Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Taxi Tour of London

Strolling through the Hyde Park Garden Mews.
We met Maurice Negrello (he pronounces it Morris) on Friday night when he drove us in his taxi over to Cheyne Walk on the Embankment where we were meeting a friend for dinner. I’d asked him something about the neighborhood through which we were traveling and he gave me a very thorough and complete answer, adding as we moved along, pieces of information about what surrounded us. I told him he should give tours of the city to tourists like us. He said that he did. How much? The meter plus 25 pounds. That sounded good so we engaged him to pick us up at Brown’s Hotel on Saturday at 4. Which he did. The following is a photo record of our almost two-hour tour. The cost came to 75 pounds for the meter, 25 for Maurice, plus tip. Not everyone believes in tips. We do.

First things first. As we drove out of Albemarle Street, Maurice gave us a brief history of the founding of London, by the Romans, about 2000 years ago. It was called Londinium. It was a city of about 60,000 inhabitants. By the 4th or 5th century, the Roman Empire was in rapid decline and the Romans eventually left Londinium. Within a few years it was populated by the Anglo-Saxons who lived mainly around, but not in the Romans’ Londinium. It was another six centuries before England began to form as it is recognized today when William, Duke of Normandy, now as William the Conqueror killed the English king, Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings and was recognized as king (hence the Conqueror title). Thus began the Medieval period.
Our tour guide Maurice Negrello, 44-77-8899-4990.
The London we see today, however, began forming its architectural identity about the 16th century. It was then London became an important European commercial center. This was a period of mercantilism, of forming of monopoly trading companies like the British East India Company and the Russia Company, established by Royal Charter.  The British East India Company, for example ruled much of India, and the Tudors (Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) ruled England. Then in 1666, on a Sunday, second of September, at one o’clock in the morning, a fire broke out in a bakery. Nearly 60% of the city was destroyed in a matter of four days. Amazingly in a city of about a half million there were very few deaths, and only sixteen were recorded.

Our guide filled us with some of this information as he began driving us through the area immediate to the hotel (Brown’s), moving through a warren of streets, across Berkeley Square and out onto Park Lane. In the Roman times and following this path was the road that criminals were walked upon on their way to execution – which could include hanging and  draw-and-quartering. Little felonies, like stealing a piece of bread was good enough for such sentences. Because the execution was so torturous, and the walk from the jail to the scaffold was so long, the prisoner was allowed to stop along the way at three different taverns to get a drink so that by the time he arrived at his mortal destiny, he was pretty drunk, and therefore somewhat girded for the pain that lay ahead. This is, according to Maurice, the origination of the term “One for the road.”
The first area we passed through was alongside Hyde Park. There was a chapel that Eisenhower used for worship when he was headquartered in London during the Second World War. The area’s houses were built by developers in the early 18th century; rows up rows of attached houses for a wealthy clientele. Behind them were the Mews which housed the servants and the stables for the horses. Today these Mews houses are often more expensive to acquire than their original corresponding houses.
Above left: One of the forms of taxation in the early 18th century was on windows. As a result, homeowners often bricked-in windows to cut their tax assessment. The area was also dangerous in those days. Since the rich traveled by carriage, and much of the area was countryside, they were prey to highwayman. The very wealthy were escorted by their own security people on horseback.

Above right: The Hyde Park Gardens Mews with young equestriennes at the end riding and following their horses down to its stables.
Left: This is the house of James M Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan” which sits on the edge of Kensington Palace Garden (next to Hyde Park). Barrie used to go into the park where children were playing to read his stories to them. Legend has it, if the children didn’t react enthusiastically to a story, he re-wrote it or eliminated it. He was the first successful children’s book author and when he died he left his fortune to the Childrens’ Hospital. Right: A pub nearby, floral and flourishing.
Above and right: The most exclusive and expensive real estate in Kensington is inside these gates where the mansions abut the Park and sit in the neighborhood of Kensington Palace with all of its royal inhabitants.
The gates through which Diana drove to enter and exit her Palace apartments. Late in his life, Sir Winston Churchill lived at Chartwell and when he came to London he stayed in an apartment  in this building.
The other side of the Royal Albert Hall. The statue is again of the beloved and bereaved Prince Albert. There were many people coming from the building on Saturday afternoon, often formally dressed.
Row houses in Belgravia. Said to be the most valuable piece of privately owned real estate in London, Belgravia belongs to the dukes of Westminster, the Grosvenor family who developed and/or acquired it in the 1820s. Southwest of Buckingham Palace, it is bounded by Knightsbridge to the north, Grosvenor Place and Buckingham Palace Road to the east, Pimlico to the south and Sloane Street to the west. Parts of it are considered Knightsbridge, other parts Chelsea.
A pub in one of the mews in Belgravia. Pubs were often put up in a mews corner so that staffs would have a place to socialize and congregate.
The Museum of Natural History. This was the location of the first great Exhibition that was organized by Prince Albert in 1851. The façade of this building came later.
Left: The entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Right: The mosque of the Nizari Muslim, the largest branch of the Ismaili followers of the Shia faith. The Aga Khan is the hereditary title of the Imam of the Nizari Muslims. The father of the present Aga Khan, Aly Khan was also married to Rita Hayworth, with whom he had a daughter, Princess Yasmin.
The Brompton Oratory, the Roman Catholic Church where the American Ambassador in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, Joseph P. Kennedy, worshipped with his wife and children, including our 35th President John F. Kennedy.  After Henry VIII’s departure from the Catholic church, the Protestant churches sprang up. This is located right behind the Brompton Oratory.
Above and below: 14 Prince’s Gate which faces Hyde Park on Kensington Road, one of a Victorian row of mansions, which today are occupied by various embassies including the Iranian, the Tunisian, Moroccan and Ethiopian embassies. In the mid-19th century, one part of the house – which was then two – numbers 13 and 14 – was first rented by Junius Spencer Morgan, the American banker, in the 1850s. In the 1890s, after the death of Junius, his son J. Pierpont (“Jackie” to his friends) inherited it, along with his father’s business.

One of Morgan’s friends, Thomas Edison installed the first electric lights in the house, and filled it with his collection of fine art including works by van Dyke, Reynolds, Constable, Hoppner, Gainsborough, Velasquez, Turner, Rubens, Raeburn, Fragonard and Rembrandt; along with a vast collection of manuscripts and miniatures. Morgan was a voracious collector (his wife once remarked “he’d collect anything from a pyramid to Mary Magdalene’s tooth”). In 1904, Morgan bought number 14 and made it into one house. His son J.P. Morgan Jr. inherited it in 1913 but never lived there. He added the American Indian heads. In 1921, Morgan gave it to the US government as a residence for its ambassadors. In 1955, the American Ambassador Winthrop Aldrich left the building because of fears of terrorism in the area. It was first acquired by the Independent Television Authority and now belongs to the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Above left: The site of the house on the left of these buildings behind Harrod’s was where author Jane Austen lived in another house in the years 1814 and 1815.

Above right: This house was for many years the home of Victorian music hall star Lillie Langtry. It was here where she was frequently visited by Queen Victoria, eldest son, the Prince of Wales, husband of Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, father of King George V. and grandfather of The Duke of Windsor, great-grandfather of Elizabeth II. Bertie, as he was known lived into his sixties before he succeeded his mother on the throne, and before that time acquired many liaisons, the most famous of which was Miss Langtry and later Mrs. Keppel, sister-in-law of the Earl of Albemarle, and great-great-grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Charles, the present Prince of Wales. Round and round we go.
This little green building, one of a few still left in London, is a tiny restaurant (seats about ten) where cabbies can take a break on the day and have a hot meal, cooked inside also. Upper Belgrave Street, Belgravia, home of many mansions and many embassies.
The house of Dame Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister in Chester Square. The house of Alfred Lord Tennyson on Upper Cavendish Street, six floors, building in 1840, now divided into luxury flats.
Flags set out on the Mall for Trooping the Color which takes place on the Queen’s Official Birthday which is in June (the Queen’s actual birthday is April 21). The custom began in the reign of Charles II in the 17th Century when the colors of a regiment were used as a rallying point in battle and were trooped before the soldiers every day to make sure everyone recognized his own regiment. In 1805 the parade that it inspired was held to celebrate the sovereign’s (at that time George III) birthday. The Queen used to attend on horseback but now rides in a carriage. More than 1400 officers and men are on parade along with 200 horses, 400 musicians from ten bands march and play as one. The parade extends from Buckingham Palace to Whitehall and back.  At exactly 11, the Royal Procession arrives and the Queen takes the Royal Salute. After the event the Royal Family gathers on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch an RAF jet fly past.
Buckingham Palace seen from the Mall. A Horse Guard stationed outside the Palace. When there are two at each entrance it signifies that the Queen is present. On this day there was only one: the Queen was at the Derby and probably spending the night at Windsor.
St. James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII for his bride, his second wife Anne Boelyn. Three years later, she was out and executed. Today (and for many years) the Palace is used for diplomatic Court Presentations.
Back at Brown’s Hotel, a new bride and groom arrive for a reception while a disinterested passerby checks his cellphone messages.

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