Saturday, February 23, 2008

Euro Day 7: Jolly Holiday

Today, July 14, 2007, would be our first official tour day with Disney. We started off with (yet another) Full English Breakfast - only this time surrounded by the 1 million fresh-water pearls that decorate The Pearl restaurant at Chancery Court. By 8:30am we were in the lobby awaiting our final boarding call for the 1960's vintage Routemaster double-decker bus that Disney was providing for a tour of London. Soon enough, the 4 four of us had claimed topside seats to listen to our amazing local (Blue Badge) guide, Stephen, narrate our route to Westminster Abbey.

The Routemaster

Once at the Abbey, we all listened raptly to Stephen as he took us through a few hundred years of history in just 90 short minutes. The lectures were sometimes punctuated by the sounds of the Abbey's boys choir as they rehearsed in a nearby school. The overall vibe just made me feel glad and content to be in-the-moment. Dee was even kind of enough to shuffle the kids off to the gift shop to allow me a few minutes to wander the Abbey on my own, where I was able to locate the grave markers of many of its famous residents. I was even able to poke my head inside The Pyx, where visions from Neal Stephenson's 3-volume Baroque Cycle finally crystallized.

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

From the Abbey, we strolled through St. James's park over to Buckingham Palace. The Park was green under a warm July sun, and full of people enjoying themselves. This just reinforced my observation that the English really do make use of their parks to an extent we don't don't often see in North America. By 11:45am, Alex and Andrew (the Double-A's) - with Stephen's help - had positioned The Gang at a spot near Buckingham's soldiers barracks. This seemingly out-of-way corner gate was apparently a prime position to view the procession after the Changing of the Guards. And boy were they right! As the guards marched by, we literally had to back up a step or two to avoid being mowed down by the procession.

Procession after Changing of the Guards

Afterwards, we made our way to the Palace to find that the crowd had dispersed. This was a great time for photos. My only disappointment was to find that there no longer a guestbook at the Palace gate. 20-odd years ago I signed that guest book - although the Queen has yet to send me a 'thank-you' note. I'm blaming the mail, but a phone call would have been nice, too.

Buckingham Palace

By this time our Routemaster was waiting for us near the palace, and we were whisked off to Harrod's to partake in tea and luncheon at the 4th-floor Georgian Room. Now when I think of 'luncheon', I think of fussy little sandwiches made from rolls of coloured bread filled with something that has the vague consistency of cat food. Not true! We were served salad, finger sandwiches (containing actual meat!), scones, jams, desserts, and - of course - tea. The atmosphere only enhanced the sense of occasion: white linen, fine china, 3-tiered serving dishes, and white-jacketed serving staff. There seemed to no end to the food and we all came away feeling quite stuffed.

With lunch out of the way, we had a few hours of free time until the evening events. We chose to wander a bit through Harrod's and take note of all the items we could not afford. You just know you're in the wrong place when, instead of a store directory, there are actual live human beings on each floor whose job it is to answer any and all questions. Some highlights of note: the pet department with it's 1000GBP cats, the oh-so-tacky 'Dodi and Diana' memorial, watching an Arab fellow - in full flowing garments - jumping on a bed to test it's comfort, and overhearing a well-dressed lady telling someone at the other of end of a cellphone that she'd only spent 10,000GBP so far.

We eventually found our way out of Harrod's - easier said than done - and took a stroll over to Kensington Gardens (Hyde Park) with the goal of seeing Kensington Palace (Diana's home at one time). The park was certainly idyllic on this Summer day. People were lounging about in chairs, trying to turn their pasty white skin to something approaching 'tanned'. Others were playing frisbee, paddling the Serpentine, even riding horses. The park was much larger than we anticipated, and the long walk left a mere 30 minutes in which to tour the Palace. We opted to just make our way back to Chancery Court by way of the Tube.

Navigating the pricing system for the London Underground requires mathematical understanding beyond my capability. In the end I simply thrust a wad of cash at a man behind some thick glass, and he returned all but 10GBP and some some single-use tickets for the 4 of us. All of that to ride a mere 6 stops back to the hotel. And the ride - crushingly crowded and lacking air conditioning. It was not one of the kids' more cherished experiences, but certainly a memorable one. Once back at the hotel, it was showers and dress-up time. Tonight was to be a fancy outing.

The evening started with a great meal at the members-only Soho Club in London's West End. We stuffed ourselves on roast beef, prawns, gourmet hamburgers, finger desserts, and on and on. Dinner was only a prelude to the evening's entertainment, however. We had prime seats to see Mary Poppins - the smash hit musical playing in London at the Prince Edward Theater. The theater was beautiful - very reminiscent of Toronto's Pantages (now Canon) theater. It was darn warm in the theater, however, and I was glad to have worn light clothes. As for the play itself, it was simply one of the best musical theater experiences I had ever had (and we've seen our fair share of theater)!

After the play, we were instructed to remain in the theater until the audience had left. And with that, the Stage Director appeared to give us a backstage tour! Being a very technical play, there were a lot of sets and props under computer control - and it was fascinating to see how everything worked. While we were not allowed to takes photos, our guides did get a group photo of all the kids lined up on the main set - a real keepsake!

After 40 minutes or so of poking around backstage, we were led out the back into the wilds of a West End evening. Music, shouting, and madness is all I can remember as we made our way back to the bus through the streets overflowing with theater patrons and clubbers. Soon enough, we were back at Chancery Court - ready for sleep, ready for day two.

The West End after the plays let out