Six Days in London

... Chapter 1 of a Melrose Couple Seeking a Break

Don and Lorry Norris

What's it like to be a tourist in England? Ask Lorry Norris, retired Melrose Public Health nurse, caught in the busloads of sightseers at Stonehenge. "In spite of the crowds", she said, "London has become our favorite city".

Six days in London. It was one of the most spectacular vacations we've ever had. Short. Expensive. But then, London, as a place to visit, now tops our list for places to go and things to do.

Since we're based in the Northeast corner of the US, it was inevitable that we go to London, if only to do some research on dead relatives -- folks who helped settle this corner of the USA. We, here in the States, are used to judging history in terms of two or three hundred years, for three centuries ago there were more Indians here than Europeans.

This church, where Lorry's great grandmother was married, was built by the Saxons in the year AD 600.

At one point, we stumbled upon a community church in England, about 50 miles north of London, that was built by Saxons. That is before the Normans, before William the Conqueror came here with sword drawn in 1066. That church, called All Saints in the tiny village of Wing, was built in 600, A.D., at a time when Christianity was a fledgling religion.

Someday, just for comparison, I should like to find out what those ancient people were worshipping in their new church.

For comparison, the oldest church in our city of Melrose is less than 150 years old. That Anglican church, All Saints, was probably Catholic in the first millenium, and remained so until Henry VIII decided he wanted first a divorce, and second, nothing more to do with the Pope and Catholicism, and formed the Anglican Church. This was Henry of five wives, including Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard, both of whom lost their heads to the ax at London Tower. It happened in the 1500s.

It was also Henry VIII who beheaded my ancestor, Sir William LeNorreys, after erroneously accusing his close friend of having an affair with Anne Boleyn.

What's so spectacular about London? Everything! The architecture, the magnitude of the stone structures, and height of the cathedrals, the weight of the stone and the system of holding it all together. All utterly fantastic. No steel, no nails. The All Saints Church in Wing, for instance, with its towering  steeple, its rough stone exterior and ornate-but-simple interior, has to compete with Europe's more well- known churches, in sheer wonderment.

Photography is not allowed in St. Peter's, but you can buy pictures at the souvenir shop.

More Spectacular? The fact that such magnificent edifices as St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey remain standing after 400 years, surviving dozens of wars, earth tremors, revolutions, and the blitz of World War II. Actually the great fire of 1666 did far more damage to the city of London than the Nazi bombs of WWII, for the fire wiped out two thirds of the wooden city practically overnight. Most of what you see in London is younger than 400 years.

That fire, by the way, is the reason that all (almost all) buildings in England are now of stone and brick and mortar. Beside the fact that there is little wood left in England. The fire had two other benefits: first, it halted the raging plague overnight. Two, it provided an open field for the work of a modest young architect by the name of Christopher Wren, who in a short lifetime built some 50 stone structures in and about London. Therein lies a new definition of magnificence.

More of the spectacular? Curving streets, squares called circus, museums featuring a large portion of the world's best art, pubs that serve not only great beer and reliable English food, but also provide a place for rest, relaxation and conversation. London is a mixing bowl of world population, and in the course of one day, I recognized some dozen languages -- and heard perhaps another half-dozen that were totally foreign to my ear.

"Beefeaters" are the Queen's guards at the Tower of London. The civilians are Don and Lorry.

There are endless castles, palaces and forts to explore, pomp and ceremony, horse guards, bobbies, Big Ben and Parliament, The War Room of World War two fame, and of course, 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's home that can be viewed only through a wrought-iron fence from half a block away.

There are double decker buses that crisscross the famous River Thames and wander seemingly aimlessly through the winding streets of the great city. There is one of the most efficient subway systems in the world. There are funny cabs with drivers who insist on talking in cockney -- we even saw a cab that caters to Iranian trade. And there are cruises up the Thames to garden spots beyond belief.

There is a paradox in going to England, for there is so much that is just like the cities of America and Western Europe, yet there is so much different, so much more character in its antiquity, so much more depth and variety. The paradox continues when one speeds through the suburbs and the smaller cities -- then one wonders how the Brits all manage to live in those endless row houses whose suburban architecture is so alike, so plain, so much sameness in red brick and mortar.

And we saw, in our brief six days in Southern England, that space there appears to be at a premium, for houses (apartments) are smaller, rooms are smaller, cars are smaller, streets are smaller. We Americans, who dote on our individuality and three thousand miles of space, were suddenly thrust into a hotel room that lists $225 a night and measures a scant ten feet by ten feet. With one window.

And yet, as we barrelled along the railroad at 125 miles per hour through English countryside, one could see forever, for there were only patches of woods here and there. Most of the land had been cleared a thousand or more years ago, which treats the passerby to immense views and endless shades of green fields, rolling hills and picturesque villages.

The paradox that the American finds in one of its mother countries will astound your perception of life as it could have been, had our ancestors not sailed westward.

My wife Lorry and I, both of whom are of part-English ancestry, will follow this introduction with a series of articles based on our helter-skelter week-long peek at this homeland. It, the land and the people, are fascinating. London is a place all people should see.

September 21, 1999

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