My wife has a theory about travel. She says that every third day there is a lag in the action, a drop in everyone’s energy and you manage to accomplish less. My corollary to that is that you make up for it on the fourth day! We did exactly that on our fourth day in London.
After trying several coffee shops in London (Costa, Caffe Nero and Patisserie Valerie) we went back to our favorite one for our morning dose of caffeine. Costa just did it for us more than the others and there were actually two on Edgware Road, which is good because one closed for remodeling while we were there. Love me a Flat White first thing in the morning!
We hopped on the Marble Arch stop for the Central and made our way to St. Paul’s cathedral.
This is Christopher Wren’s magnum opus and it is a work of art that any man, be he humble or proud, would feel a lump in his throat to see built. Unlike most architects of massive church construction, Wren actually oversaw the entire process and saw the final stone placed at the ripe old age of 78. Standing there with his son must have been a proud moment. He has a simple stone covering his grave in the crypt of St. Paul’s.
The scale of the place is massive, with the dome stretching an awe-inspiring 365 feet into the air. Wren was a scientist and astronomer as well as an architect. He chose that number to correspond with the number of days of the year. Also, just maybe, to exceed the height of all the other cathedrals in existence at that time!
I highly recommend going to St. Paul’s early on a weekday. It is less crowded and the silence adds to the grandeur and wonder of the massive place. The audio guide is quite good and features plenty of British academics yammering on about their particular area of expertise. Learning about the construction techniques or the death of John Donne’s wife leading to his excessive morbidity (he insisted on posing for his statue in a funeral shroud) adds to the experience.
I was particularly moved by the small chapel behind the altar dedicated to all the American service men and women that died in World War II. A book with their names is turned daily so that all of them have their day on display. If you have a family member that died in the war, they have a copy of the book and will take you aside to let you see their name in the book. Learning about the extremes they went to in the war to minimize the damage to St. Paul’s was fascinating. This is truly England’s national church.
The climb to the Whispering Gallery is work, but the reward is well worth the trip. The view of the floor of the nave from there is spectacular and you can see the detail in the paintings in the dome much more clearly.
The upper rings are often closed. You may want to call ahead if you are really keen on getting up to the Stone or Golden Gallery. The Golden gallery is 85 meters up, 3 meters higher than the ceiling at Sacre Cour in Paris. Hmmm, competition anyone?
The trip down into the crypt is in some ways more impressive, with memorials to Nelson, Wellington and the imposing memorial gates to Winston Churchill. It is also worth spending a moment in the Oculus to get a real sense of the progression of a cathedral that has borne St. Paul’s name in one form or another for over 1400 years.
Do be aware that St. Paul’s continues as a functioning church, so there are prayers on the hour, services on Sunday and the Eucharist is performed at 8 AM and 12:30. They ask that you stop your tour during these periods. It is very moving to hear the Lord’s Prayer being mumbled in countless languages around you as you join in the process.
We could have easily spent another couple of hours there, but we had things to accomplish, so on we went.
We had lunch at Nando’s near the cathedral. This was a nod to my younger two children who are crazy about the British boy band, One Direction. They must be sponsored by the place because they talk about it constantly. You can have grilled chicken in a variety of formats and spice levels. Most of our table opted for chicken in a pita. The fare is Portuguese with a fair amount of spice and about nine different variations of Peri Peri sauce.
I was actually quite pleasantly surprised at the quality and enjoyed the meal. Do be warned that Cokes in Europe are prohibitively expensive, and if you can convince (or dictate to!) your kids that water is a better idea, you can stop a $40 meal from turning into a $60 meal.
We then made our way back across the Millenium Bridge towards the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This is not the original, but rather a loving recreation masterminded by Sam Wanamaker and completed about 15 years ago. Unfortunately, when we got there they were doing a play for a school group, so they sent us away until 4:30.
One of the huge benefits of having an all-inclusive travel pass for London is that you can rearrange your plans! We walked toward the London Bridge tube stop with a brief stop at Southwark cathedral to gawk at another gothic cathedral. There was a grade school group there prepping for an Easter musical that was precious. The contrast of these exuberant 5th and 6th graders singing at the top of their lungs in the stately, imposing cathedral was absolutely perfect.
It also let us sneak in a bathroom break. A piece of advice on that front. Toilets that are not charged for in some way or other are few and far between. If you have the opportunity to empty your bladder without a price tag…take it! The walk to the London Bridge tube stop was not short…
So, then a madcap ride on the tube to Trafalgar Square to take a Griswald’s glance at Nelson’s column. After that it was off to the National Portrait Gallery to take a look at the official portrait of Kate Middleton, which has caused so much furor.
Then back on to the tube to head back to The Globe. The tour is pretty quick with some history and a jaunt through the floor seats and balcony to get a good look at the stage. “All the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players…To be, or not to be…etc, etc.”
We had a marvelously sarcastic tour guide. She was obviously a love child of Downtown Julie Brown and David Spade. She hit the high points of the theater and its operation before having the obligatory end of the tour in the gift shop. They are in the process of building a smaller Victorian style playhouse on the grounds and there was a bit of a sales pitch for donations.
From there, it was back to the Tube to return to Picadilly Circus for a short walk (through the rain, of course) to Her Majesty’s Theater for a showing of Phantom of the Opera. It has shown at this theater for over 25 years continuously. This had my crew in a lather. They were so excited to see a show on the West End that they could not contain themselves!
The theater has burned to the ground twice, but is still over 100 years old in its current incarnation. This shows in its tightly packed seats, claustrophobic stairwells and the gorgeously decorated ceiling.
Once the lights go down, it is easy to forget the close confines and get lost in the “Music of the Night”. The stage work was excellent, the sound system was impressive and the music was superb. There are tiny opera glasses in the seats in front of you, if you are in the balconies, which can be purchased for a quid. You may want to bring your own because they are roughly the quality of a cereal box prize, but they do give you a slightly better view of the action.
I was particularly impressed with the way they handled the staging. They could raise the curtain on half of the stage for a vignette, while finishing the set up on the other half. Things dropped from the ceiling, rose magically from the floor and actors appeared as if from nowhere. There was not a lag in the performance until intermission and then it barreled on into the second act.
Three curtain calls and then the lights came up and we were all left looking at each other wide-eyed. I may never get the Phantom of the Opera theme out of my mind!
We were so hungry at this point we opted for a serviceable Italian meal at Assagetti, just outside the theater, but you will get better quality for less money if you venture away from the theater district for dinner. The prix fixe options were limited and the portions were small but the desserts were really, really nice.
After 14 hours of solid touristing in London, I piled my brood into the Tube one last time to head back to the hotel to get some rest and prepare for our last day in London.