A Day to Remember in London

My spouse Andrea and I recently returned from a 10-day stay in London, celebrating her birthday and our 30th anniversary.  It was our first trip “across the pond” together and we enjoyed it immensely, heightened by the beautiful fall weather we were fortunate to experience there.  We rented a comfortable one-bedroom, basement apartment in the Earl’s Court area of central London, a short walk from fashionable Chelsea, and within easy bus and tube (subway) access to the entire city.

Our visit coincided with Britain’s “Remembrance Day” on Sunday, November 11 (our Veteran’s Day).  The Brits’ “remembrance” focuses mostly on the day of armistice that ended the hostilities of World War One on 11/11/1918.  The country had been marking hundred-year anniversaries of that “Great War” since 2014, and this Remembrance Day was a grand culmination of all the various memorial events that had been going on for the past four years.  We were alerted to the event shortly after we arrived on 11/8, mostly by the red paper poppies that many people wore pinned to their clothing.

On the day itself, the BBC broadcast a solemn, outdoor, morning ceremony of the laying of flowers at the Cenotaph monument in the Whitehall plaza in central London.  The Royal British Legion conducted the ceremony, featuring the royal family and all the the major political leaders of the country, along with representatives of the many Commonwealth countries who had sent soldiers to that war.  Andrea and I were glued to our large screen TV for the event, genuinely impressed with both the “pomp and circumstance” of it as well as the genuine veneration for the fallen.

It was a bright, sunny fall day so afterwards we set out for a hike to explore the nearby areas bordering the Thames river.  We were surprised at a community of houseboats on the river, reminding us of the houseboat community on the Anacostia in downtown Washington.  The Thames is an impressive river – albeit a bit narrower than our Potomac, and with bridges every half-mile or so in central London.  The sky was a brilliant blue with a few billowing white clouds, making for some magnificent vistas.

We crossed the Battersea Bridge to the southern embankment, enjoying the views and taking lots of photos.  We followed the riverside walking-path east past the Albert Bridge to the entrance to Battersea Park.  It was early afternoon and the narrowly forested riverside park had a constant stream of people of all ages and nationalities strolling on the wide pedestrian path.  We joined the stream of humanity, enjoying the relaxed, Sunday atmosphere and the fabulous views of river, trees, bridges, and the city on the other side.

Within a quarter-mile or so, we noticed a temple-like structure ahead within a grove of trees.  As we got closer, we could see that it was a pagoda, and we went over for a better view of it.  It was built on a surrounding stone platform with stone staircases on each side.  Even from the foot of the platform we could see large golden panels with engravings on each of the four sides.  An informational placard informed us that this was the Battersea Peace Pagoda, built in 1985 by a Japanese Buddhist sect per the last wishes of their dying leader, the Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985).  We were struck by the following words of this spiritual leader as engraved on the panel:

“Civilisation is neither to have electric lights, nor airplanes, nor to produce nuclear bombs.

“Civilisation is not to kill human beings, not to destroy things, nor to make war.

“Civilisation is to hold mutual affection and to respect each other.”

Each of the four golden panels near the base of the pagoda were representations of phases in the life of the Buddha, corresponding to the four cardinal directions.  I was most taken with the panel in the west, representing the Buddha’s passage into death.  He lies prone, surrounded by disciples and loved ones, with spiritual entities in the clouds above ready to receive him.

We spent some time taking in the pagoda, with its dramatic perch over the Thames, within a city in the midst of remembering the massive carnage of a world war.  We had planned to attend a Choral Evensong service across the river in Chelsea, so we re-traced our steps back to the Albert Bridge and crossed back over.  The mile-long walk through the city gave us further time to digest the experience.

Evensong is an Anglican religious service comprised of a formal set of prayers and psalms that are often sung.  St. Luke’s church in Chelsea is a towering gothic structure that has been compared to King’s College chapel in Cambridge.  The hour-long choral service we attended there was as beautiful and moving an experience of choral signing as either of us have heard.  The priest announced the theme as the honoring of all those who had fallen in war.  In addition to the gorgeous singing, we were able to take in the beauty and majesty of the church itself.

We were a bit tired by the time we finished our walk back to our flat that evening.  The sun set around 4pm there so it was dark by then as well.  After a brief rest, we had a bite to eat and went back to our TV for the BBC’s coverage of the closing event of Remembrance Day, a formal church service in Westminster Cathedral.  More pomp and circumstance, more beautiful music and stirring words. And yet, what stayed with me the most from that day was the simple message of the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park.

“Civilisation is to hold mutual affection and to respect each other.”

John Bayerl, 12/2/2018