23 Feb – 8 March
It feels good revisiting London. Historic sights, museums, art galleries, and monuments are never tiresome. While much remains the same since I visited over 30 years ago, there are new things to learn and neighborhoods to discover. And one can’t get luckier than having a local show one around.
The biggest change is London’s skyline. The sky is studded by architecturally stunning glass and steel buildings like the Shard, Gherkin, BT Tower, the Cheesegrater, Boomerang, Strata, and Sky Garden known by Londoners as the Walkie-Talkie. Old standards like Big Ben, St. Paul’s and the Tower Bridge seem to tolerate these upstarts capturing far more photographs in the process.
And there is the London Eye which remains, to me, just a big ugly ferris wheel along the Thames. (A little history: the ferris wheel was America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower; Daniel Burhnam built the first one in 1890 for the Chicago’s Columbian Exposition.) While the Eiffel Tower succeeded in becoming an iconic symbol, I wonder what possessed Londoners to allow this monstrosity to be built.
Museums, Galleries and Churches
London has some of the greatest museums and galleries in the world and many of them are free. There never exists enough time to adequately tour them all or in enough depth.
The British Museum remains one of the best of its kind. The exhibits are vast and well arranged. Displays of Persian and Egyptian artifacts are extensive. The museum continues to display several mummified persons, recognizing these remains as people who once lived. Also displayed are the wonderful Elgin Marbles (they are now called the Parthenon Sculptures) which are unlikely ever to return to their home atop the Acropolis in Athens Greece. My cousin and I also sought all references to Ramses II who, according to our tested DNA, is an ancient ancestor of ours. We recognize this link is a thousand-of-years stretch but agree Ramses is from where our feistiness and stubbornness comes.
I enjoyed a morning exploring the Imperial War Museum located on Lambeth Road in South Bank, a modern and well-organized museum with excellent coverage of WWI and WW2 and a special Holocaust exhibit. Five branches of the museum exist in England, three of which are in London. The museum’s goal is “to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience.” With modern technology and extensive archives, the museum does an excellent job telling its story.
Westminster Abbey is a must visit. A fee is charged and advanced reservations seem to be encouraged; however, even with a timed reservation I still had to wait in line for others’ bag check, ticket purchases and entry. It hardly seemed worth leashing myself to a timed entry. Once there, however, I had an audio guide and could wander the abbey as long as I wanted. I paid the extra fee to tour the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery located in Poet’s Corner. The best part was the unbelievable views of the church. I want to occupy Viewing Bay 47 for the upcoming coronation. Downstairs the coronation chair of gold looks good in a photo but looks to be very uncomfortable and I suspect King Charles’ bum will need a golden pillow. The Abbey is spectacular and worth a leisurely stroll over the graves of poets, Charles Darwin, Steven Hawking, among Kings and notables.
Westminster Cathedral, in contrast, lies dark and unlit near Victoria Station. The Cathedral was constructed in 1903 and is the Mother Church of Catholics in England and Wales and the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster. The ceiling and mosaics are stunning but unilluminated when I visited.
The Tate Modern, located in the repurposed Bankside Power Station, displays the contemporary art of Andy Warhol, Picasso and Dali. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square houses earlier artists including the works of da Vinci, Vermeer, Bellini, Bosch, Constable, Turner, van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and more. And the Gallery itself is stunning.
If overwhelmed by art, then London offers some of the finest science museums on the continent. The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of its kind and is full of fascinating exhibits. I am an admirer of Rodin and here is one of the largest collections of Rodin’s work outside Paris. Museum collections range from ceramics and textiles to costumes, furniture and photographs. Exhibits include those highlighting the sculpture and art of the Italian Renaissance, China, Korea, Asia, and the Islamic world. One will never see it all. I regret not having time to visit the Science Museum across the street nor the Natural History Museum next door.
Horses and Parks
The Royal Mews requires a timed entry but once there I collected my audio guide to roam the Mews, meet the horses, and ogle the ornate coaches and livery of the Royals. The Coronation Coach is polished and ready for the 6th of May coronation of King Charles. So are a bunch of other specialty coaches, like the Diamond Jubilee Coach. The Mews is quite the transportation enterprise which includes both its working stable of horses and the Bentleys and Rolls-Royce Phantoms. I now know the difference between Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays.
But one cannot live by museums alone. I walk among the fountains, flowers, birds, statues, arches, ponds, memorials and along the quiet paths of numerous parks. Huge swaths of green include Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park, Battersea Park and Center, and the pedestrian paths along the Thames. These are briskly cold days, alternating clouds with sun. London pups frolic in the parks. The geese and swans are typically cranky. The pelicans live isolated because of the presence of Avian Flu. One afternoon we had a pleasant journey and walk around Nonsuch Park southwest of London where we strolled the woodland paths and toured the county house and café there.
I might add the Pelicans are protected but most of the people are not. Crowding does not seem to worry Londoners and visitors alike. Few masks are seen even on the crowded buses and elevators. Welp!
Views Not to Miss
Walk either side of the Thames for amazing views. There are well-developed paths and miles of them. I know because my feet walked them.
For views over the city, possibly the best experience is atop the Sky Garden. Tickets are free but limited and in high demand. Lots of security and a lone elevator crammed with people will take you to the top of the 38-storey building. From there the views are spectacular, especially at sunset. Below, the Tower of London looks tiny. There is also a wonderful garden, open terrace, music, an expensive restaurant but also a simple bar with pleasant seating where one can enjoy a drink or cup of coffee. As the sun sets and lights come on across the city, the 360º panorama is an historic mix of the very old and the sparkling new and all quite beautiful.
Theater or Theatre? Metro or Walk?
London will always be known as a city for live theatre. Given the opportunity, I would go daily. On my first visit in 1972, I managed three plays one Saturday. This trip, I managed two enjoyable productions. Allegiance opened at the Charing Cross and starred George Takei; it follows his family’s experience in the U.S. Japanese Interment camps during World War 2. Surprisingly, it is a musical. A second play was the rollicking musical Moulin Rouge at the Piccadilly. Music and staging were excellent. And just to round out our cultural depth, we attended the movie “Avatar: The Way of Water” in 3-D. Miles is back and producers definitely are preparing for Avatar 3. Life in trees then water: what next?
The numerous train stations and undergrounds are for most part well organized, bright, signed with prompt trains. Electronic displays are everywhere. It helps to be with a local and her transportation App. I thought trains ran well. The exception was when it rained, or in our case, snowed.
If staying in the city, cost is inexpensive when coupled with walking which is mostly faster than the traffic. The locals earn no discount and I feel fares are high with a limit of 10+£ a day depending on the Zones one travels. That is a lot for a commuter. Oyster Card also includes the Elizabeth Line from Heathrow. However, a lesson learned is there are also regular buses that also drive to Heathrow at a fraction of the cost. There are no special fares for senior visitors.
Fuckin’ Flurries in London
After walking at least 70 miles around London, I not only got my steps in for the week but became very familiar with directions and getting around. Of course, Google Maps assisted (I purchase an eSim from Airalo for my iPhone). The distance from St. Katherines Docks to Westminster or Kensington Gardens is a long way and following a curving Thames makes it even further. I dodged multitudes of visitors and little English was heard on the streets. The temperatures warranted several layers of sweaters but most days were dry and with occasional sun.
I awoke my last day to 2” of snow on the ground. Really? I failed to bring my ski coat. Trains were shivering in their barns but the busses ran and for less that 2£, we rode directly to Heathrow. Horror stories of disorganization were not experienced and I slipped through Fast Track and security in a matter of 15 minutes and walked what seemed like a mile getting to the lounge.
Except for the fuckin’ flurries and cold, all in all it was great visiting with my Ramses cousin and experiencing London once again.