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My wife and I treated ourselves to a winter holiday gift by traveling to London.

We arrived Christmas morning, a chilly, drippy day, but while riding to our hotel, we noticed people lining up at churches along the 18-mile route from Heathrow airport. Having visited England during this season before, I knew most Britons attend midnight services on Christmas Eve. Seeing these churchgoers in the late morning told me they still care about their religion and faith.

After settling in at the hotel, we strolled toward Westminster Palace, the seat of government. My wife never had been to London, so I kept quiet while the twin steeples of Westminster Abbey crept into view from around a corner on Victoria Street. Again, there were many people entering for their evening services even though the museum part of the church was closed.

The museums and galleries were closed Christmas and the day after (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day), so we took a river cruise along the Thames all the way to Greenwich where I straddled the prime meridian, another check on my “bucket list." It was a partly sunny day, and we thoroughly enjoyed the sites and guided narrative.

Major museum and area highlights included Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, the RAF museum, the British Museum of Natural History (one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, in my opinion), the Victoria and Albert Museum (three floors of exquisite art from cultures around the world), the Tower of London and the Science Museum. Seeing "The Nutcracker" ballet at the Coliseum Theater was stunning. We took a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Oxford.

Walks around London included Hyde Park and the attendant monuments and places of government. The variation in architecture was mind-boggling, while some of the buildings and statues simply oozed with history.

What struck me most during the long plane ride home was the utter volume of things, discoveries and events that spilled over their shores to ours for nearly the last 400 years. Added to that, the awe-inspiring experience of seeing original masterpieces from the likes of van Dyke, Rembrandt, Turner (no relation), Gaugin and van Gogh, to name a few, gave me a better appreciation for the creative mind of man over such a long time.

The Science Museum exhibited the evolution of industrial engines since the first one built in the 18th century to pull water out of coal mines in Wales. It bore a striking resemblance to lever-action oil rigs in Texas. The wing dedicated to ships displayed the entire history of boats, ships and the means that powered them: wind, oar or engine. There were dozens of ship engine models placed near ship models that used them. The same organization describes the “Flight” wing: original early fliers and gliders pre- and post-dating the Wright Brothers’ machine, aircraft engines from the first low-horsepower versions to modern fan jets that flew us to and from England.

Then there was the history of politics: kings, queens and the bloody, bloody events that fertilized the soil of Great Britain. From Windsor Castle to the Tower, we saw over-the-top opulence juxtaposed against medieval weaponry and what passed for justice before and after the invention of a parliamentary form of government. Similar to our government’s behavior these days, their kings and prime ministers fought with the parliament over everything, but mostly about power.

There is a sculpted crystal pillow on the grounds of the Tower that consecrated the site for heads being rolled in centuries past. Today, death penalties are doled out much more parsimoniously in Western civilization.  Back then, one lost his or her head for things other than murder or treason (Ann Bolyn for not being able to produce a viable, male heir for Henry VIII.)

There are those self-ordained experts in the United States who sneer and look down their noses at British and European history and government. None of it is perfect. But since the Norman conquest of 1066 and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 by King John, continued efforts toward perfecting constitutional law have driven Western civilization onward. That is called progress.

 

Turner is a retired teacher and industrial engineer who lives near Marble Falls. He is an independent columnist, not a staff member, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Tribune or its parent company. He can be reached by e-mail at vtgolf@zeecon.com.