Traveling over to Europe went very smooth, but the goodbyes were surprisingly hard. I arrived in London at 9am, after only a slight delay in Charlotte. Only minutes prior to landing, I realized that my colleague, Michele Magoteaux, was also on my plane. After a short wait through customs, we met up with a group of four other participants, who had also landed around the same time. We traveled together from the airport to the hotel with zero hiccups and only slight discomfort from carrying our large suitcases up the underground’s many steps.
After arriving at our hotel, that is situated across from Hyde Park, our group practiced reading the tube maps by embarking for Westminster. Once at Westminster, various groups broke off and went their separate ways. A group of girls and I visited Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and Trafalgar Square. The girls joked that I should be their tour guide, but I could not contain my excitement about sharing the immense history of the places I have so long read about. After many photos, I got to also experience my first real English pub!
The second morning was the first day of our study tour on World War II. We headed out early to visit Churchill’s War Rooms. These rooms made up the bunker that was used to house the British government command center during World War II. The bunker lies beneath the Exchequer building under the protection of a six-foot slab of reinforced concrete. Many of the government officials and staff spent years down in this dim lit bunker – giving their part in the war that the British referred to as “The People’s War.”
Since I know that this next month will be jam packed with site after site of important historical information, I decided to jot down interesting or new information during my tours in a notebook that I am carrying around with me. I noted that the bunker had a weather sign, controlled by George Rance, which would tell the weather for that day in London. When the sign read “windy” it meant the occurrence of a blitz – “windy” was a cheeky term, at the time, for freighted. I thought it was inspiring that even at the most frightening of times, the British humor lightened the moods of the individuals down below. Another part of interesting humor was that the secret Allied telephone room was disguised, on the outside, as a private lavatory.
The War Rooms also contained a great deal of information about Winston Churchill. Churchill made clear his skepticism about his Soviet allies: “Trying to maintain good relation with a communist is like wooing a crocodile. You do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or to beat it over the head.” No wonder Churchill later coined the term “Iron Curtain.”
The room I loved the most during my visit to the War Rooms was the Map Room. The room had scarcely changed since its abandonment after V-E Day. The exact maps used to chart the war are hanging up on the walls covered by hundreds of pinholes that marked the individual convoys throughout the war effort. On one wall you could see the maps of the Pacific Theater and one titled “Secret: War against Japan,” which I really enjoyed. Also on a map in another room, an important British official doodled a crude sketch of Hitler – which highlights, again, the use of humor even in darkest of times.
Today was the group’s free day in London. My roommate and I decided to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Natural History Museum, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and the Tower Bridge. Also we ended up walking over and meeting up with friends to visit a pub that specialized in meat pies and hopped over to see the memorialization of the Great Fire of London that devastated the city in 1666. I have never seen a more beautiful cathedral than St. Paul’s and, while photos were not allowed inside, even a picture could not have capture the dramatic colors and scenes of the mosaics and painting on the gigantic dome ceiling. I enjoyed the Sherlock Museum and also learned, during the tour, about actual Victorian Era murderers. I also forced myself to ignore my fear off heights and walked on the glass floor of the Tower Bridge, which allowed me to have a unique view of the Thames River below.
This trip has been absolutely fantastic so far. I have made fast friends, explored a beautiful city, and learned much from World War II back to the history of the beginning of London. One remark that I made during my visit to the Abbey, which I believe will continue to follow me throughout my tour around Europe, is that I cannot believe that I am standing inside a building and touching the walls of something that drastically predates the founding of my own country. I am so excited to continue my journey and take in these historical sites. It’s one thing to know the dates and significance, but it is another to experience the place in person and to stand beneath its 300-foot baroque dome.