September 2-5, 2016: My journey from Sydney Sussex in Cambridge to LSE’s Grosvenor House on Drury Lane went without a hitch – train to Liverpool Street station, add money to my Oyster card, tube to Holborn, short walk past the Freemason’s Hall I had enjoyed visiting on my last trip to London. Check-in, somewhat later in the day, did not go smoothly, however. The room I had been assigned was on the ground floor facing a narrow alley, with mostly frosted windows and less room than I remembered from previous visits. I went back to the front desk to point out that it was too dark and too narrow for a multi-night stay. The second room was a big surprise – I was upgraded to a suite almost at the top of the building. I had a big sitting room with multiple views, a separate bedroom – and a narrow kitchen and tiny bathroom just like the regular rooms.
Having spent eight nights in London – in the same LSE student dorm – the previous year, I did not have an ambitious agenda this time. I had booked an architecture tour of the King’s Cross area, reputedly much transformed, for the Saturday, hoped to join a National Trust walk from Richmond to Ham House on the Sunday with my younger sister and her daughter, and had a ticket for a Noel Coward revival at a tiny theater in Earls Court. On my last day, I would eat breakfast at Delauney and then for lunch try the food at the Indian YMCA much praised on Fodors.
Aside from the Indian meal, which I found very disappointing, everything went well. The architecture tour, arranged by Open-City, was sold out, but the group was small enough I had no trouble hearing the guide. The station itself had changed since I last saw it, with a soaring blue glass canopy over a pedestrian zone. And north of the station the transformation was remarkable. New buildings were still going up, and as Google was moving it’s headquarters there, they will have input into future buildings. Prices will probably rise considerably as a result, although affordable housing was a feature of the existing developments. It had not previously occurred to me that Regent’s Canal ran behind the station, although I had once enjoyed a boat ride on it from Little Venice to Camden, and there was now a stepped grassy terrace overlooking it. All-in-all, I was impressed both by the tour and the developments. After the tour ended I ate lunch in St. Pancras station before taking in a Shakespeare exhibition at the British Library.
Saturday night I took the tube over to Earl’s Court and the Finborough Theatre, which occupied a room over a pub. I had had extreme difficulty hearing the actors at the National the previous year, and thought a smaller venue would be safer – besides, I have always enjoyed Noel Coward. “Home Chat” had not been performed since its first run in 1927, but the opening night had drawn a good review in the Telegraph. A biting satire on sexism, I found it thoroughly enjoyable as well as still relevant – and I had no difficulty hearing.
Sunday morning I took the tube still further out, to Richmond. I had renewed my membership in the Royal Oak Foundation, the US partner of the National Trust, and Ham House was one of the few London National Trust properties I had not seen. Plus, looking for activities in London, I had discovered a Thames River Festival, and the NT was offering a guided walk to Ham House on September Sundays as part of it. My concerns about possible rain proved unfounded, although the day stayed grey.
I met up with my sister and my niece in a popular coffee shop just outside the station, and then joined a handful of other people in front of the station to meet our two guides. We were introduced to some old buildings in Richmond itself, including the handsome Victorian public library, and the Gate House, one of the few remnants of the sixteenth century Richmond Palace, which was largely destroyed after Charles I’s execution. We went down to the river, then climbed above it, eventually reaching a viewpoint where the river made a sweeping curve below us, fringed with trees and with cattle grazing in the water meadows. Turned out that this view was the only one in England protected by Act of Parliament, and we all enjoyed it. We finished by walking a long, tree-lined avenue leading to Ham House, first pausing to watch the start of a polo match. Although I am glad to have seen the house, it was not from one of my favorite periods, and I really preferred the walk. We walked back to the station as well, but we followed the river.
Monday afternoon I set off for Horley, where I would spend a night in my usual B&B before catching a flight from Gatwick to Istanbul for the next stage of the trip. So far, I had been fortunate in avoiding Southern Railways, which was suffering from strike action (and, perhaps, from inefficiency), but it looked like I would be safe taking an afternoon train from London Bridge station. Alas, no. I had to change trains on the way. Still, all my other train trips had worked well, and all but one of my bus and coach rides. I would have no hesitation in planning another UK trip using public transport.