Journalism major Faith Morrow ’24 attended the Regional Writers of England May-Term Faculty Led Experience in May 2022. She wrote this piece as a part of her 2022 SCARP project titled “Sharing Personal Cultural Experiences Through Travel Writing.”
Though hundreds of people surrounded me along the red road leading to Buckingham Palace, I had come alone. I really wanted to see the Changing of the Guards before I left London, and now on my free day, the opportunity presented itself – except I had no one to go with from my study abroad group. My anxiety about being by myself ebbed and flowed like the music of the royal band passing by. Although I’ve always been independent, the scariness factor bumps up when you’re a woman traveler in a country you’re new to.
Now that I think about it, I hadn’t been to any big places completely alone before. I go to work alone, appointments alone, some errands, and small activities alone, but never anything huge. On my high school trip to New York City, I was surrounded by friends and chaperones who made me feel a little safer. In the Carolinas and Georgia for my senior trip, I had my two best friends and mom with me. When exploring cities like Harrisburg, Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh as an adult, I’ve had a boyfriend by my side. So my day alone in London was my first big city exploration by myself.
My initial task to conquer was riding the tube alone. I double, no, triple-checked the directions on my app telling me what lines to use and what stops to get off of. Finding my way through the sea of quick-paced travelers, navigating escalators and mazes to different platforms, and entering the muggy underground waiting platform felt foreign but exciting. My only prior subway experience was in NYC, but I surprisingly found the tube much easier to decipher! Arriving near Buckingham Palace without getting lost once was a major achievement and gave me the confidence for riding the tube later.
After detouring around lots of setup for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and asking a security guard for help, I claimed a spot a few feet from the road. I didn’t really know if I was in the right location, but I didn’t have a better idea. So there I stayed.
I thought on a Monday it wouldn’t be so crowded, but the crowd grew and grew till I could hardly turn in a circle without knocking into someone. A dad with two sons stood to my right and a blonde lady snacking on her kids’ animal crackers to my left. Tourist groups speaking different languages milled around. Children, adults, and seniors surrounded me. It seemed like everyone everywhere was right there, all waiting on the parade.
Groups of guards and servicepeople marched by every few minutes, from red-coated guards in tall poofy black hats to majestic horse riders in hats with tassels that looked like horse tails, to musicians marching in time with their brass and percussion. The Queen’s guards looked like toy soldiers wound up and let go to march, their free arms swinging in unison like red pendulums. Step, step, step, step, they swiftly walked toward the Palace following the triumphant band music. After halfway through the ceremony, I felt a tapping on my right elbow. Turning around and looking down, I saw a short middle-aged woman with a black bob cut.
“Can I stand there? I’m not tall,” she asked, pointing to where I am.
Though slightly annoyed at the expectation that I should move just because I’m tall, I let the woman stand in front since I could still see over her.
Not long after, a woman on my left asked me, “Can these two stand in front of you so they can see better?”
She gestured to two girls both wearing pink dresses and coats with their hair pulled back in two long braids with little bows. Though I was a little annoyed for a second time since I had arrived early to get my spot, I couldn’t say no to two girls. They chattered between themselves in front of me as the parade continued. However, the longer the parade went on, the more aware I was of feeling so crowded, secretly hoping the event would end soon.
Much to my relief, the masses of people shifted, and I squeezed into a spot right in front of the road up against the barrier. A band marched by playing “Scotland the Brave,” a familiar song that our local college plays every chilly Homecoming Parade, making me feel back at home. A little girl whose mom referred to her as “Estella” crouched on the ground by my feet, scooping up dirt and crumbling it. The dust from her playtime was sprinkling my sandaled feet, but not for long as her mother ushered her away for their next plans.
On my other side, the short black-haired woman had wormed her way near me again, except now there was no extra space in the front. Instead, she poked her head and entire upper body between myself and my blonde neighbor any time some action passed. I could tell the blonde woman was not happy at the invasion of her personal space, and she soon left with her husband in tow. The short woman assumed her spot and gave me a little smile at which I shook my head and smiled out toward the street as the parade ended.
Before she left, the short woman bowed her head at me and thanked me again before walking away with her daughter. Shortly after, I followed their example and walked through St. James’s Park beside the Palace, trying to get out of the royal area.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was despite using Google Maps, but I found myself in front of the gates to the Palace. Victoria Memorial glowed golden in the sun, almost taunting me behind the gates where visitors would normally be allowed closer if it weren’t for the Jubilee. After snapping a few pics, I moved on toward what I hoped would be an entrance to the tube. Holding my black shoulder bag close to me, I moved intently past people on the sidewalk, getting hungrier by the minute. Hamleys toy store was my next destination, but overtaken by hunger I wandered into a restaurant called Neat Burger.
My vegetarian burger curbed my appetite along with some scrumptious sweet potato fries that I ate in the lower level of the restaurant. One man on a laptop, presumably the owner by the way he addressed employees, was the only other person in the eating area. It’s a little awkward eating out alone, and slightly anxiety-provoking when you’re in a room alone with a man in an unfamiliar place. Nothing was wrong or suspicious at all, but as a woman, it can be exhausting to feel so vigilant of your surroundings, like you’re ready just in case something goes wrong. I was anxious about being alone, far from home in the U.S., and far from friends off having their own London adventures. Not every outing is as glamorous as a curated Instagram post or artful travel memoir. Not every moment of our lives is meant to be aesthetic and inspirational. But at least these kinds of moments, especially moments alone, are authentic and don’t have to be a performance.
Energized from my meal, I knew next that I wanted to go to Hamleys, the famous seven-level toy store on Regent Street. Though the thought of it naturally felt a bit childish, the great thing about being alone was that I didn’t need anyone’s approval. I could go, or I could change my mind. Whatever I decided, the only person affected would be me, and that feels pretty liberating.
Inside the store, plush stuffed animals and magical-looking candy greeted me on the ground level along with many many children I didn’t expect to be there on a Monday. Hiking upstairs to the 5th floor and making my way down to the lower level, I contemplated purchases but also just enjoyed the joyfulness of toys. On the ground floor, an employee demonstrated a boomerang-like plane that returned to you after being thrown — and nearly hit me! Among the levels, several Lego statues including Buzz Lightyear, Hagrid, and Queen Elizabeth with a corgi stood anticipating photos with visitors. From Mr. Bean bears (one of which I bought), to collectors’ Lord of the Rings items, to Hogwarts robes and VR technology, the place was a kid’s dreamland and a hole in a parent’s wallet.
After buying a Mr. Bean bear for myself and one for my brother, I was glad to get out of the store and not be surrounded by small children running around. Sitting on the edge of a city planter, I composed myself for a minute, considering what I’d do with the rest of my day. Though the Changing of the Guards and Hamleys were solid plans, I had not confirmed anything else because I wanted some flexibility. As a music lover, I had considered visiting Abbey Road, but there just didn’t seem like enough to do in the area for it to be worth it. Instead, a Beatles merchandise shop was a runner-up.
By then it was my third tube trip of the day, and I felt pretty masterful. The powerful whooshing of the train arriving at the platform wasn’t as scary, and neither was my fear of getting lost. With my phone charged and a solid head on my shoulders, it didn’t feel like anything too terrible could happen. I spotted the London Beatles Store across the street and coincidentally spotted my friend Layla as well.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I just got here and was going to the Sherlock Holmes Museum!”
To the right of the Beatles store conveniently stood 221 B, Baker Street where I had considered visiting if I had time. I hadn’t realized the two were right next to each other — how perfect! While Layla went ahead into the museum, I visited the Beatles store which was smaller and more eclectic than I had pictured. The first room’s walls were lined with t-shirts featuring different album art from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper’s. The second room had more obscure items, like Beatles slippers and vintage collector’s Beatles dolls that appeared to be monitoring shoppers from their lofty shelf above. After considering several items, I decided to save my money rather than spend on something I didn’t love just for the sake of a purchase.
Next door, however, the Sherlock Holmes Museum was still open so I went inside and purchased a ticket. An old-fashioned London “Bobby” dressed in a police uniform and black helmet managed the line and let me into the museum. An employee in a maid outfit led the group into the sitting room. I quickly realized the building was less of a museum about the series and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and more of a tribute to how the characters would have lived and looked. Any Sherlock fan could pick out several iconic items in the sitting room: Sherlock’s violin, “VR” shot in the wall with a pistol, and the iconic curvy hand pipe.
Aside from checking out Mrs. Hudson’s bedroom and Sherlock’s study as well, a floor of wax figures from the stories awaited. To be honest, realistic figures whether animal or human have always given me the creeps, afraid that they might come alive when I’m not looking. But aside from the heebie-jeebies, seeing lifelike figures such as Moriarty, the hound of Baskerville, and Sherlock was interesting. In one specific wax figure room, only criminal characters were portrayed. I particularly didn’t like the red-headed person with the twisted smile and the dead man lying on the ground right at the entrance, but to each their own.
As I exited the museum, I asked “Bobby” if he’d take a photo of me under the 221 B doorway since I didn’t have anyone else with me. He kindly did and took great photos at that. The day was winding down, and I was getting tired. The museum hadn’t been what I expected, but it wasn’t a total loss. I had done a lot and was ready to slump on my hotel bed and kick my shoes off. My friend Layla emerged from the Beatles store and asked what I was up to.
“I was about to get on the tube and head back to our hotel, do you wanna come?”
“Yeah, sure! I actually walked here because the tube scares me, but if you know the way then yeah let’s go.”
It was nice to hear that I could help my friend try something new thanks to my willingness to go alone before. We entered the station, hopped on the train, and rode it all the way back to our hotel. I was tired. I didn’t want any socializing or eating out, just comfort food, so I ordered takeaway from an Italian restaurant nearby. After I finally got my food and a free drink from the kind server since I waited so long, I hunkered down in my little hotel room and simply enjoyed the creamy pasta.
Here in my room, I was alone too before my roommate returned. I recuperated from my spent emotional and physical energy with Netflix and good food. It was a comfortable aloneness. I had seen what I wanted to see and did what I wanted to do. Was it perfect? Nope. But it was all mine.
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