Westminster Bridge, crossing the River Thames. As I started sketching this, the rain came down, so I moved into the little tunnel next to the bridge (which I had never seen before; is it new?) and sketched from there. Eventually the rain stopped. Then started again, then stopped. It was one of those days. There is a very famous clock tower on the other side of the river. I like bridges. I even bought a book about bridges while I was back. In fact I spent a lot of time in bookshops in London. Bookshops are the best. Anyway, I had planned to sketch a lot more bridges in London but you know it is. Maybe that is the next sketchcrawl I organize? Those curves were not easy to capture with absolute mathematical perfection while stood against the wall in a damp tunnel with wet people shuffling by. But here it is, Westminster Bridge, painted green because the seat in the House of Commons are green (Lambeth Bridge further down is red because the House of Lords has red seats). It was opened in 1862 and Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about it.
Parliament Square! Click on the image for a closer view. After sketching the Royal Court I went back to Westminster, and stood in Parliament Square to sketch a panorama of the Palace of Westminster, that is, the Houses of Parliament. I know what you’re thinking, I spent a lot of time sketching the tourist attractions this time and not enough time sketching little newsagents or hidden side-streets, but they are all to come, don’t worry. When I passed through the frankly impossible Parliament Square I thought, well why not. There really is a lot of traffic around this square, and not many crossings to get into the middle; it’s never been one of my favourite places. But in the golden sunshine, what a spectacular view! When I was a tour guide I loved the turn into this square, it was almost cinematic with Big Ben (yes I know it’s the bell) and centuries of history unfolding all at once. We’ve had a parliament here since the thirteenth century, though most of the Palace of Westminster – including the Clock Tower (that houses the bell Big Ben), now officially called “Elizabeth Tower”, being renamed in 2012 after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – was built in the 1800s by Sir Charles Barry after the old palace burned to the ground. The oldest part of the building is Westminster Hall, built by King William II (William Rufus) in around 1097. That’s the part with the big sloping roof.
The square is, naturally, a popular place for protest movements. On the left is Parliament Street which leads to Whitehall, many of the British government buildings are located here. Westminster Bridge leads off, over the Thames; in the distance there you can see the Shard, tallest building in Europe. I’ve included the statue of Winston Churchill which, I was told when training as a tour guide, is actually electrified with a low voltage to prevent pigeons from sitting on his head. “We will fight them on the statues.” It’s hidden away a bit but you can just make out the statues of Oliver Cromwell, former Lord Protector, a strange choice for a statue outside Parliament because despite leading Parliamentary forces in defeating the Royalists in the Civil War, he did also shut Parliament down as and when it suited him too. On the right hand side you can just about make out St. Margaret’s Church, the parliamentary church; on my old tour I would joke that it was a place where Tory and Labour MPs would go and pray together but not the Lib-Dems because they haven’t a prayer, tee-hee, well times have changed now haven’t they. This church backs onto Westminster Abbey.
Here’s a close-up. I worked in Westminster Hall once back in the 90s, serving tea as part of a catering job I was working on (it if I recall rightly a Jewish single’s night organized by the MP Oona King). I remember walking about the amazing building, seeing where William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace was tried before his execution, wandering about the old stone corridors and hearing voices echoing down the stairwells. I went to the toilet, and remember the booming sound of Big Ben making me jump, opening the window and seeing the large clock face right there. I do love this old building.
Here’s a map showing whereabouts I stood. After this, my drawings were done for the day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon mooching around bookstores.
I have to admit, London tired me out a lot this time. I think it was the heat – though naturally cooler than Davis, London actually had a heatwave, which when you add it to the fact that air-conditioning is a very rare commodity (Oxford Street’s shops were no places to cool off) and the overcrowded packed tube was a hellish place to be in hot weather, makes for a very stuffy city. I am not used to crowds and big masses of people any more, so I sought to see my home city in its quieter moments. Even a city that never sleeps dozes off from time to time. On one particular Tuesday, I got up and took the tube at the determinedly pre-rush hour of 5:45am and headed into central London to sketch in the early morning light. I love wandering around a city as it is waking up (preferably having recently woken up myself, rather than stayed up all night, as my much-younger self may have once done). London is no different, although in Leicester Square I did witness the remnants of some people’s night-before, a drunken testosterone match of pitiable proportions that made the street sweepers stop and raise their eyebrows and shake their heads. I’ve never liked Leicester Square. Trafalgar Square on the other hand… I’ve seen a fair few incidents of silliness there among the late-night throngs waiting for their night-buses in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, but when everyone is gone and before the city of the daytime re-emerges, this is an excellent place to stop and really absorb an epic sight. I’ll forever be grateful to London for pedestrianizing that awful north side of the square, the former rat-run outside the National Gallery, turning Trafalgar Square from a pigeon-infested overgrown traffic island to a pleasant place to sit and just watch the world, and this really is the world. The very centre of London, from which point all measurements from London are taken, is just on the other side of the square, at the statue of Charles I. I sketched the view from the northern side in the early morning light, with Horatio Nelson on his high perch looking down Whitehall to the clock tower of Parliament, home of Big Ben. Summer morning light is like a golden custard pouring across the city, and those shadows move pretty fast when that sun rises.
The morning moved along, some early commuters passed by the Square, the odd rise-and-shine tourist was out taking photos and waiting for the tour buses to start; when I used to tour-guide on those buses years ago I loved the early shift, with all the fresh faced tourists seeing the face of London that most Londoners miss. I sketched some of the buildings on the south side of the Square, whose rooftops I have long wanted to draw. That statue is of Sir Charles Napier, I believe, an old imperial commander, who has an impressive nose and sideburns that Wolverine would be jealous of.
London can be incredibly annoying sometimes, expensive, grumpy, sweaty, time-consuming; but in these moments you get to see it at peace, waking up with a smile, in a good mood.
Also posted on Urban Sketchers London – if you haven’t done so, please check out their site!
The smart thing to do would be to check the weather forecast and then decide what to do, but of course as anyone who is familiar with London summers (or winters, autumns and springs) knows, the weather forecast cannot be relied upon anyway. We’d planned to do a walking tour around Westminster (one of the London Walks; I illustrated their book a couple of years ago, including the chapter on Secret Westminster) and wasn’t going to be put off by a few drops of rain. Indeed it looked like it would be just another breezy, grey Saturday, maybe the odd drop here and there but nothing to worry us. We met the group outside a tourist-packed Westminster station, giving me enough time to grab a ten minute sketch of Big Ben (above) before learning about Westminster’s secrets. As we stood behind Westminster Abbey looking at Oliver Cromwell across the road, the rain suddenly turned into a torrent, and pretty much stayed that way for the next few hours.
It was an interesting tour, to be sure, despite the massive downpour. We went down backstreets of Westminster I never even knew about, and took a stroll through the old Westminster school. Of course I attempted to sketch as we went along, which was a challenge I’ll admit. Once it was all over (a little earlier than planned, I suspect), we went to a pub in Whitehall, the Old Shades, to dry off and have something to eat.
Not that the rain deterred us too much. We still spent a day around central London, popping into the National Gallery, squeezing through the crowds at Hamley’s, looking through the football shirt shops (hey, it’s me).
And then in the evening, a night out in Camden Town with friends (one of whom, Ralph, I hadn’t seen in over twenty years). Before meeting up, I grabbed another very quick sketch standing on Camden High street. So despite all the rain, that was a fun day, and it was a fun night as well.