On the WaterfrontThanksgiving in Jolly Old England!

(Pensacola, Florida; Nov. 23, 2022) – I became a Yeoman (an admin clerk) when I enlisted in the Navy.  I didn’t know what I really wanted to do long-term, but every command has administrative personnel, so what better rate to choose in order to actually see the Navy and figure out my ultimate path? 

The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) department aboard a base or ship is responsible for, well, recreation and quality-of-life initiatives for military members and families.  I religiously took MWR-sponsored tours around Europe since arriving at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron TWO (VQ-2) in April of 1998.  I didn’t mind traveling on U.S. holidays, and Thanksgiving in 1999 was going to be a doozy: I was going to England!  In fact, I was sort of using the MWR tour for cheap airfare because one of my old friends from Florida State University, Christine, was now teaching at FSU’s London Study Center.

Flying into Heathrow on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1999, was an…experience.  The customs official interviewing our group just could not get his head wrapped around the idea we Americans chose to visit over our  Thanksgiving holiday.  He kept asking—in as many different ways as the English language allows—just why we had chosen these specific dates for visiting Britain?  The bureaucratic nozzle insisted on asking each one of us the same question when it was clear our group’s guide was going to continue giving the same answer.  He also made very certain we all knew he was not a happy camper when we all responded the exact same way, but that was the truth.  Fortunately, he was the only unpleasant human being I encountered in the United Kingdom.

I caught up with Christine at the FSU study center the next day—Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 25, 1999).  She’d arranged a tour of Canterbury for the students, and invited me along.  The coach (bus) ride was fun, especially when our local tour guide put us all in stitches.  She laughingly shared how often she encountered frustrated Americans who just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that Great Britain wasn’t about hold a celebration for American independence every July 4th!

Dating back to Roman times, Canterbury is the site where Christianity was brought to England.  The current Canterbury Cathedral structure was built from 1070 – 1077, and witnessed much history.  One of its most infamous moments was the horrible murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett by four knights loyal to King Henry II in 1170.  Henry II and Thomas Beckett frequently butted heads until Henry lamented that no one would rid him “of this troublesome priest.”  Four knights took this literally, decisively ridding the world of that “troublesome priest by killing Beckett in the cathedral’s northwest transept (today the site of a shrine to The Martyrdom).  Scholars have been trying to figure out if Henry II actually ordered the death of Thomas Beckett, or whether he was merely venting excessive frustration for nearly a thousand years.  If it were the latter, then his careless exclamation was taken literally by knights eager to win the king’s favor.  Alas, we will never know.

The cathedral was my first target of opportunity.  Having decided to pursue professional photography for my future in the Navy, I’d been researching photographic techniques online.  In a moment that presaged my photographic genius (or just beginner’s luck?) I captured a stunning ‘beauty shot’ of the cathedral with its famous ‘Bell Harry Tower’ against a perfect blue British sky.  I still rank it as one of the top ten early examples of the photographer’s art I’ve ever shot.

Canterbury Cathedral. Nov. 25, 1999.

Christine and I wandered into Canterbury proper for a few hours after touring the cathedral.  We had lunch at the Bell and Crown.  I formally ended my British ‘pub virginity’ (a running American joke among the FSU students) over a steaming bowl of authentic English shepherd’s pie.  Talk about a meal that’ll stick to your ribs!  I can still remember how satisfying that shepherd’s pie was on that cold day!

Christine had to work the next day (Friday, November 26th), so I didn’t see her or the FSU students until that night.  However, I eschewed the MWR tour of London for my own program.  I mean, I had a map, two feet, multiple roles of film, and the London Underground to make use of (that, and everything I wanted to see was not on the MWR itinerary, so I made my own).

The British Museum was nearly a religious experience.  Seeing the Rosetta Stone—one of the greatest artifacts in human history—was a stunning moment of “Holy cow!  I’m actually, really HERE!”  You know—that feeling of disbelief liberally mixed with wonder that you’re visiting this great place from world history that, heretofore, only existed in your personal world as pictures in a book.  Suddenly, there it is and it’s real! 

The British Museum banned flash photography, a practice I support.  Having worked as a curator’s assistant myself, I was aware that camera flash can discolor and destroy artifacts.  Embracing the challenge of low-light, no-flash photography, I blew off multiple exposures inside the museum.  Sadly, that’s a skill set I didn’t really get the hang of until going to photo school the next year.  I did get lucky, however—I succeeded in getting a solid shot of the 3,000-year-old bust of Pharaoh Ramses II!

3,000-year-old bust of Pharaoh Ramses II, British Museum.

London, England. Nov. 26, 1999

I was tempted to spend the whole day in the British Museum, but I found a bit of self-control hidden in my camera bag, so I headed out into London.  I had a map, two feet, and the London Underground to get me around.  I made tracks (pardon the pun) for the river Thames.  While strolling along this famous waterway, I was shocked to discover a Royal Navy warship moored near the Tower of London.

This vessel turned out to be HMS Belfast, a Town-class light cruiser and one of the few big-gun ships from World War II preserved in Europe.  We have numerous WWII ships on display here in the United States, but such vessels are rare in Europe.  Europe was more concerned with rebuilding shattered civilizations than preserving large, expensive artifacts after the war, so the Belfast presents a unique opportunity to see how the Royal Navy lived and fought during the war.  Belfast was commissioned in 1939 and served until 1963.  The ship saw action throughout the war, including D-Day, and even served during the Korean War.  Most exhibits are focused on Belfast (as one would expect), but a visitor to the ship will also get a solid education on the history of the Royal Navy.

As I disembarked the Belfast, I set my sights on something else I’d wanted to see since I was a child: the famous Tower Bridge.  Exercising my newly developing photographic skills, I again captured an image that still ranks in my top ten of early examples of my photographic skills—a beautiful exposure of the Tower Bridge against a mildly cloudy sapphire blue sky (incipient photographic genius, or just another moment of beginner’s luck?).  Walking across the bridge to the Tower of London allowed me the chance to shoot a few red double-decker buses trundling along, but my nascent photographic skills weren’t yet up to the challenge of capturing moving objects any more than they were a match for low-light, no-flash settings.  I ended up with several lovely red blurs streaking across attractively blurred scenes of pedestrians on the bridge.  Still, at least those were British blurs…

Tower Bridge, London. Nov. 26, 1999.

London is also where I made the first-ever Great Mistake of my life as a tourist.  To this day I still have no idea what the hell I was thinking, but I didn’t go inside the Tower of London!  I photographed the outside of it, experimenting with capturing its spires through tree branches and such, but I was a total lunkhead and neglected to go inside.  I missed seeing the crown jewels, places where the likes of Mary, Queen of Scots were held, etc.  Like I said, a major lunkheaded move!  Oh, well…

Fortunately, I wasn’t so stupid a second time and did spend an hour inside Churchill’s World War II bunker.  Like the Belfast, the Cabinet War Rooms (as they are called) are now a branch of the Imperial War Museum.  Do you want to understand The Blitz and those critical days when Britain (and all of Europe) teetered on the brink of falling to The Darkness?  Go visit the Cabinet War Rooms on the corner of Horse Guards Road and King Charles Street.

Tromping around Britain was a childhood dream come true.  The bonus was getting to see so much with an old friend from FSU in Tallahassee, Florida!  In an interesting irony, this was the second time I wound up meeting someone from Florida in Europe.  In the Irony of Ironies, my barracks roommate was a kid from my own hometown of Niceville, Florida!

The visit was a whirlwind tour, but it’s one that remains as one of the Top Ten Awesomely Amazing Trips I got to take while in the Navy.  Even though my photographic library was limited (this was back in the day when you had to buy film and pay for processing, so photography was an expensive hobby), I can still feel the unreality of the wonder that I was in the city I’d read so much about.  I walked the streets where kings and queens held court, great triumphs and atrocities played out, and the foundations of our own nation were laid in the burgeoning if nascent, ideas percolating about the representative government of the people and for the people.

I will go back one day!

To hear a bit more about my London Adventure, and also find out what stage show Christine and I attended in London’s Soho district, check out my video at:


Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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