LONDON — Career paths, marriage or divorce choices, perhaps even whether to continue with life itself … surely all of these issues are contemplated time and again in the spring sunshine that caresses London’s glorious St. James’s Park.
One end of the park’s 93 acres cushions such government buildings as the Foreign Office and the Admiralty. The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are just a couple of blocks away. The lawns, lake, shade trees and flower beds in between have soothed bureaucrats and politicians – and everyone else from romantic couples to overworked merchants — for more than three centuries.
But how many tourists would interrupt their schedule to sit on a bench and watch the ducks and pelicans? After all, this is one of the world’s most cultured cities, where history is on view most everywhere.
Well, visitors should take time to sit here, and stroll here. St. James’s almost forces calmness on you — the perfect tonic to hectic sightseeing. And while you’re relaxing here, double-check your itinerary to make sure it includes these places:
The Banqueting House: Both historically important and, on the inside, glorious. Designer Inigo Jones built this half-block-long palace for James I in 1622. Jones, having just returned from Italy, eschewed the prevalent ornate architecture for the symmetrical simplicity of Italy’s Palladian style.
But the reason to enter is to marvel at the series of paintings on the ceiling of the upstairs grand hall, which is 110 feet long. James’ son, Charles I, commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to glorify his father in those paintings, 55 feet above the floor. Ironically, Charles practiced few of the virtues alluded to in the ceiling murals, and in 1649 he was executed for treason — on a scaffold erected outside these second-story windows.
The entrance fee includes a helpful audio guide. Located on Whitehall, at Horseguards Avenue.
Westminster Abbey: Central to the history of England, as both a place of coronation and burial. The British empire’s greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson, used to rally his men during battle by shouting, “It’s Westminster Abbey or victory!” Admiral Nelson, however, was not buried here.
Every coronation since 1066 has taken place in the Abbey, which is still a functioning church. Visitors can almost touch the Coronation Chair, created in 1308.
There is so much here to see — and it becomes crowded with tour groups – that it is well worth paying the for the Abbey’s own narrated, 90-minute tours or audio guides.
The Abbey is immediately behind the Houses of Parliament, but the main entrance is off Broad Sanctuary, a continuation of Victoria Street.
The Wallace Collection: An engrossing collection of European porcelain, paintings, furniture, clocks and armor. The family gave the nearly 5,500 pieces, gathered by four generations, to the government with the proviso that it never be divided.
The items are displayed in 25 rooms of what had been the family mansion, more than a little off the beaten path. But here, the paintings alone include works by Rembrandt, Titian, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Watteau, Fragonard and Canaletto.
Entrance is free, though donations are suggested.
In Hertford House, on Manchester Square; from Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street, go north on Duke Street for six short blocks.
Other worthy stops in London:
/ Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park
/ St. Paul’s Cathedral
/ British Airways London Eye
/ Victoria and Albert Museum
/ National Portrait Gallery
/ Tate Modern
/ Highgate Cemetary (by tour ony)
/ Central Criminal Courts
And if you want to learn about the city from street level — and sometimes from observation points a few floors above — be sure to book one of the charming narrated tours offered by THE specialist, London Walks.