While the underground is a time-efficient way to get around London, no sightseeing gets done while you’re roaring along the tunnels. On some days we chose to stay above ground as much as possible. There was always an end goal in mind, but we had a hunch there’d be surprises along the way.
First surprise – Westminster Cathedral
On our first day of urban hiking in London, we made Buckingham Palace the goal. After all, visiting London and not seeing the Queen’s number one home would be like going to Niagara and not checking out the falls.
From our ‘home station’ of Mornington Crescent we dipped into the underground to emerge at Victoria, then we pointed our walking shoes in the general direction of the palace. We hadn’t gotten far when we came upon this extraordinary structure.
On closer inspection we discovered this popsicle of a building is Westminster Cathedral. Not the abbey. Very different. For a start, it’s Roman Catholic and only about 100 years old (Westminter Abbey is closer to 1000). Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Now I have to mention here that we’re not religious people, however we very much appreciate the trouble architects go to with religious structures. The design work is inspired.
The photogenic outside of this Neo-Byzantine cathedral is matched by an outrageously gorgeous interior. There are side chapels dedicated to various saints, and each one is beautifully different. You don’t have to be a Catholic to pay 50p and light a candle.
Surprise number two – squirrel in the park
After finding, admiring and photographing the heck out of Buckingham Palace, we carried on to Hyde Park. It’s a gorgeous chunk of greenery that’s home to a surprising amount of wildlife. We joked about seeing a squirrel – and then we saw one, doing the classic pause-and-dash scurry between a couple of big trees. There’s no image to go with this surprise, because squirrels move way too fast. By the time all the tourists in the vicinity had shouted “Look! Squirrel!”, the little guy was gone.
Surprise number three – Albert’s memorial
At the edge of Kensington Gardens, part of Hyde Park, something gorgeously gold caught our attention. More ornate than a really ornate thing, it demonstrated Victorian England’s fixation with monuments better than any monument we’d encountered so far.
The Albert Memorial commemorates Prince Albert’s death. The poor man died of typhoid and his adoring wife (Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of India) was beside herself. Unveiled in 1872, this gothic extravaganza celebrates all the things Albert loved, and the man himself is gilded from head to toe. Murray commented: “You know you’ve nailed the husband role when the missus builds one of these things when you’re gone”.
Surprise number four – Royal Albert Hall
Immediately after stumbling on The Albert Memorial, we bumped into Royal Albert Hall. Honestly, in this corner of London everything is Albert-led. And fair enough too. Albert supported many good causes, including the abolition of slavery.
Royal Albert Hall is a wicked example of Italianate architecture. It was designed by the Royal Engineers and completed in 1871. Originally it was to be called the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but Queen Victoria changed its name in honour of her beloved.
The best way to appreciate the sheer gorgeousness of Royal Albert Hall is to buy tickets and take a seat. Conveniently, the BBC Proms were on when we found Albert’s hall…so we booked seats and went the next night. Monteverdi’s Vespers was another fabulous surprise – soaring choral music and a French baroque orchestra. Ethereal and hypnotic. Transendental.
- Westminster Cathedral is on Victoria Street. You can attend a service or visit as a tourist.
- The Proms have been held at Royal Albert Hall every year since 1895. These days they are sponsored by the BBC. More than 70 concerts are held over an eight-week period, beginning in mid July.