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I was back from Highclere Castle at 4:00 p.m. The weather in London looked a bit clearer, so I considered what was left on my to-do list. I hadn’t yet even glimpsed Big Ben, which is probably some sort of sacrilege while you’re visiting London, so I headed in that direction.
(Side note: just last week I saw that they’re going to rename Big Ben the “Elizabeth Tower” in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee. Raise your hand if you think that new name will stick …
Yeah, that’s what I thought.)
Big Ben is also near Westminster Abbey and the Cabinet War Rooms. I’ve visited Westminster Abbey every time I’ve come to London, and it’s one of my favorites. But with the day waning, I had to choose between those two sites. I hadn’t seen Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms since the first time I was in England when I was nine, and I’ve learned and come to admire a lot more about Winston Churchill and England’s role in WWII since then. So the War Rooms was actually an attraction I didn’t want to miss. I quickly grabbed a photo of Big Ben on the way out of the Tube and ran up to the War Rooms entrance around 4:30 p.m. I had until 6:00 p.m. to speed through the exhibits. A guided audio tour is included, one of those “push this number to hear more” deals. I tried to go quickly, but also to listen to as much as possible and do it justice.
In 2005, they opened the Winston Churchill museum within the War Rooms, but I hardly had time to crack the surface there. It’s a very interactive and thorough museum, but I breezed through. Exhibits cover Churchill’s birth — at Blenheim Palace, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, to whom his family is somewhat related, while his mother was there at a party — and childhood, military career, marriage and family, political service and the war years. I even saw a lock of his hair that I remember used to hang in the bedroom in which he was born at Blenheim. Churchill was a prolific and inspiring writer, and one of his quotes on display especially spoke to me: “Words are the only things which last forever.” To a fellow writer, profound.
I cleared the museum just before 6:00 p.m., and for the third time walked in the direction of Buckingham Palace. Everything was still blocked while they deconstructed the Jubilee stage, but the Mall was open and I could get pretty close for photos. Finally!
I’d also not been near Piccadilly Circus, so I went back by Fortnum & Mason for another round of tea purchases, and walked down Piccadilly (the street) towards that intersection. Since it was still daylight, Piccadilly Circus, with its huge jumbotrons and neon, wasn’t as impressive as it would be in dark and it was much smaller than I remember. But, I checked it off the list.
I tubed back to my hotel, changed and went out for dinner. I stuck my head in the most bustling of the pubs nearby and walked upstairs for table service. There I ordered some bangers and mash (finally!) and enjoyed a pint (or two) of cider. It was lovely, and the food was delicious, warm and filling.
Back in the hotel, I packed and prepared for an early rising the next morning. The weather forecast overnight and into the next day was continued rain and gale-force winds. Doesn’t that sound like excellent flying weather? Well, the wind started whipping so violently that it rattled my hotel windows all night long. I hardly slept, as you can imagine.
I was up at something like 5 a.m. the next morning, hailed a cab, caught the Gatwick train and got to the airport without incident. I didn’t want to pay to check two bags, so I carried an extra duffle with me. But my suitcase was waaayyy over weight, and I had to reconfigure things — the first time that’s ever happened to me! That left my carry-on duffle almost prohibitively heavy, so I couldn’t do much in the airport but move it around from seat to seat. No shopping, or even breakfast, for me. We went through pretty easy security screenings considering it was a flight back to the U.S. and got on the plane on time. The weather was nothing to have worried about — we took off on schedule, and the eight hours home was actually very pleasant. Several movies, several meals, even some dozing.
It had been a perfect trip, a perfect birthday and a wonderful celebration with family — one I’ll remember and value always!
Now, when am I going back?