In which Friday the thirteenth passes without any major incident
Pretty much before I recovered from my last trip to London, I found myself planning the next one. I bumped into Becky S. in Thereisnospoon on the Friday afternoon. While we chatted by the bar she mentioned that she'd never been to London. I asked her when she was free to join me. She suggested that a Friday might be best for her. I looked at the calendar for October, and suggested Friday the thirteenth, always assuming she wasn't superstitious. It turned out that she isn't, so I booked two coach tickets straight away. However, the weekend before she told me that she couldn't make it after all. I told her not to worry, and gave Rhian first option on the spare ticket. Luckily she had the day off, so we were good to go.
We set off early from Aberdare and arrived in Cardiff before 8.00. It gave us time to get some odds and ends in Sainsbury's before walking up to the coach stop opposite Cathays station. It was a bit of a damp morning, but the BBC had given a better forecast for the other side of the country. We sheltered in a doorway until the coach arrived, and were just about the last two to board. Once again, unfortunately, we found the basic flaw in National Express's online system. Even though I'd booked two tickets in one transaction, it appears that Britain's biggest coach operator can't yet arrange to reserve two individual seats to correspond with the booking. About a quarter of the 'empty' seats were occupied by luggage (which theoretically should have gone in the overhead racks), so Rhian ended up sitting behind me. We made good time to Chepstow, and passengers boarding there had more difficulty finding adjacent seats. We hadn't even crossed the Severn Bridge before I Tweeted National Express. I pointed out how unfair this was, and asked if, in the year 2017, they really couldn't find a viable solution to the problem. So far, no reply.
We got to the Earls Court set-down point just after 1130. The weather was a lot more pleasant, and although it was quite windy at times there was no sign of rain moving across in our tracks. We called into Tesco and spotted a couple of new books we fancied. I suggested that they'd probably be on offer in Waterstones, and as we were heading to Trafalgar Square anyway we could have a look when we got there. We walked to West Kensington station, Rhian topped up her Oyster card, and we caught the Tube into the centre. At Victoria, I pointed out the time and reminded Rhian that if we'd stayed on the coach, we'd still have been the best part of ten minutes away from the platform.
We jumped off at Embankment station and walked up Villiers Street towards Charing Cross. Angela and I had a very strange experience in the Princess of Wales some years ago, but that's a story in itself. We decided not to call in for a pint, but headed to Trafalgar Square to have a look in Waterstones. We hummed and haahed over the new Dan Brown novel, but as it's only in hardback we decided to wait a while. We did the same with Ben Aaronovitch's new book, as a hardback would break the nice sequence of books on my shelf at home. Rhian picked up a couple of thrillers (both of which I'm going to borrow when she's finished them). I found the second volume of Prof. David Kynaston's social history of Britain since 1945, which I've been looking forward to reading for ages.
We could have spent a lot more between us, but we didn't want to carry heavy bags of books with us all afternoon. We both commented on how great it is to browse in a well-stocked bookshop, and on the irony of having to travel two hundred miles just to have that pleasure.
Back in Trafalgar Square, Rhian was a bit disappointed to see that the main features – Nelson's Column, Landseer's Lions, and the fountains – were cordoned off for some sort of special occasion. With nothing particular in mind except a late lunch in Ye Old London Tavern (our semi-local pub, just downhill from St Paul's Cathedral), we decided to go exploring. We walked towards Admiralty Arch, and saw the first sign of the new security precautions which have been installed after the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Large steel barriers will stop vehicles veering off the approach road to Trafalgar Square – or the approach road to Buckingham Palace, depending on your point of view. We walked into The Mall, and stopped to admire some of the many statues which line this historic route through the heart of the British establishment. Through an opening to our right, Rhian spotted a very tall column bearing a statue. I didn't recognise it, so we decided to investigate it.
It turned out to be a monument to Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the second son of George III. Quite by chance, Rhian had found her way into a fascinating corner of Westminster called Waterloo Place. I had to concede defeat and pull out my trusty A-Z to check exactly where we were. I must have found my way there by accident when I was new to London, because the name sounded familiar, but I hadn't set foot in it for over thirty years. The whole square is lined with statues of military figures, and flanked by some quite beautiful buildings. (I'm not an expert on architecture, but I think they must be Georgian.) My eyes were drawn to the decorative friezes on both of them. I tried taking a couple of photos, but without a tripod it's tricky to get in close.
We were both intrigued by this grand building. There's nothing on the front to identify it, but I had a feeling that it might have been a gentlemen's club. (Pall Mall and St James's probably aren't what most people think of when they hear the word 'clubland' these days.) There were a few people coming and going, and Rhian suggested asking at the little enquiry desk just inside the door. I didn't need to get that far, though. A brass plate next to the door announced that it was the Athenaeum Club, founded in 1824. Not bad for a random guess, is it?
We took a few more photos, and I suggested walking down Pall Mall to St James's Park. There are some fantastic buildings along this road, including a very tall, narrow brick building sandwiched between the fine stone buildings on either side. I wondered what it had originally been, and made a mental note to do some research when I got the chance. A little bit further along, I think Rhian was quite surprised to find that the Royal Automobile Club really is a club when we passed their ornate headquarters.
Mother's next-door neighbour kindly gave me three books on London a while ago, and one of them includes a number of walks around the West End and the City of Westminster. There are some intriguing little alleyways throughout St James's, and they are (or were – the books are about twenty years old) lined with quaint shops and businesses that have been there for generations. I'm definitely going to explore this area in more detail when I get the chance.
We cut down between St James's Palace and the Queen's Chapel. I remarked that there's a slice of history waiting around every corner, if only you take the time to look. We spotted a large open space enclosed on three sides, and wondered what it was. Rhian had her next target in mind, so we came out on the Mall and walked down to Buckingham Palace. I know everyone's seen it on TV, but as usual the photos don't do it justice. Even before we reached the palace itself, we were blown away by the sheer size of the Queen Victoria Memorial.
We photographed each other standing in front of the memorial, just to give ourselves a laugh when we saw how small we looked. It's hard to imagine the craftsmanship that went into executing this extraordinary piece of marble.
Needless to say, even in the middle of October, the palace and the memorial are magnets for tourists. I had a brief chat with a young Chinese couple who were taking photographs, and I heard no end of unfamiliar and vaguely familiar accents while we were walking around. (Rhian got quite frustrated trying to take photos. She's so short than people kept blocking her sight lines when she was lining up a shot.)
We took a few more photos of the palace itself, and Rhian spotted a lady in a very smart hat walking towards a limo parked just inside the gates. I expect if we'd bought a copy of The Times, the Court and Social column would have told us exactly who was visiting that day.
We strolled over to St James's Park, one of the most pleasant London parks, and walked along the lake towards the Houses of Parliament. As we were approaching, we could hear church bells in the distance. Yet again, I'd managed to plan a trip without knowing that there was something exciting going on. The following day, pilgrims from across Britain were going to visit the shrine of St Edward 'the Confessor', the founder of Westminster Abbey. His feast day is 13 October, and the abbey was making the occasion with a full peal of bells. Rhian used to be a campanologist, so to hear the bells of London's most historic church in full voice was a real treat for her.
We walked around to the west side to take some photos, but how do you even start trying to fit it all into the frame? The detail on the stone carvings is incredible, and it's hard to imagine the whole thing being executed with just hand tools, nearly a thousand years ago.
We walked across Parliament Square, pausing to look at the statues of David Lloyd George and Sir Winston Churchill on the way, and arrived at the entrance to the Palace of Westminster. There was a heavy police presence, and the Old Bill weren't afraid of showing off their weaponry to the public. It was quite strange to see the clock tower covered in scaffolding, too. It didn't deter hundreds of people from trying to take photos, though.
We walked past the Foreign Office and up into Whitehall. Rhian has always wanted to see the Cenotaph, so we made that our next port of call. Like the Queen Victoria Memorial, it's much bigger in real life than it looks on TV.
It also doesn't look much like the war memorial in Aberdare (see For the Fallen). The basic shape is similar, but the details are quite different. So much for Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC's claim (on the tourist information board near Aberdare station, for instance) that ours is 'an exact replica' of the one in Whitehall. Ours wasn't designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, either.
We walked past the entrance to Downing Street, and Rhian was surprised to find how close it is to the Cenotaph. We were also a bit puzzled when we couldn't see a convenient balcony from which the Royal Family can watch the proceedings on Remembrance Sunday. I'm sure one of my many books on London will contain the answer, though.
We walked up towards the Old Admiralty Buildings and found a couple of Household Cavalry soldiers on guard duty. These are another iconic London sight, of course, and tourists were eagerly taking photos while the soldiers remained impassive and their horses tried not to look interested. It used to be a sign that you were getting older when policemen looked younger than you, but these lads looked barely old enough to shave.
We cut through the courtyard and emerged on Horseguards Parade, facing the Old Admiralty Building. This, is turned out, was the open space we'd spotted earlier on. Rhian has always wanted to see the Changing of the Guard, but it's so early in the day that we'd never get there in time. We've pencilled in an overnight stay for next year, so with any luck we'll be able to take that in. There's a museum devoted to the regiment here as well, so we can visit that afterwards and make a real day of it.
We walked back into Whitehall and returned to Trafalgar Square. Just opposite Charing Cross station, we were able to catch a bus along the Strand and Fleet Street. We went straight to the upper deck to take in the many historic buildings which line the route. We jumped off at Ludgate Circus and made our way to Ye Olde London Tavern for a late-ish lunch. We've eaten there three times now, and I've never been disappointed. It's a bit pricey by Aberdare standards, but London is a treat and we treated ourselves again.
We walked back to Ludgate Circus, and then headed along St Bride's Street, Shoe Lane and St Andrew's Lane to Holborn Circus. I wanted to see if Rhian could rise to the 'Find the Pub' challenge in Hatton Garden. She failed miserably, so I took her through Bleeding Heart Yard and into Ely Place by the concealed entrance. The Leaky Cauldron (from the 'Harry Potter' books) might not exist in real life – although I'm a Muggle, so how can I be sure – but Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is the next best thing.
The first time I tried to find it, it took me about a quarter of an hour of wandering up and down Ely Place (see Life in the Slow Lane). It was midweek, and the place was fairly quiet. This was a Friday afternoon, though, and the hubbub of voices from Ely Court gave the game away as soon as we approached it. The outdoor smoking area was packed, and the pub was almost full as well. We ordered our drinks and found a small table in the corner of the lounge. Rhian liked the place straight away, and decided it was definitely worth making a detour for.
We stayed until about five o'clock, and then headed out to make our way back to Victoria. I'm starting to know my way around the City at long last, and the twin domes of Smithfield Market make a convenient beacon pointing towards Farringdon station. The ongoing Crossrail work makes it a bit tricky to walk to, but we got there in good time to catch the Tube to Kings Cross. We let one train go, in fact. It was the Friday rush hour, and the semi-fast Metropolitan train to Amersham isn't one you'd catch if you had a choice. A few minutes later an Uxbridge train pulled in, which wasn't quite as packed. We changed to the Victoria Line at Kings Cross and shot through to our destination in no time. I know the best route to the coach station as well now, and we were in the queue in good time to get seats together.
I don't know if I'll be able to squeeze in another visit this year, but the more I learn about the world's greatest city, the more I want to explore it. Now that Rhian is single again, we're free to discover its secrets at our own pace. I'm sure we'll be lunching in Ye Olde London Tavern again before too long.