I recently took a trip to London, and I decided that I love it there (I’m referring to London, England, NOT London, Ontario, for all you Canadians). If I had to leave Israel- which I hope and pray never happens, especially in light of all the political and social turmoil we are going through now- I would go to London. Why? Well, for starters, they speak English there, so that’s a plus. The accent and vocabulary is also just brilliant (yup, great word). The Brits can say practically anything and as long as it’s with an English accent and fancy words, it sounds smart. Even if it’s not. I love that.
London is a beautiful city. The architecture of both the modern and the centuries-old buildings and structures is magnificent. And in my opinion (as a tourist of course), the city is quite clean. Trash cans (rubbish bins) are readily available, and while walking around the City of Westminster, I didn’t see anyone littering, or any litter at all. I was able to sit on the steps of the Victoria Embankment across from (the newly refurbished and very shiny) Big Ben without worrying that I was sitting on something sticky-or even worse! (Don’t judge me, I needed to sit down). Transportation around the city and to the suburbs is efficient as well, with the Underground (the tube) subway system convenient and accessible. I had no trouble getting anywhere I needed to go.
So, you ask, is that a reason to choose London over any other city?
No, not for me. The biggest draw to London for me- and England as a whole- is the history. Those who know me know that I love 19th century history. More specifically, I am fascinated by Queen Victoria and her many descendants, and how they spread throughout Europe, marrying into nearly all the royal houses of the time. So yes, London is a perfect destination for me. I can’t get enough of the palaces, museums, and landmarks. Every portrait, monument, structure, building, and stone has a story, each one more interesting than the last . On this trip to London, I chose to visit some sites I hadn’t been to previously. The following is a short review of some of the highlights.
Buckingham Palace (of course this is the first one): The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are open to the public for only 10 weeks this season, so I was very lucky to have gotten tickets. This summer the special exhibit is the Coronation display, featuring the Coronation robes, thrones and other items. If you can get tickets, make sure to take a good look at Queen Camilla’s Coronation gown, which is on display behind glass: She has the names of her children and grandchildren sewn onto the bottom trim of her dress in gold and silver thread. She also has her two Jack Russell Terriers, Bluebell and Beth, embroidered as well. Interesting, but maybe not surprising. Speaking of pet dogs, check out the Buckingham Palace gift shop, where you’ll find all sorts of fancy dog accessories, a nod to the royal corgis, of course. Oh, and no photography allowed in the palace!
Magna Carta: We’ve all heard of it, right? We learned about it back in…. 7th grade? Well, it’s real, and it’s in Salisbury, which is a city of over 40,000 people, yet has the feel of a quaint medieval village. The Magna Carta, written in 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and issued by King John of England, is one of four remaining copies, and is housed in the Salisbury Cathedral in a darkened enclosure. It is written in Latin, in the smallest letters possible, but there is a translation available to read in the nearby exhibit. The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) is the first recorded document which sets limits on the power of the king, and states that no man, including the monarch, is above the law. As a Jew, of course, I know that the Torah and Tanach precede the Magna Carta by a few thousand years, and also discuss the limitations on the power of the king. But I guess you could say that the Magna Carta is the first modern document (if you consider 800 years ago “modern”) which protects the rights and property of the king’s subjects. It states that the monarch does not have absolute power. All people have a right to justice and a fair trial with a jury. Sounds good, especially for the year 1215, in the midst of the feudal system. As I continued reading the English translation, though, I was surprised to see two paragraphs which specifically mention Jews.
Clause 10: If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for as long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.
Clause 11: If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly. (translation provided by the exhibit)
There are 62 clauses in the Magna Carta, and the fact that clauses 10 and 11 talk about Jewish loans indicates that this was a very relevant issue at the time. Many Jews in England, who weren’t allowed to own land or be part of the Christian guilds, were moneylenders. This naturally caused friction between the Jewish lenders and the Christian borrowers, when loans needed to be paid back and the borrower wasn’t exactly eager to do so. The fact that Jews were considered actual property of the Crown, with separate rules, didn’t make them more beloved either. They were allowed to live in England only to serve the King, and that’s it. Ultimately, all the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I, and weren’t allowed back for 350 years. Antisemitism was alive and well back then, and the world clearly saw us as a threat. So goes the history of the Jews.
If you haven’t been to Salisbury, I recommend going. There is also a tower in the cathedral that one can walk up (332 steps, single-file), but this must be booked in advance. If you want to go directly to the Magna Carta, you do not have to walk through the actual cathedral nave to see the famous manuscript, so for those who don’t wish to enter a church, there is a way around it.
Stonehenge: A short distance from Salisbury is the famous prehistoric stone circle of Stonehenge. To get there though, requires some planning ahead. It is advisable to buy a ticket not just for the bus to the Visitor Centre, but for the next bus too which takes you down the long road to the rock formation itself. If you don’t take this bus, you will have to walk about 30 minutes, and then you won’t be allowed to walk in the inner circle surrounding Stonehenge. You will have to stay behind the rope. Yes, this happened to us. I even offered to pay them on the spot to just let us through, but they weren’t budging. So we saw Stonehenge from somewhat of a distance. Anyway, no one is allowed to walk up to the stones anymore. Apparently the stones were being vandalized and damaged, so this was stopped in the late 1970s. (For those of you who saw National Lampoon’s European Vacation, NO, you cannot drive up there with your car like the Griswolds did, and yes, all the stones are still standing!)
Interestingly though, twice a year, on the summer and winter solstices, visitors are allowed up to the stones, and it becomes a free-for-all for thousands of revelers. Literally-it’s free of charge, and visitors can essentially do whatever they want on those two days. You can touch the stones and eat and drink and be merry. Go figure. But on this particular July day, we couldn’t do that. Oh well.
Windsor Castle: My absolute favorite. Not even Buckingham Palace is as spectacular as Windsor Castle, which was Queen Victoria’s principal palace during her nearly 64-year reign. Aside from the fact that it is the oldest and largest continuously inhabited castle in the world (and yes, it’s a real castle, just like in the movies), it also houses some of the greatest treasures in the Royal Collection (such as the Royal Archives, the Royal Photograph Collection, and the Royal Library), and is used for many official functions on a regular basis. And…lucky for me, it also has many of the original iconic portraits of the Victorian Royal Family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, several of which I have small reproductions of in my house. To see the originals with my own eyes was quite exciting, I admit (the massive portraits are so much better in real life!). As an added bonus, one of the ushers took me behind the red stanchion in the Garter Throne Room- which is roped off due to the many priceless items crowded into one area, including thrones and artwork- to see all the paintings up close. I felt like a VIP! Well, for five minutes anyway.
Churchill War Rooms: This was a late add-on to my itinerary, and it was worth it. These are the underground rooms used as a bunker and control center during WWII, especially during the Blitz. As you’d expect, the Cabinet War Rooms (the equivalent of the “chamal” in Israel) are a maze of once top-secret corridors and rooms which functioned as the nerve center where the British government and army directed the war. The rooms are a step back in time, and it’s hard not to be amazed at what was accomplished from these rooms. Put it on your schedule next time you’re in London.
There are many other amazing places to visit in London and nearby, and you can see why I was so enthralled. I should add that the week that I was there, the weather was…perfect! Sunny skies, light breezes, average temperature 74 degrees F (23 C). Couldn’t have asked for anything different, though I won’t be moving to London anytime soon. Israel is my home.