I met more neighbors: Sue, a blonde who’s lived across the way for 13 years, with a daughter in Los Angeles and a local son. She turned down a huge price for her house, elated at finally getting council approval to add a roof terrace like ours. Adrianna, a petite Italian brunette with shoulder length hair prefers London, but her white-maned British husband Don prefers Italy; they have homes there and in Switzerland. My neighbor with the feisty Westie has separated from her boyfriend; one of her two daughters moved home after three years in Manhattan. When her planters disappeared a couple of years age, she chained new replacements to the house. Sue lost two doorway guardian lions; Beth lost large heavy cement planters, but bare trellises remain. Where are those planters now? Beth sadly returned to Massachusetts for her father's funeral and gave me her stargazer lilies to enjoy.
One Saturday night, Mike and I went to a KCWC gala, (Kensington Chelsea Women’s Club, 1200 international females) in one of the most elegant and venerable buildings ever. Our cab threaded past stores on Oxford St., then moved past Saville Row men’s clothing shops, and through Piccadilly theater (theatre) crowds surging beneath neon-lit marquees. Along the Embankment, the city stood in shadowy outline across the dark shimmering Thames, reflecting buildings emblazoned with starry lights and punctuated by The Eye, a sky-high special millennial ferris wheel built on the river by British Airways.
Our gala was in the Merchant Tailor Hall in The City, the famed square mile of finance filled with mostly darkened bank and insurance buildings. A great classical stone doorway led to a hall with wide wooden coat-check tables, tuxedoed attendants, and waiters offering silver trays of champagne flutes. Many elegant women wore colorful gowns; men wore tuxes. On our right a majestic oak staircase dripped with carved wooden garlands of fruits and vegetables, and risers softened by deep oriental carpet. Glasses in hand, we eagerly explored a wood paneled room, its large blazing fireplace, and carved marble mantel. Paneled and carved walls displayed elegant gilt-framed mirrors and candelabra, gleaming in subdued flickering light. On an enormous oriental carpet, claw-footed wooden tables in the center were later used for casino gambling. Beyond leaded multi-pane windows we spied a quiet stone terrace filled with potted plants, outdoor furniture, and in the center, a tall carved fountain spouting columns of water. Our eyes popped as a small white-gloved army continually refilled champagne glasses and offered trays of imaginative hors d’oeuvres -- or we could stroll to the bar for something stronger. Upstairs, the library continued steeping us in elegance, and we peered inside beveled glass-fronted bookshelves with rows of leather-bound Punch and thousands of other leather and gleaming gold volumes. And more deep carpet. Oh, what a place to do homework!
Marking the entry to a downstairs ballroom, a shiny silver bell about 3 feet tall hung from a carved dark wooden stand. A braided navy-blue silk tassel hung from its clapper; formerly it hung from Queen Victoria’s yacht. The band played from a stage at one end, and a second story balcony with heavy dark wood and iron railings girdled the room; the upper rear wall held pipes from a large built-in organ. The band could’ve been in a New York City supper club, smooth and elegant; two female vocalists alternately sang with the bandleader. The dance floor was surrounded by round tables of 10 along both side walls. We had a great evening, ending with dancing, port, gambling, new friends, and lots of pleasant memories.
The Merchant Tailors are one of 12 original guilds, still very involved in governing that one-mile area, the City. This grand hall, which escaped the great fire of 1666 that ruined many others, was built with members’ funds, and is used just for occasions like ours. Its magnificence could never be replicated under modern craft and costs!
I learned more about government from my visit to the medieval Guildhall the next week with KCWC. Built in the early 1400’s, it replaces a twelfth century hall where London’s first mayor, Dick Whittington—of the famous cat—was reelected four times to office starting in 1489. That was before Columbus sailed! A uniformed guide in the large stone room showed us both the foot/inch/yard measure as well as newer metric measure on shiny brass plaques: these mark the world standard. Peering over his glasses, he said he was selected for the job because he was exactly 6 feet tall and had a foot, in his shoe, exactly a foot long! He was kidding, but kept up a great line of patter. Beautiful stained glass windows were installed by glaziers with an 800 year history, but all replaced those fire-bombed in 1940.
Embroidered banners hung on flagpoles high above us represent twelve main guilds, the oldest being the Mercers, (think “thread”) and shields above the banners are carved and painted onto the banked oak ceiling to represent 100 other city guilds. A new guild is soon to be added: computers and information science. It takes seven years to become a livery company, be approved, design a shield, and gather enough money from potential members to adopt a charitable target. One shield held a “demi-virgin” who, we were informed, was no relation to Demi Moore. Turns out a demi meant a girl’s top half, the only part of her displayed, wearing a medieval gown. We saw wooden carved 9 ft. giants Gog and Magog, who overlooked the area from the musicians’ balcony since 1708, but these too are post-1940 replacements.
Guilds regulated commerce in the city and worldwide, and developed and policed requirements of members. Work of the guilds may evolve: ancient fan makers now work in twenty-first century heating and air conditioning. Vintners, clock workers, weavers, fishmongers, grocers, goldsmiths—all still function. The guilds elect the lord mayor of London from one of their alderman who has already served office as sheriff. The sheriff was once the shire reeve, whence the word. The election and silent installation take place in the Guildhall. The City today leads the world in banking and insurance. During our visit, kneeling workmen in coveralls busily unloaded hundreds of small pots of greenery and placed them, tall leafy ones in the rear and fragrant daffodils in the front, atop black plastic sheets against the walls. The workmen explained that Elizabeth’s son Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and his bride Sophie were due to arrive that evening. By tomorrow, the green plants would be back in the city greenhouse, added to flowers blooming in public parks.
We then visited the adjacent City of London Art Gallery, with rich collections mostly commissioned or bought by the city, such as portraits of rulers or donated pieces. There is an enormous Copley British battle scene, the Siege of Gibraltar, 1783, and since our guide was a conservator, we learned how difficult it was to install the painting, now hung by huge chains. It has 5 layers of backup canvas to help preserve it, and had been kept on a 10 foot diameter roller to help prevent peeling and flaking. The carved golden frame alone must weigh hundreds of pounds and be worth a fortune. Sadly, many paintings are kept in storage vaults for lack of display space, but the collection includes Constable, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and others who are rotated regularly.
Next door on the same plaza is a church built in 1677 by Christopher Wren after the great fire of London in 1666, but it lost its roof and more in 1940 to German firebombs, and has been rebuilt. It is St. Lawrence Jewry, since it was next to the Jewish trading area; the earlier church dated from 1136. The Lord Mayor’s pew and mace are there. (There once were 126 churches in the City.) Since its rebuilding, it is no longer a consecrated church, but there’s a free piano concert on Mondays, and Tuesdays offer an organ concert, both at 1. An offering plate sits near the door. The organist is chosen for a number of years and Ms. Ennis marvelously performed several Bach pieces and other selections for a small audience. The church is mostly white walled, with wood panels and clear glass except for a beautiful St. Michael window. There are bits of colored glass, some tall silver altar ornaments, and the requisite plaques of war heroes and rulers on the walls. I left a pound, but hope to come back for more concerts. Pounds are large and heavy, and it’s easy to gather a few “pounds of pounds” in your wallet! Paper dollars are much lighter!
My sister Peggy arrived from Houston, and we walked to the Wallace Collection for a lecture on French furniture. She was amazed with the scope of the collections, free to the public in a large mansion once family owned. There are, besides paintings, clocks, china, armor, ivories, manuscripts, sculpture, and furniture. I will go to many events there, I think! We walked home along nearby Oxford Street and stopped to salivate over lavish food courts at Selfridges.
Mike had a meeting in Brighton, so Peggy and I took the train southeast with him from nearby Paddington early on Ash Wednesday. It was blustery; we walked straight from the train station through the windy town, and finally spied rolling gray seas ahead, flanked with long amusement piers and a wide stony beach in matching gray. (Americans should prize their beautiful golden sand beaches!) Most taffy and food shops were quiet, some closed, but in the warm arcade there were an amazing number of computer-run games with beeps and gongs and blinking colored lights: you might land planes, race cars, play pinball. It must be wild on a summer's day!
The best was yet to come, and we walked to the Royal Pavilion, one of the finest restored places I have ever seen! I’d read about it in Art History books, but never expected such splendor. It is not unlike a small scale Versailles, with beautiful gardens and thousands of details carefully attended. Effete George IV escaped London here as a young man, wildly carrying on in relentless pursuit of wine, women and song, plunging himself into romance and racing debt as he oversaw every detail of his beige pleasure palace, crowned with bulging Indian minarets. All the while he was secretly married to Mrs. Fitzherbert, a Catholic, quite forbidden by C of E regs, although for financial purposes he later endured a disastrous marriage to his German first cousin. Their sexual relations, perhaps only once but at most three times, we’re told, produced a daughter Charlotte in the total of five weeks the miserable couple supposedly shared quarters. In the meantime, his dad George the three was busy going mad and losing the colonies. Young George, who had innumerable affairs, later brought his official wife to court for adultery, hoping vainly for a divorce. Among other issues, the fastidious playboy faulted her personal hygiene!
We strolled outdoors through magnificent gardens filled with innumerable flowers and trees, then walked into a large Chinese style foyer of the mansion. We were surrounded with faux bamboo carved of ash and silkwood, and a banister of mahogany carved as bamboo, since the metal carved staircase was considered too cold for ladies’ hands. Chinese figures and paintings were everywhere, a la Chinoiserie fashion of the day, in a busy pink and blue color scheme with specially woven rugs to match.
Down the long hall, the vast dining room table was set elegantly as for a court banquet, overhung by an enormous crystal chandelier attached to an 11 foot silver dragon clinging to the ceiling. The one-ton wonder had over 30,000 (I think) glass globes hanging on it, and added to the candelabra at the walls, we realized what a job the lamplighters had in those days! Mirrors increased the glitter of the room. Many sideboards lining the walls gleamed with one of the nation’s largest collections of gilded plate. Alongside places at the table, set for dessert, small golden buckets once held crushed ice, so that one’s footman could twirl wineglasses upside down, ensuring cooled wines. Meals took hours, and a really fancy meal merited one footman per diner. Gold buckets matched the golden candelabra and fruit epergnes on the rich white tablecloth. The kitchen was, in its day, a marvel, one of many in the house to prepare elaborate feasts overseen by Chef Careme, whose name we know today from Crème Caramel. One dinner menu offered over 100 possible courses!
There were butcher tables, baking areas, a self-turning 5 tiered smokejack, or rotisserie, enormous ovens, and 550 matched shiny copper pans engraved DW which actually once belonged to the Duke of Wellington. The home’s original pans have gone missing. Four tall slender pillars holding the kitchen roof were painted brown, with green flowing metal palm leaves attached at the top. The huge wooden tables below the fronds, not the house’s originals, were used as hospital beds for Indian soldiers during WWI. These palm surroundings would supposedly make them feel at home! The music rooms, drawing rooms, bedrooms and ballroom boasted equal splendor, richly furnished with care taken to match original paint and fabrics. Some wallpapers required carving large wooden block to hand-print repeated patterns. Lush red velvet drapery and swags in the music room were hung with hundreds of border tassels, each hand carved from wood, then covered in wool felt, and hand twined with gleaming golden thread. Each cost more than £75. The elaborate wall to wall music room rug was woven in Ireland from a custom loom, but soon after installation, a hurricane dislodged a minaret ball and sent it plummeting through the roof deep into the floor. The rug went back to Ireland for reweaving, and the mend is nearly invisible. Overlooking a rug mend when there were hundreds of things vying for the eye seems pretty reasonable.
Victoria lived in this house awhile but, as her family grew, she decided they were too far from the sea and moved to the Isle of Wight, taking all furnishings from the Pavilion as a way to be a thrifty recycler. This included rugs, drapes, and every last scrap. The swirling minarets and Indian arches she thought a bit extreme for her taste, so the building was left for the city to purchase, but today grants, foundations, taxes and good will have refurbished it, even replacing some fiberglass replacement minarets with the real thing.
Mike’s and my visit to Cambridge the following week was also impressive. We met other invited scientists at the train station and arrived about an hour later at our hotel at the edge of town. One impressive thing about Cambridge’s colleges is that each has its own campus with a library, master’s house, chapel, and gardens, spread throughout the university area. There is not a weed to be seen in those lush gardens, and thousands of plants are arranged so that no matter what season of the year, there is something beautiful growing. The roof lines of the town are visually intoxicating to me, with multiple chimneys, towers, flags, and crenellations thrusting upwards from every side.
Our Wednesday evening was memorable. To honor American colleagues Jackie and Ben Wilcox--Ben did a post-doc here many years ago and was about to retire--we were invited to a private dinner at Selwyn College. One friend picked us up and drove us over the moonlit River Cam in a Renault van, and we met the other fellows in a dark paneled room with a single long table. A waiter served champagne and drinks as we were introduced. Colin explained that Selwyn had been an outstanding student athlete who eventually went into the clergy of New Zealand. The college was begun as his memorial, and is one of the newer ones, less lavish than others to keep costs down, and often attended by poor clergymen’s sons. After the soup course, we had fish in a white sauce--which didn’t really require our using our fish knives, but how often do you get them in America? Next, the lamb was carved on the trolley for us. A choice of claret, 20 year old Port, or barsac was available after dessert to go with the cheese board, and then coffee.
Across from me was affable Tony Kelly, who pioneered polymer joinings and served on the board of America’s Johnson’s Wax. We talked of many things, including drugs, which he thinks should be legalized and regulated. Mike sat at the other end near Allen Windle and Richard Dolby, discussing the structure of the colleges. Later, our host elegantly toasted Jackie and Ben, and Ben returned a toast. The next day, after a breakfast overlooking the hotel greensward, Jackie and I peered into as many colleges as we could, walking swiftly through the gardens but never ever on the grass. Only college fellows may tread on the grass! When they lived here, Jackie was busy with little children, ages 2, 4, and 6, trying to keep warm in an unusually cold winter, so our happy explorations stirred new sights as well as old memories.
Jackie and I ate lunch at the tremendous Fitzwilliam Museum before a tour from the Cambridge Tourist Office, led by a tall slender Dutch woman, a University wife and mom. We learned that selection to the University is strictly on merit, that fewer than 1 percent fail, that students are not allowed cars (hence ubiquitous bikes), and that tuition costs no more than at other schools. There may be differences in boarding costs, but grants are available. School ends in 3 years for most undergrads, and 4 for engineers; women are finally admitted to all colleges. When Magdalene (pronounced Maudlin) went coed in the late ‘60’s, mournful students wore black armbands, but historically, we were reminded that aristocratic women founded some colleges. Since the late ‘60’s, academic robes needn’t be worn in town, but are required for many occasions, including meetings with one’s advisor, who so closely oversees readings that many students seldom attend lectures. We never saw sun in our walk as we strolled past the Cam. Standing punters leaned into their paddles, propelling boats along the narrow gray-green river, navigating past budding weeping willows and stone bridges. Some wore straw boaters in spite of the raw cold, but most of their wise passengers snuggled low under plaid blankets below them.
Once Mike and I spent lots of time in Cam-bridge Massachusetts, which made seeing the river here especially pleasant. As a newlywed, I’d briefly worked for Professor Bruce Chalmers at Harvard, who edited the Metallurgy Journal, and the British scientists knew him. I made $50 a week back then, and our third-floor converted attic rental in Watertown cost $75 a month. While Jackie and I toured, our men were at TWI, a famous institute dedicated to technologies of material joining. They were astounded by the latest techniques in “toys”--joining polymers, metals, and other exotic materials. This group has worked with the Navy for over 30 years and is most impressive, with world-class scientists and engineers.
The most elaborate building at the University is the King’s college chapel, which we visited in the afternoon. That night, the others took the train back to London, but Mike and I stayed for Lenten Evensong and Eucharist, sung a cappella in a severe, sometimes atonal, style. We queued at 5 for the 5:30 service. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei were familiar; scripture readings were by dim candlelight. The choir, 14 Eton boys and 16 older students, sit in carved pews before the elaborate oak screen of the long and lofty fan ceiling church. In days of yore, screens separated laity from clergy. Masters sit in the top row above the boys, reminiscent of days when students attended daily chapel. The headmaster or proctor sat at one side of the entry, the vice proctor at the other. Walls were pierced with stunning carvings and multicolored stained glass, removed during the war. The glass is medieval Flemish except the huge rear window, telling old and New Testament stories.
Henry VI, a pious Catholic, began the church after more than 100 Oxford refugees arrived to begin a new university on the Cam, but it was not finished until Henry VIII’s reign, after the fellows, once all clergy, had converted to the English church. Henricus Rex, HR, is inscribed in many of the screen’s roundels. The Tudor rose, French Fleur de lis, and portcullis (Henry VI’s emblem) are carved into the limestone walls repeatedly, along with the greyhound of the Earl of Richmond (another of Henry’s titles), the Scottish unicorn, and the British lion. The Tudors were much showier than Henry VI could have imagined. The town has shops, markets, and more recent university buildings in modern architecture, but most lie at the outskirts of the pretty medieval and Victorian town center. Technology is the emphasis at Cambridge, while Oxford favors literature and history.
We ate at a French bistro chain, Café Rouge, before the train home. Most restaurants won’t serve before seven, so cafes and pubs fill the food bill for convenience. There was even a no smoking section, all full. By next year, some pubs will be allowed to stay open at all hours rather than closing at 11. No more “Time, gentlemen!” as Britain goes the way of the Continent.
We took a tube to Kew Gardens on a Saturday and were astonished by the size and variety of the trees and plants—in glass conservatories or outdoors, desert or water oriented, tiny or enormous. A special show of orchids filled various locations, and we chose a yellow one from the shop display to take home. The spring flowers and endless vistas made us impatient to come back and walk through in other seasons. Even though most trees were bare, a long queue waited to enter the gardens, since only one ticket office was open. The British chap behind me leaned over and growled, “In America, this wouldn’t ‘appen!” (Every third Englishman has been to Orlando or Las Vegas!) Although we spent hours and trod miles, there were areas we never saw. Ducks and swans amused the kiddies, but many visitors just sat in the sun, enjoying the wild golden forsythia or hundreds of pink, red, and white camellias, which reminded me of Charleston. I want to add sprinklers to our garden back home!
Bad news from Austin today. Our Canadian friend Peg lost her only sibling to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Also, a brilliant scientist friend lost his cancer battle, but Mike arrived a day late for the funeral. On a different level, our Texas plumbing has gone awry: insurance and tenants need care. Son Pat’s band had a record release party and they'll play for South by Southwest in Austin; British Airways’ magazine wrote about it.
We attended an OWL (Officers’ Wives London) party for some people attached to the Marylebone unit, the North Audley Navy building, and the Embassy. The Navy rents a nice house on Bryanston Square for our hosts, the chief of staff Europe, a Navy Captain, but it provides no assistance in housekeeping for the tenants. We all brought something, and Carol, our hostess, a Cordon Bleu student, made a birthday cake that took her 2 days! Her masterpiece had fresh flowers on a spring “hat.” Chocolate, crème, and strawberries make for a fantastic dessert.
On March 21, awaiting spring, I visited the Lord Mayor’s house, very close to the Guildhall from last week’s tour. It’s in the middle of the financial district, across from the Bank of England, “the old lady of Threadneedle Street.” It doesn’t look like a house at all, since it’s a daunting gray 4 story stone building faced with eight enormous Greek columns. Its carved pediment represents London, crowned, trampling Envy and, with the river Thames, receiving benefits from Plenty. We OWL wives were cheerily toured by a tall graying Welchman, nearly understandable despite his vigorous accent. The Georgian palace dates from 1752, and the vaulted entry area at street level, once planned for stables, was later made into a more private entry than the columned formal front. The guests’ rest rooms were formerly used only by house servants, and in the Gents, we were told, a plaque memorialized 20 years of service for old retainers.
The upstairs rooms were beautifully refurbished in the early 1990’s, with old paint layers scraped and 23 carat gilding applied to walls and furniture. Period reproduction Regency furniture is used when originals are no longer available. During the war, only one pane of stained glass in the great Egyptian Hall, named after the Battle of the Nile, was damaged. The room, which holds five or six hundred for receptions, has a high barrel vaulted ceiling, and the carpet below has flowers matching the coffer designs above. Interestingly, the Lord Mayor pays for these receptions himself, since he draws neither salary nor entertainment budget. The stairwell and rooms also contain a donated collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings, mostly of daily life in homes and on the canals, including Hals, Steen, van Ruysdael and Breughel. The Saloon is a huge hall that holds, aside from one in Buckingham Palace, the finest cut glass chandelier in town, and every August it is taken down, washed piece by piece, and reassembled. The ceiling around it, as the woodwork, are heavily ornamented in classical plaster and carving motifs taken from Palladio and even the baths of Diocletian.
The Lord mayor wears an official golden necklace of linked ss’s from which hangs a medallion filled with diamonds. Since 1981, he uses a replica of the 1520 original, and we peered at both in the large vault. The ceremonial mace and sword, carried by his entourage and displayed whenever he goes, were there too. The replica mace actually splits into 2 parts “so it will it into the trunk of a Rolls Royce!” but it is so heavy that our guide Jonathan, a Welsh Guard, borrowed his wife’s shoulder pads to stop bruising his shoulder each time he carried it. We also saw the Mourning Sword, used last at Churchill’s funeral, and the sword from Elizabeth II containing thousands of pearls sewn onto a maroon velvet scabbard. The vault held many gold covered chalices and cups, and another room full of silver serving pieces used at state dinners in the Nile Room. The Lord Mayor and Mayoress live upstairs on the next floor, and the top floor holds offices. This office is the one elected by the aldermen at the Guildhall down the street, and operates on a non-political party basis. The Lord Mayor’s church is next door, normally open daily with concerts on Fridays, but alas, was padlocked. I went home to finish my overdue Texas sales taxes.
March 24 meant farewell to Jackie and Ben at the Wargrave Arms Pub and a movie with sister Peggy just back from Amman, Jordan visiting our brother Pat who I’d also visited. She has beautiful photos of Petra, Jerash, and Mataba, and was thrilled to return to hot and cold water in public rest rooms as well as plenty of TP! (It’s LP for “loo paper” here.)
On the last Sunday of the month, we sprang forward to Daylight Saving time, which meant our walk through the park was an hour earlier. It didn’t help that Peggy and I had stayed out late the night before, coming home to find Mike and his bags waiting at the dark front stoop. He arrived a day later then scheduled, and picked up a thousand dollar voucher from American Airlines for overbooking; he spent the night in a Chicago hotel after receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award in San Diego from the American Defense Preparedness Association. We're proud of him. Peggy and I strolled to a Lebanese restaurant, run by Egyptians,for delicious mezzes and a kebob. The music, a strong beat, suddenly crescendoed and whoosh! Out leapt a blonde middle-aged woman with a beaded black bra, long black beaded skirt, small ‘spare tire’ and headband. She energetically danced all through the club, sometimes using castanets, winding around some of the patrons, dancing with the brave, and generally enlivening things. After dinner we walked to the Wargrave Arms for wine and listened to a patron’s vigorous Jerry Lee Lewis piano attempts.
Sunday morning we all walked across the park to the Brompton Oratory for the eleven o’clock Latin high mass. The huge ornate Baroque church could be Rome in the ‘50’s. Maybe 1650’s! The priest keeps his back to the congregation, and Latin responses are sung by professionals. It’s possible to go just for the excellent music, but the vast place is pretty impressive, with golden mosaics, a herd of swirling angels, and flowing sculptures of saints leaning form enormous arches and niches. Amazingly, we both recited Latin responses that we probably haven’t thought of for over forty years! Where in our brains were hidden, Pater Noster, qui est in coeli? We had breakfast across the street at Patisserie Valerie, rated “ab fab” in the London breakfast and pastry department. Mike hung a drape rod that evening and cooked a beef roast (“joint”) and we chilled, watching Monarch of the Glen. I thought the announcer said “Monica de Glen,” perhaps a new character!