England, Part III: London and Come from Away

The final three days of our trip to England were spent in London. We’d visited London for a week back in 1995 and had seen most of the major attractions then—the British Museum, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London, Hampstead Heath, and so on. So we decided to focus our three days on some sites we had not seen in 1995.

We stayed at the St Ermin’s Marriott hotel in the Westminster section of London. It is a gracious old hotel built in 1899 that Marriott took over and renovated. It was originally built as residential apartments and later used during World War II as a base for British espionage and intelligence operations. Churchill is said to have frequented its bar when meeting with officials there.

You enter the hotel after passing through a beautiful passageway lined with flowers, and the lobby is also quite magnificent with a white double staircase and reliefs on the ceilings and walls. We took a tiny, narrow elevator to our sixth floor room. The room itself was very small. The bed was perhaps eight inches from the outer wall, and there were no dressers for our clothes or space to tuck away our suitcases. But the room was clean and the bed comfortable, and the staff at the hotel was very friendly and helpful.

We spent our first day mostly strolling through the neighborhood near the hotel. We stopped at Westminster Cathedral and then passed Buckingham Palace where the queen was apparently hosting a garden party and there was a line of people dressed to the nines waiting to enter the palace grounds. The men were in morning coats and the women in bright dresses with elaborate hats. I wanted to take a picture, but it seemed a bit tacky, so I resisted.

Westminster Cathedral

Buckingham Palace

We weren’t sure this guard was real until we saw him move.

The Mall, the street that runs from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square

We admired the monument dedicated to Queen Victoria that stands right in front of the palace. I kept hearing the theme song from Victoria as we studied the monument from all angles and read about the significance of the various sculptural features.

From there we took a lovely walk through St. James Park. The gardens and the birds and ducks and geese and pelicans make it a true oasis in the middle of a city where there are far too many cars, taxis, tourist buses, and people.

We then walked over towards Westminster Abbey and Big Ben (which is currently being renovated and is wrapped in scaffolding as is much of the Parliament building) and noticed that the Supreme Court was having an educational open house for the public that day. So we spent some time there, looking at the court rooms. No court sessions were being held, so we did not get to see any judges in wigs and robs.

St Margaret’s at Westminster Abbey

The London Eye (and no, we did not ride it)

Harvey at Westminster Bridge with Parliament behind him

Poor Big Ben

Supreme Court library

We also passed the Royal Horse Guards and avoided being kicked or bitten by the horses as we made our way to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, where we spent an hour or so enjoying the galleries devoted to 19th and 20th century paintings.

By then it was time to head back to the hotel because we had theater tickets that night in the West End. After a short rest, we walked from the hotel to Sartori, a very good Italian restaurant in the West End just a block or so from the theater.

And then we saw what I believe is the best theater I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen Come From Away yet, you are missing a true masterpiece. The music, the staging, the acting are all excellent, and the writing and the story are so moving and effective. I rarely cry at live theater (though often at movies and television) because I am usually too aware that what I am watching is “just” theater and thus I am somewhat emotionally removed from it. But this play grabbed me from the beginning and kept me emotionally engaged throughout. I cried, I laughed, I was there with them all in Gander, Newfoundland. Will the play stand the test of time when those who lived through 9/11 are no longer in the audience? I would think that its universal themes of human decency, kindness, and the need for hope and love will sustain it.

Our second day in London started with a walk from the hotel to Covent Garden, a neighborhood of lots of upscale shops and restaurants and a big market that resembles Fanueil Hall Market in Boston—aisles and aisles of food and stores and restaurants and street performers. And St Paul’s Church (not to be confused with St Paul’s Cathedral discussed below).

St Paul’s Church

Street performers in front of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Our walk continued along the Strand and Fleet Street where the Royal Courts of Justice are located as well as many law firms and publishing companies. The streets were crowded with young men in suits and women dressed in business clothing—presumably many of them lawyers or business people. We went into the court building, but it was lunch hour so no courts were in session. We did pass a number of lawyers sitting with clients, so there were likely hearings scheduled for the afternoon.

Somerset House

Royal Courts of Justice

After a quick lunch, we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Christopher Wren landmark that is still one of the tallest buildings in London.  You can see its dome from many vantage points in the city. When we saw what they were charging to enter the cathedral (twenty pounds each or about $26 each), we opted not to go inside.

St Paul’s in the distance on Fleet Street

Facade of St Paul’s Cathedral

The Dome of St Paul’s

Temple Bar, also designed by Christopher Wren

Here’s a map showing all the places we saw on the first day and a half in London. Our hotel is the circle at the lower left on Caxton Street and St Paul’s is at the upper right.

We decided to take “the Tube” or the Underground the rest of the way to Whitechapel, where we had arranged for a guided walking tour of London’s Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods, the neighborhood where my Cohen ancestors lived between about 1800 and 1851 before immigrating to the US. More on that in my next post.

The Oyster Card—London’s public transport pass