On Tuesday, June 16, 2015, Hannah and I flew from Philadelphia to. London, via British Airways. Having seats that converted to flat beds, we got a few hours sleep on the overnight flight. At Heathrow, we made a poor choice, taking the Piccadilly metro line into London, instead of the much faster (but more expensive) Heathrow Express to Paddington Station. The metro took over an hour, on hot, crowded trains, and required hauling our bags up and down stairs in tube stations to change lines. From Marble Arch we hauled ourselves to the Sumner Hotel and rendezvoused with the Leavitt-Bodanskys, Annie and Joel.
After a brief rest, Hannah and I took the tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where, with the Leavitt-Bodanskys, w toured the church, visiting the crypts, where Nelson, Wellington and numerous heroes of empire are buried or memorialized. Then we stayed for Evensong. We were fortunate to be admitted to the Quire (choir?), while the overflow congregation was in the nave. There were two choirs, men’s and boys’, both of which sang beautifully. The Dean gave a short sermon on God’s sense of humor, which was illustrated by carvings above the Quire, showing cherubim tossing around bishops’ mitres, etc. Evensong at St. Paul’s combined an inspiring cathedral setting with great music and traditional readings and prayers. I recommend it to future travelers.
Took the tube back and had dinner at a good Indian restaurant.
We left the Sumner early on the 18th, taking a cab to St. Pancras Station, where we met the guides for our Waterloo tour, the Cultural Experience, which sponsors many historical tours of Europe, focusing on military history. We met up with Dan and Maureen Griffiths. Dan is a longtime Napoleonic wargamer in my weekly Harrisburg group.
Our Eurostar standard seats were quite cramped and the car’s upholstery showed signs of wear. We wished we had upgraded. Nevertheless, we made it through the Chunnel to Brussels. Belgium is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, yet, on the train, I was impressed by its large areas of agricultural and forest land.
At the Brussels train station, we met Joan Barrett and Chris Mahoney and Dan and Maureen Griffiths. Dan is a longtime Napoleonic wargamer in my weekly Harrisburg group.
In Brussels our headquarters was the NR Grand Sablon (a Jolly hotel). It is a fine hotel centrally located on the hill above the Grand Platz, which is quite splendid.
Our Cultural Experience guide for the Waterloo campaign was Lt. Col. Keith Kiddie, HM Royal Fusiliers, Rtd. Keith is a Napoleonic Wars buff. He told me that, at Sandhurst, he played reenactments in miniature with classmates. He built himself a Russian army in 25mm scale, which he still has. He said he maintains an interest in uniforms of the era and has even gone to the Hermitage Museum to study them.
Keith led us first to Ligny, then to Quatre Bras. We tramped around the ground, seeing what Napoleon might have seen in 1815. The green wheat in the fields was just knee-high, but he said that the wheat in 1815 would have been six feet tall. Modern wheat is genetically engineered to minimize the stalk and maximize the grain. Wheat two centuries ago would have had a higher stalk to grain ratio and the tall stalks would have been usable for thatching. Militarily, the tall wheat could have concealed troops. If tall wheat combined with a dip in the terrain, it could have concealed cavalry.
Keith handed out a photocopy of Napoleon’s order, in his own handwriting, to Marshal Ney for Quatre Bras. The introduction was clear: to the Marshal, the Prince of the Moskva. The ending was clear: the fate of La Patrie is in your hands. The middle part, telling Ney what to do, was illegible.
Keith took us to the jump-off point for Reille’s corps on the day of the battle of Waterloo. I don’t think Reille could have discerned the British positions from there. He would have had to trust in the Emperor’s judgment.
In the evening, we attended the reenactment of Waterloo. Unfortunately, our seats were on the French left flank, which meant that the French attack moved past us and the main action was to our far left. We should have had fifty-yard-line seats. Nevertheless, we watched the French maneuvers towards their attack and L’Empereur himself, escorted by a splendid screen of the Chasseurs a Cheval de la Garde Imperiale, rode twice past our stands. He himself wore the green uniform of his Chasseurs and raised his hat, only to be greeted by boos from the largely Brit crowd where we were seated. It was as if Brit football fans had been transported to 1815. At one point Marshall Ney fell off his horse, but was remounted by his staff. When D’Erlon’s corps attacked, the smoke from the musketry obscured the troops. It was so thick, I think that, after a volley, the troops might not have been able to discern the enemy, depending on the wind direction and velocity.
Some regiments were represented in strength, like the 95th (Rifles) and the Old Guard. There seemed to be lots of Brunswickers. The cavalry squadrons, though, were quite obviously under strength on both sides, with sometimes just a half dozen representing a regiment.
Later, we toured the reenacters’ encampment and talked with members of a Royal Horse Artillery battery from Wales. Their uniforms were realistic, including the scruffiness of being on campaign. Their guns were custom forged, scaled down from what would have been six-pounders, and made of steel, rather than brass, so that a single man could lift a gun, instead of needing four. They are working on their horsey skills. They have a few men trained to ride with the battery, but have not yet gotten to the point of having horses in traces with a limber to move the guns.
Saying farewell to Dan and Maureen, we left Brussels by train to Bruges. We stayed at Martin’s Relais, which was nice. Bruges is a medieval city that was spared the ravages of World War II. Hannah and I walked around part of the old city perimeter, inspecting the medieval fortified gates. The medieval walls have been torn down in favor of a pedestrian and bike path. Lots of good restaurants, museums, etc.
Annie and Joel left Bruges by train for Caen, France. Chris, Joan, Hannah and I rented a Europcar and drove to Ypres to visit World War I sites. On our way out of the Passchendale battlefield, our Renault Scenic ran over a pothole. The dashboard display told us we had a “crevaison,” so we stopped at a gas station in Ypres. The attendant tried to fix the leak and remounted the tire. Cost: €20. We travelled on, but shortly got another crevaison warning. Returning to the station, we found it closed and not due to reopen for several hours. We contacted another station in the area, which dispatched a van. The young service attendant removed our flat tire and put on the emergency spare, which we could not have figured out how to do. The spare is slung under the rear of the car, held in place by a cable. To get it, you have to crank a bolt in the cargo area that lowers the spare. After mounting the spare, and demanding €20, he took us to his garage, where his boss decided our tire needed replacing and directed us to a Renault dealer down the road. The dealer didn’t have our tire size in stock and directed us to a tire store in Ypres. The tire store didn’t have our exact brand, but gave us a good deal on a used tire of the same size. €60, labor included. By the way, at the first sign of trouble, we called Europcar, which said they’d get back to us. We are still waiting for a return call. At each of the stops on our tour of Ypres automobile repair shops the peope were very nice and tried to be helpful, but we had to move from place to place up the competence chain to get a solution.
From Ypres we drove to Chateau d’Audrieu, which is outside the village of Audrieu, midway between Caen and Bayeau. Annie and Joel preceded us. The chateau has beautiful gardens, a large, forested park and a pool. Its restaurant had one star in my Michelin 2012 red book, which would put in a rarified league. We did not like the pricey dinner very much. Later in the evening, Chris and I learned from the junior barman, Thomas, that the chateau had lost its star. Afterwards, we discovered that we could ask for the traditional menu, which was better and cheaper, and forego the haute cuisine menu. After the Normandy invasion in WWII, the Waffen SS executed 23 captured British soldiers in the courtyard of the chateau.
Bayeau is another medieval city that escaped bombing in WWII. We enjoyed seeing the Bayeau tapestry. I saw it twice, once just to translate the Latin and the second time to listen to the audio player that fills in the history. Bayeau is a fine walking town, with lots of nice brasseries for lunch or dinner. We liked La Fringale and went there twice.
We drove to Omaha Beach. It is hard to believe that American troops overcame the steep cliff, fortified with German bunkers. The American cemetery is very well cared for. After this visit, Hannah, Annie and Joel drove west to Mont St. Michel. Chris, Joan and I continued on to Utah Beach. Utah doesn’t have cliffs, just dunes. It did have bunkers emplacement in the dunes to deliver machine gun fire at the attackers. After Utah we drove to Ste. Mere Eglise, where the 82nd Airborne dropped in on D-Day. The town maintains a silk parachute, draped over one of the spires of its church; an American paratrooper got stuck there and hung for hours watching the battle. The airborne museum in Ste. Mere Eglise was perhaps the best of the many we toured. You could, for example, walk through a canvas glider. After a late lunch at a congenial English cafe, we returned to the chateau.
Annie and Joel split off from our tour to go visit Joel’s brother Dan in Switzerland.
Chris, Joan, Hannah and I drove east to Les Andelys, where the massive fortress of Chateau Gaillard looms over the Seine. Richard the Lionheart built it to block Philip Augustus of France from encroaching on possessions of the Plantagenets in Normandy. When Philip heard about it, he vowed to take it, even if it were made of iron. When Richard heard of Philip’s oath, he said that he could hold it against Philip even if it were made of butter. Which he did. But Richard’s brother John was no lionheart and, after he succeeded to the English crown, lost it to Philip. We found that we could not get up to it by car, because of a huge auto rally going on that had closed the access road. But we saw the fortress from the valley of the Seine and it looked formidable.
We drove on, along the left bank of the Seine, through wheat fields and small villages, to the town of Giverny. This town is all about French impressionist painters. Claude Monet’s house and gardens are open for touring. In his house I was struck by the large number of Japanese wood block prints he had. Many were by Hiroshige, a few by Hokusai and all others that I noticed were Edo Era. Monet had a water garden that was obviously influenced by a Japanese aesthetic. The downside to Giverny was the huge crowd of tourists. It seems to have been rebuilt recently to accommodate more visitors. But we found ourselves moving too slowly through the house and gardens. We skipped the museum.
We drove on to Paris. The Europcar center in Nanterre, a depressed western banlieu of the city, was closed. We couldn’t even just drop the car and put the key in a slot, because the site was gated. So we drove in to Paris center, right to our hotel, the Relais Christine, on the left bank, near Notre Dame. They have valet parking. Madam Maxine, the chic tailored deputy manager showed us to our rooms and also recommended a restaurant on the Ile de la Cite, le Caveau du Dauphine. We dined outside, enjoyed the meal and walked back to the relais.
Hannah and I departed early the next day. Taxi to the Gare du Nord, then the Eurostar train. This time we upgraded to First. Better seats. Arriving at St. Pancras Station, London, we took a cab to the Reform Club on Pall Mall.
The Reform Club is a reciprocal club of the Penn Club of New York, of which Hannah is a member. The Reform Club is about six times larger and much older. It was founded in 1836 to support the movement to reform Parliament, eliminating rotten boroughs and expanding the franchise. The interior is a magnificent work in marble. Ionic columns are on the ground floor. The mezzanine has Corinthian columns. Portraits of Whig and Liberal politicians (some of them perhaps statesmen) are on the walls. It has a huge library. The building was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who also did the Houses of Parliament. Barry was an aficionado of Italian neoclassicism and it shows.
The Reform Club has a strict dress code. In any of the public rooms, men must wear jackets and ties at all times (although you may remove your jacket, but not your tie, at breakfast). Women must wear the equivalent in feminine attire. If you are entering or leaving the club in casual attire, you may use the elevator at the front hall porter’s station, but may not enter the club’s public rooms.
After leaving our bags at the Reform Club, Hannah and I went to the Museum of London. It focuses on the history and archaeology of London. The most interesting stuff was Roman, but the museum brackets that era with Neolithic and medieval exhibits.
Back at the Reform Club, we dressed for dinner, had drinks in the garden and a very good meal in the Coffee Room, which is the club’s main restaurant. From the garden, you could walk to the garden of the Traveller’s Club next door and the garden of the Athenaeum next after that. The clubs don’t have barriers separating their gardens.
The next day we walked to the National Portrait Gallery. We’d never been there before. Because the portraits are displayed in a chronological order, it is an education in British history all by itself. Two American portraits are there: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. We had lunch in the top floor restaurant, which has a sweeping view from Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
After lunch we walked down Whitehall, stopping at Horse Guards. The Household Cavalry were away on their annual three-week horsemanship summer camp, so the guard consisted of two mounted crewmen of the Royal Horse Artillery. At first I thought they were hussars, but learned from the Horse Guards Museum staff who they were.
We walked on to Westminster Abbey. Horrific long lines, so we walked to the Thames to see if we could take a river cruise. Horrific long lines. Lots of Chinese tourists, by the way.
We took the tube to Knightsbridge and went to Harrod’s. This department store seems to have become a collection of high-end boutique brands. Its food court is still there, though. It reminded me of the great Japanese department stores that also feature food courts. We saw an elaborate memorial to Princess Diana and Dodie that his father created. It is surrounded by Egyptian-themed reliefs.
Then, took the tube to Green Park and walked back to the club via St. James’s Palace. Dressed again for dinner. Chatted in the garden with a club regular, Mary Collis, from Cambridge. Had a nice dinner again, then retired.
Had trouble getting to sleep, because of a racket outside. Helicopters were buzzing all over. Turned out it was a huge anti-terrorism exercise, Operation Bold Tower or something.
On Wednesday, July 1st, after another full English breakfast, I went to the Chamberlain’s office to settle our bill and we took a cab to Paddington Station. There we got tickets for the Heathrow Express. Having learned our lesson taking the Piccadilly tube line two weeks earlier, we even splurged another £8 apiece for first class. It was worth it. Air conditioned comfort and a fifteen minute ride to Heathrow.
Our British Airways flight to Philadelphia was as good as usual.