December 24, 2000, Sunday – Christmas Eve
We went back into London—this time driving with Anna and Eoin. And for the first time since our arrival—rain! Really, not much more than a drizzle, though it was enough to get us wet. And cold. Once again, we drove by landmarks and sites that seemed like something out of a dream: Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, the Tate and other museums, Big Ben … and we stopped at the London Eye.
Intended to become an icon of the city of London, this is, well, a giant Ferris wheel. It has thirty-three giant pods, which are observation areas; each one holds up to twenty-five passengers (though on this relatively slow tourism day, each capsule got just ten or so folks) who enjoy a completely unobstructed view of London from a fabulous perspective (450 feet up, at the highest point). There are some very nice photos on Wikipedia, including a panorama, so be sure to look.
“Because it is situated on the banks of the River Thames, in the center of the City,” the official guidebook says, “it overlooks many of the city’s most famous and impressive landmarks … on a clear day you can see for 25 miles—as far as Heathrow Airport and Windsor Castle.”
It wasn’t a clear day for us, though. As mentioned, it was rainy (and cold, once you got out in it); Anna and Eoin decamped to a coffee shop to stay warm and dry while Jesse and I stood in line for the Eye.
The London Eye is situated on the banks of the Thames, just across and about 700 feet north of Westminster and Big Ben.
It was built to celebrate the new millennium (in fact, it was first known as the Millennium Wheel), so when we were visiting, it was not quite a year old yet (it had opened on 31 December 1999). The Eye has since become the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK; when we were there in 2000, we’d heard stories of people waiting in line for three hours … but because it was Christmas Eve and raining, the lines were short and we were on board in less than fifteen minutes. Timing, as they say, is everything.
With the light dwindling, Eoin gave us a final pass through the city’s various districts: the West End (a social and cultural center, as well as the London home of the royal family); Westminster (the center of political and religious power); Kensington (an exclusive area of parks, museums, and hotels); Regent’s Park (an area of upscale, mostly Georgian, homes); Southwark (the riverfront area); and “the city” (the financial district). “The largest city in Europe”—I’m quoting the guidebook here, though Anna claimed England was not in Europe!—“London is home to about seven million people and covers 625 square miles. Founded by the Romans in the first century AD, it has been the principal home of British monarchs for a thousand years, as well as the center of business and government … in addition to its diverse range of museums, galleries, and churches, London is an exciting contemporary city.” Typical British understatement. 🙂
During this farewell tour, we made our last stop at a pub, to raise a glass to this part of our visit. To London! Eoin took us to Prospect of Whitby—the oldest continuously operating pub on the river. Here’s some history: the famous riverside public house ‘the Prospect of Whitby’ on Wapping Wall dates back to 1520 and was once notorious for being a den of thieves and smugglers. (It’s even mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys.) Originally it was known as the Devil’s Tavern, probably for good reason.
Anna and I each had a shandy, which is a beer/lemonade combination, and while you may wrinkle your nose at the thought, I am here to tell you it was delicious. (My friends will know I have a great margarita recipe that calls for a can of beer, so in fact this notion of beer and citrus juices is not so farfetched.)
After this we drove home to Berkshire, where we changed clothes and went off to the carol service and midnight mass at the Corpus Christi Church in Wokingham. We sang carols and pinched ourselves—Christmas in England!
Upon our return home, we observed traditions from both Eoin’s and Anna’s families: we ate mincemeat pies (which Eoin had made earlier in the day) and sipped ginger wine—the former tradition from Eoin’s side, the latter from Anna’s. And with this glow in our stomachs, we toddled off to bed.