London is often chilly and rainy in winter and that's exactly why I went -- because the prices were right in January of last year as they are many winter weeks. We still found spaces of blue sky some afternoons and warm, dry museums, concert halls, theatres and pubs.
Lovely concerts are free at noon in St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square and lunch there -- in the Crypt with its vaulted arches and massive limestone pillars -- is very good and very cheap. We paid 12 pounds to return one evening for a candlelight performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos -- not the bargain of our hometown Arts and Entertainment Series certainly, but superior to many big-city concert prices.
The church was built in 1726, the fourth on this site to provide city ministry. The names of the first vicars in 1352 are inscribed on a handsome staircase, just one of hundreds of historical markers and architectural features. Take a tour. Create some art to bring home in the brass rubbing center in the crypt.
St. John's in Smith Square, just a short walk from the Westminster tube station, also presents a full concert schedule and serves lunch and dinner in its crypt.
The Tower of London is a plan-ahead destination and a surprise. I've been to London two previous times and on purpose didn't go there. That was a mistake for this is a truly interesting place. Be certain to sign up for the hour-long Yoeman Warder tours given every 30 minutes. Also known as Beefeaters, these guides actually live on the Tower grounds and they tell the best stories about the Crown Jewels, the beheadings on Tower Green, the prisoners in the Bloody Tower and Traitor's Gate.
The caf is good but the walking to get in the grounds and around them is extensive, including many steps. This is, after all, Her Majesty's Palace and Fortress.
My traveling partner for this trip, Jerry Walker, and I liked our Yoeman Warder so much that we took him up on his offer to meet that evening near the Tower Hill tube station for a walking tour based on the history of Jack the Ripper. In the dark and drizzle with a dazzling story-teller and a group of a dozen, we were tense but thoroughly engaged. Most city walking tours require up-front payment but these after-hours Tower guards only accept your money afterwards, if you were sufficiently pleased -- or with this tale, perhaps sufficiently frightened.
You can also easily find organized "London Walks" exploring Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, the Beatles and Shakespeare or walking treks to Bath or Canterbury or Oxford with clear directions as to which tube stations are the meeting places.
How many times have you watched the "Christmas Carol" as part of your holiday traditions? On Christmas Day in London you could sign up for a special Charles Dickens walk.
You can also walk by yourself around the famous squares (Trafalgar, Leicester, Soho) and across the bridges which span the Thames or through the eight Royal Parks and the Royal Botanic Gardens. Don't wait for the sun to shine to do any of this or you'll miss them.
The House of Commons and the House of Lords are truly an adventure. Jerry and I like to lobby for our favorite causes so we have sat many times in the galleries of the Georgia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.
In London the Members of Parliament sit on benches facing each other, glaring a lot of the time and there are only seats for 437 of the 659 in the House of Commons so others are standing and pacing. The confrontational design is on purpose, they say, to spark vigorous debate.
We were so taken with the debate about "topping off" university fees that we joined the demonstration across the street when Parliament adjourned.
If you do that, or stay too long inside watching the debates, you miss Westminster Abbey because the last tour starts at 3:45 p.m. The majestic feeling of standing in the shadow of this magnificent medieval church where most of England's monarchs were crowned and buried is so powerful I can only imagine the inspiration inside.
Winter is a good time to connect here because Westminster was consecrated Dec. 28 -- but in the year 1065.
Winter also seems a good time to connect with London's famous West End theaters because Jerry and I even found tickets to "Mamma Mia!" which was still tough to do in New York last December and January.
Some days we relied on the half price ticket booth in Leicester Square but other days we believed we could do better walking up to the box office. Either way, you take your chances with same-day theater ticket purchases. If you absolutely have to know ahead of time what you you'll see -- or if you can get tickets to anything -- then you simply have to pay bigger prices and book in advance.
Beware of the frenzy which creeps in when you choose the Leicester Square tickets booth half-price approach; there's something about standing in that line which creates a feeling of necessity, an "I simply have to get tickets to something" mood.
Truth is, with no theater tickets at all you can just stroll around and have the best time anyway.
We did just that one late afternoon enjoying Covent Garden where the piazza, London's first planned square, dates to the 1630s and the sidewalks today are lively with boutiques, fresh markets and street entertainment. Hot tea in a charming caf warmed us for more walking and then we discovered a stirring performance of "Woman in Black" at a small cozy theater with a three-person cast.
Dinner was a surprise discovery, too, at Sarastro where performers from the Royal and National opera houses sing during dinner. No problem if you aren't an opera maven; the food is glorious here, the decor sumptuous and the murals in the restrooms definitely X-rated.
Of course you can plan ahead with dinner reservations at well-known spots every evening but Jerry and I peered in pub and restaurant windows, counted pence and pounds and read menus posted on the windows. We were well satisfied. "Little wonder restaurants," a category pursued by Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine and website, can give some good leads too.
Pubs are London icons and they're great for hearty lunches of steak and Guinness pie or rump steak, Welsh rarebit, roast potatoes or maybe sausage and mash.
If you don't choose to love London in winter, perhaps you'll go for the Olympics. This incredible city where 300 languages are spoken is bidding to host the 2012 Games.
Some practical issues to address whenever you might go:
Even if you pay the price on site for a phone card, you may not be able to check your voice mail at home because the # and * keys are needed as part of the local code.
Find out what time the tube station closest to your hotel closes; fortunately Jerry and I just squeaked in after a theater evening, not knowing that our station shut down at 12:25 a.m. We would have been upset figuring out a different travel pattern that time of night.
Believe you can easily get from Heathrow Airport to your hotel on affordable public transportation. The express train in January 2004 cost 15 pounds, the airbus was 8.50 and the tube only 3.80. All you need to know ahead is the address of your hotel and which stop is closest.
For More Information
Contact local travel agents
www.hrp.org.uk (for the Tower of London)
www.ticket-on-line.com (for travelcards and tube tickets)
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