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published on 11/15/2005

LONDON, 2005

By Peggy Anne Rogers

In 1975 – 30 years ago – I taught at the University of London “Literature Between the Wars” in an International Summer School Programme. Room and meals came with the stipend and I had a 2nd floor corner room diagonally across from the Tavistock Hotel. A lovely direct view on Tavistock Square with its multi-floral designs and a peaceful bronze statue of Gandhi, meditating on the world. 2005, with disruptive June explosions, the gardens were again open and lovely by end of August. What ever happens to the British, they have their flowers, symbols of renewal and hope.

Russell Square was the next square over, larger, underground station, several banks, a Post Office, big hotels, Russell and Bonnington, also Imperial, and the upper street went directly to the British Museum. A small street parallel is Bedford Place, has a 3-generation run family hotel of St. Margaret’s. Several of the lecturers at the U of London were going to stay there when summer courses were over. I was going to Katmandhu on a bus camping trip and house sitting an interim week in Herne Hill.

The next summer I started with a week at St. Margaret’s and have stayed there ever since, certainly convenient to all my interests. I have even taken friends and recommended it to others. At present it is £51 a night, full breakfast, and no air-conditioning – English don’t need it. I have seen the children grow up – Oscar, Deborah, and 3rd one, now management in 30’s. (I wish they didn’t have a neon red letters lights over the entry but you can see it a half block!)

This summer I did not use the subways – I was in Scotland at the first set of bombings and in the Euston Thistle prior to Cosmos trip to Europe in the second terror explosions. I have a good comprehension of London and long ago memorized my bus numbers and routes. There is a new system – for £3 you get a bus ticket and go anywhere, any bus, for all day (it is dated in big block numbers.) Easier than making change, quicker for the driver. Bus lines are clearly marked at each stop. My friends told me English rural painters were on at the Tate, and to my surprise, that huge (9 feet by 4 feet) portrait of Sir Francis MacNab, my ancestor, 1820.

People can adapt to change when it is gradual, and being in London once a year in the summer, I do see change. Brown’s Hotel is gone. This is the second year of renovation to be part of a chain, but any place closed that long loses its clientele. One Christmas Mother and I were in the dining room and a portly gentleman was sitting in the corner. It was Robert Morley, actor, having early dinner prior to theatre appearance. I often went to Brown’s for tea – an expensive treat – and the abundance of sandwiches and little cakes provided dinner as well.

I once met Bishop and Helen Vander Horst at the Ritz on Picadilly for tea. A violinist rose up from behind a potted palm. “Shall we dance?” asked Bishop and Helen said, “Oh No, dear, we would be the only ones.” The Ritz is now a gambling casino and convention hotel.

Liberty’s – alas – no longer. Owned by Japanese, no Liberty print materials or pretty little gifts. Just square white boxes of scarves, purses, notebooks. At one time Theresa had her quilts displayed in the center octagonal panels. No English there, I said goodbye and patted the wood carved animals on the old staircase, acknowledged the War memorial.

Hatchard’s Bookstore on Picadilly is still Hatchard’s. Current books are front and center. At present Harry Potter dominates but John Grisham is doing well. Spare me the Travel books! I make a list as I go around the room, try not to buy anything. They know me at the front desk as I have a specialty list to research. I have seen staff come and go, fade away into retirement. One man in particular gave me several Hatchard’s bookmarks and said, “For an old friend.” He said, “I am 60 in September, will retire, and move out of London.”

Move out of London – so many do. When I took my Mother at Christmas, 1970 – 1980, I had 5 sets of friends in the immediate London area. Now only the Dulwich ones are left. The rest are scattered, within an hour of London on the train, but they find they don’t go in very often. Oxford, Cambridge and Reading are all cities within themselves, have theatres, concerts and museums, so no need to go unless there is something special. Now I might fly over to see an exhibit of Beatrice Potter’s original drawings! If the Archbishop of Canterbury blesses the rebuilt Dulwich Church, that might be an enticement. Both the British Museum and the Tate Gallery seem to rotate exhibits every 3 months. The “Tate Modern” is exactly that. A few years ago I went in and in the rotunda was a stuffed horse suspended from the ceiling, and a large cowboy hat on the floor! The Tate also houses William Blake’s manuscripts and featured Sir Joshua Reynolds. All the museums have excellent bookstores and a wide selection of postcards. I need to sort mine.

I can walk along the Thames River from the Tate to Westminster Abbey. I like St. Margaret’s Church just back of it, once heard a solo “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord,” so beautiful, Stanford in E. The choir in Westminster Abbey is glorious, and if you go half hour early, you can sit in the choir stalls. The Abbey is closed to tourists at present, only for services and one is searched. The same is true for St. Paul’s and Southward, and bus routes do not pass by them. An excellent organ in the Abbey for playing Charles Marie Widor Tocatta in D, the brilliance in the highs and the heavy lows dominating theme make this music one of my favorites in Europe.

I fly to London, usually US Air, land 8 am, train to Victoria, taxi to St. Margaret’s by 10. I am 5 hours off time and fight sleep late afternoon so I settle in and go directly to Trafalgar Square. A quick run through the National Portrait Gallery’s special exhibit, Childrens’ Books Illustrators, then to St. Martin’s in the Field, lunch in the undercraft buffet, and the Tuesday 1 –2 concert. I walk to Charing Cross, go downhill to 36 Craven Street, see how the restoration of Benjamin Franklin’s house is coming along. “Grand opening is January,” says its sponsor, a Sweet Briar exchange student living in London. From there I go along the Strand, just like to see that everything is where I left it. The (17th c.) tobacco shop with its fine polished wood, Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House with the painting of the Luttrell ancestor who fought against the Spanish Armada, The Savoy, a grand old hotel with a theatre; and Simpsons-in-the-Strand, famous for its carvery with roast beef in huge silver service.

The Strand splits and I go to the left and see the titles on several theatres and Covent Garden a block up the hill. Satisfied that London is as I left it I take the bus to Russell Square.

I buy a Herald Tribune and have tea in the Russell Square Garden which in 2000 was “beautified” to its original 18th c design. Lovely on a sunny afternoon, friendly H. of London folk chat, sandwich café staff let you sit as long as you like. “ And so to bed,” said Samuel Pepys and although it is only 5 pm I go to St. Margaret’s and have a long night’s rest. That does it and I get up on their time.

First port of call is the British Museum. In the reworking they moved the library and manuscripts (beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215) to a new building near Euston Station. But the Elgin Marbles, twins of a Grecian Temple, and the Assyrian Gates, the beetle, the ram and the Rosetta Stone are in the same location as always. They lack staff, guards, and money support. When I saw a Muslim woman changing her baby on the Stone I thought our civilization is gone. The Stone now has plexi-glass over it. In the Reading Room, marvelous glass ceilings for sunlight, one cannot request a book without a written reference. This is true of the Bodlein in Oxford. Slowly the British are beginning to protect their treasures after centuries of being open to all humanity, immigrants of quite different cultures and no respect for past.

For the modern world Russell Square has a Post Office and I have never missed a package I mailed there. Down the street is a 1 hour photo shop (give the 4!), an American Express office, umbrellas and boxer shorts with subway maps on them, a Hindu restaurant and several Italian ones. The Italian one, both indoor and outdoor, is Sicilian Arches at Holborn, across from Bloomsbury Square, a lovely place to meet friends for lunch.

Years back, when we met for dinner and theatre we went to Topo Gigio, 46 Brewer Street, still there. I went for tea at Veeraswamy, Air Street over-looking Regent Street. Quite different now, all white and orchid, but nice service and tasty, spicy dips with the pompadum. I no longer go to Harrods. When Fayed bought it my English friends quit going there but I had one friend who was a buyer for years in lingerie, retired last year. We used to go to St. Basil’s carvery for an excellent lunch.

The Scotch House is gone across the street, the Hyde Park Hotel is now Japanese. I walked through the spacious rooms, farewell to the library, marched myself bravely up the street, nothing lasts forever, even St. George’s Hospital is now a hotel, but no activity around it. A big white tour bus went through the gates of Buckingham Palace, ready to take the Royals to Scotland.

Down the hill from Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s Portrait Gallery. There is always a line as the number to go in is limited, but worth the wait. If chilled, the Rubens Hotel on the corner is still old world and gracious, with a portrait collection of its own. The Bag of Nails Pub is one of London’s oldest, as is the Museum Tavern. On a sunny day rent a lounge chair in St. James Park, go to Marble Arch and back to Trafalgar.

One Sunday I thought I would go to Westminster Abbey. Russell Square tube was closed due to bombing, no taxis around, I was studying bus routes when the London Bib Bus came along. It has an “on and off’ tour and I thought I would get off at the Abbey but the bus did not go near it. The same with Southwark Cathedral. It was an excellent comprehensive and historical tour so I stayed with it 3 hours and went to Evensong for church. One can walk safely along the Thames and there are beautiful gardens, especially the area back of the Savoy.

This summer, with so few tourists, one felt especially welcomed. I enjoyed space in the museums, a leisurely pace and the warm sunny days. And what summer is this for me in London? – same as Agatha Christie’s play “The Mouse Trap” – 53 glorious years!

Margaret Anne Rogers

Peggy Anne grew up in Chattanooga attending Ridge School, GPS, and then Sweetbriar, majoring in English Literature. She received her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Iowa and then lived in Philadelphia for 35 years. She had a fellowship to Oxford where she received a MA based on C.S. Lewis’ personal library. An eighth generation Tennesseeian from Rogersville she is glad to be back in Signal Mountain and is a resident of Alexian Village. Peggy Anne’s main focus in life now is deaf education.

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