Fortnight in London

I stayed in London for two weeks, July 7-22, ’03, on a trip booked for $2,528 with Grand Circle Travel (347 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210; phone 800/221-2610).

I had a large, 2-room apartment with a full, furnished kitchen at the Somerset Apartments (Somerset Queen’s Gate Garden Hotel, aka Chequers Executive Apts., 58-66 Cromwell Rd., London, England; phone 020-7659-4321). My room wasn’t air-conditioned (although some rooms there are air-conditioned), but a large fan did the trick. The hotel staff all were young, foreign and very hardworking but somewhat inexperienced.

Continental breakfast was included daily, and there was an amazing machine which, with single-use cartridges, made delicious coffee, hot chocolate, lattes, decaf and a variety of other hot drinks. At hours other than breakfast, the cartridges were available for purchase at £1 (about $1.65) each.

Grand Circle’s host, Sue Pietrzak, presided over a big office with all the London reference books anyone could want. She is a charming woman who ran daily discovery tours, booked optional day tours to Greenwich, the Cotswolds, etc., and was as helpful as could be in just about any situation.

Grand Circle provided complimentary 2-week underground/bus passes to each guest. These were invaluable.

The apartments were located near Gloucester Road tube station (a major station offering Circle, District and Piccadilly line underground service) and the No. 74 bus (which could take you to Harrods in Knightbridge in about five minutes). It was a 5-minute walk to the Natural History Museum and a block further to the Victoria & Albert Museum for decorative arts. A further block took me to the Science Museum. The Royal Albert Memorial and opposite Hall were a 15-minute walk away.

The tube accessed Leicester Square (for half-price West End show tickets), Piccadilly Circle, Holborn (for the British Museum) and Covent Garden (one stop past Leicester Square).

Nearby were a large Sainbury’s supermarket, an upscale Waitrose grocer, pubs, restaurants, a one-hour film developer, a drugstore, a NatWest ATM and Internet shops (£1.5 for 30 minutes online or 80 pence per hour during off hours).

Aside from attending several West End shows and concerts (Dec. ’03, pg. 37), I went to the Natural History Museum and their outdoor “Earth from the Air” show and to the Victoria & Albert Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed and was moved by the special Titanic show (£6.95) at the Science Museum.

I joined a 3-hour Grand Circle city tour (included in my total trip price) and enjoyed seeing things I’d seen before but with a different commentary.

I also took two London Walks tours (£4 each for seniors), one led by Edward Petherbridge (a noted actor), who took us around the theater district and performed several memorable soliloquies. The other was an “Inns of Court” tour of the law courts including much history of English law and also led by a West End actor.

On a hot Sunday I took a day trip with Grand Circle and a Blue Badge guide to Greenwich ($39) with return by boat to the Embankment Underground Station on the Thames. I spent some time at the National Maritime Museum’s “Elizabeth I” show (£6) and then took the new shuttle bus (£1.5) to the Observatory for a great view of the lawns and background of Greenwich. Hundreds were sunning themselves on the lawns and enjoying a rare day of fine weather.

I went to Brighton by train (£15.10) with a local friend and used the hop-on/off tour bus (£6.5) to stop at the fabulous Royal Pavilion, where we had lunch in the Queen Adelaide Tea Room (£7.35). Later we walked on the famous Brighton Palace Pier. It wasn’t as crowded as I had expected. I imagine the hot weather scared people away instead of encouraging them to sun themselves and swim.

On another day I took a Golden Tours day trip to the Cotswolds (£43), including stops at Blenheim Palace, Bourton-on-the-Water, etc. The scenery was gorgeous.

Another day, I took the train to Hampton Court Palace (£4.90 cheap day return) and took a tour (£8.5, senior) of the King’s apartments with a guide in period dress, also strolling the voluminous and impeccable gardens.

I visited the National Gallery and their special exhibit, “A Private Passion” (£5), from Harvard’s Winthrop Collection; the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit (£4) at the recently redone Buckingham Palace Queen’s Gallery; the summer exhibition and Kirschner show “Expressionism and the City” (on Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1918) at the Royal Academy of Arts (£10); the Sir John Soanes Museum; the Tate Modern; the Impressionist and modern art gallery and the Hermitage photo exhibit at Somerset House; the Kensington Palace exhibits (£8), and, finally, the London Transport Museum (£4.5), where I took a 1½-hour guided tour.

It was a wonderful 2-week visit.

New York, NY