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Part 1: 1000 Voices, Bearskin Hats, the Blitz, & Evensong
For many years husband Dave had wanted to return to England since being stationed there with the Army in the mid-60’s; so, when friends, Ami and Ken, asked if we’d like to join them for six nights in London, we said, “Absolutely!” And so it was that on an early May Saturday, we boarded a Virgin Atlantic plane in San Francisco for a 10 hour, 10 minute flight heading for London’s Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports. I must admit I had some trepidation, since in the past when we’d traveled abroad, we were always on a tour and were met at the foreign airport by our tour guide, who escorted us to our hotel. This time we were on our own to get from airport to our hotel in a city of 8 million …
It was a smooth flight, and we landed at Terminal 3 (Heathrow has five terminals) around 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Soon after retrieving our luggage and getting through ‘Customs’ we found our way to the Heathrow Express (train) to London. Before the doors opened to board the train, the announcement was made “Please Mind the Gap.” (Translated that meant to please watch your step since there is a space between the boarding platform and the train.)
Between 15-20 minutes later, we were at Paddington Station. We were told that the taxis queue up (line up) just outside the station, and one took us to our hotel in Kensington Gardens Square. Since it was around noon at this point, and our room was not yet ready for us (the desk clerk told us that our friends had arrived and were out and about, since their room was not yet ready either), we left our luggage there, and walked down the street and around the corner to a neighborhood pub, the Prince Alfred, where we chose a window seat. We’d only been in London proper less than half an hour, and Dave was having his first taste of English beer in over four decades! He was one happy man.
By day in front of the Prince Alfred, there is a fresh flower vendor, and I loved looking out the window that day at the various people choosing from the multitude of beautiful posies of all colors. One well-dressed gent chose a huge, mixed bouquet (and I’m sure quite expensive), and I wondered if that was for a special occasion or if the woman in his life received that every weekend. After our food and beverage there, we returned to our hotel, elevatored to our room, hung up some clothes in the closet and stretched out on the bed for a short rest—we needed our energy for our 4 p.m. tickets to “The Night of a 1000 Voices,” an annual one-day charity event for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation with both a 4:00 and an evening performance.
We taxied to the Royal Albert Hall w/our friends, and we entered the huge, gorgeous, circular theater. Wow! It was simply breathtaking … And it was quite interesting to see the chorus of, indeed, a thousand file into their appointed places. Then we were overwhelmed with the quality of the voices we heard that night, since the performance featured the stars from various London hit musicals—Les Miserables, Cats, Evita, and many more.
After the performance, we taxied back to our neighborhood and had dinner at Alwaha, a Lebanese restaurant, which was quite good. Then off to bed, since we were all exhausted from our overnight flight with little or no sleep.
Monday dawned a bit gray and drizzly, but after a breakfast of toast and tea, we were off to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the London home of the current queen, which was built as a townhouse for the first Duke of Buckingham around 1705, and then George IV had it extended into a proper palace which was completed in 1840. (The building was last refaced in 1913.) We arrived early enough to get a front row spot in which to view the nearly daily ritual. There was a light off-on rain while we waited—brollies up, brollies down (brollies = umbrellas), but then there they were, band & all with their tall bearskin hats, red tunics and stone faces. I think I was most impressed with the beautiful horses.
We then walked around the outside of the palace, past the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews to the Bag O Nails pub, where we had lunch. During lunch, there was a torrential downpour, but by the time we left, no need for umbrellas, and we walked, sans rain, to the nearby Royal Mews.
The Royal Mews is home to the collection of coaches (cars) and carriages of the queen, along with the royal stables featuring the Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays, breeds chosen for their steady temperament and stamina. Only a few horses are on display in the stalls, but the audio-guide informs visitors of each and every carriage there, including the Gold State Coach, which has been used at every coronation since that of George IV in 1821, and in 2002 played a central role in Her Majesty the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and will again this year at the Diamond Jubilee (celebrating her 60 years of monarchy in June).
We next wanted to visit the Churchill Cabinet War Rooms, but our friends had already toured that in past trips to London; so, we parted ways, and we left the Royal Mews, walked through St. James Park, laid out in the 18th century by Capability Brown and considered the most elegant of London’s parks—ducks, swans, pelicans on the lake—and then followed the signs to the Churchill Cabinet War Rooms.
From 1939-45, during WWII, the British government lived underground in 27 spartan rooms for protection during Hitler’s Blitz on London. (30,000 died during those bombing raids.) Following an excellent audioguide, visitors view all of these rooms, just as they were left in August, 1945, when the war ended. Of special interest to me were the Map Room, the Telegraph Room (with a hotline to Roosevelt), and Cabinet War rooms, where Churchill and chiefs of staff slept, ate, and worked. (Churchill’s office was a converted broom closet.)
About a third of the way through the war rooms, visitors come to a state-of-the-art museum about Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s life (born in 1874) and career. In addition to the multi-media/interactive exhibits, it contains all sorts of posters, trivia and personal effects (his cigars, his bowler hat, his formal uniform, his red velvet romper outfit), and is a tribute to the man, whom many consider to be the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Both the Churchill museum and the war rooms were quite impressive, and we think shouldn’t be missed if traveling to London.
Emerging from this underground bunker, we headed just a short way down the street to Westminster Abbey, built in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor and later added onto by Henry III, with the French Gothic nave being finished in 1388, Henry VII’s chapel in 1519, and between 1734-45 the twin towers on the west front were completed. I suspect it is impossible to overstate the symbolic importance of this building to England’s history. This magnificent structure saw its first coronation in 1066 (William the Conqueror) and nearly every sovereign since has been crowned here. It holds the tombs of 29 monarchs and the remains of 2,971 others with memorials to soldiers, WWII Royal Air Force pilots, politicians and poets. And we almost didn’t get inside.
It was after 4:45 when we arrived there and met guards at the outside gate. “Can’t we enter?” I inquired. “No admittance an hour before closing at 3:45,” a stern guard said to me. Then I asked, “What about Evensong at 5 p.m.?” “Well now, that’s not what you asked about, is it?” he replied. “No, it isn’t,” I acknowledged “but we’d hoped to visit the abbey and then stay for Evensong.” He stepped aside and said, “Go ahead in then.” And so we did.
The enormity of the abbey is quite overpowering and very humbling. “How did mere mortals create a structure of this size and beauty some 900 years ago?” I wondered, as we stepped inside and proceeded forward to find seating. Before I started reading my guidebooks about London, I didn’t know about evensong, but I learned that it is an evening worship service that is sung rather than said (though some parts are still spoken). We were so very fortunate to land there on the single 5 p.m. service that week where the choristers (boys’ choir), rather than the regular choir were singing. And those little guys marched right past our seats to take their places further inside the abbey. Filing in, they looked angelic in their white choir robes, and their voices were so sweet and pure, kind of a cross between the cooing of a dove and a nightingale, I thought. The service lasted 45 minutes, and when the choristers were walking out, they looked like little boys, instead of angels. I saw smirks, held-back giggles, well, you know—little boys whose faces looked like they were about to play a prank.
We were so fortunate to have experienced Westminster the way we did. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was here (1953), Princess Diana’s funeral (1997), and Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (2011). And just as Kate, on her wedding day, had to step around the flower-lined (poppies of Flanders Field) tomb of the Unknown Warrior (one ordinary WWI soldier buried in soil from France with lettering made from melted-down weapons from that war), so did we. To “feel” England’s history, I think a visit here is a must.
Outside, we quickly found a Tube station and traveled back to our neighborhood station. We dined that night at a modest, and very tasty Italian restaurant, Carluccio’s.
By jove, our first full day in London was very British, and we loved it. As I fell asleep that night, I wondered what the weather would bring the next day, as some sight-seeing needs a dry day in which to do it, and there was a light rain as we walked back to our hotel that night.