The (Recent) Travels of a Journalist -POMMY’S TOUR OF LONDON BY NIGHT SHOWS SITES IN DIFFERENT LIGHT
Posted on November 16th, 2010
By Shelton A. Gunaratne © 2010 Professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead
On the night (Tuesday, 27 July 2010) before my wife and I left England back to Minnesota, a bright idea sparked in the mind of my “Pommy” brother-in-law, a long-time resident of Shepherds Bush. In postprandial conviviality, he offered to take us to central London to see “London by night.” The thought intrigued me, particularly because he was associated with the London club circles in his youth.
“Pommy” clarified that what he had in mind was a two-mile (or so) walking tour of central London to see the nocturnal charm of shades, shadows and reflections of streetlights and security lights imposed upon Her Majesty’s majestic buildings that housed the legendary bureaucracy and the political elite who ruled Great Britain. In short, “Pommy” invited us to join him for a power walk through the portals of power sans the jostling crowds and parking hassles of a daytime tour.
However, there was one hitch: the continual drizzle outside. That was not a problem for “Pommy,” the consummate Londoner. “Warm jackets and umbrellas are all we need,” he said. Three of us—“Pommy’s” first daughter Camilla, my wife Yoke-Sim and I—agreed to join the “London by Night’ tour, the brainchild of my machan (Sinhala slang for brother-in-law). So, he drove us seven miles from Frithville Gardens (Shepherds Bush) to St. James’s Park (Westminster), where he parked his Volvo in Queen Anne’s Gates.
“Pommy’s” Walking Tour
We put on our rain gear, stretched out the umbrellas, and began our walk from the vicinity of St. Stephen’s Club (34 Queen Anne’s Gates), originally the club of the Conservatives founded in 1870. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan opened the club in the current premises in 1963. The club has been apolitical since 2003.
We crossed the Cockpit Steps to go east on Birdcage Walk on the south side of the 23-hectare St James’s Park, the oldest royal park in London. Buckingham Palace stood at the western edge of the park.
Cockpit Steps is associated with the urban legend of a headless woman dressed in red that two soldiers encountered in 1802. The Times reported that the soldiers had seen the headless figure (believed to be the wife of an officer who killed her and tried to bury her mutilated body in the park) drifting from Cockpit Steps toward St. James’s Park. Again, in 1972, a motorist claimed that he hit a lamppost on the road as he tried to avoid a ghostly figure dressed in red. The court cleared the motorist of the charge of dangerous driving. I am glad that nothing spooky appeared as we crossed the Cockpit Steps.
Past the Horse Guards Road at the east end of the park, we continued walking east on Great George Street. Horse Guards Road runs north to join The Mall. Downing Street, which demarcates the center of political power in Britain, was just two blocks north of us straddling the Horse Guards Road and Whitehall.
On Downing Street, 10 is the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury (the prime minister); 11, the official residence of the Second Lord of the Treasury (chancellor of the exchequer); and 12, the official residence of the chief whip of the ruling party. The Foreign and Commonwealth office is also on Downing Street, which currently allows only restricted public access. The stone-faced and dark brick structures on Downing Street could not possibly add any nocturnal charm except perhaps for the headless lady in red whom we missed at Cockpit Steps.
We walked past the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (@ Clive Steps, King Charles St. Admission =£15) and Her Majesty’s Treasury (@ 1, Horse Guards Road), where “Pommy’s” daughter worked. The multi-story Treasury building, originally designed by architect John Brydon and later modified by Sir Henry Tanner, was built with Portland stone. Bright lights highlighted the building as we walked past.
Turning south on Little George Street, we were fascinated by the brightly lighted Parliament Square (first laid out in 1868), a large open patch of green in the middle with a cluster of trees to its west, surrounded by the imposing structures of the Big Ben (1858), the largest four-faced chiming clock and the third-tallest free-standing clock tower in the world; the Houses of Parliament, also called the Westminster Palace, a perpendicular Gothic structure with origins in the 11th century; the Westminster Abbey, a mainly Gothic church with origins in the 10th century; and the Middlesex Guildhall (U.K. Supreme Court), which took over the judicial functions of the House of Lords in 2009. Sir Peter Blake was the designer of the guildhall.
Strategically placed statues of famous statesmen—e.g., Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Lord Palmerston, Robert Peel and Jan Christian Smuts—adorned the Parliament Square. This is the place where daytime tourists gathered to relax and compare notes. It was equally fascinating to watch the square after nightfall, even on a rainy, spooky night.
As we walked around the Parliament Square to turn eastward to Bridge Street, we tarried at St. Stephen’s Tavern, an ever-popular waterhole of the hoi polloi standing side-by-side with the Big Ben, the most familiar symbol identifying London. A closer look at Big Ben is necessary to understand why the people called it big. Augustus Pugin designed the clock and the dials more than a century and half ago. “The clock dials are set in an iron frame 7 meters (23 ft) in diameter, supporting 312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a stained-glass window,” explains the Wikipedia. Big Ben is the name of the biggest bell in the tower, although popular parlance has bestowed the name on the whole tower.
Now, in the drizzle, we were crossing the Thames on the renowned Westminster Bridge, thoroughly enjoying the illuminated night scenery over the Thames. On the north side, we saw the scintillating “London Eye,” the massive Ferris wheel. Resisting the temptation of the “carnival,” we got off the east end of the bridge to proceed southward. (The Westminster Bridge has a history going back to 1739-1750. The current bridge, designed by Thomas Page, was opened in 1862. The green paint of the bridge honors the House of Commons’ preferred color.)
Our saunter on the bridge turned into a jog as we raced down the ill-lit promenade along the east bank of the Thames on the back of St. Thomas’s Hospital right up to Lambeth Bridge. We surmised that the northern end of the east bank promenade provided the best night view of the Big Ben and the Westminster complex.
Even at 10 p.m., romantic couples occupied the public benches along the promenade to enjoy the magnificent well-lit scenery of Westminster on the opposite bank. The uneven cobblestone almost tripped me as I jogged.
We crossed the Lambeth Bridge, painted red to honor the preferred color of the House of Lords and turned north on Millbank at the foot of the Victoria Tower Gardens. (The original Lambeth suspension bridge opened in 1862. The current five-span steel arch structure replaced the suspension bridge in 1932. Dorman Long built the Lambeth Bridge designed by Sir George Humphreys and Sir Reginald Blomfield )
Then, we walked northwest (via Dean Stanley Street, Smith Square, Lord N Street, Great Peter Street, Tufton Street, Little Smith Street and Great Smith Street) to reach Westminster Abbey. Finally, we turned east on Lewisham Street that merged into Queen Anne’s Gates where Axon had parked his Volvo.
This wasn’t the first nocturnal sightseeing tour that I had joined on “Pommy’s” initiative. I recalled the midnight car tour of Cardiff, Wales, which he gave me in the early ‘90s after we visited his sister’s family in Churchill (Bristol)—a story I will narrate in the next installment.
It was almost midnight when we returned to Shepherds Bush.
Figure 1: Axon’s Walking Tour of “London by Night” offers charming views of London’s historical institutions illuminated by bright lights. A=St. James Park (area between Queen Anne’s Gates and Birdcage Walk allows inexpensive or free parking at night). B=Promenade along the right bank of River Thames. C=Lord N Street. D=Termination of tour. Distance=two miles. Walking time=40 minutes.
Picture 1: The “London Eye” at night. It’s a 135-meter high Ferris wheel, the tallest in Europe (3 Aug 2006).
(Photo by Diliff. Wikimedia Commons)
Picture 2: A panoramic view of the Parliament Square (1 June 2009)
(Photo by Wjh31. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)