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

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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.

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