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 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
London 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
“London is not said to be in England, but rather, England to be in London.”
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 else.”
Moreover, besides the expense, one has to contend with the weather.
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 site.
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.
The many 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.
“COVENT 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 Charles I.
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.
The 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 designer clothing.
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 play, Pygmalion.
Strolling through the neighborhood, I can’t help but begin to hum the tunes of the adaption of that play, My Fair Lady.
I 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 St.
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 ladies’ tops.
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 Asian immigrants.
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 himself.
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 heritage.
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 history.
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 finest hour.”
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 Company).
www.bengfrank.blogspot.com @BenGFrank