Reading week at the University of Exeter is a week free of classes given to many undergraduate students with the intention of preparing for end of November deadlines. I took advantage of this opportunity to travel to London and Paris, avoiding any useful work. Because I have too much to say about each, I will focus on London here. Another blog post on Paris is inbound in the next few days.
I had been told that London was its own separate world from the rest of the country, and I had been hesitant to believe it. After visiting, I think I can understand why. London is a big place, in every sense. It is geographically enormous, but also incredibly populous. Looking down on it from the window of an airplane, one can see nothing but concrete and glass, split down the middle by the Thames.
Part of what makes London different from the other extremely large cities that I’ve been to is its layout. Most American cities have stopless interstate highways running down their center, which leads to the impression that getting to the heart of a city or away from it is a matter of 20 minutes on the road without traffic. There is no such thing in London. Many of London’s streets follow the same path that they did 2,000 years ago when the Romans built them, and nothing was constructed with multiple lanes of modern traffic in mind. A bus from Exeter to central London will take about five hours, with a quarter of that time spent in the city despite being a much smaller proportion of the distance. Getting in or out of that city is hard, and I suspect that this is part of the reason it seems like an island unto itself.
However, London is also extremely diverse. On any given street I could hear several different languages spoken, and all of the nations of the world are represented by restaurants, grocers, market stalls and street vendors throughout the city. Eating typical British food in London would be a mistake with the culinary diversity around.
I had the opportunity to sit in the visitors gallery for a debate in the House of Commons, and anyone who hasn’t watched a session of Prime Minister’s Questions should do so immediately. Besides being a nice piece of political theatrics, it allows one to see a distillation of the centuries of odd traditions that inhabit parliament. Watching MPs shout over one another, bob up and down, and repeatedly called to order is objectively funny.
Buckingham Palace is another strange place. It is the most valuable residence in the world, occupying a huge amount of space in central London. It is guarded full time by soldiers in furry hats. It is the Queen’s home. She keeps an 80 foot tall gold statue of her great-great grandmother in the front yard.