A Republican in Royal London

Interspersed with the world’s best theater are intimate historic treasures

My main quarry this August in London, a city I visit often, though usually in the winter, was theater, packing in ten plays in eight days.

But my oldest friend, Jim Kirby, finishing up an art history master’s in mid-life was a great companion and goad on this trip, getting me to forgo at least a few matinees to take in some of the new and older cultural offerings in the capital, the highlight of which was a tour of Prince Charles’s new digs at Clarence House, adjacent to St. James Palace where he had been housed, just up the road from Buckingham Palace.

Built for one of George III’s aging sons (later King William IV) in 1825, this lovely house is best known as the home of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who occupied it from the death of her husband, King George VI, in 1952 to her own passing in 2002 at the age of 101.

Charles has moved in with his two sons, Princes William and Harry, but opened the ground floor for public tours from August 6 through October 17. The intimate guided tours must be booked in advance. Visit the royal.gov.uk website for more information.

The rooms are decorated with a mixture of history, fine art and family photos. While Charles has retained many of his grandmother’s touches—like a copy of Noel Coward’s songbook on the piano inscribed to her—he has also made peace with his and his family’s past. A photo of Princess Diana cradling infant William is among the framed family pictures. And there is a portrait of his great uncle, the Duke of Windsor, also once Prince of Wales and briefly Edward VIII, before he renounced the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. The queen mother never forgave her brother-in-law for abdicating in 1936 and making her husband king, believing it contributed to the wartime monarch’s early death. But they’re all united in the house now, a place Charles uses not just as his London residence, but also as a place to entertain those associated with the more than 350 charities he sponsors.

Being Prince of Wales is not a title, “it is a predicament,” Alan Bennett had the future George IV say in the “Madness of George III.” Whether Charles ever succeeds to the throne, he has put together an enviable home, the pleasure of which he is anxious to share with the public. Despite my republicanism (note the lower case “r”), I loved it.

At the Queen’s Gallery, part of the Buckingham Palace complex, there is a splendid exhibit on the art and artifacts of George III and his Queen Charlotte. We know him as the king who lost the colonies. But this large show gives some sense of how he managed to preserve a monarchy while Europe was roiling with revolution. The exhibition is on view until January 9, 2005.

We discovered a few new restaurants this trip, notably St. John Bread and Wine, the cousin to the larger Smithfield branch and just as dedicated to “tale-to-nose cooking,” i.e., innards, and chef Fergus Henderson presides. It was crowded with shoppers from the indoor Spitalfields Market on a Sunday afternoon, as we dined on gamey pigeon and fresh langoustine. It is also near the vibrant South Asian Brick Lane neighborhood.

At the Smithfield St. John restaurant later in the week, I had my first taste of tender, gelatinous pig trotters—but just flecks amidst some beans served with a perfectly roasted chicken.

One way to marshal those expensive pounds sterling (now $1.76) is to take advantage of decent but inexpensive food in spectacular settings such as at the just-renovated Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square with a sleek sixth floor cafeteria with sweeping views of South Kensington, even if it’s just for a cup of tea and a pudding. And for a Sunday roast, why not give Balans on gay Old Compton Street in Soho a try?

Having abandoned dieting, we worked it off on long walking tours conducted by Original London Walks, just £5.50 and led by knowledgeable guides. Hillary’s tour of Christopher Wren’s London led to his incomparable first church, St. Stephen’s, the first domed building in England and a gem, now also graced by a rare Henry Moore altar.

Sue took us through “Ancient London: Knights, Nuns, and Notoriety,” a lively and bloody history of scandal in the City, with lots of references to noble heads being chopped off. It was here I learned that during William the Conqueror’s funeral in Normandy, the big guy had been waked for so many days in the summer heat for so long that he exploded.

And Molly showed us “Legal London,” most notable for a tour of the Inns of Court, beautiful pastoral courtyards right behind the facades of grimy, bustling London streets right in the heart of town. Barristers know how to live. Go to walks.com for more info. Most tours are year-round.

And we took the Parliament tour, only available from July 24 through October 2 for £7—a chance to walk through the Palace of Westminster along the route the Queen takes to deliver her annual speech to Parliament in the House of Lords. It is a wild, gothic fantasy, slightly more subdued in the House of Commons that was rebuilt after being bombed in the Blitz during World War II. The guides are energetic, somewhat irreverent and most informative. The Stranger’s Gallery in Commons is open to visitors all year, though security is tight and a Plexiglas screen protects the members from the public. Visit soon and you may catch the debate over the civil partnership bill.

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