Pilot’s log: Thursday, May 21, 2020

Origin:Southampton International Airport (EGHI), England, U.K.
Destination:London City Airport (EGLC), England, U.K.
Distance:71 miles

Hope you enjoyed our visit to Southampton, England. This port city’s history goes back a long way: in August, 1620, the Mayflower and its companion vessel, the Speedwell, both docked here in preparation for their epic voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. Only the Mayflower would make the trip, leaving later in the year from Plymouth, England and arriving at Cape Cod in November, 400 years ago this year.

Southampton also has a claim to literary fame, too. English author Jane Austen lived here from 1806 to 1809, just prior to the publication of her first novel, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in 1811.

Routes of the Mayflower and Speedwell in the summer of 1620

And one final note: American frozen food magnate Clarence Birdseye used Southampton as the test market for introducing frozen fish fingers in the U.K. in the mid-1950s. But this being our next-to-last stop in England, we chose to indulge in a true British culinary tradition: authentic fish and chips.

Fish and chips here aren’t anything like in the U.S. Often bought as “takeaway” (or take out) from a local “chippy,” in Britain you get a big hunk of white fish (often cod) fried in a golden batter, then doused with vinegar and salt, and served with thick potato “chips” or what we call French fries. The dish used to be served on old newspapers, but that practice mostly stopped in the 1980s due to health concerns.

Fish and chips, complete with newspaper

Today’s flight is short, just over 70 miles. But our journey contains as much to see as any segment we’ve flown so far. That’s because today we fly over the great, storied city of London, capital of the United Kingdom, longtime seat of the British Empire, and spiritual home of the English language.

Before we reach London, however, we’ll fly over a country estate, Highclere Castle, made famous in recent years as the setting for the TV series Downton Abbey. It’s no movie set, though: it’s a real English country manor privately owned by Lord and Lady Carnarvon. Ironically, the estate was in need of major repairs that have only been made possible with an increase in admission fees thanks to the success of Downton Abbey.

Highclere Castle, the setting for “Downton Abbey”

An estate has been here at least since the 9th century, and it appears in the “Domesday Book,” the famous census conducted by William the Conqueror after claiming the throne in 1066. Among the estate’s distinctions: the agreement that established Canada’s independence from the U.K. was drafted here in 1867; a B-17 bomber crashed on the grounds during World War II; and today the castle houses Egyptian artifacts collected by an ancestor of Lord Carnarvon who helped discover the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922.

We’ll approach London from the west, and follow the Thames River downstream as we fly over London’s urban heart. The Thames, which flows through London and links it to North Sea, is the reason London came into being. The city grew at the first spot in the river narrow enough for a permanent bridge to be erected across it.

This first “London Bridge” was built by the Romans in the year 55 A.D., near the start of the Roman Empire’s nearly 400-year presence in Britain. “Londinium” was the name they gave the settlement that sprang up at the bridge’s northern end, and it became the capital of Roman Britain.

A map showing London (and the one bridge) about 1600

After the Romans left in about 400 A.D., London survived several centuries of neglect to emerge as a key commercial center during Medieval era. By the 10th century, it had also become the seat of government for rulers consolidating power over the many warring kingdoms of Britain.

From then on, London took its place among the world’s great cities, attracting immigrants, dreamers, criminals, and geniuses alike. Its history is rich with accomplishment and full of names you’ll recognize, from Geoffrey Chaucher to Jack the Ripper. We’ve listed some resources to learn more in the links below.

Windsor Castle, 1,000 years old

On today’s flight, interesting sites begin with Windsor Castle, far out at the city’s western fringe. It’s a real castle, built starting in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Since the time of Henry I, it’s been used by 39 reigning monarchs and is the longest-occupied palace in Europe. The current owner, of course is Queen Elizabeth II, who spends most of her private weekends here. Windsor Castle is still very much a working royal palace and is regularly used for ceremonial and State occasions, including official visits from foreign heads of state.

Next we’ll see something a little more modern: Heathrow Airport, London’s main international airport and one of the world’s great crossroads of travel. Just beyond London’s central core, the open countryside around the medieval village of Heathrow had played host to aviation companies since the early days of flight. After World War II, the area was developed into London’s major commercial airport (causing the village to vanish), a role it holds to this day.

A Concorde takes off from Heathrow in 1987

Among its many distinctions, Heathrow was home to the British Airways fleet of Concorde supersonic aircraft, which flew in passenger service from 1976 to 2003. We’re not going to land here, but at London City Airport, a smaller field just east of London’s central business district, also called ‘The City.’

Next is Hampton Court Palace, a spectacular palace best known as the base of operations for King Henry VIII and his court of over 1,000 followers. No longer used by the Royal Family, it’s open to the public and a popular tourist attraction. Among its distinctions: what is reputed to be the world’s largest grape vine, planted by George III in 1763. In more recent years, it’s been used as a setting for films ranging from ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (Winner of ‘Best Picture’ at the 1966 Academy Awards) to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.’ (2011).

Hampton Court’s grounds include a famous hedge maze

We’ll fly directly over Buckingham Palace, the main residence of Queen Elizabeth II where tourists flock from all over the world to witness the famous changing of the guard. The palace, which has 775 rooms, is not only the Queen’s home, but also the administrative offices for the Royal Family and its many enterprises and charities. The palace is in St. James Park, and is connected to Trafalgar Square by a grand roadway called ‘The Mall,’ which in Britain is pronounced like the first syllable of ‘malady.’

Buckingham Palace is often the site of parades and pageantry

Just as Buckingham Palace serves as the Royal Family’s center of operations, the nearby Palace of Westminster is the seat of British government. Located on the north banks of the Thames, the palace includes the Houses of Parliament and the landmark clock known as ‘Big Ben.’ Here laws are made and public policy decided by the House of Lords and the House of Commons, an ancient system of governance that’s been the model for many others around the world, including the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. and many state legislatures.

Before there was a parliament, however, there was a document called the Magna Carta. Written in 1215, it limited the power of the crown and protect the rights of the nobility. This was the first step toward the kind of government in place in many parts of the world today in which central power is balanced by individual rights. The Magna Carta was signed at Windsor Castle, which we passed over earlier.

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey (upper right) all seen from the London Eye

In London, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are designed in the style known as “Gothic,” making them look very old, but they date only from the mid-19th century. Much, much older is nearby Westminster Abbey, a church first established here in the 7th century. Parts of the current church date from the 1100s, and since the crowning of William the Conqueror in 1066, it’s the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. Since 1100, there have been 16 royal weddings at the abbey, most recently the marriage ceremony of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

The London Eye looms over the south bank of the Thames

Across the Thames is a much newer landmark: the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel 443 feet in diameter erected to celebrate the millenium in 2000. It takes a half-hour for each of its 32 passenger pods to make a full circle. As we continue along the Thames, we’re going back in history, for the oldest parts of London are further downstream. However, the city is not a museum, so don’t expect a medieval village: much of ancient London has been replaced by modern skyscrapers and office buildings.

The interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Dominating the north side of the Thames is St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its iconic dome. The massive church, the masterpiece of architect Sir Christopher Wren and a symbol of the city, was built in the early 1700s following a massive fire in 1666 that consumed much of medieval London, including an earlier church that stood here for 600 years. During World War II, St. Paul’s was a prime target for Hitler’s bombers, which severely damaged but did not destroy it. More recently, it was the site for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

The City of London’s Coat of Arms

Just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral lies the very oldest part of London, the area known as the “Square Mile” first settled by the Romans 2,000 years ago. Today it’s home to some of London’s newest skyscrapers, which house global financial services firms and other major businesses. As a legal entity, the “City of London” still consists of the original area formerly enclosed by the Roman walls, most of which vanished long ago.

The Tower of London, seen from the top of the skyscraper known as the Shard

Nearby, still on the north side of the Thames, stands the ancient fortress known as the Tower of London. Another project of William the Conqueror, the castle has endured as an important part of city life for nearly 1,000 years. Its famous prison was used to jail people from 1100 to 1952. Many numerous rituals are maintained at the Tower, including the keeping of six ravens at all times, in the belief that if they are absent, the kingdom will fall.

An evening view of Tower Bridge

Crossing the Thames near the Tower of London is another iconic landmark: Tower Bridge, a drawbridge with its famous pair of towers. Unlike the Tower of London, the bridge is actually fairly new: it was built in 1894, at the height of the Victorian era, when London was the capital of the British Empire, which encompassed one quarter of the world’s population. Tower Bridge’s famous upper walkways allowed people to cross the Thames during the frequent times the bridge was raised for ships.

Tower Bridge is not the same as London Bridge, the ancient span first over the Thames built by the Romans. London Bridge, located just upriver from Tower Bridge, was the reason the city first came to be. First built of timber, it was rebuilt many times until medieval times, when it was widened enough for houses and businesses to be built on it. Crossing from one side to the other, it was hard to know you were on a bridge!

What London Bridge looked like in Shakespeare’s day

London Bridge was the only crossing over the Thames until the 18th century. Since that time, it’s been rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1970s, when the stone version from the 19th century was sold to an American who moved it to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it stands today. Back in London, today’s “London Bridge” is a modern steel bridge, one of many that cross the Thames.

Finally, no visit to London, however brief, would be complete with mentioning William Shakespeare, the playwright and poet who lived and worked here about 400 years ago. Regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, much of his work was first staged in London in a theater called ‘The Globe’ on the south bank of the Thames. The Globe, like so much of old London, was lost to fire. But a recreated version opened near the site in 1997 and is in use for stagings of plays by Shakespeare and other writers.

We’ll be coming in for a landing at London City Airport, a field just east of the central part of the city.

The recreated “Globe Theatre” in London

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

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