It’s hard to believe that the United Kingdom, a small country separated from Continental Europe by a narrow channel, could play such a grand role in world affairs. Many critical points in past events were gestated in this island off northwestern France, and numerous iconic figures have called the nation home. A once powerful empire created the Commonwealth realms and played a role in the birth of a superpower, eventually paving the way for English to become the world’s de facto lingua franca.
The UK — a constituency of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland — is a compact country, a wee bit smaller than the US state of Texas. But sizes can be deceiving; British history is anything but compact. The island has welcomed diverse immigrants from all parts of the globe since time immemorial, combining to give the country the organic dynamism that propels it forward through the 21st century.
It doesn’t mean that Brits have traded on the souvenirs of their yesteryears (how else do you explain the still-ubiquitous red phone booths despite the proliferation of cell… eh… mobile phones?); it’s just that the country has become adept at providing interesting contrasts of its past, its present and its future. Modern cars speed through roads that pass by the ancient mystery that is Stonehenge, while rapid developments geared for the 2012 Olympics stand side by side with the medieval Tower of London.
Indeed, British history, whether factual or mythical, has captured popular imagination everywhere. Modern culture wouldn’t be what it is today without the country’s monarchs, Robin Hood, King Arthur and Nessie, while the literary world was forever changed by J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so many more. And as if to prove the Brits aren’t all about serious heady stuff, there’s Rowan Atkinson, Simon Pegg and the ever self-deprecating Hugh Grant.
With such a boggling portfolio of achievements, the UK, specifically England, was but a fitting introduction for us to this side of the Atlantic. After two weeks in the US, we flew from New York to London’s Heathrow Airport, where we met our parents for the first time since we left the Philippines. It wasn’t much of a culture shock, with English still being spoken (but of course!), albeit in its, uh, truer accent.
Oyster Cards sorted, we boarded the Picadilly Line to our hostel just across the street from the Northfields Station. We explored the neighborhood a bit, buying some food at a nearby Tesco and obligatorily trying out some fish and chips at a street-corner shop next-door. But still reeling from jet lag, we never did anything more substantial and slept the rest of the day off.
We made up for our slacking the next day by hitting the road early and “witnessing” the changing of the guards at the Buckingham Palace. It was a Saturday so the place was filled with crowds, all eagerly awaiting to see the iconic Red Guards perform the proceedings. Having finally given up on catching a decent look at those guards, our group went to the nearby park to map out the rest of our itineraries. We then decided that to hit a lot of London’s sights, we have to board a hop-on-hop-off bus. We took the Big Bus Company and went around the city, having photo ops with the London Eye, the Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge and so on. We capped our day with a boat ride across Thames, a ride on the London Eye, and a 3D show (ticket was free).
The next day was spent eating lunch at the — of all places! — National Museum and walking around Trafalgar Square. It was so uneventful that I have practically no recollection of what else we did that day, except getting lost in western London riding one of those red double-decker buses. Oh, we also signed up for a tour that would take us to the Windsor Castle, the Stonehenge, and Oxford.
Which brings me to that trip.
On Monday, May 17, to maximize our last full day in the country, we joined a group tour. The bus left Victoria Station in London, and reached its first destination, the Windsor Castle, about an hour later. Most of the other passengers were Americans, but a group of noisy Spaniards sat at the first few rows. Apparently they didn’t speak English, because our tour guide just said to keep our voices down in respect to other passengers.
So anyway, we reached the Windsor Castle, which serves as a weekend abode for the Queen, and we were advised to be back at the bus by 11:15. So we explored the grandiose castle and promptly returned to the bus a few minutes after 11. Most of the passengers were already back in their seats but the Spaniards weren’t around to be seen. 11:15 passed and still no sign of them. 11:30 and our guide’s face was already flushed. 11:45, still no Spaniards so our guide contacted his boss, who apparently gave a go-signal to go on with the trip because the driver quickly stepped on the gas going to our next destination.
The Stonehenge. With heavy clouds looming at the sky, casting a not so appealing light to acres and acres of undulating rapeseed fields, it was easy to sneer at those ancient stones and say, “That was it?” Those slabs of rocks looked rather mundane in an ashen skyscape. It might have been a whole lot of a better view at sunrise or sunset, or even with the faintest trace of a blue sky. Nonetheless, the history and the aura of mystery the Stonehenge carries was enough to offset the disappointment of the overly clouded skies.
The final stop for the day was Oxford, a town in Oxfordshire famous for its elite academic institutions, as well as being a bastion of English tradition. Being a university town, the place is also teeming with such dynamism and verve to provide a pleasant counter to the plethora of high culture to be experienced while touring the colleges.
Funnily enough, as we were taking a break before going to the bus, we met the Spaniards who were with us on the bus earlier. My mom, who speaks fractured Spanish, talked with one of them and asked what happened to them. A woman probably in her 50s said they thought the guide said 11:50, not 11:15, but when they got back at the parking lot in Windsor, the bus was already gone. After asking around, they took a train going to Oxford. Finally they were with us on the bus going back to London.
The next day, with our bags packed and optimism intact, we went to the Eurostar station for our train ride to Paris, where we will start our further trip to the heart of Europe, wherever that is.