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