The history of London, England stretches back over thousands of years. For my recent family trip to the British capital, this was an exercise in authentic learning at its best. The city’s world-class tourist attractions are renowned across the globe and frankly I needed a lot more than the seven days I had allotted to see everything. This is the political, economic and cultural capital of Britain where you can visit the Queen’s official residence at Buckingham Palace and literally plug activities into your agenda endlessly. All I know is that I must return one day.
VISIT BRITAIN: In planning our trip to London, it was good to have the team at the British Consulate General on Bay Street in Toronto to touch base with. Log on to www.visitbritain.org
THE TUBE OYSTER PASS: Visitor Oyster cards (http://visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk) are plastic smartcards you can use instead of paper tickets. It is a pay as you go credit which you use when you travel. It is the cheapest way to pay for single journeys on the bus, tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services. I was particularly impressed with the subway system (the tube). It was clean, safe and pretty simple to navigate. The oyster card can actually be ordered online if you do so with sufficient advance notice. Otherwise you can buy yours at any station.
HARRODS: Encompassing seven floors of exquisite collections across 4.5 acres, the gigantic Harrods Department Store welcomes over 15 million customers through our doors each year. I found it overrated. For us it was like visiting a museum. You really have to see this place in person, but we did not stay long.
WORLD WAR I: August 1, 2014 marked 100 years since the start of World War I and a group of attractions around England, led by Imperial War Museums, are hosting a four-year commemorative program of events. For more information, visit www.1914.org. The Imperial War Museum London will open new First World War Galleries next summer, which will tell the story of the 16 million people whose lives were claimed by the First World War. The £35 / $57 million project will include a re-designed atrium will stretch over six floors, providing a dramatic space to display the most iconic and unusual objects from the collection. www.iwm.org.uk
WHERE TO STAY: It is a funny story how I ended up deciding upon accommodations in London and let me emphasize how we hit the jackpot by booking at The Kensington Hotel (www.doylecollection.com) at the corner of Queen’s Gate and the Old Brompton Road. A contact I had made at hotels in Cape Cod and Boston directed me to the Doyle Collection, a privately owned group of eight luxury hotels located in the most fashionable neighbourhoods of five major cities around the world – three in London, one in Bristol, two in Dublin, one in Cork and one in Washington.
The Kensington only opened in 2009 and still looks spanking new. This was a fabulous place to stay in every which way. There is a full-time concierge desk and the folks there go above board to assist you. The front desk and upper management make it a point to get to know every guest on a first-name basis. We had the most unique suites I have seen at any hotel: one main door opens leading to a small hallway, with two other doors at each side. They can be left open or closed. One has a king sized bed and a very large bathroom while the other has a queen. The units are very spacious and excellent for families to spread out and not be on top of each other.
There are in-room safes, something I always appreciate and very cleverly one outlet per room where you do not need a UK adapter. Another allows for French adapters, so pick one of those up as well so it increases your ability to charge things overnight.
The hotel is situated only a few blocks from the South Kensington tube station, so you really cannot beat this place for location. On your way to and from the subway you will pass a number of different restaurants and a couple of grocery stores. It is a lively and pretty area of town.
Stores such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols in nearby Knightsbridge vie with the intimate boutiques, chic restaurants and design stores in the ever fashionable Chelsea, while the open green spaces of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are but a short stroll away.
The ground floor of the hotel is a series of interconnecting drawing rooms, with welcoming open fires, large bay windows, and many original features such as the handsome stone staircase. The rooms are individually decorated in an elegant country house style, using sumptuous fabrics, deep upholstery and an eclectic mix of contemporary art and furnishings. The atmosphere is relaxed throughout, with the engaging and innovative service creating the ambiance of a smart private members club.
Guests are invited to meet, dine and drink wherever they choose throughout the day, with The Kensington Afternoon Tea being an everyday highlight. As in any grand house the 150 rooms at The Kensington vary in shape and in size, from the cosy to the opulently spacious. All are individually designed, with Italian marble bathrooms and a luxurious selection of furnishings and fabrics. The newly completed Kensington Suite is considered amongst the most chic and elegant in London. Rooms enjoy a variety of views, through French doors onto leafy Queen’s gate, over the neighbouring rooftops or onto the quiet internal courtyards.
Each room is furnished and dressed to suit the style of the period architecture, and Georgian proportions – naturally classic, but a scattering of contemporary pieces throughout gives the space a natural feel. And from the smallest to the grandest, every room at The Kensington is a space to call home.
There is complimentary high speed Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, 24 hour room service, a spa and treatment room, luxurious, bespoke treatments and therapies which can be booked in room, laundry and dry cleaning services, a fitness suite, luxury car service and DVDs and game consoles.
This was the residence of choice for the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins during the historic first state visit to the UK by an Irish head of state that included a state banquet with HM Queen Elizabeth II. The magnificent doors that lead into the hotel baronce once graced the historic General Post Office (GPO) building in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. It is one of Ireland’s most famous buildings, and was the last of the great Georgian public buildings erected in the capital.
We enjoyed a daily buffet breakfast in the main restaurant, called Audrey, and returned there twice for absolutely fabulous dinners. Aubrey Bar & Restaurant offers modern dining at its best where British flavours are reworked into modern and stylish dishes. Offering total flexibility, and all day casual dining, guests are welcome to relax in the elegant drawing rooms and sit and eat where they like. The adjoining cocktail bar, with its distressed mirrors and historic brass doors has a club style feel – the perfect place to watch the master mixologists shake your cocktails into shape.
For both dinners we ordered the same thing. Our server started us out with sourdough, soda bread and Guiness brown bread. We next shared a Caesar salad and some amazing seared scallops, with heritage, tomato dressing and basil. For the main course one member of the family feasted on a London favorite: fish and chips with tartar sauce while two of us shared a whole sea bass with lemon and herbs. It was masterfully prepared as per our specifications. This came with some of the best mashed potatoes I can remember eating in a long time. I also heard good things about their hamburger, sirloin steak, chicken and sandwiches. For dessert we shared some warm chocolate fondant.
The other two London hotels from the Doyle Collection are the Bloomsbury in the Georgian district and the Marylebone, located near trendy Oxford and Bond Streets. The former’s interior is lofty and distinguished, with its ornate iron staircase, majestic décor and wood-paneled library, named in honour of the late Nobel Poet Laureate, and regular guest, Seamus Heaney. Rooms and suites are finely proportioned and furnished for unparalleled comfort while, with their outdoor terraces, the bustling, cosmopolitan Landseer restaurant and bar prove a real attraction, morning to evening. The latter features an urban spa, gourmet dining and exceptional service that turns even the briefest of stays into a genuine pleasure. Everything is on the doorstep, including some of the world’s best private medical clinics.
For guests with special needs, the Kensington offers a lift for wheelchair users at the entrance to the hotel and there is a disabled toilet on the ground floor. Five accessible rooms are available for booking.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Our first activity was the Changing of the Guard, the process involving a new guard exchanging duty with the old one. The Guard which mounts at Buckingham Palace is called The Queen’s Guard and is divided into two Detachments: the Buckingham Palace Detachment (which is responsible for guarding Buckingham Palace), and the St. James’s Palace Detachment, (which guards St. James’s Palace). These guard duties are normally provided by a battalion of the Household Division and occasionally by other infantry battalions or other units. When Guardsmen are on duty, the soldiers are drawn from one of the five regiments of Foot Guards in the British Army: the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards.
The Queen’s Guard is commanded by a Captain (who usually holds the rank of Major), and each detachment is commanded by a Lieutenant. The Colour of the Battalion providing the Guard is carried by a Second Lieutenant (who is known as the Ensign). The handover is accompanied by a Guards band. The music played ranges from traditional military marches to songs from films and musicals and even familiar pop songs. When The Queen is in residence, there are four sentries at the front of the building. When she is away there are two.
The Queen’s Guard usually consists of Foot Guards in their full-dress uniform of red tunics and bearskins. If they have operational commitments, other infantry units take part instead. Units from Commonwealth realms occasionally take turn in Guard Mounting. In May 1998, Canadian soldiers from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry mounted guard at Buckingham Palace for the first time since the Coronation in 1953. Household Troops have guarded the Sovereign and the Royal Palaces since 1660. Until 1689, the Sovereign lived mainly at the Palace of Whitehall and was guarded there by Household Cavalry.
In 1689, the court moved to St James’s Palace, which was guarded by the Foot Guards. When Queen Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace in 1837, the Queen’s Guard remained at St James’s Palace, with a detachment guarding Buckingham Palace, as it still does today. At Buckingham Palace, Guard Mounting takes place at 11.30 am. It is held daily from May to July, and on alternate dates throughout the rest of the year. To get a good spot arrive at least one hour early.
While the ceremony begins at 11:30 each morning, at busy periods take my advice and get there at least an hour early. That gave us to find a decent spot to stand and take pictures. Thousands of people jammed the area. There was a significant police presence and they continually shouted out warnings for us to be aware of pickpockets.
BUCKINGHAM PALACE: Immediately following the Changing of the Guard we proceeded to Buckingham Palace and the Royal Day Out tour (http://tickets.royalcollection.org.uk/state-rooms-buckingham-palace/royal-day-out-2014/2014). This runs annually from late July until late September. A Royal Day Out ticket offers admission to The Royal Mews, The Queen’s Gallery and The State Rooms at a discounted price. Reserve as much as four and a half hours to complete this tour. The Queen’s Gallery operates a timed-admission system, with entry every 15 minutes throughout the day. The admission time you select will be for The Queen’s Gallery. Your ticket is valid for admission to The Royal Mews and The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace on the same day, at any time during opening hours. Make the purchase online. This was an extraordinary experience, assisted greatly by the audio tour kits we were handed upon entering the State Rooms portion of the tour. Friendly young ambassadors guided us in the right direction.
Buckingham Palace serves as both the office and London residence of Her Majesty The Queen. It is one of the few working royal palaces remaining in the world today. During a visit, visitors can see the 19 magnificent State Rooms which provide the setting for ceremonial occasions and official entertaining. All rooms are furnished with many of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection. Admission to the State Rooms includes entry to the special exhibition “Royal Childhood.” The State Rooms are fully accessible and visitors with different access requirements are welcomed. Wheelchair and step-free access are available via a separate entrance at the front of the Palace. Special access tickets must be pre-booked by contacting the specialist sales team at +44 (0)20 7766 732.
The Royal Mews is an important branch of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and provides road transportation for The Queen and members of the Royal Family by both horse-drawn carriage and motor car. It is also one of the finest working stables still in existence, responsible for the training of the Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays, the horses that pull the royal carriages.
State vehicles are housed and maintained at the Royal Mews. They include the carriages used for royal and state occasions, such as state visits, weddings and the State Opening of Parliament. Carriages from the Royal Mews are also used on roughly 50 occasions each year to convey newly appointed high commissioners and ambassadors from their official residence to Buckingham Palace to present their credentials to The Queen. Since 1843 the daily messenger Brougham has set out from the Royal Mews to collect and deliver posts between Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace. The most dazzling of all coaches housed in the Royal Mews is the Gold State Coach, which has been used at every coronation since that of George IV in 1821. The latest to join the collection of royal coaches is The Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which was built to commemorate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
You can visit the Royal Mews at your leisure using the complimentary audio tour, which lasts approximately 45 minutes. Between April and October, guided tours also depart at regular intervals throughout the day. The Royal Mews is fully accessible and welcomes visitors with different access requirements. Most of the site is outside, with some cover. The flooring is cobbled and uneven in places. All visitors who require an access companion receive a complimentary ticket.Manual wheelchairs are available to borrow free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis for the duration of a visit. Mobility scooters can be used at the Royal Mews. The ticket sales desks, shop till counters and the audio tour collection points are equipped with induction loops. Hearing aids should be switched to the T position.
The £20-million expansion of The Queen’s Gallery was the most significant addition to Buckingham Palace in 150 years. This project was funded entirely by the Royal Collection Trust through public admissions to the official residences of The Queen (Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse) and through associated retail activities. The project involved stone masons, wood carvers, fibrous plaster and scagliola workers, copper and bronze workers, specialist joiners, blacksmiths, specialist painters and cabinet-makers. The Queen’s Gallery was opened by Her Majesty The Queen in May 2002, as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. It hosts a program of changing exhibitions from the Royal Collection.
The Queen’s Gallery is fully accessible and welcomes visitors with different access requirements. All visitors who require an access companion receive a complimentary ticket.
There are 17 steps leading to the exhibition level. The Queen’s Gallery shop is at split levels, with three steps between levels. A ramp is available on the left-hand side of the shop.A lift provides wheelchair access to the main exhibition and measures 145cm in depth by 82cm in width.
The term ‘State Rooms’ is applied to those rooms that were designed and built as the public rooms of the Palace, in which monarchs receive, reward and entertain their subjects and visiting dignitaries. Today the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are used extensively by The Queen and members of the Royal Family to receive and entertain their guests on State, ceremonial and official occasions.
The Palace’s State Rooms predominantly reflect the taste George IV (r.1820-30), who commissioned the architect John Nash to transform what had previously been known as Buckingham House into a grand palace. Many of the pieces of furniture, sparkling chandeliers, candelabra and other works of art in these rooms were bought or made for Carlton House, George IV’s London home when he was Prince of Wales. Today the State Rooms are furnished with many of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection, including paintings by Van Dyck and Canaletto, sculpture by Canova, exquisite pieces of Sèvres porcelain, and some of the finest English and French furniture in the world.
Many of the other State Rooms also have particular uses today. It is in the Throne Room, for example, that The Queen, on very special occasions like Jubilees, receives loyal addresses. On April 29, 2011 this room was the setting for the formal photographs following the wedding of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In the Music Room, guests are presented to The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and the visiting Head of State on the occasion of a State visit. The White Drawing Room, perhaps the grandest of all the State Rooms, serves as a royal reception room for The Queen and members of the Royal Family to gather before official occasions. The State Room tour includes the three-acre lake, the Rose Garden, the enormous Waterloo Vase and the Palace tennis court, where King George VI and Fred Perry played in the 1930s.
WESTMINISTER ABBEY: Kings, queens, statesmen and soldiers; poets, priests, heroes and villains – the Abbey is a must-see living pageant of British history. Every year Westminster Abbey (http://www.westminster-abbey.org) welcomes over one million visitors who want to explore this wonderful 700-year-old building. Thousands more join in for worship at their daily services. The Abbey is in the heart of London. Once inside audio guides are available in eight languages or there is the highly-popular verger-led tour. There was a long lineup when we arrived, but very much worth the wait. Indeed this was another one of those living history lessons.
THE ORIGINAL BUS TOUR: With over 80 stops, three main sightseeing routes and countless photo opportunities, The Original Tour (http://www.theoriginaltour.com) really is the finest way to see London and her landmarks. Sit back, relax and take in the sights, sounds and iconic views of the city, both ancient and modern. We picked up our tickets at the Trafalgar Square Visitor Centre. There is a bus stop across the road where you can hop on immediately. One fantastic value 24-hour ticket offers a truly comprehensive London sightseeing experience: on foot, by boat and on board a marvellous fleet of London’s famous red buses. From historic sites and attractions, to some of the most famous views in this tour will take you where you want to go. This was probably one of the most relaxing experiences for me. We started off by listening to an audio tour and half way through a gentleman stepped on to the second level of the bus and began providing splendid live commentary. Truly this is the single best thing you can do on your first full day in London for it will help you pinpoint all of the main landmarks.
Founded over 60 years ago, The Original Tour is now the largest, most popular open-top sightseeing bus tour operator in the world! Tickets include three walking tours and a Thames river cruise completely free. The tickets are completely unrestricted. You can travel on any of their famous open top tour buses. Each route makes frequent stops – simply hop-off at any of the 80 plus bus stops, then hop back on at the stop of your choice. Their main Red and Yellow Route tours take around two to two and a half hours and the Blue Route tour takes around 90 minutes if you stay on the bus. Alternatively, you may hop on and off and re-join the tour at any Original Tour bus stop. Buses run at intervals on average of every 15 to 20 minutes, however in the summer months the buses can be as frequent as every five minutes. The tour stops close to most of London’s major attractions and landmarks. Your tour ticket is valid on all routes.
The majority of the buses are wheelchair accessible. One ference wheelchair (maximum dimensions 3’11” (L) X 2’4″ (W) X 4’5″(H)) may be carried in the designated space, facing forwards, using the wheel clamps fitted. On other buses or if the space is unavoidably occupied the carriage of unfolded wheelchairs is not permitted. Folded wheelchairs may be carried, where space permits, in appropriate stowage areas. Although it is not necessary, they recommend that customers who require wheelchair access go to either Victoria (Grosvenor Gardens) or Picadilly Circus (Coventry Street) start points as a member of their on-street management team will be on hand to assist with information on the next available bus.
TOWER OF LONDON: The Tower of London (http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon)
is a large open air site covering 18 acres (including the moat). As well as being a unique historical monument, it also houses part of the collection of the Royal Armouries. This place has a village atmosphere, complete with its green and parish church, and is home to some 150 people. A medieval castle was designed to defend its inhabitants and to keep the lord and his household separate from other castle dwellers. In places it is as difficult to get around as it undoubtedly was during the Middle Ages.
I recommend you start off by visiting the Queen’s Crown Jewels, one of the unmissable highlights of a visit to the Tower of London. There is usually a lineup here, but what you will see is extraordinary. Check out the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror. Today it houses displays from the Royal Armouries’ collection. Next, walk through surprisingly rich colours and comfortable furnishings of the Medieval Palace We joined in one of the famous Yeoman Warder tours to hear exciting tales from the Tower’s past. The gentleman who served as our guide was hilarious and had everyone in stitches. You will learn how the Tower was attacked and defended in their interactive Fortress displays/ Experience through live costumed re-enactments. You can also decide for yourself who murdered the Little Princes in the Bloody Tower and discover the extraordinary prisoner graffiti in the Beauchamp Tower
For those with mobility requirements and wheelchair users, there is a colour map detailing routes and other useful information. This historic building has places with difficult stairs and passageways and wheelchair access is limited. There are also a large number of steps throughout the Tower with cobbles laid in some of the roads. However, the Jewel House and the Crown Jewels are fully accessible to all visitors. A virtual tour of the Medieval Palace and south and east Wall Walks is available; it can be viewed in small chunks, a room at a time, or as a complete sequence.
There is a new audio tour written especially for blind and partially sighted visitors. It guides you around the Tower, visiting some of the key areas including Traitors’ Gate and the Bloody Tower. This gives you the chance to try on a helmet and handle chain mail as well as hear about the defence of the Tower. It also provides an opportunity to learn more about the prisoners who were held in this great fortress whilst exploring the graffiti they left in the Beauchamp Tower.
The guide is free with admission and comes with a tactile map. It takes about an hour and half and reveals much of the hidden history of this iconic palace. With interviews the tour tells you what it is really like to live inside a Royal Fortress.
The tour can be collected from the multimedia guide desk in the Beefeater shop. The guides have a neck strap making them easy to carry. The sound can easily be controlled and clear detailed instructions are provided on the guide to help you use them. For the hearing impaired, induction loops are provided at various points in the Tower wherever you see the icon. Multimedia guides can be used with hearing aids that have a T-switch.
TOWER BRIDGE: Right next door to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge Exhibition (www.towerbridge.org.uk). It was recently awarded a Certificate of Excellence for 2014, signifying that it has consistently earned outstanding feedback from TripAdvisor travellers. Within the Bridge’s iconic structure and magnificent Victorian Engine rooms there is plenty to see and do! After watching a new animated video about why Tower Bridge was built, guests can walk into the high level Walkways, 42 metres above the River Thames. This offers visitors the chance to admire stunning panoramic views of London, spying such popular landmarks as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument to the west and St Katharine Docks leading to Canary Wharf to the east.
The East Walkway houses the exhibition “Great Bridges of the World.” This photographic exhibition features over 20 bridges, each of which represents a breathtaking feat of engineering. In the south tower a short video shows the construction of the Bridge, before guests proceed to the West Walkway where they can view the new stylish exhibition, the Sixties. Here, visitors can admire stunning photographs of the people, places, events and designs that epitomize this revolutionary decade. Continue on to the original lifting machinery in the Victorian Engine Rooms, complete with sounds and smells that transport you back in time to the Bridge’s origins. You will also experience a virtual Bridge lift, providing you with a unique view of the Bascules being raised.
Individual and family tickets for Tower Bridge Exhibition, as well as joint tickets for Tower Bridge Exhibition and the Monument, can be purchased on the day from the ticket office based at the North West Tower and in advance online.
Tower Bridge Exhibition is easily accessible to all visitors. There are lifts to take visitors to all levels in the Towers and the Engine Rooms are a short distance away on the south side of the Bridge. Wheelchairs are also available for visitor use. There is a lift in the Exhibition entrance hall (located on the North West side of the bridge) taking visitors to the top of the North Tower where the exhibition begins.
CITY CRUISES: City Cruises (www.citycruises.com) is not the leading operator of passenger services on the River Thames for nothing, carrying in excess of two million passengers annually on its extensive sightseeing, entertainment and charter services. Now based at Cherry Garden Pier, a romantic-sounding location in south-east London that was once a part of the city’s huge commercial docks, it operates 12 revenue-earning passenger-carrying boats, along with a small fleet of support vessels and barges. We purchased hop-on hop-off River Red River tickets, which enabled us to take in London’s best sights with some of the best commentary the city has to offer – as well as the opportunity to hop on and off to experience them first hand you do not need to book sightseeing tickets in advance. These can be purchased at the pier on the day of travel. We actually boarded at the Westminster Pier. The entrance is right next to the Westminster tube station. There was terrific and entertaining commentary as the cruise proceeded. After having taken the bus tour, this offered another perspective that we really enjoyed.
Most of the boats are wheelchair accessible. Individuals seeking such assistance are asked to contact the reservations team to discuss which boat is the best for you. There is a 50 percent discount on the normal fare for wheelchair users and 50 percent discount for one companion per wheelchair user. Blind passengers (with or without guide dog) travel free of charge.
LONDON EYE: Just over 14 years ago, in March 2000, the London Eye (www.londoneye.com) opened its doors to the public for the first time and has since welcomed everyone from homeless charities to royalty and guests of all ages from countries all over the globe on the 135 metre high giant observation wheel. Since its debut, the London Eye has become the symbol of modern London, hosting the New Year’s Eve fireworks each year since 2001, being the centrepiece for the Olympics closing ceremony and turning red, white and blue for the birthday of HRH Prince George, positioned proudly at the heart of everything happening in the city. It has become as synonymous with London as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, or the Opera House in Sydney. Originally only due to open for five years, people the world over have taken the London Eye into their hearts and the great wheel has now been granted lifelong permission in its position on the South Bank of the River Thames.
Being a feat of engineering, innovation has always been a priority at the London Eye and the experience continues to be improved upon. Over the years a 4D cinema experience has been introduced, capsules have been upgraded to improve air temperature control and reduce overall carbon emissions, as well as the introduction of interactive touch screen guides in several languages, giving guests more information on the breathtaking views. Exciting new products such as a Pimm’s Experience and Dining at 135, a three course dining experience, are also now on offer giving guests plenty of reasons to return, with an impressive 24 percent of guests currently doing just that. We knew that this was something we absolutely had to experience and I am happy we did. It is worth the wait in line, but if you want to speed things up pay the extra fee and purchase a fast track ticket. The view is astonishing once you get up really high.
All disabled guests can bring a caregiver free of charge on both the London Eye and the London Eye River Cruise. They are both fully accessible for disabled guests, with wheelchair access and disabled toilets. Reasonable documentation of disability is required in order to receive a free caregiver entry. Service dogs are welcome. There may be a small delay while practical arrangements are made. You can book your tickets for the London Eye and London Eye River Cruise via email or by calling our accessible booking line. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Wheelchair access starts at the beginning of the boarding ramps.
Guests who are visually impaired may wish to purchase the London Eye Guided Tour. Guests who have a hearing impairment may wish to purchase their Mini Guide or Guidebook to enhance the experience. It is easy to get on and off the London Eye if you use a wheelchair or have walking difficulties. When you reach the embarkation point, the London Eye is slowed down or stopped to make boarding simple. Members of staff will always be on hand to assist guests, but we are unable to physically lift guests into and out of capsules. If you think you will need special assistance boarding your London Eye capsule, bring a caregiver to help. Their ticket is free.
Due to safety concerns only two wheelchairs are allowed per capsule on the London Eye – and a maximum of eight in total at any one time. It’s a very good idea to book your wheelchair space in advance, especially if your London Eye Experience is during a school holidays or a weekend. There are a limited number of wheelchairs available for loan at the customer service desk inside the ticket office.
MATILDA THE MUSICAL: Yes indeed, London is “the” place to see live musical theatre; I beg to say bigger than New York City. I was astonished to see the amazing choices. With our schedule we had little time to spare and we selected Matilda the Musical (www.matildathemusical.com), playing at The Cambridge Theatre at Earlham St. Inspired by the twisted genius of Roald Dahl, with book by Dennis Kelly and original songs by Tim Minchin. Matilda is the captivating musical masterpiece from the Royal Shakespeare Company that revels in the anarchy of childhood, the power of imagination and the inspiring story of a girl who dares to change her destiny. It premiered at the RSC’s The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010, playing to sold-out audiences before transferring to London’s West End. It opened at the Cambridge Theatre in October 2011 and is currently booked until May 2015.
In 2011 Matilda The Musical won both The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical at The Critics’ Circle Awards and The Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. The production has also collected the awards for Best Musical Production and Best Performance in a Musical (Bertie Carvel) at the Theatre Awards UK 2011. In February 2012 Matilda The Musical picked up four awards at theWhatsonstage.com awards, including Best New Musical, Rob Howell for Best Set Designer, Peter Darling for Best Choreographer and Tim Minchin for the London Newcomer of the Year.
The production went on to smash theatreland records when it scooped a total of seven awards at the 2012 Laurence Olivier Awards, securing its place in the Book of Guinness World Records for Most Laurence Olivier award wins. In the process Matilda The Musical stole the title from the 1980 production of Nicholas Nickleby, also a Royal Shakespeare Company production, which had held the record, with six Olivier awards, for more than 20 years.
DINING OUT: It is becoming a bit of a habit for my family to visit Sofitel hotels around the world. Besides the one in Montreal, we have been to the New York City and Beverly Hills, California locales in the past year. In London we stopped by the Sofitel St. James, a luxury five-star hotel in London. It is located at 6 Waterloo Place, near St. James’s Park and Buckingham Palace. This is the former home of Cox’s and King’s bank. The sympathetically renovated building is English heritage grade II listed. We decided to dine at The Balcon (http://www.thebalconlondon.com), a grand brasserie which serves as the perfect setting to enjoy the finest French-British cuisine from Head Chef Vincent Menager. The area has been designed with the sense of arrival evident throughout each of the distinct areas: the brasserie, the custom-made charcuterie bar, the Champagne Balcony, the tasting table and private dining room. The Balcon offers breakfast, morning tea and savouries, lunch, French and English afternoon tea, Champagne and cocktails, charcuterie, dinner and late night dining.
The Balcon takes its inspiration from a Parisian brasserie with a strong influence of best seasonal British produce. The á la carte menu includes a selection of small plates such as “gin marinated organic salmon and vegetable à la Grecque” or a traditional Alsatian dish, the flammekueche tart, ideal if you fancy several starters or want to share with a friend. In a hurry, you can enjoy a croque-monsieur with morbier and asparagus or opt for the Tray Rapide à la carte menu, with a choice of starter, main course and dessert served all at once. You will also discover a new dessert menu, with a mouth-watering baba served with Dalmore single malt 12 year old whisky or an English breakfast tea crème brûlée and lemon madeleine. Their new De-Light menu is cooked and prepared with health and wellness in mind.
Our server Sylvio started us off with a nice bottle of rose wine from Chile and a delicous selection of fresh baked breads. We ordered a nice salad to share and then moved to the main course. Two members of our party shared a delicious aged Scottish sirloin steak with Béarnaise sauce and some superb Rooster mashed potatoes. The steak cut like butter, done so with a special in-house selection of knives. Yes the waiters comes to the table with several knives and their back stories, an interesting twist.
I opted for the Wild sea trout fillet, with Jersey Royal potatoes, coriander and garlic sauce. At The Balcon, the house specialties are listed in brackets. Items such as grilled squid and Jersey Royal potato salad or Braised Angus beef short rib to start and the roasted Oxford lamb saddle or the Native lobster, with coquillettes pasta with clams and asparagus as main courses. I am glad we saved room for dessert: warm chocolate mug cake with milk ice cream and vanilla ice cream profiteroles with hot chocolate and praline sauce. If you are headed to London, this spot should be high on your list for an extraordinary dining experience.
Sofitel London St James is a 125,000 sq. ft grade two listed building, formerly the headquarters of a Lloyds Bank subsidiary and owned by The Crown Estate. Designed by E. Keynes Purchase, in association with Durward Brown, the original building was completed in 1923 to house the headquarters of Cox & Company and later became Cox’s & King’s following the acquisition of Henry S. King & Co. It was subsequently taken over by Lloyd’s Bank who occupied the building in the years following. Founder Richard Cox was appointed agent for the First Regiment of Foot Guards, later called the Grenadier Guards, in 1758. In the pioneering days of the British Empire, Cox & Co set up branches in India, Burma and Egypt. Richard Cox, genuinely devoted to the welfare of the regiments he represented, was also a patron of the arts, and a friend of many of the best actors and musicians in the West End. The architecture and structure of the building complement the master strategy originally laid down by John Nash for his Regent Street urban plan 100 years earlier. Sofitel has developed the site in collaboration with The Crown Estate, Westminster City Council and MWB, to create a hotel, which reflects both the original grandeur of the building and the outstanding architecture in this prime St James location.
TEA TIME: When in London, I was always told, one must experience afternoon tea. We chose to do so at the gorgeous Dorchester Hotel (www.dorchestercollection.com) in the stunning vista of The Promenade, which stretches the same length as the London landmark, Nelson’s Column. Refurbished in 2005 by Thierry Despont, The Promenade is a series of rich, warm, intimate spaces culminating in a stunning, oval leather bar at the end of the room. Very much the heart of the hotel, The Promenade is open all day for informal dining serving breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea and a supper menu. The Promenade features live entertainment on a daily basis. A pianist plays from 1:15pm to 7 pm and live jazz music takes place from 7:30 pm each day.
For over 80 years the Dorchester has earned the reputation of serving one of the finest afternoon tea experiences in the country. Having experienced it, I can now understand why. This is a “class act” from the moment you walk through the front door and are shown to a table. Our charming server spent some time explaining how the afternoon tea service works. We had actually arrived at 5:45 p.m. on a weekday, yet being novices we wondered whether this would substitute for a dinner.
The first thing to arrive at the table was some glasses of chilled Laurent-Perrier NV champagne. We were then given a menu containing six separate pages of tea choices. There was great detail under each one and after much thought the Paris and Dorchester blends won out. The former is a black tea flavored with currants, bergamot and caramel. As for the latter, a homemade speciality is a truly elegant tea, perfect for anytime of day and includes a blend of Sri Lankan Ceylon and golden Assam teas and just a slight hint of caramel notes. Our server took the time to pour us cups throughout the evening. I normally have one cup per sitting. On this occasion I had four. It was that tasty and of course went perfectly with the rest of the servings
We thoroughly enjoyed a selection of home-made finger sandwiches: cucumber with cream cheese on caraway seed bread; egg mayonnaise, with shiso cress on white bread; chicken, with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise on basil bread; smoked salmon on granary bread; and a seafood mix. I savored every morsel and expressed deep appreciation when the server asked if we wanted some more. Next was the famous raisin and plain scones rom their bakery, served with homemade strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. Again, this was a culinary treat of giant proportion. I ate each scone slowly in order to completely appreciate this experience. Did we have room for a selection of French pastries? Well, we had to take our picks very carefully as we were feeling a bit full at this point. Nonetheless we were strategic and concluded this meal (and yes it was indeed a meal that lasted almost two hours) with a huge thumbs up. Our server was kind enough to send us back with our leftover which we enjoyed back at the hotel the following day.
Afternoon tea is served five times daily at 1.00pm, 2.00pm, 3.15pm, 4.30pm, 5.30pm and 6.45pm. The Dorchester is situated in the heart of London’s Mayfair on Park Lane.
WARNER BROTHERS HARRY POTTER: While in London we could not resist the temptation of the Warner Brothers Studio Tour – the Harry Potter experience (http://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk). The Harry Potter film series made the town of Leavesden its home for more than 10 years. As the books were still being released while the films were being made, the production crew saved many of the iconic sets, props and costumes that were created especially for the movies – just in case they were ever needed later on in the series. Once filming wrapped on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in 2010, the production crew were left with a treasure trove of thousands of intricate and beautifully-made artifacts, many of which wouldn’t have been saved on a typical production. The team behind Warner Brothers Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter wanted to preserve and showcase these iconic props, costumes and sets so that Harry Potter fans could experience the magic of filmmaking first-hand. Many of the original cast and crew returned to reassemble the sets and record their memories from filming, and on March 31, 2012, the Studio Tour opened its doors. Set adjacent to the working film studios where all eight Harry Potter films were made, the Studio Tour offers visitors the unique opportunity to explore two soundstages and a back lot filled with original sets, animatronic creatures and breathtaking special effects. Digital guides are available in eight different languages. The handheld digital guides contain fascinating facts about the sets, costumes and props showcased at the Studio Tour. Watch newly-produced interviews with filmmakers and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage. The English Digital Guide is narrated by Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series.
In the back lot, you’ll get the opportunity to purchase a cup of frothy Butterbeer, a non-alcoholic beverage reminiscent of shortbread and butterscotch. Children are invited to collect their own complimentary activity passport, which includes a fun Golden Snitch hunt to make their visit even more unforgettable.
Six stamping stations are placed throughout the tour and passports can be collected from a staff member upon arrival Experience green screen technology for yourself and ride a broomstick just like the cast! They also offer the option to purchase a memento of your flight – available as a photograph, exclusive DVD or HD USB in a variety of packages.
The studio tour is located 20 miles north-west of London and less than three miles from the M1 and M25 motorways. Regular public transport links serve the attraction and a shuttle bus service from Watford Junction train station is available. We took the latter option after easily finding our way to to the meet up point via tube and the regular train service. Having seen all of the Potter films, I did find the experience completely surreal -especially the surprising conclusion. It takes three hours to tour this place properly Of you are like me you will be glued to the explanatory billboards, video screens and the very sets you were exposed to in the movie theatre. Indeed it has made me anxious to watch the entire series of films over again.
All registered guide, hearing and medical alert dogs are allowed into the Studio Tour.
While manual and electric wheelchairs are welcome, they do require advance notice due to seating restrictions within their cinema at the beginning of the visit. Due to the layout of the attraction, this also means that only a certain number of wheelchair users can enter the latter part of the tour at any given time. The Visitor Services Team will discuss this and other accessibility concerns with you prior to booking, so please do make them aware of your specific needs.
The majority of the tour is suitable for wheelchairs, but some areas can be difficult to navigate. This includes the Diagon Alley’s cobbled street and the Great Hall’s slate floor. The Knight Bus also has a short boarding platform which cannot be accessed by wheelchairs. The green screen area provides visitors with two fully accessible photo opportunities, including the chance to fly a broomstick as members of the cast would have done during filming. Visitors must be able to transfer themselves on to a broomstick and seatbelts can be provided if required.
Sarah Roots, vice president of Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, commented: “What makes the Tour so special is that everything on show has been used in the making of the Harry Potter film series. All the sets, props and costumes are authentic and show the incredible detail and craftsmanship that goes into film production. All the films were shot at Leavesden so it’s wonderful to have given the sets a permanent home here.”
Tickets for Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter are available via
www.wbstudiotour.co.uk and must be pre-booked in advance by selecting tour times throughout the day. Tickets are not available to purchase on site. Tickets are priced at £31 for adults, £23.50 for children and £93 for a family of four. The attraction is located just north of London at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden with fast train links from Euston and shuttle buses for ticket holders to and from Watford Junction.
RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT: I could not resist checking out London’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! (www.ripleyslondon.com) venue right at trendy Picadilly Circus. At Ripley’s Believe It or Not! London visitors can marvel at an unbelievable collection of jaw dropping artefacts from across the globe – many of which were collected by the ultimate explorer Robert Ripley himself.
With over 700 astonishing exhibits, galleries and interactive experiences spanning across six floors, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! London celebrates the weird, wonderful and bizarre in all its forms, which are sure to excite, delight and thrill the whole family.
Want to see how will you measure up to the world’s tallest man? Or come face to face with our rare collection Amazonian shrunken heads? Will you dare to venture into Ripley’s Marvellous Mirror Maze and defeat the Impossible LaseRace? The artwork, videos and fascinating depictions of different people drew me to this place. I was especially impressed by the portraits of Michelle Obama completely in bottle caps and Kate Middleton done all with red lipstick.