Our second attempt at flying to London was a success. We alighted at Heathrow Terminal 3, went through customs, gathered our luggage and wandered out into the waiting crowd. I spotted Uncle Mike and Aunt Shirley immediately and gave them a smile and wave. They appeared to stare at me blankly. I don’t blame them, as I’m larger and hairier than the last time they saw me. On the other hand, I thought they looked no different than they did 25 years ago. We got closer and I assume they recognized me before I embraced Aunt Shirley (or perhaps they took my embrace as confirmation). And then we were–the four of us–off to Hampton Court Palace.
Mike and Shirley are not actually my aunt and uncle–at least not in a biological sense. My mom and Aunt Shirley did their midwifery training together in London and have been friends ever since. They’ve always been “Tante Shirley en Oom Mike” to me. I’m sure she knitted me several sweaters during my younger years. I think that’s more than enough to earn her the “aunt” title.
Anyway, we were off to Hampton Court Palace, which was built either for or by Henry VIII (I don’t know–you read the Wikipedia article).
I was immediately struck by the fact that the palace was built of brick, rather than stone as I had expected. It’s quite a large complex–a mass of red brick walls and chimneys. According to Bill Bryson’s newest book (not yet published in North America!), At Home: A Brief History of the Private Life, Hampton Court was built at a time when brick was wildly popular. Not the most elegant look for a palace, but they certainly could have done worse.
There were a number of things that impressed me about the palace. Perhaps most obviously was the sheer size of the place. It’s technically the house of just one family (the king, his wife and his children), but I’m sure it housed hundreds. It was all, of course, about showing off their wealth and power. This resulted in the palace having rooms for both everything and nothing. At one point we walked from the kings “great” bedroom (I can’t remember the technical term) to his “small” bedroom next door (it wasn’t any smaller), but then one of the guards/guides told us that the king’s actual bedroom was downstairs. So these two ornate rooms were just for show. I noted that the queen’s rooms were at the opposite end of the palace from those of Henry’s, which is probably just where the queen wanted to be. (In fact, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Henry’s wives were not killed by him.)
We had a picnic lunch on a bench in one of the palace gardens. I thought this was great. On the way to England I had been reading Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain. He makes frequent mention of English people bringing along sandwiches and Thermoses of tea whenever they traveled anywhere. This certainly seemed to be true. On this day, Aunt Shirley had packed fried chicken, buns (rolls), tomatoes, egg salad, sausages and two 1 litre cartons of juice. The following day, when we went back to London with Uncle Mike, they had also packed a picnic lunch, as did Chris and Toni for our day at Warwick Castle. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that North Americans are more likely to buy lunch when they go out for the day. I noticed that many people in London, including people who were almost certainly not tourists, had backpacks on, probably containing their lunches. Now that I think about it, not one of the sites we visited had a restaurant or lunch counter, which one would expect to see in North American tourist sites.
After an afternoon at Hampton Court, we drove north of London to Mike and Shirley’s house in Hemel Hampstead. For supper she made homemade fish and chips (Hake, I believe it was). It was delicious–much better than what I had in a restaurant in London a day or two later. We spent the evening drinking tea and visiting.
The next day Mike and Dixie and I took a train down to London. Mike had purchased tickets for a bus tour of London, which allowed us to get on and off whenever and wherever we wanted to and catch the next bus that came along. The first place we stopped was St. Paul’s Cathedral.
We shuffled inside with the crowd and were shocked to find that it would cost us £15 (about $25 Canadian) apiece to get in. Mike suggested that Westminster Abbey might be nicer and free of charge. So I snapped a picture of Dixie on the steps of St. Paul’s (“feed the birds”) and we hopped back on the bus.
After St. Paul’s we stopped at the Tower of London. An invisible man was sitting by our bus stop.
Why can’t North American cities have such interesting street performers? Or do they?
The Tower of London was interesting, but allow me a moment of critique. Here’s what Hampton Court Palace had that the Tower of London did not: rooms set up more or less like they might have been at the height of their use. You go to a bedroom and there will a large four-poster in there along with other bedroom furniture. The Tower of London is just a series of rooms filled with artifacts–armor and weapons, mostly–which I assume were often unrelated to the rooms they were in. I found these artifacts fascinating as a child (I had been to the Tower with Mike and Shirley some 20 years ago), but not nearly as much so now. The crown jewels, which are housed and guarded at the Tower, would have been more interesting, but the line-up to see them was enormous and we weren’t about to spend the afternoon in line.
Still, the Tower’s age (900 years) and history alone was enough to impress. Dixie especially was fascinated. I was most intrigued about the life of the Beefeaters, guards of the crown jewels, who with their families actually live within the walled boundary of the Tower of London. There were residential areas in the tower cordoned off and marked “private”, where, presumably, they lived. What is it like to live in a place where every day, year-round, throngs of people walk through what is technically your front yard and peer at your house?
Next stop: the parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey. Much to our dismay, Westminster Abbey had a £12 charge for visitors (later that day we would get in free to attend Evensong). Westminster is undoubtedly a stunning piece of architecture, but I confess I wasn’t sure what to make of it otherwise. The abbey is lined with tombs and tombstones embedded in the walls and floors. It has always been said that cathedrals were built to the glory of God, that their size and loftiness was meant to draw the eyes up toward heaven, but I was overwhelmed by the ornate statuary and carvings that are there in such sheer numbers. Had it been built in the 20th century I imagine they would have had flashing neon signs announcing the various dignitaries buried there.
What somewhat bothered me about the chapels and cathedrals and abbeys we visited was that they all had signs at the entrance that said something along the lines of, “This is a place of worship. Let us respect that atmosphere. No photography. Gentlemen, please remove your hats.” And yet they were herding the tourists through at many British pounds a pop.
That night, after driving past Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hyde Park, Dixie and I left Mike on the bus and we wandered back to Westminster to attend evensong. It was already underway when we got there. This certainly restored some of the atmosphere of worship, but we were positioned in one of the wings off the nave, so we could only hear what was going on, and I was too tired by that point to participate fully.
Later, Dixie questioned me about the service. “When we said the Apostles’ Creed at evensong, were you speaking with an English accent?”
“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.”
But I doubted myself. Quite frankly, it took some effort for me not to slide into a faux English accent while there. I wondered if I could pull off a convincing accent and considered using one when making a purchase in a London shop, but I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.
After evensong we wandered through some of the Westminster shops (because the real London is only about a mile square and many of the tourist sites are in other cities, such as Westminster) in the general direction of our hotel for the night. We had planned to walk to our hotel, but we eventually realized that it would take an hour or two, so we took the underground the rest of the way.
We checked in, dropped our bags in our room, and went to the hotel restaurant for a snack. I ordered tea. Dixie asked for water.
“Still or sparkling?” asked the waiter.
“Uh…still?” said Dixie.
This is where we discovered that they charge for water. When thinking about this trip to England, I had assumed that beer (and alcohol in general) was cheaper in Europe. In fact, in England at any rate, beer is more or less the same price as in Canada, but all the other drinks–coffee, pop, juice and even water–are so much more expensive that relatively speaking one may as well buy a pint of beer as a glass of Coke.
And then we went to bed.
(More pictures and some extra details at our Flickr set. Unfortunately, I can’t cover everything. This is probably already too long and nobody is reading this line.)