One October morning, I woke up, rolled out of bed, and thought to myself, I want to go on an adventure. So, I booked a €24 ($27) mid-November round trip Ryanair flight to London, reserved three nights at a very affordable youth hostel, and marked my calendar. I decided to go alone, knowing that many of my friends still had yet to register with Irish Immigration Services, meaning they could not leave the country yet, and besides, the adventure of exploring a new city on my own appealed to me.
As the date of my departure grew closer, my excitement mounted. My nerves also grew--was I savvy enough to navigate a completely new city all by myself, with no one to help me if something went awry? Well, as luck would have it, I was not destined to be completely alone in London! About two weeks before my trip, Mom called to tell me that by complete coincidence, my Uncle Ted would also be in London! Although our trips would only overlap for one day, I was thrilled. Seeing Uncle Ted would be a wonderful treat.
I didn’t sleep the night before I left. I was far too excited, and I was plenty nervous--I had to leave my dorm around 3:00 am to catch my flight. I was scared of falling asleep and missing my whole trip–and there’s no one here that would wake me up if I made that mistake.
I arrived in London and met Uncle Ted at Abbey Road Studios, where, after we walked across the iconic Beatles crosswalk, we got a tour of the studio and walked around an event they were having that day for new music technology. Then, I had the privilege of watching Uncle Ted meet with entrepreneurs for his business.
I loved seeing Uncle Ted in his element and in “work mode”--it was so cool to see this side of his world. And, of course, I was beyond ecstatic to witness the famous studio where a good deal of my greatest musical heroes have created wildly impactful art. Towards the end of the meeting, we found ourselves in the actual studio where the Beatles recorded many major works, and I was offered a chance to use the music software that the entrepreneurs were developing. So, I actually got to make music in the same space that the Beatles worked!
Shortly after, Uncle Ted and I parted ways.
I took in Trafalgar Square at night and the Christmas market outside the National Gallery, then headed back to my hostel via the tube to get a full-night’s sleep before my busy Saturday.
When I had first arrived in London, I had noticed an unfamiliar symbol everywhere: two red circles next to each other with a smaller black circle between them and a green shape to the side. They adorned signs, trains, most people’s lapels, and windows. I approached a doorman and asked him what the symbol meant. The symbol is a poppy: I happened to travel to London during Remembrance Day Weekend! The man told me about a parade that was going to happen on Sunday. I tucked the information away and started doing some research.
On Saturday, I got an early start and enjoyed a tour of Westminster Abbey, which was decorated with poppies for Remembrance Day.
The tour took me to parts of the Abbey that are off-limits to the general public, including inner rooms, the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor, an up-close view of the Coronation Chair of England, and an excavation area complete with artifacts from the early monasteries that once stood on that spot and skeletons of people who were buried there centuries ago. I spent plenty of time taking in Poet’s Corner after the tour, marvelling at the names surrounding me including William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens.
After my tour of the stunning abbey, I ambled across the Westminster bridge, admiring Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, the London Eye, and other landmarks. I walked to Buckingham Palace, then took a cab to the Tower of London. It was one of the only cabs I took while in London: other than that taxi and the one I took with Uncle Ted, I traveled completely via the Tube, trains, and the London buses.
While confusing to navigate at times, I relished the challenge of learning a bit about another city's public transport system, especially one as notorious as London’s. I also firmly believe that you can learn a lot about a city and its inhabitants through its public transportation, and since I was traveling alone, I was perfectly set up to people-watch and observe as I moved among the Londoners.
When I arrived at the Tower of London, I enjoyed the various exhibits. I was especially fascinated by the Crown Jewels and surprised by how close they allowed us to stand to those historic jewels. I couldn’t believe I was standing right next to actual monarchs’ crowns, clothes, and scepters. And if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed how big some of the jewels are.
After the Tower of London closed, it was early in the evening. I purposefully had left my evenings open as flexible time to do what interested me, so I wasn’t sure what my next step would be when I saw a sign for boat tours on the Thames. I bought a surprisingly cheap ticket and settled in for what turned out to be a beautiful, narrated trip down a brightly lit London skyline. I was especially thrilled to get a good look at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The tour guides pointed out another popular Christmas market on the river, so when the boat tour ended, I made my way to the market and walked around, enjoying the festive lights, rich aromas, and intriguing corners of the market.
I ate a lovely dinner then returned to the hotel to plan the next day. I researched the Remembrance Day Parade and decided to forgo my original Sunday morning plans to attend it.
I rose extra early the next morning, took the coldest shower I’ve ever endured, and caught the 113 bus at Hendon Central station to Swiss Cottage Station where I took the Jubilee line to Westminster station and walked to the Cenotaph. I wanted to be there with enough time to get a good spot so I could see the parade, and sure enough, I was among the first allowed into the parade area.
Within moments, I was completely surrounded by a growing crowd. Necks craned to get a good view as the parade began. Rows and rows of uniformed English foot guards marched by in perfect unison. Politicians, including Boris Johnson, lined up in the square in front of me to lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph.
The Royal Family emerged from the building across from the crowd to watch the ceremony. Music swelled from military bands, voices of the crowd rose in a chorus of “God Save the Queen,” and the eyes of the elderly veteran standing next to me filled with tears. To conclude the parade, groups of veterans marched through the square with their own wreaths, many being pushed in wheelchairs but holding themselves with pride nonetheless. I left in awe, filled with gratitude for being able to witness this expression of reverence.
I reflected on the morning as I enjoyed afternoon tea. A Vincent van Gogh theme united the delightful meal, including blue tea that turned purple before my very eyes to match the sky of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” thanks to the tea’s chemical reaction to lemon juice. The cake was painted with the likeness of a van Gogh self-portrait, and the tart had a painting of “Starry Night.” The small tea cakes were served on sunflower dishes. The gorgeous, ornate tea room itself had historical significance as well, as Oscar Wilde and other artistic geniuses used to meet in that very room to enjoy spirited discussions over a cup of tea. My artist’s heart was filled to the brim.
After leaving tea, I explored Piccadilly Circus a bit and walked around Soho. I ran into some Girl Guides (the UK equivalent of American Girl Scouts) who had been in the Remembrance Day Parade, and we exchanged some stories of our scouting experiences.
Then, I headed over to the Tate Britain to see many moving pieces of art and a couple famous works, including John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,’ a print of which has hung in my room for my entire life.
When the Tate closed, I traveled back to Piccadilly Circus to see it at night. I explored some more areas, including London’s Chinatown, and enjoyed a little night drawing.
After an atmospheric final dinner at a small Italian restaurant I stumbled upon, I headed back to the hostel and prepared for my return to Ireland.
When I arrived in Ireland, I was surprised by how touching it was to hear the Irish language being spoken again. I had a wonderful weekend, but it was good to be back.
A lot of things surprised me about the trip. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I was taken off-guard by how emotional traveling alone proved to be. I learned a lot about myself as I faced and overcame challenges, meticulously thought through each step of my journey, and took every precaution I could to stay safe. I learned a great deal about London by being alone: it gave me the opportunity to see details, observe dynamics, and create connections I never could have had I been with someone else. It was yet another lesson in trusting myself because I had no other choice. And that weekend, I proved to myself that I CAN do it, even if it’s hard. Again and again and again.