London in the Time of Nothing Open

I am not complaining. I want to make that clear. I have been to London twice before on more hurried visits with different agendas when everything was open. I had to manoeuvre through crowded crowds of people and their children, for not very satisfying views of well-known sights. I haven’t had that problem on this visit. I expect that it will change soon, perhaps even by the fall, when I will return to London.

The title is a minor exaggeration. There are things open, but they are not tourist sights per se. Cafes, hotels, stores, pubs, and many restaurants are open, so as a visitor it is quite possible to survive, although finding a place to sit down and rest your feet for a few minutes is challenging. Most cafes (and all Starbucks) are takeaway only, and there are no seats available. Some cafes are able to provide “socially distanced” seating, but I’ve only found two – one with partitions and one with enough space for appropriate seating. Even then, their main business was takeaway.

Buses are running, and taxis, and some Tube lines are running, but most of the Tube stations are still closed, and generally, public transportation is discouraged. Fortunately, I am a walker, and so far, I’ve tallied about four miles per day. I know by reading the directional signposts that tell me how far it is to my destination. And, by George, it’s really good for me, right?

My hotel is on Queensborough Terrace, which is lined with structures like this, many of them also small hotels. The odd blocks of white light are reflections from the windows behind me. It’s amazing to me, the things we don’t see until we look at the photo.

The great thing about walking around London is that I can stop whenever I want and look at the buildings. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the incredible decorations – lions, friezes, brickwork and stained glass – it is a serious feast for the eyes. These buildings (below) were all on the same street, on the same block, near Oxford Street.

I took a shopping day on Monday, and walked to Selfridge’s, which is on Oxford Street. It’s a large department store that has changed their business model by sub-leasing parts of their store to other enterprises, such as Topshop, Lululemon, and Sweaty Betty, and the jewelry counters were all sublets. Some parts of the store are still Selfridge’s, I assume, but it was hard to tell. I ended up making several visits during this week.

Opening time queue at Selfridge’s. A member of staff came out just after I snapped this to make sure people were keeping to 2m spacing. We all had hand sanitising at the door.
Someone had a brilliant inspiration in the public works department. Habits are so strong. Even with these reminders, I find myself looking the wrong direction first. The good news is that I always look, which is the main thing. (And, yes, sometimes they say “Look Both Ways.”)
Not far from my hotel.
Passing Paddington Station, one of the few Tube stations open. And my eternally crooked smile.
Not the main campus, but a branch near Paddington Station.
Tuesday morning, I walked to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, near Regents Park. They were closed, but I’d never even been to 221B. As a long-standing fan, it was a necessary stop.
As you might expect, many shops try to capitalise on their Baker Street location.

Hyde Park is huge, and I still haven’t been through all of it. Monday, I had stopped at the Italian Fountains on my way to Selfridge’s. It was sunny then, as you can see. Tuesday, I decided to explore the west area around Kensington Palace.

Hyde Park began as acreage that King Henry VIII acquired in 1536 so that he would have a handy place to hunt deer. It’s not clear when the character changed from hunting ground to park, but it was probably in the 1690s, after King William III and Queen Mary II moved into Kensington Palace.

The palace itself began life as a mansion built in 1605 by Sir George Coppin in the village of Kensington, outside of London. In 1619, it was purchased by Haneage Finch, the 1st Earl of Nottingham, and became known as Nottingham House.

It was when William and Mary ascended the throne in 1689, becoming William III and Mary II, that Nottingham House became Kensington Palace. King William suffered from asthma, and Whitehall Palace, then the royal residence, was located too near the fog and floods of the River Thames, so they looked for a better location. They bought Nottingham House for twenty thousand pounds, and instructed their Surveyor of the King’s Works, Sir Christopher Wren, to expand the mansion.

William and Mary moved into Kensington Palace just prior to Christmas, 1689, and the palace remained the primary royal residence for the next seventy years. Queen Anne added the Orangery (now a restaurant,) and Queen Victoria was born in the palace in 1819. The state apartments were opened as a museum in 1899.

Kensington Palace is owned by the Crown Estate, which makes the palace available to the reigning monarch and her descendants “to use as they wish,” mainly as living quarters. Currently, there are about sixty people living there, notably the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in a four-story apartment within the palace, but there are other royals, military, courtiers, and staff that live throughout the palace complex.

Approaching Kensington Palace from the Hyde Park side, there is a lovely statue, a tribute to Queen Victoria honoring her fifty years as queen. The plaque notes that the statue is “the work of her daughter,” but doesn’t name her. One source said it was Princess Louise. The tribute was given by Queen Victoria’s “loyal Kensington subjects.”

The east side of the Palace.
The south side. The gate is decorated with birthday wishes for Diana, Princess of Wales.
King William III stands watch along the south side of the palace.

Because the parks are right next to each other, it took a couple of map readings for me to realize that what I was calling “Hyde Park” was actually two entities: Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens is adjacent to Kensington Palace, and extends from the palace to West Carriage Drive, which seems to form the boundary. On the other side is Hyde Park. Kensington Gardens has the Prince Albert Memorial and the Diana Memorial Playground, whereas Hyde Park has Speaker’s Corner and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. The two parks have separate park offices, but for the casual user, they are functionally one big park, and it is a very popular place.

The Albert Memorial

Anyone who pays attention to English history knows of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was married to Queen Victoria in 1840. They had nine children. Prince Albert had an active interest in the arts, science, industry, and commerce, and, with Henry Cole, was instrumental in organizing the “Great Exhibition of 1851,” a showcase of industry and science, the largest of its day. Between May and October of 1851, about six million people visited the exhibit, which was held in the Crystal Palace, built for the occasion.

Prince Albert died in 1861 of typhoid fever, and Queen Victoria had this memorial built for him. The decorations immediately surrounding the golden statue reflect his interests – commerce, science, arts, and industry, and the four corners of the steps symbolize the reach of the British Empire at that time – the continents of Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.

Colonial issues acknowledged, but the memorial is still a beautiful work of art.


And, across from the Albert Memorial, is the Royal Albert Hall. The capacity was originally designed for 8,000, however, reconfigurations brought the number to 12,000. Current safety standards have reduced the number to 5,272. So, still not really known, Beatles notwithstanding.

The Royal Albert Hall

From the Royal Albert Hall, I walked on to Buckingham Palace, passing the Wellington Arch circle on the way, where several memorials have been placed.

The photos above and below commemorate the Royal Artillery Regiment of World War I, unveiled by FM HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught KG, in 1925.
The Wellington Arch
Originally built as an entrance to Buckingham Palace, it was moved to this spot to become a victory arch proclaiming Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, 1815. The bronze sculpture depicts the Angel of Peace descending on the Quadriga (four-horse chariot) of War.
Part of the gate at the Wellington Arch
The New Zealand War Memorial, “The Southern Stand,” commemorating the contributions of New Zealand in the First and Second World Wars, dedicated on November 11, 2006.
Outside of Buckingham Palace
The current national emblem used by Queen Elizabeth II displayed on the main gates of Buckingham Palace.

The emblem of the United Kingdom contains imagery dating to about 1200. The three lions came into use during the time of Richard I, the Lionhearted. His father, Henry, incorporated the lions that came from the coat of arms of Eleanor of Aquitaine in France into the lions already in the Plantagenet arms. The Celtic harp in the lower left division symbolized Ireland. After the Republic of Ireland was established, it was retained to symbolize Northern Ireland. The upper right division is the lion of Scotland, a traditional emblem, although their national animal is the Unicorn. The Unicorn occupies an equal place with the English lion because the two countries were joined under James I of England (James VI of Scotland) after the death of Elizabeth I. The coronet-collar and chain on the Unicorn is traditional, and was used even when Scotland was a separate kingdom. Unicorns came from Celtic mythology, symbolizing purity and power, but at the same time, were considered dangerous animals and untameable, and therefore held in check by a chain.

A side gate of Buckingham Palace. There are no changing of the guards ceremonies happening, although they are supposed to start again soon. These guards do get to march around a little, about every 15 minutes.
This is “The Balcony,” where members of the royal family appear on special occasions.
A friendly lion along the wall.
Across the way, officially part of St. James’s Park, is the Queen Victoria Memorial. It is 82 feet high, and built with 2,500 tons of white marble.
The Queen, older now, sits with the sceptre and orb, symbols of the monarch, and seems to be reflecting on her life. I think anyone would agree that she had an extraordinary life during a time of great change.
A floral tribute to the National Health Service on the edge of St. James’s Park.
Buckingham Palace from the footbridge in St. James’s Park

The land for St. James’s Park was acquired in 1531 by Henry VIII, and in 1532 he built St. James’s Palace adjacent to his newly acquired deer park. It has served as the official Royal Court since it was built. Even today, ambassadors present their credentials and are recognized by the Court of St. James.

The pelicans came to live in St. James’s Park in 1667 and seem to have prospered here. The London Ring is in the background. It’s not open currently.

From St. James’s Park, I walked on to Parliament Square.

There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court

I become fascinated with the details of these buildings. I know that the decorations include figures and images that are significant to the people of the country, but I don’t know who they are. I’m sure somewhere there’s a key to who they are or what they symbolize, and what their place in history was. (The pictures are dark because it had begun to rain.)

The Parliament Building
Big Ben has had scaffolding on it every time I’ve seen it.
Mahatma Gandhi
Winston Churchill
St. Margaret’s Church, the often overlooked neighbor of Westminster Abbey
A closer view of the entry to St. Margaret’s

This church building, consecrated in 1523, is the third built on this site. St. Margaret’s has been the church of the House of Commons since 1614. It has windows that commemorate Caxton and Milton, who worshipped here, and Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in front of the altar. After about 900 years of service as a parish church for the people of Westminster, St. Margaret’s is now under the care of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, by Act of Parliament in 1973. It is still in regular use for worship and music recitals.

The sign nearby says that “Visitors are welcome to this beautiful church.” But not right now. Like everything else around Parliament Square, it is closed, but I am hoping to catch it – along with many other things – on a return trip this fall.

The windows of the “Lady Chapel” in Westminster Abbey. They are spectacularly colorful when viewed from the inside, which I didn’t have a chance to do during this trip. The outside is also spectacular, just in a different way. I wonder if there’s an entrance to the roof – it looks like it has a railing.
The main entrance of Westminster Abbey. It is still used for daily worship, and I attended the evening prayer service on Wednesday.

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, was founded as a monastery in 960AD under the patronage of King Edgar and direction of Dunstan (later St. Dunstan.) King Edward re-endowed the monastery and built a stone church in honor of St. Peter the Apostle. That church was consecrated on December 28, 1065. Edward died a few days later, which precipitated the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, the first English monarch to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. The remains of King Edward were first interred in front of the High Altar, but were moved to a special shrine within the Abbey after he was canonised in 1161 as St. Edward the Confessor, the first Anglo-Saxon saint.

Henry III tore down Edward’s church, except for the nave, and built the current Abbey. Timing of reigns and sovereigns worked out, so that all of the coronation ceremonies have taken place in Westminster Abbey, even though the building itself changed dramatically. The only monarchs not crowned in Westminster Abbey were Edward V and Edward VIII, because neither of them were crowned at all. The history of Westminster Abbey is intertwined with English history, and is an interesting read all by itself.

It was during the time of Elizabeth I that the modern administrative structure of the Abbey was established: a Dean and Prebendaries, responsible to the Sovereign, not to an archbishop or bishop. It is a “Royal Peculiar.” The Dean and Chapter were tasked with much of the civil government of the City of Westminster, a responsibility it had for over three hundred years, which probably explains the religious figures present on the decorations of the Supreme Court building, pictured earlier in the blog. The civil responsibilities were relinquished in the early 20th century, although the Abbey still has an annual service for Judges at the beginning of the legal year. Two other annual services are a thanksgiving for victory in the Battle of Britain, and the marking of Commonwealth Day.

Thursday, I walked through Hyde Park on my way to Mayfair, Grosvenor Square, and Fortnum & Mason.

The Marble Arch
A memorial tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his leadership during WWII, Grosvenor Square, London
A stone on each corner of the FDR memorial, one for each year of the European War
Walking through Mayfair
I was surprised to see Mackenzie Childs products in Fortnum & Mason, clear across the ocean! The company originated in a small town in Cayuga County, New York.
St. James Palace, the official Royal Court
A memorial to Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII. Unusual in style, it is tucked into the walk between St. James’s Palace and St. James’s Park
The main door of Selfridge’s
The view from the cafe
Tea at Selfridge’s, my dear, is so civilised.
The Marble Arch stands on a corner of Hyde Park. It was created to be an entrance to Buckingham Palace (as was the Wellington Arch,) but didn’t work out. In the end, it was taken apart, and moved to its current location. It was also to this spot that Oliver Cromwell, famous for his role in the English Civil War, having been exhumed, was brought and hung as a traitor by an angry mob.
Feeding the birds in Hyde Park
The Chinatown Gate
I had a rice pot with chicken and sausage and vegetables for lunch.

That’s most of what I saw during this visit to London. Many things I wanted to see are still closed, the museums and palaces, and who knows when the theatres will be open? Still, walking around so much was entertaining by itself – Notting Hill, the Covent Garden Square, Mayfair, Oxford Street, the parks, Chinatown – everyday Brits doing everyday things. And the cabbies, always talkative.

Tomorrow, I will take the LNER train from King’s Cross Station to Waverley Station in Edinburgh, so I can explore Scotland for a while.

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