I’ve been to London many times and whenever those who don’t know me very well ask why I keep returning to the same city, I’m hard pressed to explain to them what London means to me. My London is not the city that exists now. Madame Tussaud’s and the London Eye are all well and good, but my London is the old city, the Square Mile that was bordered to the north by the Oxford Road, to the South by Vauxhall Gardens, to the east by Mile End Road and to the west by Hyde Park. To my mind, Richmond, Hampstead, Brixton and Golder’s Green are not in London. Though I may visit these places, they lay outside the parameters of the London I see in my mind, the London I see when I walk the streets today. You can still see Georgian, Regency and Victorian London on practically every street. Kensington Palace, St. James’s Palace and Apsley House still exist. Hatchard’s bookshop and Fortnum and Mason, the Burlington Arcade and the Tower are still to be found. True, there are no longer Hansom cabs or sedan chairs for hire, no hawkers crying their wares in the streets and, certainly, no dandies strolling in St. James’s Street, but every now and then you come across a London view so perfect, so historically right, that it makes the trip worthwhile.
One of the stops I always make while in London is Apsley House, London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where today you’ll find all of the many paintings and gifts bestowed upon the first Duke by grateful nations on display. While the current Duke of Wellington does live there, the portions of Apsley House now open to the public have a museum feel, there’s nothing of Wellington the man left to see except for a small room in the basement that houses some of his army gear. But again, portions of the upstairs rooms do offer views onto 19th century life. Enough to make me return time and again.
Perhaps what I love best about London are the modern day memories my visits have provided and the people I’ve met along the way. There was the time I was strolling down the Mall with a tour group and our way was suddenly blocked by a burgundy Rolls Royce coming out of a drive and stopping right in front of us. It was an older Rolls and the windows were as large as those found in some houses. Looking through the back passenger window, my gaze met and held that of Prince Charles. He was dressed in full regimental regalia no less. He smiled at me and raised his gloved hand to the visor of his hat in a jaunty salute before the car pulled away. Then there was the day that I was taken to the Victoria and Albert Museum and for a cruise up the river by David Parker, then curator of the Dickens House Museum
. At one point during our ramblings, David took hold of my elbow, stopped me and pointed to a second story window. Looking up, I saw Inigo Jones’s ceiling of the Banqueting House through the upper storey windows. Amazing. Another memory I’ll always cherish is the time Anthony Lejeune, author of The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London, invited me to dinner at Brooks’s Club. Walking up the stairs to the second floor dining room, I came face to face with Sir Thomas Lawrence’s full length portrait of George IV. Having port after dinner in library, I gazed at the portraits of the Dilettanti Society that range the walls and marveled at the fact that there were bed billows, in white pillow cases, placed on the arms of the leather couches, ready for any member who felt the overwhelming need of a nap.
On our upcoming trip to London this June, as soon as I land on the Saturday, I’ll meet up with Victoria Hinshaw and the first thing we plan to do is to walk the St. James’s area. We’ll visit the lesser streets, give a nod to the Almack’s building, stroll by the statue of Beau Brummell and, no doubt, raise a pint at the miniscule Red Lion pub in King Street, a perfectly preserved time capsule of a Victorian pub. No doubt I’ll be returning home with many more memories to treasure . . . . . . More musings on adventures ahead soon, as well as detailed blogs on the sites Victoria and I have on our itinerary.