London, Part II: Tea, corgis, and art.

At long last, the wrap-up to our circumnavacation! I am finally getting down to the business of transcribing the record of our last day in London. Steve and I were feeling overwhelmed by all the traveling we had to do, but we had it in us to do one last day of sprint-sightseeing! We caught another quick breakfast with our Airbnb host, and took a combination of bus and Tube into town.

First on our list was Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. It was certainly a grand and impressive plaza, but very little to actually do. We noticed some cleaning personnel pushing long-handled brooms around the bottoms of the large fountains in Trafalgar Square, clearing it of green mold, which certainly brings these historical monuments back to mundane reality. Our next two stops were Horse Guards’ Parade (where, predictably enough, there are guards on horseback standing at attention) and further down the same street, 10 Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister (currently David Cameron) typically lives. Eventually, we made it to Big Ben just as it struck noon, and Steve and I hung about Big Ben (which is attached to the Houses of Parliament) for a while, taking in the sights. Just across the street from that is Westminster Abbey, looking very grey, august, and full of gorgeous stained-glass windows. We ended up having lunch in the grass outside, enjoying the scenery, and after a lengthy debate, decided to pay the ridiculous fee of eighteen pounds per person (about $70 USD altogether!). Then we got up and started walking down the line outside Westminster Abbey, and my heart just slowly sank as we figured out the line was well over an hour long. After looking at each other, we nearly wordlessly agreed that while it was definitely worth seeing, it wasn’t worth sacrificing half of what we had planned for the rest of the day. We thus walked a little bit more around the Houses of Parliament, then moved on.

While London is most definitely not a walking city, we were making a circuit of the most important government and monarchy buildings, which is best done on foot. We walked through St. James’ Park where many Londoners were having their noontime lunches, and emerged at the other end at Buckingham Palace. We joined the many tourists who had their faces in between the faces, and gazed at the curtained windows beyond. Buckingham Palace is nothing architecturally amazing, as just a very dignified building with a high fence around it, but I remembered the balcony from the television broadcasts of William + Kate’s wedding, and spent more time gazing at the building than I expected. From time to time, cars came in, and people walked in and out of the palace. I found myself wishing we could actually get a glimpse of royalty! It’s a funny thing — many Americans are preoccupied by this royalty thing, which is something we definitively don’t have (and rejected almost three hundred years ago). But they are, after all, very much like celebrities, which Americans do love. When I mentioned this to Steve, he solemnly reminded me that behind these windows was something far more important than royalty: the Queen’s corgis!

After Buckingham Palace, we walked on toward Leicester Square. Midway there, we were waylaid when I found Fortnum & Mason. Again, this is something I’ve learned about through books and novels, but Fortnum’s is a fancy high-end grocer specializing in picnic baskets, catering, tea, and other iconic British goods. I promised Steve we’d only go take a peek, and within minutes, we were lost in aisles of tea and biscuits. There were so many delicious looking things around, like chocolate-covered orange and earl grey flavored tea biscuits in elaborate magenta and emerald-green tins. They also seemed to cost an arm and a leg too. I saw a woman sampling loose-leaf tea from large jars behind the counter, one of which cost over a hundred pounds per ounce. We ended up getting two tins of looseleaf tea for ourselves that had very decorative exteriors. Steve’s has horse-mounted guards on it, and mine has a red streetcar going past Piccadilly Circus. We also bought some gifts for friends and family, before walking past Piccadilly Circus itself (really just a large and pretty traffic circle/ rotary) and close to Leicester Square. We also made a purchase when we walked into M&M World, which is just what it sounds like. If anyone has ever been to the Toys’R’Us store in Times Square, it’s very similar: four brightly decorated floors of goodies and shiny treats; M&M’s every color of the rainbow and then some, and stuffed animals, shirts, watches, and anything you can buy. We bought some intriguing dark chocolate peanut M&Ms, and settled outside in Leicester Square to enjoy a few of them. Leicester Square itself is a lovely green square with a fountain in its center, topped by a statue of Shakespeare. All around are rather touristy stores and a movie theatre, but it was in general rather pretty.

Finally, we found ourselves almost back at Trafalgar Square, and one of the last stops on our trip. Freda, one of Steve’s relatives in Stoke-On-Trent, had referred us to see her daughter Elizabeth while we were in London. Elizabeth worked at the National Portrait Gallery, which is right next to Trafalgar Square. We looked a bit silly presenting ourselves to the ticket office and asking for Elizabeth by name, but soon, a British woman who looked politely puzzled emerged from an upstairs office. And Steve, with a sheepish grin, introduced himself, and added, “I think we’re related!” Light soon dawned, and it turns out Elizabeth is also a blog reader! We had a really good time talking about her visit to the US when she was young, as well as our own travels, and of course, we took a picture to prove that we had all met. She told us to look her up again the next time we came to London, and also persuaded us to take a turn around the National Portrait Gallery itself before it closed. That ended up being a great last stop for us.

Most art museums are devoted to well-known or rare and beautiful pieces of art, or at least renowned and talented artists and collections of their masterpieces. The National Portrait Gallery really turns that idea on its head, because many of the paintings in their collection are not extremely masterful pieces of art, and so many of them have also been done by anonymous or unknown artists. It is their subjects who are the important ones; the top floor is among the oldest, and contains portraits of the royal families of Tudor and Stuart that most of us have only seen in textbooks. Here was the famous portrait of Anne Boleyn with a gold B necklace strung in pearls, the portrait of Elizabeth the First in her voluminous white collars. We wandered around for a while, learning obscure points of British history, before going downstairs and noting the more modern ones (Dame Judy Dench, Pete Postlethwaite). It was free, like many London museums, and a very interesting addition to our tour.

We dragged our tired selves back on the Tube and made our way back to the area we were staying. We also did some preliminary homework on how and where we could catch a train the next day to London’s Gatwick Airport, which involved talking to three Tube and First Cap Connect employees, all  of whom told a different story about where and when we should catch these trains and if our Oyster cards would work on them. Oh, well! We ended up buying them from a machine, and then had a final dinner at a restaurant (ironically, Texas BBQ) two blocks from our apartment. We called it a somewhat early night, and woke up at 4 am to leave London.

Out last glimpse of the city was on the commuter train from Kentish Town West all the way south to London Gatwick. I remember crossing the Thames River and seeing the flashes of the morning sun on glass buildings. Twenty four hours later, we were arriving back in Greenville at Steve’s parents’ home. And you know the rest of the story. More very soon about our further travels in the United States, and adventures to come!!


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