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.

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.