Kate Middleton and Prince William married today at Westminster Abbey. I am an American who recently moved to London. So where else would I be on this day off than watching the festivities in the park?
Sure, I had the option to skip it. But it’s an event. And really, what else did I have to do? So I looked. William and Kate were scheduled to ride down a well-publicized route which was bordered on at least one side by a large park, and on another side by loads of side streets. I can read a map. I can ride the tube. How hard can getting close (where there were miles upon miles of access?) be?
Oh, silly, silly girl.
This, this is the story of a day that was all about finding another way, making friends, and occasionally reaping the benefits of some good planning.
Yesterday, before leaving the office, I’d printed off the official “schedule” of events and the procession route. Last night, I pulled out the squeaky-new guide to my new camera and figured out how to shoot in “sport mode” – because I knew today would be a day of No Second Chance. Man was I right!
This morning, I left the house, picked up spare batteries, and walked across the river to Canary Wharf tube, hoping to shortcut the tourists by sneaking into a nearby Tube – or even hopping out at Westminster Abbey. Plan #1 required a change when they announced over the speaker (at 9 am) that Westminster Tube was closed due to overcrowding. Okay! I can manage that, I thought, deciding (after some map consultations) that the best bet would be to stay North of the park and hit up Charing Cross, which would dump me a bit farther away near Trafalgar Square.
Hopping off the tube at Trafalgar, I quickly jumped through security, heading South through the Square, hoping to get across. But even at 9:30, I was hearing that the square would be locked down in 10 minutes. Ten minutes! ACK! I plowed across, hoping to find another exit which would let me wander freely in the streets. Already, I was getting the sense that the Brits do things a bit different for big events. We might require a ticket to get INTO an area in Chicago, but we’d never pen people in, and then not let them out!
After being turned away at the South end, I hauled North, then found an exit, heading down a street parallel to the Mall. Turning left again, I went back towards the Mall, wandering until I found myself behind Clarence House. By now it was late – 10:15 – and I consulted the schedule. Though there were people lined up at the gates (Clarence House is where Prince Charles, Camilla, William and Henry live), I realized William had already left for Westminster. I had missed him by minutes. And though we could see we were only a block away from the Mall, there was no guarantee that the street would be re-opened at 12:30 (as was the rumor). After chatting with a nice boy and his dad (who had family in Winnetka), a tall Greek guy who was hanging out behind them followed me as I walked away. Okay, so he wasn’t my type, but who was I to argue. “I’m going to follow you since you seem to have a map and know where to go” he said. Sure, it felt a bit like the first day of law school, where you’re not sure that you want to get into the study group wtih THAT guy – but he was nice. And tall. And I was going to Greece in two weeks. I could use his height and local knowledge to my advantage, I figured.
We consulted the map and headed West again, finding ourselves turned away. Should we try that alley? Nope. People were streaming back towards us. Alright, let’s try Picadilly. Left we went, past The Ritz, towards Green Park. Why was it blocked? I wondered. It’s a huge park. It’s near the mall. Why weren’t they letting people through?
Britain’s locked parks reared their heads again. Green Park, with acres of open space, was locked, and thousands of people were flushing down the street (expectedly) turned away again from any attempt to get near the mall. It was quite funny, as the police kept telling people to “get on the pavement, please” because the road was still open. Open! What exactly did they expect with thousands of people turned away from direct access to the mall? Goofballs, I thought.
We could hear the ceremony being broadcast in Green Park and people were climbing the walls to see over the fence and get a glimpse at the screen. We pushed on, rushing down the North edge of Green Park to hang a left at Grosvenor’s Place (at least, I think that was it.) We were shocked to be able to make the left. As we neared a key intersection, we were surprised, too that it was still open.
We had to make a call – stay on the left side or cross? Suddenly, the left side started queing up and we skipped across the street. Good thing, too, as it turned out we were already on the back side of Buckingham – and the carriages used to ferry the party back to Buckingham were leaving their homes to go get the bride, groom, and royal family.
Then, however, we were stuck again. As we moved further South, we hit blockade after blockade. We were still a good four blocks away from the ring aroun the palace and we needed to get close. But how?
We doubled back, heading away from the Palace, then heading further South, then coming in from the side. Greek made a suggestion that we try going in. I followed, ready to call it a day and get a pint. But then, daylight! We found a gap in the side of the pavement and followed it, then ran into a real blockade as angry Bobbies tried to keep people on the sidewalks. Unfortunately, people were streaming onto the street at any point they could find, and we were standing like lemmings. When they finally turned their backs, we all just flew through the gates, surging to the end of the block. (If 1,000 people can surge.) With some finagling, we ended up about 30 feet from the ring around the palace (on the backside) – we were on Buckingham Gate road.
But it was only 11:45. We were going to be here awhile. I made friends with a lovely family in front of me, whose son was playing in the orchestra at Westminster today. Dad later revealed he was part of the organizing committee, so when he told us the road would open up, we should have believed him. Daughter and mom were super nice and were so courteous to be around. Behind me there were two dapper dudes with their own champagne. One hoisted the other on his shoulders at a point – only to confirm what we already knew – that there was nothing to see!
Above us, an adorable little girl played with a Union Jack on the balcony as thousands below her watched for some entertainment. Finally, the guests began arriving. It was a bit funny to see them in huge coach buses – like they were going on some bad holiday tour – but hey, I guess if you have to get 300 people to the palace when the city’s shut down, that’s the only way to do it, eh?
One of the interesting things about standing – by now it’s 12:30 – was the incredible quietness of the street. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were thousands of people standing behind me. Yet people were chill. They eventually began pushing, but they all had a sense of humor. I was standing behind some dude with (not exaggerating) a 3 foot high periscope made out of a cardboard box. It was like showing up for the playoffs and finding you’ve bought the scalped ticket behind the pole! When we got some space for a “surge”, I was giddy with the idea I’d get around him. Yeah right. Again, felled by the lack of space. But it wouldn’t matter – we still couldn’t see the balcony on the palace yet, and that was my only goal now.
We were getting antsy when suddenly, there was a mellow yell from the Bobbies – they were going to open things up, but we MUST NOT RUN. I could feel the crowd pushing up from behind, and could only imagine what would happen if people really did run – I kept hoping there were no kids around – but really, they were everywhere. Then we were free – space and open air, and suddenly my new friends were saying “hold on to us!” and we were walking – politely – through the open space, trying to to trip, not to be tripped on. We rounded the edge of the palace and my friend said “we can’t get too close or we won’t see anything – gotta stay back behind the gates a bit” – they had done this before. And when I next looked – we were in what I’d call Right Center Field and her dad was dropping five buckets on the ground – BUCKETS!!! To stand on!!! Who knew?
They graciously offered one up to me – which I promptly crunched to oblivion. Then another. No really – they could keep it. But my friend convinced me to step up with feet far on the edges. I wanted to decline, but why bother? Up I went – and up I stayed for at least 30 seconds before weight beat plastic and I toppled down. But hey, the fun just started. Suddenly there were fresh strawberries (Dad had picked them from the garden) and champagne (a nice lady down the way). The balcony was open, I had a clear view, and life was GOOD!
When William and Kate came out on the balcony, I threw my camera in the air and hit the shutter button. It was the best I could do – and I just kept shooting. My friend took the camera briefly to get me a good shot or two (I’m sure it was she who owns the “real” good shots of the day) and we laughed as we missed the kiss.
To be fair, from where I was standing, I could see little with the cameras up – but when people dropped their hands, suddenly the royal family was there! I could see William and Kate – and Harry and Charles and the Queen!! I know I’m just a dorky American but they were all there, and they were waving and it was kind of cool.
The thing about being in a big crowd is that when you don’t know what’s around you, you just sort of exist in a small bubble. I was in that bubble here – and it was awesome. Tonight, watching footage of the millions who were standing behind me in the plaza – I wonder about how that all went down.
The thing about the day is this – it was very cool – but also very, very different. There was no notice that streets would shut by a certain time. There was no clear way to get around – or to get out – of any situation you were stuck in. I was almost penned in at least four times today, and that is something I have NEVER felt in any situation in Chicago, which hosts a fair share of events. (I take that back – leaving the U2 show in 2009, the first night, there was no way out on the West side of the park. But that was 60,000 people. This was a million.)
After the couple went back inside, I expected all routes out of the palace to open – that the millions would just stream down the Mall or go through St. James Park. But for reasons which made no sense, we couldn’t go down The Mall. We couldn’t exit West. There was one small exit near St. James which was open - but there really wasn’t any leaving that space.
I waited about 45 minutes – and finally confirmed an exit route with a police man and headed out. Going through St. James Park to try to find toilets (which I could see across the lake) I found a bridge – but alas, closed again. No getting through. This was crowd control at its most ruthless.
Eventually, I found my way out of the park and to a pub with a short line for the ladies. Phew! The transit station was open (yay!) and I hopped on the first train without incident. It was, in the end, easy to leave once you did the leaving.
And in the end, I got what I came for – I got the experience of being a part of the wedding day – and of capturing some great moments for posterity. I got to represent for my friends at home – and share an “on the ground” feeling. I had fun. I made some new friends.
Not bad for a day’s work, eh?