Sunday, April 20, 2014

London Calling

Okay, fair warning, this post is going to be a long one. It's an entire week of London, so it's quite busy.

I met my family (my dad, stepmom, older brother Michael, and younger stepsister Abby) in Exeter on April 12th and after a short tour of Exeter (the cathedral, the Printworks, the university), we headed to London.
Sunday morning we headed out to the Spitalsfield market where we saw lots of cool things: cute dresses, pocket watches, Lego cuff links, and posters with entire books on one page. I bought myself a fascinator, which I shall have to find some occasion to wear.

Afterwards we headed to Westminster, and past the Houses of Parliament, and walked across the bridge to the London Eye. The view afforded to us was wonderful, including: St. Paul's Cathedral, the Shard, the Houses of Parliament, and the many bridges across the Thames.

We crossed to Jubilee Bridge and walked to Trafalgar Square where we took the obligatory tourist photos with the Lion statues there.

Then we took the double decker red bus around the city (on the way we saw St James Palace and Clarence House, two of the Royal residences in London), before getting off at Hyde Park and walking to Speakers Corner. It was basically a bunch of people yelling at each other, but the concept is a great example of democracy and free speech, and I imagine it can be amazing (depending upon who is speaking of course).

The next morning we took the tube to Leicester Square to get theatre tickets; while the "adults" waited in line, Abby, Michael and I watched the water show at the Shakespeare Fountain and took advantage of the wifi at the nearby Odeon (the cinema at which UK film premieres occur).

We then did a walking tour alone the Strand and the Thames, seeing sights such as: St Clement Danes (one of the many London churches by Sir Christopher Wren of Wren Building Fame back at William & Mary),  Somerset House, Banqueting House (the only remaining part of Whitehall Palace), the Royal Courts of Justice, the Twinning's Tea Shop, the Temple Church commemorating the Templar knights, St Dustan the West (marking the end of the Great Fire), a statue of Elizabeth I, and St Brides (another Wren church).

We finally made it to St. Paul's which was spectacular. We climbed up to the Whispering Gallery (the acoustics of which allow you to whisper at one end and be heard at the other), the Stone Gallery (the bottom outer rim of the outside dome), and the Golden Gallery (at the top of the outer dome). The view was definitely worth the number of steps we climbed to reach it.

That evening we attended Stomp at the Ambassadors Theatre. I had already heard the concept of the show, percussion with found objects, but I never expected it to be as funny as it was. The actors made faces at each other and at the audience, creating a story without ever saying a word.

The next morning we headed to the Tower of London, thankfully as guests not as prisoners (the latter of which hardly ever seem to come out again, with their heads attached at least). The Crown Jewels were amazing. My favorite was Queen Victoria's smaller crown created to go with her widow's mourning veil, it seemed much more tasteful than the other "everyday" crowns.

The Beefeater tour was also cool, our guide was funny if a bit sexist, and we learned interesting facts about the Yeomen Warders (such as the fact that they, and their families are locked into the Tower grounds each night at ten).

We also saw one of the Queen's Guard, he must have been fairly new because his blank face broke a little bit and he cracked a slight smile when a woman in the crowd shouted that she loved him.

After we exited the Tower, we headed to Tower Bridge (which many mistake for London Bridge), where we got some more amazing views of the city (along with pictures of the bridge's construction, other ideas that were considered, and other amazing bridges worldwide).

We took the tube to Kings Cross, where we got our dorky Platform 9 3/4 photos and pretended to be wizards, or witches to be more precise (totally never done that before right?)

On Wednesday we had a package tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath. On the way out of the city our tour guide told us interesting facts about the areas through which we were driving (like the window tax during the War of Independence which led to many people bricking up their windows to avoid paying it).

Windsor Castle was beautiful, particularly the State Apartments. My favorite rooms were the Garter Throne Room (home to the current Queen's coronation portrait) and the Queen's Drawing Room. I was also excited to see the famous portrait of Elizabeth I as a princess. St. George's Chapel was also cool, with its Gothic vaulted archways and stained glass windows.

Unsurprisingly Stonehenge was also beautiful, as was the surrounding land (all of which is owned by the Ministry of Defense leading to some interesting signage about tank crossings, which of course always get the right of way). We also walked over to one of the nearby Barrows, or burial mounds, which apparently would have originally gleamed white with a layer of chalk.

Bath is well known for its beauty and the reputation is well deserved; I was admittedly excited in part because it is the city in which Jane Austen lived when she wrote Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park. The Roman Baths were an interesting glimpse into history, but I preferred the Bath Abbey, which was apparently inspired by a weird dream.

On the way back into London we drove through the Cotswolds, which is an area known for its natural beauty, and Pennsylvania, England (the only city in the UK named after a city in the US rather than vice versa).

The next morning we arrived two hours early for the Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard, so we got a good spot near the gates. It was especially interesting once the band arrived, but I can't believe that they actually go through with this ceremony every day.

Then we headed to Westminster Abbey, where we saw Poets Corner (which is home mainly to memorials rather than actual burial sites) and the tomb of Elizabeth I.

Then we walked to the Churchill War rooms. The underground bunker was pretty cool, although I have minimal interest in military history I definitely have an interest in him as a politician.

On our way to the underground station we walked through the Horse Guards building, where we saw one of the Queen's Life Guards (the cavalry version of the Queen's Guard).

Then we took the tube to Harrods, which is super intense and a bit labyrinthine (I certainly kept getting turned around). We saw a toddler's dress which cost £3500 and a working child's car which cost as much as a real one. My favorites were the Folio Society copies of classic books and the Alexander McQueen dresses.

On Friday we spent another morning in Leicester Square, getting so for a show that night as well as a single ticket for a show in Saturday night.

Then we headed to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a 1997 recreation. The tour if the building was silent, but for good reason, we saw some of the rehearsal for their performance of Titus Andronicus.

After lunch we headed into the Globe's exhibition where my favorites were the costumes (including an Elizabeth I costume made for their grand opening) and the recordings of famous renditions of Shakespeare speeches (Kenneth Brannagh in Hamlet, Judi Dench in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Peter O'Toole, Laurence Olivier).

We walked along the water to see the HMS Belfast which Michael was pretty excited about. I was less interested, as I said before I'm not much for military history, and one military ship seems much like any other to me.

Later in the evening we saw Relative Values at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The play involved an English aristocrat (Nigel) whose mother (Felicity) and domestic staff (Crestwell and Moxie) disapprove of his engagement to English-born Hollywood actress (Miranda), for both social (such as class distinctions) and personal reasons. The play was hilarious, as well as discussing the tension caused by the drive towards social equality.

Miranda's "American" accent is particularly funny, primarily because it is so bad. It certainly adds to her character as an insincere and unconvincing actress, whether it was intentional or not. I also enjoyed Crestwell, the butler, and his full-of-himself sarcasm.

Saturday morning was my family's last in London, so we headed out to Covent Garden (a market, not actual gardens) and then to Trafalgar Square for a second time, before heading back to the hotel and saying our goodbyes. 

After that I headed over to my new hotel and, after checking in, went out to the National Portrait Gallery. I spent almost two hours there, and could certainly have spent longer. Seeing such sights as: the coronation portrait of Elizabeth I, a bust of Queen Victoria, a political cartoon of Lord Chamberlain, the iconic miniature of Jane Austen painted by her sister, and a portrait of Princess Diana.

Then I headed around the corner to the National Gallery, where my favorites were: the Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato, Venice the Grand Canal by Canaletto, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus by Joseph Mallord William Turner, and of course the Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet.

Then I had my last show in the West End, Jeeves and Wooster in  Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York's Theatre. It was a play within a play put on by Wooster (a silly, shallow, not too bright aristocrat) with the not inconsiderable help of his unflappable butler Jeeves and his Aunt's elderly butler Seppings. Jeeves and Seppings play all of the other roles as well and run into entertaining difficulties when there are more than three characters in a scene. Wooster is frequently sidetracked by the steadily improving scenery and comments on the set pieces or begins some unrelated story, by the end he comments on his success and how easy it all was, despite doing very little of the actual work.

Easter morning was my first actual rainy/foggy day in London, so I guess that means I got e full experience. I headed out about 8:00 and waited in line outside Westminster Abbey until 9:45 to attend the Easter Sung Eucharist. The wait was worth it, I was seated only a few feet from the alter and I could see and hear everything. The Abbey was even more beautiful when it was filled with music, and the choir sounded practically angelic.

The service ended around noon so I headed out to Waterloo Station to bug a train ticket back to Exeter after my tour ends next Sunday and the  took the tube to Trafalgar Square where I visited the National Gallery for a second time.

I spent about a half an hour waiting in line to go see Van Gogh's Sunflowers, which are only on display through April 27th so it was now or never. They had both the Amsterdam and London versions on display, and eh were certainly beautiful. It is by far my favorite Van Gogh (even above Starry Night), but Monet is still my very favorite. So I went back into the main gallery after leaving the Sunflowers room and spent a little while sitting in front of the Water Lily Pond.

Then it was time for the Evensong service at St. Paul's, I wanted to make sure that I experienced a bit of both of the great churches in London. It was basically the same as the full service I attended in the morning, just without communion. The choir was spectacular. I would argue at they were superior to that of Westminster, but they were assisted I think by the superior acoustics of their environment. The entire cathedral was filled with sound because of the high roofs and the vast amount of available space. The sermon was also superior. The deacon was pretty funny as he discussed the importance of gratitude and joy in God rather than fear of God.

Overall it was an enjoyable Easter Day, and definitely an enjoyable week in London. I can't wait to come back!

But, I also look forward to my next week traveling around Europe. Next up: Amsterdam!

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