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Travel & Holiday

Merry streets of London

From changing of guards to performing jesters, the city offers all kinds of entertainment
The Straits Times - September 20, 2011
By: Winston Len
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Merry streets of London

LONDINUM: that was the name of the fortified town built by the Romans, a precursor to modern London. Over the centuries, the English kings, from the Normans to the Tudors, have expanded the place as if they were playing an elaborate game of SimCastle: We’ll add a palace or two, have a few gothic churches like Westminster Abbey. How about a parade ground for the horses?

My wife and I started our tour at the Horse Guards Parade, a large courtyard near Whitehall, where all the British government ministries are. Two cavalry squadrons from the Queen’s Life Guard faced each other with their swords drawn. Was there going to be a fight? No, this was a serious ritual: fresh troops were taking over guard duty.

In spring, London can be damp and grey, but as the horses wheeled in formation, the sun broke through and the city began to liven up. The  parade ground glowed, as if it were anticipating 2012, when the courtyard will turn into a beach volleyball court for the London Olympics. As the  horses trooped past us, a few of them whisked their tails playfully. When the sun is out, even warhorses want to play.

Marching ducks

The nearby St James Park had blossomed into colour. In the 17th century, the park was a royal zoo for King James, filled with exotic animals like camels, crocodiles and elephants. The more exotic animals are gone now, although birds of all kinds still nest here. Pelicans, tracing their lineage back to a gift from the Russian ambassador to King Charles II in 1664, lazed on rocks in the pond.

As we strolled, we saw squirrels race each other, flying nimbly from  garden fences to trees like trapeze artists. A troop of ducks was marching around in a comical hunt for breadcrumbs.

The city was as merry as a circus, and the fun continued in the streets.

Here come the jesters

Covent Garden is an upscale bazaar in central London filled with fashion houses, high-end cafés and shops. The Royal Opera House is here as well. Walking around, we found it hard to believe that it used to be a former fruit and vegetable market. But fruits can still be found here.

“Look!” my wife pointed at a juggler tossing a tennis ball, an orange, and  three red apples into the air.

“And there!” I nodded at a busker on a unicycle.

In medieval times, the Royal Court employed jesters. Nowadays, the jesters have become street performers, and they are all gathered in Covent Garden. When a ghoul, who looked like a Dementor from Harry Potter, howled at  us, we took a picture of him. “Thanks mate,” he said, floating away after we paid him.

While Covent Garden caters to high-end shopping, the markets in Camden Town in north-west London offer chic street fashion and curios for sale. The crowd is younger here, many of them into alternative looks. “Those aren’t performers, are they?” my wife whispered as a leather-attired posse walked towards us.

“Not exactly,” I said. The modern day Goths looked menacing until we saw one of them eating an ice-cream. Despite the sombre leather and  threatening studs, he looked happy.

All hail the queen

The next day, we went to Buckingham Palace. Victoria Memorial is right outside the palace gates. Perched atop the giant marble throne was a  statue of winged Victory, while Queen Victoria stared down from the  throne, a forbidding mien on her face. In 1837, she made Buckingham  Palace, a former townhouse, her royal residence. Surely the merriment cannot extend to such a serious place?

The drums struck. The royal band inside Buckingham Palace started playing. Clarinets thrilled and horns bellowed. The fur on the bearskin hat of a  drummer  shuddered as he banged away on a huge drum. Compared to the solemn Horse Guards Parade, the change of guards here was a musical ceremony.

While the crowd pressed forward to get a better look, I turned around. Above the memorial, winged Victory looked like she was dancing while a flock of ducks circled around. Did the light play tricks on my eyes? For a moment, I thought I saw Queen Victoria smile.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS:

■ Budget travel: Given the plethora of open-access sights and public  parks, you can tour London on the cheap by focusing on these areas. For tourists looking to indulge, the London Eye (£17 per person) is a Ferris wheel besides the River Thames, which affords a gorgeous view of greater
London on clear days.

■ Due to the unpredictable weather, many locals pack both umbrella and
sunglasses when they head out. You should too.

 

 

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