All of the guidebooks seemed to agree that no visitior to London should be allowed to leave without seeing the glory of Westminster Abbey. So, we broke our free attractions policy and handed over a few pounds to get inside this must-see attraction. However, we didn't pay for a tour or an audio guide. We wrongly assumed that we could just listen in on another tour at a few points of interest, but this was strictly discouraged. We also failed to befriend people with audio guides and weren't bold enough to steal handsets.
The major attraction of Westminster Abbey is the dead people. And there are lots of them! A big trend in death statuary seemed to be having a replica of the dead person lying above the grave. Clearly, the people didn't want to be lonely or to have cold feet; so most had some sort of animal at their feet. A few had inanimate objects, such as a small castle. The strangest was the person who had a smaller person at his feet. Even stranger, the little person was positioned to be staring up the larger person's robes for all of eternity. Perhaps there was a story for this, but making up our own humor about it seemed more fun and less expensive than finding out the truth. Luckily, there was a guy who was responsible for walking around the abbey and keeping all of the faces free of dust.
Another nice feature at Westminster Abbey was a device to help people look at the vaulted ceilings without tilting their heads toward the sky. It is called a mirror, and it was a popular attraction for many. Apparently sore necks are a big problem and the fan-vaulting is not to be missed. Thus, a large wood-framed mirror in cart form! This is the sort of thing that I should have expected in a country with socialized medicine -- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Before leaving, we looked at a large collection of death masks and royal effigies, memorials to many famous writers, and avoided the temptation of spending all of our Pounds in the gift shop.
The day then transitioned into the "looking at buildings" phase. We saw Parlaiment and the large line to get inside to hear a session; so we kept walking. We did get to hear old Big Ben chiming at noon, which was good timing.
Then we walked along St. James Park to have a look at Buckingham Palace. According to the flag, the Queen was inside, but we didn't get a chance to say hello. Instead, we watched the guards marching back and forth and waving their guns around. They were really too far away to even make an effort at distracting them. When we'd had our fill of the palace, we walked back through the park, where we saw the famous Russian Pelicans swimming. We also saw the special green chairs that cost 4 pounds to rent for the afternoon.
At the end of the park, we found ourselves near Trafalgar Square; so why not pay a visit to old bloody socks himself? At the Nelson monument, we saw the famous aggressive pigeons and the famous lions that people enjoy climbing on for photographs. We also saw the National Gallery right across the plaza; so we couldn't resist its freeness.
Luckily, they have several computer stations that allow visitors to design a tour to make the experience with the art more efficient. We chose the "highlights" and "early masterpieces" tours and set off to see the artwork. By far, the highlights were the early masterpieces depicting the life of St. Francis. In particular, one showed him making a pact with a wolf. A notary witnesses the handshake between the proto-Saint and the wolf; he bloody limbs of one of the wolf's victims is shown in the background.
Over lunch, we returned to our friendly travel guides for advice about what to do next. The promise of a Lord of the Rings exhibit at the Science museum drew us to South Kensington right away. When we arrived, we learned that the attraction had been replaced by one concerning the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, if it hadn't been ridiculously expensive, this might have been exciting. Instead, we looked at a bunch of American space artifacts -- very few Britons have actually made it into space, some junk only superficially related to modern technology, some games intended to tell us about how people are different (is your brain male or female? what's your personality? can your drive if your right and left are mixed up? some people's hobbies include writing letters to death row inmates! here's a seven toed cat!), as well as some games from/about the future. For instance, future video games will be projected on large white tables and will require you to move babies around a maze to steal toys before the robot nanny returns them to their holding pod.
Rather than spending more time being harassed about not going into the h2g2 exhibit or looking at a room full of engines, we escaped from the Science Museum. After all, the Museum of Natural History was right next door and they have animatronic dinosaurs! Three of them stood on top of display cases hissing with bloody mouths. I suspect that they had once been arranged to simulate a fight, but someone might have complained. There was also a Tyranosaurus Rex, which had a room to itself. It looked menacing while people took hundreds of pictures. In general, the curation of the exhibit was highly speculative -- never wanting to make any definite statements about the dinosaurs.
The final attraction was a large room featuring portraits of various rescued apes. This was the first time that we recognized the importance of benches in appropriate museum design. We were able to sit in the middle of the room and see all of the pictures. As an extra bonus, all of the sad stories about the lives of the apes were printed on convenient placards near the bench.
For our evening entertainment, we took the Tube to Oxford Circus and spent a couple hours walking around Soho and the West End trying to decide that we were hungry enough to stop to eat. This journey took us through the porn section of town and past the place where Ewan McGregor is one of the Guys and Dolls. We also saw many pubs were people stood outside to drink, possibly because it was too hot to sit inside. After getting sort of lost a couple times, we settled on a Thai place called busaba eathai, where the seating was community-style. It was sort of interesting and sort of weird to sit at a table with other eating strangers and not really interact with them. But the food was plentiful and good especially after all of our wandering.