Updated: Jul 6
Two scheduled trips to London fell victim to the pandemic’s tender mercies. The law of averages being what it is, our third scheduled trip fell perfectly into place. Arriving at London’s Heathrow airport on May 4th, we took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then a taxi to our hotel – the decidedly elegant St. Ermin’s.
First opened as a hotel in 1899, the St. Ermin’s hotel is as much an important historical factor and physical work of art as it is a lodging facility. The property has no proper gift shop, but there are items for sale. Notably among them is a book titled House of Spies, which chronicles how British intelligence services used the hotel as a base of strategic planning during WWI and WWII. Among other luminaries, Winston Churchill was a regular patron enjoying champagne in the warm and comfortable Caxton Bar.
Upon arriving at the courtyard entrance, one is struck by the beautiful plantings lining both sides of the drive and the hotel's stunning façade. Expect to be greeted both warmly and efficiently by a doorman clad in black formal attire and wearing a smart bowler. As befits his post, the doorman possesses a wealth of information about the hotel and the area in general. The similarly attired concierge staff (sans bowler) is situated to your left as you enter. A slight bit farther on is the front desk, where legendary British efficiency is on full display, served with impeccably professional friendliness.
A staircase leads to a mezzanine quite breathtaking for its beauty. Ceiling, pillars and walls are adorned with brilliant white, ornately cast plasterwork. An outdoor patio extends toward Caxton Road, creating a comfortable bower for enjoying an afternoon glass of wine or cocktail.
On the 3rd floor guests can view the hotel's bee terrace, which is home to 350k (or so) bees nesting in hotels of their own and providing honey to the kitchen. A rooftop garden similarly provides fresh fruit and vegetables.
Guest rooms are comfortable, equipped with the usual amenities, as well as refrigerators stocked with complimentary water and candy bars. Of particular note are the bathroom's large, white, soft and densely napped towels.
The hotel’s location could hardly be more convenient or agreeable. 2 Caxton Street, the hotel’s address, is set back from nearby busy streets such that commercial urban bustle is a scant few minutes’ walk distant, but Caxton itself is serenely detached, quiet. Nearby Victoria Street, abuzz with traffic and featuring all manner of shopping venues, makes any necessary daily provisioning a snap. It can be reached from the hotel in several ways, but our favorite was via St. James Park, a popular square that, in its day, was a noted location for suffragist activism.
In short, the St. Ermin's hotel affords guests and visitors a historically important, artistically graceful, logistically convenient and welcoming experience. Would we return? In a heartbeat!
Location, Location, Location!
Buckingham Palace is a short walk distant and awash in tourists (like us). We considered attending the famous “Changing of the Guard,” but everything we read about the likelihood of seeing very much persuaded us to photograph items of interest visible from the surrounding fence, or outside on the plaza, and leave others to navigate the Guard Changing spectacle. There are tours available for purchase that promise special access to the event, but failing that the Palace is nevertheless a stirring site to behold. Guards in picturesque, traditional uniform are posted and visible. On the other hand, different guards, the ones nearest possible points of entry, are clad in modern military wear and armed with formidably lethal-looking weaponry. We thought it wise not to test their sense of humor and they returned the favor by keeping their weapons trained on the ground.
Statuary is literally everywhere in London; much of it ancient, all of it beautiful. One thing struck me (so to speak) about statues depicting males in particular. In nearly every case, the subject is brandishing a sword. Further, monuments commemorating war, war heroes and battles abound. Of course, England (and Europe generally) has had to fight wars repelling foreign invaders on their own soil, which produces much fodder for related accolades. Still, it occurs to me that the way we lionize warriors and think of battles and their participants as bathed in glory inevitably perpetuates cycles of violence. And is there any human activity that commands as much resource dedication as there is to the development and refinement of weaponry? The only real reason to have those things is to use them sooner or later, so the prospects for a world at peace would seem vanishingly dim any time soon I’m afraid.
Such dark thoughts are no match for the pleasures of walking London’s streets. The city’s aura is decidedly upbeat, a function of busy pedestrian traffic, assorted business facades beckoning with restaurants of several cuisines, pubs, sandwich boards promising traditional fish and chips, sundries, etc. A nearby theater advertised its marquee feature – Hamilton – with a boldly conspicuous banner towering over everything nearby. Regardless of which neighborhood we might be visiting, passing traffic bore significant populations of Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and the ever present (positively excellent) London taxis, along with every other type of vehicle using the motorway.
This year is the Queen Elizabeth monarchy’s Platinum Jubilee year, marking her 70th year on the throne! Paths marked “Jubilee Walk” parallel the Thames and wend through the town. The weather was good for us (some rain, but only a couple of times), so we chose to walk our way around the area. In my former professional life I visited London several times. On occasion, I would visit new acquaintances at their homes outside the city, so I know how downtown differs from points farther flung. But for enjoying downtown London on foot, St. Ermin’s could hardly be better situated. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abby are practically neighbors. Victoria Station is a few minutes’ walk down Victoria Street. Not much farther and you’re at Harrods (a must see if you’ve not been there – a bit of everything seems to be on offer), Victoria & Albert Museum, the Tate, a Globe Theater replica, the renowned London Theater District, and all the delightful potpourri of unknowns that make up the nuts and bolts of any vibrant city.
Incidentally, many of London’s museums are free of charge! The aforementioned V&A, which boasts the world’s largest collection of applied and decorative arts and design; Tate Modern, which features works ranging from mainstream with an edge, to presentations that overwhelm my ability to make sense of them; and others describing a rich variety of topicalities.
There are noticeably genteel qualities of social norms in London, probably throughout England. Road signs such as “No Antisocial Driving,” or the “National Covid Memorial Wall” we stumbled upon one afternoon while navigating the Jubilee Path along the Thames. From a ways off we could see what appeared to be a vast quantity of red valentines decorating a wall that extended quite a distance beyond where we could see it. When we arrived at the wall we found a plaque commemorating the personal heartbreak Covid-19 deaths leave in their wake. As described on the plaque,
“The hearts on this wall are in memory of our fellow citizens who have died since March 2020 [of] Covid-19…
Every heart represents a person who was loved…”
People who lost family or friends and wish to leave a remembrance can find a blank heart, write their farewell note for posterity, and ruminate over the many thousands of others also commemorated there. The riot of red hearts, extending for what seemed a mile or so (realistically, I suspect less) really lends graphic weight to the magnitude of this merciless blight on the world.
As a rule, we prefer to enjoy self-guided tours of places we visit. Often, we will have identified places of interest to locate and investigate, or failing that we will simply allow our feet to select our direction of travel. That said, on this trip we signed up for a bona fide tourist extravaganza. Together with other tourists we would board a nearby bus, and for the next 13 hours visit some of England’s most iconic landmarks.
Our first stop was Windsor Castle. As the Castle’s website notes (https://www.rct.uk/visit/windsor-castle), it is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. The Queen is one of a long line of monarchs who occasionally call Windsor Castle home – Queen Elizabeth delights in taking private weekends there. As to be expected, the interior is lavishly appointed with beautiful, framed artwork, gorgeous statuary, sparkling wood floors, and shiny gold trim accenting doorways, windows and other recesses. When we visited, there were risers with seats for spectators set up on a courtyard. Whether the event had already taken place or would occur soon we couldn’t tell, but we heard that the area is in constant demand as a wedding venue. Viewing the setup, I couldn’t help thinking “Of course it is!”
From Windsor Castle we continued on to Stonehenge. From the bus-park area, shuttles ferry people to the Stonehenge site itself and back to the staging area. Instead of the shuttle, people can walk the roughly one mile to where the Stones are arrayed. The stop itself is fairly short, but given the site’s stationary nature a more extended visit would not yield a great deal of additional value.
As noted on the History web site, “There is strong archaeological evidence that Stonehenge was used as a burial site, at least for part of its long history, but most scholars believe it served other functions as well—either as a ceremonial site, a religious pilgrimage destination, a final resting place for royalty or a memorial erected to honor and perhaps spiritually connect with distant ancestors.”
At the site itself, there are postings that describe how certain of the stone placements would be useful for predicting/understanding seasonality. Perhaps, but how the stones came to be placed and arranged where they are remains somewhat a mystery. There are descriptions of how it might have been done using receiving holes dug into the earth, ropes, wooden planks, and so on. All of which presupposes quite an advanced understanding of astronomy and the engineering skills to translate the astronomical knowledge into precise stone placements.
Nothing, they say, is impossible, but as a fan of Occam’s Razor I’m more inclined to attribute it all to friendly and helpful visiting aliens (probably the same ones responsible for Egypt’s pyramids).
Having seen photos of Stonehenge many times over the years, I found the in-person experience rather familiar feeling, but there is a heady sense of primal magnificence that comes from witnessing the spectacle; pictures and narrative descriptions cannot replicate the awe those stones inspire.
Next stop: Bath. The city of Bath takes its name from the therapeutic thermal hot springs feeding a place of healing that dates back to at least Etruscan times. Statuary of such historical personages as Julius Caesar and other Roman emperors look down from the upper walkway to the Great Bath below. Today, the water is considered toxic and visitors are strongly discouraged from so much as touching it. The distinctively acrid stench of sulfur permeates the facility.
Beyond the baths of Bath, the city is well known as a congenial spot for taking up residence, at least part time. Various celebrities have established second homes in Bath, or so we were told. We espied no familiar faces, but did take note of the town square’s exceptional street performers. A diva held forth masterfully with abbreviated arias; a guitarist plucked adroitly, his recorded percussion accompanying him nicely; another styled soothing saxophone strains – all of them expertly filling the air with music for all.
Fudge, and chocolate in general, is also a staple in Bath. The shops are happy to give visitors samples to taste, and some unusual offerings definitely caught my attention. I sampled, and ordered, a small quantity of hot chipotle fudge. Never heard of such a thing before and was surprised by how well I liked it.
Bath also is the location where much of the Netflix series “Bridgerton” was filmed. My wife and I were among the very few in our tour group unfamiliar with the program, but upon our return home we were drawn to correct that deficiency and quite enjoyed watching places we’d trod in person appear on the small screen for our additional amusement.
The Windsor/Stonehenge/Bath trip is a good one for those with the stamina to handle a 13 hour bus trip!
Generally, I find touring anyplace with “gardens” in the name mostly, well, subdued. And although I like to be right all the time, I like equally being wrong when my expectations are contradicted by actual experience. Kew Gardens was perfectly lovely! Not only for the breathtaking variety of flora (plantings are to be found from every climate and growing region on the planet), but also for the important work Kew Gardens carries out maintaining rare and scientifically beneficial plant life that might well go extinct otherwise. The site is enormous, but signage makes it an easy place to navigate. Naturally, there is shopping for souvenirs, food and beverage, and related literature. One thing we discovered concerning food and beverage: the pizza seems to be a one ingredient at a time proposition. We ordered a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and received a pepperoni and a mushroom pizza, not a single pizza with pepperoni and mushroom toppings. They were tasty nevertheless.
We also toured two additional iconic places, Parliament and Tower of London. Parliament is surely among the most recognizable buildings anywhere. In the shadow of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, it cuts a most memorable account of itself. The tour is fascinating, but my ability to document much of that is compromised by a strict no pictures policy. Miscreant that I am, I successfully snapped two photos, but got busted taking the second. I was luckier than some – the docent only warned me not to do it again (I complied), but another fellow I saw get tagged by a different docent was sternly instructed to delete the picture immediately.
The Tower of London is massive. It served as the home of kings and, less happily, prisoners. In rooms where the prisoners were held bereft messages carved into the walls are still readily visible. Another important function the Tower served was as a repository for weaponry. There are cannon, but the biggest weaponry display I remember was the facility storing swords, spears and armor. Also, I had previously been under the impression that prisoners were tortured there. We learned that only one prisoner is known to have been tortured there. That’s one too many, of course, but far fewer than I’d expected.
Having recently read The Splendid and the Vile, I was naturally drawn to visit Churchill’s war room bunker. As expected, it is dark and very cellar-like. There are meeting rooms where his cabinet would meet to discuss the war’s direction and progress. Because it was imperative that electricity be uninterrupted, there is even a power generating operation. It was fascinating but be warned: if you’re claustrophobic it can be a challenge. By the time we departed, the experience had visibly shaken Cynthia.
One last highlight before I wrap this travelogue up. On many previous business trips I visited the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar for martinis. I couldn’t allow this trip to go without, so I cajoled Cynthia into accompanying me. When first we approached the hostess, she asked if we were guests. Upon hearing “no,” she told us it would be an hour or so before she could seat us. Fortunately, the other hostess on duty seated us without qualifying where we’d come from. Delicious martinis and a visit I highly recommend.
Of the many cities I’ve come to know over the years, London remains a great favorite. Go there if you haven’t. Go back if you have!