A travel journal
to London by BawBaw
Quote: As a legacy of empire, London embodies a rich heritage blending diversity with tradition, continuity with change, ancient with modern. Like other "colonials" worldwide, we've felt a special bond with this capital of the Mother Country and have returned again and again. These are some of our stories.
Himself and Yours Truly have dropped in on London several times now over a good many years, and each time we visit, London provides us with a new streets to explore, new shops to patronize, new restaurants and pubs to quell our hunger and quench our thirst, and new adventures to add to our personal London lore. Our souvenirs include memorable encounters with Londoners and, with other interlopers like ourselves, tacky mementos of infinite design and availability and hours and hours of pure and unmitigated pleasure.
One key to enjoying and appreciating London is to recognize that it is actually a collection of distinct communities—villages collapsed somewhat unwillingly into a grand metropolis that seems always in a state of flux. Hence, today’s visitors might go to Bloomsbury for glimpses of the upscale counterculture of the early 20th century or the British Museum, to Knightsbridge for shopping at Harvey Nichols or Harrods, to Notting Hill for the market stalls on Portobello Street, or to the East End for lessons on how immigrants and the working classes pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and their middle-class aspirations.
For the monument minded, London offers everything, from segments of Londinium’s Roman Wall to the Tower of London to the Houses of Parliament. For those looking for art and culture, there are galleries and museums galore—not to mention one of the world’s most famous and thriving theater districts. For those interested in the conviviality of the locals, there are pubs and restaurants to suit every taste. And, for those on a quest for royalty, there are palaces, pageantry, and (if one is very patient and very lucky) the fleeting glimpse of a royal personage.
For Himself and Yours Truly, there are bits and bobs of all these attractions, plus bookshops on Charing Cross Road, the taste of pastries and pasties offered by local shops, and the excitement of discovery just around the next corner.
For Himself and Yours Truly, our first trip through London left us only a late afternoon and an evening to explore London. From our hotel near Heathrow, we took the Tube into the central city, then hired a cab for a frenzied tour of major sights. Our cabbie worked hard to give us a decent window tour, and he earned the exorbitant fee he charged, not to mention a good tip—it was worth every pence! Later trips were more organized, as we took good advantage of guidebooks and left time for rambling through neighborhoods and popping into shops. Still, in terms of pure excitement, that first cabbie tour might well have been our single best London experience!
In general, public transportation by cab is expensive but comfortable, whereas travel by bus is sometimes cumbersome but always scenic. Travel by tube is convenient and efficient, but a tad sterile. Juggling these options against their likely outcomes works effectively for those with ambitious schedules.
For those so inclined, sightseeing buses offer hop-on, hop-off convenience for a single daily fee, often including some routes with evening hours. Tour buses provide a practical, on-the-spot orientation to the city and its sights, and most offer some sort of guide recitation—either through an actual living, speaking human being or through tapes and earphones.
Transportation by means of a personal automobile is not an option except for the skillful or the foolhardy. There are no traffic jams quite like those in London. One-way streets, congestion, and poor signage can make driving a nightmare, with even the buses sometimes held to a standstill.
A case in point for such an experience occurred during a 1999 trip to London. As part of our standard tourist regimen, Himself and I decided to take in the changing of the Royal Horse Guard at Whitehall. We were attracted to the Horse Guard ceremony in part because we knew it would have a relatively small gallery of onlookers—unlike the throngs of tourists gathered for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
The Whitehall parade ground is a short walk from Trafalgar Square on the site of what was once Whitehall Palace, most of which was destroyed by fire in 1698. Like the guardsmen at Buckingham Palace, the soldiers of the Horse Guard are part of the Queen’s official bodyguard. At Whitehall, the guard-changing ceremony can be viewed daily at 11am, Monday through Saturday (10am on Sunday). The parade grounds are adjacent to St. James’s Park, which in turn adjoins the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence, and the Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament.
Sure enough, we were duly impressed by all that we saw. The chestnut horses and the young Royal Guardsmen who commanded them were equally splendid. Who among us could witness such youth and strength impassively? Moreover, I noticed that the young men who represented the remnants of the Empire were indeed its representatives—the imprints of African and Asian heritage, as well as European origins, were clearly stamped on the guardsmen's faces. This recognition both surprised and pleased me: We Americans sometimes forget that the legacy of the British Empire has left the UK with a multiethnic, multiracial population quite similar to our own.
During the ceremony and off to the side of the parade ground, Himself and I noticed the beginning of another gathering that was decidedly not a standard tourist event. As the Horse Guard ceremony wound toward an end, our attention focused more and more on this gathering dominated by elderly men and women. Dressed in an unmistakably British manner, the men wore suits that would have been almost equally at home in the 1920s, 1950s, or 1990s, each veteran with a chest full of medals and many with bowler hats and canes. The women wore matronly dresses (some in muted tones and others brightly colored, but somehow all alike), and each carried the required handbag. One lone Scotsman wore a kilt and sported a bushy white beard, looking for all the world like a stouter version of Old Tom Morris.
Striking up a conversation with one of these medal-bedecked elders, we learned that the men were the last survivors of the Palestine Police Old Comrades Association. Once a year they gather to remember their youth and their role in the empire. They assemble, undergo inspection, and march from Whitehall to the Cenotaph Monument, Britain’s national war memorial, where they lay a wreath. Despite physical ailments of all kinds, canes, and a few artificial limbs, the Old Comrades queued up smartly to follow a military band to the Cenotaph.
As the surviving comrades marched forward, a shadow of the vitality of their youthful selves slipped through time and was reflected in their facial expressions, even more so in their bearing. Their ranks clearly thinning (even though wives, children, and grandchildren now sometimes join the end of the procession to represent deceased comrades), these aging imperial warriors recaptured a longstanding metaphor for the human condition—the prime of youth gradually passes into the infirmity of age, with scant time to notice the process until it's all but over.
This aside, these elderly policemen struck intellectual and emotional chords that resonated to the core of my own belief system. My passionate Zionism is reinforced by graduate and undergraduate degrees in modern European and Jewish history. In my eyes, these proud comrades represented the first-line enforcers of a British imperial policy that barred Jewish refugees from entering Palestine to escape the Holocaust. Reflecting that policy, and often reveling in their role, these Old Comrades had very nearly caused the state of Israel to emerge stillborn into the family of nations. Such broad statements, of course, reduce a huge portion of the historical record covering a complex era to dramatically oversimplified (and admittedly biased) observations. Nonetheless, the historical evidence supporting these conclusions is undeniable by any objective standard.
Knowing my personal investment in these particular events, Himself was concerned about how I might respond. He needn't have worried. I engaged in polite conversation with our new acquaintance, and we exchanged cues that we both fully understood, but that carefully avoided offense. I mentioned my specialization in modern Jewish history and my graduate coursework at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He mentioned his first wife, who was a Palestinian Arab. He mentioned Acre Prison (which housed the gallows where Jewish "terrorists" were executed). I mentioned a visit to the British Military Prison Museum in Jerusalem (where key members of the Haganah, the Jewish "resistance," were held without due process). We exchanged pleasantries about our families and professional lives, and we thanked each other for the time taken and given.
In the end, our chance encounter consisted of a civilized conversation that maintained a respectful distance between vastly differing viewpoints. As we went our separate ways, I wished him shalom aleichem and offered my hand. He wished me alaykum assalaam and kissed my cheek. Thus we become old comrades in our own right, using ancient phrases to seal our shared differences. As the daily headlines demonstrate, there are less cordial ways to disagree.
In September 2000, we stayed in a small hotel in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury district, the point being to lodge within walking distance of the British Museum. Our lodging suited that purpose beautifully, but as we soon discovered, there is much more to this area than just the museum.
Indeed, when Victoria ascended the throne of Britain, Bloomsbury was a prestigious address—and much of the graciousness of that period has endured. Our hotel, for example, was located on a quaint 19th-century crescent lined with graceful, comfortable townhouses facing a park—a town residence straight out of Masterpiece Theater. By the late 19th century, Bloomsbury became a literary and publishing center, and during the early decades of the 20th century, it served as the unofficial headquarters of the Bloomsbury Set, the creative rebels and trendsetters of their era. "Blue plaques" adorning exterior walls throughout Bloomsbury provide a long list of illustrious former residents, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf.
We were pretty much oblivious to this distinguished past as we took the first of our pre-breakfast walks near our hotel. Despite our eager anticipation of a "full English breakfast," we had the presence of mind to notice that our Bloomsbury neighborhood "felt" very much like a village. At street level, small shops of all types displayed their wares, with offices and flats located on upper floors. The smell of fresh-baked goods tantalized our appetites as we turned a corner, and a whiff of coffee caught our notice. Fittingly for a first morning in London, we stopped to purchase a stash of real English Cadbury and a small supply of postcards at a shop located on the ground floor in a building of indeterminable age. We noted that Bloomsbury doesn't suffer from a shortage of pubs, most of which were small and seemed entirely local—not a chain store in sight. As the days passed, we would happily sample food and ale at several of those pubs.
Our first walk took us out of our crescent and over to Euston Road, then to St. Pancras Station, opposite the intersection of Euston Road and Judd Street. With its magnificent red sandstone facade, St. Pancras is always glorious. Our draw on that first morning in early autumn was a misty vale of softly filtered light that reflected the sandstone in hues of pink and dark rose and muted orange—like an impressionist canvas. We turned south on Judd, then made our way back to the hotel via Tavistock Road, enjoying the ambience and quiet of this well-ordered community.
Along the way, we also passed Brunswick Square where we encountered a ‘60s-vintage concrete apartment block that could have been straight out of a Soviet 5-year plan. It had a good deal less ambiance, its principal quality being a drabness undistinguished by a respectable patina of age. No antique this: it was a bona-fide product of the late 20th century—and it looked entirely out of place. Its courtyard opened onto a retail center of the same approximate age. Here we found the neighborhood Safeway and other assorted modern shops. From the plaza, we found that the back side of the apartment block was terraced rather than strictly vertical. Here we discovered (not for either the first or last time) the British talent for making flowers grow in unlikely places. The terraces with their floral adornments made the drab-looking block of flats seem far more inviting.
Other walks in Bloomsbury took us around Russell Square , past buildings belonging to the University of London, and, of course, past the stately structure that houses the British Museum. On a last excursion during the pre-dawn hours, we found genuine calm within the giant, ancient metropolis of London. We saw and heard virtually no traffic, and the only other persons we encountered were a street cleaner and a cabbie. The sleeping city and its streets and sidewalks were ours, the moon shone brightly above us, and we felt absolutely safe and content.
Getting ThereTo reach the Tower of London, take a city bus or tour bus so that your first glimpse of this magnificent compound is from the Tower Bridge as you cross the Thames. Buses deposit visitors just opposite a stretch of the ancient wall that once surrounded Roman Londinium. The wall doesn't look like it would deter many barbarians these days, but it is nonetheless an impressive reminder of London’s antiquity. When construction began on the Tower in 1078, the wall must have still held a good bit of its original majesty.
When you’re ready to leave, there’s tube station on Tower Hill. The tube is the quickest way back to your hotel or your next destination.
OverviewAlighting from the bus between the Tower itself and Tower Hill allows visitors to gain a better sense for the huge size of this royal property. Begun by William the Conqueror to defend and govern his new realm, the Tower was designed to be impregnable—and in fact, it served that purpose well.
The air on Tower Hill’s Trinity Green is alive with the ghosts of England's often bloody past. Indeed, by rights, the Tower and its hill should have the highest concentration of dissatisfied and distressed spirits of any piece of real estate in the whole of the United Kingdom. The lives and deaths of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, and Sir Thomas More are part and parcel of both the historical record and popular culture. Each met an untimely end in this place. The shades of those who either died violently within the walls of the Tower or were executed on nearby Trinity Green may or may not walk the earth, but the horror of their deaths—whether by beheading, hanging, or being drawn and quartered—can still be felt.
The Tower TourAn hour-long tour conducted by one of the 40-odd blue-and-red liveried Yeoman Warders introduces visitors to the Tower’s geography and history. These Warders (otherwise known as "Beefeaters") serve the Tower as Extraordinary Members of the Queen's Bodyguard, and all are veteran warrant officers with at least 22 years of military service. Despite their role as tour guides, these are serious professionals who honor the tradition of security and service associated with their position. Their tours are often peppered with easy humor designed to make visitors from the far-flung corners of the empire feel welcome and included in the history and pageantry of the Mother Country.
Thanks to our various Warders, we’ve learned a good deal about the history of the Tower, each tour being slightly different in how a fairly standard set of featured lessons will be recited. It was from the Warders, for example, that we learned about the princes of the Tower—the two young sons of Edward IV (d. 1483) who "disappeared" shortly after their father’s death. It was widely assumed that they had been murdered to clear the path of succession for their uncle, Richard III. Nearly 2 centuries later, the remains of two children believed to be the princes were found under stairs on the south side of the White Tower. The remains were removed and properly interred in Westminster Abbey.
We also learned about Mint Street, which once housed the Royal Mint; the Bell Tower, where Henry VIII imprisoned Sir Thomas More and where Mary I imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth; the Bloody Tower, where Sir Walter Raleigh was held by James I for 13 years; and the Brick Tower, where William Wallace (Braveheart himself) was imprisoned.
Our Warders intrigued us with the history of the Tower Green and the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Grey are buried, including poignant stories about their lives and deaths. We learned that the remains of over 1,500 victims of the executioners rest beneath the floor of the chapel, which has been called "one of the saddest spots on earth." Weekly worship services are still conducted in the chapel, largely for the Warders and their families.
The White Tower, a block of light-colored stone, is the heart of the Tower complex. It is the largest and best fortified of the 20 towers on this site, constructed by order of William the Conqueror as his personal residence. Indeed, for more than 500 years, it was the principal residence of the kings and queens of Britain. The weathervane on the turret at each corner of the White Tower still fly the royal standard, indicating that this structure remains a royal palace, though it is no longer a residence.
And it was from the Warders that we learned the details surrounding the legend of the Tower Ravens. Accordingly, as long as ravens inhabit the Tower of London, the White Tower—and by logical extension, England—will not fall. Being a practical people, the British ensure that the ravens will remain by clipping their wings and providing a Ravenmaster to ensure their well-being. The ravens currently inhabiting the tower were collected from various sites in Scotland and Wales as well as England, and all are individually identified by a color-coded leg bands.
Exploring on Your OwnAfter the guided tour disbands, visitors to the Tower are free to wander on their own. Most of the towers and other structures are at least partially open to the public, which allows visitors to conduct self-guided tours of those aspects of the compound that interest them most.
We’ve used this time, for example, to file past the Crown Jewels housed in Waterloo Barracks, where our senses were assaulted by room after room of gold and silver spheres and orbs, scepters, swords, and christening fonts—not to mention the Imperial State Crown and assorted jewels and ornaments. Before my first viewing of the Crown Jewels, it never occurred to me that there might be an important ceremonial role for a golden coronation spoon.
One of my favorite memories of time spent strolling with Himself on the Tower’s Wall Walk, enjoying its many wonderful views. As we stood on the walk in 1999, we saw the Concorde fly overhead—one of those marvelous moments when past and present merged. And, of course, now ever the Concorde belongs to the past. Our strolls along the walk introduced us to an area containing a number of small private dwellings. After that first glimpse, we learned that about 150 people (mostly Yeoman Warders and their families) still live inside the Tower—what an amazing community environment that must be! I wonder if their peace is ever disturbed by the dissatisfied spirits that by rights must wander the precincts of the Tower compound.
Another vibrant memory of time in the Tower involves a tale of personal loss and recovery. During my to the Tower in 2003, I wore a gold-and-black opal-inlaid bracelet given me by Himself. As I walked along the Tower Green, I noticed my bracelet was missing and immediately began back-tracking my steps. Having no luck, I left particulars and contact information with the local equivalent of Lost and Found and rejoined my family. Brooding under my private dark shadow, I decided to check back one last time before I left the grounds. Greeted with an excited official, I was sent in search of a Warder near the Bloody Gate. Digging into the deep pockets of his uniform (each of which was in truth the equivalent of a sizable purse), he pulled out item after item—chewing gum, crumpled banknotes, change, a candy bar, and finally, my bracelet. He presented it graciously and with good cheer, advising me to take better care.
Wherefores and By-the-WaysWhen visiting the Tower, it’s a good idea to acquire tickets off site. Tickets may be purchased in advance via Internet and telephone: +44 (0)870 756 6060. Some hotels and tour bus operations offer tickets at a slight discount. These pre-purchased tickets save visitors from waiting in long lines, particularly those of the high tourist season. There are also a number of tourist passes that include free or discounted admission to the Tower.
Gate prices for the 2005 season are £14.50 for adults, £11 for seniors, and £9.50 for children.
From March through October, the Tower is open from 9am until 6pm, Tuesday through Saturday, and from 10am to 6pm on Sunday and Monday.
Some BackgroundEstablished in 1753 on the basis of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the museum is over 250 years old and has been open to the public since 1759. Construction on the building in which the collection is currently housed began in 1844 and was designed to resemble a classical Greek temple. The museum’s most recent modification is the addition of the Great Court, completed late in 2000. It consists of a large canopied courtyard structure with a lightweight, transparent roof.
Having cut our museum-going teeth on the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Himself and Yours Truly were by no means novices regarding great museums. But we also knew that when the Smithsonian first opened its doors, the British Museum had long since established the standard of excellence for the preservation and display of antiquities. We were sufficiently enticed by the museum's attractions to spend 4 hours of our brief stay in London exploring its galleries, and we were not disappointed.
Our ExperienceDuring our time in the British Museum, we found ourselves gazing in awe at mythical beasts that once guarded the gates of ancient Mesopotamian cities. We wandered around and through a series of Egyptian monuments created over a period of 3 millennia. We explored galleries containing Minoan jewelry, Mycenaean pottery, Assyrian reliefs, Etruscan bronze weaponry, exquisite Greek and Roman vases, and much, much more. And, of course, we spent as many long moments as possible savoring the museum's astonishing collection of Parthenon Sculptures, otherwise know as the Elgin Marbles. This, in fact, was our principal goal at the British Museum—to stand in the shadow of the incredible elegance and strength of these astonishing sculptures.
It was in the Parthenon galleries that I overhead another visitor making pejorative comments about the British Museum, focusing on the continuing controversy as to whether the museum should be condemned as a storehouse for some of the grandest thefts of all time (the opinion being expressed by my eavesdropper) or praised for preserving some of humanity's greatest masterpieces (which, I confess, is my personal opinion). To the degree that such a controversy has merit, I would have to acknowledge that there is truth on both sides—not just for the British Museum, but for all similar institutions, including my beloved Smithsonian.
Our judgments concerning these sins, however, are generally based on the political correctness of the moment. Certainly there are lessons to be learned from past mistakes, indeed from past arrogance and presumptuousness. Still, the collectors and scientists of generations past did manage to preserve much that would likely have been lost—or spirited away into private collections. In my opinion, this argument only has merit when such mistakes are perpetuated down to the present. The issue should not be one of casting endless blame for past ignorance and error; rather, it should be on how the wealth of knowledge and human culture preserved within these collections can best be safeguarded for future generations.
Leaving these important (and they are important) political considerations aside, the British Museum is a must-see for anyone with a passion for the ancient accomplishments of humanity. As a living institution nearing its 250th anniversary, it has done much to establish the tradition carried on by most of the world's great museums—that is, to combine practical and scholarly research with public education. It was and is a grand and ambitious undertaking for which I am personally grateful.
Exhibits we did not visit include those on the ancient cultures of the Americas, the Far East, and Africa. The journey of civilization of Europe and Britain from its ancient origins through the modern era is on our agenda for some future visit.
Museum LogisticsEvery museum has its own particular logic and traffic flow. The British Museum gives pride of place to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Basic of Western Asia. All these exhibit areas are striking in their own right, but the lion’s share of the collection belongs to the Roman and Greek galleries, which meander up and down stairs from the basement, to the ground floor, and on to the first floor. (Elevators are also provided, but they do not maintain the continuity of the exhibits as effectively as the stairways.) Most of these galleries are large and relatively open, making excellent use of wall space to showcase ancient murals. The Egyptian Gallery, extending about two-thirds the length of the ground floor, is virtually an avenue of monumental sculpture. Exhibits featuring the Far East, the Americans, and even Britain are a bit less off the beaten track.
Opposite the antiquities collection on the ground floor is The King’s Library—a grand hall 300 feet long, 30 to 58 feet wide, and 41 feet high—which once housed a collection of 60,000 books collected by King George III (of Revolutionary fame to Americans) and donated to the library by his son George IV. The library has been recently restored to its former pre-Victorian glory, but the books (the original collection plus the museum’s subsequent additions) have been moved to a new home, the nearly British Library at St. Pancras. The room is definitely worth a visit for its overall scale and grandeur—and as the library every book lover would covet as their own. The great hall of the King’s Library is now a spectacular home for the museum’s display on the Enlightenment.
Finally, the new Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is said to be "the largest covered public square in Europe." Located in what was the museum’s courtyard, it has been an enduring source of controversy. The glass and steel roof is either an ideal complement to the classical design of the museum or a modern intrusion—depending on your point of view. The interior design features a central "drum" enclosing the museum’s Reading Room, which in turn features two encircling exterior staircases that can double as a stage for performing arts. The remainder of this space provides a setting for a variety of events sponsored by the museum. As a personal response, I found that the new space, which is accented by a selection of large sculptures from the museum’s collection, rather awe-inspiring. In a different age, it might have been a temple forecourt.
The museum's cafeteria also deserves a few favorable comments. Unlike most of our Smithsonian cafeterias, which tend to cater to fast food consumed in noisy and crowded areas, the British Museum’s Court Restaurant offers good food in a setting that encourages relaxed conversation or quiet reflection—a setting appropriate for one of the world’s great institutions. The food is not cheap, but neither is it terribly expensive. For us, it was a pleasant and restful setting for a cup of tea and a croissant.
Wherefores and By-the-WaysAdmission to the museum is free, though a contribution of £2 per person is seriously encouraged. (Museum staff seems to direct younger visitors toward the honor boxes at the entrance, while they allow visitors in the senior-citizen category to slip quietly past.) A few exhibits may be viewed by fee only—including the Rosetta Stone during our 2000 visit.
The galleries and Reading Room of the British Museum are open 7 days a week, 10am to 5:30pm on Saturday through Wednesday and 10am to 8:30pm on Thursday and Friday. The Great Court is open from 9am to 6pm on Saturday through Wednesday and from 9am to 11pm on Thursday and Friday. Located on Great Russell Street in London, the museum is accessible by Tube, city bus, and tour bus.
Setting the SceneWe reached the palace through St. James Park, a personal favorite for leisurely walks, and found ourselves in the midst of a crowd gathering for the Changing of the Guard. We heard the new guard approaching but really could see very little, so we decided to concentrate on people-watching and admiring the grounds surrounding the palace. The formal beds of flowers were gorgeous, and the crowd was in good spirits.
The large monument to Queen Victoria in front of the palace was literally covered with people hoping for a better view of the guard ceremony, and I could only wonder what the Grand Dame herself might have thought about the resulting spectacle. The oversized statue of the Queen reminded me of a storyteller doll from the Pueblo Indian tradition of the American Southwest—that is, a clay sculpture of a large, typically maternal figure with much smaller figures of children covering the whole of the storyteller's arms, head, and torso. I also wondered how the current Queen felt about the band for her palace guard playing Broadway show tunes and Bob Dylan hits. But as she wasn't home, I suppose it didn't matter.
The TourWe purchased tickets that would allow us access to the palace at 12:15 and waited our turn. On entering the gate, we were guided into a tent-like structure that served as a security checkpoint. After inspecting our bags, polite security personnel directed us through metal detectors and, in some cases, pat-downs before we could proceed. (This is the residence of the Queen, friends. You don't just walk in off the street.)
On successfully completing our security check, we were directed to another tent where we were able to purchase guidebooks and thence to the palace itself. At the gate to the Ambassadors' Court, a gentleman in full palace livery instructed us to open our guidebooks to page 13 and we were on our way. Although this was not a docent tour, knowledgeable staff were available throughout the State Rooms, along with occasional cardboard placards to explain areas or displays of particular interest. The principal tool of the tour, however, was the guide book, which made our pace a bit slow.
As we skirted the inner courtyard, we caught what may have been our only Royal sighting during all our trips to Britain. We witnessed a woman in a wheelchair being taken from a large and well-equipped transport van. The woman appeared elderly and fragile, and in general had the appearance attributed to Princess Margaret during the later part of her life. If it was Margaret, we offer a belated apology for our stares. We allowed ourselves to be caught up in the moment at a time when the woman we watched was really entitled to her privacy.
The interiors of the palace truly are lavish. I suppose that shouldn't have come as a great surprise, but gold leaf in such abundance is still an extraordinary experience for Your Truly. In any case, the path up the palace's Grand Staircase simply can't be taken lightly. The art, armaments, and architecture are simply magnificent and make an overpowering impression—which, of course, is the point. The State Rooms represent the public heart of the "working palace." They are setting behind the face of the monarchy as presented during Royal ceremonies and to heads of state from the world over.
As appropriate, I was awed by the Throne Room with its brilliant red and gold color scheme. The throne chair used by Queen Victoria and those currently held by Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh are more modest in appearance than I expected.
The White Drawing Room was my favorite of the State Rooms we visited. It contains a drawing of Queen Elizabeth II by John Merton that is far simpler than anything else I saw in the palace. I very much appreciated the human scale it gave the Queen, and I took note of how the drawing contrasted with and was complemented by the overall opulence of its surroundings.
I also loved the galleries with their magnificent collection of art. Works by Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyke as well as countless portraits of the Royal Family over several generations can be seen in these galleries—family portraits on a grand scale. Add to these the profusion of costly porcelain, sculpture, crystal, tapestries, and furniture (many of these being State gifts from representatives of kingdoms and empires that no longer exist) and you have grist for a long and satisfying visit to the Queen's London home.
The Gift ShopLeaving the palace by an exit from the Bow Room, Himself and Yours Truly made our obligatory visit to the gift shop, which was housed in yet another large, temporary tent-like structure. This was the scene of one of our budget-busting extravagances. We separately circled the items on display, then met to discover that we'd both selected the same item—a boxed set of toy soldiers. After Himself returned his to its original location, I commented that it was amazing we'd each chosen the same gift, a set of toy soldiers for our grandson Jacob. The dear man's face fell a bit as he said, "Yours was for Jacob?"—at which point we retrieved the second set for Grandpa.
We selected a few more small and relatively inexpensive items, then queued to pay for our goodies. I was shocked by the total: £111. It turned out that the toy soldiers were part of a limited edition (complete with certificates of authenticity, naturally), and their price was £32.50 per set. Ouch! We'd misread the sign and thought we were buying two £11 sets. Since we were loath (translate "chicken") to re-queue and return merchandise to Queen, we came home with 1/500 of Buckingham Palace's 1999 distribution of collectable toy soldiers. Jacob, then at age three, seemed largely unimpressed by his windfall.
Wherefores and By-the-WaysDuring the 2005 season, the palace is open to the public July 30 through September 27. Admission fees are as follows:
Adults – £13.50Seniors and Students – £11.50Children under 17 – £7.00Children under 5 – FreeFamilies (2 adults and 3 children) – £34.00
As Buckingham Palace is located adjacent to St. James Park and near Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, it’s not hard to find. Access is easy by way of tube (Victoria, Green Park and Hyde Park Corner stations), city bus (numbers 11, 211, 239, C1, and C10), or tour bus. Further information on touring the palace, including special arrangement for the disabled, can be obtained by calling (+44) (0)20 7766 7300.
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