London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

A Perfect Day In London

26/02/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 13325 votes


We woke up that morning to find London a sparkling, wintry wonderland, on this, our very special and long-awaited day. It was snowing, a rare happening in London; the city was expecting its first big snowfall in ten years. It was a fairytale place, a place where dreams come true. The day, though drab in appearance, was bright with promise and possibility. After all, anything could happen in this land with a benevolent Queen, and where Mary Poppins, Christopher Robin and the characters of Beatrix Potter had flitted across the literary landscape!

Dressed in our finest clothes but bundled up against the cold, we hurried off toward Westminster, wet flakes of snow in our hair and eyelashes. We had passes for Prime Minister’s Question Time, those sweet, hard-to-come-by tickets we had picked up the day before at the American Embassy. The spires of Westminster Abbey were breathtakingly beautiful cloaked in the snow, as were the many statues in Parliament Square and in front of Westminster Palace. A bit early, we warmed ourselves in the gift shop of the Jewel Tower across from the Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower itself is one of only two remaining buildings of the original Westminster Palace, the other being Westminster Hall.

As the time drew near, we rushed across the street, and proudly flashing our passes (slipped from the envelope, our names elegantly scrawled across the front, embossed with the seal of the United States of America), entered the Houses of Parliament through St. Stephen’s Entrance. We gathered along with a small crowd in the Central Lobby, a magnificent circular hall. Members of Parliament meet with their constituents, upon request, in the Central Lobby; the term “lobbying” derives from this place as the constituents try to use their powers of persuasion during the opportunity to “have their say” in a face-to-face meeting with their MP. There was a cry of “Speaker in the Hall” and the sounds of marching, and the procession, which opens each day’s sitting of the House of Commons, began.

We watched as a small group of formally-attired men, with all the pageantry we have come to expect from Britain, marched in. The Sergeant at Arms, wearing “traditional dress,” carried the Mace, a silver gilt club (approximately five feet in length) representing the royal authority by which Parliament meets. We recognized Michael Martin, the Speaker, ruddy-faced and smiling, dressed in a black silk robe with a long train. Behind him were the Chaplain, Secretary and Trainbearer. They continued on towards the House of Commons. It was exciting to see.

We traipsed up the stairs to enter the Strangers’ Gallery of the House of Commons. After a brief bout through security, we filed into the Gallery. A debate was going on; it was not yet noon, the scheduled time for Prime Minister’s Questions. For the next twenty minutes, the House filled with MPs who, somewhat noisily, settled into place.

A few minutes before twelve o’clock, in a climactic moment, Tony Blair entered the Chamber, looking all tanned (from his Christmas holiday in Egypt) and handsome in a charcoal gray suit and teal tie. Then it was as though a gun had been fired to signal the start of a sporting event because the questions shot across the Chamber, as Mr. Blair, standing at the dispatch box, did his best to field them. It was thrilling, for me, to recognize the Cabinet members sitting on the front benches, complete with David Blunkett’s seeing-eye dog, Lucy, sprawled comfortably across the floor.

A lively discussion ensued on various issues of the day, and we definitely felt we were, if not directly on the stage of world-important events, then at least in the audience! The words of Winston Churchill had once reverberated throughout this place. The Speaker did his best to maintain order, as the MPs, fresh from their three-week holiday recess, were feisty and combative, and much cheering and jeering rumbled across the Chamber. The MPs persisted in this spirit that so typifies this half-hour each Wednesday, landing their blows in an attempt to cause Mr. Blair to fall, or depending on party affiliation, cause him to shine.

Iain Duncan Smith, Leader of the Opposition (the Conservative Party, who maintain the second largest majority in the House), did his best to be contentious and discredit the present Government with the six questions he is allowed. But no matter how sharp his debating skills or how superior his performance during Question Time, at the end of the day Mr. Blair is still the Prime Minister!

At 12:30, most of the MPs sprang to their feet to exit the Chamber as Question Time ended (and the corpses, metaphorically speaking, were swept up and carried out of the arena). We did as well, and walked through St. Stephen’s Hall to leave the building by way of Westminster Hall. We had to gawk a little in this medieval hall that had impressed us last year, especially the wooden ceiling arches. We left Westminster Hall to explore the new café, open to the public and MPs alike, and briefly flirted with the idea of lunching here for it looked bright and cheery; but afraid that we would be inclined to linger and thinking about our three o’clock matinee, we left. We paused briefly outside New Palace Yard to watch while a gentleman exercised Mr. Blunkett’s dog who was enjoying cavorting in the snow and having the time of her life!

We stopped at our favorite pub, the Blackbird, around the corner from our hotel. The pub was dark inside, dimly but warmly lit. I ordered a BLT (with a touch of guilt for not partaking of true British food), remembering how delicious they are in London. My husband ordered the venison steak, which at least was a bit of a departure from our everyday meals. We munched our food contentedly, watching as the ice-covered branches played against the windowpanes.

We had a few minutes to freshen up before catching a taxi for the matinee of The Breath of Life at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. This play, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (the only performers in the play), sold out before it opened for its six-week run. The run was extended and the ticket sales continued to climb. Somehow we were fortunate enough to obtain two tickets to the Wednesday matinee, and we were elated. The time flew as these two professionals exchanged barbs and repartee in a bittersweet storyline that pitted them as women, adversaries, really, who had once been in love with the same man and were trying to come to terms with it all years later. It was funny and sad and endearing, and we found ourselves hanging onto every word.

All warm and comfortable, we managed to unfold ourselves, put on our coats and hail a taxi to take us back to the hotel to dress for dinner. We had two hours in which to prepare for our dinner at Porters with Richard, the Earl of Bradford, at his London restaurant in Covent Garden. Can one really prepare for something like that? Would there be nearly enough time to do all I had to do? This included having a facelift (whole body, maybe - why stop with the face?), taking a course in dining etiquette (and otherwise) and earning a doctorate in something (anything) so that I was able to converse intelligently.

It all seemed to require a more liberal timeframe. (At least I had the foresight to lose the weight before the final two hours.) I never could find a copy of Dining with Earls for Dummies. (“Is there really such a book?” my sister asked incredulously.) It was rather frightening and not unlike a performance at the Olympics: plenty of time to plan and practice, but basically it comes down to just one performance - one chance, one opportunity, that could so easily be blown, leaving a lifetime of regret. I don’t do well with sink or swim situations, and this definitely had all the appearances of one.

Mostly, I was concerned with what not to say, as opposed to what to say. My friends at home had briefed me on the topics to avoid. These generally consisted of an assortment of stories and jokes that had been quite a hit at the office Christmas party - but that, in all probability, would not play well in London.

As we rode in the taxi to Porters (seven discarded outfits later back on the hotel room floor), I transferred the comparison over to taking a final exam - there is only so much preparation that can be done before resignation sets in to the fact that this is it and nothing more can be done. And, in all seriousness, any nervousness I had previously felt dissipated upon meeting Richard, as he immediately put us at ease. He was someone I had come to think of as a friend over the past year and whose e-mail never ceased to brighten the most dismal day. His wife was charming and as nice as Richard; Jenny, the actress, and her husband Carl were fun and interesting. I was able to truly enjoy the evening and a wonderful meal, and my husband did as well.

The conversation was sparkling (as was the wine!), and, of course, the time passed all too quickly. Before we knew it (though two and a half hours later), we were climbing into yet another taxi. I don’t recall much about that ride through London (the wine again?), just a blur of lights. Slightly weary, I climbed out of the taxi at the hotel, and I remember looking up.

The snow had long ago stopped, and stars burned across the night sky. The day that led up to this moment may have been gray in color, but for us the sun had shone in all of its golden brilliance. Even now, the memories of that day are strong enough to warm us against the chilliest of winter winds and the frostiest of February mornings.

Candice Caster

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Re: A Perfect Day In London

By Richard Wyland 03/03/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12508 votes)

How fortunate to see the most splendid city on earth "sugar-frosted", lucky folk.

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Re: A Perfect Day In London

By A Yates 06/03/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12151 votes)

How on earth did you get a "date" with Sir Richard?

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Re: A Perfect Day In London

By Richard Wyland 24/03/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12157 votes)

Or Lord Bradford for that matter...?

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