Hundreds of these lamp posts ― the first of which went up during Queen Victoria’s reign ― line the Thames Embankment in London. They’re known as the dolphin lamp posts. That’s because their designer, George John Vulliamy, modelled them after the dolphin sculptures in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. The “dolphins” along the Thames are actually sturgeon.
It’s his 450th birthday today ― the Bard’s, that is. I’ve been rummaging through my photos to see if I had any that link to William Shakespeare and I found this one. It’s of the Tower of London.
Richard III, considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, was almost entirely set in London and several of its scenes take place in the Tower. You know the play. It’s the one that starts out with Richard talking about the end of his winter:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
Richard doesn’t come off so well in the play. Shakespeare probably did more to malign his reputation than any historian. But never mind. It’s an entertaining play. And its setting gives me an excuse to post a photo.
Note the ravens in the photo. Six of them are kept at the Tower because legend has it that the Crown (Britain, too) would fall if the ravens were to ever leave the Tower.
Regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now how much I enjoy listening to live music. And that I especially enjoy seeking out opportunities to hear live music whenever I travel.
I have my mother to thank for that. She took my sister and me at the tender ages of twelve and thirteen to hear a recital of Bach organ music in the Bovenkerk of Kampen, the Dutch town where we happened to be living at the time. The sounds of the organ’s principal pipes reverberating in the centuries-old Gothic arches high above us made quite an impression on me (as did how cold we got sitting in an unheated stone church on a crisp evening in late November).
Something about that night stuck with me and, to this day, Bach remains my favourite composer. So much of a favourite that I even named my cat after him. Upon our family’s return to Canada, I was motivated enough to continue my music studies for another six years, soon switching from piano to pipe organ. I doubt my mother had any idea what a couple hours of Bach organ music could do to me.
But enough about Bach. Let’s get back to the other guy. You know, Mozart. My post the other week on Mozart in Prague reminded me of another memorable opera experience I’ve had, this one of hearing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at London’s Royal Opera House (aka Covent Garden).
I’ve written before how the opera at Covent Garden is completely within reach of the budget traveller, so, unless you really cannot stand opera (and I won’t hold that against you), there is no reason not to go. The website for the Royal Opera House is easy to use and the nifty thing about ordering tickets online is that you see the view of the stage you will have from the exact seat you’ve selected before you commit to your purchase. How cool is that?
What’s particularly fun about the cheap seats (once you’ve caught your breath from climbing waaaaaay up into the rafters of the building) is what a terrific view you have of a truly remarkable building. And ― bonus ― you have a bird’s-eye view of the performance. I witnessed the dramatic entrance of the barber (that would be the Barber of Seville) as he ran all the way down the aisle from the back of the auditorium to the stage ― something the people sitting at the front of the orchestra level missed because all the action took place behind them.
Sadly, I have no photos of the interior of Covent Garden ― that will have to wait until my next visit to London. Here, though, is a picture of its exterior, which dates back to 1858. I took this photo after stopping by the box office to pick up my ticket that I had purchased weeks earlier before leaving home. It was the last time I saw the beautiful, Italian-made leather wallet I had bought a few years earlier in Rome ― less than a half hour later, I would reach into my bag to realize it was gone.
But that’s a story for another post.
I went to Cambridge for one reason and one reason only: to hear the King’s College Choir.
I got to hear them sing a Choral Eucharist service in this chapel, the King’s College Chapel of King’s College of the University of Cambridge. Quite the chapel. Quite the choir.
I don’t remember much else of the University of Cambridge or the city of Cambridge. It was a quick one-night stop at the end of a three-week English walkabout and I was weary of sight-seeing.
But I’m never weary of choral music. It was worth the stop.
When I applied to and was accepted at the University of Toronto, I enrolled as a student at Woodsworth College. I didn’t get the whole college-thing they had going at U of T, and didn’t much care what college they stuck me in, but eventually I discovered that all unclassified and part-time students (I was both) were lumped together at Woodsworth.
When I would introduce myself to my fellow undergrads, the first question after “What’s your major?” was always: “What college are you?” I quickly figured out that each college at U of T had its own personality, and prestige, and Woodsworth didn’t rank very high with respect to either.
This all seemed rather strange and unusual to me. In Western Canada, you applied to and enrolled in a faculty; in my case, I was a student in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. Colleges were independent entities, completely separate from the universities; I had attended one of those as well before transferring to U of A.
Like I said, I didn’t “get” the whole college-thing they had going at U of T.
Until I got to Oxford, that is.
Oxford is chockfull of colleges ― 38 of them, in fact ― and as I wandered around the “city of dreaming spires,” I came to the realization that the University of Toronto is modelled after the University of Oxford. So that’s where U of T got the idea for all those colleges, I said to myself.
Many of the colleges of Oxford University are open to the public, and I walked reverently through several of them. I happened to walk by the entrance to the chapel of Magdalen College (where C.S. Lewis taught) and was warmly invited to attend the Choral Evensong service that was about to begin. In the Great Hall of Christ Church College, I was greeted by an elderly gent whose sole job seemed to be pointing out the “Alice” window to visitors. (That would be the stained glass window put in to commemorate the author Lewis Carroll, who had been a Christ Church scholar.)
Oxford is a beautiful town. I explored it while on walkabout in the English countryside some years ago, fell in love with it, and made a promise to one day return to it.
Kenwood House is one of those grand estate houses popular with tourists who want to see Downton Abbey–style houses. It’s currently closed while undergoing renovations. I’m sure that’s a huge disappointment for any tourists travelling to England this summer who were hoping to pay it a visit.
For me, not so much, because its closure gave Kenwood House a reason to send its artwork on tour to the United States. And ― talk about timing ― my friends and I got to see that artwork during our two days in Seattle, only days before the exhibition was due to close.
Rembrandt, Van Dyk, Gainsborough: The Treasures of the Kenwood House, London consists of 48 remarkable works of art. In addition to the Dutch masters and the paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, the exhibition also includes works by Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner.
“This show puts the Vancouver Art Gallery to shame,” one of my friends whispered to me as we bumped into each other in one of the gallery rooms. I nodded in agreement, awestruck. I don’t often get to see art of this calibre.
The Kenwood House exhibition was paired with a second exhibition entitled European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle, which included works by Eugène Delacroix, Frans Hals, and others, all borrowed from local private collections. I thought the two companion exhibitions complemented each other well.
Rembrandt, Van Dyk, Gainsborough: The Treasures of the Kenwood House, London has moved on to the Arkansas Art Center, my readers in Little Rock will be happy to hear. As for me, I’ve added Kenwood House to my list of art galleries to visit the next time in London. The collection is worth a second look.
All eyes are once again on London as it’s the opening day of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Having lived in a host city, I can say from personal experience that the Olympic spirit is alive and well when you’re on the ground in the thick of it. When you’re watching the Olympics from afar, however, that spirit can be overshadowed by the politics and the commercialism and the media looking for a story. My hope is that Londoners will enjoy the party as much as I did here in Vancouver in 2010.
This time, not being in the thick of it, I will spend the next few weeks cheering for the athletes who proudly represent Canada, enjoying what glimpses of London I’ll see on my TV, and brushing up on my world geography. (Quick, everyone: Where’ s Comoros?)
Today was First Night of the Proms at the BBC Proms, aka The World’s Greatest Classical Music Festival. It runs every summer for eight weeks until Last Night of the Proms in September.
The festival was founded in 1895 when a fellow named Robert Newman, then manager of the Queen’s Hall, decided to start a music festival. He told the conductor he hired, Sir Henry Wood, that he planned to train the public to listen to, and thereby create the demand for, classical and modern music. (I just love (love!) that mentality ― “If you build it, they will come.”)
The Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz, and so the Proms were moved to Royal Albert Hall. If you’ve ever been inside Royal Albert Hall, then you know what a spectacular concert hall it is. I’ve been to two concerts there: one of Van Morrison and, a few years later, one of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Elgar, accompanied by Julian Lloyd Webber (yes, brother to that Lloyd Webber) on the cello.
Both concerts only whetted my appetite for more, so one of these years, I’ve promised myself, I plan to spend the summer “promming”* in London. Until then, I content myself with listening to the concerts on BBC Radio 3 via the Internet.
*Promming is when you queue up for the £5 ticket that gives you access to the standing areas in the arena (directly in front of the stage) or up in the gallery. They’re cheaper than the reserved seats, but there is a catch: you stand for the entire concert.
All eyes were on London this past weekend as it celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. I would have loved to have been there in person, being the sap that I am for all things historical, royal, and British.
Here is a photo of the statue of Queen Victoria on the northeast side of the Victoria Memorial that stands in front of Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria is the only other British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, which she did way back in 1897.
Last weekend I was out with friends who are busy planning a spring trip to England. I was pleased at how excited they are, and I had great fun answering their questions and throwing out suggestions of what I thought they had to see and do in London.
My brain kept churning after I said good-night to them, however, and by the time I arrived home I had another long list of must-sees and must-dos. At which point I said to myself, “Enough, already! There’s your next blog post half written.”
So, here it is: My ideal itinerary for a week in London.
Day 1: Direct flights from Vancouver to London arrive mid-day. Buy your Oyster card (more on that later) and take the Tube into central London. After check-in and a shower to wash the detritus of air travel off your body, set off for a few hours of sight-seeing. You’re jet-lagged, so find something simulating enough to keep you awake, but nothing too strenuous or that takes too much thought. A couple of summers ago, a friend and I zipped over to St. Paul’s Cathedral and went to Choral Evensong on our arrival afternoon. The services are held daily at 5 p.m.; for me, personally, there’s nothing more English than choral music at St. Paul’s.
Or, if the weather is cooperating, take a walk through one of London’s beautiful parks to stretch your legs after the long flight. St. James’s Park and Green Park are beautiful, and from either park you can catch your first glimpse of Buckingham Palace. By this point, the fact that you are in London should start to feel very real.
Day 2: My friends will be in London too early to see Buckingham Palace as it’s open to the public in the summer months only. But Changing the Guard in the Palace’s forecourt takes place every second morning in the winter and daily in the summer. If you want to see this colourful ceremony, I have two words for you: Go Early. And if the crowds are too much for you, walk over to the Horse Guards Parade where you can watch a smaller change ceremony, or stake a spot anywhere along the Birdcage Walk to see the regiments as they pass by on their way to or from Buckingham Palace.
In the afternoon, check out an art gallery. All of the major ones have free admission, so duck in and out of them throughout the week according to your mood. My advice, after you’ve decided on which gallery to go to (there are enough to suit any taste), is to choose a wing to focus on ― that’s plenty of viewing pleasure for one afternoon.
Bear with me now, as London has some heavyweights. The National Gallery houses Western European paintings from the 13th to early 20th centuries. The National Portrait Gallery is the British portrait collection from the 16th century to current day, and Tate Britain focuses on British art from the same period. (It has a particularly fine collection of works by J.M.W. Turner.) Tate Modern holds international modern and contemporary art.
If spending an afternoon looking at art is not your cup of tea, then I recommend the Churchill War Rooms located at the opposite end of St. James’s Park from Buckingham Palace. The museum is inside the actual bunker used by the British government during World War II.
Day 3: By now, your internal clock should be adjusted to Greenwich Mean Time, so you’re ready for a heavy day of sight-seeing. Buy your tickets online to avoid the long queues at the Tower of London, the highlight of which is the collection of Crown Jewels. I was 13 years old when I last saw the jewels, but I still remember how dazzling they were.
When you are finished touring the Tower, cross Tower Bridge and take a long walk along the South Bank of the Thames. You might stop for lunch at the many outdoor terraced restaurants. Or, treat yourself to a splendid meal at the top of the Tate Modern where you have a million-pound view of the Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s.
Once fortified, continue walking until you reach the London Eye. If you are keen to get up high for a good view, this is the best there is. It’s pricey, but it will help you get your bearings if you’re still trying to orientate yourself in this massive city.
Day 4: If you enjoy museums, then the world’s your oyster in London. Again, they are all free admission. Head to the British Museum in the heart of Bloomsbury if history’s your thing, and don’t miss the Elgin Marbles on the main floor, just off the Great Court. When you are all mummied out, take a walking tour of what might be the most literary neighbourhood in the English-speaking world and see where Virginia Woolf lived and where T.S. Eliot worked as an editor.
For more recent history, go to the Imperial War Museum. Walk to the Thames afterwards for a photo op of the Houses of Parliament. Once there, you’re just around the corner from Westminster Abbey. Both are open to the public.
And if art and design are where your interests lie, you need to be at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Post-V&A, enjoy everything Hyde Park has to offer: Speaker’s Corner, the Albert Memorial, and the Diana Memorial Fountain are all within this vast park.
Day 5: It’s time for an excursion. Windsor, home of Eton College and Windsor Castle, is an hour from London by coach or train. Greenwich is closer and also offers a full day of sightseeing including the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Naval College, all situated in beautiful Greenwich Park. The Royal Observatory is the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian (longitude 0° ― for those readers interested in this sort of trivia).
Day 6: If you find the big museums and galleries too intimidating, then take a day to check out some of the smaller ones. I can recommend Keats House in Hampstead, where the Romantic poet John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820, after which you must take a turn on Hampstead Heath. There’s also the Handel House Museum, where the composer lived from 1723 until his death in 1759, or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at ― you guessed it ― 221B Baker Street.
These last two museums are near Oxford Street. If you’re interested in a bit of shopping, this is where you want to be, but be aware that Oxford Street on a Sunday afternoon is as busy as any North American mall in December. Charing Cross Road is the street for bookstores, Portobello Road for antiques, and Camden Market is where you’ll find that one-of-a-kind souvenir to bring home to your kids.
Day 7: Your last day! I’m sure there’s something on your list you still haven’t gotten to, so this is your chance to squeeze it in.
Wondering what to do in the evenings? If you’re into theatre, be sure to check out the board at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. The deals are great, and the acting in London’s West End is the best I’ve ever seen. I still get goose bumps when I think of the mesmerizing performance I witnessed of Derek Jacobi, Trevor Eve, and Imogen Stubbs in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which I watched from the front row of the Albery Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane. Or, bring back memories of your high-school English classes by taking in a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, the modern reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre.
My friend’s husband is a jazz musician, so they’ll be checking out some jazz clubs. Another option for live music is the opera; tickets to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden are a bargain at £9 if you don’t mind sitting in the upper slips (and aren’t afraid of heights!). Book your tickets online before you leave home. Or find something you’re interested in hearing at Royal Albert Hall, if only to get a look at the inside of this magnificent concert hall.
A suggestion to help you save money on transit: buy an Oyster Card to use on London’s Underground. They are valid on both the Tube and the buses, and are much cheaper than buying individual fares. And remember, although the Tube is faster, nothing beats seeing London from the top of a double-decker bus. The Heritage Routemaster service (Route 15) is a fun way to get from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London.
So there you have it: my ideal itinerary for a week in London. One last bit of advice: leave something on your to-do list to make sure you come back. Because London is a city that requires repeat visits.