My English Summer, Pt. 1: Finding the Unexpected

“Mind the gap,” warned the soothing overhead voice and the subway train’s doors closed. “Mind the gap” has become a refrain that that brings smiles, a nod, and a wink between me and my son. The phrase has become a reminder to me that stepping outside my comfort zone offers many rewards.

My son and I had planned his high school graduation European vacation for over five years, but as the time drew near the thrill of the unexpected simmered inside me. My son and I road trip a lot, so we are both old pros at how to plan–but the traveling in our own country, even if across state lines, is easy compared to the planning it takes for overseas travel. We knew enough of how to plan so we could add or cut from our itinerary on the go. Our planes, trains, and hotels were booked. A list of places to visit at each of our destinations with maps were packed. We had a list of banks that affiliate with our bank from each country on our visit. We had electric socket adapters and backpacks and neck wallets. We plotted ways to find WiFi hot spots along our routes.  We planned and planned and planned. But it was the unexpected finds that made our trip memorable.

As we touched down in at Heathrow, we both felt a little intimidated by the thought of going through customs, procuring sterling so we’d have a little cash on hand, and figuring out how to get on the Tube. Within a hour, we found our fears to be for naught. With Oyster Cards in hand, we boarded the underground train toward our destination–the Tower of London. Our hotel was a block inland from the Tower and Tower Bridge. And the view from the Sky Lounge was fantastic–a hidden find that my legal-drinking-age-in-Europe son enjoyed almost as much as I did.

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Our trek along the main road outside our hotel (East Cheap/Cannon/Fleet/Strand) provided plenty of unexpected experiences. A couple of my friends met me and my son in London for a few days. Our excursions hit the highlights of London, such as the Tower, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. We took a river cruise and walked the Millennium Bridge. We ooo’ed and ahhh’ed at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, and Trafalgar Square.  But we had the most fun when we went walkabout.

On our second morning, my son and I took off down to Strand Street where we had spied a plaque mentioning the Templar Knights the day before. We took off down the close and found the Temple Church, erected in the 1180s. My poli sci/history major son found a piece of heaven on earth down that old narrow road.

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The spectacular effigies told a rich story–some of which we already were familiar, William Marshall, the first Earl of Pembroke (2nd Creation). Marshall was instrumental as a marshal/adviser to Kings Henry II, Richard I, and John. Marshall’s connection to Robin Hood legends and to the signing of the Magna Carta made finding this Temple Church worth taking an unplanned left turn down a narrow close. Along the walls in the rotunda part of the church, we found facsimiles of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. Having celebrated July 4th mere days earlier, it was refreshing to see our own country’s founding document displayed side by side with the Great Charter–to see how another country sees us, to see us through their eyes.

The Church was an amazing piece of architecture as well. Small and simple compared to Westminster, it was no less beautiful. The Gothic buttresses and stained glass windows impressed beyond measure.

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By day two, having walked many, many miles (we were averaging about 15 miles per day on foot), we started to venture further away. Navigating the Tube felt natural, unlike the first time I looked dumbfounded at the map of underground tunnels. We looked forward to hearing, “Mind the gap.” We found that stepping out of our comfort zones only made our comfort zones larger–as the uncomfortable quickly became comfortable.

To be continued…

 

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