London
Day 19

July 8, Monday
Mileage: ~8 (walking); Tube trips - 12!
Night's Lodging: King George VII Youth Hostel, Holland Park, Kensington
Weather: ~68 deg.; mostly cloudy, some drizzle

We raced around sightseeing, surrounding ourselves with London. Earl had visited before and went his own way. Tracy and I did things he missed on his previous trip, and things I wanted to experience as a first time visitor.

At 7 a.m., unable buy our one day Tube travel-card until 9:30., we briskly strode through Kensington toward the Tower of London and the royal crown jewels, miles away.

We passed Kensington Palace where Prince Charley and Di live [lived], Hyde Park, and St. James Palace, the Queen Mother's residence, replete with Beefeater guard. Commute traffic churned along Kensington Street. Double decker buses jerked along, stopping and starting as they inhaled and exhaled passengers. On Pall Mall we found a small cafe for a quick breakfast. It was poor - tea and a day-old scone. (Hearing or reading this street name invariably causes me to think of the cigarette brand name.)

Standing on the sidewalk after breakfast, I pulled my map out of my jacket pocket, straightening and flattening the wrinkles out against my thigh. As we traced our route, an older Australian woman stopped to give suggestions. She then opined that the best High Tea for the money was at Heal's on Tottencourt Road, at the Goodge tube stop. We had no idea what Heal's was (a large department store) nor how long it would take us to get there (short ride by Tube). She said everything was quite fresh and you could eat all you wanted (an important consideration for Tracy).

We walked, walked, walked, and walked some more along the Thames. Quite a river cutting through the middle of London. Westminster Bridge with London in the background against the cloudy sky. I liked the view! Each glance at the river conjured up different visions of English history, a subject I never particularly liked in school. I was regretting my lack of specific knowledge.

Tracy was excellent at finding his way around cities! I'm sure he suspected I had developed a blind spot in my own usually excellent navigational skills. It was just easier to let him do it. Our walking trip from Kensington to the Tower took us by both famous and infamous areas; down busy streets and deserted lanes; clean areas and grimy rundown districts; expensive homes, palaces and flats.

Arriving just at 10, we beat the herds of tourists to the Tower. Drizzle began as we queued up to buy entry tickets. I watched at the sleek black ravens which live on, and guard, the Tower lawns. Perches were provided for them with a sign warning, "the ravens bite." They do appear well fed.

The wealth in royal jewels stashed in plexiglass cells in the Tower basement was inestimable. The crown jewels, gold (sterling silver with 24k gold wash) table services, scepters, swords, etc. were all magnificent and beyond imagination. Highly alert guards stood stoically at every corner and each doorway, waiting...I could imagine sitting down, in days of yore, to an elegant meal of venison, quail, pheasant, local grains and fresh vegetables all on serving trays of ornate gold, wine served in highly decorative sterling goblets, while strolling minstrels and buxom lasses entertained.

Having been to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the items used for the pomp that accompanies induction into the Order of the Thistle now was much more meaningful. The Monarch's cape and scepter for that ceremony were gone, a card noting "in use." Queen Elizabeth II was currently in Edinburgh specifically to attend the ceremony for a new inductee to the order.

I hiked up the narrow winding steps to the Blood Tower to see how those banished to it survived. The large rooms had adequate windows and views to the yards below. It was more spacious than I had imagined, however to get from one area to another, one had to navigate flights of dangerous stone stairs worn concave by centuries of footfalls. Headroom was at a premium.

One and one-half hours in the Tower was enough, as I had reached my boredom level, and it was late enough that we now could buy our tube day discount travel-card. My card allowed unlimited use in zones 1 and 2 (downtown London) for £2.30.

The ad for "Mousetrap," by Agatha Christie, now in its fortieth year and a "must see," had caught my eye. I thought Tracy would like it and tickets were both affordable and obtainable. We agreed earlier to meet Earl around noon to purchase half price tickets at Leicester Square for this evening's performance. The booth didn't open until 2:30. Instead, I called the theater and reserved standard priced tickets.

While in the square, we watched the Swiss Travel Center clock chime noon. Wooden carved maidens hit bells with hammers, Swiss characters went 'round and 'round, and music boxes played catchy Swiss tunes. Truly a show of the Swiss' ability to create fascinating timepieces. The noon announcement lasted a full five minutes watched by a large raptly attentive and appreciative crowd.

Our next stop was Harrod's Department Store…"where the Queen shops." In particular, we wanted to investigate their renown food section. As could be predicted, we spent our time and money in the pastry/bread area. I bought a loaf of heavy black bread, to give to Tracy for his journey to the Continent tomorrow, plus a lemon croissant for me. We drooled at all the candies, and wanted to sample the fascinating cheeses, types I had never heard of, much less seen. The meat and fish were remarkable and varied.

After the hustle and bustle of London sidewalks and subways, afternoon high tea at Heal's was lovely quietude. White linen tablecloths, nicely appointed tea room, music in the background, and sparsely attended. We had "full afternoon tea" for £7.50 each - pricey. The tea sandwiches were excellent - particularly the smoked salmon - and the desserts were belt-expandingly appealing. We filled our plates with candies, cream scones, cheesecake, lemon curd, chocolate cake, and other decadent comestibles. Tracy returned to the dessert counter numerous times! We drank two full pots of tea for two. It was an elegant ending to our almost daily tea ritual.

Our trip has been hallmarked by the food we have been eating. Crawford's Bakery for the daily pastry. Meat pasties of all varieties. Jam. Of course, our once, twice or thrice daily tea.

After relaxing over tea I wanted to make a quick tour through the Impressionists' display at the National Gallery. We were supposed to meet Earl at the hostel at 5 p.m., for dinner and the theater. However, I was tired of meeting Tracy and Earl's schedules - feeling that I had to be at a certain place by a certain time. They would have to wait a bit while I scratched this Impressionist itch.

The National Gallery was huge and could engulf one for days. The Picasso collection was extensive and awesome. Unfortunately the hung collection of Impressionist's was unimpressive. The Boston Museum had a better collection.

We picked a West End (theater area) restaurant, Porter's on Henrietta Street, from "Let's Go," reputedly serving excellent British food. After the copious sandwiches and desserts at high tea two and a half hours earlier, I had no idea how I could eat dinner. The prime rib and Yorkshire pudding were available only on weekends, so I settled for "toad in the hole" - large homemade sausages in a bowl-shaped Yorkshire pudding, brimming to the top with brown ale gravy. It was quite good!

The woman at the "Mousetrap" ticket window, was not pleased about taking credit cards from three of us separately for our ticket purchase.

"We'd like three tickets together, but we are paying separately," I told her.
"Are you all three together?"
"Yes we are, but we are paying separately. We're just friends seeing the play."
"It'll take too long to write these up separately."
"But we are paying separately. Here's my charge card for my ticket."
"It will take too long to do this. Why don't you three just work it out amongst yourselves?" The queue behind us grew longer and longer.
"We aren't going to work it out. We are paying separately. If we didn't know each other, you'd be taking our money separately." I smiled sweety.
"This is going to take too long."
"Well, the longer we discuss it, the longer it is going to take." I stood my ground.

She finally ran them separately through her credit card machine. For £13 we had fine seats in last row of the orchestra in a sold out house. We thoroughly enjoyed the play. Tracy and Earl had much of the devious plot figured out. I didn't.


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Leaving London (Day 20)

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