Sunday 30 August 2020

Quick! While There's No-one There!

Our first train trip to London since February

Normally, visiting Westminster Abbey is a nightmare, with queues and little opportunity to appreciate the spiritual qualities of the place. I had only been there for services, choosing to avoid visiting it for the history and architecture, both of which are worth a look. But for the moment, in 2020, hardly anyone goes there and in any case the Abbey cannot manage many but desperately needs the income from visitors. So we decided to go while it was quiet, to see the place properly and to do our bit for its upkeep by buying tickets to visit, all pre-booked like virtually everything else in Britain at present. This was to be our first visit to London since all the cancellations in February and we decided to stay one night, have tea at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly (they were offering two for the price of one, so it was only expensive rather than extremely expensive) and just enjoy the West End without the crowds.

As a member of Hilton's loyalty scheme I booked a room at the Doubletree Westminster, a few minutes' walk from the Abbey, and First Class tickets with LNER to and from London Kings Cross to connect conveniently with the reduced-frequency trains between Stamford and Peterborough.All was set. Both Cross Country Trains and LNER insist on reservations for travel: with LNER we are given specific seats which we have to use; on Cross Country we can choose any empty seat far enough from other passengers but they will not sell tickets for a train which already has as many as it can take with social distancing. All our train tickets were electronic, held on my iPhone. I am beginning to get the hang of finding them quickly for operating barriers at stations.

The weather forecast was not wonderful: warm enough but wet at times. We took minimal luggage for just one night, one small case between us and walked together to Stamford station. Our train to Peterborough was just a couple of minutes late and our connection to London was easily made, although the temporary "one way" system at Peterborough station really does not work well for connecting passengers. Once the London train was under way I sent to collect our coffee and biscuits from the First Class host, probably not very different from what we would normally have had on such a short trip.

Arriving in London we walked to our hotel in Westminster. A long walk punctuated by a lunch break in a small park, and not quite the shortest route but a more scenic one which took us by the Savoy and along the Embankment. The hotel was having building work done and the main entrance was not in use, so it took us a while to find the way in: it turned out that it only reopened that day after the Covid-19 closure and that we were only the second group of guests to arrive. The restaurants were not open so we would have to have a packed breakfast either in our room or as a take-away; as we had nowhere to take it to we opted to have it in our room and specified a time. We went to our room, unpacked our few things and got ready to go out to tea. The room was looking really tidy and clean: Hilton had been to some effort to combat the virus by extensive cleaning of all rooms. It was looking a bit dated, though, with no device charging points by the bed, unlike our hotel in Edinburgh a few days which had double sockets with double USB points each side of the bed. We wondered if the refurbishment would address this sort of thing.

We set off through the drizzle, which came and went a bit, for the long walk to Piccadilly. By now, tea time, there was very heavy traffic in our street and here-and-there elsewhere, but our route was largely through quiet streets and pedestrian ways, and across St James's Park, all very pleasant. We arrived in plenty of time before our tea booking, and we walked through both Piccadilly and Burlington Arcades and then had a few minutes browsing the goods on offer at Fortnum & Mason before proceeding to the lounge for tea, which compared quite well with the afternoon tea we had enjoyed in Edinburgh less than a week before! As then we had two hours, which was more than enough, and as then we did not need any supper afterwards but rather a long walk ... we even declined the slice of cake which was an option to finish off the meal!

We took the long walk back to our hotel, through the occasional light shower, via Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square - it felt like the Monopoly board - then along Whitehall and across Westminster Bridge and back over Lambeth Bridge to our hotel off Horseferry Road.

In the morning our packed breakfast arrived and although it was not quite the standard we have come to expect of Doubletree hotels it was all good, and the coffee was excellent. we checked out and left our case at reception to walk the short distance to Westminster Abbey, clutching our printed-out on-line tickets and vouchers for the multimedia guided tour. The queue was minimal and after a quick security check and hand-sanitise we were in and in possession of the devices which would provide us with the guided tour. Photography was not allowed in the Abbey, so this part of the blog will have to go without illustration, but it suffices to say that this building is one of Europe's finest, so do see it if you can. Similarly the history here is amazing: a thousand years of the story of England and her church and monarchy, intertwined, is told here and is better described by others than by me. I recommend the electronic multimedia tour: each talk is short and to the point, it is easy to operate and copes with several languages and is good at reminding us throughout that this is still a working place of worship with a regular round of prayer and praise - although somewhat curtailed at present like all places of worship.

We visited the gift shop and then returned to collect our case from the hotel, bidding a farewell to the receptionist, who was the only other person we met there! She is from Italy which is where we had been going to go this autumn and have rebooked on a date next year.

We then revisited Fortnum & Mason, having noticed the day before that they were offering their knickerbocker glories at two for the price of one ... then we walked that off by going on foot through London to Kings Cross, up Regent Street and Great Portland Street then along Euston Road and taking the signposted walk from Euston to Kings Cross through the middle of St Pancras station. We had a few minutes in the reopened First Class lounge (no refreshments yet, but expected soon) before boarding our LNER train to Peterborough where we changed for Stamford as usual. By then the rain had started but was all right for walking home where hot chocolate made a fitting end to such a day. We had only left the day before but we had enjoyed tea and ice-cream and walked 17 km as well as our object of seeing Westminster Abbey without the crowds. Wonderful!

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