London: All That We Could Afford

London, with an admission ticket.

London: All That We Could Afford

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on May 26, 2008

Americans may have broken away from our English forbears a few centuries ago, but visiting London is still a trip to the ancestral home. The history, faith, and culture—and even conflicts—of England are largely ours, too, and visiting London feels like a trip back into the family album.

A surprising amount of London is free (see my previous journal). But the most famous churches, the theatres, some museums, afternoon tea, and now the London Eye—all these require that you reach for your wallet for admission. Some people struggle with paying for admission to a church (a debate we’ve had on the Igo message boards), but I shudder when thinking about the upkeep of a thousand-year old building and imagining a congregation handling those costs on their own. So I happily (well, that’s a little overblown) contribute my ticket price to ensure that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s (currently nearing the end of an extensive exterior and interior cleaning and renovation) will be around for the next few centuries.

Too many full price tickets, however, and your budget may not survive to the end of your trip. There are some places (such as the Abbey and St. Paul’s) that you’ll choose to visit regardless of the cost, but there are some strategies for wrangling discounts to a surprising number of attractions and museums.

${QuickSuggestions} I found Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral essential to understanding England. Americans may find this highly explicit blending of church and nation unusual, if not unsettling. For starters, we don’t have any such short list of places of worship that are integral to our nation’s identity. And if one or more existed, you’d have to imagine every military, political or cultural hero of note being buried there, memorialized or both within the church’s walls. Imagine a church in DC that was also the tomb of Washington, Grant, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Twain, Edison and Poe, and you have a start. Throw in battle flags from their funerals, plaques and tombs for every person of note in each era, and …

Westminster Abbey is Royal London before the fall; the London of Kings and Queens, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The tombs of monarchs and their courtiers are here, and the building itself is the result of royal action and reaction. Just when my disgust for Henry VIII was peaking, I walked into the beautiful Ladychapel he added at the Abbey’s south end. Although now part of the Church of England, it’s London’s premier pre-Reformation church, and a symbol of the blending of church, state, and life as it existed in the Middle Ages. Its a repository for the nation’s cultural memory (provided you’re not an apostate, a ‘dissenter’), with dozens of writers, scientists, actors, composers and musicians lie here in Poet’s Corner or elsewhere in the building.

St. Paul’s is London after the Restoration. Of course, once you behead a King, no one ever looks at royalty the same way again. Here is the church of England: a monument to the nation, and to the nation’s new faith: not the church universal, but the church national, triumphant. Here are buried not kings, but the nation’s warriors, heroes, and statesmen. Nelson, Wellington, and generals from the building, maintenance, protection and dissolution of Empire are buried here.

The West End is synonymous with theatre, and we saw two shows during our five-night stay. My kids picked Spamalot when shown the suite of possibilities; I was struck by how musicals have nearly forced out any other choices. On the last trip, we saw Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, as well as Chekov at the National Theatre and Richard III at the RSC. This time around, there were precious few similar options. We settled on the comedic adaptation of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, which proved to be an entertaining choice.

I suppose a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe became our more highbrow theatrical option. My wife and I had been here before, but our kids had this high on their list. The exhibits on Shakespeare, his times (and heck, his identity), and Elizabethan England often gets short shrift, as nearly everyone abandons it when their tour is called. But it’s highly developed and worth 60-90 minutes, although like the crowds, we only gave it half that much time.

${BestWay} I’ve written about this at length in my first London journal. The short story is I love the Tube, but don’t neglect the bus. It’s a better bet at rush hour, lets you see the city while you travel, and is also more likely to lead to conversations with both natives and fellow tourists. One option we didn’t fit in was a trip on the river: you can ride from Lambeth to Greenwich if you like, or shorter chunks, such as the ‘Tate Boat’ from Tate Britain, south of Westminster to Tate Modern at Southbank.

Get an Oyster card to make sure you’re paying the lowest fares: the system encourages that with outrageous prices for single trips purchased the old-fashioned way. If you’re in town longer than four or five days, put a 7-day Travelcard onto your plastic/electronic Oyster card; and don’t bother with more than a Zones 1&2 card unless you’re staying outside these Central London zones.

British Airways London Eye

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

Pricey, pricey, pricey—but it might be worth it.

It’s getting hard to imagine the London skyline without this recent addition. And much like Paris thought it would only have the Eiffel Tower for a year, the Eye is clearly here to stay long after the Millennium has passed, fundamentally changing the views of London from nearly every direction.

It’s easy to see why. At £15 a ride, and over 3 million rides a year, taking it down would be throwing money away. And unlike a lot of other attractions, there’s precious few ways to discount the cost of a ride. No 2-for-1 coupons, no family tickets—just half off for those 15 or under, and 10% off if you buy your ‘flight’ in advance on line. (There are plenty of ways to spend more: champagne flights, private capsules, Eye/Thames cruise combos, ….)

Of course, at £67.50 for our family of five, 10% would have amounted to over $13, enough to outfit each of us with a decent amount of Cadbury chocolate. We passed up this savings in order to ensure that the weather—which had been variable all week—was going to cooperate.

In the end, it did. Following our pilgrimage to Abbey Road, we took the Jubilee line from St John’s Wood directly to Westminster, arriving just after 9:30. The Eye starts spinning at 10am, and there was no line yet, so we handed over our credit card, added on the £5 guidebook, and got in the very short and very fast moving line.

The skies were gray, but the view wasn’t hampered much. The Eye continually rotates, so you and 24 companions enter the clear capsules (Eye Pods?) as they swing through the bottom of their arc. The full 360-degree ride takes 30 minutes, so the capsule’s motion isn’t very noticeable once you’re aboard. The surroundings inside aren’t too crowded, either, although you may have to wait a few moments to get a view out a particular window. There’s a wooden bench in the middle, where about 10 passengers can sit if they choose to, and that also reduces any possible crush at the windows.

Even for a modest acrophobic like me, the ride was pretty comfortable. I was much more uneasy on the Golden Gallery atop St Paul’s, exposed to the elements on a crowded, narrow walkway. The Eye actually provides a quite similar view to that atop St Paul’s: the Golden Gallery sits 85 m above the cathedral floor, but after you factor in the height of Ludgate Hill, it’s not all that different from the 135 m apex of the Eye.

Unlike climbing a steeple, however, the view slowly changes. It was fun to watch St. Paul’s and the more distant sites come into view. I thought the guidebook was fairly priced, especially in comparison to those available at other London attractions, and it was a plus to have it with us as we looked for places we’d visited during the previous four days. Riding the Eye on the last day of our visit was a nice way to survey our jaunts all over central London; it might also be nice at the opening of a visit to see the whole city laid out around you before your explorations begin. We’d thought about that, but the cold, hard rain that greeted us on Sunday morning ruled that out.

When I return to London, I’ll probably ride the Eye again, not withstanding the hour-long stoppage that took place just a few days after our ride (that did give me a little pause). Given that you can’t take a whirl at sunrise, I’ll probably try to time it just as the sun is setting. And maybe I won’t have to buy five tickets.
The London Eye
South Bank of the River Thames
London, England, SE1 9TA
+44 (870) 500 0600

Cabinet War Rooms

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

Thinking back to 20 years ago, I realized that this was the place that convinced me to go to London. It hadn’t been too long since this bunker/residence/command center had opened as a museum, and I saw a small note in a travel magazine advertising this as one of London’s little-known secret attractions. The chance to see the rooms from which WWII was conducted—just as they were the day the war ended in Japan—was a captivating idea. I was just beginning to catch the travel bug, and reading about this underground museum led to the idea of just what else one might do in London. It took another 10 years, but in 2001 I finally visited this spot.

In the seven years since then, the CWR have gotten even better. These rooms were built in anticipation of an air war with Germany, and construction finished just as war broke out in 1939. They were to provide ample space for the prime minister, his cabinet, and military staff to both live and work, protected from the bombing that devastated London as predicted. Churchill visited this site immediately after taking office as Prime Minister in May of that year, and reportedly announced that “This is the room from which I will direct the war.”

This site is on the west edge of Whitehall, close to both 10 Downing St and the Houses of Parliament. It sits on Horse Guards Road, facing St. James Park, in the lower levels of what is now the Treasury Building. It’s a highly public area, but yet remained a secret throughout the war (that’s easier to understand when you realize the current public entrance didn’t exist until the museum opened). During the war, hundreds of people worked and even slept here, on at least two subterranean levels, accessed only from the interior of the building. The Cabinet Room and the Map Room are the centerpieces of the exhibit, still containing large wall-sized cartography displaying the positions of troops, ships and convoys in every theatre of the war. Other rooms include the small closet from which Churchill talked over a primitive scrambled telephone line with Roosevelt, as well as the recently re-opened ‘Churchill Suite’ that was available for use by him and his wife, Clementine. This area contains bedrooms for each of them, as well as the small kitchen used to cook for him and his staff (this must have been top-flight equipment in 1940, but it reminds of me of what filled the northwoods cabins I remember from the 1960’s).

Churchill is said to have spent few nights sleeping in these quarters, and preferred the more spacious suite on the first floor of the Treasury. To the further consternation of his aides, he frequently went to the top of the building during nightly raids on London. Other rooms contain sleeping quarters for aides, original reports on the impact of bombing and V-1 raids on London, and rooms for Churchill’s private staff (including trusted confidant Brendan Bracken). It’s sobering to realize that, as the exhibits make clear, it wasn’t a certainty that the building could survive a direct hit. Thankfully, this complex escaped the war nearly unscathed, which is a little hard to believe given its location in the heart of Official Britain.

The major change since my last visit is the opening of the large, excellent Churchill Museum, which you encounter halfway through your tour of the War Rooms. This site alone could easily take a half-day to explore, particularly for those interested in Churchill’s life and times. It’s a comprehensive look at his entire life, with some amazing new technology used throughout. At the entrance, a series of 10 or so photographs illustrate some of Churchill’s most famous speeches, and as you step in front of them, directed speakers above you then play these excerpts—which, despite their familiarity, were all the more moving in this context. The centerpiece is a stunning multimedia table, which is actually an electronic file cabinet for each day of Churchill’s life. A touch of the screen in front of you opens a ‘file’ for each month, and another touch can open any day, displaying photos, reproductions of documents, and video clips as well as giving Churchill’s whereabouts and activities. I found this at the very end of my visit, and explored the days in mid-1945 as the war was coming to an end, and Churchill was fighting to keep his Conservative Party in power. Here, as in other places, the Museum stays away from hero worship: the 1945 exhibit analyzes the reasons for his electoral defeat, including his ill-chosen ‘Gestapo’ comments on his perception of the ultimate outcome of Labour’s plans for the country.

40 years after he left this place, Churchill’s fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher was responsible for opening the site to the public. Action of Parliament had set it aside as an historic site in 1948, but it remained closed and largely unknown until Thatcher’s 1981 decision to make it more public. Britons and others may remain divided on her legacy, but certainly that decision was a sound one.

The site is one of several administered by the Imperial War Museum, but unlike the central museum in Lambeth, it’s not free. Admission is a typical (for London) £12—but that’s fairly reasonable, since it includes an excellent and thorough audio tour that is a must for your walk through the corridors. Even better, this is one of many prime London attractions that honor the 2-for-1 vouchers available to rail passengers and 7-day Travelcard holders at Since children under 16 are free, that meant the five of us had admission and guides for a very reasonable £24.

There are several sites in London that help one understand the experience of Londoners and Great Britain during the Blitz and the rest of the War. This is certainly one of them, and it will be on my itinerary whenever I’m fortunate enough to be here.
Cabinet War Rooms
Clive Steps
London, England, SW1A 2AQ
+44 20 7930 6961

Shakespeare's Globe

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

Sam Wanamaker was ticked, and I can’t blame him. The Globe Theatre had long since burned down, but he expected to find more of a tribute to this landmark than a plaque mounted on the side of a brewery. I wonder when he realized that this plaque had formed his life’s work.

In 1997, after more than three decades of sharing his vision, cajoling, pleading, and fundraising, a faithful reconstruction of the principal site for Shakespeare’s performances finally opened. Unfortunately, Wanamaker wasn’t there to celebrate, having passed away three years earlier. But this place and its programming have quickly made Shakespeare’s Globe a center for celebrating and extending Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language and the wider world.

The building itself is a tremendous accomplishment, constructed using Elizabethan techniques—right down to the thatched roof, which required special permission (since no such construction techniques had been permitted since the Great Fire). Given the frequency with which fires destroyed theatres (the original Globe only lasted 15 years before going up in smoke during a performance of Henry VII), it’s probably a good thing that sprinklers and other modern technology were also incorporated.

Like the original, the reconstructed Globe stands on the South Bank, just east of the Tate Britain and a short walk after crossing the Millennium Bridge. Its well-known ‘O’ shape and beam and plaster construction is easily recognizable from across the river. A more modern building is attached on the east side, housing the Exhibition, gift shop and small cafeteria. Tours of the theatre take place every half-hour or more, and include admission to the exhibition.

This is an extensive—and recently expanded—introduction to Shakespeare, his time, the South Bank, the construction of the new Globe, and theatre in Elizabethan London. It’s laid out around the perimeter of the center, in a spiral route that’s a little reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim. Most visitors spend time here while waiting for their tour, but if any of these topics intrigue you, 30 minutes won’t be enough. Your ticket is timed for a particular tour, but you can return to the Exhibition throughout the day. If we hadn’t come at the end of the afternoon, we would have done that, but we were fighting sore feet and empty stomachs as well as closing time.

Unless there’s a performance going on, you’ll be taken inside the theatre. Since we were here in mid-March—not usually a hospitable time for outdoor activity in London—I didn’t expect to see anything going on. It turned out that a group of high school students were preparing for a performance that they’d designed, and they were testing the acoustics on the stage, getting comfortable, and then helping staff finish set-up.

Your tour guide will probably stress the differences between theatre here, and theater as we’ve come to know it. There’s no microphones, much less scenery, and an intimacy with the audience that’s often the privilege of only a few in today’s elongated theaters. The Globe is relatively large—it holds 1,700, about a third of which are ‘groundlings’ that stand in the O’s center in front of the stage—but the circular design means that everyone is nearly equidistant.

After two visits, I’m still intrigued by the Globe, although neither January nor March allows you to see a performance here (the season runs from May to October, rain or shine). The new construction doesn’t meet one’s expectation for what an ‘old’ place should look like: its cleanliness and freshness seems out of place. Of course, even the original Globe was new once, and it couldn’t have deteriorated too far during its short lifetime. This project, and the productions staged within it, is not without critics: some view its insistence on doing Shakespeare now as Shakespeare did then as archaic and anachronistic. They have somewhat of a point: our understanding of theater may have moved on, but I find it hard to fault those who loved and love the Bard this much for trying to do it his way. Someday, I’ll return for one of the famous £5 groundling seats, preferably for one of the histories or tragedies. After taking part (i.e., standing through) that, I’ll think about revising my opinion. Until then, I’m a fan.
Shakespeare's Globe
21 New Globe Walk, Bankside
London, England, SE1 9DT
+44 20 7902 1400


Member Rating 3 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

Well, on second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.
King Arthur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

For someone familiar with—and more than moderately amused by—Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot was surprisingly a bit of a letdown. A well-known script with additional scenes and staging (which, this deep into the run, are also well known) meant that little was unfamiliar, robbing theatre of one of its sources of power. You can often count on powerful performances in meaningful but familiar roles to more than make up for a lack of surprise, but not in a show like this. Two hours of uninterrupted silliness will never have a longer run than this show is enjoying. The closest it comes to anything of significance is too preachy to amount to much.

The current cast seems workmanlike. King Arthur is a wooden straight man, and Alan Dale is more than perfectly cast. His voice was weak, and off-key in the first song. He proved to be a trouper, though, when the Black Knight’s right arm fell off in a grand swordfight and revealed—his arm. Also, when the nervous audience participant summoned to the stage near the end of Act II nervous gave him her first name twice, he simply laughed, accepted it, and went with it, providing another indication that he was newly taken by the idea that the show (or theatre in general) could be fun.

Patsy, his long-suffering, coconut-banging aide de camp was the star of this show. The production is at its best when sending up musical theatre and well-worn plot devices. Easy targets, perhaps, but more than entertaining enough. All in all, I was glad we’d gone, but mostly for satisfying my kids’ long-standing desires. But I was also glad we hadn’t paid full price.
Palace Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue
London, England, W1V 8AY
+44 20 7434 0909

St Paul's Cathedral

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

If St. Paul’s wasn’t emblematic of London before World War II, the Blitz certainly fixed that. The famous images of Wren’s dome rising seemingly unhurt out of the surrounding fires and smoke, made it the embodiment of London’s resistance to the brutal Nazi bombardment. Less well known is the price that was paid for its survival (which only heightens the image): the fire battalions worked round the clock to preserve the Cathedral, at the expense of much of the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, St. Paul’s did not escape unscathed: a major bomb crashed through the west end of the building in 1941, and you can still see some of its effects on the climb to the Whispering Gallery along the dome’s lower edge.

To me, visiting here seems essential to understanding London and England. It’s certainly worth a visit for its qualities as a structure, or more holistically, as a place of worship. Christopher Wren, whose ability as architect, planner, astronomer and scientist have made him one of my heroes over the past decade, created a building that is awe-inspiring, solid, airy and intimate. Wren, who had responsibility for rebuilding so much of London after the Great Fire, built at least the third Cathedral here on Ludgate Hill. The dome still rises well above almost all of London’s skyline, but modern construction (and post-Blitz reconstruction) around the area makes it awfully hard to see the hill. The building he put here was the first English cathedral built after the Reformation, a chance to state what the new English church was, instead of what it was not.

I find it powerful to visit places where people have worshipped for centuries or even a millennium. Although they did so in previous incarnations of this cathedral for many of those years, this place still carries a strong sense of history predating its 300 years. Wren’s Baroque cathedral is hardly without ornamentation, but it seems well chosen, neither too fanciful nor too restrained. It has a much more solid feel than gothic Westminster Abbey, and as a place of worship, I think I’d prefer it. Seven years ago, my wife and I came for evensong on a raining Wednesday evening, which proved to be among the highlights of that first trip to London.

Understandably, the ushers patiently but firmly escorted us out of the building after evensong was finished. We hadn’t returned to tour the church, and it was the first stop on our first full day in London. Unfortunately, we arrived later than we’d planned. Hoping to arrive just as St. Paul’s opened to visitors at 8:30 (or, as I dreamed, even earlier for morning prayer), we successfully negotiated the morning tube ride from Moorgate and climbed the steps just after 9 am. Jet lag was still raging in my teens, and negotiating a family forced march through the cathedral seemed a risky bet. So we invested in audio tours (£4) for everyone who wanted one, and set off to explore the cathedral separately. I was hoping for a verger tour, but the next one didn’t leave until 10, so I headed back to the desk, where the clerk kindly offered to renegotiate my bill for the family price.

Among the highlights for me were the great space under the dome, the carved wood quire and pulpit by Grinling Gibbons, and the American Chapel at the far east end. The audio tour made sure I noted the paintings by contemporary Russian artist Sergei Chepik, part of an effort to bring contemporary art into St. Paul’s, which makes sense if it is indeed to remain an active place of worship and not a museum. I don’t think I would have missed these large works, but I’m glad I didn’t. The four panels tell the story of Christ, from birth to resurrection, in an installation where they face each other in pairs, giving the set an added dimension.

Everyone wanted to climb the steps to the Whispering Gallery, so we gathered at the northeast end of the cathedral for the 150+ steps. It was here that we began paying the price for arriving late, as one of two busloads that arrived at 10 was also here, and on the way further up. It was hard to test the Gallery's famous acoustics, but the view of the mosaics from this level and the dome above was worth it. My acrophobia was waking up, and walking the narrow aisle along the railing with dozens of other pushing to get past wasn’t helping. I stepped up onto one of the pairs of benches running around at the dome’s wall, and enjoyed the view outwards and upwards. Even if your plans don’t call for anymore climbing, I wouldn’t skip this part of the cathedral. If you do need to rest, it’s much easier to do so on this climb than it is as you ascend to the outdoor galleries above.

Above the Whispering Gallery are an array of windows, and your view of the Cathedral is enhanced by being close to the dome over your head as well as farther from the floor, quire and apse below. I would have hoped for a more peaceful setting, but next time I’ll come earlier.

My family was split on heading up from here. My oldest decided not to climb, and my wife stayed with her; my younger two were going up regardless, and thinking about them 300 feet above London without me made my parental sensibilities ring wildly in alarm. In the end, the climb wasn’t too bad: it’s a little shorter ascent to the next gallery, which is a solid stone walkway with views out holes in the stone railing. It was still a bright, sunny morning, and this view out over London was better than I anticipated. We walked a full circuit of this level, and then climbed to the Golden Gallery. It’s not the uppermost level on the dome’s exterior, but it is as high as you can go these days.

This climb takes you up catwalks and over the top of Wren’s inner dome. It’s more challenging than the first two intervals, and I’d think twice if you’re uneasy in tight spaces or on steep mesh stairs.

The view over London is exquisite. It rivals that from the London Eye, and there’s no glass or metal frame in your way. Of course, nothing protects you from the elements, either, but the breezes weren’t too bad. The gallery is exceedingly narrow—perhaps 3 feet at its widest point right by the top of the stairwell, and much tighter in places. It was so crowded that once we stepped out, we couldn’t walk around, and were stuck simply waiting for others to finally head down. I nearly lost it as one of the teens ahead of me climbed the railing and leaned as far over as possible, but he survived, the line cleared, and we made it to the far side for a view to the east and the Tower of London.

From here, we headed to the crypt. Nelson’s tomb is on the main floor of the cathedral, but the number of other tombs and monuments seemed restrained compared to Westminster Abbey. On the lower level are Wren’s tomb, bearing his son’s famous epitaph ("If you seek his monument, look around you"), the tomb of Wellington, still surrounded by the battle flags carried at his funeral procession by Britain’s allies in the victory over Napoleon. Churchill isn’t buried here, but an ornate iron gate across the midpoint of the crypt honors him and his contributions to the nation. Joining him are numerous generals from the First and Second World Wars, panels commemorating the service of many units in both conflicts, and the politicians and soldiers who built the empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I paused briefly in front of a table where a docent was selling guidebooks, and she struck up a conversation with me, taking me aside to point out one of her favorites, the monument to George Williams, founder of the YMCA: “Doesn’t he have just have the most wonderful smile? He looks so happy to me”, she said as we gazed on his image.

We emerged from the crypt just after noon. I was hopeful that we’d return later in the week for a service, perhaps on Maundy Thursday. It wasn’t to be, but I will come here every chance I get.
St Paul's Cathedral
The Chapter House
London, England, EC4M 8AD
+44 (20 7) 236 4128

The 39 Steps

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

Last time in London, we spent every night but one at the theatre. We hadn’t planned it that way, but after having beaten back jet lag on our first night, we walked up and bought tickets for a revival of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. The next evening, we headed as planned to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (nearly a professional responsibility), and now having firmly caught the bug, saw two Redgrave siblings in The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre, and completed our spree with an RSC production of Richard III.

That was seven years ago, and my, have things changed. There were plenty of musicals playing then: we passed on Buddy, Mamma Mia, and others. But the West End in March 2008 was another story, dominated by musicals. We wanted to take the girls to something more serious than Spamalot, but the options were few and far between. A well-reviewed production of Much Ado about Nothing at the National seemed like a great idea, but it was sold out with only the possibility of returns, a dicey proposition for seating five of us. We nearly bought tickets to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, but decided not to drop another £250, or £175 discounted, before leaving home.

So I deferred to an expert. I asked my actor brother for recommendations, and he came back with a suggestion for 39 Steps, the comedic interpretation of the early Hitchcock movie loosely based on John Buchan’s novel. Tickets were £40 in the stalls, and it didn’t seem that it would sell out before we arrived, so we waited. Taking advantage of the free wifi in our boarding area for the first leg, I discovered a newly announced discount, reducing those stalls tickets to £19.50. They were calling our flight, but I managed to complete the transaction just before handing my boarding pass to the agent, much to my wife’s dismay, who had no idea what I was doing.

The Criterion Theatre was the venue for this production, which is located on Shaftesbury Avenue at Piccadilly Circus. It was fairly small—and entirely underground!—and our seats towards the end of Row G were quite good. The building dates from 1874, and I believe the cushion in my seat was an original. The spacing of the seating also seemed unchanged since then; at 5’10", I’m not particularly tall, but there was no good place for my knees.

Thankfully, there was something worth watching to distract me. I’ve seen Hitchcock’s movie twice, and as best as I could remember, the dialog is taken straight from the screenplay. (After returning home, I read that there's even an appearance by Hitchcock, but we missed it.) Unlike Spamalot (which we'd seen the previous evening), however, there’s a different take on the material: a cast of four plays every part (139 is the claim, I believe), and it’s quite funny. It’s a typical Hitchcock story: an everyman thrown in to a situation of dire importance, with one narrow escape after another until the villains are successfully thwarted. The cast was terrific, and the production finds laughs in so many places in the thriller-oriented script that you wonder how many similar projects may now be in store. All five of us had a great time, as did the rest of the audience.
Criterion Theatre
Piccadilly Circus
London, England, W1V 9LB
+44 20 7413 1437

Westminster Abbey

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

There are four towers along the Thames that are instantly recognizable as ‘London’. The oldest by far are the twin towers of Westminster Abbey, which have looked out over the river for far longer than the dome of St. Paul’s, the towers of Parliament, or the newcomer of the bunch, the London Eye (also the architectural poorboy of the four).

On my first visit to London, my wife and I wandered up to Westminster from our Victoria hotel, stopping for lunch at Jenny Lo’s Tea House, poking our heads into Westminster Cathedral, and then touring Westminster Abbey in late afternoon. It was more than a little dream-like, as we struggled to convince ourselves we were actually in London, walking by the tombs of Elizabeth and her sister Mary, gazing at the remarkably ordinary Coronation Chair, and craning our necks upward towards the vaulted ceiling. All too quickly we were out the other side, struggling to hold onto what we’d seen.

So it was a given that we were going back. We headed for the Abbey and Westminster on our second morning in London, taking the bus to the Victoria Embankment and walking along the gardens and ministries, with the towers of Parliament and the Abbey finally coming in to view. Westminster Abbey opens at 9:30, and we crossed Parliament Square just as the doors opened, walking by St. Margaret’s Church on the way to the Abbey steps.

It took more time than necessary to sort out our tickets, as the clerk originally insisted that we weren’t able to use the 2-for-1 coupons we’d brought. After 15 minutes of having a supervisor correct her and issue the refunds, we finally began touring the church, opting again to distribute audio tours all around and reconnect later if necessary.

Soon after we began, one of the ministers ascended the pulpit, and asked for a moment of silence and prayer, as they do every hour. The first prayer of the morning was by Bishop Desmond Tutu, asking for wisdom and justice. We were there for two or three of these moments, which serve as a reminder that this is an active church and place of worship.

It is a church, not a cathedral: only once in its long history has it been the seat of a bishop, and Elizabeth I closed that era by making it a Royal Peculiar, directly under the authority of the sovereign and not a bishop. That seems appropriate, given its role in the coronation and burial of monarchs: every King or Queen of England has been crowned here since the Norman invasion in 1066. Many are entombed here, including the only sainted British monarch, Edward the Confessor, whose tomb is nearly hidden behind an array of wooden fences. Elizabeth and Mary lie next to each other, and over a dozen other kings and queens are also buried here.

Your visit to the Abbey will proceed along a well-defined route, which takes you through the ornately carved Quire, back down the Apse, with the many chapels and tombs of dukes and duchesses along the sides. It’s easy to move too fast, especially if the crowds are heavy, as they were on our first afternoon. I found the audio guide helpful just for keeping me from passing the 20 or so highlights. The descriptions of these points were good, and often supplemented by additional commentary from the Dean or other members of the clergy, and music by one of the Abbey’s many choirs.

Its role in the English nation and long history as a house of worship are supplemented by another role as a repository for memorials to a vast array of Britons. Poet’s Corner is a densely tiled collection of plaques noting nearly everyone of importance in British cultural life, from Chaucer onwards. I scoured the floors and walls looking for Dickens, Auden, Handel, Olivier, Dryden, Tennyson and others. Scientists are here and elsewhere, some (like Newton, despite his heretical views) commemorated with large statues, others (like Edmund Halley, to whom Newton largely owes his reputation) noted long after the fact with a modern, comet-like plaque on the wall alongside the Cloisters.

It’s easy to see how the Abbey is a work of many ages. The magnificent Lady Chapel, added by Henry VIII, has a completely different feel than the rest of the Abbey, with its high, intricate stonework, and large window that fills the space with a much different light than the main church. It was my favorite part of the building, and made easier to appreciate with a thoughtfully placed 2’ x 3’ mirror that allows you to appreciate the ceiling without permanently damaging your neck muscles.

Leaving the church during the tour, you can walk around the Abbey’s courtyard, where entrances to the museum, the Pyx and the Chapter House can be found. So many of these rooms have served a variety of purposes during the building's life, perhaps none more so than the beautiful Chapter House. I don’t remember seeing this on my first visit, but this high-ceiling, octagonal room began life as the gathering place for the Abbey’s resident monks. Archaeological work has uncovered the original hand-painted tiles that form the floor, along with large sections of early murals that line the walls. Even on a relatively mild March morning, this unheated room was quite cool, a reminder of what these buildings must have felt like throughout much of their history.

As you near the exit, there’s yet another set of reminders of the price paid by Britain from 1939-45, and their gratitude for the help that their American cousins provided in beating back Hitler’s vicious onslaught. A set of volumes records the names of all those civilians who died during the war, and turning a few of these pages was a sobering insight into what this vicious period of time was like throughout England.

As you leave, be sure to look at the statues above the door. At first glance, they may look typical of the figures that adorn the entryways of nearly every gothic structure, but their cleaner and more modern appearance gives them away. Shown here are 10 martyrs of the 20th century, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and others I had trouble identifying.

The extensive gift shop is now on your right, which as in many churches is worth visiting if your memory, like mine, works better with images of what you’ve just seen. It’s probably a blessing that photography isn’t allowed inside, thus allowing me and many others, I’m sure, to tour the Abbey in less than a day.
Westminster Abbey
20 Dean's Yard
London, England, SW1P 3PA
+44 (20) 7222 5152

Making London Affordable

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

News flash: London is expensive. With the pound currently trading at $2, you’ll be looking for ways to keep a handle on your costs (unless you travel in a different tax bracket than me). Of course, you can pinch pennies by doing nothing, but then why did you come? My strategy is to mix a healthy dose of the substantial number of free attractions (which include some of the foremost museums; see Free and Easy in London) as well as experiences. Walking around this city is an education in itself, and that ‘oh-my-gosh-I’m-standing-in-front-of-Parliament’ moment is, indeed, priceless.

Although London attraction prices are high, you do have a few options for reducing your costs. First of all, some of the world’s best museums are here and are free (as noted elsewhere in this journal). But there are a number of places that you’ll just have to visit, and where you’ll have to pay—but not necessarily full price.

For that list, be sure to investigate the chances of discounts or 2-for-1 admissions. If you’re traveling alone: sorry, your options are very limited. It’s others traveling with you that might be cheaper. First, of all children may be discounted, or even free (no surprise there). But the definition of ‘child’ usually stops at age 15, which only captured one of my three kids. Family rates will often give you two adults and two kids for a reduced rate: for example, adult admission at both prominent churches is £10. At Westminster Abbey, a family ticket is £24, which gets one adult in free. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, children are a more reasonable £3.50, but a family ticket only saves you the price of one child. (St. Paul’s is also rare in extending children to 16.) But remember, it’s going to a good cause: these buildings depend on the monies from admission for their upkeep and renovation.

A few departures from the norm: the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are free for all those 15 and under. The Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe both have a conventional 5 to 15-year-old definition of ‘child’, but their family ticket includes 2 adults and up to 3 children.

Most venues offer discounted admission for students, often stating that IDs are required. The International Student Identity Card (ISIC) is the standard, but it costs $25. With two students to outfit, I decided to take my chances, pack an extra high school ID (we’ve bought a few of those), and figure that we’d already saved £25 by not buying two ISICs. When I remembered to ask for student tickets (often only £1-2 below full price), some places didn’t ask for IDs (Tower Bridge and Cabinet War Rooms) and the Tower (evidently the pickiest venue on such matters) asked for and then accepted the high school IDs I gave them.

Memberships are another strategy. English Heritage runs hundreds of sites, but most are in the greater UK. Joining EH is £42 an individual and £73 a couple (discounted by 25% or more for seniors), and gives you free admission to all sites. But only a few are in central London: Apsley House (Wellington’s Home) and neighboring Wellington Arch at Hyde Park; Jewel Tower, the last remaining piece of Westminster Castle. Further afield are Ranger’s House in Greenwich, and art-deco Eltham Palace south of there. Admission prices at each are a modest £4 or £5; some others (such as Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath) are free. As I discovered, joining this organization only makes sense if your trip includes extensive visits to Heritage properties around the country.

A more relevant organization may be Historic Royal Palaces, who are the ones taking your money at the Tower of London (£16.50), Banqueting House (£4.50), and three Palaces: Hampton Court Palace (£13.30), Kensington (£12.30) and Kew (£5, and this not the Gardens at Kew; that’s separate). An adult membership is £38 and £59.50 for two adults, so this might make sense if you have several of these places on your list. For a while, Kensington Palace was on ours, and we thought about a day’s expedition up the Thames to Hampton Court.

In the end, we only visited the Tower, using 2-for-1 coupons that are probably your best bargain. This offer is sponsored by the railways. If you purchase a rail ticket, then you’re eligible to download and print coupons to present at the ticket window. You need to register at the website, and you may need to show the receipt for your rail trip at the attraction. The list of eligible sites is long, and also includes a number of theatre performances and a few restaurants.

For visitors, a 7-day Travelcard for the Tube, buses and network of Transport for London also allows you to take part in this program (it is not available for those with the shorter 1-day or 3-day cards). On our trip, this saved us money at Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tower of London, the Cabinet War Rooms, and Tower Bridge. If I remembered to bring the coupons, it also would have saved us money on the London Walk we did on Sunday afternoon.

We saved £107 at these five places over the four adult, one child prices we might have paid. Even if we’d been given student prices at every venue, we saved £86 over the 2 adult/2 student/1 child prices. Other places on the list that we considered visiting include Apsley House, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Foundling Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Samuel Johnson’s House, Hampton Court Palace, Jewel Tower, Kew Gardens, and Wellington Arch (yes, I know this was unrealistic). The full list is too long to reproduce here, but also includes special exhibitions at the Museums, some hotels, and the places whose popularity I can’t fathom (London Dungeon & Madame Tussaud’s—if you are set on going, won’t you feel better at half price?)

Tea at the National Cafe

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on June 1, 2008

It may be that only tourists think a full tea is a necessary part of a London afternoon. But there was no telling that to my kids: such an experience ranked high on their to-do list for London, and as the days ran down, they were pushing to make sure it was part of our last two days.

We wouldn’t be enjoying this custom at the Ritz, Fortnum & Mason, or any other place where it might run £30 a person or more. On Monday, we’d had a fairly quick tea and a snack at the Tate Modern, and were looking for something in between this low-end version and a full wallet-bashing experience. I’d read any number of suggestions for places to have a good experience and incur only a moderately painful bill, and as the day grew colder and rainier in Hyde Park and the lunch hour faded, I suggested we board the bus for Trafalgar Square and have tea at the National Dining Rooms in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

The no. 9 bus we boarded was a ‘heritage’ route, served by the classic Routemaster double-deckers. The traffic through Knightsbridge was terrible—the only time we were stuck in traffic all week—and I watched everyone nod off during the longer than expected ride. We arrived at Trafalgar just before 3, and dashed through the rain into the Museum and followed the signs for the Café (not the Dining Rooms).

I’m not highly picky about service, but our experience was terrible. The tea and the food were very good, but the service was abysmal. Our waitress clearly had no interest in seating or serving us at the end of our shift: first, she said tea wasn’t available yet, even though it was 3 pm; then she seated us and ignored us; then she went off-duty and left us without any server. The person we finally recruited to bring our bill apologized, especially for the mandatory tip that was already added.

Before going missing in action, our server did help us make just a little sense of the menu. I’d heard that a ‘full tea’ might serve as a replacement for a meal, and she said it wasn’t necessary for everyone to order one. We ordered two, and a somewhat incongruous plate of chips, but I wasn’t going to threaten family unity with an insistence on sticking to form. Heck, we even had an order of hot chocolate and a coffee thrown in.

The food came on a pair of three-tiered silver servers: the sandwiches (cucumber, salmon and egg), with a few scones and a few slices of cake. Oh yes, and my new favorite, clotted cream, which is everything cream cheese ought to be. All in all, it wasn’t the feast I’d been expecting, but it was tasty and welcome (especially the salmon). I could see my wife evaluating whether this was £14 worth of food—actually £28, since we had two orders—but I used this time to spear a few chips off my daughter’s plate.

The tea was excellent—a green China tea that made me happy to have a full pot of my own. I kept trying to focus on everything but the service, and largely succeeded. But late in the hour we spent there, I realized that we weren’t in the National Dining Rooms, which made me lose that focus. As I look back over my credit card bill, the £53 bill (with 15% service charge) makes that focus slip away all over again.

I also realized that a full day of sightseeing—particularly if you’re extending it into evening hours, as we were about to do—can really benefit from a time out. On any future trip to London, I’ll be happy to stop for tea in late afternoon, but I’ll probably settle for a simpler cream tea. Thankfully, it does include a scone with clotted cream.

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