Category Archives: London

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2



In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.


As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.


This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.


At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”


Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.


Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)


In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.


On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?


While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.


On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.


I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.


But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.


Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.


The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I



My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.