Road station, and then went to the Prince Edward Theater to see “Evita”.

“Evita” was sinply magnificent. We bought a souvenir program which gave the details of the life of Eva Peron, and had just enough time to read it before the show started. This made the play much easier to follow. The music and choreography were excellent, and we had a great time. After the show we returned to Swiss Cottage.

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