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.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I’m not going to do it.

That’s what I’m thinking at breakfast this morning. Really, I won’t. I’ve seen Her Majesty the Queen twice already. There is no need to stand in line for hours to see her yet again during the Trooping of the Colour. Surely, there are other, less congested things to do in London. I could go to Kew Gardens, for instance, or to Kensington Palace for lunch at the Orangery.

As I enter the lobby at the Rubens, I can overhear the concierge telling someone about the schedule for the day’s events, and where they might stand if they’d like to see the parade.

I think to myself: Been there, done that.

I wait until the concierge is free and then ask him for help in getting a theatre ticket for tonight. It’s my last night in London, and I’d love to see something. Actually, I’d love to see “War Horse,” but I’ve already checked online and tonight’s performance is completely sold out. Or maybe not. He holds up his finger and asks me to wait. He makes a call and snags me a premium ticket, but he’s appalled at the price. I hear him say into the telephone receiver: “£109! What does she get for her £109? Is the bloody horse going to sit next to her in the audience?”

Hee. Let’s hope so! I nod at him and tell him to seal the deal.

When I head out onto Buckingham Palace Road, I see a flurry of activity at the Royal Mews across the street and in a moment of profound weakness I turn right, instead of left toward Victoria underground station. I’m just going to take a peek, that’s all. It’s a quarter past ten and as I approach St. James’s Park, I can see a healthy crowd gathering. Perhaps, just maybe, I’ll stay for a bit to catch a glimpse of the carriages as they head down The Mall. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a parade.

The Royal Standard I saw flying above the palace yesterday has been replaced by a far larger version, and there are TV cameras mounted beneath it on the roof. The timing is perfect, actually. Within minutes of my arrival, the Household Cavalry begin to march and after a short lull, the Duchess of Cornwall and the former Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, emerge in a carriage with Prince Harry, followed by another with Prince Andrew and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and finally the Queen.

I certainly don’t have a front row position this time around, but for a wait of no more than twenty minutes, it’s not half bad. Besides, the view of the crowd nearly swallowing the Queen—a sea of arms outstretched and cameras held high—is an intriguing one that says something about the enduring power of tradition in the modern age, or maybe just the lure of celebrity.

Within seconds, the carriages are out of sight and on their way to Horse Guards Parade for the Trooping of the Colour. By standing on Parliament Street during the Diamond Jubilee carriage procession, I couldn’t get anywhere near Buckingham Palace to see the royal family’s balcony appearance, so on a whim I decide to wander about for a bit. I’ll come back in time for the 1:00 PM fly past.

I walk up to Oxford Street and then to Gray’s Antiques in Mayfair. There are at least 200 dealers inside, but most are closed and after browsing those that are open, it’s immediately apparent that I can’t afford to buy anything anyway. I wish I was antiquing back in Stow-in-the-Wold instead.

I wander down through Green Park, where there is smoke rising through the trees from a gun salute underway, and arrive just in time to see the Queen and Prince Philip waving to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, which is draped for the occasion in scallops of red velvet with gold trim. They’re soon joined by the entire family—Prince Andrew and his daughters, William and Kate, Harry, and even little Lady Louise and Viscount Severin, the children of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. It feels like a fitting finale to my time in London during the Diamond Jubilee, and when a squadron of RAF fly past spraying plumes of red, white, and blue, I take my leave.

I retrace my steps back through the park to Fortnum & Mason, where I stop for lunch in their newly refurbished Tea Salon, then head across the street to Ladurée for some Parisian macarons. I unwind back at the hotel for a while, pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s trek to Edinburgh, and then grab some tapas for an early dinner at the bar next to the Rubens.

My last night in London is a memorable one. The puppetry in “War Horse” is extraordinary and the experience is worth every pence of the £109 I paid. Before long I find myself forgetting that Joey and Topthorn are made of cloth and metal instead of flesh and bone.

The sky is black when I emerge from the New London Theatre onto Drury Lane, but even at this hour Covent Garden is a bustle of activity. As I make my way back to the Rubens one last time, I think of something that Samuel Johnson once said to his biographer and friend, James Boswell, who lived in Scotland: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I am reluctant to leave myself, but leave I must.