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Imperial London

Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, London, England
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The Queen’s speech is delivered at the Palace of Westminster at the State Opening of Parliament.

No, it wasn’t by royal invitation, but we did encounter the royal family. In what is becoming an increasingly homogenized world, London reigns supreme with a pageantry known to most of us only in storybooks.  It was our good fortune to be in London for three magnificent events.

Opening of Parliament, London
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Coachmen in scarlet and gold coats, feathered tri-cornered hats, and horsehair wigs drive the elegant state coaches in the Royal Procession., Opening of Parliament, London

 Imagine stepping outside your hotel, armed guards at attention along Whitehall, excitement in the air. Chauffeur-driven limousines of Parliamentarians whisk by. English Bobbies and Queen’s Guards in tall bearskin hats line the streets from Buckingham Palace to the Palaceof Westminster. A parade begins of state carriages and what appear to be all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men…
Household Cavalry, London, Engl
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The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment guards the Queen along the Royal Route.

London is one of our favorite cites. Roger is among the first of the baby boomers to turn 60 and we were celebrating by savoring the city’s bestWe found it in hotels with exceptional provenance and service, with the ubiquitous reminders of the glory days when the sun never set on the British Empire, and in three of the city’s grandest observances—Remembrance Sunday, the Lord Mayor’s Show, and the State Opening of Parliament, the latter two dating back to Medieval times.

Accommodations

London is divided into several districts, each at one time a village of its own. We opted to stay in the West End, the cultural center, hub of political and religious power, and home to the royal family.

We divided our time between two hotels with rich histories and the best of British sophistication and style. One is small and intimate, with an exclusive club atmosphere, part of the family-run Red Carnation collection of luxury 4 and 5 star hotels.

The other is the flagship of the British Thistle group—London’s largest hotelier, with 16 properties in central London alone—and is, like Buckingham Palace, a Grade 1 listed building, a designation of exceptional architectural, historical, or national significance.

Both hotels are near major attractions and the West End theaters, and ideally situated should you want to pop back, put your feet up, and relax midday with the a pot of tea and biscuits provided in your room. Both offer a bountiful breakfast buffet and table service that includes, of course, the traditional full English breakfast of eggs, beans, and grilled bacon, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and top-notch restaurants for a quiet dinner.

The Chesterfield Mayfair is the quintessential small English hotel known for personal service. It is in the heart of Mayfair, the exclusive area of butlers, luxury cars, and the city’s finest shopping. Named for Lord Chesterfield, owner of much of Mayfair in the 19th century, and on a street named for King Charles, former residents include Francis Jeffrey, Lord Advocate of Scotland and friend of Charles Dickens and Countess of Carnevon, of the family that co-discovered King Tut’s tomb. A best-bet for fine dining in this otherwise-expensive city is the “roast of the day”, served in the award-winning Butler restaurant from a silver service trolley

The atmosphere and service is elegant and highly refined, but never stuffy. Furnishings are antiques and fine art carefully selected by the owners. With welcoming green tea or champagne and fresh flowers in your room, you feel right at home. Forms are sent out in advance, and the staff knows your name, favorite drink, and such things as whether you prefer a blanket or duvet.

While afternoon tea is being reinvented as cupcake buffets or a Starbucks latte, a few places remain that understand the elegant and artful tradition of taking tea. The Conservatory at the Chesterfield Mayfair is listed among the top in London in “The Tea Council’s Best Tea Places”.

Evenings are well-spent with a cocktail and live piano music in the intimate Terrace Bar.

The Royal Horseguards, in Whitehall Court, is on land conferred to the Royal Family of Scotland by the English crown over twelve centuries ago. This became Scotland Yard, official London residence of the Kings of Scotland, and later home of the Metropolitan Police Force.

Impressive Whitehall Court, located in London’s power center between Big Ben and Trafalgar Square, was built in the style of a French chateau in 1884 with fully serviced apartments. Famous residents include William Gladstone, Lord Kitchener, Grand Duke Michael of Russia, and George Bernard Shaw.

The Secret Service used the eighth floor during World War I, and the American and Russian Embassies were among the government departments operating here in World War II. Today, it is frequented by businessmen and MPs, and a light over the bar signals time to return to vote.

Doormen in top hats welcome guests into a stately marble lobby with fireplace and plush seating. Service is gracious and unobtrusive. Our elegantly furnished room overlooked the Thames with a view spanning the area from St. Paul’s to the London Eye and beyond. The gourmet restaurant and lively bar, One Twenty One Two, is named for former neighbor Scotland Yard’s well-known telephone number, Whitehall 1212.

Getting around

Our hotels were ideally situated for seeing most of the city on foot, but for greater distances there is nothing else quite like the traditional London Black Cabs. To be licensed, London cab drivers must pass a rigorous test, “The Knowledge”, on details of the city and its streets, and these well-informed drivers can offer great insights.

In major cities, we usually purchase a museum and attractions pass. For this trip, we opted for the Great British Heritage Pass and visited historic buildings, stately homes, gardens, and monuments– St. Paul’s Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, and Apsley House, home of First Duke of Wellington and his famous boots,

This visit, however, was more than the usual sightseeing. We were there in November at a most propitious time.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

John McCrae, May 1915

On arrival we noticed the red boutonnieres for Remembrance Day, the second Sunday in November, a time of observances honoring those who died in the World Wars and other conflicts. The Queen lays the first wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph, followed by political and military leaders. There is a two minute silence beginning at 11 am, the time the First World War ended in 1918, marked by the firing of a gun at Horse Guards Parade.

Worshipful Company of Painters and Stainers, London, England
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Eleven liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Painters and Stainers have served as Lord Mayor of the City of London.

Meanwhile, crowds line the streets of the City for the Lord Mayor’s Show, from the times of Robin Hood’s King John when the City’s people were granted the right to choose their own Lord Mayor. At 11:02 this ceremonial leader “shows” himself to his people in a lavish inaugural parade beginning from Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice to swear an Oath of Fealty to the Queen and then heads back again.

Trivia: Centuries ago, the trip was from Mansion House to the Palace of Westminster and the procession was on the Thames– hence the origin of the word “floats”.

This London Regiment of bagpipers were among the over 6000 people participating in the Lord Mayor's Parade.
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This London Regiment of bagpipers were among the over 6000 people participating in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.

The parade of 6000 people included hundreds of vehicles, marching bands, military detachments, livery companies, dozens of decorated floats, and aldermen with hand puppets to entertain children.

Pikemen guard the gilded coach while the Lord Mayor pledges allegiance to the Queen.
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Pikemen guard the gilded coach while the Lord Mayor pledges allegiance to the Queen.

The highlight is the arrival of the Lord Mayor himself in the 250 year old horse-drawn gilded state coach, escorted by musketeers and pikemen.

 Later, one of London’s grandest fireworks displays lit the evening sky.

A few days later, we stepped outside the Royal Horseguards Hotel to the excitement of the annual State Opening of Parliament.

Elegant motor vehicles and horse-drawn state carriages passed by, traveling the Royal Route from BuckinghamPalace to Parliament, providing a glimpse of the Regalia– Imperial State Crown and the Great Sword of State, both made for the coronation of George IV and the Cap of Maintenance.

Then, as the bands began “God Save the Queen”, the Household Cavalry appeared and the Irish State Coach came into view, drawn by four elegant grey Windsor horses.

The Queen’s Coach, London,
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Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip ride to the State Opening of Parliament in this Irish State Coach.

There they were—and looking our way–Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.  We were mesmerized.

Before all this can begin, the Yeoman of the Guard inspect the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a throwback to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Then, dating to times when the monarch and Parliament were on less agreeable terms, an MP is held at Buckingham Palace awaiting the safe return of the Queen.

Lord Great Chamberlain greets the Queen upon arrival, there are gun salutes, and the Royal Standard is raised over Victoria Tower to signify her presence. The Queen dresses in her parliamentary robe and Imperial State Crown, and her messenger, known as the Black Rod, summons the House of Commons.

Seated at the throne of the House of Lords, the Queen reads the speech prepared for her by the government outlining legislation planned for the upcoming session. This year it focused on terrorism, anti-social behavior, and crime. The speech ends with “Other measures will be laid before you.” The Queen departs, the Union Jack replaces the Royal Standard and robes are carefully stored for the next year, when it all begins again…..

Transportation

A cost-cutting transportation option is the Oyster card, a plastic card preloaded with an amount you choose. It is good on the city’s tube (subway), buses, trams, and Docklands Light Railway, as well as for a variety of discounts.

It may even be used on the tube to and from Heathrow airport.

Yellow readers at turnstiles scan the card and charge the lowest daily rates. It is available online or at tube stations and tourist information centers.

Sightseeing

For first time visitors, The Original London Sightseeing Tour offers a top-notch overview of the city past major landmarks. You can hop on or off at any stop.

Get off at the Tower and take the included narrated boat ride under Tower Bridge to Greenwich from the pier. Ride it back to Embankment.

Be sure to return for a Yeoman Warder “Beefeater” tour of the Tower to hear tales of political intrigue and to see the crown jewels.

 

 

 

 

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