A city washed in history
From Covent Garden to The British Museum, a visit to London proves to be much more than Big Ben and the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
London Photo: Wikimedia
“London is not said to be in England, but rather, England to be in
London – as in Shakespeare’s day, London remains a world city.
That’s why the English today are leaving the countryside and flocking to the
capital in droves. And even though they constantly complain that the city is
extremely expensive, they’ll tell you, “I wouldn’t live anywhere
Moreover, besides the expense, one has to contend with the
The whole world knows the English climate is “fickle.” And
indeed people still carry an umbrella even on sunny days. In the words of the
great English novelist Charles Dickens, when you come upon a day when “up came
the sun, steaming all over London,” rejoice!
LONDON IS divided into 32 boroughs,
each with its own character, such as the City of Westminster, Kensington and
Chelsea. I picked Covent Garden, where I stopped at Radisson Blue, Edwardian
London, (www.radissonblu-edwardian.com), a refurbished and
popular hotel located right in the heart of this famous section and situated on
a delightful roundabout known as Seven Dials.
In this small circle stands
a 40- ft. Doric column adorned with a sundial on each face. Legend has it that
the column was erected at the center of seven radiating streets in the early
1690s. However, it was pulled down by a mob in 1773 on a rumor that treasure was
buried underneath it. A replica of the pillar was then erected on the original
The neighborhood conveniently abuts the city’s majestic theater
section, dating back to the days of William Shakespeare. Yes, this is the West
End, where this season you can see such dramas and musicals as Billy Elliot,
Cabaret, Disney’s The Lion King, Les Miserables, Chariots of Fire, Hedda Gabler,
The Mousetrap, Uncle Vanya, Mama Mia, Wicked, Singin’ In The Rain, Shrek the
Musical and Top Hat, just to name a few.
Indeed, the Radisson is mere
steps from the Cambridge Theater, but I might as well have been residing on the
moon; it’s frightfully difficult to obtain tickets to Matilde the Musical, now
playing to a packed Cambridge house. If you’re lucky and snare tickets to this
hit, get ready to shell out about $160.00 apiece for good seats.
pubs in the Covent Garden area, with such telling, native names as the Crown
& Anchor, The Nags Head and The White Lion, do a brisk trade.
GARDEN is important in the story of London as the birthplace of that
architectural feature so characteristic of London, the ‘Square,’” notes H.V.
Morton in his In Search of London. All the residential squares may be said to
have originated with the Covent Garden Piazza, built in 1630 during the reign of
Today, the square remains the central attraction in Covent
Garden. Lively crowds enjoy the animation of the plaza with magicians and
street entertainers surrounded by quality craft and antiques markets.
refurbishment of the Opera House has given a new cachet to Covent Garden. Old
warehouses have been adapted to house enticing small shops and boutiques selling
After the theater, pop into one of Covent Garden’s
many “smart” restaurants.
A hundred years ago, the area was the home of
“Eliza Doolittle,” the bedraggled cockney flower girl in the George Bernard Shaw
Strolling through the neighborhood, I can’t help but
begin to hum the tunes of the adaption of that play, My Fair Lady.
browse around the stalls of Jubilee Market in Covent Garden.
It’s a grey
and miserable day, typical British weather, when I meet Mel Silton, of “Original
Designs,” in Jubilee Market, Covent Garden, Unit 20, along Tavistock
Mel tells me “business is not bad” among the many Jewish merchants in
this neighborhood who, in their shops and stalls, sell caps, T-shirts and
These merchants are a long way from the old East End
neighborhood of Petticoat Lane, where a few decades ago the Jews made way for
Near the market stands the London Film Museum Covent
Garden and the London Transport Museum.
And close to the Leiscester
Square station are two famous bookstores, Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road
and Stanfords on Longacre.
No visit to London, even a stopover, is
complete without a visit to Harrods (harrods.com), the commercial institution
which since 1905 claims to sell everything. Its food halls are decorated with
art nouveau wall tiles and it is still regularly voted the world’s finest
department store. If you are so inclined, there is a memorial book to Princess
Diana and Dodi al- Fayed to sign.
THE SIGHTS and sounds of London will
excite any tourist: the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the changing of the Guard
at Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty’s Tower of London, the National Gallery, Hyde
Park, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge,
Whitehall, the Strand, Trafalgar Square.
Since I had visited those sites
previously, I headed over to the British Museum (“a museum of the world, for the
world”), located in Great Russell Street, with tube stops at Tottenham Court
Road, Holborn, Russell Square.
No wonder the British Museum housed
“Shakespeare Staging the World,” a four-month exhibition this past fall that
focused more on his world of London than the life of the actor
Not to be missed in Jewish London are Bevis Marks Synagogue, the
oldest synagogue in England; Marble Arch Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, and the
Sternberg Center for Judaism. They are testaments to the country’s rich Jewish
The number of Jews in London in the Middle Ages probably did
not exceed 500. By 1830, 30,000 Jews lived in England, two-thirds of them in
London. By the start of World War I, with immigration from Eastern Europe, the
Jewish population jumped to 300,000. During World War II, about 90,000 Jews fled
from Hitlerism to the British Isles, of which 75,000 came from Germany, Austria,
Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy.
AS I departed England, I realized I was
leaving London as the mist of a crisp fall afternoon hovered above this capital
on the Thames. Nothing unusual about that, for I had walked about the city,
including Covent Garden. I also met and talked to several RAF pilots, now
seniors, who, during the days when England stood alone during the World War II
blitz, stopped the dreaded Luftwaffe. I realized that in many ways each tourist
comes away from London with thoughts about great periods in this city’s
For me, it was those young men who did, as Winston Churchill
said of them as they were halting the Nazis in the Battle of Britain: “brace
ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and
its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their
Ben G. Frank, journalist and travel writer, is the author
of the just-published, The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to
India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); as well as A Travel Guide to
Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A
Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing