The weather has changed, offering a few sunny days as summer tiptoes in. Even when it’s bright here, it’s not often sunny. On those rare days, London rejoices, the parks fill with sun seekers, and the striped green canvas rental chairs fill up with customers. Skaters and bikers fill every path through the park, including those marked with red circles with bikes slashed through, declaring us tabu. A time I often ride is early evening, when it’s still light due to our northern latitude, and paths are free of commuting bikers and skaters. Kensington Palace, red brick surrounded by gardens, faces little Round Pond filled with swans and ducks. The Serpentine nearby forms soft waves as a few rented paddleboats or rowboats slowly bob on its placid surface. The bridge carriageway over the Long Water holds little traffic in the evenings—all’s quiet and the world is mine, sometimes covered in a soft pink glow.
Our Sundays are usually unplanned, but often adventure filled. Recently, we started out at the Farm Street Church, at a Latin high mass, riding bikes past a quiet Speaker’s Corner--it’s early, so there aren’t many shouters--and past the Embassy. We’d been scheduled to do coffee, which is one way to ensure an occasional Catholic morning. There’s no styrofoam in sight, just lots of light green china cups and saucers and a few flowered mismatches, all requiring washing up. It’s busy. The Czech mass just before ours pours hordes of young people into the coffee room, babbling away in Czech. Ostensibly they’ve come here to learn better English. I pour coffee from pots unloaded from the big stainless urn, keep the biscuits and milk containers full, clear dirties, and Mike hauls trays of dishes back and forth from the kitchen. Inside, six young women are furiously washing and drying, shouting over the clatter. “Those Czech girls know how to work in the kitchen!” declares Maxine. This tiny energy taskmaster once was a figure skater, Olympic caliber, who married a Spaniard. I tell the Baroness, also working, that I saw her on TV recently; and she smiles and informs me that she was on for a lot longer than the part I saw. I never met her baron, and don’t know if he’s still around.
Once the dishes are conquered, Mike suggested brunch at a place he’d noted nearby, so we stroll past the Connaught Hotel and elegant Mayfair shops, abandoning our bikes still chained to the churchyard fence. Many fences have signs forbidding bikes being attached. The little restaurant is so charming that I can’t imagine how we’ve missed it: large Venetian glass mirrors on brocaded walls, thick glass chandeliers hanging overhead, and trays of colorful and varied pastries on the cart, one creation more intricate than the next. Some are punctuated with piped whipped cream swirls or dusted in confectioner’s sugar, and Mike is in heaven. This place seems like it should be in the middle of Paris, Vienna, or Brussels. The Eggs Florentine were fabulous.
Biking home, we decided to detour past Buck House, Buckingham Palace, and passed workmen hanging electrical lines from trees. Their ladders were shaded by leafy plane trees—the hardy trees covering most of Europe with their intriguing mottled trunks. Tall bunting pillars of red, white, and blue were already flapping from white posts across from the palace. New Jubilee golden stone gateway pillars and a cupola were now in place at the head of the road, which will soon carry the Queen’s golden coach in parade.
We rode past sandy Horseguards Parade, a bare ochre field behind gray stone buildings, and stopped to examine wares at the Guardsmen’s booth in a small dark green metal trailer. The man at the counter ‘ad blown ‘is ankle out in Kenya two years ago, an’ they put ‘im there seven dyes a week. The hand painted lead soldiers wear every uniform of her Majesty’s service, and some are mounted; all are expensive. I bought a birthday gift for grandson Tim’s 8th, and tickets for Beating Retreat, which will occur when Mike’s in Vienna. I’ll ask a friend: it’s a fantastic gathering of hundreds of horses and men in every uniform that I’ve written about previously.
We spied brilliant flowers nearby in St. James Park, and walked our bikes past Bobbies in florescent green jackets at the entrance. They waited to police a parade. We meandered past swans, pelicans, mergansers, coots, and other water birds, many listed on a metal illustrated signboard. Tourists walking past us were speaking every language but English. The wind began picking up, the gray cloud overhead finally gave way, and we ducked into a cove of thick bushes. Soon the storm passed, and we heard drums.
We walked to the curb as red tunics and shiny brass passed by, uniformed soldiers followed by ranks of hundreds of older men in dark suits and regimental ties. I have not seen so many pinstripes, bowlers, and tightly furled brollys in one place since moving here. Polished shoes gleamed. The troops were white haired or balding, chests out and shoulders back, arms briskly rising and falling from shoulder height, marching briskly as they had many times before, years before. In front of each group marched those who I assume were their officers, separated by about a pace. They stopped at attention as one gentleman laid a red poppy wreath on a stone monument opposite Horseguards Parade. The band played Taps, then the national anthem. As “God Save the Queen” died away, the Drum Major lifted his tall mace. The men smartly marched forward as one, executed a U-turn, and left, with not a step missed. We watched in silence with the curbside crowd until the band’s notes grew soft as a lullaby.
We threaded our way home past dense noisy crowds gathered at speaker’s corner to fulminations on Israel, God, taxes, and animals. There was time for Sunday Times and a glass of wine before supper.
Mike visited Lithuania, Tokyo and Singapore. I hosted a coffee for the KCWC from people from this part of the city. Another day, I joined a coach trip to Hever Castle and Chartwell in Kent, about an hour’s drive southeast from London. The former, dating from 1270, is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the latter Churchill’s refuge, although it was boarded up during the war and the gardens left to rot, since it lay so close to a nearby airfield.
Hever was a small castle on 640 acres, and probably would still be in ruins were it not for fur baron W.W. Astor’s family, who bought it in 1903 and deeded it to the national trust in 1985 after generations of improvements. Astor, a butcher’s boy, came from Germany, traded his furs around the world, had a city named for him in the US northwest, and became the richest man in America. The Bill Gates of his day allowed that America was no longer a fit place to live, and became a naturalized British citizen. He and his family have engaged in civic, philanthropic, and business matters here ever since.
Our day was gloriously sunny, the warmest day of the year to date, and the large coach allowed spreading out in separate seats if we chose. Beneath brilliant blue skies, the entry to the golden stone doorway was bordered by giant topiary chessmen. The wooden portcullis with huge stone counterweights and the chain drawbridge are original. The walled Italian Gardens were filled with sculptures of marble and bronze. The grounds are bordered in rhododendron, wildly flaming in fuchsia, yellow, white, and violet: some reflect in the moat’s water surrounding the castle. Textures and shapes run into one another: stone, water, trees, flowers, and topiary plants. There is a 35 acre lake at one end of the property, once filled with a gondola or small boats, and an area used for summer theater and concerts just above it, decorated with classical antique statuary and more plants. We had no time to attempt finding our way through the tall yew maze nearby, nor to explore Astor’s Tudor conference center built behind the castle. 100 rooms in the center, with varying exteriors, are crafted in authentic materials from the past. Even in the early 1900’s, the castle earned its keep by attracting visitors. There is a labyrinth of heating, sewage, and electric pipes and cables beneath it all, quite invisible above.
The interior boasts wonderful white carved plaster ceilings, and furniture is left as the family left it with many objets d’art. Wooden paneling is hand carved, often intricately inset, with restorations done by masters. There are fantastic paintings, some ancient and some more recent copies, and tapestries on every wall. Sconces in the sitting room, decorated with putti, were sterling silver. The leaded glass windows open out from thick stone walls, and workers were replacing some of the half timber plaster over lathing for the first time in about 100 years as our group entered a stone courtyard. Anne’s illuminated prayerbook is upstairs, with written notation by her hand. Our group toured with a well-informed guide before the general public was allowed in.
Have you heard of a “postilion boot”? It’s a huge leather and iron boot which fits over the boot of the rider astride one horse of the lead pair, pulling a wagon or coach. The heft insured that his leg wasn’t crushed between the huge galloping draught animals. The rider wore his own shoe before inserting his foot.
In the saying “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced beheaded survived” Ann was in the second category. As a teenager, she accompanied her ambitious ambassador father and flirty sister Mary to France. Henry’s sister Mary Tudor was to marry the French king Louis XII, but Mary had an affair with the king, and so the girls were sent home. Anne’s boredom in the country ended as she became a lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s wife Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. (Henry married Catherine when he was 18 and a stud, after his older brother Arthur died, leaving Spanish Catholic Catherine a young widow.) While her sister Mary was busy as Henry’s mistress, Ann fell in love with Lord Henry Percy, but was sent home to Kent again by the disapproving king. He had other plans for each of them. She was packed off to the Low Countries by her father, who rapidly advanced at court, and became a Knight of the Garter. The girls were in their teens.
When Henry tired of his mistress Mary, he came calling on her sister Ann, well versed in elegant ways from her nine years at the brilliant French court. She wouldn’t be his mistress, she claimed, and of course couldn’t be his wife. Refusals from the twenty-five year old left Henry panting for more. (Remember that, girls!) Chancellor Wolsey was urged to solve Henry’s dilemma by a divorce from Catherine. Of course Pope Clement VII wasn’t up for it, nor was the Holy Roman Emperor, coincidentally, the Queen’s nephew, Charles V of Spain. Catherine also noted how difficult it was to get pregnant if the king avoided her bed.
Whenever Henry came to call at Hever, the local townspeople were expected to provide for the king and his entourage. Henry traveled with hundreds of attendants and horses.
Ann wore three pearls around her neck, with a gold B hanging from it, and is shown this way in several paintings in the house. The name is seen as Bolyn, Bullen, Bullina, and other spellings. Her jewelry hid a large mole, surely a sign of a witch. She also had an extra digit attached to the left little finger, usually covered by her flowing sleeves: another sure mark of a witch. Elizabeth Taylor owns the enormous pearl brooch we saw in a painting of Mary I, a love bauble from Richard Burton, a wealthy Hollywood Welshman.
The Defender of the Faith (against Luther) dissolved his 24 year marriage to a queen who loved him and was loved by the people, and became head of his new church in England. He seized church properties and executed abbots and priests. His first secret marriage was illegal, he claimed, since Catherine was previously his elder brother Arthur’s wife, though the king in fact had wed his 24 year old sister in law for love. He married Ann six months prior to his divorce under his new religion, crowned her queen in 1533 in Westminster Abbey, and was aghast three months later when their newborn turned out to be a girl, the future Elizabeth I. (Catherine’s eight babes had produced only one child, daughter, Mary I.)
After more miscarriages and dead babies, Henry Tudor was desperate. Anne was accused of High Treason on trumped up charges: adultery with four men and incest with her brother George—who may have been gay. Another divorce would’ve been too hard to explain for Henry. Anne was dispatched by a swordsman specially imported from France, and Henry’s license to wed her lady in waiting, Jane Seymour, was issued that day. She would bear him a future sickly king, Edward VI, and it was she he chose to lie beside in death. She was replaced by the “Mare of Flanders” whose proxy marriage was never consummated. Ann’s portrait by Hans Holbein had made her look reasonably comely. So, was it her plain looks, her lack of English, or her facial scrub to lessen pox marks, made with horse manure, that vexed Ann of Cleves’ new husband? Some stories say she smelled bad.
Anne Boleyn’s death sword is in the museum upstairs, along with flesh gougers, pincers, leg irons, and other instruments of torture. She had only 17 days to prepare her sharp tongue to be silenced on Tower Green. Her brother was killed two days before, her mother had recently died, her disgraced father died two years afterwards. Ironically, Queen Catherine died a month later, so the tumult caused by love of Anne could have been avoided. Anne was about 30 at death, but no age is definite, since only boys’ births were recorded.
Upstairs, the Long Gallery houses 106 feet of costumed mannequins enacting scenes from all Henry’s wives. The Astor suite holds family mementos. The herb garden still provides stowing and strewing herbs, such as lavender, important to a household that took a bath annually whether they needed it or not. (June brides had only recently bathed! What a nice month to wed.) There is a gift shop and restaurant near the lake. We ate lunch outdoors along what once were stables.
Nearby, Chartwell was a different kind of house. On its sloping lawn near a lake, a group of painters from a nearby town were trying to capture the moment, just as Sir Winston might have done after his purchase in 1922. He wrote books and essays there to support his family, dictating to two secretaries throughout the night. Today no cigar smoke betrays his presence over 40 years, but the beloved house is filled with his oil paintings, and his studio, in a brown brick building below the tall brick house and adjacent to the guest house, displays another 60 or so of his unframed and sometimes unfinished works. He took his paints on all his travels, offering many to friends as hospitality gifts. Today his home on 800 acres is tended by the National Trust, a gift from Clemmie and Winston’s friends. She died at 92 in 1977, twelve years after her husband; by then she was freed of the financial worries caused by her profligate husband.
The front hall’s guest book is signed by the queen. The lake is filled with fowl gifts from admirers. Gardens are filled with Clemmie’s floral selections, but I didn’t see her tennis court. Winston laid a brick garden wall himself, but his animal husbandry skills were lacking. From the Trust’s guidebook is this letter to his wife:
A minor catastrophe has occurred in the pig world. Our best new sow, irritated by the
noise of a pick-axe breaking the ground near the pig sty, killed six of a new litter of eight little
pigs. She was condemned to be fattened and to die, but to-day she has received the
remaining two and proposes to bring them up in a sensible manner. She is therefore reprieved
A few years ago, Mike and I read Manchester’s fascinating books about Winston in the Last Lion series. (The series will be unfinished, due to the author’s approaching Alzheimer’s disease.) Winston’s letters to Clemmie were so delightful that Mike tried writing to me for awhile in the same fashion. Our quick emails have largely overcome that bent. I was in the states for a month, he went to Lithuania, now he’s in Singapore and Tokyo, and I leave for Italy with friends soon, while he heads for Vienna. (Darnn! It’s a city I wanted to visit.) We’ll visit Italy together in late June, flying separately, because I can get cheaper tickets on budget carriers. Even aloft, when he’s on business, I’m often in the back while he’s in the front because of ticket variations. He is a Platinum on many airlines and I am accustomed to economy.
Winston and I are both Sagittarians and I love his daily routine. He rose at 7:30 to breakfast in bed, often roast beef or something substantial, with the papers and mail. He worked in bed, and at 11 bathed and walked in the gardens on good days, feeding swans and fish. He worked in the study after a weak whiskey and soda, leaving his guests to themselves until dinner at one, sometimes with champagne. Brandy, port, and cigars followed until late afternoon, and games or garden occurred until his nap at 5. At 6:30 he bathed again and dressed for dinner, often quoting poetry, arguing politics, and providing guests with witty monologues if they were unable to keep up with his verbiage. Around midnight he went to his study to work. I am in my nightgown on a Saturday afternoon at 1:30 as I write, having gone to bed about 2 and rising before 8 to meet the dryer repairman. I made coffee for us. But I haven’t figured out how to take those Winston naps.
Churchill kept a large staff before the war, cut back immensely in days thereafter. His children were grown, and the world’s statesmen made the trip from London to Chartwell in about an hour. Today the 25 miles in traffic takes nearly twice that long.
Houseguests have left, another is due, and I’ll fly to Italy with her. While I’m away, the Queen will celebrate 50 years on the throne with fireworks and parades, even though I’m sure it will be clearer on TV. She and the Duke have been going walkabout all over the nation, to enthused crowds exceeding projections.
The following was written by Mike when I was in the US. I had an elegant dinner ona sandy Delaware beach with dear art friends, sold some art, visited family, saw docs, attended grandkids’ events, but as ever, was happy to come home.
Mike wrote: “The extended weekend of 31 May to 4 June 2002 was a very special one in the UK. Not only was it a Bank Holiday weekend with England (note not the UK) starting their World Cup campaign; it was the Jubilee, the 50th year of Elizabeth II’s reign. Worries last winter that the British public was indifferent to such a celebration had long since faded and the nation looked forward to both a party and a solemn moment of self-congratulation. Indeed, republicans, although not extinct, have been thin on the ground throughout this telling period. I was engaged in the festivities, but, like most Americans, one removed from what is, for most Brits, a deeply held personal view of the monarchy. The classical music “prom” in Buckingham Palace garden was exquisite, the Rock concert two nights later, featuring aging rockers like Joe Cocker, Brian May and Paul McCartney, less so, and the many gun salutes, parades and street parties all conspired to relax, entertain and inspire a nation.
The best part came on Tuesday, 4 June, with the actual Jubilee. There was a day full of activities, starting with the Queen’s traveling to St. Pauls’ in the Golden State carriage for a national service of thanks. Endless renditions of Zadok, the Priest (Handel wrote it for the coronation of George II and it is played at every coronation), Land of Hope and Glory (Elgar) and God Save the Queen greeted her on the journey. I was trapped in the office by the imminent arrival of a visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy. I shifted my office TV from the service to the World Cup where Korea was playing Poland and China was contesting Costa Rica.
Finally at 4PM, I headed off for the Palace and the tail end of the four-hour parade. A UK Office-mate, Nick Langhorne, and I walked across Hyde Park, past the huge TV displays of the parade, through the Wellington Arch and were stopped at the top of Constitution Hill by the police---Green Park was full and closed. Thinking fast, we headed off down Grosvenor Place to Buckingham Palace Gate and back towards the Palace. Our headway was finally stopped within 50 yards of the Victoria Circle gate by crowds so thick that movement was impossible. Once again we set off, back to Victoria Street, almost to Westminster Abbey and then through St. James Park to the Mall. Our goal was to be on the Mall for the final RAF flyover that signaled the end of the Jubilee celebration. We finally got there and joined the over one million people tightly packed through the parks and streets around the Palace.
The flyover was twice delayed and the good natured crowd was entertained by the giant TV screens placed along the Mall. The huge ship mast flagpoles carried large Union Jacks and each pole had a gold rope sash and was topped with a crown. In what I thought was a very British reaction to the delay, the crowd sang along to the music broadcast from the orchestra and choir in front of the Palace. Finally at 6:25 the flyover began with successive flights of RAF planes, large and small. The jets all fly at extreme angles of attack to maintain the slow speed up the Mall and over the Palace. The Queen and the royal family all stood on the balcony. Finally the last flight, a single Concorde with 4 Red Arrows on each side and one trailing (Red Arrows are the RAF equivalent of the Navy’s Blue Angels) flew slowly down the Mall. As they reached the Palace the Concorde accelerated and flew up at a steep angle as the Red Arrows banked away. The Mall was a sea of thousands of Union Jacks and pastel colored umbrellas (it was sprinkling, but the umbrellas were there for the color). The orchestra then launched into “Land of Hope and Glory” and one million voices sang. We did that once more as the Queen made a curtain call, even raising her hand above her chin as she waved. Finally, a heartfelt “God Save the Queen” marked the last curtain call. It was moving and majestic.
Nick and I then walked back through the thinning crowd, past the Palace and through Green Park, up Piccadilly to Mayfair where we ate Fish and chips and Bangers and Mash at the Audley and then through the rain home. When it gets better than this, don’t tell me about it.”
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