Sunday, August 25, 2013

Britain Revisited (Day 2)


When we awoke on day 2 in London, we were starving and very excited to have our complimentary continental breakfast in the downstairs of the hotel. I was looking forward to toast with jam, yogurt, oatmeal, and maybe lovely fruit of some sort. To my great disappointment, the continental breakfast was a choice of white or wheat roll or a croissant. Faced with choiceless choices, I chose a croissant and some watery coffee with watery milk. The croissant turned out to be very tasty, actually, but coffee in the UK has always left me cold.

Afterwards we took the tube to Westminster, relieved to not be faced with hordes of people so early in the day. As part of our Original London Sightseeing Tour, we received a free River Thames cruise. We could have taken it all the way to Greenwich, but we chose to go only to the first stop—the Tower of London. This was a really nice cruise on the Thames led by a knowledgeable seaman who pointed out the sights as we passed them.

When I lived in London, The London Eye had not yet been built, nor had The Shard, and to be truthful, I’m just not sure about either of them. They are interesting formations, to be sure, but somehow I don’t feel either of them belong in London. The Eye is a gigantic Ferris wheel (443 feet tall) built in 1999. Each “cart” (or pods as they are called) are completely glassed in, affording a view of the city. It takes roughly thirty-five minutes to go all the way around. We chose not to do this in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost: 19 pounds or around $30). The Shard is another potential observation point. It is called “The Shard” because it was built to look like a shard of broken glass (hmmmm….). It just opened to the public this year, and at 87 stories, it isn’t even completely finished, but no time has been wasted in charging people admission to see what they can from the finished portion. The view is from floors 67, 68, and 69, and it affords a 360 degree view of London.  I have to admit that The Shard’s appearance is fascinating, but I prefer the older, aged buildings that London has to offer. Anyway, we chose not to do The Shard in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost to enter: 25 pounds or around $38).

At any rate, we decided to press on toward the Tower of London, a fortress with tales to tell about horrendous and brutal torture, tons of beheadings, and imprisonment of many a noble man or woman (and even a few queens). Once there, we joined the very long queue, happy that we had already purchased our ticket with the sightseeing tour. Everyone in the line was miffed as an odd-looking couple holding hands cut through the line, pushing their way up to the front. But in proper English decorum, no one said a thing to them—they only muttered under their breaths, “What are they doing? Can you believe it?” It took some time to get to the front of the line, but once we did, we were told by the ticket taker that our tickets from the bus company were not entrance to the Tower. Shocked, we exited the line, cursing the name of the tour company, sure that they had stiffed us. “Crooks!” my husband announced. “They completely jipped us! They charged us for the tickets and then did not give them to us.”

Feeling sure that we were going to have to buy new tickets for entrance, we went over to join that line.  “Let’s look at the receipt,” I said. “Maybe we could take the receipt back to the sightseeing company and tell them they didn’t give us tickets.” Stephen began to shuffle through his wallet finally producing the receipt, and as he unfolded it, out fell the tickets. Smacking ourselves in the forehead and feeling very thankful that we didn’t pay twice for entrance, we rejoined the back of the line.

I have been to The Tower once before, but now that I had seen the entire season of The Tudors, it took on new meaning. (Isn’t it amazing how a veritable soap opera from HBO can produce such an appetite for historical knowledge?)

The Tower was built in 1080, and it has a long history with which I will not bore anyone. The main time period I find interesting (along with most people, I would think) is that of the 1500s when Henry VIII had dreams of making this a royal home for him and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Alas, Anne lost her head there and so did another one of his wives. Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and executed by a swordsman from Calais brought especially for this reason.  Our yeoman tour guide (also known as a “Beefeater”) was only too adept at telling the stories of the Tower executions. In fact, as he relayed the story of Anne’s beheading, he finished with the punch line: “So expertly and quickly was Anne’s head removed, that when they lifted her severed head to the crowd, her mouth was still chattering.” At this grisly detail, the little girl standing in front of us, threw her arms around her mother’s waist and buried her head. Nightmares for years to come. These guys are good! They earn their pay!

There is a chapel on the property that is still used for Sunday services today, and I was very impressed at their treatment of this site. The yeoman asked all who entered to show respect. Gentlemen were to remove their hats and everyone was asked to treat it as a place of worship. It is an absolutely beautiful little chapel with lovely stained glass windows and embroidered kneeling pads for prayer. There is an empty crypt in the center built especially for a couple who wanted to be buried there but never was. And apparently when renovations for the chapel began in the 1800s, Anne Boleyn’s remains were uncovered (as she had been buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, I’m not sure how they knew it was her, but I’ll go with it), and she was buried with a marble marker that now shows in the floor of the chapel.

The Crown Jewels are also to be found at The Tower, but the queue for that looked to be around 4,000 people long, so we imagined them in our mind and carried on. Actually, at this point, my feet were hurting so bad, and I was so regretting my purchase of these adorable shoes, that I actually had to sit down on a bench. Earlier I had purchased what the British call “plasters” (band aids) and literally plastered my feet in them, but now the ends of the shoes were attempting to push my toes towards my heels, so it seemed a hopeless case.

Limping along, I followed Stephen from The Tower, and we made our way outside where we were to meet my dear friend Rebecca for lunch. Back in 1995 when I first arrived in London, Rebecca took me in for several days while I looked for a job and a place to live. I had arrived in the city knowing no one and feeling terribly homesick. She helped me immeasurably, telling me good versus bad places to live, where to look for jobs, etc. Later, when I returned to live in London in 1997, we were flat mates, and I can’t count the number of nights she sat up with me when I cried my eyes out over a romance gone bad. It was wonderful to see her again, and I was eager to introduce her to Stephen. She looked the same and we picked up exactly where we left off, making our way into the East End of London for some fish and chips at a very nice pub called The Cheshire Cheese.

I must take a moment here to remark on how impressed I was with East London. When I lived there, it was an area of town to avoid. Run down and dirty, there was little cheer to be had in that part of town.  Now, it is refurbished, trendy, and a delight to patronize and walk.

And walk, we did. After leaving Rebecca’s good company, we made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Architect Sir Christopher Wren built this magnificent building, probably sometime in the late 1600s after the original burned in the Great Fire. It truly is beautiful, but as we entered the building, we found that the fee would be 16 pounds, so we chose not to enter in the interests of cost and time. Instead Stephen walked (and I hobbled) through the East End, all the way down Fleet Street into the Theatre District. Just as we approached Covent Garden, the wind began whipping around us, and all of the tourists who had been with us yesterday in Westminster were suddenly in Covent Garden. People began to speed walk and then run, packing into every available nook and covered cranny possible. The semi-covered market-place of Covent Garden, which I had so wanted to show Stephen, was now unbearable. We couldn’t move! Stephen just wanted to find a place to sit down and have a coffee someplace, but there was literally nowhere to stand, much less sit.

We decided that this was the perfect moment to purchase me a new pair of walking shoes, so we ducked into a Skechers store, where I got a nice pair of dark grey and hot pink trainers (as they call them over there—a British word for tennis shoes). These blessed, blessed shoes were worth every penny of the 51 pounds we paid. I wore them every day (and night if possible) after that. These little bits of rubber and fabric were quite literally a God-send! I never again donned my cute Dr. Scholl’s shoes while in the UK.

From Covent Garden we walked over to Leicester Square. When I was there in 1997 and worked for Soho Theatre, I used to have to hand out promotional flyers in the square—a painful and humiliating experience, I can assure you.  Leicester Square is always bustling with people no matter what time of day you visit. In the theatre district, it consists of the Hippodrome, several cinemas, and too many restaurants to count. We plopped down in a café just on the edge of the square to have a coffee and people watch. The best part of this experience was witnessing the people flooding into the square and walk straight into one of the four guard poles at the entrance. “Oompf!” “Oh!” “Throooonnnnnnnnggggg!” (the metal pole vibrating). “Where did that pole come from?” One man asked as he walked way holding his groin. Stephen and I haven’t had such a good laugh in ages!

Afterwards, we walked over to the National Gallery of Art where we wandered through room after room until we were bored and desperately trying to find the exit (which took us close to half an hour). The exit led us back to Trafalgar Square where the Scots were still climbing the statues, waving their arms, and brandishing their blue chicken in a proud challenge to the tyrannical English. I wondered—did they camp out here? How many days did their campaign last?

But there was one place in particular that I really wanted to go. You see, when I lived in London the first time and worked at St. Thomas Hospital, I had a very dear friend name Anne (with whom I have since lost touch). She took me to a wonderful little cellar wine bar called The Cork and Bottle. It was literally below street level, but so charming and quaint. Anne and I used to go there sometimes after work, and I attended her wedding reception there as well. At any rate, Stephen and I returned to Leicester Square to find this place, and when we did—unbeknownst to me—we entered from the back (not the front) door. The room we entered looked so unfamiliar and strange, that when the hostess approached and asked if we had booked, I was suddenly rendered mute. I was processing where in the world I was, but it came across as, “I…oh, I was wondering if…Oh, I don’t know…I …”

Mercifully, the poor woman tried to help my inarticulateness. “We’re totally booked up for tables just now. But if you would you like to book for say, six o’clock?”

“No,” I replied, feeling deflated. “No, no. We’ll just ….I ….think we’ll…oh, I….”

Stephen piped up then (Oh, thank you Stephen!). “We just want to have a glass of wine.”

She smiled and motioned us toward another door. “Oh, of course! Just pop over to the bar and they’ll serve you.”

And as we walked into the second room, it all came back to me. The little tables, the beautiful bar area, the friendly and intimate atmosphere—even the little brass plaque where I sat that marked a “reserved” spot for a deceased patron.

“What happened to you?” Stephen asked as we got seated. “I thought you’d lost it for a minute. I didn’t know what you were saying…she didn’t know what you were saying,” he laughed. “You didn’t make one lick of sense with what you were saying.”

Sudden aphasia aside, I had the best glass of wine in The Cork and Bottle that I had the whole time we were in the UK.

Afterwards, we made our way to a Thai Restaurant in Soho called Patara, very near where I used to work at the theatre. There, I tried duck for the first time and Stephen had outstanding beef. I highly recommend the place. The food was delicious, the atmosphere exotic, and the service irreproachable. When we emerged from the restaurant, the streets were teeming with late night revelries (when are they not in London?), and we made our way through the crowds to my old stomping ground at 21 Dean Street.

When I came to London to work as a literary assistant for this theatre in 1997, the building itself was an old synagogue that they were planning to renovate as a four-tiered theatre/writer’s center/educational venue/bar. I had seen the blueprints in 1997, but now I saw the site in its finished glory. And it was spectacular! I only wished we’d had time to see a performance there, but generally, I was overcome with nostalgia. Sniffing and holding back a few tears, I forged ahead, back to the future where we made our way to Tottenham Court Road, caught a smelly, squashy tube to Queensway, and collapsed on our beds at the hotel. Not quite ready to sleep, I turned on the "tele", only to find yet another episode of Big Brother! I watched in fascinated horror as twin brothers were ousted from the show on this night, and in unison they blew kisses to the camera.  

1 comment:

  1. All your talk about food made me hungry! Do you remember - when I visited you in London - it was during the mad cow hysteria. We were so thrilled whenever we found a place selling imported beef hamburgers! I remember the torture exhibit at the TOwer of London that we saw - I still have a book from it showing pictures of the execution implements we saw. So glad you got those shoes! :)

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