Friday, January 13, 2012
So Good To Be Back on Terra Britannica!
I guess you can say I am in London each time I transit through Heathrow airport to and from India. But to really feel as if I've returned to London, I must:
1. Ride the Tube
2. Ride the Red Buses (preferably on the upper deck)
3. Sashay down Oxford Street in the thick of tourist-shoppers
4. Tour an ancient monument
5. Return to the tearooms of one of the department stores and have a genuine English pot of tea.
6. Peruse some of my favorite canvasses at the National Gallery
So guess what? I feel I have truly returned to London because today I did all this and more--in the less than twelve hours since I landed on Terra Britannica.
But let me take you back to Southport, Connecticut, that I was almost relieved to leave behind on a wet windy afternoon. A chatty chauffeur named Nabeel from Damascus, Syria, representing the Prime Time Shuttle Limo service to the airport, arrived on the dot and dropped me to Newark airport in New Jersey in record time despite having stopped at a highway rest stop to buy me a hazelnut coffee! I was the second person from my batch of NYU students to arrive and I checked in immediately, thrilled to have been allotted a window seat. Before long, the majority of my troupe of 15 students (plus 2 faculty members) arrived. Excitement was palpable as we cleared security, boarded our aircraft and were airborne on a very light flight indeed. It didn't take me long to figure out that I could easily spread out to the three-seaters at the back of the aircraft where I could stretch out and fall asleep, post-dinner. Sarah Jessica Parker, Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan kept me chuckling for a while in I Don't Know How She Does It before I popped a sleeping pill (as is my wont on overseas flights) and slipped off into oblivion for the next four hours.
Needless to say, I awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed just before we landed at Heathrow. Unfortunately, it was still too dark at 6. 20 am for me to pick out the landmarks of the city although we flew directly above it on our descent. Still, the O2 Millennium Dome was clear as were Tower Bridge and the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.
I also discovered, on this flight, for the first time, that using twin styrofoam cups packed with paper towels wrung out in hot water really do work for blocked and painful ears (that I have inherited from my Dad) when dealing with aircraft landings. The Continental Airlines flight attendant was very helpful in acceding to my request (which, apparently, is frequent) and promised me that the method works. And indeed it did! Just when I thought my pain would grow unbearable, I turned a corner, as it were, and the discomfort gradually subsided until it disappeared altogether in just a few minutes. Live and Learn!
Visiting Westminster Abbey:
After we cleared immigration and claimed our baggage, we waited only 15 minutes in the lobby before the second NYU troupe arrived; and after meeting our airport rep Adam, we were on our way to the city in a double decker Westway coach with a very nice driver named John. Although we had just made a long trans-Atlantic crossing, we had to launch straight into our program of sight-seeing as check-in time at our hotel was 3 pm.
So on we went to Westminster Abbey where we were met by two Blue Badge guides, Abigail and Warren. We stuck to our two groups as we launched into a fascinating discovery of British history from the time of Edward the Confessor to the present day--guides never fail to inform visitors that the site was the venue of the internationally-televised wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton . With an hour and a half at our disposal to take it all in, the guides did a splendid, if concise, job of pointing out the highlights of the vast space: the Coronation Chair (now minus the Stone of Scone which has been returned to Scotland where I saw it three years ago) , the heights of the nave (the highest in the land), the poppy-encircled gravestone of the Unknown Soldier, the monuments to Issac Newton and other important personalities including a host of monarchs of England and indeed Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots, is prominent). Since I was returning to the Abbey as a tourist after almost 25 years (I have attended services in the abbey very frequently through the years), I found the entire visit most enlightening. In particular, my interest was piqued by the tombs of Elizabeth I and her half-sister Bloody Mary, the Tomb of Edward the Confessor and Henry VII and, of course, the plethora of writers in Poet's Corner.
Other interesting bits of the Abbey are the mosaic altarpiece, the beautifully carved wooden choir stalls, the octagonal Chapter House with its superb ceramic tiles (once used for meetings of Parliament), the oldest door in Britain, the oldest room in Britain (now housing a small chapel), the Abbey Museum (holding Britain's oldest altarpiece)--all dating from way back when! Being from America, we were, of course, taken to the Anglo-American chapel with its exquisite stained glass windows (where Oliver Cromwell lies buried) and a hole in the wall (now covered with a piece of glass) where a bomb came through during World War I.
Apart from the amazing interior, the abbey boasts superb cloisters and high Gothic architecture on the exterior that can hold one enthralled for hours. Group entry is from the lovely adjoining Dean's Yard. What I loved most about our visit was that we had the place almost entirely to ourselves with none of the crowds that jostle for elbow room during the busy summer months. I have to say that I was simply delighted to have had the opportunity to see this historic monument with the eyes of a studied tourist and to have done so in the company of expert guides who truly know their city was indeed a privilege.
Double Decker Bus Tour of London:
No sooner did we finish touring the Abbey than we were on the coach again winding our way around the city's main sights. In the able hands of Warren who informed me that he is a journalist and published writer of local London history, we were shown the standard sights and treated to an informative and entertaining commentary from which even I learned volumes. We alighted only once to take pictures outside St. Paul's Cathedral and then we were on our way to our hotel as jetlag had begun to catch up with several of my students, some of whom had traveled to New York from various parts of the USA to board their flights.
On to Hotel Grosvenor, Victoria:
You could not find a more centrally located hotel in London if you tried! The Grosvenor, on 'Buck's Palace' Road, is one of the Victorian 'railway hotels' that were created to house passengers for a night or two before they boarded trains from major termini in the 19th century. Most of these fell into disarray and The Grosvenor, which is one such, was completely refurbished and renovated very recently and now stands proudly, reclaiming its past glory with none of its aura faded in the slightest. If anything, it shines anew, its lobby making a striking first impression as you troop in under the light of a gigantic crystal chandelier.
We waited a while for our rooms to be ready; but throughout we had impeccable service and superb attention to detail from the staff and the representative of our tour company. Before long, we were all provided with room keys and as I made my way along the first (American second!) floor corridors (which did seem interminable), I was deeply taken by the tasteful manner in which the renovation has been conducted. My room is modern, immaculate and spacious. I was just delighted at what I saw. I unpacked swiftly and made myself at home. I imagine that most of my co-travelers made a beeline for their bed--not yours truly. No sirree, Bob. I swiftly freshened up and armed with gifts for my hosts set out for Holborn for my dinner appointment with my former next-door neighbors in my building near Chancery Lane.
A Pukka Cuppa at Marks & Sparks:
But, of course, I was much too early for dinner, so I hopped off at Oxford Street to join the usual throngs of determined shoppers. I headed first to Marks and Sparks' Food section to buy some of my particular favorites--all housed in the Frozen desserts section! Then, weighted down with my buys, I found the tearoom where I pepped myself up on a pot of Gold Blend tea and felt as if I was truly in England again! Miracles are wrought on the strength of a pukka cuppa alone!
Leonardo da Vinci at The National Gallery:
Fortified, I hopped red buses and Tube trains like a pro feeling truly as if London is my second home. Because Fridays mean late evening closing at the National Gallery, I had to take advantage...so I hopped off at Trafalgar Square (all beautifully lit for the evening) and walked to the Museum which happens to be one of my favorite places in the whole wide world. I always think that I will spend just a hour or so among my best-loved pieces but, invariably, I lose control of time and before I know it, I have spent hours, my back starts aching and my feet start protesting...but still I soldier on...so reluctant do I always feel to part company with the Old Masters.
I have to admit that I looked with envy upon those lucky ticket-holders emerging out of the special exhibiton on Leonardo da Vinci which is the most talked-about European art event this winter. Tickets are sold out with only a few given out each day for which queues form before dawn! I reached the entrance of the special exhibition and read up on the main items to be seen inside. Then, disappointed, I walked away.
Dinner Par Excellence with Old Friends in Holborn:
When I felt as if I lingering any longer would make me unfashionably late for my dinner appointment, I left the museum and found my way by bus to Holborn--passing, along the way, my former stomping grounds and revelling in the sense that I have never really left London for part of my heart continues to inhabit its compelling corners. When I jumped off the bus and made my way to my former building, my mounting nostalgic for an incredible time in my life was simply too much to take. With trembling fingers, I punched in the code number for Tim and Barbara's flat and was let into the familiar lobby that I love so well.
Then it was reunion time as, warm hugs and kisses later, I was catching up with my dear friends whose generosity is marched only by their amazing culinary prowess. Tim creates meals that beggar description but tonight's outdid all the rest. His Steak with a Brandy Cream Sauce was truly to die for--matched only by perfectly roasted potatoes and delicate grilled asparagus. Dessert was Tim's signature Brown Bread Ice-Cream--this time made more special (if indeed such a thing is possible) by the addition of ground hazelnuts and a heart of strawberry sorbet! Exquisite is simply not the word. It is not great to start one's first meal in London so stupendously, I thought, because it can only go downhill from here!
Still, apart from a gastronomic feast, the evening was remarkable for the fun company of our mutual friends, Elizabeth Miles and her husband Andrew, who had journeyed from Bristol and a lovely couple I was meeting for the first time, James and Netta. Just when I thought the meal could not possibly get any better, out came the cheese and crackers--and a nicer selection would be hard to find. And then there was more...Belgian chocolates served with coffee (or, as in my case, ginger tea). And I haven't yet mentioned our libations of which there were many: we started with glasses of champagne, moved on to wine (I drank beer), then had an outstanding glass of Australian Sauternes with dessert and enjoyed a glass of Madeira with coffee! What could possibly be more decadent? I even decided to overlook the fact that I have an allergy to wine!
It was almost 11 pm before we got up to leave. With Elizabeth and Andrew staying on for the night, I took my leave of my warm and generous friends and found my way to Chancery Lane Tube station--all of fifteen steps away! And then, before you could say Hotel Grosvenor, I was entering its doors, sorting out formalities associated with getting a wifi connection in my room ...and was on my way to writing this blog.
If today is any indication of the week that lies ahead, I am one happy camper. Londinium, here I come!