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Mar 25 2013

London Day Five

There is a melancholy turn to the last day in a city. For a city as grand as London, that melancholy has all the depth of a Poe novella. The only tonic is to experience London to the utmost in those last hours!

So, when in London, sip like a Londoner. We started our day with a trip down to the Strand for a visit to the place where it started: Twinings Tea. Way back in 1706 Thomas Twinings decided to go counter to the ale and coffee culture that dominated London at the time and started serving the very best teas he could get in his shop.

More than 300 years later they continue to sell the finest loose-leaf and bagged teas. If you make the pilgrimage to Strand location there is a little museum in the back, but even more interesting is the tea tasting bar.

twinings

We spent about an hour with Oliver in the back. I can’t call him a barista so we will try the completely made up infusionist for his title. He went over the kinds of teas from white to green to black. He taught us about the antioxidant health benefits of teas. He instructed us on the best way to prepare teas with water (boiling for black teas, about 85% of boiling for white and green) and surprised us with the fact that green tea can actually have the most caffeine.

I am apparently not alone in assuming that green tea was basically caffeine free. Oliver explained to us that green tea was developed by Tibetan monks to help them stay up for days on end meditating. The longer the brew steeps, the more caffeine develops. News to me!

Tasting the different of teas was interesting but also seeing what happens to the different leaves was fascinating. The main difference between the teas is how much they allow the leaves to oxidize. Yes, black tea is the rustiest of all!

A pitcher being infused and several kinds of tea leaves

A pitcher being infused and several kinds of tea leaves

Also, herbal teas and “Red Tea” (made from the Rooibos plant) are not actually teas, but are referred to as “infusions”. Who knew?

We selected some Irish Breakfast, Lady Gray and a Chai to take back with us to recall the trip. The British love their tea, generally white and sweet. I highly recommend the trip to Twinings if you are at all interested in tea.

Decisions, decisions!

Decisions, decisions!

After the quintessential British drink we went straight for the ultimate British tourist cliché: the Changing of the Guard, at Buckingham Palace.

During March the changing of the guard alternates days between Windsor and Buckingham Palace so make sure to check the schedule here rather than just showing up.

The guard drills are a zoo so I recommend showing up early to stake a spot close to the gates…or show up really late and catch pictures on the road as they parade in.

mass of humanity

The British excel at pomp and circumstance and the process proceeds with brass bands and fuzzy hats and marching back and forth. The theme of the day seems to have been Sinatra with New York, New York and the Lady is a Tramp on the bill, as well as Skyfall from the new Bond movie. Apparently, the band director has a sense of humor! I still keep thinking of the Olympic video and the Queen parachuting with Bond. A stiff upper lip is a great way to hide a tongue in your cheek!

Since we were right there we took the moment to duck into the Queen’s Gallery to look at the exhibit on Durer and Holbein…and to use the restroom. Hey, we drank a LOT of tea!

A quick lunch of meat pies and chips and we were off to Windsor Castle to see the largest occupied castle in the world.

The trip to Windsor was a train from the Paddington station with a change, and a very short ride from the Slough station into Windsor. The train station is almost too precious with trendy shops and cafes and a very short walk to the castle.

IMG_3851

Windsor Castle sprawls across 13 acres and houses the queen’s rooms, some other apartments and rooms for state entertaining, as well as St. George’s chapel.

Let me start by saying that we did not budget nearly enough time for the castle and could have easily spent most of the day there.

We made our way directly to St. George’s chapel, as it was closing early that day to prepare for Evensong services that evening.

stgeorges

The cathedral is gorgeous with columns that seem to grow up from the floor and branch out like trees to spread out and support the ceiling hundreds of feet in the air. The chapel is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the chivalric order inspired by the Arthur stories and founded by Edward the III.

Henry the VIII is buried here, as well as Jane Seymour and Edward the III. The cathedral has a much more quiet and somber air than the other big cathedrals in the London area.

We made a quick tour of the huge doll house that was given to the queen as well as dolls and gifts that were given to the queen by various rulers and countries.

After that we toured the state apartments with the wardens closing each door behind us in our tour through the state apartments. I think they may have been trying to get rid of us.

The hall that the state dinners are held in is massive, with room for a table that would seat over a hundred people. The ceiling is covered with shields from the range of knights that had been admitted to the order over the centuries. There are even a couple of blank shields where a knight was stripped of his honors. They left the blank shields in place to remind those that remained that there are consequences for misbehavior.

As we began to leave we realized that we were exactly on time to attend Evensong at the chapel. They allow people there for services even after official hours.

The Evensong service was a boys choir singing for the feast of Joseph. It was beautiful and haunting, and a perfect ending to a day steeped in history. Although there were posted signs that banned pictures and video, audio recording was not specifically called out…so, I snuck a recording of the service.

Boys choir at St George’s

We walked back to the train station with thoughts of Royal visitations and the strains of Evensong still in our ears.

There is only one way to finish a perfectly British day, so we finished with a perfectly British Meal: Indian Food!

We rode back to our hotel for a brief rest before heading to the Bombay Palace, on the hotel concierge’s recommendation. The fact that it was a 1000 point booking on TopTable had nothing to do with it…really.

indian

It was truly the best meal we had in London. Exceptional service, big flavor and just enough heat to make the meal perfectly balanced. It was the kind of restaurant where the manager (or headwaiter?) was a drill sergeant. He would grab waiters and point them at a small need at a table and then smile winningly and talk to another table to make sure everything was perfect!

He was also appalled that we wanted tap water…and insisted that we get 3 appetizers and 3 desserts, rather than the 2 of each, which we were pretty sure we could have gotten by with.

Perfectly, flavorfully British!

A last walk home to put our plans in place and head for Paris in the morning! The Eurostar beckons!

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