Red: Religious Buildings

Let’s begin with religion…

The red pins on the map are for religious buildings I visited. As I said before, some of the places I visited that would’ve fallen under certain categories are not shown, for they are not on my map of Central London. Some people suggested that I guesstimate where the pins would fall and plot them anyway, but I decided against that. This map is the only map that I personally used throughout my entire trip to London. It’s torn and has some highlighter stains on it (as did a pair of my shorts I had to get rid of); the places not shown, such as Highgate Cemetery, were places that I relied almost solely on the directions my professors provided the class with. I didn’t use a physical map to get to those places, so I’ve chosen not to physically map them.

There are four red pins on the board: Westminster Abbey, St. Mary Le Bowe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and St. Clement Danes. It was hard to find some of the churches on the map because there are so many churches in London! Jeez! Red crosses can be found every few centimeters on the map. This study abroad session has shown me that religion plays many roles on Englishness. I’m not a very religious person myself; yes, I believe in a higher power and try to live a good life and pray sometimes, but organized, institutionalized religion is not exactly governing my life. While in London, I noticed how people, including myself, were affected by the inescapable presence of religion due to the abundance of churches on every corner.

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My class went on a church tour, visiting all of the churches mentioned in The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. St. Paul’s was the first stop on our tour, where some very noticeable things happened. Michel Foucault said in an interview that, in order to understand an architectural space, one must consider “the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other.” While visiting the churches, I kept an eye out for these factors.

“one must take him – his mentality, his attitude – into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture

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The actual cathedral of St. Paul’s can be seen from miles away; the architecture is breathtakingly enormous and asserts the power of the church for all to see. How everyone was occupying the space around the building was equally as fascinating as the architecture itself. People on the steps of St. Paul’s were eating lunch in business suits, congregated in groups or taking pictures, students (both elementary and college level) and learning about the history of the cathedral; everyone was casual and seemed to move relatively freely about the stairs. What was interesting was how everyone was talking; the noise level was super quiet and respectful, especially for the amount of people around. Though from a distance it might’ve appeared that everyone outside St. Paul’s was oblivious to it, once you took a closer look (and listen) the presence is felt by all. People control their voices and keep them down to a quiet, meditative level that is unobtrusive to those surrounding. Everyone is a bit more respectful of each other here than in other places I visited.

DSC_0694St. Mary Le Bowe’s and St. Clement Dane’s were quite different from St. Paul’s; the churches were much smaller and this affected how people occupied the space. Mary Le Bowe’s has a cafe in the basement, which seemed to receive more attention than the church itself. Clement Dane’s was located in the middle of the road and the inside is no longer open to the public. The smaller sized churches were easily forgotten about; one can argue that this is because of their size and where they are in the city. Mary Le Bowe’s might be using the cafe to try to get more people into the church, while Clement Dane’s simply faded away. Either way, the people occupying the space around these two churches were almost completely unaware of their presence. Mary Le Bowe’s is a tiny little church wedged into a street; Clement Dane’s is in the middle of a busy highway and out of the way. These factors definitely contribute to the fact that they are less frequented by the public.

I won’t go into detail about Westminster Abbey (there’s a whole other blog post about that one- check it out!) but even though some of these buildings have fallen out of use to the public, they still contribute to the overwhelming presence of Christianity in London. These buildings perpetuate the dominance that Christianity has over Englishness.

A Stroll Around London: In the Style of “The London Scene”

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury and my room in New York

Postcards, t shirts and video games have shown me time and time again an artistic representation of Big Ben; I’d been in London a few days already, it was time for me to meet him. He is, based on his fame in the States, one of the most important faces of London, though I’ve heard that his face isn’t the most reliable, and taking the Tube for a visit was the least I could do to satisfy the inner tourist inside of me.

As I beheld this integral piece of Englishness in my eyes, I suddenly felt something against my hip. Glancing down, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a white hand grasping into my pocket, hoping to come up with something of value, perhaps my cell phone or wallet; thankfully it comes up empty, for my mother taught me well and I secure all of my important belongings in zippered compartments in my bag, which is held tightly against my side at all times . My eyes disinterestedly scan the crowd for the owner of the begging hand, knowing she or he is long gone, then make their way back to Ben. He stands completely unaware; my heart is pounding, beads of sweat have congregated around my hairline, my body feels violated. Yet his face hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s the distance, but I cannot make out the second hand on the clock. There is no evidence of change in the air, not even on the face that seems to see everything from his vantage point. The personal, almost-trauma of the last minute goes unnoticed by all. I lock my eyes onto the hands that are visible from where I stand, nod at Ben, and cross the street.

How could I have been so deaf, so blind? On the corner of the street I cross onto stands a man and his fiddle; the boisterous, playful music tickles my ears and rejuvenates my walk. Music is what brings me back, even if it only stays with me for a minute or two. The comfort of the notes seems to have spread to those around me. Everyone seems to have joined together, taken a simultaneous, deep breathe in, held it for a moment, then let the breath go and continue on their individual journey.

I must’ve been a bit preoccupied trying to absorb what just happened, for I practically missed Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t know exactly what to expect; Westminster Abbey is a bit less famous in the States. I’ve seen a photograph once or twice, but not enough to be familiar with it. Oh, there it is! Beautifully lush trees obstruct my view quite a bit, and that’s not the only thing keeping me from properly appreciating this piece of London; bells have begun to chime. I search the buildings around me to try to find the source, but the trees have kept me from the bells. Hoping to escape the cluttered streets around the abbey, I follow the group and walk under an archway.

Air: fresh and new, unlike the oxygen-depleted air the streets outside Westminster provided. Standing in a cluster of human beings to just stare at an old building seems to have made me a bit lightheaded. Thankfully, the English have found a cure for this proximity and provided the people with open spaces to replenish. A few moments of sitting on the grass make it easier to focus on my surroundings; neat buildings all connected surround me, not a single tourist from down the street, staring up at the abbey or Ben can be heard. But my mind can still not totally piece together everything I saw and experienced within the half a mile walk from the Tube station to my place on the grass. My pleasure and pride in London was not instilled by the buildings themselves, for those seemed to be detached and unaware of anybody coming to experience and appreciate the wonder that surrounds those historical, tourist ridden buildings. The London that struck me was the London that cared; I may be a mere American individual, having my existence acknowledged what I’m longing. Staring into the face of Ben, one only receives a blank, unfazed stare back: these immense structures of Englishness stand proud to be unaware of one’s minuscule existence.