Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Student Group Tour magazine will continue to provide ideas for planning educational travel. Many attractions and destinations are closed at this time; please contact them directly for updated information.
In his diary, Dr. Samuel Johnson, who amassed the Dictionary of the English Language, famously wrote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
As the political and commercial center of the United Kingdom and home to England’s royal family, London is steeped in tradition. As a cultural hub home to a global population, it also is a city that constantly reinvents itself.
Most summers, I accompany my Austin Prep middle school students to London with the Independent Schools Cultural Alliance. Immersive experiences with stage, screen and sovereigns both past and present provide students a personal perspective on London.
The Tower of London
Our visit began with the Crown Jewels where we viewed the dazzling collection of 23,000 precious and semi-precious stones set into the crowns used at coronations and ceremonial occasions. Students were in awe of the Imperial State Crown, which Queen Elizabeth II wears when she opens Parliament. Many jewels even have names like the 530.2 carat Cullinan I or Great Star of Africa set atop the Sovereign’s Scepter and worth 400 million pounds!
The friendly Yeoman Warders were happy to chat with us and share a millennia’s worth of stories set at the tower. One answered our questions about how somebody becomes a Yeoman. Another shared the suspicious story set in the Bloody Tower, the last location of the young Yorkist princes thought to be murdered by their uncle Richard III.
Before we left, we heard the cawing of the tower’s famous ravens. Seven reside on the grounds and have their wings clipped as it is said that should the ravens ever leave the tower, London will fall.
The ravens are not the only animal to have ever taken up residence. We learned the tower was once home to the royal menagerie — which included a polar bear — a gift from the King of Norway that was known to go fishing in the Thames!
London’s South Bank is home to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The reconstructed open-air venue provides educational programming throughout the year and performances every summer.
Students began the morning with a tour. We entered the Globe and were invited to stand in the pit where the groundlings would have stood to watch Shakespeare’s plays. For £5, modern theater-goers can have a similar experience as they laugh through A Midsummer Night’s Dream or recoil at the tragic ending of Othello.
At the Globe’s rehearsal studio, we participated in an acting workshop on Romeo and Juliet. Students enjoyed the tongue-twister and movement warmups before diving into an acting exercise. We played with emphasizing different words, changed the volume and pace of our voice, and expressed Romeo’s words “It is my lady. Oh, it is my love” through movement. The workshop brought Shakespeare from the page to the stage, giving students new insight to characters, the bard and his world.
Hampton Court Palace
Adopting a role was part of the fun of exploring the Tudor heyday of Hampton Court Palace. Students happily donned a tunic and followed me through the grounds for an afternoon coming face-to-face with history.
A trumpet fanfare signified that King Henry VIII was en route for a royal banquet. The fragrant scent of spice wafted from the labyrinth of kitchens nearby — it was time to check things out for ourselves.
With skewers of chicken roasting over a roaring flame, we asked costumed actors about the meal they were preparing and even stirred in some of the ingredients. For a moment, we felt that we were a part of the army of over 200 cooks, pages, and grooms it took to keep the monarchy and his guests fed in royal style.
The palace includes a number of marked routes to examine the many stories set there. We opted to explore the apartments of Henry VIII to see the richly appointed Waiting Chamber, the Haunted Gallery and the Chapel Royal.
As we walked and listened to our audio guide, we ran into King Henry VIII himself. Students genuflected and responded to his questions about their business at the palace. Moments later, we were ushered into the Council Chamber to listen to a debate of the Privy Council. Welcome to the 16th century!
Enjoying ice cream in the gardens was a royal way to cap our visit before heading off to our next adventure.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
As fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, my students and I were thrilled to see how filmmakers brought that magical world to life.
We left muggle London behind as we entered the set of Hogwarts’ Great Hall. As we walked through the sound stages, we took in details like the ingredients in Snape’s Potions Laboratory and the portraits that line Dumbledore’s office.
The tour was highly interactive. Each student received a Potter Passport, which they used to collect stamps in galleries featuring props from the Gryffindor Common Room or the costumes of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s Death Eaters gathered at Malfoy Manor. We hopped on broomsticks at the Green Screen Experience to soar through London and pushed our luggage through the wall at the Platform 9¾ set featuring the Hogwarts Express.
New to the Studio Tour is a massive addition featuring Gringotts Wizarding Bank. As we made our way through the opulent central hall, goblin characters grimaced from their ledgers and piles of Galleon coins. The Lestrange Vault provided a chance to seize the Sword of Gryffindor and take a couple of photos against the glimmering piles of treasure belonging to the wicked Belatrix.
The highlight of the new space was coming face-to-face with the bank’s ill-tempered Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon. The special effects so fully immersed us that we echoed Hagrid’s warning to Harry: “There be dragons.”
For more on London go to London & Partners at visitlondon.com.
Article by Michael McLaughlin, Head of Middle School at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts.