Thursday, December 18, 2014

London Day 3

Previous recaps: Day 2 | Day 1

Our third day in London dawned bright and lovely. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping. I took this to mean that I'd be fine while we were out and about in jeans, a sweater, and my cape. Oh, how wrong I was.

We started the day by hopping on top of the hop on/hop off bus. I know some people think they are cheesy, but I enjoy taking them early on in a trip as I feel like it gives me a nice overview of the city and I have a better time understanding how landmarks relate to one another on the map.


Our hotel is to the far left of the map, at the top of Hyde Park.

The particular bus we chose had an audio guide that accompanied the tour, which would have been great if my headphones had worked properly. The good thing about having the headphones was that it shut out the noise from the two very loud Italian couples that were on the bus with us.

After about an hour on the bus I got COLD. Now, I don't get cold. I run hot. I am always sweating. I've looked menopausal since I was 20. Being freezing is not really a feeling I'm used to. By the time we got to to the Tower of London stop, I was ready to get off and take the boat along the Thames down to the London Eye.

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From there, we walked down Whitehall toward Trafalgar Square, past Parliament and Big Ben, MI6, The Foreign Office, 10 Downing Street, and Horse Guards Palace. I don't know how the horse guards do it, but they do NOT flinch, even with people constantly trying to attract their attention and touch the horses.

The Household Cavalry is made up of the two most senior regiments of the British Army, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons). These regiments are divided between the Armoured Regiment stationed at Windsor and the ceremonial mounted unit, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, garrisoned at Hyde Park Barracks in London. The Household Cavalry is part of the Household Division and is the Queen's official bodyguard. The two regiments of the Household Cavalry are regarded as the most prestigious in the British Army due to their role as the monarch's official bodyguard. Historically, this meant regularly being in close proximity to the reigning sovereign. As such, the soldiers, and especially officers, were once drawn exclusively from the British aristocracy. While this is no longer the case, the Household Cavalry still draws many of its officers from the upper classes and gentry, and maintains a close personal connection to the Royal Family; both Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry were commissioned into the Blues and Royals. Horse Guards Parade is a large parade ground off Whitehall in central London.It is the site of the annual ceremonies of Trooping the Colour, which commemorates the monarch's official birthday, and Beating Retreat.  (Source: Wikipedia)

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You may recognize this area as the site of the beach volleyball tournament during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

It was late afternoon at this point, and since we were in Trafalgar Square, we decided to eat there. We hadn't planned on going to any museums on this day, but because we had had such great luck at the V&A with our meal, we decided to see what the cafe was like at The National Gallery. Much to our chagrin, it was a regular museum cafe. It was good, and it definitely hit the spot, but man. The food at the V&A. I'm still thinking about my pheasant terrine.

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Since we didn't have any immediate plans and we were already inside the museum, I persuaded Alan to have a look-see. He was more interested in the layout of the actual museum, and the architecture of the building than the art, and there wasn't anything in particular that I had wanted to see there, so we just wandered for a bit taking it al in.

Founded in 1824, The National Gallery’s collection of over 2300 paintings date from the mid-13th century to 1900. It is the fourth most visited art museum in the world, after The Louvre, the British Museum, and The Met in New York City. The museum was created when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of an insurance broker who was a great patron of the arts. Today, over 2/3 of the collection is from private donations. While the collection is considered small for a museum of its stature - especially compared with many other European national galleries - it covers a vast scope of Western art history which has lead to it being described as “encyclopedic in scope."

It's a beautiful museum, to be sure, but I found the layout a bit discombobulating. This is not surprising given that the building itself has been added onto over the years, with only the facade bearing any resemblance to the original museum. I'm sure today they have a method to the madness, but in the hour or so we were checking it out, I couldn't make heads of tails of what it was. (In contrast, The Uffizi in Florence is magnificently laid out. As you walk through it, you're taken on a visual journey through the ages, with the artists as the storytellers.)

Leaving the National Gallery, I realized that the National Portrait Gallery was literally next door and that was a museum I had on my list to visit.

The National Portrait Gallery houses portraits of historically important and famous British people selected on the basis of the significance of the sitter, not that of the artist. The collection includes photographs and caricatures as well as paintings, drawings, and sculpture. One of its best-known images is the Chandos portrait, the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare (although there is some uncertainty about whether the painting actually is of the playwright). Not all of the portraits are exceptional artistically, although there are self-portraits by William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other British artists of note. Some, such as the group portrait of the participants in the Somerset House Conference of 1604, are important historical documents in their own right. Often, the curiosity value is greater than the artistic worth of a work, as in the case of the anamorphic portrait of Edward VI by William Scrots, Patrick Branwell Brontë's painting of his sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, or a sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in medieval costume. Portraits of living figures were allowed from 1969. (Source: Wikipedia)

I was like a kid in a candy store, much to Alan's chagrin. I'm sure he wanted nothing more than to just sit down and relax, but I was running through oohing and aahing and exclaiming "oh! that's so-and-so!"

It was here that I learned that the current meaning of the word "cabal" comes from the time of Charles II when a group of his secret ministers (Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale - their last name initials spell out CABAL) formed a coalition which led to the signing of the Secret Treaty of Dover that allied England to France in a prospective war against the Netherlands. (Their CABAL wasn't so great though because most of the time they didn't get along, and they couldn't get much done ... still, they gave us a new term and for that I'm grateful because I love that word.)

I also saw the portrait of Flora MacDonald, who Outlander fans (and Jacobite scholars, ahem) will recognize her as the heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape while dressed as her maid Betty. She was ultimately caught and lived for a time in the Tower of London for her transgressions, but she was released and eventually made her way to America just prior to the Revolutionary War.

I also saw portraits of famous London stage actress,Sarah Siddons, who rose to fame on Drury Lane in the late 1700s,and is best known for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. She is mentioned all the time in my Regency romance novels so of course I was elated to see what she actually looked like, and not just the imagine in my head I had created for her.

Oh, and of course we saw the portrait of Her Royal Highness, the Dutchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. The portrait - which was unveiled in January 2013 - is quite surprising in how old it portrays her. I don't know if she was tired during her sittings or what, but I was really agog to see the deep wrinkles the portraitist gave her around her eyes, especially as I've never perceived them in any of her candid photographs.

Once Alan was able to drag me from the museum we made our way back to the hotel for a quick nap before heading back across town to meet with our guide from London Walks for a night time tour of the Westminster Abbey area. Here is how the tour was described on their website. I'm sure you'll understand why we felt that we had to join.

This is the cornerstone, the seminal London Walk. Miss it and you've missed London. For Old Westminster is London at its grandest: the place where kings and queens are crowned, where they lived, and often were buried. It's the forge of the national destiny, the beating heart of the Empire, the Mecca of politicians throughout the ages. The past here is cast in stone and we take it all in: ancient Westminster Hall, the Houses of Parliament, the Jewel Tower, and Westminster Abbey. And to see it with a great guide is to have that past suddenly rise to the seeing a photographic print come up in a darkroom. And embarrass de richesse we'll also explore the private face of Westminster. Unlike the tourist hordes we'll get to see the hidden and ever so picturesque 18th-century backstreets where all the political salons are. Totally off the beaten track, it's the London equivalent of Georgetown. And then some. Because not only do we take in, for example, the house where the anti-appeasement got started...but - for an aperitif - you'll also see a house where Marilyn Monroe spent the night! In short, welcome to one of those secret neighbourhoods that London excels in. And for that matter, there's no better time to discover "Old Westminster" because the swarms of tourists are long gone...we'll have it to ourselves and so be able to see it properly. It just doesn't get any better than this.

But how could it, considering that we'll also nip over the bridge to take in the most famous night-time view in Europe: the view across the river to the Houses of Parliament. All towers and spikes and serried windows and bathed in golden light. And Big Ben like a sentinel, booming out the hour. And garlands of Victorian lamps along the Embankment. And dark patches that suggest the old and mighty consequence of the place...well, you get the idea. Garnish with some fascinating nooks and crannies, a secret mediaeval palace and a couple of quick pit stops at traditional old pubs frequented by Members of Parliament and you've got a great'll glow in the cockles of your memory for a long, long time. And how's this for a bonus: when Parliament is in session late night sittings are the norm on Monday nights - in short, on most Monday nights after the walk you'll be able to go inside Parliament and watch the House of Commons (or if you prefer, the House of Lords) in action. And what's more, you won't have to queue to get in!

Let me just say it outright - YOU SIT ON A THRONE OF LIES. The walk was a complete and utter bust. I don't know that I've ever been more bored on a guided tour than I was this night. I must have asked Alan two or three times if he wanted to ditch them, but we stuck around because of the promise of the tour. We kept thinking it had to get better, and then it didn't. It just kept going on in the same fashion. Our guide told jokes that weren't funny, she kept wanting to know who the Brits in the group were and then mentioning people that only they would know without explaining to the rest of us why we would care to know about those people. We did not have Westminster to ourselves to "be able to see it properly." We stood outside and took in the same view that anyone on the street could have. There was no nipping over the bridge for the most famous nighttime view. And I have no idea what these quick pit stops at traditional pubs was all about, but we certainly didn't do this. Oh, and the payoff we were hoping for - being able to go inside Parliament and watch the House of Commons in action? Yeah, didn't happen. By the time we were done she told us that we'd be better suited coming back at a later date because going through security would take too long and we wouldn't see anything. So basically, we stood outside of Westminster Abbey while she told random stories, then we moved on to some side streets where we stood around looking in people's windows, and then we watched a concert letting out from a former church. The only good thing about the entire tour was she identified a couple of houses whose basements were used as public shelters during the bombings of WWII. That is it. We were pissed.

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I should probably write a review on TripAdvisor so that anyone else who is interested in that particular tour knows the description is a complete and utter fabrication, but I don't know that I can be bothered. After all, I have several more blog posts to write. I don't even want to link to their website lest someone mistakenly think I am endorsing them or recommending this tour.

We ended up walking away while she was giving her final monologue - probably trying to rope people into taking other tours with them - and made our way over to one of those parliamentary bars mentioned above. The downstairs was pretty packed but we went upstairs for a late dinner of steak & ale pies. OH MY GOD. So much deliciousness. The food was so good, in fact, that we hit this same bar up later in the week. Exhausted and sated, we hopped on the tube and headed back to the hotel, while I mentally readjusted our schedule for the week ... being sure to remove any other London Walks tours I had carved out time for in our remaining days in London.

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