How could one place in this world seem to have everything, from classical to pop culture, for just about everyone, from tweens to the young at heart?
Well, London does have it all! Imagine, William Shakespeare, Harry Potter (aka JK Rowling), and the Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo) all hail from one nation, the United Kingdom.
And here I am, now, with my family, in 21st-century London, discovering their culture, in what has been the coldest Easter weekend ever recorded in UK history (-2°C versus 26°C same time last year).
We hadn’t spent 10 minutes reveling in awe at the Gothic revival architecture at St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel when staff member Holly asked if we wanted to see first the famous “Grand Staircase” where Harry Potter filmed his fight scenes in “Deathly Hallows.”
It was a jaw-dropping moment just seeing the Grand Staircase, restored to its 1901 state, with gold fleur-de-lis designs on deep red walls and decorative wrought-iron balustrades. The Grand Staircase has been the backdrop as well to many other films and videos, including the Spice Girls’ debut “Wannabe.”
Not long after did I hear about the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, 20 miles northwest of London, where the making of Harry Potter movies can be viewed and enjoyed for hours on end. Unfortunately, as my mom checked that night for tickets to purchase online, the next available date was already for the week of April 15th!
That’s why it was a most pleasant surprise to find out from our private tour guide Richard Bath, who used to be a presenter on BBC World in London, that we could, if we wanted, swing by Oxford University, where my mom took her post-graduate studies, as Christ Church College had been the location of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Hall in his very first movie installment, “The Philosopher’s Stone.”
It was another jaw-dropping moment when we reenacted the entering of the halls, where Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) welcomed young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) to Hogwarts Castle.
Not more than an hour’s car ride away from Oxfordshire, where Harry’s Hogwarts Hall was filmed, lay the final resting place of my beloved William Shakespeare, right in his birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, which is beautifully preserved in 16th-century Tudor grandeur.
There we visited the corner where his home with wife Anne Hathaway used to be (it was demolished by a Puritan, Reverend Francis Gastrell, in 1759); the home where his father, a glove maker, used to do his business; and where his daughters Susanna and Juliet and their husbands lived. (Shakespeare had a son, the twin of Juliet, but he died of unknown causes at age 11.)
Much like our present-day OFWs, Shakespeare often used to commute between Stratford-upon-Avon and London (a good two hours of road travel in a car, back then most probably on stagecoaches!) and spent most of his time in the city, where he amassed his wealth and nurtured his fame in what is now known as Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames.
Contrary to online sources, the Shakespearean expert onsite told us the Bard died on his birthday, the 23rd of April. This was in 1616, he was 52. I was overwhelmed by a sense of honor and respect just sitting next to Shakespeare’s grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity, just a five-minute walk from his home.
Of sonnets and monologues
Apart from experiencing Shakespeare’s life, we were treated to Shakespearean performers clad from head to toe in Tudor wardrobe in his dad John’s home, on hand to recite for us whatever sonnet or verse we wanted from any of his works.
On a whim, I hollered out for Sonnet 18, to the pleasant surprise of the two performers, who found in the audience a 16-year-old Shakespeare fan who came all the way from Manila, six thousand miles away from London!
And there the lady performer started in her thick old English accent, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” And with the guitar accompaniment by the senior male performer, we were whisked back to the 16th century.
Some thunderous applause later, the players asked for yet another request from the crowd. And my dad Dr. Gilbert Yang asked for an impromptu recital of Shakespeare’s monologue, “As You Like It.” And off the man went, with the white beard and holding the guitar, reciting the famous phrase from Act II, Scene VII: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” He orated the monologue so well we were completely frozen in time (in the sub-zero weather), until a round of applause broke our trance.
Yet another unexpected, pleasant surprise in our itinerary came when my dad mentioned in passing to our first private tour guide, Nigel Gilbert-Harris, that he was a raging Beatles’ fan.
So, Nigel thought, as we still had time on our hands that day, Good Friday (a bank holiday as they call it, when the streets of London were free of the usual traffic), why don’t we swing by the place where the Beatles had themselves photographed crossing the street for their album “Abbey Road” (described by Rolling Stone magazine as the band’s best ever released)?
And so we did, and found a couple of other crazed Beatles fans crossing what looked like a rather busy road (on a holiday!) with companions snapping photos of them while dodging passing cars and humongous double-decker buses, with some of the drivers turning irate and honking their horns!
What’s more, a live Earthcam was pointed right along the crossing, so for anyone who did cross the street (just as I, my dad, my mom and sister did), the live feed would be recorded and posted per hour for the next 24 hours on www.abbeyroad.com/crossing, for Beatles’ fans to enjoy and post on Twitter or Facebook.
If that wasn’t enough to satisfy any Beatles’ cravings, the legendary British band’s recording studio was just a few paces away from the Abbey Road crossing itself, while Paul McCartney’s lovely home along Cavendish Avenue was just minutes away by car.
There was so much of the City of London and its surrounding shires to take in for the six days we were there. And let’s not forget the musicals we enjoyed at the heart of the West End, from “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Victorian-inspired Her Majesty’s Theatre, to “The Lion King,” which Simba made famous at the Lyceum Theatre; and the Michelin-starred cuisine we savored at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s in upscale Mayfair.
But it was a journey well worth the cost and distance (around 13-15 hours each way, with connecting flights via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, jet lag and weather shock included—from 37 degrees to sub-zero Celsius and back).
And though we missed the glorious blooms of early spring, we did catch faint hints of it on our final day, as the sun blazed along our path back to Heathrow airport, with temperatures rising to 8°C.
Nevertheless, even as people of the UK would often fret about their changing weather, what won’t change is that they’ve got both the old (Shakespeare) and new (Harry Potter), preserving and constantly transforming their city and historic country into one of the best places to visit on earth.