Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Day Three – England/Paris Trip - Last Day in London
Monday, May 16th – Mr. Kim’s contributions are in italics.
Well, poor Craig had to go back to work this day and so we couldn’t drag him all over the city. So we were on our own – figuring out the Tube, finding places on the map, dealing with cab drivers. It actually all worked out pretty well – but there were, of course, adventures.
We had breakfast just around the corner from Craig’s flat at the Chelsea Deli. Yummy English bacon butties. That would be a sandwich to us. I’ll probably mention this again, but just about everything we ate in England was very, very good, even the ‘ordinary’ stuff – like basic supermarket bread. It is so much better than what we can get – firmer, with a real heft to it and even BIGGER. And the bacon….well, I think I’d better show you a picture:
Lean and gorgeous! They call our bacon ‘streaky bacon’ and I have no idea what they do with it, because I never saw a slice. I was accustomed to it, because my English Nanny used to smuggle it into the US years ago when she visited. Half of her suitcase would be filled with Cadbury chocolate (impossible to find in the US in those days) and this amazing bacon. Mr. Kim hadn’t ever had it before and was in heaven. The texture is very like ham, but the flavor is much more complex – somewhere between ham and bacon. And what a perfectly wonderful way of doing things.
Thus fortified, we struck out to conquer the Tube. Between Craig’s directions and the map, we did fine and ended up in the vicinity of Westminster Abbey, as intended. At first we mistook the Houses of Parliament for the Abbey (a crushing embarrassment for this Anglophile), but got straightened out and tucked into the long, LONG line. Whenever I stand in a long line, I wonder if it will be worth it. Reader, it WAS!!! Pictures are not allowed inside, which is probably a good thing, because we would have been in there for the rest of the day. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’ll probably be saying this a lot in the course of this trip, because, truthfully, I’ve never seen anything as lovely as England. But the Abbey was astonishing. It was very crowded, but I never felt rushed (except by the knowledge that we had to be at the bus tour by 1:30). I wished for fly-eyes so that I could see in every direction. The Child always says that you can see so much more if you just remember to look UP and her advice was perfect for the Abbey:
I think that one could wander around the Abbey every day for a year and find something new each time. We rented the audio tour that served to both enlighten us as to what we were looking at and to keep us moving. The immediate scene that greets you (after paying the toll and getting your headset) is filled with chalk-white statuary of long dead dignitaries. They seemed almost crowded into the east transept, and certainly there was no discussion of them on the audio. Not for the last time in the Abbey, we thought it ironic that years of work by artisans to commemorate still more years of lives deemed important enough to memorialize in this place should be so casually overlooked. But lingering would mean, in essence, obstructing the flow of others trying to get in to the building and touring groups from a dozen countries trying to herd their flocks to begin the journey through the Abbey and through time. The next stop was the Crossing, where the transept and the nave meet at the foot of the altar area. Here was one of only two times in the Abbey that I spent any serious time thinking about the royal wedding that was now only two weeks in the past. You could walk right up to the altar steps, almost imagining the royal couple there, then turning and “seeing” terrible hats and the dignity that was the Queen that day. And thoughts turned briefly to another princess’s walk up an aisle, not a year before ours and how sad it was that she never saw this wedding. But thoughts are pulled from the recent past to the distant present as the audio demands that your eyes notice this pattern of the flooring that dates back nearly a millennium or that aspect of the ceiling buttresses. “Side trips” in the audio allow you the option of hearing clips of the great choirs singing in this space and of the magnificent organ. And then as you are gently instructed to walk around the altar to the left to begin exploring side chambers and memorials, all thoughts of recent royalty is swept completely away.
Side chapels to various petit royals, nobles, dignitaries, and politicians adorn the areas adjoining the altar like jewels on a tiara. Each had its own story, although sadly some stories were ignored completely by the audio as it directed you to pass by this one or that – whole lives simply passed memorialized but unnoticed.. As we walked, we continued to marvel at the grave markers under our feet – the sheer age, the wear that countless feet were committing, the casual ignorance that the tourists were forced to employ…. We could not focus on the floor and the chapels and the art above us at the same time, and we could no more avoid the graves in the floor than one can avoid the grass when walking through a meadow.
Tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, of Edward, Elizabeth’s brother, and Mary her sister, and of various Henrys and Jameses and Edwards and Williams, served to weigh us down with the immensity of the history we were glimpsing, if only obliquely. At the very apex of the curved walk, directly behind the altar, was the memorial chapel dedicated to the soldiers of the two Great Wars. Bomb damage was still preserved there, a jarring reminder of just how close this monument to our recorded history came to being erased. A small plaque was in the floor at its base, with the simple name Oliver Cromwell. The audio explained that Cromwell, destroyer of the monarchy, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, and de facto supreme ruler of the brief British Republic, had been briefly buried here at his own insistence. Once the monarchy was restored, his remains were ordered dug up, hung, beheaded, and burned. Apparently Charles II was still a bit miffed about his father’s beheading by Sir Oliver.
We moved on through more chapels, through more centuries, and came to Poet’s Corner. Floor and wall slab and memorials, some almost modern, some simple, some ostentatious, provided a real perspective that there was more than one form of royalty that is treasured here.
As we made our way into the nave again, being herded by the audio toward the front doors, we had a moment to regard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, black as midnight in the floor of the sanctuary. Another reminder that all the celebrated death around us was not just a historical curiosity but all too real at times. Back in the current century, we stared back toward the altar. The recent wedding came back to us, and we could now imagine the palm trees that were brought in for the occasion and decided we disapproved of the choice.
Fascinated and awed, we actually over stayed our allotted time at the Abbey and had to hurry to make sure not to miss our tour bus. We caught a cab (English cabs are gorgeous and clean and commodious – not to mention that they look like something out of an old movie) to save time and were charmed by the cabbie who described his visits to the States (the English are a traveling people – every single English person we talked to had been to the US) and told us of the Brits love for Johnny Mathis (seriously). We knew exactly where we were supposed to be going – the Victoria Coach Station on Buckingham Palace Road. The cabbie knew exactly where that was, of course, but was somewhat dubious as to whether this was the right spot to be picking up a tour bus. So he dropped us off right at the door but lingered for a few seconds regarding us as we walked away, as if expecting us to bolt back to him for another ride after realizing some obvious mistake. We also knew that we were supposed to be at one of 2 specific gates. We were about 20 minutes early, as instructed. We get to the gates and NO Big Red Bus. No other passengers. Nothing on the sign at the gate about the Vintage Red Bus tour. Every bus in the lot looked like the English version of a Greyhound. And the gate signs indicated destinations like “Bournemouth” and “Edinburgh”. And, oddly, not one information booth in the place. So we did what seems to serve us best when things go awry. We panicked and started cussing at each other. We ran out the door and up and down the block a couple of times. We looked across the street at another huge building that could maybe be a coach station, too. This was helpful in that it wasted another few precious minutes and caused us to panic further. I should stop here to explain that we didn’t take a cell phone to England. Our phones are not the type that will accept the overseas chip and we didn’t feel like buying a new phone just for that. So we compromised by signing up for Skype on my laptop and by purchasing an international phone card at Costco. For the most part, this was perfectly sufficient. The only glitch was that every time we made a call, we ended up having to go through a live operator because the direct dial never worked for us (I say US, but I mean Mr. Kim – I leave all that technical stuff to him – we divide our tasks by our strengths – that’s why we have a successful 29 year marriage and only passing brushes with the law). Suddenly (as in ‘suddenly the ice age ended’) it occurred to us to call the information number on our bus ticket. There are still lots of those cheery red phone booths around England. They are charming and nostalgic on the outside. Inside, they are a nightmare of dirt and SMELLS and exotic stickers from apparently every escort service in London (we didn’t even recognize some of the services they offered) – and, yes, we did say, as we stepped into each one, “How lovely! Just the RIGHT way to keep a phone booth!” When Mr. Kim finally contacted someone from the tour company, they basically said, “Turn around you idiot, you are THERE!” (in quite a nice way, of course). We went back inside and, of course, THERE – at the ghost town of a gate we’d JUST left was a huge double decker red bus with a friendly tour guide just waiting to help us. We even had time to grab a snack to have on the tour.
We were a little concerned that the tour would be hokey and a waste of time, but found that worry to be unwarranted. It was delightful to sit back and relax on the top of a double-decker bus and let someone else drive. We got to see so much more than we would have on our own considering the time constraints that we were under. Some of it, we’d already seen – Parliament and Westminster Abbey (we knew which was which this time, old hands that we were), St. Paul’s, but we saw so much more and so many beautiful buildings (before we left, we starting calling this our Architecture and Gastronomy Tour – two things dear to our hearts). Some shots:
We got off the bus at the Tower of London. One of our biggest regrets of the trip was not having time to tour the Tower. If we had only had one more half day, it is the thing we would have done. But I wouldn’t have missed the half day we spent in Oxford, so I guess we’ll just have to hope we can go again one day. We did get a little while to wander around outside, take pictures and visit the gift shop (I am a postcard fiend. I spend more on postcards than any other kind of souvenir).
At this point we got on a boat for a Thames cruise. This was another delightful experience. Seeing London from that perspective was just lovely. We saw Traitor’s Gate, the Globe theatre, Cleopatra’s needle, the Eye and, of course, the incredible bridges of the Thames. My favorite was Blackfriars:
This was just a quick shot that we got, but this borrowed one from the internet is THE shot:
A couple of favorite cruise shots:
We got off the boat at Westminster Pier and back on the bus:
And on through Whitehall to the Old Admiralty Building and the Parade Grounds just outside of St. James park. We were SUPPOSED to see the famous changing of the guards, but there was a terror alert that day at The Mall (not like a shopping center – it’s the wide boulevard the runs up to Buckingham Palace and pronounced like Alex Keaton used to say his sister’s name). Apparently some Irish republican folks were in a snit of some sort. This was the eve of the Queen’s historic visit to the Republic of Ireland and also the Obamas’ visit, so I guess the time was ripe to get some attention. The Mall was actually closed down for some hours earlier in the day and there was no changing of the Guard (I guess they were busy lifting up manhole covers and searching Tesco bags). But we wandered through St. James Park and up the Mall. At this point we were abandoned by our tour guide (we really were – he made a little speech, said “I’ll be happy to answer any questions”, turned around three times and VANISHED). It was a little odd since the tour literature said that the bus would take us back to the coach station, but we preferred being in St. James to being back in the middle of the city, so were happy. St. James is lovely and it is where the ‘garden gallery’ section of photos really started:
We discovered this little family:
Saw beautiful vistas:
And, of course, Buckingham Palace:
Which, to be frank, left me a little cold. It kinda reminds me of the US Treasury Building in DC. I mean, sure, it’s big. It’s impressive. But where’s the magic? The turrets? The frou-frou? I’m just sayin’. And THIS was appalling:
This is the lawn area between the Mall and Clarence house – the official residence of the Prince of Wales. Basically it’s Prince Charles’ front yard. And LOOK at it! Scruffy, weedy – a mess. I mean, they just had a freaking ROYAL WEDDING! Half the world lined this street and the other half watched it on TV! Mr. Kim suggested it was where Camilla grazes (snerk).
We wandered back out to the Thames to cross over to walk to dinner, seeing more cool stuff along the way, including this fellow:
Belligerent hares seem to be something of a motif in England, because we saw versions of them everywhere we went – little figures, on mugs, etc.
Dinner was a LONG walk away – across the Thames and WAY out Waterloo Road, NOT helped by the fact that I failed to recognize that we were already ON Waterloo Road and thereby passing it. We walked a few blocks before Mr. Kim finally insisting on re-checking the map and setting us straight.
We ate lots of great food on our trip and I was very careful to get recommendations for the high-end restaurants that we went to, but I think that I was most excited about my first real English fish and chips. I have to thank Harters at eGullet for the recommendation of Master’s Fish and Chips. It was a wonderful meal – I had plaice for the first time since I was a little girl at the Mucky Duck in Santa Monica, California (and that was probably American plaice) and had forgotten what a lovely, light tasting fish it is. I was swooning over my gorgeous fish, proper chips and big, crunchy pickled onion, all doused with vinegar – thinking how lucky I was to be in London. How lucky to have happened upon the Narnia books as a little girl – Agatha Christie a few years later. How lucky to have an English stepdad who told me stories about his childhood in war time London. All of these instilled a love of a country that I’d never seen and a yearning to see, and smell and taste that country. All of which brought me to this place – a working class chippy – ecstatically chowing down on some of the best food I’ve ever put in my mouth.
Our excitement was not over after dinner. We again conquered the Tube and, without a misstep alighted at the right station in Craig’s neighborhood. I left the States with some kind of sinus thing and never did get my hearing back after the plane trip, so I wanted to find some version of Sudafed. We managed to locate a little Tesco and were trying to decipher the myriad of packages (thanks to Dame Agatha, I know that in England Tylenol is called Paracetamol, but have no idea what they call Pseudoephedrine), when we heard a terrific CRASH. I honestly thought that a car had crashed through the front. We ran around the end of the aisle and see three little pipsqueaks trying to subdue this BEAR of a man (think Hagrid). And he’s shaking them off like so many Lilliputians! At FIRST. It was astounding. Women are screaming. Men are picking up their children and tossing them over their shoulders. My chin is on the FLOOR. I live in America. In Virginia where you can basically carry a gun ANYWHERE! I’ve been to NEW YORK CITY. And I’ve never seen anything like this in my LIFE. Finally, the little swarm managed to overpower Hagrid (he seemed pretty tanked) and toss him in a back room. Apparently he tried to steal some beer – just carry it out the door (drunks are dumb all over, apparently) and the little guys were employees. As the door swung closed behind them, we could see the employees beginning to, um, express themselves all about Hagrid’s now cowering head and abdomen. I doubt the police were called, but that fellow almost certainly awoke in his bed the next morning black and blue Beer can be expensive, it seems. I was shaking all over (BIG sissy here, I don’t do violence), so we left. Without the Sudafed.
We finally meandered back to Craig’s flat for a last, lovely visit before leaving the next morning, where he managed to sound sorry that he’d missed a day of bussing around London, cruising, eating fish and chips (not to mention a brawl!). It was an odd feeling for us – sorry to leave London, but so excited for what lay ahead!