DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 17 - Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall

Tuesday, 16 June, 2009

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Jenkins Hotel, 21:54

This hotel is so awful we have cancelled as much of our reservation as we could without penalty and booked ourselves into a nearby Premier Inn instead for the last four nights of our stay in London. The tiny room and microscopic bathroom would be bearable if not for the addition of floorboards so squeaky you can hear every footstep everyone in the building makes, electric shredders attached to the toilets so they can flush down narrow pre-flush-toilet-era drains and which activate noisily whenever anyone in the building uses a toilet, and hot water which vanishes in the middle of showers.

I slept until about 03:00, when a large group of German tourists began rousing, presumably for an early flight home. (Why, if you live only one time zone over, you would choose an early morning flight instead of a decent lunchtime one is beyond me.) So for the next hour or so people trod the creaky floorboards directly above our room, all over the rest of the floor above us, and in the rooms adjacent to us, set off the electric shredders in all those rooms, and tromped up and down the stairs, knocking on people's doors and telling them loudly to get up in German. Eventually the message went up and down the stairs that taxis had arrived (in German) and dozens of pairs of floorboard-squeaking feet hauled their luggage noisily down the stairs.

I'm not sure I got back to sleep at all. The last straw came when M. had to abort her morning shower midway through when the water went ice cold and nothing could coax any warmth out of it. The breakfast was decent, but by then it was too late. We were so out of there.

London Underground sign, outside Harrods, Knightsbridge

After eating, we took to the streets of London, following M.'s suggestion to head first to Harrods department store at Knightsbridge, taking the Piccadilly line train from Russell Square. We bought weekly passes on Oyster cards, which are cool electronic cards that you simply flash at big yellow discs on Tube station gates to get through. (Why can't Sydney have a decent public transport ticketing system like this?) The plan was to look at Harrods very briefly, then head across St James's Park to Buckingham Palace. But Harrods didn't open until 10:00 (what sort of place is this?!), so we had a 20 minute wait first.

Harrod's, Knightsbridge
Harrods, Knightsbridge

Once inside, the store proved to be even more cavernous and full of wonders than expected. We marvelled at the food hall and bought ourselves some walnut, date, and apricot bread to eat later for lunch. M. wanted to use the toilets there because she'd heard how amazingly fancy they were, so we passed through several departments of women's clothing to find them. Oddly, the men's toilets were immediately adjacent to the lingerie department while the ladies' were closer to outerwear. We both used the facilities, but M. declared them a dud, with nothing particularly fancy about them beyond a couple of bottles of perfumes by the wash basins and a lady to keep the place constantly clean (mirrored by a man in the men's room).

Egyptian Room, Harrod's
Inside Harrods, Knightsbridge

I wanted to see if I could get a Monopoly set to do the London Monopoly board tour photos I'd been planning. We went up to the fourth floor where toys and games were. They only had modernised and special editions of the game. I asked if they had the original classic version, and a very helpful young lady said she'd check. She came back and said they might be in the adult games department in the lower ground floor and tried telephoning down there to check. Nobody answered her call though, so we said we'd go down and check it out for ourselves.

We went via the women's shoe section, where M. wanted to have a look around. Then on the lower ground floor M. stopped off in a souvenir section while I proceeded to adult games. My way passed through stationery and I wondered if I could find a simple blank notebook there to continue this diary in after the book we'd brought with us filled up. I discovered that at Harrods "stationery" means Mont Blanc pens and other designer fountain pens and writing implements, many encrusted with jewels and slathered with gold.

The adult games section turned out to consist entirely of large and fancy chess boards and tables, backgammon sets, roulette wheels, playing cards, diamond studded dominoes, and one small case of "classic" board games like Scrabble and Monopoly. They did have the plain set I sought, but at the mind-boggling price of £19.95. I could get it at home for about a third of that! They did, however, have a smaller "travel" version for £6.95, which I deemed to be good enough for the purpose. So I bought that and made my way back through the maze of departments to where M. had picked up a souvenir Harrods T-shirt.

Palace Crowd
Outside Buckingham Palace

Having spent an hour in the store, we departed and walked towards St James's Park and the Palace. First we passed the impressive Wellington Arch, with its massive marble structure topped by a bronze quadriga reminiscent of the one on the Brandenburg Gate. As we walked down Constitution Hill towards the palace, we saw a procession of mounted guards in red uniforms coming our way. This turned out to be the beginning of the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which we had fortuitously arrived just in time for - not having planned it or even knowing when it would occur. Approaching the palace we saw masses of people lining the streets and pressed against the palace fence watching the spectacle. Guards were marching back and forth and a brass band was playing... Michael Jackson's Thriller. That was kind of weird.

Open Gates
Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace

The ceremony progressed and the band segued into the Mission: Impossible theme as more marching and snapping of swords and boots took place. We couldn't get right up to the fence, but got a decent enough view of all the activity. Eventually, mounted processions of guards exited the palace gates and took different routes past the Queen Victoria Memorial out the front of the Palace. In our wanderings during the ceremony we happened to be placed perfectly to see both processions of guards close up. The huge crowds of people watching it all were almost as impressive as the ceremony itself.

Palace Guardian
Victoria Memorial flanking statue at Buckingham Palace

That done, we meandered our way through St James's Park, eating the bread we'd bought at Harrods earlier. The pond contained ducks, geese, swans, what I think were grebes, and also, weirdly, pelicans. Signs by the pond said, "Do not feed the pelicans." Presumably because people would not have raw fish handy to feed them with and sandwich leftovers would be bad for them. But I don't know what pelicans are doing in the middle of London, a long way from the ocean.

London Squirrel
Squirrel, St James's Park

Out the other side of the park, we reached Westminster Abbey, with the clock tower on the Houses of Parliament looming behind it. We entered and paid the £15 each for the tour. (Making visiting the Abbey cost about $70 for the two of us! And unfortunately, even for that price, photography was strictly prohibited inside.) The tour was an audio one narrated by Jeremy Irons. It took in the major highlights of what would easily take most of a day to explore properly. We saw the tombs of several kings and queens: Henry VII, Richard II, Elizabeth I, Mary, Edward the Confessor, Edward II, Mary Queen of Scots, and others I can't recall offhand. The Coronation Chair used by the new monarch during the coronation ceremony was there - rather decrepit looking but amazing all the same. Then there were the tombs and memorials in Poet's Corner; beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer and reading like a who's who of English literature, Dryden, Keats, Shelley, Auden, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and many others. In another area were musicians, Elgar, Handel, etc. But the coolest ones were the scientists: Maxwell, Dirac, Lord Kelvin, Joule, and others, topped by two of the towering giants of all time, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, whose tombs were just a couple of metres apart. Finally, near the main entrance, were the poppy encircled unknown solider and Winston Churchill.

Abbey Sky
Westminster Abbey

And that was just the tombs! There was also some spectacular stained glass, including two huge rows of windows in the two transepts and some amazing architecture and decoration. The latter included some highly significant medieval glazed tilework and the section of floor in front of the high altar, which is paved with a mosaic of semi-precious stones. Then there were the wooden carvings of the quire and of some of the more elaborate tombs. Add to this some amazing medieval paintings on the walls and Renaissance works on panels and canvases in the various chapels and the overall effect was overwhelming.

Abbey Gargoyle
Gargoyle, Westminster Abbey

Not only did we see the Abbey church proper, but got to go out into the cloisters, the chapter house, and the adjacent monastic gardens. Sitting here in the peace and quiet and surrounded by medieval walls it was easy to forget we were in the middle of one of the largest cities on Earth. The Abbey museum was also part of the tour, and contained several relics and items of interest. Largest of these were wax figures of various kings and queens and nobles, dressed in regal costumes of silk and velvet and furs and whatnot.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Leaving the Abbey, we headed over to the Houses of Parliament, more formally known as the Palace of Westminster, to get close-up views of this impressive Gothic building. I was stunned by the clock tower housing the bell Big Ben - despite being familiar with it from numerous TV shows, movies, books, and so on, I was amazed to see just how much of it gleamed with gold. It's really much more amazing and beautiful in reality than in any reproduction. There was a long queue of people waiting to get into Parliament, but they were all dressed in suits or fashion dresses, and it appeared they all had invitations of some sort to get past the numerous police guards. We contented ourselves with walking the length of the building and snapping photos.

Parliament Time
Clock Tower, Palace of Westminster

Returning to the north end of Parliament, we continued north along Parliament Street to Whitehall, passing Downing Street and numerous government offices along the way. We could see some people leaving Number 10 Downing Street and getting into a bus, but didn't recognise any of them.

Oliver Cromwell does not approve
Oliver Cromwell statue, outside Palace of Westminster

Whitehall ends at Trafalgar Square, where we stopped to rest our feet and get some refreshments in a cafe inside a bookshop. Then we faced the sun again to wander around the impressive public space that is Trafalgar Square. Lord Nelson stands commandingly on his famous column at the centre, flanked by four enormous bronze lions - large enough that the people climbing on them for photos could only do so with effort and some help. Behind the column is a vast paved space with two great fountains spraying water from the mouths of numerous dolphins and nymphs. The wind occasionally gusted enough to catch the water and send showers of spray across the square. Behind these was a shallow flight of steps leading to a plaza in front of the National Portrait Gallery. The steps were full of people sitting and waiting or simply enjoying the passing parade of tourists and locals. This is another of the world's great meeting places or crossroads - exuding the same feeling as the Spanish Steps in Rome or Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, which we've seen on previous trips.

Trafalgar Fisheye
Trafalgar Square

By now it was after 17:00 and we were getting worn out by the walking and sightseeing in the bright sun. We decided to have a relaxing walk across to the Thames and along the river bank before deciding what to do for dinner. We crossed at the Jubilee pedestrian bridge to the north end of the South Bank, near the London Eye and numerous more or less tacky tourist attractions. As we reached the southern bank, a street performer was doing a tango routine with a female dummy attached to his hands and feet, while a couple of other performers were packing up for the day - one Chaplin-esque figure wiping white make-up off his face.

Palace of Westminster, viewed from South Bank across the Thames

Queues for the London Eye stretched a decent way down the ramped entry ways and the capsules going around seemed quite full. This particular attraction is not high on our must-do list, especially given the cost, so we are probably not going to be in those queues on this trip.

London Eye pod

We decided to start looking for somewhere to eat dinner, but the options nearby all looked sub-par. So we crossed back over Westminster Bridge to have a look around there. Unfortunately, this landed us amidst the cluster of government buildings and offices with nary a food outlet in sight. Rather than continue to walk around on our tired feet, we descended into Westminster Tube station and made our way back to Euston, which involved changing trains at Baker Street.

The trains at this time were even fuller than this morning, with us having to squish aboard Tokyo-sardine style. The journey was hot and unpleasant, but fairly efficient and soon we were negotiating the seemingly endless rabbit warren of Euston underground before we exited on to Eversholt Street and walked back to our dismal little hotel.

Russell Square Tube station, London Underground

Along the way, we inquired at the Travel Lodge near Euston Station and then the Premier Inn on Euston Road to see what rates they could give us for a room to replace the ghastly Jenkins Hotel for the last few nights of our stay here. The Premier Inn won on appearance and we double checked that we could cancel our last four nights at Jenkins before booking ourselves in there. We look forward to the move to more civilised digs with eager anticipation.

That settled, we sought dinner. We went to Mabel's Tavern - just around the corner from our hotel. This nice looking pub was inviting and cheerful inside. We sat and ordered meals of beefburger and vegburger, plus Appletiser to drink. The burgers were good and came with chips and salad. I decided not to have desert after seeing they only had two options (strawberry gateau or apple pie) and remembering that we still had a job lot of strawberries from Cambridge in the mini-fridge in our room.

Pub Burgers
Dinner at Mabel's Tavern

We returned to eat the strawberries, back up photos (more today than any other day so far!) and read M.'s book or write my diary.

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