Gratitude in London

by Becky Burns /
Becky Burns's picture
Feb 14, 2011 / 0 comments

How is it that Valentine’s Day is upon us? Catching up with travel stories is a must!

A couple of months ago, the time came to embark on a long-awaited trip with my mother, now 80 years old. Mom and I had spoken many times of going on a trip together – she had traveled overseas with both of my sisters, and although we had often attempted to plan our own adventure together, it just never quite materialized.  So when my daughter, Katie, decided to study abroad for a semester in London, we grabbed the opportunity to travel there over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mom had visited London several times with my dad, and was happy to return. I, on the other hand, had only ever transferred planes in London – so this was the first time I’d been in the city. Katie was living in an old boarding house, now college dorm quarters, on the edge of Islington. We began the trip by checking out the scene there. A quick tour of Thoresby house, a meal in a funky breakfast café, along with an eager sampling inside a gourmet chocolate shop, gave us a quintessential first taste of London.

One of the concerns I had about traveling with my mother was her ability to keep up with all of the walking and stair climbing required to negotiate the streets and underground tube. It was exhausting, to be sure, but she kept up like a trooper. It was unseasonably cold in London, and we had to keep moving in order to stay reasonably warm.  There were many times that we ducked into a familiar coffee shop just to feel the heat.  But I was proud of her, and found myself hoping that I too would be able to walk all over London when I am 80.

Several tourist destinations tugged at the short time we had, and yet there was one important personal visit I wanted to make. It had been several years since I had seen Jennifer, a friend I’d met in Paris, and she had a daughter whom I’d yet to meet. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Clara, a delightful, bright, and incredibly adorable toddler. I was brought back to the days when my own daughter was a little girl, replete with dollies, favorite books, and magical imagination. Jennifer and I marveled at how it could be that my little girl is now in college.

Big Ben from the London Eye 

 Big Ben from the London Eye


Tate Modern – This museum, on the River Thames, is a gem not to be missed. An eclectic yet organized collection of modern masters as well as expressive newcomers, I was especially interested in the recorded interviews with many of the artists. These interviews were one choice of many on hand held device, which included a plethora of relevant historical perspective.

British Library – I highly recommend the British Writers exhibit, where the works of multiple generations of the finest of Great Britain’s storytellers, songwriters, and politicians are on display, including original drafts of the Magna Carta. I was especially intrigued by the fading ink of originals such as Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Pouring over Virginia Woolf’s notes in the margins of drafts of Mrs. Dalloway, seeing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in lovely cursive…these were special treats. Seeing a few lines of lyrics scribbled on an old card by John Lennon also made me smile. It reminded me of so many other stories, as well as my own experiences, where great ideas often begin their life on the back of a paper napkin.  This is an exhibit not to be missed!

British Museum – An inspiring and expansive collection of antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone from Egypt and the infamous Elgin marbles from the Parthenon.  I found myself wondering what many scholars have pondered over the years: Why does a British museum have so many pieces of ancient Greece? Surely it would make sense to share this massive collection with the country of its origin. Although I profess I entered this museum relatively ignorant of the story behind these treasures, a part of me could sense the excess.


Elgin Marbles at the British Museum

Elgin Marbles at the British Museum 


Here’s what I understand of the story behind these particular relics: In 1801, the “Elgin Marbles”, as they are known, were removed from the Parthenon in Greece by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and brought to London.  Although apparently “legal” at the time, in the early 1980s the Greek government asked the sculptures be returned. The British Museum maintains that it is their right to exhibit the relics free of charge to the public in order to promote worldwide understanding of Greek culture. The debate continues.

The Rosetta Stone, a huge granite slab from ancient Egypt, provides the key to translating hieroglyphic text. It was discovered by Napoleon, and after the French surrendered in 1801, it came into British possession.  The government of Egypt has continuously requested its return, and again the British Museum has denied that request due to their claim that it is the world’s relic. Given the recent revolution in Egypt and the looting that occurred in Cairo, the museum may have indeed kept the Rosetta Stone safe and sound. However it seems to me that eventually this relic should be returned to the people of Egypt. It is, after all, their relic, their history.

London Eye – This ultimate tourist trap required standing in line to buy a ticket, and then standing in line to load onto a people pod. The pod slowly rises like a Ferris wheel, offering expansive vistas of London. Luckily the weather was very cold, so the crowds were not huge. We arrived just as dusk settled over the London skyline. The fine mist in the air created a fairy-like scene on the Thames, and although this was extremely overpriced, we enjoyed the ride.


treet Markets – By far the best way to spend time in London exploring the true pulse of the city. Although we happened upon a very cold week, I loved sampling the fresh sausages and cheese, seeing the fine wares offered, and participating in the exchange of a true market, something that is a bit hard to find here in the states.

Borough Market with Mom

Borough Market with Mom 



The Theatre – My daughter chose this play for us after visiting the behind-the-scenes set as a part of one of her university classes. The play, War Horse, was extraordinary. Set during the first Great War when horses were used in battle, the triumph of this production was the achievement of not only “life” but “personality” in the horses depicted onstage. These horses were giant marionettes, powered by three humans, two under the carriage and one moving the head by standing alongside in front. The play is opening soon on Broadway (March 2011), and is worth a trip to New York City to witness this feat.



Friends to Family: Heathrow Airport – By now most of you have heard of the holiday travel nightmare over Christmastime at Heathrow, where a mere five inches of snow threw the airport into a virtual shut-down for days, stranding hundreds of passengers. As my mom and I were waiting for our flight out of Heathrow the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we were making notes of the special surprises and warmth that London gave us. One of those experiences was a visit to a friend of my sister’s, a woman who moved her family to London from Chicago about 15 years ago. Marietta graciously provided us with a lovely home-cooked meal and she and her husband chatted with us to catch up over lost time. As we left her beautiful home, she offered my daughter Katie to call or visit anytime. Little did we know that Katie would need her desperately as her flight to the states was cancelled in late December, and then cancelled again. Marietta and Hymie would provide shelter, meals, and a much needed connection to the airlines as Katie navigated her way out of that nightmare and on to home turf. She finally arrived on December 25th in Chicago, safe and sound. I will forever be grateful for the kindness of these friends who responded like family to take my child in as their own.


And so, this Valentine’s Day, give your loved ones a hug…and be aware of others as well. Love is all they need.

Becky Burns, our Soulful Traveler editor, is an educator living in the Chicago area. Her column will give you insight and inspiration, taking you to the core or essence of the travel experience, something we all feel as a result of exploration and discovery. Look for her monthly postings describing local exploits in and around Chicago, regional road trips in the Midwest, national
adventures from coast to coast, and overseas excursions. You are bound
to be inspired and enriched, nodding your head in agreement as a
familiar reminiscence comes to light again.  You can find her work at or