Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to Britain 1: Of Banquets and Bunkers

There are three reasons why traveling to popular international destinations over the Christmas holiday is a bad idea. First, there is the weather, and hoping that Mother Nature cooperates with travel plans, which she rarely does. It also tends to be cold. Second, there are huge masses of people everywhere, more so than during other parts of the year, with the exception perhaps of peak summer vacation time. Third, things are closed on at least one, often two days during that period. And fourth—there are four reasons why traveling to popular international destinations over the Christmas holiday is a bad idea—the days are very short and daylight ends around 4:00 or 4:30.
We experienced all four of these problems when Ken A. and I did London for Christmas back in 2008—a December blizzard cancelled our outbound flight and we had to rebook flights and flats. This time, we lucked out, and outbound was no problem, and even the return happened to coincide with the one clear day sandwiched between two blizzard days. We—and more specifically I—rarely have that kind of luck, to which just about any trip to Graphics of the Americas in Florida in February stands as a testament.
For international flights, I prefer flying out of Newark, but for some inexplicable reason tickets were about $400 more than flying out of JFK, so needless to say, JFK it was. This was the first time I have ever actually been to JFK airport (although I think I took a Boston–NY shuttle to/from there in 1999 but it may have been La Guardia), and I had heard horror stories, but it was actually quite smooth and relatively uncrowded. British Airways check-in went quickly, more quickly than at Newark actually, and security was surprisingly fast, as well. We had allotted plenty of time, which it turned out we did not need, so we spent a fair amount of time in a bar/restaurant owned (or at least named after) Sammy Hagar, of Van Halen fame as well as the solo 1984 ode to reckless endangerment, “I Can’t Drive 55.”
The outbound flight was generally OK, although right behind us, a child screamed the whole way. Can’t they check children with luggage? 
We arrived at Heathrow early the following morning, and passport control into the UK was the usual level of crowded, but at least the border agents didn’t give me the third degree about why I want to enter the country the way they usually do. I guess with the UK economy in the toilet (austerity!), they need as many tourist dollars (or pounds) as they can get.
We had rented a flat in Bayswater in West London, as we had in 2008, a wonderfully ethnic and diverse neighborhood with many great restaurants. It’s also easy to get anywhere else in London from there, either on foot or by Tube. We took the Heathrow Express train into Paddington Station and, whilst detraining, my well-traveled-but-not-very-old-but-still-very-crappily-made suitcase literally fell apart (the handle ripped right out of it, tearing the top off). It had been steadily deteriorating for a while, pretty much right after its first use; the plastic used for the inner shell turned exceedingly brittle when exposed to the cold temperature of aircraft baggage holds, so after every flight the case is filled with small plastic fragments. American Tourister = Chinese-Made Crap. Anyway, I managed to wedge the handle back into the frame and it held together long enough to go the one stop on the Circle Line to Bayswater.
The first night we availed ourselves of Phoenicia, an excellent Lebanese restaurant on Queensway.
Our first point of interest in London was the Banqueting House on Whitehall, which I have been meaning to visit for the past few trips over there. Originally a palace for the Archbishop of York, and later the lavish palace of Cardinal Woolsey during the reign of Henry VIII, Henry took it over when Woolsey fell from royal favor (Woolsey was unable to get Henry his divorce) and turned it into a vast space for entertaining. The original wood structure was replaced during the reign of the first Stuart monarch, James I, with a magnificent new structure designed by architect Inigo Jones (most of London was either designed by Inigo Jones or Christopher Wren, it seems) in a grand classical style, borrowed from Jones’ visits to Italy. 
The Banqueting House then became the venue for grand “masques,” music and dance extravaganzas. When Charles I, James’ son, became king, he took to the Banqueting House, and commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint grand paintings for the ceiling. However, the paintings were potentially so sensitive to smoke that the use of candles was verboten, and thus ended the masques.
About the paintings... magnificent, yes, but they depicted James and Charles as if they were gods. Indeed, the Stuarts were big on the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that the British monarch was the human instrument of God on Earth. This didn’t go over particularly well with a lot of people and when Charles I dissolved Parliament for 11 years, well, folks began to grumble. Prime among them was Oliver Cromwell, and Civil War broke out in England. At the end of the Civil War, Charles I was charged with treason and sentenced to be executed. On January 30, 1649, Charles awaited the executioner in his beloved Banqueting House and, when the time came, was marched out an upper window (which no longer exists) and beheaded just outside. The whole thing is recreated in the 1970 film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris as Cromwell and Alec Guinness as Charles I. And you know, Charles I does bear more than a passing resemblance to Guinness. Help me, Charles I, you’re my only hope! 
After the Banqueting House, we banqueted ourselves in the Red Lion pub across the street from the Houses of Parliament, then proceeded to the Churchill War Rooms. 
I had been there before but Ken was eager to check it out, so down we descended into the underground rabbit warren of rooms where Winston Churchill and his ministers ran the war effort during WWII as bombs rained down on London. Since I had been there in 2007, they had installed a massive Churchill museum that basically chronicles every detail of his life. In the center of it all was a giant touch screen display that essentially let you tap on any date during Churchill’s life and find out what happened on that day. We gave it only a cursory look, as it was all a bit overwhelming.
By that time, it was getting late, so back to the Red Lion, and then off to Bayswater where we found a very good Indian restaurant.
Next up: Back to Greenwich.

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