Thursday, May 31, 2012

The last time I did this, things didn’t work out very well.

I hate to be so glum and pessimistic, but that is what’s rolling around in my head all the way down to the airport in Philadelphia. The sun is setting and the night is warm—perfect, really, for an overnight flight to London Heathrow on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend. It’s just that last year’s trip didn’t go well at all. Nor, quite frankly, has the intervening year.

I was in Germany then, enjoying the Hansel and Gretel charm of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and its medieval walls and watch towers. I had moved on to Munich, with its schnitzels and convivial beer gardens when I fell suddenly and horribly ill. When no amount of rest or wishful thinking could solve the problem, I conceded defeat and returned home early, with more than half of my itinerary, and the entire country of Austria, left behind. Little did I know then that a year of misery and spiraling weight loss awaited—a year spent in a neurologist’s office where vague phrases like “dysautonomia” and “vestibular dysfunction” would become routine. It wasn’t anything life threatening, but the symptoms were nasty and the recovery slow.

Despite all of that—or perhaps because of it—I am here on a Thursday night in late May, taxiing out to the runway, ready to try it all again. Instead of the excitement I usually feel at the start of a great adventure, I feel instead a gnawing trepidation in my stomach. I’m eager to put things in motion, to get up in the sky. I want to feel normal again, but I hardly know how.

I’ve decided to rewind things this year, to go back to where I first discovered a love for travel on my inaugural trip abroad in 2006. Going back is like comfort food. I am going to London, and from there west to Bath, Oxford, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the Cotswolds, before heading north to Edinburgh. At the center of this indulgent feast are the events surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. There is to be a giant flotilla on the Thames, a star-studded concert in St. James’s Park, a mass of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s, and a carriage procession from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace. I flip through my itinerary one last time and resolve to see and do as much as I can.

At the last minute, a British Airways clerk at check-in offers to switch my seat from the outer aisle in row 18 to the inner aisle of row 19 in the hope of snagging three seats across the center of the plane, perfect for sleep on an overnight flight, but alas, our plan is foiled by a middle-aged American couple who slide in beside me at the very last minute. Just behind, a young family is settling in with an energetic toddler and a crying infant. This isn’t exactly an auspicious start, and I reach for my noise-cancelling headphones and an inflatable foot rest. I won’t be lying down tonight.

I tuck into a late dinner of cheese tortellini in tomato sauce at 11:30 PM, just as we pass high over Halifax, and shortly after that a flight attendant turns on the intercom to announce that the entertainment system onboard is broken for the duration. I sigh and close my eyes, hoping in vain for a night of peaceful—if upright—slumber, and perhaps, just maybe, a change of luck in the morning. But I’ll settle for a change of scenery. A change of something is exactly what I need.

Friday, June 1, 2012

I feel, dare I say, a sense of optimism this morning. It’s a gloomy day in Britain, but my flight arrives on time at Heathrow Airport, and despite endless stories of endless lines at immigration due to budget cuts, there is no waiting at all. I meet my driver from Exclusive Airports and fall into a comfortable nap in the car, all the way into the city and the Rubens at the Palace Hotel on Buckingham Palace Road, where a festive silver crown and the number sixty are enmeshed in a carpet of fresh greens just above the entrance. Despite the early hour, room 438 with its soft pillows and gray felt walls is ready and waiting for me, and it feels good to crash upon the bed. In the simple act of arrival, there is relief. It has been a triumph of efficiency. So far, so good.

I walk around the corner to a Pret a Manger near Victoria Station and buy an Edam cheese sandwich and a bag of chips for an impromptu picnic on the grass in Grosvenor Gardens. I’m tired already, with some combination of jet lag and residual illness, but now that I am here I’m determined to keep moving. I walk down the road and buy a ticket for an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and afterwards stroll through the Royal Mews, across the street from my hotel. I see the stables in which the monarch’s famous Windsor Grays are kept, and the Gold State Coach that carried a young Queen Elizabeth to her coronation in 1953. By the time I’m through, I’m ready to lay down for a bit before the 5:00 PM evensong service at Westminster Abbey. This has been my one great determination of the day and it’s as glorious as I remember inside, with its vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows and the most heavenly sounds coming from the cathedral choir, but honestly, I can barely keep my eyes open.

For dinner, I am sensible and I opt to stay in for the night and head down to the Old Master’s Carvery restaurant at the Rubens. From the buffet, I select slices of beef and pork, roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. It’s not an earth shattering meal, but it’s hearty and warm and the traditional fare reminds me that I am in England.

At long last, I am a traveler again.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It’s a foggy day in London town, and there is fine misting rain. Nevertheless, I am up at 7:00 AM to get ready for the Major General’s Review, a full dress rehearsal for the Trooping of the Colour—the Queen’s annual birthday parade—which takes place in two week’s time. I wasn’t able to snag a ticket for the genuine event on the 16th, but this sounds plenty impressive as it is, minus (of course) the presence of Her Majesty, who one can assume has practiced quite enough over the past six decades.

My stomach is in need of a full English breakfast and in the elegant dining room downstairs at the Rubens I enjoy one while perusing The Independent, which was left outside my hotel room door. This morning there’s an article titled “60 Things You Never Knew about the Queen.” Some of them are rather indulgent and unconvincing, such as #4: “Even at the age of one, she had what I call ‘royal manners,’ one of her first nannies, Nanny Wilkins, once revealed.” Others are humorous, if downright obvious. Case in point, #57: “For some time now, Prince Philip has suffered from a compulsion to insult people, even heads of state, whom he meets.” But the comments about her children—that only Anne turned out “as expected,” that Charles wants to be “cleverer than he in fact is,” that Andrew would have been a “perfectly good regional manager for a carpets firm, and much happier,” and that Edward is “sweet, gentle, and hopeless”—come across as insightful and intensely human.

I stuff the newspaper into my bag and head out the door. There is a buzz in the air as I make my way down Birdcage Walk toward Horse Guards Parade, and at Wellington Barracks preparations are already underway. There is a cavalry unit lining up their caissons, and I pause for a few minutes to watch as steam rises from the horses’ nostrils in the cool, morning air.

The Diamond Jubilee weekend is about to begin and the city is teeming with people. At the far corner of St. James’s Park, I overhear one policeman say to another: “It’s fucking going to be like this every day, I tell you. For the next four days, it’s fucking going to be like this.”

I turn left onto Parliament Street and look for signs into Horse Guards Parade. First I see Stands F, G, and H, and later around the block, Stands A, B, and C, but someone has forgotten to include Stands D and E and no one knows quite where to go. After being directed to one entrance, than another and back again, I make it to my seat at last, perched in a corner on the highest row of bleachers. It’s a perfect spot for taking pictures.

The troops arrive promptly at 10:00 AM and for the next two hours, I snap happily away as a cavalcade of color marches in precision before me to the beat of drums and bagpipes and brass bands. There are Foot Guards and Life Guards, Scots Guards and Irish Guards. There are cavalry units, like the Blues and Royals, and the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery. Some wear tall bearskins that rest low and heavy on their foreheads, while others have pith helmets of polished silver and gold, ornamented by red horsehair plumes. It’s an astonishing spectacle that reminds me of the might of the British Empire. After all these years, they still know how to put on a show.

Afterwards, I am swept by the dispersing crowd into Trafalgar Square, where I duck into the café at the National Gallery of Art for a quick lunch made up of a coronation chicken sandwich and cupcake whose white buttercream icing has been stenciled with the red and blue stripes of the Union Jack. With the British, it seems, there are no details left undone.

From there, with some time to spare before a 2:00 PM reservation at the National Portrait Gallery, I decide to visit “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) by Jan Van Eyck. It’s in the Sainsbury Wing next door, and for a moment, the long, slow flight of stairs to the second floor reminds me uncomfortably of Munich’s Alte Pinokothek, where I fell ill a year ago.

The exhibition I am waiting for is called “The Queen: Art and Image” and it brings together an eclectic mix of portraits of Elizabeth II from throughout her reign. Some are iconographic, others intimate. There is the Queen in Westminster Abbey, dressed in her coronation robes, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, but there is also an enchanting behind-the-scenes photograph from the day Diana married Charles, where the Queen is little more than a mother-in-law, an accessory to a growing celebrity destined to outshine her own. And then there is a luminous, holographic image by Chris Levine titled “Lightness of Being,” which captures the Queen with her eyes closed, resting between exposures.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the crowd inside the museum is hot and suffocating, despite the timed admissions. It’s time to get back to the Rubens, claim my bags, and grab a taxi toward the Thames. As I turn to leave, one of the hotel staff, a friendly man with close cropped hair and a thick Polish accent named Bogdan, asks if I was going to sneak off without saying goodbye. The staff at the Rubens have been wonderfully kind to me, and I remind him that I’ll be back in the few days. He gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and lifts my suitcase into the waiting cab outside.

The sun is breaking through the clouds—at least momentarily—as the driver takes me over Westminster Bridge and we turn west along Albert Embankment. The Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant is tomorrow afternoon and I want to be close by. I check into a large, modern room at the Park Plaza Riverbank, which is draped for the occasion in red, white and blue bunting and a sign that reads “Congratulations Your Majesty,” and then go out scouting for dinner. Directly in front of the hotel there is a glorious view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, but the neighborhood is otherwise rather barren. I walk up to Vauxhall underground station and settle on a take away sandwich from another Pret a Manger, and while I’m there I stock up on supplies—breakfast for the morning, and another sandwich and a Love Bar to get me through the afternoon, assuming I’ll be pinned in place by the crowds along the Thames.

On the walk back to the hotel, I feel tired, but excited, and I think again about what that policeman said in the park this morning: “It’s fucking going to be like this.”

Yes, I suppose it will. And won’t it be grand?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I’m up early again this morning, enjoying a nice, relaxed breakfast in my room, while the BBC is playing in the background. From my walk to the local Pret a Manger yesterday afternoon I have a slice of lemon poppy seed cake, a cup of mixed fruit with mango, blueberries, and pomegranate seeds, and a bottle of apple juice. And for good measure, given the spitting rain and frigid temperatures outside, I heat some water using the electric kettle on the desk and use it to mix up a steaming mug of hot chocolate. According to the live news report on the TV, I’m going to need all the sustenance I can get.

This is London in early June, and while I wasn’t foolish enough to expect warm summer sunshine, I did plan for seasonable temperatures. In fact, while I was packing my luggage last week and deciding what to bring, I had looked at the weather forecast online and things seemed to be perfectly delightful, with highs well into the 70s. This morning as I peruse my wardrobe, it’s clear that I miscalculated. It’s in the mid-40s out there. Stoically, I pull on two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, and two sweaters, followed by a black rain coat with a nice, deep hood. It’ll have to do. I also fix a plastic bracelet around my wrist. The front desk at the Park Plaza Riverbank is worried that throngs of holiday-makers will descend upon the restrooms inside, and this identifies me as a legitimate hotel guest.

By a quarter past nine I’m standing on the embankment just outside the hotel, surveying all that is before me. I look west to Vauxhall and then east to Lambeth Bridge and beyond, where a thick blanket of fog has settled over Big Ben and the Neogothic towers of the Houses of Parliament. The crowd at this hour is in a thin, broken line, so I decide to join in, to be sure of a front row seat. This is what I’ve come for, and there is no use wimping out now.

I pull out a small, folding camp stool I had packed in my suitcase, open an umbrella, and settle in with some music on my iPhone. It’s going to a long wait until the start of the pageant in mid-afternoon. I’m grateful that the white ear buds help to block the wind as I flip through a British-themed playlist I’ve made for the occasion. How apt it seems now that I should be listening to Matraca Berg’s “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June.”

There is a long and glorious history of flotillas on the Thames, one celebrated this month, not coincidentally, by a special exhibition entitled “Royal River” at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of one such pageant that he witnessed in 1660, a year after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. According to Pepys, the king and queen sailed down from Hampton Court to Whitehall “under a canopy with 10,000 barges and boats, I think, for we could see no water for them.” In 1716, Handel’s Water Music was composed for King George I, and had its premiere from a barge on the Thames. And around 1746, Canaletto painted a majestic armada of boats beneath the towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a canvas titled “The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day.”

Today, during what is formally known as the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, more than 1,000 vessels will sail from Battersea Park to Tower Bridge, making it the largest flotilla the river has seen in more than 300 years. Boris Johnson, the ever colorful mayor of London, has promised that it will be “like Dunkirk… only more cheerful.”

So far, despite the rain and the cold, Boris is right. Things are downright giddy among the million or so spectators that have lined the banks of the Thames by early afternoon. A man and a woman walk by in coordinating raincoats patterned with the Union Jack flag. Someone tall is wearing a cardboard mask of the Queen on the back of their head, and I’m amused to see her diamond tiara bobbing up and down above the crowd. My favorite, though, are two men—brothers, perhaps—who are holding court on the terrace just outside the hotel. They’re decked out in red, white, and blue from head to toe, from bow ties to blazers to sunglasses, and both are sporting patriotic Mohawk wigs. I call over to them and point to my camera, and they pose enthusiastically for me.

By now, I’ve fallen into an easy rapport with those around me in the crowd, and everyone seems surprised—and grateful even—that someone from America has come all this way to celebrate their Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

It’s 3:00 PM by the time we hear the Royal Jubilee bells that mark the arrival of the procession. Then we see the Gloriana. It’s a gilded barge rowed by more than a dozen straining souls, and there is a man in a red waistcoat and knickers perched on the bow, waving to the crowd in white gloves. I envy those gloves. By now, I’ve been out in the cold for nearly six hours and I can hardly feel my fingers.

An array of man-powered vessels follow—canoes, kayaks, gondolas, and dragon boats—each plowing doggedly through the choppy waters. They are succeeded by a squadron of Sea Cadets sailing under the flags of the Commonwealth countries. Then, at long last, comes Her Majesty, on a barge christened the “Spirit of Chartwell.” The boat is draped in red velvet bunting and swags of red roses, and under a gilded canopy I can see the Queen, dressed in white, standing resolutely alongside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and other members of the Royal family, including Princes William and Harry. All of the men are dressed in their military finery.

As the barge passes under Vauxhall Bridge, there are scores of drenched Brits cheering loudly along the shore—and at least one American surrounded by her new friends from Gloucester and Cheltenham—waving back with their Union Jack flags.

For the next hour, we watch together as the Dunkirk little ships pass by, along with a series of steam ships, working boats, and motor cruisers, including the Jolly Brit from the Royal yacht Britannia. But at just past four, the rain begins to pour at last, and after taking a quick picture of my companions, we say our goodbyes. They rush back to the tube and I duck into my hotel, dripping from head to toe. There will be no flypast today and no need to wait. There is a small group clustered around a projection screen in the lobby, watching the BBC’s coverage on TV, but all I can think about are the warm blankets on my bed upstairs.

Sometime later, feeling refreshed, I take a stroll to the east, all the way up to Westminster Bridge. The night is still young, but some of the street lamps along the embankment have already flickered on, confused by the fog and the brooding, gray sky. It’s a sodden and solitary walk. The buoyant crowds of the day have scattered and gone home. When I can’t find anything suitable for dinner, I turn and head back to the hotel with a craving for room service and a fat, juicy cheeseburger with fries.

It’s a decidedly American meal I eat, curled up in bed in my pajamas while watching a replay of the pageant on TV, but at long last I am warm, dry, and fully fed. As a columnist for the Telegraph will write in the morning, the inclement weather “really didn’t dampen the atmosphere; it simply made it more British.”

They are a hearty lot, the Brits. And today, I was glad to be among them.

Monday, June 4, 2012

It feels good to sleep in this morning. Soon, I’ll be heading back to the Rubens so that I can be close by for the BBC concert in front of Buckingham Palace tonight, but there is no need to rush. I take my time getting dressed and then walk down the street to a small grocery store for a chocolate croissant and some orange juice. On the way back up to my room to get the luggage, I overhear the following conversation in the elevator:

A spry, older woman with an English accent says to her companion: “What are we doing today, then, going to the Golden Eye?” The companion says: “It’s the London Eye, not the Golden Eye. What do you think this is, James Bond?” And the woman says: “How do you know? Maybe he’ll be in there waiting for me!” I find it hard to suppress a laugh.

By the time I get back to the Rubens hotel and settle into a new room decorated in shades of silver and gold, I feel dizzy and my stomach is doing cartwheels. I enjoyed the pageant yesterday, but in truth I spent too many hours standing in the freezing cold and now I don’t feel well at all. And I’m not the only one. The BBC is reporting that the Duke of Edinburgh has been taken to the hospital with a bladder infection. He’ll have to sit out the remainder of the weekend’s events. Determined not to let that happen to me, I decide to skip my plans to see the Wallace Collection and lie down for a few hours instead.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time I venture out. I walk around the corner toward Victoria Station and stop at a Carphone Warehouse to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone from a nice young man named Quentin. From there, I open the London A-Z app on the phone and use its GPS to navigate my way down Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park Corner, and then along Piccadilly. All the while, to my right, I’ve been following the perimeter of the Buckingham Palace Gardens, and there is an extraordinarily long line of people waiting patiently just outside its stone walls. They’ve been invited to a tea party on the lawn.

I continue on past Berkeley Square to Oxford Street, intent on a little window shopping before a 5:30 PM reservation at Claridge’s. I have a tea of my own to attend, and given the state of my stomach, tea and sandwiches sound just about right.

Oxford Street is a riot of color on this Monday afternoon. The sidewalks are congested with shoppers and the road itself with red double-decker buses. Overhead, there is red, white and blue bunting, and row upon row of Union Jacks hanging between the lampposts on either side.

There is a car in the front window at Selfridge’s department store. It’s painted like the British flag and it’s being driven by a corgi. I wander inside and make my way to the food hall, where there is a replica of the state crown made entirely of jelly beans. There is also an aisle devoted exclusively to the “Foods of America,” which has me intrigued. I shudder when I see that we are associated so entirely with junk food—with Pop Tarts and Lucky Charms, marshmallow fluff and microwave popcorn.

I rest for a bit on a park bench in Grosvenor Square, near a quiet memorial to the British victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The clouds part to reveal a brilliant, blue sky, but it’s swallowed up again within minutes. I’m getting cold sitting here. It’s time to head to dinner.

The menu for my afternoon tea at Claridge’s in Mayfair is inspired by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It includes coronation chicken salad, a selection of sandwiches on artisanal bread, raisin and apple scones with Cornish clotted cream and Marco Polo jam, and a selection of British pastries decorated with gilded chocolate crowns. I don’t have the legs to walk back to the Rubens afterwards, so I take a taxi instead.

By the time I reach St. James’s Park, it’s just after 7:00 PM. I take one of the diagonal paths past the pelicans in the lake, intent on working my way over to The Mall, but there are barricades everywhere to control the crowds and I find myself pushed all the way down to the Guards Memorial. By now, the sky has cleared off properly and the sun is too enticing to resist. On a lark, I veer off course and head through the archway at Horse Guards Parade and emerge onto Whitehall. I’ve never seen London so peaceful and so entirely abandoned. I stroll down to Westminster Bridge, where a lone bagpiper is playing for no one in particular, and then back past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. By the time I feel inclined to head back into the park, it’s been closed off completely by the police. The crowds have grown too massive to let anyone else in and I’m forced to navigate my way back to the Rubens along narrow back roads.

Though I intended to be on The Mall tonight, I’m happy to be back in my room watching the concert on TV, where the view is better and the surroundings more agreeable, if less electric. I watch as Gary Barlow and the Commonwealth band perform “Sing,” the official anthem of the Diamond Jubilee, and see Charles’ speech to the eighty-six year old Queen, whom he calls Mummy. I join in, too, when the crowd is asked to cheer for the absent Duke of Edinburgh so that he might hear their support in the hospital. The old codger is ninety years old, and yet they both stood in the freezing rain yesterday all the way down the Thames, refusing to sit down. Say what you will about the monarchy, but they have lived a long life in service to their country, and within the narcissism of the modern world that deserves admiration and respect.

The band is playing “I Vow to Thee, My Country” as the fireworks begin, and suddenly I feel the walls and windows in my room shake. Absorbed by the spectacle on television, I had forgotten—really and truly forgotten—where I was. I pull on my jacket and rush downstairs. I am out on the street in time to see the streaks of color and smoke high in the sky over Buckingham Palace, and in that moment I feel perfectly well and fully alive.

It’s been a long journey here, in so many ways, and the past year—like today—has not been precisely what I planned, but sometimes detours have rewards of their own.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I’ve rolled the dice and decided to go all in this morning. It’s 9:15 AM and I’m standing along Parliament Street waiting for the parade to begin. Yes, the day in cold and the sky is threatening rain. And yes, I will be standing here for hours. Again. What can I say? I’ve been caught up in the spirit of the moment. I am in the front row, and I want to see the Queen in her carriage.

Before long, I’m joined by a pair of lovely English ladies, Lilly and Reeny. They’re veterans of these royal events, having been somewhere along the street together when Kate Middleton married Prince William last year. I’ve also grown chatty with the local police, including Constable Olivier, who offers to have his picture taken with me, and the handsome Officer Blonsky, who my companions decide I should marry.

The hours melt away pleasantly, and as the crowd grows in size the police officers lining the route take turns conducting the wave. Across the street, there are several young girls wearing paper crowns, and one in particular with ginger hair who has a gigantic headdress of flags upon her head. Over a loudspeaker, we can hear the service going on at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At a quarter to one, the Queen’s limousine speeds by and I see her as a blur of mint green. She’s on her way to a luncheon at Westminster Hall, and she seems rather in a hurry to eat. I only have time to get off a few frames on my Nikon D5000, and in one of them Reeny’s left pinkie finger covers the Queen’s face entirely. I tease her about ruining my opportunity and Officer Blonsky jokes that she should keep her hands down next time, especially since her own camera is about to run out of battery power. I exchange e-mail addresses with the ladies on the street and promise to send them my best shots of the day.

Once the parade begins, we are treated to a dizzying array of horses and brass bands and military uniforms, many of which I recognize from Saturday’s review on Horse Guards Parade. They’ve had a busy few days. We know that the Queen is about to arrive because sailors with semiautomatic rifles and bayonets have been dispersed along the street. I understand the point, but I feel rather indignant nevertheless. I’ve been waiting at the front of the crowd for nearly five hours, and now, at the last minute, my prime viewing position has been compromised not only by the police officers who stand facing the crowd, but by a new row of men who take up position every few yards. My window between them for photographing the Royal family is narrow indeed. As the security detail slides into place, Reeny turns to me and says: “Well, I hope they give us one of the short ones!”

It’s twenty past two when the Queen’s carriage arrives at last, led by two men in red coats and black top hats, riding a pair of Windsor Grays. She’s not in the Gold State Coach that drove her to her coronation in 1953, much to the disappointment of a little girl I overhear complaining to her mother nearby. Apparently, despite its opulence, it has little suspension and makes her seasick. Instead, she’s with Charles and Camilla in the 1902 State Landau, a carriage I saw in the Royal Mews just the other day, and its open top allows everyone to see them clearly. My camera is set for multiple exposures, so I hold down the shutter and hope for the best. One, two, three, four… a dozen shots or more. When I look down later, I’m relieved to see that some are quite good.

Prince William comes next in a carriage of his own, accompanied by his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother Prince Harry, who I capture looking towards me with a bemused expression on his face. Kate is smiling and dressed in beige lace, her hand raised in a wave. It’s a wonderful picture, really, and when I pull it up on the camera’s screen it earns the admiration of Lilly and Reeny, and even Officer Blonsky, who has been a good sport all day to put up with us.

The crowds are too heavy heading over to The Mall, so there is little hope for me to see the balcony appearance at Buckingham Palace. I decide to head back to the Rubens instead. I still have a train to catch and the afternoon is nearly done. From the sidewalk in front of the hotel, though, I am able to see the flypast, with its squadron of World War II aircraft and a formation of nine Red Arrows that trail vapors of red, white, and blue behind them.

By the time I gather my things and check out of the hotel, the rain which has held off most of the day is coming down in sheets. Buckingham Palace Road is still closed to traffic, so a doorman walks me around the corner to call a taxi, and waits with me, holding an umbrella over my head. At the last minute, as I slip into the backseat of the cab, he thrusts a half dozen British flags into my hands and wishes me well. In just a short period of time, the Rubens has become my favorite hotel of all time, and their staff the kindest I have known.

From Paddington Station, I board the 4:30 PM train to Bath, exhausted but exhilarated by the weekend’s events. I meet Sue, the proprietor of 3 Abbey Green, and settle into the Lilliput Court room. I also take her advice by stopping for dinner at Demuths, a vegetarian restaurant just around the corner near Sally Lunn’s. I order a “mushroom parfait” as my main course, and while it’s an attractive plate of food, drizzled with parsley oil, the overabundance of purees make it taste a bit like baby food. It leaves me feeling hungry.

Afterwards, I take a short stroll around town, past the Abbey and several souvenir shops that have closed for the night, their windows cluttered with flags and t-shirts and waving queens. Bath is quiet once the day trippers have gone home, and even more so in the misting rain. The last time I was in Bath was in 2007 and I cut my visit short because of the weather, so it’s painfully ironic to see the city looking just as sodden this time around.

As I head up to bed, thinking of the bus tour I’ll take in the morning to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds, I can’t help but pray for a break in the clouds, knowing all the while that it will not come. I am here for what is destined to be one of “the wettest, dullest and coldest” Junes on record in the UK. It’s best I make my peace with it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This is my final morning in Stratford-Upon-Avon and when I part the drapes in my room, I see a crystal blue sky. Always a day late and a dollar short. As far as I know, Shakespeare didn’t write that, but he may as well have. Like in Bath, I hurry through breakfast and make a mad dash around town trying to improve upon my pictures before I catch the train back to London.

By 10:00 AM, I’m bound for Marylebone station. I’m prepared for a dull, two-hour journey, but then something extraordinary happens.

I meet Eileen Sullivan.

She’s an elderly woman with a kind face and a tremulous voice. She’s heading to Chester for an historical society conference and in case she nods off, she wants me to wake her up in time to make her connection. She says she’s been nervous about making the trip on her own and she hasn’t slept all night. She’d rather stay alert, so we talk. And talk some more.

Eileen was one of those brave souls who kept calm and carried on. She was twelve when Hitler invaded Poland, so I ask her what it was like during the Blitz, and she tells me that after the bombs fell over London she could walk across broken glass because her bare feet had been toughened by the sharp pebbles on Brighton beach. She was a working class girl with little education and there were few opportunities back then, so she took a job at a biscuit factory. She never married. And after all these years, she still remembers how rationed cheese tasted like cardboard during the war.

When we pull into her station, I help gather her things and I wish her well, which seems inadequate somehow and far too mundane for the extraordinary life she has lived. She nods, and as she climbs carefully down the steps to the platform to await the next train, I am grateful for whatever random circumstances allowed us to meet.  

I take a black cab from Marylebone station back to the Rubens at the Palace hotel on Buckingham Palace Road and when the doorman’s hand reaches for the handle, he recognizes my face through the window and smiles. It feels good to be back!

For this last stint at the Rubens, I’ve splurged and gone all out. I’m staying in the Royal Wing, where there are themed rooms devoted to various British monarchs. Mine is Henry VIII and the furnishings are appropriately lavish. There are heavy drapes in deep red, patterned with gold lions, and there’s even a Henry VIII teapot on the table at the foot of the bed. In all of my years of travel, only my room in Paris at the Hotel des Grands Hommes in 2007, with its toile fabric walls and view of the Pantheon, comes close to matching this. I crash on the bed, with a half canopy overhead, and find that it’s as soft and comfortable as it looks. I’ll be sleeping here for the next four nights, and I may never want to leave.

I’m devoting the afternoon to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms near Downing Street, a visit made all the more timely by my serendipitous meeting with Eileen Sullivan on the train this morning. This is the underground bunker where Churchill and his cabinet planned their military strategy to defeat Hitler, and the rooms appear to be frozen in time, left just as they were at the close of the war. There are columns of figures tacked to the wall noting how many Nazi bombs were launched each day, and how many casualties—fatal, serious, and slight—resulted. The numbers are staggering.

I also squint at a map on the wall, outlined in colored pegs, and spot München and Würzburg and in between a small white pin near Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I think of the repaired medieval walls I walked there just last year, and I shutter to think of the damage done on both sides.

The adjoining Churchill Museum is equally fascinating and thoroughly modern. There are electronic ticker tapes, giant video screens, and interactive timelines, as well as photographs linked to motion sensors that play radio recordings of Churchill’s most stirring speeches as visitors approach. Still, I am most moved by the relics themselves—an Enigma machine used to encode German messages, the prime minister’s gold pocket watch, a desk diary used by a secretary in the days leading up to D-Day, and a letter from George VI dated 1944 in which the King writes:

My dear Winston,

     I have been thinking a great deal of our conversation yesterday & I have come to the conclusion that it would not be right for either you or I to be where we planned to be on D day. I don’t think I need emphasize what it would mean to me personally, & to the whole Allied cause, if at this juncture a chance bomb, torpedo or even a mine should remove you from the scene; equally a change of Sovereign at this moment would be a serious matter for the country & Empire. We should both I know love to be there, but in all seriousness I would ask you to reconsider your plan.

My head swirling, I climb back up the stairs and emerge into London at rush hour. I walk the short distance to Trafalgar Square and then on to Covent Garden. I grab an easy dinner at the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields, and then wander down to Embankment where I cross the Golden Jubilee footbridge and follow along the Thames to Westminster Bridge and back, stopping off at a souvenir shop on Whitehall to buy a London sweatshirt. It’s about time I had something warmer to wear.

As I fall into my luxurious bed back at the Rubens, I think once again about Eileen Sullivan, and I can almost hear Churchill’s voice from the recording at the museum ringing in my ears:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Thank God they never did.