My London Trip That Was Not to Be touched all the bases - royal getaways, tea at Claridge's, the National Gallery, Scotland Yard and, of course, theater in the West End. When COVID-19 put an end to all that, I had an epiphany: I could dial up YouTube on my smart TV and try to replicate my two-week itinerary.
PEEK INSIDE OFF-LIMITS BUILDINGS
I had booked the trip for September because of major annual London events, especially Open House weekend, when many important buildings normally shut to visitors are open. I was dying to get into the striking Lloyd's of London insurance company headquarters, never normally open, and I did, in a BBC video on YouTube. Then there was New Scotland Yard, courtesy of a PBS special, "Secrets of Scotland Yard," archived on YouTube. Lambeth Palace, the ancient London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, rarely open and only for groups, was there on my TV. Same for Lancaster House, once a part of the St. James's Palace and the film stand-in for Buckingham Palace interiors in many films, including Netflix's "The Crown." And I toured the very grand Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (their elaborate version of our State Department) via a visit narrated by Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary.
WALK THE MAYFAIR DISTRICT
There are several virtual tours online, but the most entertaining one is posted by Joolz Guides, videos by an actor/historian who highlights curiosities around the city. He launches each of his posts with a jaunty "Pip! Pip! Tallyho!" On his Mayfair tour, he ducks into the venerable Savile Row tailor who invented the tuxedo for King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales; tails seemed too formal for the prince's shooting parties at Sandringham. (Americans, however, gave the tuxedo its name, taken from a country club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.) And Joolz walks through Mayfair's Burlington Arcade, where guards in the 19th century enforced a rule against umbrellas because they might block the view of prostitutes watching from windows high above to alert pimps and pickpockets of cops below.
GET A TASTE OF HIGH TEA
I had reserved afternoon tea at the stupendous Claridge's hotel. So I savored a YouTube video, "Claridge's: Checking into History," a lovely reminder of the art deco interior in the hotel said to be the royal favorite. I shall return! The Savoy Hotel's video of its afternoon tea, which I enjoyed at home while lifting my pinkie right along with the Savoy's piano. And then there's the YouTube recording of the lovely piano music played for afternoon tea at the posh Dorchester hotel.
EXPERIENCE VIRTUAL ART TOURS & EXHIBITS
Westminster Abbey: The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries at the top of Westminster Abbey opened in 2018. They display art and artifacts long in storage, set in a modern museum high above the Abbey nave. A brief official video, "Visit the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey," whetted my appetite for eventually seeing things like medieval life-size funeral effigies for kings past, when they used to display them on top of coffins in processions through the streets. There's also an excellent video presentation of Westminster Abbey by London's famous Blue Badge certified guides, who did three videos a week while they were idled by the lockdown. You can find the presentations on their YouTube channel, Guide London.
The National Gallery: The museum stands out for its excellent YouTube channel with great video offerings. In "A Curated Look at Working From Home," a National Gallery curator working from home and speaking in the gentlest of voices presents a tour of five paintings of interior scenes. It's highly recommended, as is the Gallery tour by a Blue Badge Guide on the Guide London YouTube channel. Also try the National Gallery's meditations, where a soft voice leads the viewer through a meditative slow look at paintings like Van Gogh's swirling "A Wheatfield, with Cypresses."
Dennis Severs's House: Severs, an American, bought the house in 1979. He decorated its 11 barely-lit rooms as though the French Huguenot family that lived in the house from 1725 to 1919 had just left, complete with smelly laundry, not-empty chamber pots, fires burning in the fireplaces. You can find a great atmospheric if not aromatic tour of the house on YouTube.
TAKE A DAY TRIP
Chatsworth House: Two hours north of London by train, the Chatsworth House is probably the premier stately home in all of England. I discovered the gossipy 2013 PBS history of Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, with its gardens, fountains, and art inside and out. The documentary has grainy upstairs/downstairs photos and anecdotes over several centuries, especially about the shooting parties that hosted the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, and all the big shots of the time. One anecdote: to dish up the turtle soup fashionable for banquets then, a small imported green turtle was required for each guest, and the cost of 20 British pounds per turtle was the same as the annual wages of a kitchen worker.
Knole: The best out-of-town train trip video was produced by the National Trust, which owns Knole, a vast estate set in a large deer park an hour south of London. The 16th-century house was owned by the Sackville family for many generations. At one time, writer Virginia Woolf lived at Knole with her lover, Vita Sackville-West. The video is beautiful and in many spots also funny, showing off the setting and incredible art and furniture with a touch of humor.
Sandringham: The house where the queen spends most of the winter is open to visitors in other seasons. There's a candid, though dated, 1998 documentary by Prince Edward, "Crown and Country." The historical Roman city of St. Albans, a short distance from London, is another of my planned day trips and is another episode of the Prince's "Crown and Country" series.
Yes, I know, watching isn't doing - or smelling or tasting. I'm hopeful that all of that will be safe by next fall. I've already made my reservations. I'll be right there next September.