Episode 82 – Looking back wistfully: London, August 2017

I’m feeling quite sad lately. To say that I am “missing” travel is a gross understatement. Despite being hunkered down in a very comfortable condo, in a very lovely Ontario town, AND being close to our kids and grandkids, I am not waking up each day with the sense of joy and wonder that has characterized the past 3 years since I retired.

Collingwood is normally a vibrant, active town. Those of you who’ve been following our blog the past couple of years will know that our previous summers here have been filled with music and live theatre – at both indoor and outdoor venues – as well as festivals (including the annual Elvis competition) and celebrations of every holiday. In the current COVID world there are no gatherings. Musicians offer virtual concerts on YouTube. Outdoor stages are empty. Parks have “distancing circles” painted on the grass. Schools and education centres are closed, including the adult ESL classes with whom I would normally be volunteering during our time in Collingwood. Browsing the library is done on-line instead of by perusing the stacks, with curbside contactless pickup of books we’ve put on hold. We’re all (thankfully) masked when we share indoor public spaces.

And, for the most part, we stay home.

After 3-1/2 months of this, some mornings it feels like there is little incentive to get out of bed. I miss travelling. I miss seeing new things. I especially miss having something to write about.

So, I’m going to pull up my socks (not literally – it’s been 38C/100F here lately, so socks are NOT an option!) and fire up Ted’s laptop to go through some pre-blog travel photos which will hopefully both make me smile and summon enough memories to allow for some new blogs about some old trips.

I hope you’ll enjoy looking back with me….

We started moving around very shortly after my retirement in August of 2017, even though we didn’t make the decision to become nomadic until July 2018. I spent the first week of that August in Hudson, Quebec, visiting my best friend. Two weeks later, Ted and I took off for a “show tour” in London, England, arranged by a Canadian company called Senior Discovery Tours. We obviously enjoyed the trip, since we re-booked with Senior Discovery Tours for our 2 week exploration of Scotland in August 2019 (Episodes 29 A – L). London was our first experience with an escorted bus tour, and somewhat unique in that we stayed in the same hotel for the full 10 days – boarding the bus only for our excursions. The trip’s itinerary included Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Trafalgar Square, Greenwich, the Tower of London, the war memorials at Runnymede, Kew Gardens, a day in the Cotswolds, and 3 West End musicals.

Our hotel overlooked the Waterloo tube station’s curved glass roof (top) in one direction, Westminster and Big Ben (bottom) in another, and the London Eye on the banks of the Thames in a third.

The city of London was not at all what I had expected. My fault, not London’s ! We watch a lot of PBS British period dramas, and I read a lot of books set in Pre-World War II England. Somehow, in my mind, London’s cityscape was going to be intact from that period, with the addition of modern cars and The Eye. Instead, London was far more like Berlin than any other place we’ve visited to date. Spaces where the original buildings were destroyed in the war are now filled with an eclectic mix of modern architecture: monikers like “The Gherkin”, “The Shard”, “The Walkie-Talkie” , “The Scalpel”, and “The Razor” describe the unique shapes of some of London’s new skyscrapers. As is the case in rebuilt Berlin, these ultramodern buildings are scattered among ornate cathedrals, government buildings, and palaces. It took me a couple of days to become acclimated to this reality; I can only imagine how Londoners must have felt to see some of these buildings constructed.

A typical mix of old and new, plus the ever-present cranes and scaffolding that progress requires.

On our first full day in London, we took a panoramic city tour. As is the case in many big cities we’ve visited where cars are the main mode of above-ground transportation, it was hard to get good photos of the sights. London is home to 8 million people; add high season tourists to the mix and the sidewalks are a teeming mass of humanity. There was never a photo op that didn’t involve people or vehicles. The highlight of the day, for me, was our tour of Westminster Abbey – as much for the names inscribed on its interior tombs as for its awe-inspiring architecture.

Our lunch break was in a modern shopping mews with a second floor open-air balcony that faced St. Paul’s Cathedral (below), arguably Sir Christopher Wren’s most famous architectural masterpiece. Once again, the juxtaposition of the cathedral domes’s classic design is in stark contrast with the sloped modern balcony.

Day 2 had us touring the royal mews, coach house, stables, and public rooms of Buckingham Palace. There was a marvellous display of royal cars, livery, and coaches, including one from which I was able to demonstrate my own “royal wave”. Sadly, the gilded coronation coach was out-of-bounds.

Once through the ornate gates, we were not allowed to take pictures inside Buckingham Palace, but what I remember most is the interior entry hall, decorated as it was with hundreds of highly polished swords arranged in patterns intended to be both decorative and threatening. We’ve seen similar overt displays of power in Hapsburg castles and colonial American governors’ mansions.

We had several really emotional experiences while in England, but one of our proudest was visiting the Canadian War Memorial near Buckingham Palace. The peaceful sound of water trickling over the copper maple leaves provides a lovely backdrop for reflection and meditation.

We were given our choice of 3 musical productions on the tour, and from the available options we picked An American In Paris, Motown, and 42nd Street… strangely, none of them set in England. The shows were all good, but better was the West End experience itself. We were treated to an absolutely AMAZING musical walking tour, led by Neil Maxfield (check out his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Musicalwalkldn/ ) who belted out show tunes as he took us through the theatre district past and present, channeling everyone from D’Oyly Carte to Gilbert and Sullivan to Elaine Paige singing Evita. We attracted a LOT of attention among passing theatregoers, not the least when we all joined in the singing and did group “jazz hands”. The next best thing about London’s West End theatres are the intermission treats: Pimms (yes, alcoholic) ice lollies – how very civilized!

Several of our days involved bus rides to our destinations: Windsor Castle, the Air Force Memorial at Runnymede, and a selection of Cotswold villages: Chipping Campdon, Bourton-On-The-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold, as well as a visit to Winston Churchill’s gravesite in Bladon St. Martin (bottom right).

Windsor Castle was astonishing, its sheer size so much bigger than I had pictured. Of course, it is much more than just a single building (although that building is spectacular): it is a walled and moated 11th century fortress compound, with an ornate chapel, towers, and cloisters, and the central castle which was modernized in the early 1900’s. The grounds are gorgeous, the views magnificent, and the entry through the gates from the town is imposing.

Despite all of the history and grandeur, the highlight of my day was being photographed beside the Beefeater.

Two of my favourite days involved Thames boat rides. Our scheduled tour took us via water taxi to The Tower of London and the Royal Armories. Sailing along the Thames we passed Somerset House and Blackfriars on the north bank; historic warehouses, pubs, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre along the south bank, and had a fantastic view approaching and sailing under the Tower Bridge before docking near the tower itself.

The Tower of London was another (to me) revelation: not really a “tower”, but rather a walled city/fortress. I had an image of a dark solitary prison – and certainly it was that for those taken there to be executed – but William the Conqueror’s stone complex was really a huge royal residence, with sumptuous royal apartments and a retinue of staff living in the housing that now quarters the Beefeater guards. Also within the complex is the Royal Armory, the Royal Mint, a menagerie that includes the royal ravens, and the home of the Crown Jewels. Being able to see – up close – the armour worn by centuries of English monarchs, as well as a selection of their fabulous jewelry (which we were not allowed to photograph) was quite incredible. (In my opinion, though, the Hapsburg jewelry we saw in Austria was more beautiful, if not necessarily more valuable).

The next day on the tour was a “free day”, for which we were given water taxi vouchers, should we care to use them. Folks in our tour group all went their own way; some to the Churchill war rooms, some to the British Museum (still on my bucket list), and others to the Tate gallery. We chose to sail upriver to spend our day exploring Greenwich.

Our main goals were visiting the observatory, and standing on the Prime Meridian, both of which we accomplished. My biggest “aha” moment was discovering that the observatory’s onion shaped dome was made of PAPER! Inside the observatory and museum rooms were a dazzling array of astronomical and naval instruments.

We walked through Greenwich Park, had a wonderful pub lunch, and took in the incredible views from the hill, all of which would have combined to make wonderful day, but it was made even better by what we had NOT expected: a tour of the Royal Naval College and a glimpse into the work being done to restore its ornate frescoed ceiling.

Top: the expanse of ceiling being restored. After climbing up the scaffolding to the platform which the restoration team is using, our guide used a flashlight to highlight sections of the massive painting. Bottom L to R: the college’s entry hall as seen through the scaffolding; the hardhat and vest each visitor donned; a small section of restored ceiling.
Background: what the completed ceiling will reveal. Inset: marker outside the naval college .

With all this history everywhere, both overhead and underfoot, we were feeling quite immersed – and maybe a little overwhelmed even. It seemed the tour operators realized this too, since our next group destination was Kew Gardens (more correctly The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew). We enjoyed tea in the pavilion, strolling through the flowers, themed outdoor gardens, Victorian glass palm house, and over to the Chinese pagoda. We were amazed to learn that Kew is a “true” botanical garden, and home to the Millenium Seed Bank (Google it!) whose collection includes seeds from virtually every plant in the world! Just imagine: if a banana plant in the West Indies, a coffee plant in South America, or a tea plant in India becomes extinct, the seed bank can supply the seeds to revive the species!

That about does it for our first escorted bus tour, and our first trip to London. I feel much better for having spent my day “virtual travelling”. There are a few other trips from our pre-nomad days that I’d like to add to this blog in the coming days, since it has now become the main repository of travel records for us.

As always, I’m happy to have you follow along, even if it is down memory lane.

2 comments

  1. Thank you sooooo much!!! Loved the travelling – again – with you!

    Reminds me – did you ever read LONDON by Rutherford?

    Love you

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed your observations in London, England…..thorough, detailed & honest ….we would love to return one day except for the overwhelming herds of people that we encountered in London & in our day visits outside of London, .thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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