Friday, March 29, 2013

St. James' Chapel, Bohemian Walk, Spencer House, etc.

Sunday, March 17, 2013: London

Service at the Royal Chapel of St. James’ Palace:
Whenever I am in London, I make it a point to attend Sunday services at one of the extraordinary historic chapels or churches in order to admire their architecture and treat myself to a brilliant Anglican sermon. In keeping with this personal tradition, I had voiced to Michael my desire to attend service at The Royal Chapel attached to St. James’ Palace which was scheduled at 8. 30 am. Needless to say, I had done my research and had discovered that this was meant to be a private chapel exclusively for the members of the royal family stationed at St. James’ Palace (which is located at the end of Pall Mall). Now, of course, it is open to members of the public for worship on Sundays in the winter. After Easter, services shift to the newer Queen’s Chapel on Marlborough Street (which, no doubt, I shall visit on a future trip to London).

Cynthia and her son Aidan decided to come along with me. How thrilling to hear Mass in a palace! A real royal palace that is still used by the current monarchy, that is. In this Old Chapel, Elizabeth I had worshipped. King George III and his Queen Charlotte had brought their 14 children to services here. Queen Victoria had married her beloved Prince Albert in this space. We trooped in, took our seats in the choir stalls and awaited the arrival of the main celebrant who happened to be a personal friend of the Colcloughs—Fr. Scott. While we waited, I had the opportunity to admire the fabulous Commonwealth Window which features a massive tree of Life whose branches carry the names of every single one of the countries in the British Commonwealth as well as the stunning ceiling designed by none other than Hans Holbein with its repeating motif of Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). I was ecstatic to worship in this environment added to which the service was simply moving. Fr. Scott preached a meaningful sermon and although there wasn’t the superb choir that I also associate with Anglican worship, there was the Eucharist which I received. Overall, I was so pleased to have had the privilege of worshipping in this hallowed space and as we left the chapel to wander off, I couldn’t help thinking that my day had started off beautifully.

A Walk in Bohemia:
A few years ago, my colleague Karen who was teaching a course on Literary Bloomsbury at NYU-London with me, had devised a walking tour of the area that I had always wanted to follow myself. Since the next item on my agenda was a visit to the National Gallery of Art and since it does not open until 10 am, I had an hour with which to play around and thought it best to take a bus (No. 9) from Pall Mall and then to connect to the 24 at Trafalgar in order to get to Woborn Square where her walk began.

But first, since I actually passed by NYU’s campus at Bedford Square where I had once held offices, I could not resist getting to the main door to knock on it. As I half expected, the door was firmly shut since it was a Sunday! Oh well…at least I tried to get in for old times’ sake.

Now Woburn Square, London’s smallest, is right behind Birkbeck College where I used to teach classes a few years ago. In fact, my classroom window used to look out on to this square. This time, I paused to take a picture of the 1999 sculpture of The Green Man by Lidia Kapinska which was accompanied by a small plaque with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves. I crossed the square and the street to enter Gordon Square which is dominated by an old stone church (which when I checked I discovered was open only on weekdays!). Gordon Square is most closely associated with the literary coterie that came to be known as The Bloomsbury Group. At the house at No. 50 is a black plaque that commemorates the contribution to the intellectual life of such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, her husband Leonard Woolf, the historian Dora Carrington, the literary critic Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the philosopher Bertrand Russel, the novelist E.M. Forster, and the artists Clive Bell and Duncan Grant. They brought a lively, brainy curiosity to this corner of London in the early 20th century when their experiments in literature and art breathed new life into creative production. Generations of literature aficionados have come calling to these residences to pay homage to their literary heroes. I myself paused in reverence at No. 29 where Virginia and Vanessa Stevens had lived while still unmarried in the home of their father, Lesley Stevens. Of course, their respective marriages would lend a fantastic synergy to their endeavors and make them household names.

In the gardens of Gordon Square, I discovered a sculpture of India’s best known poet Rabindranath Tagore by Shenda Amery that I found deeply moving. And since the church on the square was closed, I walked in the uncomfortably cold drizzle to the next block--Tavistock Square. It was in exploring its gardens that I arrived at the sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi seated serenely on a pedestal surrounded by sculptures of other eminent contemporaries: Leonard Woolf and Virgina Woolf. Tavistock Square attained notoriety as the site of one of the awful London bomb blasts that had taken place on July 7, 2005, killing several people on the bus on which it had been planted. There is a small plaque on the iron railings attached to the British Medical Association building on the square, designed by one of my favorite British architects of all time, Sir Edwin Lutyens, that marks this sad occurrence.

From Tavistock Square, I walked a few block north to get to Woburn Walk, a tiny pedestrian street rife with Victorian bow-windowed shops that hark back to an earlier area. The streets gas lamps and fat cobbles make it a favorite location for the shooting of period films and as I walked through the glistening street slick with the lash of relentless rain, I was transported to another era. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats had lived in a house on this street as did Charles Dickens right above a small eatery called Wot The Dickens!

Visit to St. Pancras Church, Euston:
I had to end my walk at this point in order to make it in time for my next appointment, but I have to admit that I simply could not resist a quick visit into St. Pancras Church, Euston, which was right next door to Woborn Walk. This unique church was also on my list of Churches To Visit and I was very pleased that being there on a Sunday allowed me to actually enter the church and catch the very end of a morning service. What makes St. Pancras so distinctive is its neo-Greek design inspired entirely by the Erecthion on the Acropolis in Greece. Indeed, it is built on a rectangular plinth held up by four Caryatids—or Grecian Vestal virgins—that are a striking feature of the side of the church. After spending a while in prayer and admiring the interior with its plain but very beautiful marble columns, I circumnavigated the exterior of the church, took a lot of pictures and left—wondering repeatedly about the variety of architectural styles one finds in this curious city.

Tour of Spencer House:
I hopped on to a bus then to get to Spencer House on Pall Mall, but that’s when things turned awry. It happened to be the day of London’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration and by 10.00am, Trafalgar Square where the major celebrations were being held was turned into an emerald green sea of enthusiasts wearing Kelly green outfits and hats. Buses had stopped plying around the Square and I found myself minus transport to get to Spencer House where I had made plans to meet Kent again. I was grateful for the London SIM card that enabled me to inform him of my unexpected delays as I hurriedly covered the distance across Pall Mall on foot. Meanwhile, Kent went ahead and purchased two tickets (12 pounds each) for our strictly-timed hour-long guided tour of Spencer House, which I had always wanted to visit but to which I had somehow had never gotten down.

Spencer House is open to the public only on Sundays. It is the London home of the current Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. As a little girl, Diana would have spent her growing years in this house when she wasn’t ensconced on the family’s country estate called Althorp (pronounced All-trip) in Northamptonshire where Princess Diana is buried. The current Earl has been refurbishing Spencer House slowly and has leased a part of it to the Rothschild Group who sponsored the renovation. Luckily for the Spencers, the house was never bombed during the War and has remained intact through the centuries, the only aristocratic 18th century private home in London.

Spencer House was built in the Palladian style by John Vardy in 1756-66 in the heart of tony St. James for John, First Earl Spencer. It is indeed a showcase of classical design and as I followed the tour guide, a venerable elder who spoke as if he had a century ahead of him to finish his tour and not the skinny one hour allotted, my eye roved freely over the splendor of my surroundings. It is impossible for me to go into detail about a home that simply beggars description. Suffice it to say that if you cannot make it to Castle Howard in Yorkshire or Blenheim Place in Oxfordshire to see the handiwork of John Vanbrugh, then you must make the trip to Spencer House to get a slight taste of how the other half lived. Neither expense nor time nor trouble had been spared to create a home so opulent that you wonder how one could possibly feel at home in it. Filled with paintings, sculpture, porcelain, plus a library of showy leather tomes, the tour wound us through eight of the state rooms, each more impressive than the last. From every window, there are fabulous views of Green Park that occasionally caught a watery ray of sunshine. Since no photography is allowed in Spencer House, I had to content myself with getting a couple of shots of the superbly-appointed loos in the basement, better than any in a five-star hotel.

Sunday Roast Luncheon at the Oxford and Cambridge Club:
It’s a good job the Oxford and Cambridge Club where Kent and I had made plans to lunch was only a stone’s throw away for we were famished at the end of the tour of Spencer House and ready to chow down. Having had the Grand Tour of the premises the previous day, we headed straight for the magnificent dining room that is flanked by larger-than-life sized oil portraits of William IV and his flamboyant son George IV. The dining room was fairly full by the time we arrived there at about 1. 30 pm. We decided to go with an appetizer and a main. Kent chose the foie gras while I got the duck terrine with fruit chutney (which was amazing) and for our mains, Kent got a veal roast while I decided that in such a traditional setting, it would be most appropriate to have a traditional English Sunday Roast—this came with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and a selection of veg (I had roast potatoes, minted peas and pureed swede). Oh, how yummy it all was and how gracious, if very slow, was the service. Alas, again, I’d have loved to linger…but I had to leave then if I were to make it on time all the way to Wimbledon where I had an invitation to Afternoon Tea.

Afternoon Tea at Wimbledon and Dinner at Amen Court:
A longish ride on the Tube with a connection at Earl’s Court and a ten-minute walk along a quiet residential street got me to the Wimbledon home of my Blog follower Murali Menon who has, over the years, become a friend. While usually Murali and I meet briefly over a cuppa or a coffee in London, this time round I was keen to meet his wife, Nina and his son Angad about whom I have heard so much through Murali’s own blog called Jest a Mon. The Menons extended an invitation to their home and put out a warm and generous Afternoon Tea spread for me. Alas, I could not do it justice as I was simply bursting with my humongous Sunday Roast. But I did tuck into Nina’s wonderful Lemon Polenta Cake whose nutty texture and flavor were unique as well as her Cheese Toast and her selection of Middle Eastern snacks from Marks and Sparks. Indeed her steaming cups of tea with lemon were very welcome as the rain continued to lash down in chilly spurts. We had so much to talk about; but best of all was getting to know the bright and vivacious Angad whose knowledge of art history was simply astonishing in one so young. Not surprisingly, he told me he intends to be an art historian when he grows up! Indeed, he was able unhesitatingly to pick out his favorite canvas in the National Gallery (the equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Van Dyke) and talk in informed fashion about the Impressionists and Pointilism. And he is still on the wrong side of ten! We played a couple of rounds of Twenty Questions and kept Angad engaged as the evening sped by.

Murali was kind enough to accompany me on the stroll back to Wimbledon station from where I made my way back home to the Colcloughs for dinner: store-bought Indian Butter Chicken with Pilaf and Naans and Ice-Cream for dessert.

So what can I say about my second day in London? Well, once again, horrid weather had made it a bummer but I was well en route to accomplishing all the items on my To-Do List and I was not disappointed.

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