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Use Your Feet to Find Old London

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times


LONDON -- Look right! Look left!

For Americans used to traffic going in the opposite direction, those warnings painted on London streets can prevent an early end to a vacation. Getting smacked by a car that's coming from your right when you're looking to the left is all too real a threat in this increasingly traffic-clogged capital.

Yet you'll want to walk, and walk a lot: Like many great, old European cities, London is best seen on foot. In the space of a few miles you'll go from the bustling commercialism of Oxford Street, to the quiet elegance of Park Lane, to the soothing green of Hyde Park to the sophisticated trendiness of Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

If it's been years since your last visit, the city at first might seem to have lost some of its distinctive British charm and character. The big black taxis still rumble around town but now their sides are painted with giant ads for Snickers bars and Centrum vitamins. McDonald's and chain-owned steak houses are as prevalent as pubs.

But take heart. The sense of history remains strong and, in places, almost overwhelming.

Queen Elizabeth I is buried in Westminster Abbey; so are Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens. Pause a moment at the grassy courtyard with its mossy stone walls, and you can imagine the Abbey monks heading to vespers on a pleasant spring eve 700 years ago.

Walking tours are among the best ways to get to know London: Some especially good ones are offered by Historical Walks of London, whose yellow pamphlets giving times and meeting spots can be found in most hotels.

For 4.5 pounds (about $7.20), guides will help you relive a "City in the Blitz," including a visit to Churchill's secret underground war rooms, or usher you through the dark alleyways of Victorian Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper stalked and butchered his victims.

Other tours focus on Dickens and Shakespeare, the royalty and aristocracy, Sherlock Holmes and "Legal London," including stops at all four Inns of Court where British barristers have lived and trained since medieval times. Every day at 1 p.m. scores of future lawyers still dine at the ancient wooden tables of Middle Temple, where Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was first performed in 1601, and where Robert Louis Stevenson took the names of two real-life barristers -- Jekyll and Hyde -- for his classic tale of good and evil.

Even for a visitor from an ex-colony, the British monarchy exercises an enduring fascination. Provided you don't mind crowds, it's easy to get a taste of the traditional pomp of the Crown.

At 11:30 a.m. (daily in summer, every other day in winter), the guards at Buckingham Palace are changed in a colorful ceremony replete with bagpipers, bayonets and a marching band. Get there early to grab a good spot by the gate. Afterward, swing around the corner to the Queen's Gallery, which has rotating exhibits (upcoming ones include miniature portraits and photographs from the royal family's collection). From Aug. 8 to Oct. 5 this year, when the Queen and Prince Philip are away, part of the palace is open to the public.

For a welcome break from the urban hubbub, take the train to Windsor Castle, about 22 miles from London on a scenic stretch of the Thames River. This is where the Queen often spends her weekends -- on Sunday mornings you might see her riding her horse or motoring down the tree-lined boulevard to brunch with the Queen Mother at her nearby residence.

Windsor itself is a splendid storybook castle with battlements, turrets and lavishly furnished state apartments, some undergoing repairs from a disastrous 1992 fire.

Don't miss Queen Mary's dollhouse, a scale model of a 1924 London mansion complete with Rolls-Royces in the driveway, miniature bottles of real wine in the cellar and a tiny, working vacuum cleaner in the housemaid's room. Also on display are France and Marianne, life-size dolls and their exquisite wardrobes that were presented to the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during a long-ago state visit to France.

London boasts some of the world's finest museums -- the British Museum, with its treasures of empire; the National Gallery, with one of the foremost collections of paintings; the Tate and Courthauld galleries, with their renowned examples of Impressionist art; and the Victoria & Albert Museum, with a little bit of everything.

From now to July 27, the V&A is hosting "The Cutting Edge -- 50 Years of British Fashion." The exhibit, featuring more than 250 garments and accessories, coincides with a renaissance in British design rivaling that of the '60s heyday of Mary Quant and the Carnaby Street crowd.

Want to take home some British (or French or Italian) haute couture? Check out the chic boutiques of Knightsbridge and Chelsea, especially along Sloane Street and King's Road. Be forewarned -- the prices are steep.

Indeed, the exchange rate is so unfavorable to Americans and their dollars it's like throwing away more than half your money on arrival. There are, however, ways to keep down the costs. Most museums and department stories have restaurants -- Harrods alone has 18 -- where you can get a meal, snack or afternoon tea for a few pounds. And there's always McDonald's, especially for a cheap breakfast or lunch.

Although London's subway system (known as the tube or underground) has deteriorated in recent years, it remains an inexpensive, easy-to-understand way to get around. So do the picturesque double-decker buses, although they frequently get stuck in traffic. Visitors can buy travel cards for a few pounds that permit unlimited trips by tube or bus.

While hotels like the Savoy and Dorchester have prices that match their reputations, there are many smaller, perfectly adequate places to stay.

Typical is Durrants Hotel on George Street with rooms starting at under 100 pounds (about $160) a night and easy access to parks, shopping areas and tourist attractions. The plumbing in the older hotels tends to be quirky -- separate faucets for hot and cold can drive you bonkers trying to get the right water temperature -- but then again, how many Holiday Inns are around the corner from where Dickens once lived? For more information on London, contact the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; call (800) 462-2748; e-mail 74443.1520@compuserve.com

Originally published March 23, 1997



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