Lambeth Palace, Wolsley Tea, Savoy Drinks, Love Never Dies

Friday, August 26, 2011

If I could combine every wonderful ingredient to create a perfect day in London, it would turn out like the one I had today. Despite the day-long drizzle, I refused to allow my enthusiasm to be dampened and onwards I pushed towards one of my favorite kinds of London days. Awaking at 6 am on an adrenaline high to the tolling bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral in my Christopher Wren bedroom complete with twelve foot high ceiling and a marble fireplace, I arose to embrace a weepy morning. Ever the thoughtful hostess, Cynthia woke with me and over a shared Weetabix breakfast, she chattered with me after I’d showered and changed. Then, I was off within the hour on a bus to Waterloo Bridge to tick off the first item on my agenda.

Breakfasting with a Friend:
At the appointed hour, I met Murali, a friend, who had chanced upon my blog while I had lived in London two years ago and had become a faithful Follower. A mathematician by training and a financial whiz by profession, Murali and I settled down at Paul Patisserie over an almond croissant and a hot chocolate (two of my favorite London treats) and caught up on our common passions: poetry, travel, the art world, writing. Crumbly marzipan and liquid cocoa fuelled our peregrinations as the hour flew, we took photographs and said Au Revoir.

In Archbishops’ Territory:
Up on the grand concourse of Waterloo Station, I reconnected with Shahnaz and Azra and off we went to our next appointment at Lambeth Palace on a bus along the south bank of the Thames. Lambeth Palace, one of London’s most closely-guarded secrets, is not open to the public and visits are made strictly by appointment. There is currently a year-long wait list to get inside. Thanks to high connections in the Anglican Church, I was able to snag us a seat (or three) for an insider’s private tour of the premises at merely a few weeks’ notice. Past the Tudor Morton Gate, we were met and greeted by Gill, an administrative assistant, who also served as tour guide.

Not really equipped to handle my questions, Gil declared apologetic ignorance. Who built this place? When? Is that a Van Dyck? What building lies across the Thames in that 18th century painting? She tried really hard and what we did gather was this–Lambeth Palace is and has served as the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury (currently The Most Reverend Rowan Williams) since the 12th century. Its initial Tudor architecture was added to over the centuries to incorporate a few modern bits. It vast grounds and gardens are beautifully maintained. They include 500 year fig trees that continue to remain fruitful.

Inside, Gill showed us the pink Drawing Room (where my friend Cynthia attends monthly Bishops’ wives’ meetings), the formal Dining Room in which the Archbishop dines with the Queen, the grand Reception Room, the crypt and the Archbishop’s private chapel where the choir stalls contain enamel plaques to represent varied parts of the globalized Anglican world including a Bengal tiger for India. Having suffered massive damage during World War II, the roof was completely rebuilt and painted with garish contemporary figures which clash awfully (in my humble opinion) with the reverential ambience of the space.The spacious rooms and massive stone corridors are filled with historic artifacts, displays of gifts collected by the Archbishop on his international visits, loads of oil portraits of the most significant prelates and sculpted busts of the most eminent of them. Overall, the space–a working series of offices and several private residences–was hushed and reverent and we almost felt like intruders as we strode the wide corridors of ecclesiastical power.

Inside Lambeth Library:
The piece de resistance of our visit was the Library with its splendid hammered timber oak ceiling. Here we were met by librarian Mary who proved to be an excellent tour guide and answered all my questions: Where is the King James Bible stored? (In one of two strong rooms on the premises). Can one handle the leather-bound volumes in this library? (No, they are much too fragile). Are there archivists on the premises? (Yes). She gave us a ton of material–literature, postcards, posters–to carry off with us and armed with these goodies, we made our delighted way out of the imposing walls of this fortress of religiosity and returned to 21st century London with its red buses plying along the Thames Embankment. All three of us agreed that it was an awesome experience and we were very grateful to my connections with Bishop Michael that made such an extraordinary privilege possible. Outside Lambeth’s Tudor Gatehouse, we parted company having made plans to regroup at 4 pm at Fortnum and Mason.

Serious Retail Therapy:
It was time for shopping and, climbing into a bus, I headed off to Oxford Street where I spent the next couple of hours acquiring a new fall wardrobe for the new academic year. When my Mastercard was declined at Marks and Sparks, I seethed in frustration and resentment (having taken the trouble to inform them that I would be traveling for three whole months). Refusing to let that hiccup shatter my soaring spirits, I consulted the helpful folks in Customer Service and within an hour, I had it sorted.

Laden with bags, I walked out into the drizzle, tried to find Inspector Lewis DVDs in the HMV store, had an another disappointment when I discovered that the store does not carry them, then clambered into another bus to deposit my belongings at home. Barely did I dump my bags down than I was out the door again, heading to my next appointment–at Fortnum’s.

Shopping at F&Ms and Tea for Three at Hotel Wolsley:
However, seriously seduced by retail therapy, we were all running late. Regrouping via mobile phones, we decided to press on towards our next appointment–Afternoon Tea for Three at the Hotel Wolsley. However, I managed to buy an oak tea caddy filled with F&Ms assorted teas and a top hat-shaped tea strainer which, after I grabbed the last one, went right out of stock! Armed with my newest tea accoutrements, I popped in next door to the Wolsley where Shahnaz had already reached.

For the next two hours, we gave ourselves up to the very propah English delights of Afternoon Tea served to us on a private balcony overlooking the grand but very noisy dining hall. On a sugar high, we nibbled at fluffy sultana scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, a selection of yummy finger sandwiches and an array of pastries: chocolate mousse petit fours, Battenburg squares, coffee eclairs, fresh strawberry tartlets, pistachio and chocolate macaroons–the treats kept popping themselves as if by magic into our mouths in between bracing sips of the Wolsley’s Afternoon Tea House blend with lemon and honey. And just when we thought we could not partake of another morsel, no matter how seductive, I went on to my next appointment.

Drinks at the Savoy:
Rosemary, an English friend whom I know affectionately as Roz, was awaiting me in the lobby of the Adelphi Theater. As we hugged and kissed, a perfect rainbow formed high above the steeples of St. Mary in The Strand. There was nothing for it but to hop across the street to one of the city’s classiest watering holes for a drink–the newly refurbished Savoy Hotel. Having been shrouded under scaffolding for the entire term of my London tenure, I was keen to see what the 600 million pound refurbishment had acomplished. And we were not disappointed. As we swanned through the lobby, we passed the exquisite cuppolla-ed Palm Court and entered the swanky Beaufort Bar where we settled down with drinks–chilled Sauvignon Blanc for Roz, cider for me and a selection of nibbles comprising Marcona almonds, candied cashewnuts and miniature olives–as we caught up on our lives. Time, as you know, flies when you’re having fun. We had soooo much to talk about…but the hour flew. We made plans to meet again at her place in Battersea for dinner when I am in London in January of next year and then we parted company to go our separate ways–she to dinner with friends in Kensington, I to a musical across the street at the Adelphi.

We Saved the Best for Last–Love Never Dies:
Just when I was convinced that my day could not possibly get any better, we were joining the ranks to enter the theater to see the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera called Love Never Dies. For the next couple of hours, we gave ourselves up to the magic of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber as the composer simply swept us away. There was everything one expects of stupendous West End theatrics–stirring musical virtuosity, incredibly lush sets and costume design, magical performances, superb choreography and a plot line that tugged repeatedly at the heart strings. As someone who has long believed that no musical will outshine the perfection of The Phantom, I have to say that this one comes pretty darn close. No, it does not have the hummable arias of the original, but this was vintage Lloyd Webber and showed convincing evidence of his musical genius. Combined with the lyrics of Glenn Slater, it made for the most scintillating hours in the theater and we were thrilled to pieces that we had managed to get seats–even if they were nose-bleed ones way up in the rafters, just on the eve of the show’s closing. If there were just two elements missing, they were Llew and Chriselle. How I wish I could have shared this amazing experience with them.

On the way back in the bus as we headed home, we giggled helplessly over nothing and kissed goodnight promising to try to make tomorrow surpass the brilliance of what had been a Phenomenal Day.

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