I enjoy visiting London, and try to schedule a long stopover in between flights to other points in Europe if I can. Earlier this summer, I had a day in London as I was heading to central France to participate in a Crafty Retreats class. For me, it was a perfectly English day in London.
Exploring the Earls Court Neighborhood
I started my day at a hotel in the Earl’s Court area of London. Earl’s Court is an easy tube ride from Heathrow airport and there are many relatively less expensive hotel choices in this area. Also, most London sight seeing options are an easy connections from the nearby Earl’s Court station. Across the street from the Earl’s Court tube stop is a little Patisserie where I grabbed a quick light breakfast of coffee and a pastry. With food in hand, I wandered the side streets and mews of South Kensington. Mews are typically small streets with houses that were once stables. Now, those streets and houses are usually colorful and picturesque (and highly desirable properties). I ambled in the general direction of the Gloucester Road tube stop, taking in the architecture of the neighborhoods. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know if the house styles were Victorian, Edwardian or Georgian – I just enjoyed the atmosphere.
Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace
The next stop was the Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guards ceremony. At the Gloucester Road tube station I caught the royal blue line to the Green Park stop and then walked through Green Park to the area in front of the Palace where the guard ceremony takes place. I tried to get there about 30 minutes before the actual ceremony to find a good viewing spot (the hand off between old and new guards usually takes place at 11 AM during the spring and summer months – check website for days and times.)
While waiting for the show to begin, I studied the details of the very large Victoria Memorial in the middle of the square. All of the sculptures on the memorial are symbolic of Queen Victoria’s 63 year reign. For example, the statue on the right of the queen represents justice while the statue to her left represents truth. The statue behind the queen facing Buckingham palace represents motherhood (she had 9 children and 42 grandchildren).
Watching the pomp and circumstance of “The Guard” changing pageantry is always entertaining. And while it is a huge tourist draw, the guards actually do have official guarding responsibilities and carry some pretty serious artillery. They have protected the British sovereign since 1660 and consist of both infantry and cavalry regiments. The ceremony lasts about 45 minutes, so once the regiment of the assigned new guard started heading down The Mall toward St. James Palace, I followed them to see the final act of the show.
Afternoon Tea at Fortnum and Mason
Once the guard ceremony was over, I continued walking northwest on St. James Street toward Picadilly (4 blocks) and then turned right to get to the highlight of my day – afternoon tea in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum and Mason. I had made reservation for noon weeks before, planning on making this my lunch. This was going to be the highlight of my perfect English day in London.
There is really only one word to describe the afternoon tea experience here – it was DIVINE! Indulging in this treat was not inexpensive, which is most likely why most of the clientele appeared to be tourists. The gentleman sitting at the table next to mine was probably the closest thing to a local – he was visiting London from the Yorkshire area.
The afternoon tea menu comes with different options, including a vegetarian choice. I picked the High Tea option which included a small entree choice (I had the Lobster Omlette Victoria with Lobster Bisque and Truffle) along with the traditional tiered trays of finger sandwiches, scones with preserves and clotted cream, pastries and a selection from the cake cart (ok-so this was lunch and dinner). The hardest part was making a choice of one of their more than 50 tea selections. But since the pot of tea is essentially bottomless, you can try a few different flavors throughout the meal. What can I say – the service was perfect, the food was fantastic and I lingered for two hours savoring the experience. I did not have room for the final slice of cake from the cake cart, so instead, they sent me off with two slices of my choice from the cart. I was also given small jars of preserves and lemon curd (I thought I was getting the leftovers from the jars I did not finish, but instead got full, unopened jars). So I left with quite the dogie bag – yum.
After the High Tea experience, I got my exercise walking throughout the store, gawking at the beautiful displays (and at the price tags). I did indulge in some souvenir teas to enjoy this winter. Fortnum and Mason have been in business for over three hundred years and have a reputation for providing high end food items which are beautifully displayed.
From Fortnum and Mason, I turned left on Picadilly to head back toward the Green Park tube station. Just down the street and across the road I came across Burlington Arcade which claims to be the longest and oldest covered shopping arcade in London and is also a historic and luxury landmark. The arcade is still patrolled by Beadles (not a misspelling), a private police force dressed in formal liveried uniform of frock coat and top hat. Since this is one of the locations where British royalty shops, only window shopping was in order for me.
Evensong at St. Paul Cathedral
From the Green Park station I headed to St. Paul’s, changing to the red line at the Holborn stop. The plan was to get to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the 5 PM evensong service. For me, listening to the beautiful voices of the choir echo off the walls and high dome of the cathedral is an artistic and cultural experience, regardless of my or their religious persuasion. It was a pleasure to sit, relax, and listen to the choir sing while taking in the details of this great building. (Unfortunately, no indoor photography is allowed).
Stroll along the Thames
Once evensong was over, I explored the outside gardens around St. Paul’s for a bit, and then headed over the pedestrian only Millennium bridge to the walk along the south bank of the Thames. (I still had the calories from the High Tea to walk off). The London bridge and Tower Bridge can be easily seen from the middle of the Millennium Bridge.
Once you cross the bridge, you can easily visit the Tate Modern Museum and the Shakespeare Globe Theater, but those would have to wait for another time. My plan was to walk west along the river to Westminster Bridge, taking in the sights. Since it was a weekday, and it was a beautiful and warm early summer day, I shared my walk with joggers, families out for a stroll, office workers going out for a pint, and of course, other tourists. I was still very full from my lunch, but had I needed food, there were a lot of options to choose from along the river, many with outdoor seating. The leisurely stroll along the river took about an hour, with many photo stops.
Concert at Royal Albert Hall
By the time I reached Westminster bridge, the sun was setting behind Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. At the Westminster Tube station, I grabbed the green (or yellow) line to South Kensington. This is the stop for London’s big museum district and for Royal Albert Hall, my final destination for the day.
London is known for its theater district and associated world class productions. But a concert at the historic Royal Albert Hall should not be missed. The concert hall plays host to a variety of types of music and seems to have something going on almost every night. One of the most interesting events is screenings of popular films with orchestral accompaniment. On my visit, the Royal Philharmonic was performing music by ABBA. OK-so this was technically Swedish, not English music, but I love the music of ABBA and could not pass up this opportunity. I bought my ticket at the door and spent two hours singing along to all the hits and dancing in my seat. It’s happy music, and apparently I was not the only one who thought so because the concert hall was full with the audience spanning an age range from 10 to 70, all singing and dancing along like I was.
After the concert, I walked down Queen’s Gate Street toward the Gloucester tube station and grabbed a train for one stop back to Earl’s Court and my hotel. (The South Kensington station closes early). I was tired after my long day, but elated – I had had my wonderfully perfect English day in London.
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