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TR: Solo in London, Museums, and a Private Tour of Parliament

TR: Solo in London, Museums, and a Private Tour of Parliament

Jul 30th, 2011, 06:15 PM
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TR: Solo in London, Museums, and a Private Tour of Parliament

PROLOGUE: (as Chaucer called it) I had an unfortunate experience last summer when I fell four days into my trip to Britain (even sidewalk, 10 AM, clear weather – who knows?) Was told in Edinburgh that I needed surgery for a broken wrist. Left the next day for Boston – luckily British Air put me in first class which I really appreciated. Healed quickly, vowing to return this summer which I did in mid-July.

DISCLAIMER: I am most interested in history/art/ and literature (“retired” English teacher, but please do not hold that against me!) Not much interested in shopping, fine dining, or photography although I enjoy pics that others take. Last year (before my fall) I visited the CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS and WESTMINSTER ABBEY which just whetted my appetite to return to London and “do” as many museums and historical sites as possible.

THURSDAY: arrived at Heathrow, took a pre-arranged HOTEL BY BUS shuttle to my hotel THE STRAND PALACE. Three other passengers were dropped off on the way, and I enjoyed the circuit through Kennsington, Chelsea, and Belgravia. The traffic was horrendous so I was glad I was not in a taxi! In preparation for the 2012 Olympics, it seems there is construction and road re-surfacing everywhere.

Arrived at the STRAND PALACE around 3 PM, unpacked, and dozed off for a few hours. I must say that I was completely satisfied with this hotel which was recommended on this board (thanks!). The building is vintage but all of the rooms have been cleanly updated. I had single which was small but very comfortable. The walls are white and the lighting for reading is excellent which is very important to me. I have been in finer hotels in Europe where that was not the case. I love scanning the British papers and continued reading THE CHURCHILLS IN LOVE AND WAR by Mary S. Lovell. What a story – there were some “bad boys” on that family tree. Highly recommend the book for lovers of British history.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION is the greatest advantage of the STRAND PALACE (directly across from the upscale SAVOY HOTEL). Leaving the hotel to the right, one is in TRAFALGAR SQUARE in a few minutes. Leaving the hotel to the left, one is near Fleet Street, the CITY, and not far from ST. PAUL’S. The hotel was most convenient for making pit stops between my destinations. I did not have to ride the Tube at all and used the bus only once. The hot buffet breakfast was excellent. Confession: I ate too many of those juicy sausages each morning but they were delicious.

I came to at 6 PM – a beautiful evening. My destination was the BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HOUSE on 63 Craven Street, not far from Charring Cross Station a few minutes from my hotel. Franklin had lived there working on his diplomatic and scientific endeavors from 1757 – 1775. Craven Street contains charming row houses built around 1730. Unfortunately, Franklin’s house was closed at this late hour and I did not return but enjoyed seeing the neighborhood. From there I visited the SHERLOCK HOLMES PUB for a quick one on 10-11 Northumberland Street close by. The pub is touristy but fun. I then decided to get take-out (or “take-away” as the Brits say) and return to my hotel and watch the Murdock thing unfold on Sky News.

FRIDAY: I awoke at 8:30, very late for me, but then my jet lag was over. After a quick breakfast, I headed up the Strand, around Aldwych, eventually coming to the CHARLES DICKENS MUSUEM on 48 Doughty Street. I had mapped the route on WALKIT.COM – approximately 1.1 mile. Although Dickens is not my favorite British novelist, I greatly admire his life and work as detailed in a recent biography CHARLES DICKENS by Michael Slater. Dickens lived in many places in London and surrounds, but Doughty Street is his only home that still stands. The residence is a row house among many others, not unlike Franklin’s on Craven Street. Admission is reasonable, £7 for adults, £5 concessions (moi), and £3 for children. One can watch a video which gives a good introduction to the author before viewing the exhibits. Many of these feature Dickens’s contributions to theater and his philanthropic support of lesser known writers and artists. The site also includes a small café.

By now it was near noon. I had planned to do a LONDON WALKS “The Inns of Court – London’s Legal Enclave” which would meet at 2 PM near the Holborn Tube station. But since the weather was beautiful and rain was (accurately) predicted for the next few days, I decided to head back and take a Thames cruise up to Greenwich that afternoon. Checking my map, I did my own tour of the law courts, following another route back through Grey’s Inn and the Temple – “a warren of cloisters, courtyards, and passageways set amongst some of the best gardens in London.” The place is redolent of privilege, a cross between the cloisters of Oxford and the shades of Harvard Yard. The young lady barristers, dressed in smart black business suits, chattered in groups while checking their cell phones. Following Fleet Street back to the Strand, I caught the flavor of the City.

After a quick stop at the hotel (so convenient), I headed back through Trafalgar Square and proceeded down Whitehall, a .6 mile avenue of government ministries and offices, studded with statues and memorials, that runs from Charring Cross (Trafalgar Sq.) to Parliament Square. This thoroughfare is the seat of the British Government. Part way down on the left, I noticed that the Banqueting House was open (not always the case). The structure was designed by Indigo Jones in 1622 and is all that is left of the original Whitehall Palace after a fire in 1698. The highlight is the magnificent ceiling painted in Antwerp by Peter Paul Reubens, reflecting the elegant tastes of Charles I and his court. Unfortunately for Charles, he was later beheaded on the site in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell came to power. A video of that historic event can be seen in the lower hall of the Banqueting House. Admission £5.

I then proceeded down Whitehall to Westminster Pier, teeming with people, and took a Thames excursion down to Greenwich. In addition to viewing again the famous London landmarks on the way, one sees the recent (stylish & expensive!) condos on both banks of the river. I did not stay that long in Greenwich because I planned to visit the National Gallery that evening which is open on Fridays until 9 PM.

The NATIONAL GALLERY did not disappoint. Located in Trafalgar Square, the site houses great European art from 1250-1900. Unlike other European museums built around royal collections such as the Louvre or the Hermitage, the National Gallery was founded in 1824, building its acquisitions through purchase and donations. I had studied the scheme of the collections online so I immediately turned to the right upon entering to view my favorite – the French Impressionists. I stood for some time before van Gogh’s SUNFLOWERS – magnificent. The rooms, which were not that crowded, were smaller than I had expected. A few other of my favorites included Gainsborough’s MR. AND MRS. ANDREWS, Constable’s THE HAY WAIN, Hogarth’s MARRIAGE-A-LA-MODE, and Rembrandt’s BELSHAZZAR’S FEAST. Of course, the National Gallery has a great gift shop. Admission is free.

Exiting the Gallery, I lingered in Trafalgar Square enjoying the lovely summer evening and vibrancy of that unique place. I strolled back to the Stand Palace and stopped for a glass of wine in the bar. There I met a charming couple from Kent who had come to town to see the new musical “Ghosts” on Saturday night. We talked at length about travel, especially their adventures in Singapore and Indonesia. It was perfect ending for the day.

Next: SATURDAY, SUNDAY & MONDAY at Parliament.
latedaytraveler is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 05:14 AM
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Fantastic report!
cmcfong is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 05:24 AM
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nice start, ldt. i too am sold on staying as centrally as possible - it makes such a difference as you demonstrate, toe able to nip back to the hotel for a rest, or to deposit something/ pick something up.

did you have a look at the temple gardens? they are beautiful this time of year.
annhig is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 06:56 AM
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Thank you, Cmcfong


Annhig, I did not view the whole gardens but I thought the area was fascinating. I always enjoy your posts. After my five day solo trek in London, I joined a tour to Devon and Cornwall, your neighborhood, which I thoroughly enjoyed. More later….
latedaytraveler is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 07:20 AM
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Very nice report. Have not stayed at the Strand Palace in years and am glad you have brought up it's renovation. It really is especially convenient. Do hope you made it around the corner to the National Portrait Gallery when you were at Trafalgar. Those 2 are my favorites and we spend a few hours there each trip.We have the Franklin House on this year's list as it has been for several yars so hope we make it. Thanks also for the book recos!
avalon is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 07:33 AM
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Another history fan here. thanks for the book recommendations!

Thanks for sharing the story of your travels. Please continue!
irishface is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 07:47 AM
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Hi, another interested solo lady traveler following your trip. Looking forward to the Devon/Cornwall part.

May I ask what the single at the Strand cost and how you booked it? Many thanks.
scotlib is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 08:16 AM
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From a not-yet-retired English teacher: Well-done! I look forward to the rest of your adventures. Your organization and attentiveness to details (and clear, correct writing) make this a most pleasant read. The only problem is--it makes me want to go back RIGHT NOW! Carry on!
texasbookworm is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 09:01 AM
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I'm loving your report, especially as I will be solo in London in October. And I appreciate your book recommendations. Keep them and your trip report coming!
enewell is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 09:03 AM
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me too!

BTW, should you happen to be in the Temple at around dusk, you make see the lamp--lighter coming round to light the gas-lamps. it's often used to film period dramas because of the lack of "modern" amenities, like electric light. and if you want to see a truly grand building, cross the Strand to the Royal Courts of Justice. it's mock gothic, rather than the real thing, but imposing for all that.
annhig is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 12:09 PM
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Avalon, I did make it to the Picture Gallery the next day. Please report on how you enjoyed the Benjamin Franklin House when you go.


Irishface, glad you enjoyed the book suggestions – sometimes I hesitate to add them

Scotlib, I am old fashioned and have a travel agent make arrangements for my trips – I believe the cost for a single room at the Strand Palace was $200 or thereabouts. That included an excellent breakfast and the free use of three computers in the lobby. Basically, they were pretty available.


Texasbookworm, gracias, that’s a real compliment coming from another English teacher. I love to write. In fact, my former students and colleagues still ask me for letters of recommendation.


Annhig, sorry I missed the lamp lighting – must be something to see


Thank you all…
latedaytraveler is offline  
Jul 31st, 2011, 12:36 PM
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Annhig, sorry I missed the lamp lighting – must be something to see>>

you get used to it after a while!
annhig is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 03:37 AM
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SATURDAY, July 16: Rain, as predicted. My destination was THE WALLACE COLLECTION, Manchester Square off Oxford Street not far from Marble Arch. I took the wrong bus whose terminus was Oxford Circle, so I trudged to my destination up Oxford Street with hood up and umbrella open.


The museum is housed in Hereford House, the ducal residence of the 4th Marquess of Hereford, art collector extraordinaire and his illegitimate son Richard Wallace who bequeathed the collection and property to the nation around 1900. Admission is free – donations gratefully accepted.


I am at a loss to describe their treasures of 18th century French paintings, porcelain, furniture, bibelots, medieval and Renaissance works, and “the finest collections of princely arms and armour in Britain.” Their website – wallacecollection.org – gives an excellent overview of the mansion and its holdings. I arrived just in time for a tour conducted by charming docent who obviously was also fluent in French. The 4th Marquess and his son Richard Wallace spent a good deal of their lives in Paris where they collected madly – presumably many of their finds were plentiful and cheap (all things being relative) in the years following the French Revolution. The Hereford wealth was derived from landholdings in England and Ireland.


To name just a few treasures: the magnificent staircase balustrade designed with motifs popular in the reign of Louis XV, Frogonard’s THE SWING (1767 iconic image for the Wallace Collection), Frans Hals THE LAUGHING CAVALIER (1624), and American painter Thomas Sully’s flattering portrait of the young QUEEN ELIZABETH (1838). Not sure why the latter work is not in Buckingham Palace. Obviously, the Marquess and Mr. Wallace were well connected. According to the terms of their bequest, no item in the collection can be sold or loaned. The Wallace Collection facility has added a lovely dining room in the covered courtyard in the rear which was filled to capacity the day I visited.


One regret. When I returned home and was reading the Wallace Guidebook, I noticed that I had missed several paintings by Ernest Meissonier. But who’s he? A few years back I read THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS: MANET, MESSONIER, AND AN ARTISTIC REVOLUTION by Marion Boddy-Evans. The work contrasts the career of the classical painter Meissonier, who enjoyed tremendous fame and fortune, against that of Manet and his contemporaries who were struggling to gain acceptance in the Salon. We all know how that worked out - Messonier’s technical virtuosity became passé as the Impressionists flourished.


Back out on the street and still raining, I made my way to Selfridges Food Hall and had a dish of ice cream to keep up my strength while watching a crowd of Londoners sip champagne and eat oysters at the bar. Caught the bus down Oxford Street, thronged with young Saturday afternoon shoppers looking for that “perfect look” for Saturday night – remember? Noticed Zara’s where the Duchess of Cambridge is said to shop sometimes.


Mid afternoon- off the bus at Trafalgar Square, a good time to visit THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY just behind the NATIONAL GALLERY. Not too crowded. Enjoyed looking at the offbeat and amusing contemporary pictures. Loved the 2009 painting of Prince William and Prince Harry by Nicola Jane Philipps informally posed in their military dress, similar to what they wore at “the wedding.” Haven’t these young royals rejuvenated the image of the monarchy? Then I drifted through the galleries of other historic periods where so many paintings looked familiar, especially those in the Victorian and Edwardian wing. Caught several depictions of Lord Randolph Churchill (1848-1895), Winston’s father. According to the book I am presently reading, THE CHURCHILLS IN LOVE AND WAR, Winston’s life was scarred by his attempts to establish a better relationship with his father whose biography he later wrote.


When I used the ladies’ room on the third floor, I peeked into the PORTRAIT RESTAURANT which provides a fabulous rooftop view of Trafalgar Square and Whitehall down to Parliament and the Abbey. The restaurant is open during museum hours and also Saturday night. Looked like a great place for a special occasion.


Out into the sunshine and back to the nearby Strand Palace to crash for a while and check on the progress of the Murdock matter on the telly. Around 7 PM the weather looked great as it so often does after a rain. By the way, the Strand Palace Hotel does not have AC, if that is important to you. It certainly was not an issue during my stay because the weather was cool and raw at times while the US was experiencing a record breaking heat wave.


I then took a stroll down Pall Mall, checking out those residences and private clubs so often referred to in British history, past St. James Palace, and back to The Mall near the Buckingham Palace. The Mall reminded me of the scene in the film THE KING’S SPEECH when George VI and his tutor Lionel Logue have a heated discussion while strolling outside through a similar venue.



SUNDAY, July 17: More rain and cold. Still in my Churchill mode, I had considered taking a day excursion with VIATOURS to BLENHEIM (ancestral home of Winston’s forefathers, the Dukes of Marlborough) AND THE COTSWOLDS. But the trip included lunch and an extensive tour of local villages which made the trip too long. The next day I would be changing hotels before my tour of Devon and Cornwall, and rendezvousing with my hosts for the tour of Parliament.


I decided to bite the bullet and visit the BRITISH MUSEUM which was less than a mile walk through Covent Garden and Seven Dials to Bloomsbury. The streets were quiet after the revels of Saturday night. Few people were in sight until I approached the Museum where I saw a cast of thousands who seemed to come out of nowhere. I think that most who have visited the site will agree that it is overwhelming. Where to start? I definitely wanted to see the Rosetta Stone (you can’t miss it) and the ELGIN MARBLES whose return our Greek friends in Athens are awaiting.


The “marbles” are statues and friezes taken from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin who paid for their transport back to London in 1801 with the intention of making them available to the public. They are displayed to great effect in the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum, built expressly for that purpose by Sir Joseph Duveen in the early 1930s. When I asked one of the attendants, “Wasn’t Joseph Duveen the famous art dealer?” she replied, “Oh no, he was a member of the House of Lords.” Of course, I had to look the matter up and he was a very controversial and highly successful art dealer allied with the famous American ex-pat art connoisseur Bernard Berenson. Duveen’s famous quote summarizes his MO in the early 20th century: “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.” However, that is another story but may of interest to art lovers. Berenson’s life and work is fascinating.


Leaving the Museum, the skies open up again and I had to retreat to a doorway for some 20 minutes. At Seven Dials, a small road junction in Covent Garden, I was totally off course but soon found my way. Regrets – I had a few when I realized that although I am not that much into live performances, I should have seen “Yes, Mr. Prime Minister” at the Gielgud Theater. But there are no performances on Sunday and time was short.


After a brief respite at my hotel, I set out again. My destination was APSLEY HOUSE, “Number One London,” the gift of a grateful nation to the Duke of Wellington after his defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Paintings include those by Correggio, Velazquez, Goya, and Murillo. I had intended to walk from Trafalgar Square, down the Mall, past Buckingham Palace, up Constitution Hill to Hyde Park Corner where the museum is located. However, the weather was “iffy” and the flesh is weak. I decided to use my ORIGINAL BUS TOUR ticket that came with my upcoming tour (worth £23 for 24 hours) and get off at Hyde Park Corner.


However, the heavens opened up again. As we crossed Westminster Bridge the scene was like an impressionist painting with folks scurrying hither and yon, umbrellas unfurled. Why fight it? I settled in and decided to ride comfy and dry yet again through the streets of London. I was attentive to every street sign. Many squares and such as Eccleston, Belgravia, was one of Winston’s early addresses. The trip was lengthy due to traffic delays which the bus driver attributed to blocked off streets to accommodate parades and protests on Sunday. I hopped off just below Piccadilly. Passing through Trafalgar Square (yet again), I heard a beautiful chorus of men’s voices who were celebrating Cypriot independence.


Back at the Strand Palace, I changed and went to dinner at a Tapas place in St. Martin’s Lane.


Next: Parliament on Monday (stay tuned)
latedaytraveler is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 04:06 AM
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"In preparation for the 2012 Olympics, it seems there is construction and road re-surfacing everywhere."

Construction and road resurfacing is a way of life in London. Some of it might be suspended round the Olympics (though I wouldn't bet real money). But it'll be back right after - and carry on indefinitely.

The most visible project to visitors - work round Oxford St for Crossrail - has nothing to do with the games, and will carry on until at least 2016. The line itself won't open till 2018
flanneruk is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 07:22 AM
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I'm enjopying your report a great deal - especially this quote which caught my eye ref. The Banquetting Housebr />
"Unfortunately for Charles, he was later beheaded on the site in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell came to power. A video of that historic event can be seen in the lower hall of the Banqueting House. Admission £5."

I didn't realise that Cromwell had had it filmed for posterity - how farsighted of him! What perspicacity!

Keep up the good work!

Dr D.
Dr_DoGood is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 09:00 AM
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I'm enjoying this, thank you for taking the time to write it in such detail yet make it interesting!

Looking forward to reading the rest, especially the SW England part.
julia_t is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 09:57 AM
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Loving this trip report.
I stayed at the Strand Palace for a week a few years ago, and like that hotel very much. As I noted in my TripAdvisor revivew at the time, location, location, location. I had a room overlooking the entrance to the Savoy across the road, and liked watching the doorman and the hoity-toity coming and going.
cynthia_booker is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 10:44 AM
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Flanneruk, thanks for the explanation. Is it an underground line that is being planned? Must be vexing for those who work in the area.


Dr. Do-Good – touché! The execution at the BANQUETING HOUSE is depicted with prints and narration. Later in the trip, I learned of the gruesome retribution that Charles II took after his restoration on those who executed his father, including exhuming the corpses of those assassins long dead and desecrating their remains.
Meaning no offense to anyone, but having been brought up in a Boston Irish Catholic household years ago, anything having to do with Oliver Cromwell was anathema!


Julia, the southwest part was a 7 night Trafalgar tour of Devon and Cornwall that I will describe briefly later. It suited my needs well.


Cynthia, unfortunately, my room at the Strand Palace did not have a view of the Savoy. I had thought of having a cocktail there but the narrow entrance from the Strand and that omniscient Savoy doorman on the street discouraged me!
latedaytraveler is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 12:23 PM
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most interesting, ldt. you've seen bits of london that in 15 years of living and working there, i never reached.

looking forward to more!
annhig is offline  
Aug 1st, 2011, 04:59 PM
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Thank you, Annhig. Like all visitors to London - so many choices - so little time. I did visit St. Paul's some years ago which I thought spectacular. I did not visit the Tower because, I have been told, it is so time consuming, although I would LOVE to see the Crown Jewels. Not interested in Madame Toussard's either. I did visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum last years - I knew it would be tacky but I just had to walk along Baker Street!
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