Although London is a world capital of nearly nine million people, it can have, well, a bit of a homey feel to it if you take it in small chunks. Today we’ll stroll one manageable chunk: the way down Pall Mall.
As we start our walk at Trafalgar Square, we saunter under the grand neoclassical tribute to Queen Victoria–Admiralty Arch–and find ourselves looking westward down one of the truly graceful boulevards of the world. Once a field for pall mall, a game very much like croquet, its surface is now colored British Empire red to give the effect of a giant red carpet extending 2,000 feet to Buckingham Palace.
When the pall mall game field was moved, wealthy families took advantage of the open vista to build their fashionable residences along the Mall, especially because the grounds of St. James Palace bordered it. Until Queen Victoria’s time, St. James Palace was the royal residence in London, which is why our ambassador to Britain is still technically identified as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Now Clarence House, the London home of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, is perhaps the only residence on the Mall. Many of the old mansions were purchased, and are still used, by exclusive gentlemen’s clubs such as Boodle’s, The Athenaeum, and The Reform Club.
Also on the homey side is the fact that the Mall is nestled on our left against the 57-acre St. James Park. Like New York’s Central Park, this public park is a breath of fresh air in an urban setting. As we walk along its graveled paths, though, we see that St. James Park is more open with lawns, a lovely lake, and—as ever—those charming English garden borders. It feels like an oasis, and so we decide to relax, hire chairs, and buy lemonade and sandwiches from a park kiosk. We might even nap for a few minutes in the warm April sun.
Then–if we can shut out the fact that crossing the street from St. James Park onto the west end of the Mall is a bit like dashing across a NASCAR course during a race—we are rewarded by the view of a gem of history and architecture. The centerpiece of this area is, of course, Buckingham Palace, often comfortably referred to as Buck House. As the London base for Queen Elizabeth, it is both homey and impressive.
The Queen hangs out her personal flag to let us know when she’s at home, the Royal Standard flying on the flagpole instead of the Union Jack. (The triple lions on the standard represent England, the harp Ireland, and the single lion Scotland. No, I don’t know about what happened to Wales). The back of the palace looks out over a 42-acre expanse of lawns and gardens where the Queen hosts tea parties honoring celebrities and ordinary citizens who have contributed to the quality of British life.
However, there is an undeniably imposing aspect to the Palace as well. A large statue of Queen Victoria, surrounded by a pride of bronze English lions, seems an indomitable guard in front of the palace at the western end of the Mall.
When we turn from that statue to study the palace itself, we’re overwhelmed by the impressive size of the gates, the guards trooping the color, and by the history enacted on the balcony on which we’ve seen so many royal celebrations from weddings to victories. The Queen herself, when she was just a young princess, wrote in her diary that on Victory in Europe day, that she walked with friends throughout London crowds and then finally down the Mall to see her parents on the palace balcony at 12:30 a.m. It is humbling to be in the presence of such history.
Homey and impressive, elegant and beautiful, Pall Mall and St. James Park undeniably draw us to Buckingham Palace.
And should the Queen include us in one of her garden tea parties, who are we to refuse?
Next time: Trafalgar Square in London
*Aerial view: Jason Hawkes
*Royal Standard, Clarence House, St. James Palace: Wikipedia
*View of Pall Mall and troops: By Photo: Cpl Stephen Harvey/MOD, OGL v1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78414343
*Buckingham Palace statue: Nancy Parrish