UK: “That… chair… is the seat on which every king and queen has…” “It’s held in place by a large rock. I don’t care about how many royal arseholes have sat in this chair.”

Friday, May 25, 2012
Having showered the previous night, Friday morning went much smoother for me. Despite the lack of sleep, I was up and ready to go in record time. Katia was coming with me to London today, though she would be spending the day working at the British Library while I was having my adventures. We planned to meet up for dinner before our theatre plans.

We caught the 0839 bus to the train station in plenty of time. Here I have to stop to remark about the marvelous bus drivers in Cambridge (and also London). The city buses are all double-decker buses and they maneuver through medieval streets with the greatest of ease! When possible, I would sit in the front row of the upper deck and I was always amazed at the way the bus driver would take some of the tight turns and narrow streets. I wish those drivers would give all of our Muni drivers a lesson or two! (Especially when I see a Muni bus taking up two lanes just to drive down the street!) The drivers are patient in waiting for all to board and make their various payments (perhaps a function of the drivers dispensing passes as well as regular fares) and the ride is quite smooth. In addition, at least in Cambridge, the bike lanes are frequently the same as the bus lanes and given the propensity for biking in Cambridge, I was impressed by the care given to bicycles (and given by the cyclists as well!) when these large vehicles inevitably bear down upon them on narrow streets. I very much enjoyed taking the bus anywhere we had to go!

St. James’s Park Lake

We made it to Cambridge station in plenty of time for the 0920 train to Kings Cross, giving us a chance to pick our seat with ease. I spent much of the train ride writing postcards in the hopes of getting them in the mail before I returned home. We pulled into Kings Cross right on time and I bid Katia farewell as I raced to the Underground for my trip to Green Park. I had about thirty minutes to get to fountain to meet my group, which should have been plenty of time, but after the previous day’s Tube mishaps, I was a bit anxious. It only took 20 minutes to arrive at Green Park and the fountain was just outside the Underground entrance. There was more than one tour group meeting at that location, but I found my group with little trouble.

Brian, Tour Guide Extraordinaire!

Katia had recommended London Walks when I first showed her my proposed itinerary and I promptly fell in love with the company. One day, I’d love to do nothing but spend a week on their walking tours because the two I took this time were absolutely divine. Funny, knowledgeable, intelligent guides who can keep a group together and make wonderful sites even more lovely! Instead of attempting it on my own, I joined up for the Royal London and Westminster Abbey walking tour (which also included discounted entrance fees to the Abbey!). My tour guide, Brian, was SUPERB and I was particularly impressed with his ability to adapt the tour when things didn’t go as planned. I’d been to Westminster Abbey in 1995, but Brian made the experience exceptional!

We started at Green Park fountain and proceeded past Spencer House and other stately homes, with Brian giving us a bit of history about each home. We had to move quite quickly down the lane to the Mall for the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This was the other main reason why I had chosen to join up with this tour. When I came to London in 1995, I briefly saw the Changing of the Guard as we crossed the street in front of the gate and I took a blurry photo (since I wasn’t allowed to stop in the street). I’d been dying to see the Changing of the Guard properly ever since. I was also hoping for a proper photo of Buckingham Palace, but alas, as would be a recurring theme of my trip, preparations for the Diamond Jubilee concert prevented me from doing so.

But we crossed the street and got into place for our view of the Guards coming down the street. Brian had told us that we’d need to move quickly behind him to walk down a path and around to catch the second half of the ceremony. However, due to the Diamond Jubilee work, the path he wanted to take us down to get there was blocked off. Thinking on his feet, we walked down the street the other way a bit and he vamped about the Royal Family for a bit until the Changing of the Horse Guard. I was disappointed not to get my view of the proper Change, but at the same time, I was delighted to see the Horse Guard. Plus, Brian’s infinite gossip about the various past and present Royals was music to my ears!

Sting’s house!

We walked through St. James’s Park and Brian told us about Prince Charles’s interest in the various plant and grasses in the park (which is one of the only time I’ve found Charles interesting) before walking us to Queen Anne’s Gate. This street is a historic preservation street and everything is almost exactly as it was in the 1870s/1880s. Despite the restrictions placed by the historic preservation, it is quite posh and expensive to live there. One of the newest residents? Sting! Brian pointed out his home and almost as he did so, someone opened the door to shake out a rug! It was not Sting or his wife (which I remember from that terrible episode of Friends), but still – Sting’s house!

We made our way from Queen Anne’s Gate to Westminister Abbey, with Brian entertaining us with history and English slang lessons along the way. We met up with two more guides just outside the Abbey as our group was far too large for Brian to take alone through the Abbey. I managed to stay with Brian’s group as we entered the Abbey. I’m sure the other tour guides were just as lovely, but I’d become attached to Brian’s storytelling and manner, so I was happy for the consistency once we got into the Abbey proper.

There were no photographs allowed inside the Abbey (assuring that I would buy a set of postcards from the gift shop upon exiting), but for the most part, I was too enraptured to think about taking any photographs anyway. Our first stop upon entering the Abbey was the Coronation Chair. Unlike Mr. Logue (in the title quote, from The King’s Speech), I was overwhelmed at the history and significance of this chair while I viewed it. Brian gave its history and named a few of the monarchs who have sat there. Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Victoria. HENRY VIII. Anne Boleyn. Just thinking about sitting in the same place as those great (and not so great) Kings and Queens of England was surreal to me.

Brian gave us a thorough and exhilarating tour through the Abbey for about 90 minutes, giving us the inside scoop on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. Though I’d been there before, it was awesome to be standing in the aisle where Catherine had walked to marry Prince William. I also had my lone British “celebrity” sighting while at Westminster Abbey. While we waited for a crowd to move on from a location Brian wanted to show us, he pointed out that the priest who did a cartwheel down the aisle after William and Catherine’s wedding. We didn’t get a chance to speak with him, but it was great fun to see him there, especially given the theme of our tour of the Abbey.

Following the tour, I made my customary stop at the gift shop (schooling a few tourists on the fact that there WAS a queue to the till and I was IN IT!) before heading to the next stop. This was the first day I’d worn my “day heels,” which I wear to work quite often and traipsing around town at home without incident. However, I’d fail to properly understand how much I would be on my feet during a walking tour. I’d been standing almost constantly for over four hours, mostly on stone, and my feet were starting to hurt. I was looking forward to having a little lunch (I also hadn’t eaten since my breakfast bar on the train at 0930), but wanted to get to my next location first.

DLR entering the station

As I left the Abbey, the bells at St. Margaret’s Westminster were pealing in a most remarkable way. I’m not sure if they were practicing for the Diamond Jubilee or what, as there did not seem to be any other reason for it (it was half past two, not a particularly bell-ringing time!). Whatever the reason, it gave me an extra spring in my step as I proceeded away from Westminster Abbey. I took the Underground from Westminster station to Bank and transferred to the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) which brought me to Greenwich. Though I adore the Underground, the DLR was delightful to ride as well! The bit through Canary Wharf as it wraps around the tall buildings was especially fun to go through.

Greenwich Self-Portrait

Once in Greenwich, I popped into Marks & Spencer grocery just outside the Cutty Sark station to pick up some lunch and walked up to Greenwich park for a nice spot to eat. I sat at the base of the King William IV statue to eat my sandwich and Cadbury bar, watching some ill-behaved children run up and down the fountain it says specifically not to play in. Fortified by M&S, I followed Katia’s advice and climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory. I was not planning to spend the money to go inside, but one can take a photo of the Prime Meridian through the fence for free! More importantly, there are AMAZING views of London from Greenwich from the top of the hill. It was well-worth the climb, even in my heeled sandals.

Greenwich Park is home to the equestrian events in the Olympics, and construction was going full-force on the day of my visit to complete the facilities. It seemed that some of the horses may already be there because the stench on that hot spring day was magnificent. The construction also impeded some of my exploration, but it was nice to visit site of the London Olympics that wouldn’t be part of my tour the next day.

Going down the hill was more difficult than going up, but I managed to get down without falling or collecting too much dirt/rocks as I went. My next stop was to find the line I’d read about on the Lonely Planet blog to photograph me standing in two hemispheres for free. Despite the construction equipment, it was easy to find (thanks to my pre-trip sleuthing on Google Maps StreetView) the little raised dots denoting the Prime Meridian. The difficult part was trying to get a photo of my feet without my shadow or my skirt getting in the way – ah the joys of solo travel! After about 15 minutes, I managed to get two photos and didn’t get hit by a car, so success on all fronts!

I went back into the Park to visit the Queen’s House and see the amazing Tulip Stairs. During my Prime Meridian sojourn, a bridal party had arrived and were gathered on the lawn behind the house. Naively thinking that perhaps they had reserved only the garden, I proceeded around the house to the front, only to find a sign that the whole house was closed (something which I think should have been noted at various locations). Frustrated with tired feet, I found a lovely warm bench in front of the National Maritime Museum to write up on my day so far. Kicking off my shoes and stretching out on the bench, I got a bit of a tan on my terribly pale legs, while watching the people go by.

After a quick stop in Boots to buy a tiny hairbrush for £4 (they really know they have you!) to tame my hair before dinner, I headed back to London on the DLR about 1645. At Canary Wharf, I nabbed the Jubilee line to Waterloo, transferring to the Bakerloo line (my favorite line to say out loud!) to Embankment. In two days, I’d managed to ride SEVEN Underground lines! The walk from Embankment to the restaurant in Covent Garden was divine! I felt very much like a proper Londoner, meeting her friends for dinner on a Friday night. Katia, her friend Molly and I ate at Cafe Rouge, a UK French restaurant chain. The food was quite good, as was the wine and conversation.

Following dinner, Katia and I parted ways with Molly and headed to the Novello Theatre. Katia had found some inexpensive tickets for “Noises Off” and we had impulsively decided to have a second theatre night (the first tickets we bought were for Monday night – stay tuned!). Upon entering the theatre, we found that our tickets were upgraded, which was a delight! The play itself is sublime and I would recommend everyone go see it if it weren’t closing on Saturday (though, if you are in London, go!). It’s a fantastic farce and I was laughing until I was crying for both acts. Aisling Loftus is especially superb as Brooke, the actress who will not/cannot improv, no matter what’s happening on stage. Also, given that she has to spend most of the play in her underwear, I give her special props!

After the play, Katia walked me back through Covent Garden, which was all decorated for the Diamond Jubilee. I got to see the porch outside the Opera House that Miss Eliza Doolittle sells her flowers before she’s smartened up, which was awesome! A quick trip on the Underground back to Kings Cross and we were on the 2256 back to Cambridge. Unfortunately, this train calls at all the stops between Kings Cross and Cambridge (or so it felt), so it was over an hour before we got home. My feet hurt, but I was full of royal gossip, views of London, French food and British farce, so there was not much about which to complain!