By Wes Clark
Sunday, 8 March
We arrived in London safely. The flight out was long (6 1/2 hours), as usual, but okay. No cancellations, no delays. Some turbulence once we got in the air. We flew in a 747; what a large plane! I've never flown one of those that I can recall. Anyway, nobody sat in the seat next to my daughter so we could spread out across three seats. I watched "Quantum of Solace," an undistinguished James Bond film. Since the airborne audio system was lacking and there were great tracts of dialogue I wasn't hearing, perhaps that was why I was unimpressed.
Photo: The Allen House, where we stayed. Meredith is in the open window.
Our first stop, after checking into our flat, was Hyde's Park's famous "Speaker's Corner," where it appeared that the Sunday speakers all had little stepladders to stand upon. Not having one of those, I declined to speak. But it was fun to watch the repartee between speakers and hecklers. The main speakers seemed to be involved in some sort of Anglo-Islamic topic; how dull. One woman bellowed from the Bible to little effect. I feel sure my talk about connecting the greatness of Great Britain with the age of the current Doctor Who would have been more of a crowd pleaser.
The next stop was the London Museum, where we saw a good deal of artifacts of Roman Londinum, including parts of the Roman London Wall, We also saw French teenagers running about filling in pieces of paper that was a field trip assignment of some kind.
The Museum's "Great Fire of 1666" display was interesting. At one point Meredith looked at an old print of the London skyline and made a disappointed sound, as if in recognition of the great destruction the fire had wrought. "Honey, that's a print of London before the fire," I said.
We also walked about in the financial section of The City of London; the Bank of England, the Exchange, St. Paul's, St. Mary-le-Bow (where "Bow Bells" are heard - if you're born within hearing of them then you're a true Cockney - cool dragon weathervane at top). We found a little alley we followed where a residential door was found in a little nook - how cool!
Then we walked the south riverbank walk on the Thames and saw shops, the Globe Theatre, stopped into Tate Modern briefly. My poor sleep-deprived daughter was cold and wiping out, so after a few bus mishaps and waits by the OXO Tower (OXO is a beef extract - the tower is an ad for it), we went back to the flat that early evening, where she caught up on much-needed sleep. We were both jet-lagged. But I was reminded of the truth of Samuel Jonson's observation: "When one is tired of London, one is tired of life." How true! What a fascinating city!
Monday, 9 March
A long and brilliant day out. It began with my letting Meredith sleep in. The poor kid had only had about ten hours of sleep in the last three days or so, so I awoke her at 11 AM. I, however, got my seven hours of sleep and awoke at about 5 AM, rarin' to go. So I got up, went to the grocery store across the street and bought some breakfast food, dropped it off, donned my scout shirt and walked over to the Baden-Powell House about a mile away to have my picture taken in front of the B-P statue. I also bought some commemorative patches for my scouting friends. So I spared Meredith this most nerdy of photo-ops.
The first stop for Meredith and I was the Tate Britain Art Gallery, where we saw a splendid arrangement of paintings having to do with British history. We also stopped at the store, where I bought her a cool articulated wooden hand. (She's attending college in deaf studies, so she could arrange the hand to form letters and symbols.) I also enquired about a specific painting entitled "The Heart of the Empire," painted in 1908. It wasn't at the Tate, but a gal at the Information Desk confirmed that it's owned by the Guildhall in London and that there's an art museum there. (I first saw the painting as it formed an album cover of a record I own: Ralph Vaughn-Williams' "London" Symphony, which I have always loved.)
Then we spent a couple of hours at Harrod's, the biggest, most complete and most thoroughly lavish department store I have ever seen. (It ain't cheap, either.) I bought some olde tymey postcards that I plan to frame in some kind of arrangement, along with a soft rugby ball that thinks it's a keychain but is really a Christmas ornament.
Photo: The astrological ceiling at Harrod's.
We then went to look around at Trafalgar Square. We stopped in the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where what looked like a street person was snoring rather loudly. We poked around in the crypt, where people were doing brass rubbings. Then we breezed through the National Portrait Gallery; I bought a poster of Richard III and took an illegal photo of a grouping of medieval portraits: Richard III, Henry VI and Henry VII - all of which I have seen in history books again and again. It was so cool to see the actual paintings...
Meredith's friend, who lives 40 miles away, took a train down here to see her and take her out to dinner, which left me a few evening hours to do what I do best: nighttime gonzo tourism!
I started with a nighttime visit to Piccadilly Circus to see the lights and to walk around the West End and Leicester Square. Finding it altogether too young, hip, loud and trendy, I fled to St. Paul's, which I walked around. It caused me to think of that scene in Mary Poppins, where the old lady sits on the steps and feeds the birds while Julie Andrews sings "Tuppence a Bag." There's considerable emotional meaning in that scene which has always struck me... I recall that when my mother took me to see that film as an eight year old back in 1964, I cried. I didn't know why then; it just seemed sad and significant somehow. I know now.
You may recall that the little boy has saved tuppence. His father, who works at the Bank of England (just down the street from St. Paul's) wants him to save it and start responsible fiscal habits. His nanny Mary Poppins, however, sings to him about feeding the birds. Being young and tender-hearted, he disappoints his father by declaring that he wants to feed the birds. Despite the fact that the two sites are but a short walk away, there's a wide gap in symbolic meaning between them. St. Paul's, where the poor woman looks after the birds, represents the spiritual capital of a great nation. The Bank of England represents its financial power. St. Paul's is an incredibly beautiful building, causing one to look up at the dome and consider God. The Bank of England is, for the most part, a featureless wall inhabiting an entire city block. It is rather ugly. The Bank of England represents the father, who is in thrall to his job and barely knows his own children - a wretched state of affairs. St. Paul's represents the things of the spirit and the remedy that Mary Poppins seeks to instill in the family - a reconnection of the father to his family. Well... by the end of the film the father, having lost his job, finds his family. And thank goodness for that.
Excuse my tangent, but this was a major revelation to me that I only understood when I walked St. Paul's and the Bank of England at night.
From St. Paul's I checked out the Temple Bar that once formed a gate into the City of London.
I walked down Watling Street which is more or less behind St. Paul's - this is the famous old Roman Road that I used to read mentioned in Robin Hood books. (Or is it? There is some doubt.) I stopped in a pub called the Old Watling that was supposedly built for Christopher Wren's workers building St. Paul's; they were closed but kindly allowed me the use of their restroom! I took a jaunt north to see the London Guildhall - the art gallery is only 2 pound fifty - cool. I then walked all the way around the Bank of England and stopped in front of the Exchange - where, in the 1950 film, Ebenezer Scrooge is accosted by a man begging additional time to replay a loan. (Do I need to write that Scrooge refuses him?) Then I walked down St. Swithin's Lane to see the mysterious old London Stone on Cannon Street, and the famous monument erected in memory of the Great Fire of 1666, called simply The Monument (definite article, as if there are no others). I can now be included among the minority of people who know that the Great Fire began 202 feet away from the structure.
After this fifteen hour day I then went back to the flat! Did I mention I saw two episodes of Top Gear on TV? And that it didn't rain at all today and that we had a good amount of sunshine?
Tuesday, 10 Mar
The first thing scheduled for today was a trip on the London Eye, the enormous Ferris Wheel type attraction which more or less hangs over the Thames. That was fun - and I took a ton of photos (the best one here) - but it was a bit too dear, as the locals say, to want to do again, frankly. (A trip for two was about $40.) But it just sits there, larger than life, and it has become one of London's major attractions, so we had to go on. Besides, it's not very day that you can get a photo of Ben Ben looking down at it.
The next logical step was a walk along the south bank of the Thames to see the Globe Theatre. Unfortunately, the Globe was only open from 9 to Noon because of a bunch of school kids watching an afternoon production of Romeo and Juliet. (That wasn't announced on their website, grumble, grumble.) So we stopped in one of those "EAT." sandwich shops and had lunch, then crossed the Millennium footbridge to visit St. Paul's. The first thing we saw was the home of the College of Arms - where the English maintain their formidable knowledge of heraldry and peerage.
St. Paul's... what a magnificently decorated interior! Really amazing, all the Baroque decoration and gilding. We also took the long, long set of circular stairs up to test the so-called whispering gallery, where one can whisper to another across the length of the dome and be heard. This works, I discovered, by sound traveling around the circumference of the dome - and then (as explained to me by a guide) only because of a ledge that keeps the south from become diffused in the dome space. That was cool. We then climbed another 133m steps up to the walkway around the outside of the dome to get amazing views of London. Naturally, it was raining somewhat - spitting, really - and windy. We then hiked down. It was, as my son would say, a schlep.
Photos, views from atop St. Pauls': Tate Modern at center and Globe Theatre at left, Looking toward the London Eye, Front clock tower.
We visited the crypt, where a cafe is located. I think it's really crass for people to dine on the tombstones of the dead that forms the floor, but St. Paul's costs 7,000,000 pounds to keep up annually, so they have to get the money from somewhere. I took a photo of Meredith next to a poster of the English Kings and Queens, her finger pointing to the name of Geoffrey Plantagenet (Henry II's father), her 27th great-grandfather. We both thought this was very cool.
Another thing: there are some incredible carved marble memorials to various generals and admirals, etc. A dying general is being laid to rest in a coffin by what looks like Hercules and a Goddess with a mourning lion nearby, or an admiral is collapsed in the arms of Neptune - that sort of thing. Amazing. They don't carve them like that anymore!
After sitting under the dome relaxing our feet and legs listening to the organist practicing various runs and passages, we lit off to nearby Guildhall Museum, in search of Lund's "The Heart of the Empire." We got in for free because we only had about an hour and a half to tour the museum before it closed, and, sure enough, there was the painting. It is both bigger and more glorious than I thought from looking at the album cover - which just showed a part of the total work. There was a prohibition against taking photos - but I just had to, so I took one on the sneak. (That's okay - the photo isn't good enough to be used for anything...)
As it turned out, the Guildhall Art Museum really should be on a "must visit" list for those visiting London. The art collection is grand and the kicker is that when they were building the facility they excavated into what was once the Londinium Roman Amphitheater! It was a notable discovery because they knew it must have been in The City somewhere, but they didn't know where. So now you can sit in the basement of the museum amid the ruins and a really well-presented space with vector line images of Gladiators and the sounds of cheering crowds, etc. Why isn't this in any of the guidebooks? A real bargain at 2.5 pounds - or free if you arrive 1 1/2 hours before closing, as we did!
We then took the tube to Bond Street and walked down that thoroughfare past some of the most expensive stores in a very expensive capital. A shopper's paradise - IF the shopper has a lot of money. The emeralds on display in the windows of the Harry Winston store were incredible.
Photo: Me and FDR and Churchill, Bond Street.
Then we headed over to Soho, where I was rather surprised to find a rugby store on Carnaby Street. I explained to Meredith that Carnaby Street was the capital of "Swinging" London, circa 1967, and one of the epicenters of hippiedom. We breezed through Liberty of London, and then walked, and walked, and walked until we finally gave up and took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, where we had Chinese buffet. It was okay. Then home on the well-used Route 9 bus, as we were both wiped out and footsore. No evening tourism for me...
I watched an episode of TopGear and a fascinating BBC special called The Secret Behind ABBA. The secret was that Anni-Frid's father was a Nazi who, to her surprise, was still alive in 1977. I also learned that the Norwegians treated what are called the Lebensborn children - children born to Norwegian women by German fathers - very badly, putting them in homes for the mentally retarded, etc. In other words, the children paid for the evils of the fathers and the indiscretion of the mothers. Whew. Fascinating special.
That's all. Another Grand Day Out.
Wednesday 11 Mar
I really, really love London. It is my all-time favorite city in the world.
Okay, today Meredith and I visited the Globe Theatre in the morning; that is, went through the exhibition hall and had the guided tour of the Globe itself. Took lots of photos. Very Shakespearian. However, national pride compels me to point out that it was an American actor - Sam Wanamaker - who got the ball rolling with the City of Southwark for the construction of the new Globe and a new destination for Shakespeare lovers worldwide. I confirmed with the guide that the City required chemical fire-retardant on the thatched roof, so that an errant spark doesn't burn the place to the ground as it did with the original Globe during a performance of one of Shakepeare's worst plays, Henry VIII.
Then we spent the rest of the day at one of my favorite places in the world, the Tower of London. For history buffs like me, that place is an embarrassment of riches. This time I saw things I didn't see before on my first pass, namely, 1.) The spot in the little chapel where tradition holds that Henry VI was murdered, 2.) The Bowyer Tower where the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine (according to Shakespeare), 3.) The so called "torture chamber" and display, where I learned that compressing a man so his legs are against his chest is more painful that racking him, and, best of all, 4.) an apartment door of one of the Yeoman Warders, where stuck thereupon is a United States Marine Corps sticker. Ha! In the Tower of London! When asked about it, a Yeoman Warder said, "They're kind of like lice - they turn up everywhere, don't they?" I also learned that the World War I and II spy executions occurred in the casemate (closed to the public). Most people don't know about those, and the Yeoman Warders don't mention it in their tour. They never know if they might be telling the stories to a relative...
I love the Tower of London. I could spend an entire day there, easy.
Photos: Meredith in a guardhouse, Meredith and Tower Bridge, Two Tower guards, Tower guard looking sideways, Tower Fortress.
We closed the place at 5:30. At six o'clock I made sure we were at the base of Big Ben to hear it chime the hour. Did you know that the name "Big Ben" properly applies to the largest of the bells and not the entire clock?
I then allowed Meredith to decide: Do we make a Beatles pilgrimage to the Abbey Road EMI studios site where the famous Abbey Road album cover was photographed or to Buckingham Palace? Beatles it was, and we took a quick tube ride to the St. John's station. Even though it was night, I naturally got a photo of Meredith walking the famous zebra crossing. People make a habit of scrawling things on the low front wall of the recording studio, and I took photos of Meredith at the site and as close as we could get to the famous street sign. I also bought her a patch in the little Beatles store next to the tube station, where Beatles music plays constantly and the girl working there doesn't mind at all.
We returned to Kensington and picked up some Cornish Pasties at the tube station for dinner. We then went back to the flat as Meredith was feeling rather poorly. (I tend to wear people out on these junkets.)
After dinner and a nap, however, I wasn't done, not by a long shot. So I did another two-hour nighttime gonzo tourism trip. I had no destination in mind, but wanted to check out the logistics of getting to and from Twickenham, the home of English rugby. A conversation with a London Transport chap confirmed what I suspected: it isn't easy or cheap. It would cost eighteen pounds each (about $27) to get there and back and tour the empty stadium and Rugby Museum. Hmmm. So I went to Leicester Square to the half-place place and instead got tickets to "Wicked" (a current West End show) for eighteen and a half pounds. Better deal. I'd really like to visit Twickenham sometime, but I want to watch a match there, not look at an empty stadium. Maybe next time.
I then walked to the Covent Garden Market, which I didn't see last year, and the Opera House. Outside I struck up a conversation with a older, well-dressed gentleman coming out of the ballet who looked like he knew what was what: Was this where Henry Higgins met Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady?" I thought so. No, he said. That was at Royal Theatre Drury Lane - go there. I had an interesting conversation with him while his wife was trying to get a cab. He was born in London eighty years ago and lived there all his life. Interestingly, he admitted that he had never visited Westminster Abbey! I would have prevailed upon him for stories about the Blitz or serving overseas, but I didn't want to wear out my welcome. Now... I thought that Julie Andrews originated the role of Eliza in London, but he remembers somebody else. "Pretty young girl." I'll have to check that when I get home. (According to wikipedia, the old gent was wrong on two accounts. Julie Andrews originated the role and Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins first met at Covent Garden Opera House, not Drury Lane.)
So I ambled over to the Royal Theatre at Drury Lane, where Rowan "Black Adder" Atkinson was presently starring in a revival of "Oliver!" (He plays Fagin, naturally.) I took some photos of the various interesting signs and walked around the building, where I noticed a gaggle of people at the stage door. I asked a bystander, "Are they waiting for Rowan Atkinson to emerge?" Yes, I was told - and he did. I got some photos of him signing autographs and then he went back indoors - and people left. I happened to be there when he came out and had him to myself. "Mr. Atkinson," I said, "You ought to wrest away the part of Barnabas Collins from Johnny Depp in the new 'Dark Shadows' production - you'd be more suitable for the role." He looked at me, smiled wanly and walked to his car. Tired guy, idiotic remark.
I went back to the flat. Another successful day of tourism in Her Britannic Majesty's Capital!
1.) I see Englishmen wearing suits in the City to work, but they don't seem to wear them well. Their suit coats and shirt collars don't appear to really fit. The sleeves always look too short and the coat too tight. And the fat tie knots make the shirt collars look weird. But perhaps that's simply how they're tailored here. (And I'm no Beau Brummell so I shouldn't talk.)
2.) I also see a lot of public school (private school) kids dressed in their school uniforms: blazers, white shirts, ties, etc. They look cute. But while the regulations may require the ties, white shirts and coats they manage to rebel by wearing the shirts outsides their trousers and the ties undone. They look a bit like miniature drunks!
3.) TopGear plays a lot on television. It seems to be on heavy rotation - which is great for me!
Thursday, 12 Mar
Today I started out with a solo walk while Meredith was asleep. I can't seem to sleep in. I get my six hours of sleep and I'm up, wide-awake. My Tourism Muse is upon me, I guess.
I had a look at nearby Kensington Palace from the street (separated by a formidable gate and cameras) and walked up the posh neighborhood where some of London's embassies are located, just up the street from the palace. No photography allowed! I saw a recent model year Mini parked on the street: 7,850 pounds (about $11,300), which I thought was quite good given that it only had 18.5 K miles on it. Cars must not be as expensive to buy here as they are in the States. (I suspect owning them is another matter.)
I also had a look at some nearby shop fronts... you can let a flat for a week in London for about $450 - that's not bad! I then stopped into a local church on High Street Kensington I have wanted to see, St. Mary Abbots, and peeked in - some school children and parents were singing in a choir, it was quite musical. Beautiful church. The handout says that London Christians have been worshipping on that site for at least 1,000 years.
When I got back to the flat Meredith was still asleep, so I told her I'd give her another hour and hopped on a bus to head over to the nearby Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial to look it over in detail. From all accounts Albert was a very good man and royal consort and served the British capably. I like him because he gave the British - and us - the practice of putting up a Christmas tree every year. Then I walked over to the Mormon church (Hyde Park Ward building) near the Victoria & Albert Museum on the off chance that I'd see the son of some family friends from church, serving a mission here in London. Sure enough, I did; he was surprised to see me. Small world!
Then I stepped into the Science Museum and took a photo or two; I was not totally impressed. The Smithsonian Air and Space is much more impressive.
Meredith was finally awake - so our first stop was the Bank of England Museum, which I found small but interesting. (No photos allowed.) There, you get to grasp a 28 pound brick of gold, worth currently 267,000 pounds sterling. We spent about an hour at that museum and got sandwiches at a nearby Pret a Manger, and ate outdoors in front of the Royal Exchange, in the very heart of London. That was cool. What was even cooler was the fact that it didn't rain today at all; the weather this year has been far better than last year.
We then took the direct route tube from the Bank station to Waterloo Station, then down one stop to Lambert North, where, upon emerging from the station, I saw the world's ugliest apartment building, Lambeth Towers. Eck, the Sixties. The destination was the Imperial War Museum, which was mind-blowing.
First of all, the place was HUGE. For history and military buffs it was a total sensory overload, far better than the Smithsonian. They also had two really, really top notch walk-through exhibitions, the (World War I) "Trench Experience" and the "Blitz Experience" - absolutely not to be missed by history buffs. It documented a time when London wasn't pleasant and fun to be in, but dangerous and life-threatening. This point was also hammered home by another excellent display, "The Children's War," about how the London kids were evacuated to the country. It reminded me just how fortunate we Americans were not to ever be bombed the way England was...
The War Museum also has a first class Holocaust section; the one in D.C. doesn't have much of an advantage in terms of coverage and impact as far as I could see. All in all, the Imperial War Museum is yet another must-see stop for the history-minded London tourist. And it was FREE!
We had to quickly grab some dinner (Meredith had another Cornish pasty) and get back to the flat in time for the 7:30 curtain raising of "Wicked" at the Apollo Victoria, our West End show. It was great! Excellent staging, acting, lighting, dancing, sound, sets, etc. All first-class. While our seats were up in the nosebleed section we still saw everything. Next time I come here I shall again check out the half price place in Leicester Square for show tickets... this one, at 18.5 pounds ($26.83/seat), was a good deal.
And that was our Thursday in London.
Tomorrow is up in the air, no real plans. A reader of this blog suggested the Wallace Collection - it looks promising and is, once again, free. As it turns out, there's a lot to do and see in London for free admission.
And... I'm beginning to be vacationed out. I'm just about ready to go home now, back to my own bed, bath, house and, last but not least, wife! In a way I'll be really ready to leave on Saturday, in a way, not.
Another observation: The English love electrical switches. Not only do the wall jacks have them (why?), but they fill up car dashboards with them, too.
Friday, 13 Mar
Today was the least relentless day of tourism; fact is, we're wearing down!
We started out with a visit to the Topshop on Kensington High Street - nothing there for me at all. Plain plastic foam flip flops for $8 that one can buy at Old Navy for $3, you get the idea. Then we walked to Buckingham Palace, passing by a small contingent of the Household Cavalry going back to the Knightsbridge Barracks after the changing of the guard. (Which we missed - as I observed last year, this is no big deal and is over-rated.) Took some photos (a watchful Bobby, a musician, a bearskin hatted guard, guard in guard house), showed Meredith the balcony where the Royals stand and wave in that odd, backwards wavy way.
We then hiked over to a Tube, and walked to Manchester Square to visit the Wallace Collection upon a blog reader's recommendation. It's billed a museum, which it is, but what is really is is the late 19th C. home of an aristocrat who loved to collect fine paintings and furnishings. (No photos allowed!) We caught the tour guide's talk, which was really fascinating as she revealed a detailed knowledge of what was what in the collection. Again, this is a stop that should be in more guidebooks than it appears to be - it was wonderful!
Afterwards we hiked to a nearby pub and had fish and chips. You have to do that at least once when you're in Old Blighty.
Having some time, we stopped over at the British Museum for a look at the Rosetta Stone and a favorite section, Dark Age Europe, which contains the Sutton Hoo treasure. We stayed there, oh, about an hour, but we could easily have stayed much longer. But... we were wiping out. So we popped across the street for the usual touristy stuff - key chains Meredith can present to friends - and went back to the flat. Where I burned my dinner.
After a nap we decided to go out one last time. I recommended a trip on the reliable old Route 9 bus to Trafalgar Square, then a walk down to Big Ben, passing by a heavily-fortified 10 Downing Street and the Cenotaph. We then walked about the Parliament Building, listened to Big Ben serenade us once again, then walked down the north embankment of the Thames this time. The London Eye was lit red because of Red Nose Day, a telethon airing tonight where comedians raise money for charity.
We caught the tube back to the flat and that's that.
I have observed that there are many Londons to see and experience: a flashy, modern cosmopolitan city with loud young people everywhere, trendy shopping districts, flashing lights. Tourist London - hordes of foreigners and tour buses. West End plays and musicals. There's a Royal London - there are crowns signifying this everywhere. A sensationalist and tabloid Fleet Street London, where millions of people on the Tube read about the last dying days of some poor reality star named Jade. There's a Roman Londinium - you bump into the walls they made every now and then in the City unexpectedly - even in the basement of art museums. There's a Medieval London represented by the Tower and many, many other sights. And there's a literary London; places where fictional characters were set - where Eliza Doolittle, the tuppence-a-bag lady and Scrooge dwelled. But the London I like most of all is an undefined London that is more symbolic than actual, represented by St. Paul's, the financial district and the little alley Watling Street near St. Paul's. Call it "The Heart of the Empire" for lack of a better phrase, even though the empire no longer exists. I sensed it around the great cathedral... it's a place in harmony with my own spirit in some odd way.
Back home tomorrow - a 7 1/2 hour trip (there's a headwind on the trip West). If this year is anything like last year, I'll continue to be under the spell of London Town and England for some time, yet, reading books and seeking out films - getting ready for the next trip!