After our illuminating trip through the world of the Royal Society, we were ready for lunch. We chose the restaurant located on the ground floor of the Grand Hotel, within sight (“a mere 77 paces”) of Trafalgar Square. Built in the 1880s, it was once the Hotel Victoria. Seven floors, five hundred rooms, electric lights…and four bathrooms (it was the 1880s, after all.) Its ballroom was one of the biggest in London, and an elegant billiard room filled the basement. It all ended with World War II. In 1940, the Ministry of Defense took over the hotel, and it became one of the many nerve centers of the British war effort. Primitive computers filled what was once the restaurant. The ballroom became a lecture hall, where military experts and intelligence officers briefed civil defense workers. After the war, the old Hotel Victoria was a musty shell of its former self, still owned by the government but underused and in bad shape. After finally being sold, it returned to the hospitality business in 2010, reopening as the Grand at Trafalgar Square.
The Grand’s restaurant, known as Boyds Grill & Wine Bar, was lit by vintage chandeliers from 1914, and the original marble and onyx walls were once again in evidence, having been covered over during the war years. After a starting course of duck wings, Shannon had the sea trout, I had the cottage pie, and Cam had their “hot dog of the week,” which I regretted not getting myself. We don’t keep hot dogs in the house because they’re fundamentally disgusting — the processed-scrap, bottom-feeders of the lunch meat world, not even fit to be categorized as a “sausage.”
But goddamn, do I love a grilled hot dog. I once made a vow to myself to never turn down the opportunity to have a hot dog outside of the house, be it a ballgame, barbecue, or gourmet restaurant. I broke that vow today, and was a little remorseful as I saw Cam devour his southwestern-themed dog, covered in cheese and hot sauce. The cottage pie was fine, though.
After lunch, Cam and I were the only ones really interested in seeing the Churchill War Rooms. Shan and her parents hopped a bus to head back to the Airbnb for an afternoon of rest and reading. We would meet again that evening in London’s East End for another walking tour, this time dedicated to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Cam and I struck out on foot towards Whitehall.
We turned southwest at Trafalgar Square, passed under the 1912 structure known as the Admiralty Arch and began walking down the Mall, which, if we followed it all the way, would lead us to Buckingham Palace. We turned left on Horse Guards Road instead, heading towards the Churchill War Rooms, and found ourselves in the sector of London known as Whitehall.
Whitehall was named for Whitehall Palace, which once occupied this entire area. The old Palace of Westminster, since 1049 the seat of the English monarchy, was viewed with increasing royal disfavor by the early Tudor era. With its cold medieval feel and immense echoing hall, Westminster Palace was an outdated relic. It was being used more and more for meetings of Parliament, anyway. A hundred yards downriver was York House, owned by Henry VIII’s discredited advisor Cardinal Wolsey. Once Wolsey had fallen from favor in 1530, Henry swiped the mansion for himself, renamed it White Hall, and turned it into a rambling, 1500-room edifice with luxurious private apartments for both king and whoever his queen happened to be at the moment. No more would the king’s court live and work communally in a drafty, stone-floored “great hall.” Now there would be smaller, plusher rooms. The king would meet people in a “presence chamber.” Business would be conducted mostly behind closed doors.
The era of Whitehall Palace came to an end in 1698, with its near-total destruction by fire. The official royal household moved on to St. James’s Palace. The only structure of Whitehall left to see today is its Banqueting House.
The street called Whitehall is now home to most of the administrative offices of the British government. The home and offices of the Prime Minister, Downing Street, is a side street off of Whitehall. The term “Whitehall” is often used as shorthand for the entire British government (or at least its foreign policy arm), much as “Wall Street” represents the American financial world.
Underneath the Treasury Building, not far from Downing Street, is a set of bomb-proof basement rooms from which World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed the course of Britain’s role in the conflict. In various forms, these subterranean bunkers, including a Cabinet Room and a Map Room, have been open to the public since 1984. After an expansion to include Churchill’s private quarters and a major 2005 remodel, the Churchill War Rooms (now operating under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum) saw a surge in popularity. So much so that when Cam and I approached them, our hearts sank to see the size of the line. Near the beginning of the line, an official-looking portly gentleman in a vest and holding a shade umbrella kept repeating the mantra of “Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait. Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait…”
We bailed, and decided on the spur of the moment to make the obligatory Beatles fan pilgrimage to Abbey Road in the upscale neighborhood of St. John’s Wood.
The abbey the road was named for was the Kilburn Priory, a small community of nuns that existed from 1134 to 1536, nothing of which remains except some chunks of masonry and an old well.
Behind its graffiti-covered outer walls, the front of Abbey Road Studios looks like the 1831 Georgian townhouse it once was. When the Gramophone Company acquired the property in 1929, it built its recording facility on top of what was once a very extensive back garden. The townhouse facade has always been used as administrative offices only. The Gramophone Company merged with a few others to form Electric and Musical Industries, Ltd. (EMI).
One of EMI’s subsidiary record labels, Parlophone, signed a promising young band from Liverpool in the summer of 1962, and they spent almost all of their remarkable recording career within the confines of what was then called simply “EMI Recording Studios.” The facility has three recording spaces — massive Studio One, designed for large orchestras, mid-sized Studio Two, and the little Studio Three. The Beatles made use of all of them at one point or another, but their home base was Studio Two. The early puppy-love singles which rocketed them to fame, the twin masterpieces Rubber Soul and Revolver, the psychedelic epic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the fragmented but no-less-epic The Beatles (“White Album”), and almost everything else — all cooked up in that one building, mostly in that one room.
Their Get Back project, an attempt to perform a live concert of all-new material in January 1969, did not go well. Internal tension between the band members, and collective boredom with the whole Beatles thing, was at its height*. The desultory run-throughs of the new songs were shot by a documentary crew (at Twickenham Film Studios) and the songs were duly put on tape under the supervision of Glyn Johns (at their self-owned Apple Studios, not at Abbey Road). The “concert” ended up being a brief lunch-hour performance from the roof of their Apple office on Savile Row. Iconic as it is now, the rooftop show seemed anti-climactic back then. Apart from the title single which came out that spring, the Get Back project was temporarily shelved.
There actually wasn’t a clear division between the end of the Get Back sessions and the beginning of what came to be Abbey Road. As late as April 1969, they recorded things like “Oh! Darling” and “Something” under the impression they were for the completion of the earlier project. When it became clear the Get Back project was a fizzle (for now), the Beatles decided put their differences aside, summon their long-time producer George Martin, and craft one more well-polished studio gem as a proper cap to their career. Over the summer of ‘69, the walls of Studio Two were witness to the creation of “Come Together,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Because,” and several others that formed the sonic tapestry of their final project**, including the aptly titled “The End.” The resulting album is a lot of people’s favorite — it’s filled with good energy, more close three-part harmonies than any of their recordings in years, and tinged with the perfect amount of elegiac, end-of-the-ride sadness. (Despite this, the ever-mercurial Beatles did briefly entertain plans for a follow-up album, with a democratic track listing of four Lennon songs, four McCartney songs, four Harrison songs — and two for Ringo if he wanted — but business/managerial disputes sunk the idea, and ultimately the band.)
As recording was winding down in early August, the band and their associated assistants and recording engineers were having a brainstorming session for what the album’s cover should look like. Ideas were growing more grandiose and expensive. There was even talk of calling the album Everest and shooting the cover in the Himalayas. Finally, McCartney said, “Look, let’s just go outside, shoot the photo there, call the LP Abbey Road, and have done with it.” Brilliant. The title and the cover decided in one stroke of impatience.
The cover photo was taken by freelance photographer Iain Macmillan on a warm, sunny August 8, 1969, at about 11:35 am. Paul had strolled over from his nearby house on Cavendish Avenue wearing a very-1969 ensemble of suit and sandals. Macmillan stood on a stepladder near the intersection of Abbey Road and Grove End Road.
Over the next ten minutes or so, a policeman held traffic so Macmillan could get his shots. He managed six photographs of the band using a “zebra” crossing just south of the studio gate to troop back and forth six times. Paul kicked off his sandals after the first set of crossings, and lit a ciagerette after the second. Shots 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 were useless — everyone was too awkwardly spaced.
But shot number 5 — magic.
The album came out on September 26, and ever since, that one little intersection in a shady London suburb has been one of London’s major tourist attractions. The studio was officially renamed “Abbey Road Studios” in 1985.
Cam and I arrived via tube. London is one of the best walking cities I’ve ever experienced, but St. John’s Wood is just a little too far north for the amount of time we had. We walked up Grove End Road, the sun had just come out from a bank of clouds, we rounded a bend…and there it was. The crosswalk. Actually standing on the spot, it was pretty nondescript. There are hundreds of identical zebra crossings throughout the city, and the street itself looks a little narrower than it appears in the wide-angle photo. There weren’t as many people as I expected hovering around, and those that were there were like us — just hanging out quietly, talking amongst themselves, and enjoying being in this very special place. A few empty beer bottles were dumped in some nearby shrubs, but otherwise the scene was perfect. There was no Volkswagen Beetle with a 28 1F license plate, but the leafy trees and red brick flats on the edge of the picture were still there and wonderfully familiar.
Every few minutes, someone would try to replicate the album cover. They had to be quick, because Abbey Road is a somewhat busy street, and I firmly believe local motorists make a sport of how close they can come to hitting someone posing for a photo. The resultant pictures are mostly of people running across Abbey Road, probably with a car bumper at the edge of the frame.
After soaking up the atmosphere for awhile, there really wasn’t much else to do. The still-busy recording studio doesn’t offer tours. We crossed the famous crossing one more time, and decided to hit another Beatles location within walking distance — Marylebone Station.
Marylebone Station was the train station featured in the opening sequence of Beatles’ first movie, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, as the group are pursued by the usual mob of crazed teenage fans and the title song plays. The actual opening shot of the group running up a side street was indeed filmed on a side street — Boston Place, which runs alongside the station.
We hopped on the tube at Marylebone to do a little celebrity stalking. Monty Python’s Michael Palin has published three volumes of detailed diaries, and without actually coming out and stating his address, has made enough references to his domicile’s location scattered throughout the three volumes that a careful reader can piece together exactly where you would find him if you wanted to knock on his door. Not that we would be so rude. I just wanted to get a look at the place in person.
Like any metro train line, the London Underground is very user-friendly once you decipher its multicolored map. Every once in awhile, though, if you get too complacent, you can find yourself screwed up and turned around. We got on the wrong line once, and had to double back. That put us behind schedule, and also put our Oyster cards at a dangerously low level.
Just before we made a line transfer at Charing Cross station, I stopped by the automated Oyster kiosk to top them off. I couldn’t figure out why the machine kept rejecting my debit card. It would take it in a little ways, and then spit it back out. I gave it one hard final shove, and it disappeared forever.
It turns out I was putting it in the cash slot. The small, very-poorly marked card swiper was a little ways above it. After several of my attempts to force my card in, the machine must have internally shrugged and thought, “All right, I guess it is cash,” and swallowed it up. Luckily, afternoon rush hour hadn’t quite started, so there wasn’t a line forming behind me as I dealt with my idiocy. I topped off the Oyster card with my emergency back-up credit card, and soon we were in lively Kentish Town.
Kentish Town was an explosion of color. One of the first buildings you see has a large “Welcome to Kentish Town” mural. There is other graffiti, some of it so well done it seemed to be more civic pride than vandalism. (I apologize to any property owners who may disagree, but there’s so much of it that it seems to be unofficially tolerated.) The shops along Kentish Town Road had doors and window frames painted in vivid blues, greens, and oranges. People of all nationalities and sometimes exotic garb were in and out of the shops, and music blared from upstairs windows and passing taxis. With a pretty lengthy walk and dwindling time ahead of us, Cam and I did not linger, but headed uphill to the more sedate environs of Gospel Oak.
Gospel Oak was more high-market than neighboring Kentish Town, certainly, but it still did not seem like a proper abode for someone who is a fairly decent-sized celebrity, at least in Britain. Palin noted in his journals he considered selling the place many times, but is simply too attached to it. It’s the first place he bought when the TV money started coming in. Other celebrity pals were also surprised that he stayed rooted so firmly in such humble environs. “Nonsense,” said George Harrison when he saw the place. “It’s to be a mansion in the country for you, Palin!” His pronouncement never came to pass.
Over the years, Palin did drop a little coin on his property, buying up two adjacent houses, and connecting them all internally around a central courtyard. None of this is visible from the street. Chez Palin looks like three modest, well-cared for townhouses, with a small home security system notice posted to warn off intruders. A pair of silver, newish Volkswagen hatchbacks were parked in front. (In the 70s, he drove Citroens. Palin was never a flashy car guy.) Someone was clearly moving around behind partially closed blinds in a downstairs window. Could it be…? We strolled respectfully by, not even stopping to take a picture. (No, I’m not going to give an address. If you want to know where it is, read his diaries. It’s not hard to figure out.)
Back down to Kentish Town and onto the tube, for the first time heading into London’s East End.
Unlike the posh West End, London’s East End — particularly the district of Whitechapel, where we emerged from the tube station — has always been associated with Victorian poverty. Whitechapel was once rife with overcrowded tenement houses filled with immigrant laborers, rampant crime, down-on-their-luck women reduced (often by alcoholism) to prostitution to pay for their nightly bed in a flophouse. Whitechapel was once a dangerous warren of rambling streets and narrow alleys. People came and went at all hours, some of them engaged in shady activities, many more of them honest laborers working very late or starting very early. The feeble street gaslights, installed at irregular intervals, often could not penetrate the sooty gloom.
In the 1880s, a bed for the night cost around 4 pence, a pint of ale 3 pence. A prostitute’s services were on a sliding scale between the two. For that price, the “gentleman caller” would take his prize into one of the many dark alleys, she would lift her copious amount of skirts (semi-homeless, most of them had to wear everything they owned), and what was known as a “knee-trembler” would ensue up against a grimy wall. Usually within moments, the transaction would be over, the prostitute would purchase her next pint or bed for the night, and the man would go about his business, perhaps to a tenement or flophouse of his own, or perhaps grabbing a cab back to the West End to wash off his night of illicit cruising.
In the late summer and fall of 1888, the prostitutes of the East End had a new problem to face. Someone was stalking them, and performing brutal eviscerations on those unlucky enough to cross his path on the wrong night. He soon became known as “Jack the Ripper,” based on how he allegedly signed a taunting letter to London’s Central News Agency. Although serial murders had undoubtedly happened before, Jack the Ripper became the first media-sensationalized serial killer.
The “Whitechapel Killings,” as they were known at the time, encompassed eleven murders over four years. Only five (possibly six), however, were later credited to the figure known as Jack the Ripper, and they were carried out over just a couple of months. The “canonical five” — Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly — were of neccessity mostly killed quickly and quietly, either through manual strangulation (or actually, “throttling,” which cuts off the blood supply rather than oxygen), or a quick slash across the throat. Most of the “ripping” took place post-mortem. The victims would be disemboweled, with some of the internal organs left at the scene, some taken away as keepsakes. Only Elizabeth Stride escaped mutilation. It is believed the killer was interrupted by an oblivious passerby before he could really go to town. Frustrated, he took out (and thoroughly gutted) Catherine Eddowes later that same night. The victims were all killed out of doors, except one. Mary Jane Kelly was murdered in her rented room, and may not have had a quick, silent death. The killer could take his time, without fear of interruption. Read the details of her fate if you have a strong stomach.
After Kelly’s murder on November 9, Jack the Ripper vanished. Other murders entered the “Whitechapel Killings” case file over the next couple of years, but none matched the ferocity of the summer/fall 1888 crimes. No one was ever caught in connection with any of the Whitechapel Killings. None of the wild theories that have been postulated ever since come close to being plausible. In all likelihood, Jack the Ripper’s true identity will never be known.
When Cam and I emerged into Whitechapel that evening, it was a very different Whitechapel. Now home to a thriving population of Bengali Muslims, most of the old tenements and slums have been swept away, either through revitalization programs or the Nazi bombs of WWII. Many of the former haunts of Jack the Ripper would be unrecognizable to him or anyone who shared his time and place. The silk-weaving shops and fruit markets of Brick Lane have been replaced by curry houses, seemingly one in every other building. This tour was going to take a lot of imagination.
We actually made it a little early, and after all that walking I was dehydrated and dying for a beer. Not far from the Aldgate tube station, I spotted a likely looking place. It sported the typical pub livery (gold letters on a black lacquered background) and a good pub name (“The Nag’s Head”), but as I walked up to the door, I noticed the windows were blacked out and the entrance was guarded by a doorman. Then I saw the sign on the door itself: “Gentleman’s Club: All-Topless Revue.” Such was my thirst, and so short the time, I glanced at my newly-adult son and briefly considered leading us in. I came to my senses, and the search continued. A pub is on every damn corner of the city except here! Finally, one appeared like an oasis in the desert. We slaked our thirst — thank you, Indo of Whitechapel Road — and hustled back to meet Shannon and her dad.
No private tour for us this time. We were joined by a couple of dozen other folks with an interest in the macabre, and met up with our Ripper tour guide. We sometimes crossed paths with about three other large tour groups working the streets that evening. Part showman, part scholar, tour guide Philip would be leading us through several spots associated with Jack the Ripper and his victims, none of which really existed as they once did.
Philip looked a little like Bizarre Foods’ Anthony Zimmern, and sounded a little like Ricky Gervais (minus the annoying giggle). He was good company for the next ninety minutes or so. I promptly bought his book on Amazon. The murder sites of Nichols and Stride were too far in the opposite direction from the rest of the tour, so they were left out. The non-canonical Martha Tabram murder site was included because it was convenietnly close. As we walked down the Tabram site alley, Whitechapel showed it could still be a little sketchy. We passed two guys silently splitting a case of beer who glared menacingly at us, and a toothless woman wrapped in a blanket shouted, not at us but past us, at something only she could see.
Of the other three official victims, two were found behind what are now modern storefronts. Only one — Catherine Eddowes — was found in what is still a public square. Mitre Square was just over the boundary of the City of London, in the shadow of the pickle-shaped modern skyscraper known as the “Gherkin,” and that site was the conclusion of the tour.
My overworked cell phone was dead by the time we reached Mitre Square, so I was unable to get a picture of it. However, Philip the Tour Guide pointed out that Shannon happened to be standing on the exact spot where Catherine Eddowes was found.
At the end of the tour, we popped into the pub just opposite Mitre Square, the Craft Beer Co. at St. Mary Axe. Cam was the only one really hungry, so he ordered the ham-and-cheddar pie. With visible effort by the barman, a brick-like slice was carved off the full specimen stored under glass since who-knows-when, and served at room temperature. I found its appearance off-putting, actually, but Cam declared it just fine and left not a crumb. As the sun ducked behind the high-rises and the rats began to quite brazenly scamper in the gutters of Mitre Street, we summoned an Uber.
It was our last night in London. I was in the basement of the Airbnb doing a load of laundry, freshly-showered but already sweating through my t-shirt, and thinking London shouldn’t feel like Manila. Did I mention the heat wave? Then I remembered I should probably call my bank. Luckily, ten at night in London is still business hours in California…
*The forthcoming Peter Jackson documentary seems to indicate the Get Back sessions weren’t quite as miserable as Beatle mythology has made them out to be.
**If you go by release dates, Let It Be was their last official album. The Get Back project was revived because the Beatles owed one more movie on their United Artists contract. The footage of them rehearsing their aborted concert was released as the documentary Let It Be in May 1970. A Beatles film needs an accompanying soundtrack album, so the January 1969 tapes were dug out of storage, given some tasteless orchestral overdubs by noted sick nut Phil Spector, and became the patchwork and somewhat below-par “final” Beatles album. Even though its release followed Abbey Road, the Beatles themselves feel that Abbey Road is their true final artistic statement.