The Queen Sends Her Best
By Craig Altschul
Had she known we were in town, no doubt the Queen would have invited us over
to the palace for a spot of afternoon tea. But, we didn’t want to bother her
highness, so we never told her we were coming.
This was our fifth trip to London in the past decade. I
figured, finally, I was in for a less-frenzied pace. After all, we’ve seen
where they chopped off Anne Boleyn’s head, saw the crown jewels glitter,
watched the guard change, and knew our way around the underground war rooms
as well as Churchill. We’d motor-coached to Stonehenge and never did figure
out how those big old rocks got there. In short, what’s to do but relax?
Peggi does not think like me. We spent five days in
foggy town just before Christmas. That was on purpose because, though we
can’t understand why, Kate and Wills had failed to invite us over for goose
and eggnog Christmas Day and to meet the future king.
London was indeed all decked out for the holiday. There
were more Christmas markets here than in Austria and Germany combined, it
seemed, all offering the same wooden toys, mulled wine, and hoodies with the
Union Jack on them.
The biggest pre-holiday extravaganza is in Hyde Park,
which is fitting since it’s the largest park in town. It’s called Winter
and that’s no exaggeration. There are a couple of huge ferris wheels (not as
big as the London Eye, of course, but certainly sizeable); a couple of
circuses (one for the little kiddies and one for the big kiddies); hundreds
(it seemed) of wooden booths selling the same things; a huge indoor ice rink
and enough activity and busyness to keep anyone amused and well fed for
quite a while.
The entire grounds of Winter Wonderland are covered in a
comfortable flooring (sort of non-slip rubber matting) so with those
thousands of tramping feet, it’s not a misty rain and fog-induced quagmire
at all. It was December and I thought the crowds would be thin. Wrong as
Peggi planned this trip so that the idea of a moment’s
rest wasn’t an option; despite the fact it seemed there was little of the
tourist genre left for us to see. The fact that London is easy to get around
via well-marked underground tubes makes it appealing in that way. Just, as
they remind, ad nauseum, “Mind The Gap.” The thing most people forget is
that rarely does one find a tube transfer on the same level, meaning by the
end of a few days you can barely face another set of stairs. My legs
instantly remembered that fact.
We barely had left the plane when Peggi had us scurrying all the way to the
London Docklands at the east end of the city to make a 1 p.m. lunch
performance at the Brick Lane Music Hall (http://www.bricklanemusichall.co.uk).
The fact we had to get from Heathrow after an all-night
flight and mid-morning arrival, clear customs, race to the Marriott County
Hall where we were staying, dump our bags, find the right tube connection
across Westminster Bridge, transfer to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and
then walk through a fog-enclosed roundabout to find the place never occurred
We made it just as the soup course was coming out of the
kitchen. The host grinned when we found our way in through the door into the
packed hall, amused the Americans actually made it.
For once, I was glad we did. This was the highlight of
the trip for me. The Brick Lane is London’s only surviving Music Hall and
has relocated from the original Brick Lane into an old church building in
the Docklands. British music halls flourished from the mid 18th to mid 19th
century and, in many ways, were similar to American vaudeville – comedy,
rousing songs, and “middle class entertainment.”
Our Christmas lunch Dec. 11 was excellent and the show,
well, honestly hilarious. Host Vincent Hayes spared no one, explaining he
had taken one look at the audience and decided to serve Christmas Day lunch
early. “I’m not sure how many of you will make it to Dec. 25.”
The Brick Lane is a special gem of a unique venue well
worth your visit. Shows are scheduled throughout the year on various days of
the week for lunch, late afternoon tea, or dinner. Truly fun and way, way
I thought maybe we had a day to relax after that, but
Peggi informed me I had to tag along to Harrod’s. Her pretense was so I
could see the magnificent window displays. I saw them. Yeah, yeah. Nice
windows. I stood guard vigilantly inside Harrod’s in case I saw her credit
card pop out. Calculating exchange rates never occurs to her. But, I admit
the gigantic store in Knightsbridge at Christmas time was a sight to see.
A nice relaxed dinner? A pint of ale in a pub? Of course
not. Peggi had us watching the London Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Center,
once we found the place. The saving grace? Tchaikovsky. My theory is
anything loud is good for staying awake at symphony concerts, no matter how
good the orchestra.
Now, on to the next. A coach tour to Leeds Castle (http://www.evanevanstours.co.uk).
I asked, “Why? “Oh,” Peggi said, “the website said the gardens are
beautiful.” They may be. But, not in mid-December. The day was topped off
with what our jaunty guide called a “photo op” so we could visit the White
Cliffs of Dover. Everything was indeed white. But the white was fog. I guess
there were cliffs there. Maybe even bluebirds. Let me know if you go. I’ve
done that trip now.
There was more. Can’t go to London without a West End
show, right? We took in “One Man, Two Guvnors” with, I admit, about 10
minutes of convulsing hilarity at the end of the first act. The fact that
there are two Theatre Royals and we first went to the wrong one only meant
The last day, Peggi figured we should see the new Hobbit
movie on a gigantic screen with ultimate 3D at a massive (and jam-packed)
movie palace in the middle of Leicester Square. I think the damn dragon ate
We stayed at the Marriott County Hall, as I mentioned
earlier. It’s on the south bank of the Thames River looking out on Big Ben,
more Christmas markets and twirling ice skaters. The place served as the
County Hall seat of local government for 84 years.
Not to be gauche, but if you stay or visit, be sure to take in the lobby
rest rooms even if you don’t need to use the facilities. On the walls of the
stalls are framed editorial cartoons from the government era. Classic. The
hotel exceeds all Marriott standards and tube stops are closeby. A very good
Italian restaurant called Locale is just around the corner.
More walking. Even more walking. But, we got home safe
and sound. I never want to see subway stairs again. I won’t bet against the
fact that Peggi can fill out the days of another few trips to Londontown.
But, we’d go back to the Brick Lane Music Hall for sure. If I make it past