Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Of Palaces and Codebreakers

"Where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the Queen..." (old nursery rhyme)

Our trip fortunately coincided with that time of year that the Queen goes to her castle in Scotland for a getaway and Buckingham Palace is opened to visitors for a tour of the State Rooms.  We decided a visit to the Palace and the optional tour of the gardens, followed by High Tea at an elegant hotel would be the perfect way to spend our Sunday in London.  

In our eagerness to be sure and be in line on time, we actually arrived about an hour early and had some time to walk around and take photographs.  (A few of the pictures following were taken the day we passed by the Palace on the way to Westminster Abbey - just in case you notice I changed clothes along the way.)

Guard on duty outside Buckingham Palace

Closeup of the detail on the Palace gates

Karen and me at the Queen Victoria memorial
in the plaza in front of Buckingham Palace

View of Buckingham Palace and the memorial to Queen Victoria 

Just to the north side of the Palace is another of London's beautiful parks, this one appropriately named Green Park.  We strolled along its tree-lined walks and wished that we had such nice parks back home.

Gates just to the north of the Palace and the entrance to Green Park
Inside Green Park

Green Park

Unfortunately, we again were prohibited from taking photographs inside the Palace, so check here for views of the interior.  There is a listing on the left side with each of the rooms we saw and a photo gallery for each.

In a word, it was sumptuous.  So much plush carpeting, so much gilded woodwork, so much beautiful art, so much muchness. The entire tour took a couple of hours. One of the attractions for this particular year's tour was in honor of the Queen's 90th birthday and included about 3 ballrooms full of dresses and hats that had been worn by the Queen during her reign. The earliest dresses included the dress she wore at her investiture and her wedding dress. As the display moved from early years to later years, many of the dresses on display were ones I could remember her wearing in pictures taken on various occasions. For the women in the tour, it was quite an interesting bonus to the tour. The men, on the other hand, began to share a common glazed look in their eyes about the time they realized the display went on for more than one room. It was crowded and the movement through the rooms was slow and there wasn't much escape for the poor guys. Once they reached a point where they could see an opening, they pretty much bolted for the large gallery of huge paintings that followed, happy to wait on the ladies to catch up. 

While I enjoyed the fashion history, I was particularly interested in listening to and observing the Brits around me. Touring the Palace is a special opportunity even for the home folks, who are as eager to get inside and get a look at how their royals live as we Yanks are.  What struck me as a bit funny and a bit touching was their tendency to talk about the Queen as if she were a member of their family. I guess if you have a continuous head of state for 60 plus years, you have a right to feel a bit like they are a part of you, unlike us Yanks who don't ever have more than 8 years to get attached to  our leader. I would hear a couple of women fondly reminiscing about how she had looked in that dress when she attended such and such event and it sounded like a couple of your aunts or cousins talking about dear old Granny at the family reunion.

At the end of the tour inside the Palace was a huge tent set up to serve tea and light refreshments. We had to postpone that experience, though, because our tour of the garden was about to depart and we had to hustle on to join it. Pictures were also forbidden in the garden until the very last, which was a shame as the grounds were huge and beautifully landscaped. You would never imagine from the outside of the grounds just how much green area exists around the Palace (about 40 acres).  And from inside, you are barely aware of the busy city bustling about just over the wall.

One of the stories our garden guide told us concerned a special planting of trees that went in after a hotel was built nearby, with upper floor rooms overlooking the Palace's gardens and the tennis courts.  The trees were planted to block the view so the royals could play tennis without an audience. (Later on when we were near Balmoral Castle in Scotland, we learned that trees had also been planted to block the view of Balmoral from the nearby road. All you could see of Balmoral as we passed was a flag at the top of the castle. Being a royal means never a moment's privacy.)

After our garden tour, we hiked back to the outdoor tea room at the rear of the Palace and enjoyed a cup of tea, then visited a very nice gift store before it was time to leave for our HIGH TEA experience.

At the end of the tour of Buckingham Palace Gardens,
the back of the Palace is just visible and the white tent
was a place to have tea and refreshments after the Palace tour.
One thing I knew from the first moment we began planning our trip was that I wanted us to go somewhere elegant for afternoon tea. I looked at every posh hotel I knew about and then found many more I had never heard of and I checked for where we could ask for gluten free and lactose free treats. I found you can even have tea on a bus while you tour the city, but that was not the experience I was looking for so that one got ruled out. I wanted to be treated like the dowager countess in Downton Abbey. We finally settled on the St. Ermin's Hotel, which met all the requirements--posh, diet restriction friendly, champagne option and best of all just a short trek away from Buckingham.

St Ermin's Hotel where we went for High Tea
after leaving Buckingham Palace

Looking out over the upper level of the hotel from our table

We were greeted like we looked like we belonged in this swank hotel and settled into a little alcove where we would have privacy and a view of the gorgeous architectural elements. We also had a view of the photography session of a wedding party that was taking place in the lower lobby. Our table was set with a variety of red and blue china and we were quickly provided with  champagne framboise (with a touch of raspberry liquor and a fat little raspberry floating in it).

Our table
Enjoying our champagne framboise
When our tower of tea sweets arrived, we were pleased to find that they had accommodated all of us, with an equal share of every offering - with Karen's gluten free and lactose free request honored and David and myself getting the gluten and lactose loaded versions. It was all delicious and we actually carried some of it back to our hotel that night because we just couldn't eat it all in one session. We each got our own little teapot of our personal choice of tea (and it never occurred to me that I was drinking about 4 cups of strong tea in late afternoon until I was staring at the ceiling a good part of the night with my eyes wide open - but it was worth the caffeine overload). I can't say enough good about the lovely tea experience we were given at St. Ermin's.

Our tower of goodies
Sleepless night or not, the next day we were up early and off to visit Bletchley Park. This was our last day on our own before joining up with the tour and also David's birthday. David had especially wanted to visit Bletchley Park, so we decided his birthday was the perfect time to venture about an hour outside London to step back into history a bit. But first we had to figure out how to get on the right train. We had so far been dodging the underground and above ground train system in favor of taxis, but there was no avoiding it any longer.

I actually wish we had dabbled with the underground earlier on, because I enjoyed the heck out of it.  We first had to travel from the nearby Victoria Station to Euston Station to reach an access point for the overland train to Bletchley. Thankfully the folks were fairly patient with our ignorance. Locals who use the underground regularly have a card of some sort they just tap on the turnstile to get access.  We had a round trip paper ticket that I could not figure out how to use. I stood at the gate looking confused and finally an attendant came over and showed me where to insert it. The machines are all computerized and keep track of where you are in the use of the ticket, so you insert it and it spits it back out at you for use on your return trip. (On your last leg of the trip, it eats it.)  The overland train ticket actually got checked by a conductor going through the cars, but you still had to insert it to get in and out of the turnstiles. The tube ride turned out to be a lot of fun and we were soon boarding our train to Bletchley.

Getting ready to ride the tube
Listening to announcements about station arrivals is always problematic for me, but it's even worse when you are listening to someone with a strong British accent. It was very helpful to have a diagram in our car to let us know when to expect to arrive at our destination. 

All the train stops between London and Bletchley
Bletchley Park is a little bit south of the nearest town of any size. The train station basically serves the visitors to the history center. We disembarked from the train and walked about 2 blocks to the park entrance.

David at the entrance to Bletchley Park
If you watched the tv series "The Bletchley Circle" or the recent movie "The Imitation Game", you may have some inkling of the contribution the group of people who worked here during WWII made to the war effort. Until recent years, everything that went on here was top secret and classified under the Official Secrets Act. During the war years only those who worked here had any idea there was anything other than a hunting lodge on the site. That was the story given out to the citizens in the area at the time. In fact, the government was creating a place where they brought the brightest of minds to work on breaking what seemed to be an unbreakable code apparatus being used by the Germans, the Enigma machine. The compound grew over time from the original mansion to a series of huts where different teams worked on deciphering intercepted messages. Activities were so top secret that even the people who worked on site were not allowed to talk to each other about the work they were doing.

The Manor House at Bletchley Park
The grounds were lovely and included a small lake and
several recreation areas.  

David inspecting the station of a codebreaker inside one of the
restored huts where the various teams worked on cracking the Enigma.

The Enigma machine
Eventually a breakthrough was made and the unbreakable code machine was cracked and it is estimated that this group of scientists and puzzle solvers shortened WWII by 2 years. Unfortunately much of their achievement went unrecognized for decades due to the Official Secrets Act.

One of the scientists working here was Alan Turing whose work provided the foundation of our modern computer system. His story is told in "The Imitation Game" and many of the props that were used in the movie were on display inside the Manor House. (This gave me another Sherlock connection visit since Benedict Cumberbatch starred in the movie as Alan Turing. I figure the mannequin that was dressed in the suit he wore in the movie is as close as I will ever get to actually being in the man's presence.)

We got to witness one of Turing's code breaking machines at work in the museum and we toured several of the restored huts where the workers labored in blackout conditions working on their deciphering tasks. The story of the work done here is truly amazing and we considered that our day had been well spent.

On the train back to London, I couldn't resist getting a photo of the train station at Leighton Buzzard. One has to wonder what prompted the founders of that town to choose such a name. The photo also includes one of the many reminders to "Mind the Gap" between rail car and platform. The signs and audio reminders are everywhere.

On the way back to London, the train stop for Leighton Buzzard.
"Mind the Gap"
Our intention for evening supper was to eat at a pub that David wanted very much to visit,  but we had not counted on his birthday having been declared a "bank holiday", which as far as we could determine just happens every so often to give folks a day off for no particular reason. We took a taxicab to the pub only to find it shut up tight and almost everything around it closed as well. We finally strolled down the street until we came across Ye Olde Cock Tavern, which was doing a booming business from all the tourists who were looking for a place to get a bite to eat. We had supper and a pint or two of refreshment.

Enjoying a Birthday pint at
Ye Olde Cock Tavern

Our time on our own in London at an end, we moved to our new hotel to meet up the next morning with our tour group. We already had our plans ready for our last night in London after the tour returned, because we had definitely not had enough of London.  


No comments: