I drafted this post before the Brexit vote, but now that the UK is on everyone’s mind, it seems more timely!
When I wrote about our recent travels, I did not add anything about the last few days of the trip that we spent in London. This was our third stop in London in eighteen months. Yes, we like London. A lot. It has been very easy to stop there on the way from other European cities and then fly back to Chicago.
Several years ago on our first trip, we tried to do as much as possible: the Tower, changing of the guard, the British Museum, etc. On subsequent stops we have enjoyed London on a slower pace, taking in a few new things (Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, and Greenwich) each time and revisiting a few favorites (The War Rooms, The British Museum) and, I think, savoring all of it. This is definitely not another travelogue, but I do want to tell you about a few places we have returned to more than once. And, interestingly, they are all evening stops.
The first is Gordon’s Wine Bar. This is not even remotely fancy, but it is fun and “atmospheric.” Established in 1890 and owned by the same family since 1975 (conveniently also named Gordon), the bar is in Kipling House, home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680’s. Rudyard Kipling was a tenant in the 1890’s. (Yes, history is everywhere.) The bar is located in the brick cellar and decorated with mismatched chairs and tables, all wobbly thanks to their age and the uneven stone floor. It’s lit by candles. The wine list is legendary, as are the cheese plates. Once you have navigated the steep stone steps into this cave-like setting, order at the bar.
Gordon’s is very popular with locals. So much so that you will have to search for seats, ducking your head as you go, around old, awkward brick walls and pillars. If you find a table, grab it or perhaps share with another group. You may have to look around for chairs too. Sometimes you find a table without chairs. It’s just that kind of place. I think one of the things we like most about Gordon’s is this casual, friendly atmosphere. And, of course, everyone seems to be having a great time.
Another favorite stop is St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields for Jazz in the Crypt on Wednesday night. St. Martin’s in the Fields is a stunning church on the North-east corner of Trafalgar Square (and not at all far from Gordon’s). There has been a church on this site since the medieval period, but the present neoclassical building dates to 1722. St. Martin’s is known for its architecture and its concert series in the sanctuary. It’s also known for its long-established mission. An early-twentieth century vicar began programs here for the homeless, and that commitment continues today, supported by a cafe, the London Brass Rubbing Center, and a gift shop in the crypt. But that’s not all…
Jazz in the Crypt offers live music by professional performers in a fun setting (as in more brick vaulted ceilings, this time accompanied by three- and four-hundred year-old memorials under foot!). Tickets are very modestly priced. The entertainers we have seen here have been wonderful and the crowd enthusiastic (inevitably breaking into dance). There is even a simple buffet dinner available, as well as wine and beer throughout the evening. The audience seems to be largely local, although we have heard American performers. This is a fun way to end a day of London sight-seeing.
Finally, although this does not fit into the category of nightlife, it is an early evening event. Most London tourists eventually find their way to Westminster Abbey, home of the Church of England and sight of coronations and burials, weddings and funerals, since 1066.
Somewhere along the line a few years ago, in a travel guide, we read that anyone can attend Evensong, a short, daily church service at 5:00 pm. On our next visit, I asked one of the guides about this and he explained that we just needed to return to a particular door at the appointed time. Evensong turned out to be one of our favorite London experiences. When you are admitted for Evensong, you are directed to take a seat (no wandering about to look at things and, alas, no photos), but just think. You are sitting in the same sanctuary where Queen Elizabeth and all those before her were crowned, where Diana’s funeral was held, where William and Kate were married! And that’s just the last several years of history!
Eventually, everyone is seated and the service begins. There are readings, but much of it is sung by the men’s and boys’ choirs. These are very select groups and the boys, in fact, attend school at the Abbey while they are choir members. I’m not a musician, but the music is stirring. I’m not especially religious, but the setting and the service are genuinely moving.
Most of all, like Gordon’s and Jazz in the Crypt, this is an accessible slice of English life. Isn’t that what we look for when we travel?