In three previous visits to notoriously dreary and wet London, I never opened an umbrella. I've been fortunate to have skies as dry as a Beefeater martini.
So when a daylong deluge drenched the city last month it seemed I was getting my due. Ultimately, nearly 2 inches of rain fell that Tuesday, but being Floridians, we figured the lousy weather would blow through and sunny skies would accompany us in the afternoon.
They didn't, though in the end it hardly mattered. London has so many indoor delights, many of them free museums, that inclement weather would not keep us away. We grab the last umbrella at the Draycott Hotel in fashionable Chelsea and head out. Two umbrellas would be better but we opt for cozy (and sometimes wet).
A taxi delivers us to razzle-dazzle Harrods department store in just a few minutes. We drip our way through the glorious Food Halls after passing the wax sculpture of owner Mohamed Al Fayed, clothed in dapper gray suit. We do a double take at the realistic figure on the platform. Was he really up there welcoming us to the store? Uh, no.
Cheese and chocolate, coffee and charcuterie remind us we haven't eaten breakfast but the prices keep our feet moving. Even with time-change stupor we know that the British pound is worth more than the dollar and that the yummy-looking piece of Scottish salmon is close to $50. On a nicer day we might have dug deep and bought the fixings for a picnic in nearby Hyde Park, but no go thanks to the drizzle.
We reluctantly leave Harrods (and the $17,000 Rolex watches) in search of a more reasonable place to eat. On a side street off busy Brompton Road, we duck into the Tea Clipper pub. The corner joint has all the hallmarks of an affable English establishment and we are not disappointed with the ample fish and chips and pints of Sharp's Cornish Coaster. The pulsating techno music squashes the 1860s nautical vibe that the interior design promises, but the $30 bill is more in line with our budget. Several construction workers stop in to down a few pints. I secretly wonder about their afternoon efficiency.
Luck, if not the weather, is on our side when we step outside and into an idling cab. We head toward the south bank of the River Thames and the Tate Modern, a museum we haven't been to and know is free, as are most of London's biggest and best museums. Fog coats the windows of the taxi, preventing any meaningful sightseeing. Buckingham Palace flips by in a haze.
The Tate Modern is the sister museum to the Tate Britain, which houses a comprehensive collection of British art. On this day, the Tate Modern is crowded with students, tour groups and people like us seeking dry respite. We spend several hours perusing the permanent collection of mostly European artists from the 1900s to the present, which puts us face to face with works by Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Pollock and Kandinsky.
The vast former power plant is filled with delights and I am struck by a video installation by Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985). Mendieta was sent from her Cuban home to live in orphanages and foster care in Iowa when she was just 13. I stand in a darkened room and watch images of Mendieta pouring blood over herself and then rolling in feathers, completely covering her naked body. She rises to her feet haltingly, like a baby bird wanting to take flight. The screen goes dark and Untitled (Blood and Feathers) begins again.
There are many such thoughtful gems at the Tate Modern. We linger on one of Matisse's later collages and Giuseppe Penone's Tree of 12 Metres, in which he returns two milled logs to their original form.
Nearly three hours have elapsed and we don't know the status of the rain. Fortuitously, we pass sliver windows looking north across the Thames. From this exact point we spy the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge dotted with people, hardly any with open umbrellas. A good sign. Beyond the bridge is St. Paul's Cathedral, its historic dome dulled by gray skies but still quite striking.
We remember that the last time we were here, the cathedral was scaffolded for repairs, as was Westminster Abbey. You find that a lot around this city, so don't get your heart set on photos in front of any particular landmark. This time, part of Parliament and many of the buildings near 10 Downing St. are shrouded in netting and construction equipment. There are multistoried construction cranes everywhere.
We are art-sated, so we hoof across the bridge to the cathedral, and once inside realize we don't have much time to enjoy it. It's after 4 p.m. and Evensong services begin at 5 p.m., so we take a quick lap around, noting some of the famous folks entombed here: Florence Nightingale, poet William Blake and sculptor Henry Moore.
We sit for a while longer, taking in the splendor of architect Christopher Wren's work. (Wren is also entombed at St. Paul's.) A cathedral has been on this spot for 1,400 years. If the modern art of the Tate challenged us at times, the history of the cathedral and the strains of sacred music soothe the soul. Plus our other soles need a rest.
We know it's raining again because the umbrellas of the well-dressed churchgoers leave telltale drips. St. Paul's is near London's financial district and pinstriped suits and clacking pumps now mingle with the tennis shoes of tourists.
In just the nick of time, we remember 6 p.m. reservations at St. John Restaurant in the East End, not too far away. A taxi gets us to the former smokehouse in time and we are the only ones in the dining room, but not for long. The bar-and-bakery crowd below moves upstairs in a much more jovial mood than us, thanks to happy hour.
Chef Fergus Henderson has made St. John famous with his "nose to tail" menu where he serves "everything but the squeal." In other words, you'll be eating some innards here, or at least seeing them on the menu. Add to that eel, brill and ox tongue and tail. Bad boy chef Anthony Bourdain calls St. John's roasted bone marrow and parsley salad his "death row meal." We order that and it is to die for, the unctuous marrow slathered on house-made country toast. (I try my hand at re-creating the dish. See Wednesday's Taste section for the results.)
We've arrived in London during grouse season (who knew?) and feel obligated to order the roasted game bird served with pate smeared on toast plus a mild bread sauce. We are warned it is gamey and it is, but on a rainy day in this famously rainy city, it is fitting. Hours later, after mussels and rabbit, too, plus red wine, hot chocolate pudding and a very British, currant-stuffed Eccles cake paired with a crumbly triangle of Mrs. Kirkham's Lancashire cheese, we head back to the Draycott via the Underground's Circle Line to Sloane Square.
It is still raining and we huddle close under our one umbrella. We have been out and about for nearly 12 hours. A perfect day.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
IF YOU GO
One day in London
Where to stay: Hotels in London aren't cheap in general, but any number of guidebooks and the Visit Britain Web site (visitbritain.us) offer suggestions.
We stayed at the historic Draycott Hotel in the Chelsea neighborhood. The hotel occupies three red-brick Edwardian homes in Cadogan Gardens, near the Sloane Square Underground stop (Circle and Waterloo lines). There are 35 rooms, each named after a famous Brit. We were in the Irving room, which was appointed with framed playbills and biographies of actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905). Afternoon tea is served daily, followed by Champagne at 6 p.m. and hot chocolate before bed. Very civilized. Rooms start at $250 a night. 26 Cadogan Gardens, London; draycotthotel.com.
Getting around: London is a walkable city because it's fairly flat and the main attractions are close together. However, the streets are angled, curved and truncated by gardens and squares, plus they change names every so often, so it's easy to get lost. We boughta pocket-size London Tube and Walk visitor guide at the Tate Modern for about $4. It directs visitors from London Underground (called the Tube) stops to major attractions and is invaluable. It is available at Amazon.com, too.
Information for places mentioned in this story:
- Harrods department store, Brompton Road near Sloane Street in Knightsbridge neighborhood; www.harrods.com. Food Halls open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
- The Tea Clipper pub, 19 Montpelier St., Knightsbridge; teaclipperknightsbridge.com.
- Tate Modern, Bankside, London; tate.org.uk/modern. Free admission to view permanent collection; fees for special exhibitions.
- St. Paul's Cathedral, Ludgate Hill, London (near the East End); stpauls.co.uk. Last entry for sightseeing is 4 p.m. Tickets are 3.5 pounds (about $5.50) to 11 pounds (about $17). Visitors can attend services; check Web sites for times.
- St. John Restaurant, 26 St. John St., London; stjohnrestaurant.com. Reservations can be made on opentable.com. Bakery and bar downstairs.