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Five Reasons to Visit London the Second Weekend in November

Diana Ball

We recently returned from a glorious week in London, and I write to heartily recommend that you consider the 2nd weekend in November the next time you ponder "when" to visit London. The only possible negative is weather - we were extremely lucky to enjoy mildly cool temps and just one evening shower. But we'd choose to return at this time of year, prepared for colder and wetter weather, for five (5) reasons:

  • to revel in the pageantry
  • participate in Remembrance Day observances
  • tour with minimal queues at the most popular attractions
  • snag good theatre tickets with ease
  • get a jump start on Christmas merriment

The Pageantry

Since 1215, the newly-elected Lord Mayor of the City of London (a small municipality within greater London) has been required to go to Westminster to present himself to the Crown for approval. This annual journey has evolved into the fabulous Lord Mayor's Show - a parade of floats, marching bands, and royal carriages that winds through the streets of London on the second Saturday of November and is "topped up" by a celebratory fireworks display on the Thames.

We watched the show and then took the excellent guided walk the City offered as a charity fundraiser. The walk concluded at the Blackfriars Bridge perfectly timed to watch the 5pm fireworks. From the middle of the bridge, we had a great view of the pyrotechnics. Walking along the embankment afterwards, we happened on the Lord Mayor's party leaving their fireworks watch from a river boat. It was a thrill to see all of the VIP's still dressed in traditional finery.

Remembrance Day Observed

The next morning, we pinned our poppies to our coats and struck out early to arrive at Whitehall before 9am to claim the perfect vantage point for viewing the 11am Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph (empty tomb of "The Glorious Dead"). Held the second Sunday of November as one of many November 11 Armistice Day observances, the brief religious service and laying of poppy wreaths at the foot of the war memorial brings the Queen and entire Royal Family and top political, religious, and military leaders together to honor veterans of both world wars and the other modern conflicts.

As exciting as it was to have an unobstructed view not 10 yards away from Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher, among others, it was even more moving to hear the crowd's reverent recitation of the Lord's Prayer and singing of the hymn and national anthem and then witness the estimated 10,000 veterans and family members solemnly march past the monument. They had assembled with their regiments, and many wore their service uniforms.

There were no dry eyes, especially when the few remaining WWI veterans paused at the Cenotaph to pay their respects. When the military bands closed the march with a final patriotic tribute, we joined the many veterans and observers who made their way to the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.

Crowd-free Sightseeing

What a contrast touring London in November was to our prior spring and summer treks - it's easy to see and do a lot when there aren't many tourists in town!

To keep most of the non-biz portion of our trip "slow," we crammed all of our Must See's into one "fast day" of amazingly all-free touring.

  • We started with the obligatory photo op at 9 3/4 Platform at King's Cross Station (we're as hooked on Harry Potter as our kids are!).
  • Spent an hour with the Magna Carta, Dickens and Shakespeare manuscripts, and original Beatles sound recordings in the British Library.
  • Took an interesting walk from there, with spontaneous stops along the way including the Victorian-era shop of James Smith & Sons Umbrella and Stick Makers since 1830 and a street vendor's stand for roasted chestnuts, to the incomparable British Museum, this time solely to see the "new" (since 2000) Great Court and Reading Room and take in a midday tour of the restored King's Library with fascinating Enlightenment exhibit.
  • Reached Somerset House before 2pm for the weekly free entry to the Courtauld Gallery's incredible art collection.
  • Had a late lunch/early dinner at the "veddy British" Simpson's-in-the-Strand featuring roast beef and lamb carved from a joint of meat on the tableside trolley followed by their famous treacle sponge pudding.
  • Lumbered up to the National Gallery balcony on Trafalgar Square to catch a spectacular sunset vista over Nelson's Column and the lions and fountains down the rush hour cityscape to Big Ben.
  • Hopped a bus for the short trip to Parliament for near queue-less entry to the "stranger's galleries" of the Houses of Commons and Lords (sitting hours published on their websites and in the Times, on this day, from 2:30 to 10:00pm).
  • Finished the day with our nightly theatre fix.

Whew! Sounds exhausting, but in reality, our pace was fairly relaxed, and because we planned our route in advance and had only "tightly focused" sightseeing on the day's agenda, we had room to spare for the occasional tea break or "let's look in here" stop.

A Quick Rave About the V&A

On an unscheduled day, we happened into the Victoria and Albert museum. I had always shied away, having been disappointed by one too many "encased in glass" experiences with "applied and decorative arts" exhibitions. But there's nothing ho-hum about the V&A - what an imaginative rich and varied collection! Everything's thoughtfully arranged and supported by multimedia explanations and interactive learning opportunities. Our intended peek turned into hours, and yet, we didn't make much of a dent. The V&A now joins the British Museum on my list of places I Must See every time we go to London.

No-Fuss Theatre Tix

Compared to our last visit in peak travel season July, when just getting tix to the shows we wanted to see was a challenge, it was a snap to book good seats at "hot" shows in mid-November. An invaluable resource is www.theatremonkey.com, which allows you to sift through reviews, identify authorized ticket sellers and possible discounts, and decode the seating chart to reveal good and bad seats.

Entertaining in London? One night, we hosted a theatre party for business colleagues. Most theatres offer VIP packages that include block seating in a primo location, the use of a private room pre-show and during the interval, light refreshments and beverages, private loos (restrooms), and other benefits. This proved to be a lot of fun for all, although we didn't think the value received was worth the VIP premium paid. On the other hand, there's no question that treating everyone to a show was far kinder to our American bank balance than a night of "wining and dining" in London would have been!

Catch the Christmas Spirit

In the US, the holiday season "officially" begins the Friday after Thanksgiving (celebrated the fourth Thursday in November). With those pesky pilgrims out of the way, Christmas comes early to our friends in the UK! Although it's too soon for traditional pantomimes, outdoor skating rinks, and carol concerts, mid-November's just right for savoring a taste of Christmas time in London. The lights were up on Regent Street, the Trafalgar Square tree was up (to be lit later in the month), retail windows were gaily decorated, and "Christmas shops" playing music of the season had opened in every department store.

We particularly liked the Christmas selection at Liberty; rom gourmet treats and gorgeous advent calendars to snazzy decorations and unique toys, they had something for everyone on our "thanks for making this trip possible" list.

It was a Londoner's London we saw this time.and what a great city she is!

Resources

www.lordmayorshow.org: The Lord Mayor's Show

www.royal.gov.uk/output/page4670.asp: Members of the Royal Family pay tribute to the war dead in remembrance services across the UK, 10-13 November 2005

www.culture.gov.uk: Remembrance Day ceremonies

www.theatremonkey.com: An invaluable resource which allows you to sift through reviews, identify authorized ticket sellers and possible discounts, and decode the seating chart to reveal good and bad seats.


© Diana Ball, 2006

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