Travelogue for London, 2006

Travelogue for London, 2006

A newspaperman I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said: “Then it’s there.”

— Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

Welcome! This an online travel journal for my August 2006 trip to London, England, with day trips to Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace.

Also, please note that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more are available on Flickr.


Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I arrive at Heathrow Airport at just past nine in the morning after a fitful night of would-be sleep on an overnight flight from Philadelphia. Adrenalin, however, rules the day when I open my eyes to patchy blue skies over the UK and a growing sense of excitement. London, baby! I have never ventured abroad before and certainly not alone, as I am doing here, so I follow the crowds of more savvy travelers through baggage claim and immigration and in the blink of an eye find myself and my luggage stowed comfortably aboard the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station. For fifteen peaceful minutes I congratulate myself on my decision to splurge here on the most expensive train ride per mile I have ever taken. I would not have wanted to struggle with my bags on the tube. Watching others do it later, over and over again, only confirms the sentiment.

After a short taxi ride from Paddington, I arrive at the doorstep of my home for the next eight days, the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel on Gloucester Road. Still amazed at my success in fooling my body into thinking it is mid-morning rather than the crack of dawn, I gawk about the lovely lobby, check my luggage in with the bellman, and set off into the “Streets of London” humming that old Ralph McTell song as I walk. First stop, Tesco’s for a quick sandwich. Next, the Underground station across the street where I ask confidently for an Oyster card with a 7-day travel card fare for zones 1-2. I notice that the attendant seems genuinely relieved that he does not have to explain fare options to yet another foreign-born tourist, and I can hardly blame him given the growing length of the queue.

I hop on a westbound Circle line train for a quick trip to High Street Kensington and purchase an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone from the Virgin Megastore there. I stop briefly in the square in front of Saint Mary Abbots church to call my family in the states and tell them, in my best faux British accent, that they can “ring me on my mobile.”

With a ticket for the Big Bus Company I printed online in my pocket (£2 saved) and a camera at my side, I start searching for the nearest tour stop, boarding at last in front of the Royal Albert Hall. Like everyone else, I sit on the upper deck and find the recorded commentary on the “Blue” line to be surprisingly good. I hop off at Piccadilly Circus to pick up brochures at the tourist information bureau and then switch to a “Red” line bus with live commentary, only to find the guide’s timid voice drowned out by the sound of traffic in the street. Not caring enough to switch buses again, I catch my first glimpse of Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London. I spend most of the afternoon grinning like a child on Christmas morning.

When I return to my hotel late in the day I am shocked at how big my room is. It is a Club room, so I expected something a little better than average, but this is very, very nice—European-style linens, two comfy armchairs, robust air conditioning, and a deep soaking tub! What more could I ask for?

I decide to eat an early dinner at the Taste of India restaurant right up the street. The chicken tikka masala is good but not great, and the sticker shock of a lousy exchange rate is starting to sink in. Afterward, I take a long, slow walk through Kensington Gardens. I knew Londoners had suffered through successive heat waves in July, but somehow I am surprised by the look and feel of the parched grass that crunches beneath my feet. I enjoy the Flower Walk and Italian Gardens and begin to suspect that while Brits may be willing to sacrifice their lawns in times of drought, they seem to find a way to save their flowers! I walk further and find the Peter Pan Statue and the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I wonder how much the royal family must have hated Diana to allow such an odd and unimpressive thing to be built in her honor.

Back to the hotel, and a night of blissful sleep.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

After a quick breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and an almond croissant at the Patisserie on Gloucester Road, I tube over to Green Park to take pictures of Buckingham Palace, and then walk along the Mall through Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square. Somewhere along the way I realize just how much I appreciate the British aesthetic. Buses should be red and taxis should be black. Why do we in America not know this?

I am thoroughly impressed by the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square and am delighted to find Old Nelson fresh and clean and free of scaffolding. The view down Whitehall towards Big Ben is as wonderful as my guidebook claims. I snap more pictures and begin to wonder how long the 1 GB storage card in my camera is going to hold out at this rate. I grab my only real bargain of the entire trip from a nearby convenience store—a 40p bottle of water—and retrace my steps back to Horseguards Parade for the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11:00 AM. The crowd is small, the horses and their riders lovely, and the action nearly imperceptible. People wait, then murmur and shrug, not quite sure if what they saw was what they were supposed to see, and then disperse.

I head back to Trafalgar Square and call my family on the cell phone and tell them it is time to do the “webcam thing.” This I discovered some months ago and resolved to stand in the square in view of the camera while I waved to the folks back home, the picture of which they would save on their computer for posterity. And so here I am, a grainy, indistinct mass standing in the center of a traffic island in Trafalgar Square, half a world away. We all think this is cool.

I head to the National Portrait Gallery and rent an audioguide tour, which takes me through a lively tour of England’s Kings and Queens. Then, I walk to the nearby church of St. Martin-in-the Fields for lunch at their Café in the Crypt. It sounds a bit strange to me and I pause to think about the tombs of those on which I trod, but alas I am hungry and head quickly for the food—a mushroom tart and cucumber salad.

In the afternoon, I rent another audioguide, this time for the National Gallery. This one is much less interesting, but the art is impressive all the same. On leaving Trafalgar Square, I walk up Charing Cross Road and buy my nephew the latest Harry Potter book in paperback, then across into Covent Garden for dinner. There is a “Punch and Judy” show and street performers pretending to be statues—quite successfully! I drop 50p into a hat and one of them springs to life and blows me a kiss. I enjoy a traditional Cornish pasty and chips al fresco along with a single bottle of diet Coke, and find myself missing the unlimited refills we enjoy in the states.

By 8:00 PM I feel completely knackered, but I am motivated to “power through” by late hours at the Victoria & Albert Museum near my hotel. Some of the galleries are closed, but the 15th and 16th century stained glass windows are a thing of beauty. I am glad I came.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

This morning I awake and find that I cannot quite remember when a double-decker bus ran over my body, but I am convinced that it must have happened in my sleep because I can barely move my muscles! I wish I had brought a pedometer to measure just how far I have walked for it is surely miles and miles. I tell my body to stop its pointless protest and get up.

Just as I hoped, I find myself at the doors of Westminster Abbey when they open at 9:30 AM, well in advance of the maddening crowd. I sign up for a guided tour and am thoroughly entertained by my verger, Ian—although simultaneously aghast by what was done to Oliver Cromwell’s body. I mean, it does seem a bit pointless since he was dead already and all… I smile as Ian shames away the hangers-on who refuse to pay for the commentary, but nevertheless lean in to catch all the gory details. Apparently, this happens all the time. So does theft. I listen to stories about how pilgrims came to pay homage to Saint Edward the Confessor and stole small relics from his tomb along the way, and how tourists carved their initials into the coronation chair used by every British monarch since the year 1308.

I love Westminster Abbey and marvel in the collected beauty of its marble busts and statues. When seeing it on television during the funeral of Princess Diana it looked vast. Here in person, it is warm and cozy and almost cramped, but in a good way. A very good way.

Before I leave I stop for lunch in the cloisters café and munch on a ham sandwich with piccalilli and enjoy my first slice of chocolate fridge cake made with digestive biscuits. I wonder what digestive biscuits are, but convince myself that I have indulged in a health food of some sort, where calories are not strictly counted. I make a mental note to search for a recipe when I get home. I eat perched on the windowsill overlooking the courtyard and still cannot quite believe that I am here.

After a quick trip through the gift shop to buy a guidebook—the perfect solution to the “no photography in the Abbey” rule—I head down to Westminster pier and use my travel card to get a discount on a City Cruises trip to the Tower and back. The views are lovely, but it is cloudy and dreary by now and chilly on the water, even with a jacket and scarf. I decide to forego the return part of the trip and head straight for Pimlico on the tube to save more time for Tate Britain before returning to Westminster Abbey for Evensong at 5:00 p.m.

Oh, the irony! To fly all the way across the Atlantic to attend an Evensong service at Westminster Abbey, only to find a guest choir from Houston, Texas on hand. Ian, the verger on my morning tour is kind enough to save me a seat in the quire, which I gratefully accept, seat cushion and all, after a long day of walking. As a lapsed Catholic wholly unfamiliar with Anglican church services, I am totally unprepared for the glorious acoustic sound of the music, which wafts up into the highest peaks of the cathedral ceiling before disappearing into the air. The clearest of blue skies greet me as I leave.

Following Evensong, I eat dinner at a nearby pub on Victoria Street, the Albert. The Victorian décor in the dining room upstairs is lovely, but the food from the carving station is overpriced and a bit mediocre. Afterward, the still blue sky encourages me to walk across Westminster Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames on the Jubilee Promenade. I buy a bag of fresh roasted peanuts from a street vendor and go as far as Blackfriars Bridge before turning back. I stop to enjoy the mournful sound of a clarinetist under the arch, and after rewarding him with a quid, remind myself to stop thinking about all those £1 and £2 pound coins in my pocket as little more than loose change.

I find a seat just across the river from Big Ben and wait for dusk and the monument lights to turn on before taking what will become my favorite picture of the trip. I stop off at an internet café to post it online for friends and family to see before heading off to bed.

Friday, August 4, 2006

I am an early bird again this morning, trying to be at the Tower of London when they open at 9:00 AM.  I grab a quick bottle of orange juice and a maple pecan “flapjack”—which, as I discover, is not at all like a pancake—at a food stand nearby before heading in.  Once inside, I go straight for the crown jewels and find myself alone with them, except (of course) for the heavily armed guards.  I hop on the moving walkway, go around several times, and decide that I like Queen Victoria’s tiny crown the best.  Next, I meet up with a tour led by one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders (or “Beefeaters”) and discover, much to my surprise, that bloody executions of the innocent can be quite amusing when the stories are told in the right way.  I spend the entire morning exploring the buildings and grounds, before stopping for lunch at the New Armouries Café, at which I once again stumble across that glorious chocolate fridge cake.  It must be fate.  

I tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon and sign up for a “super tour” with a wonderful volunteer guide named Chris at 2:00 p.m.  Afterward, I decide to brave the climb up to the dome.  I make it up the Whispering Gallery just fine.  Onwards and upwards I climb to the Stone Gallery.  Still OK.  Along the way to the Golden Gallery my legs tire and my heart begins to race.  Unmistakably, I begin to spot old graffiti carved into the plaster walls.  In a flight of fancy, I imagine a similar soul making the same trek a century or more ago, writing his last words to family and friends before dying of a heart attack!  I approach the last flight of narrow spiral stairs with trepidation, especially after seeing the open ironwork on the stair treads, which makes me dizzy.  But thanks to my nephew’s fondness for his “Lord of the Rings” DVD set, I think of Aragorn’s speech in “The Return of the King.” I say to myself: “There may come a time when the courage of men fail, but it is not this day.”  I push on and on, and…  Oh, the view!  Completely worth it! 

I climb back down and stay for evensong at 5:00 PM.  As at Westminster Abbey, the resident choir is on holiday, but the organ and the guest choir are both lovely.  Following the service, I walk across the MillenniumBridge—which, thankfully, no longer wobbles—toward the Tate Modern.  I eat dinner at the Pizza Express next door and then make my way into Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre for a production of Simon Bent’s “Under the Black Flag.” I am disappointed, and not just because my aching feet have made it impossible for me to fulfill my dream of being a “groundling.”  The seats, even with a rented cushion, are very uncomfortable and at nearly three hours in length the play is overly long and tedious.  There is much death and mayhem, but the story would be better told by one of the Tower’s Beefeaters.  Here, it is just not funny, even though it tries hard to be. 

As I exit the theatre, the view of St. Paul’s illuminated in the night sky is beautiful.  I take pictures and then walk east, past Southwark Cathedral, to the London Bridge tube stop, stopping by the edge of the water in front of City Hall to snap more pictures of Tower Bridge.  As I balance my camera on the railing to keep it steady, the drawbridge opens and a ship sails through.  Another great picture.  I marvel at my good fortune.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

This is my earliest morning by far, but as an avid antiques collector, I am determined to explore the shops and stands along Portobello Road before heading to Windsor Castle for the day.  Unlike in the states, I see real antiques here, not “collectibles” and flea market junk disguised as antiques.  I love everything, but can afford nothing.  I am especially taken with a tiny porcelain box that has a hand painted view of St. Paul’s on the lid and the words “A souvenir of London” written underneath.  It dates to the mid-18th century and costs £495.   Seriously.  There’s just no way.  At Alice’s across the street, I overhear a good-humored argument between the proprietors about one partner’s drinking and carousing the night before, which delayed their opening the shop.  To soften the loss of the St. Paul’s box, I settle for a pair of reproduction Staffordshire figurines from them instead, which puts a temporary stop to the bickering.


By 10:00 AM I am on a train for Windsor, heading out from Paddington Station.  I switch lines at Slough and arrive well in advance of the Changing of the Guard, only to find that they have changed the schedule instead.  I missed it the day before…  I thoroughly enjoy Windsor Castle and its state apartments nevertheless.  I do wonder about the common sense of some people, however, and greatly sympathize with the poor guards who have to stop them from taking pictures at every turn-sometimes the same person two or three times in a row.  For goodness sake, just buy a guidebook!  Perhaps the ancient art of drawing and quartering should return as a punishment for those who cannot listen.  Just kidding.

I break for lunch in town at the Café Rouge, where I order a pastry filled with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, then walk back to see more of the castle and St. George’s Chapel.  I saw a few episodes of “Windsor Castle: A Royal Year” on my local PBS station last year and wish I could remember more about the Order of the Garter.  I will have to rent it when I get home. 

By 6:00 PM I am back in London and at Harrods, where I eat a rotisserie chicken dinner in the food halls.  Overall, I am not as impressed with the store as I thought I would be.  It seems a bit crass.


I end the day with a flight on the London Eye at 9:00 PM — the last of the night.  Perfect weather, perfect time.  How I wish I could go around twice, once to take pictures, once just to enjoy.  Heck, why not go round and round all night?  The view is that good. 

In the darkness, on my walk back to the tube across Westminster Bridge, a bagpiper stands upright and alone, playing his heart out.  This is a great city.


Sunday, August 6, 2006

I venture out of London again this morning, this time to HamptonCourtPalacevia the South West trains at Waterloo station.  Just like the day before, no one comes around to collect my ticket.  How does this work?  Is it some kind of honor system?  A less honest person could save some real money here. 

Once there, I am relieved that I cancelled the full-day bus tour I had originally planned, combining WindsorCastle and Hampton Court.  Staying at Hampton Court for only two hours would be a travesty.  I wind up spending that in the gardens alone, to say nothing of the four audio tours of the Tutor kitchens and state apartments.  Like the audioguide at the National Portrait Gallery, these are very well done.  The hours tick by, and I hardly notice.  I love this place.

Somewhere along the way I stop for lunch at the Tiltyard Café where I discover, and fail to resist, my third piece of chocolate fridge cake.  See, it is fate.   

Before I leave Hampton Court, I try to find my way to the center of the Tutor maze.  Naturally, I get lost among the tall hedges and find that I keep meeting up with the same people, who are also lost.  About ten minutes in, I have a silly Harry Potter moment and decide to stay on the alert for blast-ended skrewts and giant spiders.  Where’s my wand?  I could send up red sparks!  I do not want to be a Muggle.  I want magic.  Now.  The built-in sound effects are egging me on.  I hear whispering and snatches of laughter.  A disembodied voice tells me I am getting closer.  I do not believe her.  Eventually by happenstance, I emerge into a clearing to join a dozen other dazed souls.  I take a picture of myself by the sign to prove that I was there, then take the short-cut out.  I am not heading back in there.  Mad-Eye Moody might be lurking in the shadows… 

I return to the hotel around 6:30 PM and rush through a quick sandwich from Tesco’s before heading to a promenade concert at Royal Albert Hall.  The hall itself is a lovely space, but the lack of air conditioning makes things quite stuffy and uncomfortable.  I can only imagine how much worse it is during a heat wave.  From my vantage point on the balcony it seems that people are sleeping on the floor of the arena in front of the stage, or perhaps they have collapsed from a lack of fresh air.  Either way, I hope none of them feel justified in buying the “Prommers do it standing up” T-shirts for sale in the lobby downstairs! 

The first piece of the evening is one newly commissioned by the BBC, titled “Heaven is Shy of Earth.”  The program says it is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, but I just do not get it.  I have always thought of Dickinson as a melodic poet, but to my ears this is an atonal mess.  After the intermission, I much prefer Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” and am reminded midway through that Sarah Hughes used this music in her long program when she won the gold medal in ladies figure skating in 2002.  I think it must have been much cooler on the ice that night.

Monday, August 7, 2006

An offer of free admission on Mondays means that I start my day with a brief tour of the Courtauld Gallery, where I see Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandaged ear.  Then, because I missed the Changing of the Guard at WindsorCastle, I decide to brave it at BuckinghamPalace.  Sort of.  Instead of planting myself in front of the palace gates like other mere mortals, I arrive late and stand instead by the Wellington Barracks.  The band is playing an eclectic mix of music, from Sousa marches to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” and even throw in a few pop songs.  I like it.  Who ever said the Brits were stuffy?  There is a highly evolved sense of humor here.   

After the guard is inspected, I follow them as they parade toward BuckinghamPalace, then pause for a picnic lunch in St. James’s Park, which I bought earlier at a Prêt a Manger.  By the time I finish eating, the old guard leaving the palace provides another nice photo opportunity.  Perhaps I missed the major action in front of the palace (although given my experience with the Queen’s Life Guard on Wednesday, I am not so sure about that) but it is a pleasing compromise given the crowds.  

In the afternoon, I head to the British Museumto see the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, but enjoy the Enlightenment exhibit in the King’s Library best of all.   

I made reservations long ago for afternoon tea at the Ritz at 5:30 PM.  I arrive early enough to wander through the Burlington Arcade first, followed by a turn through Fortnum & Mason, which I like much better than Harrods.  I am just in time to see their mechanical clock spring into action at the top of the hour.   

Tea at the Ritz is sublime.  I am a convert, now convinced that tea bags are the root of all evil.  The sandwiches are pretty good, too.  The clotted cream is not quite what I expected (less sweet), but a very nice accompaniment to the scones and jam nevertheless.  I chat with two lovely English ladies seated at the table next to mine, Judy and Gill, and take a picture for them.  It is their first visit to the Ritz, too, in honor of Gill’s birthday.   

Following tea, I tube to Leicester Square and walk to the Prince Edward theatre for an evening performance of “Mary Poppins.” I sit in the Orchestra Stalls, Row K, and have a fabulous view of the stage.  It is costing me a small fortune, but thankfully it is worth every pence!  The special effects are astounding.  How did they do that?  Just as appealing to me is the emotional range of the show.  It is much deeper and more satisfying than the Walt Disney movie, especially in the characterization of the adult actors.  When a statue in the park named Nelius comes alive by magic, I am reminded of the street performers in Covent Garden.  I love every minute of it, especially the choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which, needless to say, is far more ambitious than what the Village People did to spell Y-M-C-A back in the 70s. On my feet, I join the rest of audience in applauding wildly at the end.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

I am heading home today, but not before one last morning out and about in London.  I walk down Kensington Church Street in search of antique shops, but find few open for business on a Tuesday.  I wander towards KensingtonPalaceand the sunken garden, and then over to the Princess of Wales playground, before returning to the palace grounds in time for lunch at The Orangery.  Finally, there is iced tea on the menu.  The American rejoices!  It is a lovely concoction made with sparkling water, infused with rosemary and lemon.  I have an open-faced sandwich of York ham and piccalilli, and a slice of their signature cake for good measure.  It is a sweet ending to a very sweet trip.  From here it is back to the hotel for my luggage, then back to Heathrow for the long journey home.   

After arriving in Philadelphia, an immigration officer barrages me with a standard set of questions about my trip, asking me at one point if I am travelling alone.  When I answer “yes,” he breaks visibly from protocol, looks up and says, as if in disbelief: “Really?”  I nod, and then say with a smile, “and I had a great time, too”!  He waves me through, shaking his head.