London. Londinium. The Big Smoke. A city with a long and winding story. As I write this, the United Kingdom is holding a vote which will determine whether the country will remain in or leave the EU. Whatever your take on #Brexit is, it is clear that London is still today as it has always been: a place in constant flux. To walk through London is to walk through amalgamated layers of history. More layers than this non-Londoner is used to seeing at one time, anyway. I first visited London in December of 2015, and it was every bit as impactful as I thought it would be.
London is a city of dichotomy. One example is found in Kensington, where the Natural History Museum sits adjacent to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Wonders of Nature vs. Spoils of the Empire (though, the equally large British Museum could also be called the latter; too many spoils for one mega-museum), is the contrast on display, with each offering an awe-inspiring collection that pits uniqueness with quantity, minute detail with massive scale, and ancient mystery with modern ingenuity.
Buckingham Palace and the surrounding area was essentially a checklist of locations featured in Neal Stephenson’s epic historical fiction “The Baroque Cycle”. After swinging by Carlton House Terrace and the Royal Society and entering Green Park, it was clear that the Union Jack was flying above the palace instead of the Queen’s own royal standard, negating any possibility of afternoon tea with her majesty. There were swans abound in St. James’s Park, however, which was more than enough consolation.
The density of important locations in this area of the city continues a hop away with the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, and the coronation site of Westminster Abbey. The weight of Westminster Abbey can surely be felt by anyone within its walls. Burials and memorials representing impactful artists, scientists, and public figures important to the UK are coalesced in this massive and beautiful structure. Here lies king Saebert of the post-Rome / pre-England monarchy of Essex. Across from him you’ll see the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer and the other residents of the Poet’s Corner. The half-sister queens Elizabeth I and Mary I, whose relationship in life was as dramatic as their Tudor name would imply, can be found in the eastern end of the abbey. An inscription reads “Partners both in throne and grave”: a fact, one could imagine, to which both would object.
In a city whose influence and culture waxes and wanes through the ages, there is a stark sense of continuity that comes from boarding the symbol of 21st century London, the London Eye, and rising up to take in the whole of the city at once. Old and new are juxtaposed, and one can see the part of the city originally bounded by the defensive wall surrounding Londinium, as well as out to the horizon to the modern suburbs and beyond. My New York City will soon be getting an observation wheel of its own. Looking out over that sprawl, extant structures will span perhaps four centuries. True, this represents more history than one could ever hope to know in a single lifetime, however, London is on a different magnitude altogether.
The Tower of London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral. King’s Cross Station. The National Gallery. Abbey Road Studios. The Fish & Chipper. All of these and more are integral to making London what it was and is. With hardly a week on the Thames, I could only scratch the surface of what the city had to offer by the time I had boarded my plane at Heathrow on my way back to the New World. The city will continue to change as I figure out my return plan, but I can be sure that the history will be there waiting for me.
Alexander Bolesta is a twenty-something museum wonk and sometimes gamer. He reads high fantasy and enjoys photography and tech. Check out his personal website at alexanderbolesta.com and drop him a line!