I hurried down the rain-soaked streets of London, wearing absolutely the wrong shoes for it and pulling along my overstuffed suitcase with the broken handle. It was 7:30am on a cold Sunday in March – just before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world, and my European travel, into a tailspin. I had taken the tube from Heathrow after a long overnight flight from the States. I bought a walking map of Westminster and studied my options.
I had 8 hours until my train to Oxford and my cell phone was already close to dying. I stumbled into an empty Trafalgar Square and posed for a wind-blown selfie by the fountain. On tired feet I trudged past Scotland Yard, peaked at what I could of 10 Downing Street, and landed accidentally by Parliament and Westminster Abbey. (Hands down the best abbey I’ve ever seen!)
Despite the many historical buildings and destinations highlighted on my map, there was one place I knew I had to see. I walked through St. James Park en route to Buckingham Palace marveling at the exotic birds and vivid foliage. A small white cottage sat on the property overlooking Bird Island where a colony of pelicans resides.
The rain picked up and I adjusted my pace accordingly. I eyed my suitcase nervously and wondered if it was really waterproof. Several minutes later I plopped myself down by a golden fountain near the front gates of the Palace. I spent the next half hour reflecting on the history of the site, fantasizing about having an audience with the Queen, and drinking tea with the Duchess of Sussex. (I don’t like tea, but I’d drink it for her.)
I found a small gift shop near the Palace where I picked up souvenirs for my family and waited out the rain. The shopkeeper told me that the Changing of the Guard ceremony would be starting soon, so I made my way over to the Wellington Barracks to watch. After fifteen minutes of marching band pageantry from the Queen’s Guard, I walked on towards the Royal Military Chapel as it’s bells tolled signaling the start of Sunday morning services.
I stepped in cautiously unsure how a stranger in jeans hauling a suitcase would be received at a formal service for the Church of England on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. I found an outlet in a back hallway where I could charge my phone and listened as the service began. I read in a brochure how the Chapel was bombed in World War II and more than 100 worshippers were killed. Several times that day I reflected on what it would have been like to have lived in London during such a time.
Later after a delicious brunch I walked along the Thames regretting that I didn’t have more time to stay and explore the city. Jet lag hit me with full force and my train to Oxford beckoned. Next time, I thought, I will stay for a weekend. Next time, I will wear better shoes.