The Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace are just as buttoned up as they have been for the past twenty years, ever since an IRA bomb threat caused their closure to the public. This day, with a probable war on everybody's mind, the police on guard duty were alertly watching all of the passers-by, while at the closest edge of the park across the street, under the statue of Winston Churchill, a line of anti- war placards and posters had been propped up along the grass. St. Margaret and Big Ben
There were plenty of visitors to Westminster Abbey, including several school groups from around Europe. We weren't prepared for the overwhelming funerary monuments, filling every chapel and, it seemed, every square foot of floor space. We consulted the Michelin passed on to us by friends last week, and learned that the Abbey was "a royal mausoleum for many centuries [which] became a national shrine . . ." Plaques crowd the floor and climb the walls until they are so high they can't be read. Some of the old Latin inscriptions have been translated into English, engraved on accompanying marble plaques. Kings and Queens are buried everywhere, and, at the height of the monument making, elaborate sculptures representing the deceased royalty were placed supine on top of the tombs. Queen Elizabeth is unmistakeable in her ruffed collar. In addition to royalty there are loads of dead British noblepersons, statespersons, warriors, scientists, musicians, writers, public servants . . . Yes, being serendipitous genealogists, we happened to look down and saw a stone engraved with the name of Henry Spelman, Antiquarian -- a seventeenth century scholar who is our 6th cousin 13 times removed and our only known relative buried there.
The chapel of Henry VII strikes a lighter motif -- the walls are festooned with the banners of the Knights Grand Cross of the Order of Bath. Each knight chooses a different emblem, high up on the wall. We noticed an ostrich and a jester, and a bear which appeared to be smoking a hookah. Plaques Westminster Abbey engraved with coats of arms of Knights of the Bath are attached to the dark wooden chairs.
The ancient coronation chair was on display, but as you may know, the Stone of Scone has been returned to Scotland. In the museum located off the cloister are wax effigies of the monarchs, along with abbey regalia, including the second coronation chair used in 1689 when William and Mary were made King and Queen. This chair also bears the initials of centuries of schoolboys at Westminster Abbey School, now restricted to just a choir school.
Not all the memorial plaques are to British dead -- there is a plaque to Franklin Roosevelt -- nor are all those memorialized actually buried nearby. D. H. Lawrence has a plaque, although we've already told you the story of his re-burial in New Mexico. He may be more widely known dead than alive. Captain Cook's plaque has a map of his travels. Nelson's statue reveals his diminutive size. Some of the monuments are from more ordinary people, back in a time when it was possible to purchase burial in the Abbey. One small plaque to a seventeenth-century child was "from her afflicted and disconsolate mother".
At the top of each hour, the public address system awoke and we were led in a short prayer for peace - a reminder that this is a church and that war is on everybody's mind here.
This and that:
The McDonald's up the streeet has installed a half-dozen computers, offering 15 minutes of free Internet with each full meal. McDonald's will also Iron bell be offering McFruit -- grapes and apples -- for those opposed to chips, but some complain that they are not British fruits. We find a lot more support for organically grown foods than in the U.S. People seem quite willing to pay two and three times as much for a loaf of bread, say, made the right way.
Can anyone identify the large cast-iron bell shapes that are found here and there on street corners? See picture.
We thought we had found a way to get local internet access without paying a 15-cents per minute roaming charge to Earthlink. We picked up a starter disk from the bookseller W. H. Smith and spent several hours and phone calls hooking up until we were finally told over the phone that one must use a British-issued credit card. The requirements COULD have been printed on the CD jacket. It took us another hour to erase all traces of W. H. Smith from our computer. A philosophical comment: it doesn't bode well for the future of capitalism when people feel they can't trust business offers.
In the U.S. the kind of government that affects ordinary people the most is State and local government -- the influence of the federal government is perhaps most felt by way of The Prince doesn't like it the extensive revenue sharing programs. But in the U.K. Parliament is supreme. Americans all know about crossing State lines to take advantage of some difference in the laws about liquor or gambling, etc., but the Brits don't have that experience, and they are more tolerant of a strong central government.
The printed treasures of the British Museum -- books, manuscripts and the like -- have been relocated to a huge modern brick building (hated by the Prince of Wales) across the street from St. Pancras Station. It's called the British Library, and it has its own museum displaying historic treasures. To use the Reading Room, one must face an interview with the staff, who will ascertain if you have made use of all other available resources and thus can only continue your research with materials held at the British Library. Since there are dozens of genealogical archives in and around London, we will probably never sit down for the interview, although the genealogical handbooks all refer to the need to use the British Library for certain difficult questions.