Where has this millennial year gone? It seems we were recently bound up in gala hype. Last January, cities worldwide celebrated with fireworks. The year quietly ebbs with no big computer glitches or crashes, Americans prepare to install George Dubya, and the world swallows hard at its view of US democracy offered by our courts and our electoral college fracas.
December means Christmas cards. On the first Sunday of Advent, we attended a choral mass at Westminster Abbey before walking to a delicious fireside lunch at tiny historic Grenadier Pub, once Wellington’s Officers’ Mess. Afterwards, we bought cards at Selfridge’s on Oxford Street, while a black choir joyously sang rockin’ carols to happy crowds near the basement escalator. A week later, I remembered that square cards, quite normal in Britain, pose such stress on US mail as to require an extra 11 cents. Since the American PO here sold only 10’s and 1’s, Mike’s duties (add return address, seal, and stamp) increased greatly. The US mail we receive goes to Mike’s office, via New York, and from there to Uncle Navy at a pace often determined by 19 year old sailors.
Mail addressed to Hyde Park Gardens Mews comes through the front door mail slot, twice a day, usually at about 9 and then at 10 AM. In times past, mail might arrive nearly a dozen times a day. However, the British system is now under duress, with wildcat strikes for higher wages. Post offices here sell cards, stationary, and wrapping, and perform many banking functions, especially in remote hamlets. So far, I haven’t read that anyone’s “gone postal” but guns aren’t generally available in Britain.
Since Mike and I were raised in Rochester NY, I was especially interested in a KCWC trip to Rochester-upon-Medway, in Kent. After nearly an hour’s train-ride east from London past pretty hillsides, we met our white-bearded tour guide and began a walk through history. The small city sits at the first ford of the Medway River. Probably at low tide sometime after 43 AD, the Romans were first to erect a permanent bridge, then the Anglo-Saxons, before the first stone bridge was built in 1398. In 1856 a cast iron bridge, replaced with steel in 1914, was predecessor to today’s twin spans, completed in 1970. Old Roman roads are still visible: a forum, temple, and bath. Later, Normans built a 113 foot tall stone keep (dungeon) nearby which still overlooks the river. It’s pierced with long narrow archers’ windows. Three corners are square, but one is round: why? After King John’s men forced him to sign Magna Carta in 1215, the scheming angry king had second thoughts. He tried to renege. Soldiers tunneled beneath the castle on one corner, buttressing the tunnel with timbers as they went, then filling it with 40 hogs worth of fat. The tunnel’s wood and fat were set afire, the tunnel collapsed, and the wall above crumbled. The castle’s corner was rebuilt with a rounded tower for visual advantage. Bullets have evolved—dumdum, cop-killer, rubber—but the tall keep remains as it was, its gray rough stone stacked atop a grassy hilltop, with views in all directions. Elizabeth I used the area to defend her Medway-moored warships. Later, the Dutch slipped past and burnt London ships in the 1700’s. The tower once stored more gunpowder than the Tower of London; today, hardy visitors climb its circular stone steps to earn the prize of its vast windy view.
England’s southeast corner, Kent, was Christianized by St. Augustine in 597, and features a trail of historic churches. Rochester boasts a combination Norman-and-Gothic style cathedral, England’s second oldest, used for pilgrimages since 604. The architectural differences are plainly visible in the nave, where one section ends and a newer one begins. It was seized from the Benedictines in one of Henry VIII’s ferocious land grabs, and is used today for church services and secular concerts. Nearby is the Norman keep already mentioned, and also the remains of Rochester Castle, where walls sometimes thickened to 13 feet, and a 13th century hostel, built for the Crusades’ Knights Templars. The area was also used as a way stop by Charles II as he returned from Europe to accept the throne. England was tired of Cromwell, and thus began the Restoration of the monarchy by a contrite nation. (His father, Charles I, was the only English king to be beheaded.) Modern Kent, so close to the coast, suffered heavy bombing by German planes who slipped by a porous “Dad’s army” of volunteers and defensive RAF fighter planes.
The red brick Dickens Centre (not Center; theatre, not theater) sits on Rochester’s high street. (Any town’s large shopping street is the High Street.) It is inhabited by a large mechanized Mr. Pickwick laughing heartily with his mates, Scrooge warned by a shackled ghostly Marley, and thin little Oliver Twist furiously berated at dinner, after begging for more. ‘umble Uriah ‘eap snivels away, near Fagin’s pickpocketing class for his boys. Dickens was born nearby. He retired from London and his worldwide reading tours to a home at Gads Hill near Rochester in about 1870. Other Centre scenes recreate a dingy alleyway where “King Cholera” sometimes reigned, especially terrorizing inhabitants of the grim tenements along the river. The last display creates a large Victorian sitting room where a bearded Dickens mannequin nods off at his desk, as many of his characters appear at the window as if in a dream. In town, you can walk past “Miss Havisham’s house,” today beautifully restored, and town shops featuring Dickensian names like Peggity’s. Antique shops, restaurants, a school, parades, and fairs attract tourists. “Ye olde” is splashed about freely.
This month’s KCWC meeting was held in the shi-shi Royal Auto Club, on Pall Mall. I had tried to hail a cab, but many vacant cabs just waved me off; others were full. This never happens on my corner: we are so close to Paddington we take cabs for granted! Later I learned that the Queen was about to open Parliament, in crown and gown, and many downtown routes were closed off for her carriage parade. I crossed Hyde Park to a hotel and snagged a cab there, then at the meeting heard a witty and well researched talk on the Royals. The stone RAC building’s large foyer is surrounded by a white balustrade on the second story, (“first floor,” not the US “first floor” on the ground). The walls are covered with painted murals featuring specific events, all with portrait faces. There are painted sports car rallies in Scotland, or meetings in the club bar. Is every member shown? Plush patterned carpets, a stained glass skylight, and brass railings add to the rich décor, and I went downstairs to see the large pool I’d heard about at the athletic club. It’s surrounded by thick incised colored pillars, which would perfectly decorate a Turkish sultan’s ornate bath. Swimmers wore suits; I’m told the water is freezing.
After the meeting, I stopped by the Royal Academy of Art to view 100 Turner watercolors. Some date from his ‘teens, and unlike many of his feisty quick sketches, all were intended as finished works. The trail of his progression from an academic to a looser style is delightful to see, especially his skies. He was extremely exact in depicting people and animals, and traveled widely. Scenes of Scottish or Welsh hills, Italian lakes, or German waterfalls often became engravings or book illustrations, and several engravings were displayed in cases. The gallery was packed with viewers, requiring an occasional nudge to get in close enough to appreciate the overlays of blues and siennas, or to discern where Turner was using white gouache instead of leaving white paper. Some paintings were only a bit larger than postcards. I have yet to use my Royal Academy members’ lounge!
Around the corner is Bond Street, connecting Oxford St. and Piccadilly. To go home I walked its length, past elegant Christmas windows of Tiffany, Hermes, DKNY, Gucci, and Armani. The smell of money perfumed the air, and one stylish shop window outdid the next. This is the season when million-pound bonuses are dispersed to lucky local executives, a practice the Navy has eschewed, alas for us. I jumped on the back of a double decker bus on Oxford Street for the ride home and tried to quash anti-capitalistic thoughts about schoolteachers’ and nurses’ wages.
Quite different from crowded Oxford Street was our immediate neighborhood, where the merchants hosted the Connaught Village Christmas Fayre. Jimmy Choo, a shoe couturier who shod Princess Di and is routinely in Vogue, opened the affair at his shop at about 6. He cultivates an idiosyncratic image wearing a small Fu Manchu beard and oversize puffy velvet beret. Tiny white Christmas lights strung everywhere blinked as happy strollers consumed glasses of hot mulled wine or small mince pies offered in booths and shops. A brass band played as it moved past various brightly lit shops, and a few hardy carolers joined in, despite occasional drizzle.
I visited a frame shop with huge discarded frames for 5 pounds each, a painter’s atelier with the artist in a wine-colored velvet suit, a candle shop, a beauty shop, (offering outstanding trays of Indian hors d’oeuvres!) and the Rye pottery. The last is an outlet for a well known pottery on the coast, offering painted pigs and cow collectibles, a crèche, and figures from the Canterbury Tales, and golfer bookends. Mike was in Paris. The merchants hope that with the Paddington area expansion, this could remain an arty enclave, but there are parking, increasing rents, and other troublesome urban issues. Paddington may soon have a 42 story building, and Westminster Council plans for the canal to be further opened and beautified. The new Hilton Hotel over the station, behind plastic since we arrived, is due to open later this year and is gradually shedding its covers. We’re anxious to see it.
At the other end of the neighborhood, pavement rage has become an issue on busy Oxford Street! (There are no “sidewalks” here.) Nine million pedestrians annually visit its shops, and an additional sixty thousand people work nearby. It seems that nefarious lollygaggers impede those walkers with a mission. There have been insults hurled against slow walkers, and pushing. Suggested remedies include a slow lane at a mile an hour and a pacer lane at 3 mph, with cameras tracking.
You may tire of my weatherbabble, but note today’s Times front page cartoon. A man, struggling with ‘brolly and rain, says to his gloomy mate, “They say it’s as bad as the Great Storm of a few days ago.” Daily, small topical and very clever cartoons add whimsy to the front page.
Most mom and pop stores are run by Indians or Pakistanis, and they are open for long hours. Many of the small greengrocers are middle eastern. Nearly half of all UK ethnic groups live in London, versus ten percent of the UK’s white population. Ten years ago the city was 84% white; today it is 75% white, and there are a couple of areas near London where whites are an ethnic minority. Westminster, our city, is 21% ethnic. 65% of Britain is Christian.
As we decorate for Christmas, we chat with local merchants. The lady selling Christmas boughs pointed out the building near us where Wallace Simpson lived, and said that at one time, “all” the people nearby had a Bentley or a Rolls. (An exaggeration?) Why, she said, her niece had just been in New Zealand, and it’s the same thing there! Tsk! However, there is definitely feeling among some shopkeepers and taxi drivers against the ethnic changes occurring so rapidly. “Ignorant” is a blanket term I often hear. The schools are coping, as in the US, with different customs and belief systems, languages, clothing, poor pay and prestige for teachers, and equal opportunity. Political correctness is very in.
Sunday afternoon we visited the National Gallery for the current Impressionshow, which was large, well done, and packed. It focused on showing rapidly done works shown as finished art, which was quite unusual prior to the late 1800’s and Manet. There were several by Sisely, Degas, and Morisot, along with many Monets. We looked for a long time, shopped, then visited the restaurant for the comfort of tea and a clotted cream scone. Some scones are dry; the National Gallery’s are perfect, moist, with raisins (“sultanas”), and the buttery clotted cream is thick and delicious.
As we left the huge building and peered over dusky Trafalgar Square before us, we saw a crowd gathering under Nelson’s tall column, and strolled in that direction. But then we eyed the glint of many shiny brass tubas from across the street, at Saint Martin’s in the Fields, and veered there instead. In red-lined capes vibrant against Navy blue uniforms and gray stone, a large Salvation Army band began playing under the church portico. Next to them stood the church choir in red cassocks and white surplices, some swinging glass lanterns with glowing candles against the dark. The band finished playing a loud carol medley from the damp church steps, and with the choir, processed across the street to Nelson’s column, with hundreds of us trailing, under a misty full moon. (It’s dark by 4 this far north.) Programs distributed as someone read Christmas gospels in perfect velvety English, then spoke about going out into the fields with the Christmas message. Readings were interspersed with our lusty singing. A few souls added harmonies, and the choir’s micss carried the bright sound to ears far away as buses and taxis roared by.
Nelson’s column, enormous as you stand up close, was surrounded by lifesize white carved angels, lit by spotlights, with volunteer guardians who had promised to watch over them. The illuminated fountains splashed. Nearby was the huge Norwegian Christmas tree, aglow with white lights, and for a change, the square was free from its normal blanket of pigeons. (Our taxi driver the previous week had explained Norway’s gift tree: “We gave ‘em soldiers, now they give us trees.”) We finished singing, the band’s notes died out, and we didn’t wait around for the program by the deaf: our feet were frozen in the light drizzle. We scurried home on the tube. En route, our train car had a drunken exhibition: a lurching yob pulled down his pants for us all. We warmed up over a good dinner by Chef Mike, and finished reading the Times: another nice Sunday!
The next night we attended an excellent Charles Dickens one man show, a Simon Callow performance. Dickens, working full time packing boot blacking by 12 when his father was thrown into debtor’s prison, was very successful as a young writer. He married the woman he loved, and suffered deeply when her younger sister, who lived with them, died suddenly, soon after the marriage. Ten children later, he built a brick wall down the center of their bedroom, and his wife left to rejoin her family. He kept her other sister as housekeeper, despite ensuing gossip, and eventually at 48, found solace with a teenage actress, caring for her and her parents. Their relationship was never documented, and every sort of speculation has followed. He offered no answers. His extraordinarily popular readings trips in the UK and US exhausted him—thousands of fans were turned away, like rock concerts today--and in ten years he was dead. Callow played everybody from Pip to Scrooge to Dickens masterfully.
Another outstanding play was Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Michael Gambon starred; he was knighted in 1998. Its first premier was in NY in 1961, but it was written on a card table when Pinter lived in Chiswick in two rooms, the kitchen with a bathtub, and a bath, and his son at eighteen months crawling underfoot. The play was inspired by a reticent man who lived in the house. He invited a homeless old tramp to share his one room flat for a few weeks. The “landlord” had been badly treated in a mental hospital some years before, and Pinter took it from there. I think it is one of the more delightful evenings of theater I ever saw. Gambon’s twitchy, dirty, befuddled old man (whose accent sometimes meandered into Irish and Welsh) was superlative, and the writing, set, and small supporting cast were unparalleled.
London’s small theaters offer a chance to see and hear the actors clearly, and they seem to have banned smoking. During intermissions, one goes to the bar, or buys ice cream from ushers who stand in front of the stage with trays strapped from their necks, in the manner of old-time cigarette girls. Many theaters are quite old: The Comedy (Pinter) raised its first curtain in 1881, and suffered from a bomb in WWII. Often the seats are red plush and there are sometimes binoculars one may rent for a few pence. Part of our plan to stay home over the holidays was to enjoy theater.
I called to get Eric Clapton tickets at Royal Albert Hall in February. “£110 or £150 tickets, Madam?” was the reply. “You’re kidding!” “No, madam, only black market tickets available now, sorry!” I’m opting for the CD. A pound is about $1.80 today and rising.
Portobello Market is a famed institution, more crowded on weekends, and we had been meaning to go all year. We finally visited on a day when about half of London shared our idea, and chattering crowds snaked up and down jammed streets, one busier than another, under dark clouds, past hundreds of booths. Everything was for sale. There are so many antique stores that it’s a wonder anything old remains here. (Is it all real?) The good-natured lemming masses seemed to be buying, even under duress: one block had lost electricity, so computers, streetlights, and shop lights were off, and flickering candles inside made for quite a ghostly show. Many shopkeepers had a torch (flashlight) ready for those interested in a closer view. Some shops are tiny pigeonholes, but others have multistoried carved wooden paneling and crystal chandeliers. We now have three new sterling silver frames for Mike’s office photos, with stamped millennium markings, and some antique fish forks and knives with ivory handles. The pointy knife blades are engraved with fish. At one time, they were common here, but Brits today patronize as many Burger Kings as Americans. We also bought an old oval silver dish with a sliding cover, unique since the cover slides from both sides, we’re told. It was expensive.
Britain may be falling apart in the rail service and manufacturing sectors, but boys’ choral music must be unparalleled. We’ve enjoyed three Christmas concerts, each time with small kids’ soprano voices soaring clearly to the skies. They are usually accompanied by adult men to add depth and dimension. All wear cassocks. Sunday afternoon we missed Evensong at Westminster Abbey, so instead we visited the Cabinet War Rooms nearby. Then we attended a Lessons and Carols service at St. Margaret’s church, next to the Abbey. It was built in 1532 and serves at the Commons’ church, and was overflowing. Our next concert was at Royal Albert Hall, by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, which was begun by pious Henry VI to accompany his many chapel services. There was an orchestra, a men’s choir, and a huge chorus of singers as well, and the three tiers of audiences, backed by rich red velvet curtains and gold swags, were enthusiastic. A few Santa hats peppered the audience. There were performances of a Bach cantata, a Gloria, with duet and chorus; Vivaldi’s Gloria, a quiet Corelli orchestral piece, carols, and audience singalongs. It was great, especially when all the people and instruments rang out together! We stopped at the Archery Pub on the way home. It’s close to us and one of the prettiest pubs in London, with nicely carved woodwork and beveled mirrors. We’ve been meaning to go since we moved here. It’s on an old archery course, and around the corner from the stables of the horses we see daily in our mews. Their blazing fireplace was warm and toasty! Mike usually has bitter or stout, and I alternate between larger, bitter, or wine.
The Cabinet War rooms are near the Cenotaph, the war monument, and Whitehall, and these old rooms are left as a museum pretty much untouched since 1945, including the bed where PM Churchill held court each morning, and napped for an hour each afternoon. It’s wood, quite different from the metal beds wedged alongside desks in the cramped offices. Winston smoked a dozen stogies a day, and dictated until two or three each morning. Rooms are all ten feet underground, reinforced with concrete. The old phones and maps are still in place, the old wooden desks and linoleum floors, with recorded sounds of staccato typing, music, or shoes clicking down the halls. There are ashtrays everywhere, and the fact that there were no flush toilets, only chemical ones, in this top-secret dungeon war nerve center (as bombs screamed overhead and the city burnt) must have required some heroic olfactory sacrifices. I’m sure the desks were messier in wartime than today. Some slept in another sub-basement level below, but tall people had to stoop to get down to their cots. Armed marines patrolled all halls, and a trip up to the bathroom was an event. Many workers preferred taking their chances above ground with the bombs. The room where Churchill radioed the nation is there, and also the secret room holding a phone used only between Roosevelt and Churchill. The newly developed machines to scramble their conversation required another full room, with air conditioning for its eighty tons of equipment.
We stopped afterward at the Red Lion pub, prior to St. Margaret’s carols, for a pint. A long-haired dude in a ball cap lounging at the bar remarked on Mike’s ring: it looked like an Aggie ring. (Arch foes of UT, you non-Texans!) Turned out he was an Aggie! I flashed a Hook ‘em as we left, and he laconically murmured, “Oh, right! Gig ‘em, m’am!” There’s a lot of Texas here. Earlier as I was cooking, I turned on the kitchen TV and found a Ken Burns special on the BBC documenting westward expansion in the US, with lots about Texas. I was teary.
We visited the British Museum to see the “Gladiator” show and to examine the newly covered Great Court, recently opened by the Queen. The court was formerly a grassy lawn. Its overhead glazing was carefully computer-designed, so that each piece of glass is uniquely shaped. The gorgeous and historic reading room once sat in the center of an open court, home for famous scholars as well as bums seeking shelter. Its books are relocated to a new library building near Euston Station, but the two story room is now filled with books written by those who once used it. Some areas of the covered courtyard house shops and a cafeteria, and we noted with joy the absence of the gray trailers and building equipment that have littered the entries for so long. The whole look is light and beautiful! We walked past the Rosetta stone, Elgin marbles, Babylonian Lamassu guardian bulls, and stone pharaohs. There was an interactive display of a tour of the Coliseum at the Gladiator show, which interested me since my master’s thesis was on using computers in museums. Things have progressed since then!
For my birthday, the Times thoughtfully included an article assuring me that “mental capacities start to decline when people reach 40, according to new research.” People in their mid-40’s are 15 per cent slower than those in their twenties in remembering names or phone numbers, and they have more difficulty concentrating on tasks and making decisions. However, we do get wilier, it say! In London, women at 60 and men at 65 may apply for free bus and underground passes. Many museums give discounts at 55 or 60. Seems like we should all pay our way, but that’s how it is. Mike and I decided to go to a fancy place for dinner for my birthday. However, an amazing number of fancy places were already booked! We dined at Chez Nico, listed in all the books, and not too far from here in the Grosvenor House on Park Lane, so we walked. We were not disappointed! The place is quietly elegant and understated, with delicious interesting food and perfect service. We opted for the menu gastronomique, small portions of many courses. Bring money.
Four angelic-looking choir boys in blue cassocks and white surplices sang in the lobby beforehand, near a watchful proud mother. They were from a suburban church. London is filled with music, but there is none of the brightly-lit outdoor hoopla of the United States here. Brits are baffled by our custom of sending cards with our photos, deeming it egotistical, and bring suits against brightly-lit neighbors, fearing too many rubbernecking visitors to the ‘hood. Restraint, as ever, carries the day. On Christmas day, trains and tube stop, and there is almost no traffic on the streets. Stores are closed, so taxis must do very well. Boxing Day, the 26th, is the day to ride on a hunt, if you aren’t protesting cruelty to foxes, and to give presents to the staff, (in boxes) who are probably tuckered after all the meal-serving and tree lighting of the previous day. Nothing is open. London rests quietly.
I visited a wonderful artist who has lived in Chelsea for many years, Sylvia Edwards. Her lively work, mostly in watercolor, is often filled with imaginary animal imagery leaping from the paper in turquoises, yellows, and pinks, offering a clue to the life in Iran that she once lived. We attended a few Christmas parties, with business and Navy friends. We also enjoyed a wonderful dinner party in Chelsea, with a delicious variety of people, including an opera singer, a realtor, and a British Museum curator. Our host has the ultimate employment perc: a driver who delivers him to work in east London each morn while he reads the papers. His wife owns a farm in Ireland, but their home is in New York. I love the variety of people we meet here.
On Christmas Eve we attended Sunday morning’s choral service at Westminster Abbey, and afterwards discovered the cloister area behind the church. It’s a beautiful green lawn (“garden”) surrounded by an ancient stone-carved colonnade, and there is a small coffee shop tucked alongside the pillars, where we vainly tried to temper the cutting wind and mist. It’s not hard to imagine robed monks poring over their breviaries here, their robes pushed by sharp winds. An adjacent museum and cathedral school were closed, but hold promise for another visit. We met a beautiful Muscovite and a couple from Japan, who requested photos.
That evening, we braved nasty weather to trudge across the dark park to the Brompton Oratory, due to open its doors at 11:15, with carols at 11:30 before midnight mass. We arrived at about 11:15 to be about 8 millionth in the soggy line of umbrellas pouring into two rear doors. Worshippers packed into pews like sardines, and we snaked along with the wet masses crowding both arched side aisles and seeping into the numerous side altars. The gorgeous Mozart mass, with parts of the Messiah added at the offertory and Communion, were beautifully done, as usual, but accompanied with an orchestra, which was unusual. The gospel was sung, in Latin. We left a bit early, and just before reaching the park, hailed a warm dry cab, arriving home around 1:30 in time to have a scotch and open a gift. We slept in, opened gifts, and hosted a very pleasant dinner for a new family who will be living in Japan come June. They’d returned from Egypt with their daughter, a grad student here. Doug teaches oceanography at Annapolis, and Peggy writes on travel and art. One wishes others a “Happy Christmas” here, and I wish that to all of you readers.
No Christmas meal is complete without crackers, tubes which pop when pulled apart by two people, and reveal their booty of a paper crown, to be worn immediately, a joke, usually very lame, and a plastic toy, of the Jack in the box variety. However upscale crackers can sell for several hundred pounds, holding better prizes such as silver or jeweled toys. We never had the problem of resisting such an urge, but at several dinners over the holidays we or our hosts had the crackers handy and we wore our colored paper crowns. I sent Ted and his family home with a box of Disney Winnie the Pooh crackers.
Other local news, besides the spectacle of US election debacle there and Madonna’s wedding here, says the trains will be fixed soon. There were more shootings in America. Cloning is happening. A C of E vicar had a sex change operation. She’s been ordained 22 years, married and divorced twice, fathered a child, and was welcomed back by parishioners. The times, they are a-changin’.
Just before the year ended, we woke up to—SNOW!! Cars and lorries skidded and crashed all over the island, but when the afternoon turned sunny we took the tube to Sloane Square to begin a walk from the Eyewitness Guide to London. We didn’t get far: we stopped everywhere. After answering the siren call of a few shops with after-Christmas sales, we strolled past antique shops, fortunately closed for Christmas week, as are so many places here, to Chelsea Royal Hospital. On Royal Hospital Road near the King’s Road, we wandered past a black iron fence enclosing Christopher Wren’s complex housing 377 retired soldiers. They must be over 60 to enter, injured in some way, but mobile. They’ve lost quite a few recently, confided a wrinkled WWII vet, shaking his head. There is a cemetery at the entry, but in the 1840’s, burials inside the city were severely restricted due to health reasons, so mostly green grass poked through the snow. (Recall Dickens’ evil grave robbers at that time, selling newly-interred bodies to medical schools!)
We visited their quiet wood paneled chapel, with a colorful apse painting of Christ rising from the tomb above writhing soldiers. It’s open to the public for Sunday services. Next door, a spacious paneled dining hall featured large gold-framed oil paintings of regal past monarchs, hung very high. Below on the wood panels, tidy columns of gold letters listed centuries of battles: Detroit, Khartoum, Korea, Bosnia. Both rooms were very light, with tall clear windows. The veterans eat three meals a day at long wooden tables. The staff were setting up for the next meal, with teacups massed at the end of each table. We saw no brass that didn’t gleam. As we departed into the cold wind, a tall Christmas tree hung with white lights swayed in the center of the lawn next to a bronze Gibbons statue of Charles II, the hospital’s founder. The statue aligned with an Egyptian obelisk and a row of black cannons on metal wheels nearby, dusted in white.
Adjacent is Ranleigh Gardens, a graceful park best knows for the famous Chelsea Garden Show each spring, threaded with a mile of winding walking paths amid the landscaping. We strolled, hoping to exit by a gate to Battersea Bridge, according to our book, but it was closed. After we retraced our steps, we passed a plain dark brick Army building, with an unassuming museum entry. We hesitated, then walked in: it was marvelous! What a collection, beautifully labeled and displayed! One area focused on a campaign in South Africa against natives and Dutch Boers, with letters and diaries from the campaign, uniforms, arms, tall Zulu animal hide shields and long spears, and mannequins of crouching chocolate-skin warriors.
Another area offered a history of the British soldier, displaying uniforms from days when Victoria ruled a quarter of the world. The redcoats also put natives into uniform: unique turbans and colorful feathers vied with Highlanders’ plaid tams or British tall bearskin hats. (Did you know that grenadiers, grenades throwers, were chosen for height to better do so? They further played up height with tall pointed hats, rather like a bishop’s miter, embroidered in gold threads and brocades in the seal of their company. The hats had no bill or brim, lest they interfere with a clean throw. And today’s bearskin hats come from Canadian bears.) There is an art gallery and a history of women in service. The shop has legions of painted lead soldiers from many periods, some mounted, in exact uniforms. They can be quite expensive: £17.50 for one mounted charger! (Around $30!) The museum is free, with occasionalconcerts, foreign dance exhibitions, a website, and lectures. There was more to see than we could absorb in one visit, so we signed up on the email list for updates.
We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve with Texas Exes, watching a taped football bowl game at the White Hart Pub: the Longhorns lost to Oregon in an exciting game. Hodges Mitchell, a senior, blew out his knee in a terrible accident, so I mailed him an autographed menu from our group. Afterwards we walked to dinner near home at Biagi’s Italian Restaurant, and a stop by the Duke of Kendal pub for Sunday evening singing; we drank champagne at home. When we heard fireworks, we went to the roof to view a few colorful skyrockets over Hyde Park, since big displays from the city were cancelled in an economy move.
Thus ends the first year of the New Milennium.
12th century St. Margaret's church sits next to Westminster Abbey and is a World Heritage Site.
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