I love London. The city has enthralled me for almost five decades, and I eagerly return there every chance I get.
I’ve been to London 25 times (and counting). I’ve visited this beautiful capital city at every stage of my life: as a child, a teenager, a backpacking college student, with my wife as a newly married couple, as a cruise industry veteran, and as a father.
As I look back, I see how London has influenced my life. Because of my love of London, I majored in history in college.
My wife Nancy, who also happens to like London, became an antiques dealer, and some credit goes to this city and our love of all things historical and British. London introduced me to Agatha Christie mysteries, and I developed a fondness for the theater in the city’s fabled West End.
This Midwesterner turned Southerner also enjoys a cup of tea and doesn’t mind rainy weather. I’ve enjoyed many umbrella-shielded walks through the city – good times for contemplation – making a stop for the national drink whenever possible.
My first actual step onto British soil occurred when I visited London at the age of 10 or 11. But it could be said that I entered the kingdom years before at the age of four. The year was 1959 and the Royal Yacht Britannia was in the United States to commemorate the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II arrived aboard the Britannia, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and other dignitaries joined her for a ceremonial cruise.
Because my father worked for the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and was managing director of that city’s International Trade Fair, I got to take a tour of the royal yacht. My father met the Queen that day – I still have the picture – but my preschool self was not presented to Her Majesty. Apparently I was acting cranky, so I was whisked away to a stateroom for a nap.
Maybe that day planted the seed for my lifelong fascination with London. Circumstances were to bring me there again and again.
My father left the Chamber to start an incentive travel business that had him traveling all over the world. About the time I was 10, my parents separated and divorced. As sad as that was to me, my father stayed close, and he would call me to join him on trips whenever possible. That first trip to London came shortly after the divorce, and I was so happy to be around him again.
The second trip came a few years later as a young teenager of about 13 or 14. My father called last minute asking if I could get away for a few days. In our rush to go, I neglected to pack any formal attire for the highlight of that trip: a dinner at the Mayfair landmark, The Churchill Hotel. A quick shopping trip later, I was at dinner as the Queen’s Coldstream Guards made a surprise march through the reception area with horn and drum accompaniment. We were momentarily transported to another time and culture – and there I was in my new tuxedo and wearing my father’s cufflinks, which I treasure to this day.
In 1976, I took part in the annual summer migration of American college students who backpacked their way across Europe. It was the era of Sir Freddie Laker and I was there, traveling with my buddies, staying in youth hostels and wearing out my Eurail pass. I’ll never forget spending part of July 4th, the day of the US Bicentennial, in a London pub with my buddies. We “Yanks” were the focus of much good-natured ribbing, but our hosts also were kind enough to buy us a few pints. I could sense that they actually took a degree of pride in their former colony’s success.
During that summer stay, I took a number of day trips outside London to the charming and historic university towns of Cambridge and Oxford. I also visited Hampton Court, a favorite palace of King Henry VIII, and today a beautifully preserved treasure dating from the 16th century. The Royal Family’s Windsor Castle, still the Queen’s primary residence, was another memorable excursion.
After college, I joined my father in the travel industry. He was briefly the president of Carras Cruises and then, for many years, Royal Cruise Line. Working for Royal in San Francisco, I met Nancy. We traveled extensively during the early years of our marriage, and when our son Joe came along, he became a travel enthusiast too.
My career has since been with the Cunard Line, for which Southampton is home port, and Princess Cruises. While at Cunard, I have often traveled to England, and whenever possible I add on a few personal days so I can continue to explore my favorite city.
I love to show people around London. A particular business trip comes to mind: I took two colleagues, jetlagged as they were, on one of my lengthy London walks, and afterwards for dinner and drinks. The night was capped off by a performance of the Agatha Christie play, The Mousetrap. It’s the longest running show in the world, with 59 consecutive years of performances. I immediately regretted getting our prime fourth-row seats, as I spent the entire performance waking up my snoring colleagues.
Nancy and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in London. We revisited our favorite haunts and went to London’s famous Portobello Road Market to scout for antiques. London is a convenient hub for northern Europe, and we took the high-speed Eurostar to Paris for four days (you can make a day trip of it – Brussels, too). Our son Joe joined us back in London and we headed to Southampton to board Crown Princess for a memorable 12-night cruise along the British Isles and French coastline.
London fills me with awe. Its history and my personal connection combine to give me a welcome feeling that beckons me back again and again.
A walk through London is simultaneously a trip through my past and a tour of great moments in history. The Houses of Parliament make me think of college history lectures. The Old Bailey, London’s historic court building, brings to mind the old TV show, Rumpole of the Bailey. Rumpole calls his wife “She Who Must Be Obeyed” – I’ve tried using that, but my wife doesn’t like it!
A night in a pub takes me back to my college trip and that memorable Bicentennial celebration. Westminster Abbey reminds me of the courage of the British during World War II and how this structure amazingly survived the bombing of London. Buckingham Palace brings images of royals stepping out onto the balcony to greet their subjects – most recently William and Kate, of course. I’ve stayed at the Goring Hotel, but now I’ll associate it with waking up at 5 a.m. to watch on TV as Kate departed there for her wedding at the Abbey.
More than anything, London reminds me of my father. It’s been 21 years since he died, and I miss him tremendously. Because of him, I was introduced to London. Because of London, I remember wonderful times with him.
When I am in London, I always try to:
• Stay in the Mayfair area. It’s high-end, but you can find deals at some hotels. I like The Chesterfield Mayfair for reasonable rates and comfortable rooms. Mayfair defines charm with beautiful residences and flourishing gardens. It has that civility you expect of London.
• Pass by the stately U.S. Embassy in Mayfair. (In 2013 the embassy is scheduled to move to a futuristic cube of a building now under construction in Battersea.) I am always proud to see it.
• Go to the Shepherd Market in Mayfair. Ground was broken for this picturesque square in 1735 to dislodge a rowdy May fair (hence the name). Even Mayfair has a past! The Shepherd Market couldn’t be more quaint, with interesting shops and restaurants and my favorite pub, Shepherd’s Tavern.
• Walk along the Embankment, an engineering marvel that turned the soggy banks of the River Thames into viable land and thoroughfare that passes by many landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
• Stop for afternoon tea at one of my favorite places, the Savoy or Park Lane hotels or Fortnum & Mason.
• Shop the Food Hall at Harrods. It is a costly but wonderful experience. There is a champagne bar there and people-watching of the international set is entertaining.
• Take the tube to skip London’s busy rush hours, but also make sure to ride in cabs. Where else will you find a car with jump seats? Plus, cabbies are a good source of information.