Whitehall

It’s the third and final day in London for this trip and you’re determined to shake off that panic of despairing that there’s so much to see.  You square your shoulders and decide to tackle one of the most historic streets in London:  Whitehall.

The Tube (subway) drops you at Charing Cross Station, and a five-minute walk finds you beside the stone lions of Trafalgar Square.  By turning left, you see in the distance your final destination: Big Ben.

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Along the way,  you’re turning pages and pages of history.  Your Baedaeker’s reveals that this route was once the site of the Palace of White Hall, official royal residence (until it burned to the ground).

Over there are the Queen’s Horse Guards, famous for their Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

Guide London Horse Guard

Now comes Downing Street with its massive metal gate reducing you to a distant peek at Number 10, home of the Prime Minister.

Guardian-Downing Street

There, in the middle of the street is The Cenotaph, a monument to lives lost during World War I.  (In the minute of silence following the dedication, the city was so hushed that all that could be heard was the sound of women weeping.)

Cenotaph black and white

In a block further you take an hour’s break to explore the War Rooms, Churchill’s headquarters preserved exactly as it looked during the Blitz of World War II.

War Rooms

Finally, at the southernmost end of Whitehall are the Houses of Parliament.  The nearby bridge over the Thames is painted green to represent the House of Commons; the next bridge west is red for the House of Lords.

Aerial Parliament

But especially, you stand before the grand tower renamed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the longest-reigning monarch in the country’s legendary history:  Elizabeth II.  Within Elizabeth Tower is suspended the bell Big Ben, ringing celebrated deep tones now replicated in doorbells and clocks across the world.  Its name probably came from Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation, which was quite a feat since the bell is over 13 tons in weight.  Since 1859 it has been regularly and accurately striking the quarter throughout peacetime.

Elizabeth tower

What an amazing street.

“But,” you cry, “I haven’t seen Westminster Abbey, the Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, St. Paul’s.  Aaugh!”

We will save those treasures for another time.  For now we’re retreating to the countryside and taking the train as far west as we can:  to the charming coastal area of England known as Cornwall.

Next Time:  Rusticating in Cornwall

 

Photo Credits:

Churchill War Room:  Sahar Cohen

No. 10 Downing:  The Guardian

Others:  Open Sources

Trafalgar Square in London

Admiralty Arch

If we plant our feet at Buckingham Palace and then begin walking eastward to the other end of the Mall, we come to Admiralty Arch. Once a naval headquarters (but now soon to be a Waldorf Astoria hotel), the building actually has three archways, the center one reserved exclusively  for when Royals want to go driving through it.  We walkers don’t mind using an outside arch, though, because they all open onto the busy, fascinating, culture-crammed plaza known as Trafalgar Square.

We could stroll around Trafalgar in about 20 minutes—or take an entire day poking into its wealth of offerings.  Let’s choose a quick look for now.

Aerial Trafalgar

Dominating the space is a 170-foot monument that gave the square its name.  The column is topped by a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson who won the 1805 sea battle against the navies of France and Spain off the coast of Spain at Trafalgar.  Admittedly, Nelson was a pretty beat-up hero:  by the start of the battle he had already lost an eye and an arm; and he, in fact, died from wounds at the famous battle.  But Trafalgar made Britain the mistress of all the seas, and a grateful nation raised this prominent monument to him.

To the north of the square we see the National Gallery of Art, a world-renown art collection open free to visitors all year long.  We could easily spend a morning there, grab a quick bite in the cafeteria, and then lose ourselves in art for the rest of the day.  I guarantee that you’ll always find a favorite work of art.

Trafalgar Square St Martins

To the right of the National Gallery is the church St. Martin’s-in-the- Fields.  The name now seems a bit laughable:  though the original medieval building was constructed in the middle of fields, this 18th century structure is right in the thick of urban London.  Its current fame, though, comes from brilliant musical recordings made by its English chamber orchestra established in 1959 by the great conductor Neville Marriner.

The center of the square, graced with pools and terraces, opens expansively for public activities ranging from anti-war protests to celebrations of soccer victories.  Sometimes a massive screen is raised and simulcast opera or rock performances are streamed for audiences who have brought chairs and snacks to sit and watch.

ship in bottle

At each corner of the square are plinths that—in three instances—support an equestrian statue and two sculptures of military heroes.  Since the 1990s, though, the fourth plinth has been reserved to display contemporary art.  One year was a six-foot-high ship in a bottle (a replica of Lord Nelson’s ship HMS Victory)–and that has been one of the more conservative art selections.  In 2013 you could have seen a 15-foot high blue fiberglass rooster.

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But our attention irresistibly is drawn back to Nelson’s Column.  Nestled at the feet of the monument are four massive, 22-foot-tall lion sculptures designed by the artist Edwin Landseer.  A 2018 art project placed a fifth lion there, fluorescent and electronic;  people would speak to it, the words would be collected through the day and at day’s end this red lion would roar the poem to the public.

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What an amazing space.

And by turning our heads just a quarter-turn we can see down White Hall to our third and final destination on this particular London walk:  Big Ben.

Next Time:  Whitehall

Photo credits:  Open source

 

The Lay of the Land in London

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.

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Pall Mall at the Trooping of the Colors

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.

St James Palace
St. James Palace
Clarence house
Clarence House

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.

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St. James Park

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.

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Buckingham Palace

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.

Royal Standard
Royal Standard

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.

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Victoria Memorial and British Lion

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.

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Buckingham Palace Balcony

Homey and impressive, elegant and beautiful, Pall Mall and St. James Park undeniably draw us to Buckingham Palace.

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Aerial View from Buckingham Palace eastward along Pall Mall with St James Park on the right.

And should the Queen include us in one of her garden tea parties, who are we to refuse?

 

Next time:  Trafalgar Square in London

 

Photo credits:

*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

The Fortified City of York

York Sky

After a two-hour train ride threading through the grassy moors north of London, you will find yourself at the walled city of York.  Walk through the center of this city, and you will feel that you are in a medieval town, not a modern one.  Cobbled streets cozily lined with sandstone structures house tea shops and stores all designed to gently lure the interested traveler to eat, buy, explore, or just sit with a cup of tea and watch the people around you.

Probably the most famous street in the town is the tiny lane known as The Shambles (a name evolving from Fleshammels, the Anglo-Saxon word for the butcher shelves displaying various meats for sale).  The buildings are so near to each other that you can reach out of one upper story and almost touch the house across the street.  Harry Potter fans will recognize this street as the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

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The Shambles is an old street in York, England, with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century. This image must be reproduced with the credit ‘VistBritain/Andrew Pickett’

The handsome building rising as an elegant presence over the town is the 2nd-largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe:  The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in York, popularly known as York Minster.

York face

For those of us who don’t live next door to a cathedral, here are some interesting distinctions:

*    A Cathedral is the headquarters of a Bishop, in this case the Archbishop of York, the third-highest ranking clergyman in the Church of England.

*Why is it called a Minster?  Well, that comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for monastery and is a title of honor in addition to being a Cathedral.  So, York Minster is quite special in church history.

*The Minster has survived several fires.  Some grumpy parishioners complained that one fire was sent by God as a judgement on a Bishop that nobody liked.

*And for those of you of a practical mind, it takes about $25,000 per day to heat, light, clean, staff the place in order to keep open to the public and open for services.

Some elements of history can’t be varnished over, and there’s no avoiding it in this case:  apparently the only thing comfy about the early history of York were the Vikings’ shoes.  In the 900s fierce Vikings crossed the North Sea and conquered this area, and made it their capital, Jórvik, which which evolved into the modern word York.

Viking shoes

Viking shoes displayed in the Jórvik Viking Centre

Around 1070, William the Conqueror raised the level of violence by his infamous “Harrying of the North,” an unbridled effort that drove out about 75% of the population so William could replace them with his lords and followers.  The stone fortifications of the city developed after his purge.

Not to be outdone, in 1190 York inhabitants persecuted Jews so unrelentingly that 150 Jews committed suicide in York Fort (Clifford’s Tower) rather than be turned over to the mob that threatened to kill and mutilate them.

York suicides Clifford’s Tower

We have to accept that fortified cities were products of violent times. You will find, though, that the people of modern-day York have turned any vestiges of this past into educational sites that, hopefully, show that now everyone is welcome to come within their stone walls.

Next Time:  The Lay of the Land in London

 

Unnoted Photo Credits:

York Minster towers:  Church Times

Viking Shoes: Jórvik Viking Centre

Other York attractions:  Open Sources

 

 

 

A Ramble Around Castle Howard

If you can draw yourself away from London’s orbit and drive about four hours north, you will come to Yorkshire, bordered on the east by the frigid, roiling North Sea and on the west by the high fells and crags of the Pennine Hills.  The western lands were wandered by the Brontë sisters; and in the wild winds of a tempestuous night you might well imagine yourself hearing Catherine’s pleading for her lover Heathcliff, as described in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.  In the nearer dales, you might bury your hand in the soft, fluffy wool of a lamb whose grandsire was, in fact, treated by the genial veterinarian and writer, James Herriot (Alf Wight).

But north and east of the fortified city of York with its medieval cathedral and cobbled streets you will come upon Castle Howard, ancestral home of the Earls of Carlisle.  The estate is a jaw-dropping 9,000 acres in size, so you will find yourself riding over vast expanses and gentle hills before finally arriving at the stately house itself.  For those of you too young to know, in 1981, the sight of this elegant home in an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited stunned the eyes of thousands of Americans.  Most of us had never before seen a stately home, and this poignant love letter to the innocence of pre-war England absolutely tied our heartstrings to this particular house.

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You really should tour the house to see the treasures suspended in this magnificent time capsule designed by John Vanbrugh.  But I want you to take a walk, for that is the only way you will see the buildings placed about the estate just for the pleasure of someone like you who enjoys a saunter.

As you leave the house, you will find Atlas groaning under the weight of the world in the central fountain of the garden.Atlas

Wandering further, you will see the Temple of the Four Winds, a place designed simply for one to read and perhaps sip a glass of sherry as one looks down from this high prospect.Temple of four winds

You might bridle at being told to see Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum, but you’ll be well rewarded to view it at a distance above the nearby bridge.

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Many more obelisks, stone gates, pyramids, and statues can be discovered around the estate; but at the end of your wandering, you will always return to face the castle itself, stretching itself across the hilltop in the fading sunlight. You can imagine young men and women talking and laughing along the length of the terrace, unaware that a war was on the way that would end their way of life—and, indeed, end many of their lives.

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It is this poignant beauty that makes Castle Howard a place that tugs at your spirit:  a Brideshead to be revisited.

Next time: The Fortified City of York

Remember that my book The Downton Era is now available at Amazon.com

 

Photo Credits:

Atlas Fountain:  Open source

Temple of the Four Winds: By Pwojdacz at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13403596

All others:  Nancy Parrish

The Destruction of Great Country Houses

 

At first glance, tourism and “death taxes” don’t appear to have much in common.  Most people enjoy touring; no one enjoys taxes.  Yet, in the twentieth century, Britain found a way to link the two.

The financial costs of World War I nearly crippled the British government; World War II left it entirely bankrupt and heavily in debt to the United States (a debt that couldn’t be paid off until 2006). Most regular citizens were impoverished by these wars, so the only people who had any sort of wealth were the aristocrats.  Accordingly, a necessary but crushing tax was levied on inheritances to the tune of 80% of everything a noble owned.

Unfortunately, the aristocrats’ wealth was bound up in things like art.  They just didn’t have cash to pay taxes or to maintain their great houses.

Not all owners were savvy or they did not have sufficient resources to succeed.  In the decade between 1945 and 1955, five hundred country houses were simply demolished.  Derwent Hall and the village surrounding it were flooded in order to make a reservoir; the foundations now lie at the bottom of a lake.  Streatlem Castle was used for target practice by the Territorial Army.  Aston Clinton was torn down to build a vocational training center. The rotunda of Nutall Temple was dynamited to make way for the M1 motorway.  By 1955, they were disappearing at the rate of five per week. Thorington Hall was pulled down as well: Thoringtondestroyed

Some estates like Chatsworth survived because they learned to cultivate tourism:

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Chatsworth

Longleat in Wiltshire added a safari park to the estate to attract families: Longleat

Others like Highclere Castle eventually found film makers who would rent their houses for period dramas such as Downton Abbey:

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Highclere Castle

Castle Howard gained fame and tourism because of the film series Brideshead Revisited:Castle Howard

Now most great country houses survive precisely because their owners have found the path from taxes to tourism.

Next time:  A Ramble Around Castle Howard

Photo credits for Thornington Hall, Longleat, Castle Howard:  open sources

Highclere and Chatsworth photos: Nancy C. Parrish

 

My book The Downton Era is now available through Barnes&Noble, Amazon, and other online sites.

 

Amazing Avebury

Seventeen miles north of Stonehenge is the charming village of Avebury, itself the site of an ancient stone circle that may rival its more famous neighbor in terms of interest.

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Imagine this.  You and your friends are given shovels and asked to dig a henge (large circular bank with an internal ditch) that is nearly four football fields wide and ten football fields long.  After finishing that bracing task, your hearty crew is given axes (for cutting trees into roller shapes) and asked to roll 98 stones–some weighing up to 40 tons in weight—and set them into extra holes that you dug in your spare time.  A 40-ton stone is about the weight of 20 cars.

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Did people 6,000 year ago not have enough to keep them occupied?  Couldn’t they have invented cricket earlier?  Why would they undertake such a massive construction project? Clearly this was not a leisure sport. Of the many theories, the most serious one suggests these people used the site to practice rituals observing alignments of the stars, moon, and sun.  Another interesting suggestion is that the stone circle might have been viewed as an axis mundi—a marker indicating the center of the world.

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So feel good that instead of using a spade and axe, you can pay the National Trust a modest admission fee that helps protect these stones from souvenir hunters.  Allow yourself to wander among the stones and feel awed by what the ancients were able to do.

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And before you leave, have a nice pub lunch at the Red Lion and treat yourself to a saunter of the side streets to see their lovely gardens.  Perhaps you can watch a cricket match at the local pitch as well.

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Next Time:  The Destruction of Great Country Houses

Photo Credits:

Aerial View–Google/Open Source

Individual Views–Nancy C. Parrish