London: My Favorite Classic Sites in the British Capital
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, commonly referred to as the Neasden Temple, is a Hindu temple located in the Neasden area of northwest London. The mandir is the largest Hindu temple in the UK, and until the year 2000, it was the largest Hindu temple outside of India. The London temple enthusiastically welcomes visitors to explore or to worship. During my last visit to London, I made the short bus trip out to the temple and was blown away by the incredibly intricate stonework decorations and the sheer immensity of the structure. An engaging “Understanding Hinduism” exhibit provides visitors with a basic yet comprehensive introduction to the temple and the worship practices that you might experience there. In looking back to my numerous trips to London, my visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was one of my most memorable experiences in the city. Good travel is about exploring and opening your eyes to places, cultures, and experiences that are new to you. A visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir provides you with just such an opportunity.
Kew Palace is most famous for being the summer home of King George III. Originally built in 1631, the palace was leased by Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to house her three eldest daughters. The next monarch, King George III, purchased the palace, and he and his family occupied it during his “fits of madness”, which was most likely the disease porphyria, from November 1788 to March 1789 and again in 1804. After that Kew Palace was rarely used until it was closed up in 1818, upon the death of Queen Charlotte. Although the Dutch House is the only part of Kew Palace that remains standing, I found the visit to be a fascinating exploration of the lives of the London royals who lived there and of George III”s illness and the strange treatments that he had to endure. While at Kew, be sure to take the time to explore the immensely beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with over 40,000 different species of plants spread across a 326 acre site including 40 historic buildings.
Most people know Buckingham Palace as the London residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but did you know that Buckingham Palace wasn’t occupied by a king or queen until 1837? The palace was originally Buckingham House, a three story residence owned by the Dukes of Buckingham. In 1761, King George III bought Buckingham House for his wife to use as comfortable family home close to the main royal palace, St. James. In 1826, King George IV began to transform it into a true palace, nearly doubling the size. However, he never moved in, leaving Queen Victoria to be the first British monarch to occupy the Buckingham Palace in 1837. Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, found the new palace to be too small for court life, so they added an entire wing, which is the facade that most people see today and the one that is in my picture.
Today, Buckingham Palace is not only the main residence of the Queen but also the administrative center of the monarchy. The palace contains 775 rooms including 19 official state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. Buckingham Palace is used for receptions and ceremonies to recognize people who have provided extraordinary services to the country in the realms of industry, government, charities, sport, medicine, military affairs and other fields. That’s over 50,000 guests a year! In addition, the Queen and the Royal Family entertain visiting heads of state and government leaders from other countries. Even if you’re not invited by the Queen, you can still see the inside of Buckingham Palace since it’s open during the summer for tours. Visitors can also tour the Queen’s Gallery, to see selections of the priceless works of art owned by the Royal Collection, and the the Royal Mews, to see the horses, carriages, and automobiles that the Royal Family use for ceremonial transportation. For more on the latter, see my blog about the Royal Mews.
The Palace of Westminster
Most people refer to the structure as the Houses of Parliament because both the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet there. Why is it called a palace then? The Palace of Westminster is owed by the Crown and is still considered a royal palace for ceremonial purposes. This arrangement continues a long tradition of Westminster being the home of both the Crown and Parliament. The kings of England lived in a royal palace that stood on the site from the 11th century to 1512, when it was destroyed by fire. The only building that remains from the original palace is Westminster Hall, which was built in 1097. The fire caused the king to move out and Parliament to move it, making Westminster the seat of government. Another fire in 1834 destroyed the Houses of Parliament again, and a competition was held to find an architect to redesign the palace. The new Palace of Westminster, completed in 1870, was built in the Neo-Gothic style and contains over 1,000 rooms spread over 8 acres, some of which were reclaimed from the Thames River. The new palace contains two famous towers: Victoria Tower and Elizabeth Tower. The largest and tallest is Victoria Tower which stands at the southwestern corner of the palace and holds the Sovereign’s Entrance, used during the Queen’s State Opening of Parliament, and over three million documents in the Parliamentary archives, spread over 12 fireproof floors. At the north end of the palace, the Elizabeth Tower, named after Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee, contains the Great Clock of Westminster and the 13.8 ton bell known as Big Ben, which chimes every quarter-hour. Yes, you read that correctly. The bell, not the tower or the clock, is named Big Ben. That’s a fun fact that you can impress your friends and family with. Don’t forget to tell them you learned it at Fit to Embark! Visiting London? Members of the public are welcome to enter the Houses of Parliament to see debates in either chamber. You’ll need a ticket, so check out their website for details. During the summer, while Parliament isn’t sitting, visitors can take fascinating audio tours of the entire palace. Seeing the magnificent interiors and learning about the history of the building and the functions of Parliament is, in my opinion, a must when in London!
If you thought this structure was London Bridge, you are mistaken, my friend. This iconic piece of late 19th century engineering is Tower Bridge, named after the famous Tower of London that sits close by. The rather unimpressive London Bridge sits further upstream and was built in 1976. Yes, I said 1976. The previous London Bridge of Victorian fame was sold, in 1968, by the Council of the City of London to Robert McCulloch, a Missourian entrepreneur, who purchased the bridge for a little under $2.5 million dollars. He had the bridge shipped, piece by piece, via the Panama Canal, to California and then overland to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it was reassembled spanning the Bridgewater Channel Canal. So you don’t even have to leave the United States to visit London Bridge! You’re probably wondering why McCulloch bought London Bridge and shipped it all the way to America. He was hoping to attract tourists and home buyers to the region, and indeed, succeeded in doing so. Since the land was an abandonded military airstrip, McCullogh had been able to obtain it for free from the state of Arizona, with the promise he would develop the property. McCullogh sold so many homes that he recouped the entire cost of the bridge’s purchase, transportation, and re-assemblage. Now that’s what I call a wise investment!
The Tower of London
The famous or infamous (or both!) Tower of London, originally built in 1078 and expanded over a series of decades, has served as a royal palace, fortress, prison, mint, zoo, barracks, and armory, all at different times of course. Today, Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London (its official name) serves mainly as a tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the days of the Tower being a military installation are over, a detachment of the Queen’s Life Guard is posted at the Tower, as it is still considered a royal residence. In addition, the Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, live on the premises and serve as the ceremonial guardians of the Tower and the Crown Jewels, which are safeguarded and open to the public on site. Where does the term “beefeater” come from? No one really knows. Some historians believe it refers to the fact that the Yeoman Warders were provided large rations of beef by the sovereign, at a time when meat was expensive and, therefore, uncommon in the diet of most Englishmen. Just don’t call them “beefeater” to their faces. The Yeomen Warders are retired from the Armed Forces of Commonwealth Realms and, to qualify, must have at least 22 years of experience as an officer and must hold a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. And they’re still continuing to serve Crown and country. That’s impressive! If you visit the Tower be sure to take one of their excellent daily guided tours.
Horse Guards Parade
You can see the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11:00 on weekdays and at 10:00 on Saturdays at Horse Guards Parade. The ceremony is far less busy than the one at Buckingham Palace, so you’ll be able to stand up close to see the horses and soldiers in all of their regal splendor! In addition, you can see mounted soldiers standing guard at Horse Guards Parade until 4:00, when they dismount and stand guard on foot. For more information about changing the guard at Horse Guards Parade, see my blog about that very subject.
The Queen’s Life Guard is made up of mounted cavalry soldiers from the regiments named the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. Since 1660, they have stood guard at Horse Guards Parade, which serves as the official entrance to St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace.
Historically, Horse Guards Parade served many functions. It’s built on the land that one served as the tiltyard (the field for jousting) of Whitehall Palace, which tragically burned down in 1689. The current buildings, which date from the 18th century, originally served as headquarters of the British army. The Duke of Wellington, as commander-in-chief, once had his office there. Today, Horse Guards Parade is best known as the location of Trooping the Color, a military parade (held in June) which serves as the official birthday celebration of Her Majesty the Queen.
Camden Market is my favorite place to shop in London. It’s actually not just one but six adjoining markets selling crafts, clothing, souvenirs, food, and much, much more. The markets are located in Camden Town surrounding Camden Lock of Regents Canal. With it huge variety of stores and merchandise, you can find just about anything and spend several hours there. They even have an outdoor food court featuring vendors cooking up a wide variety of tasty international dishes. While the markets are open daily, some vendors are there only on weekends, when crowds are also the largest. While there, walk along the locks themselves, which used to aid barges moving up and down Regents Canal and check out the fantastic Stables Market, located in what was once the stables of the horses that pulled barges along the canal. If you’re looking for London souvenirs, Camden Market is, in my opinion, the best place to buy them.
Guards at St. James Palace
If you’re looking to see the Queen’s Guard up close and personal, head on over to St. James Palace. Two guards are posted in their sentry boxes outside the palace, right on the street. They’re so close, that I got yelled at by one of them for taking a picture while he was walking his patrol. A little scary but kind of fun! You can also see a smaller but much less crowded version of the changing of the guard at St. James Palace at around 12:15 on weekdays.
St. James Palace is actually the most senior of the royal palaces in the UK. Built by King Henry VIII, between 1531 and 1536, St. James served as the residence of British monarchs until 1837 when Queen Victoria took up residence in Buckingham Palace. Today, the royal court is still formally based there, and ambassadors to the UK are officially assigned to “the court of St. James”. The palace is used for royal receptions and ceremonies and also serves as the London home of the Princess Royal, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and Princess Alexandra.