Mar 21

Day Four: Kensington

by in museum, V and A

Our earliest appointment this day was at 10:30 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, so we ate a leisurely breakfast before heading to the station to board the train to Victoria and, from there, the tube to Kensington. It was another bitterly cold day, so we bundled ourselves up appropriately, me fervently wishing I’d brought one of my favorite wool hats! As you can see, Benjamin was wrapped from top to toe, ready for the day in his borrowed stroller. After arriving in South Kensington, I couldn’t figure out which side of the station we’d exited on, so I stopped to ask a newspaper vendor for directions to the V&A Museum. Mistake! He sent us completely around our elbow to get to our toe, far out of the way toward Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace. After we’d gone about half a mile, I felt this had to be the wrong way to go, but I didn’t have my map with me, so on we trudged. After three blocks, we were forced to make a right turn (building ahead!), and I spotted Kensington Palace across the road. That’s when I knew we’d been sent in the opposite direction, so we headed back down toward the station, me looking for Exhibition Street, which was my memory marker for the museum.

We arrived rather breathlessly at 10:45am, 15 minutes late for my appointment with the costume curator, Susan North. Now, in my folly, I had not printed out Susan’s note with her phone extension on it, and when I asked for her at the desk, I said, “Susan Hunt.” Why I did this is beyond me, as Suzi had already corrected me on this in an early email when I got the name mixed up! I guess the mistake just stayed in my head. The poor ladies at the desk could find no “Susan Hunt” in the directory (naturally!), and when they called up to the fashion and textile office, they got an answering machine. They also called the other information desk to find out if anyone was waiting for me or had asked for me. No dice. So, Bria and I headed into the fashion exhibit, telling the ladies at the desk we’d be there if Susan Hunt ever turned up (which, of course, she didn’t!). I forgot to take out my camera the entire time, so these are all Bria’s from the V&A.

After browsing the fashion exhibit, we headed into the wonderful British galleries (1500-1780s), Bria stopping to snap lots of pictures. After that, we walked over to the medieval galleries, which were in the midst of being revamped. The only place open was the plaster cast room, which contains life-sized replicas of some of the most famous sculptures (pagan and Christian) in the world. Many were breathtakingly huge, and we wondered how on earth they were placed in the room! An artist was in this room with a large sheet spread out on the floor, sketching the exhibit in charcoal. Her work was really spectacular. Along one side of the gallery were many tomb effigies from the 12th and 13th centuries:

We wandered around, open-mouthed and exclaiming like a couple of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” until we decided it was time to head to Kensington Palace. We had noon lunch scheduled in Kensington’s Orangerie with Suzi Clarke and her friend, Anne, and we wanted to be in time for that!

The walk back to Kensington was cold but worth it. We went through the long park, passing the incredible memorial to Prince Albert placed by grieving Queen Victoria. It really is a sight to behold–more like a pagan shrine to a god than a memorial to a mere man, I must say! But we all know how Victoria loved Albert. He sits there in gilded majesty, looking kinglike save for the missing crown. He is surrounded by intricate sculptures, and paintings adorn the sides of the pergola under which he sits. There’s a big fence around this memorial that didn’t used to be there years ago — a testament to the times, I suppose. Though I can’t see why a terrorist would want to blow up Albert, as he sits alone in the middle of a vast park! Below is a close-up of his statue. It really is amazing.


We wended our way through the long park, enjoying the spring flowers beginning to peek out, and finally making our way to the palace proper. We passed this statue of Queen Victoria on our way around to the entrance:

As we passed the sunken garden, we could see the Orangerie on the right:

In Victoria’s time, this would have been a hothouse to grow fruit. It has now been transformed into an utterly charming restaurant:

We had arrived a few moments early, so we took our seats to wait for Suzi and Anne, who arrived only a tick or two later — perfect timing! Somehow in all the fun of greetings and eating, I totally forgot to get a photo of us together. Phooey. Suffice it to say that lunch was delicious and dessert exquisite. I had the traditional beef stew, while Bria had a rich broccoli soup. For dessert, Bria tried the raspberry meringue, and I had the special “Orangery Cake”–lemon and orange with citrus frosting. And, naturally, I added a pot of Earl Grey to my lunch! It was all prepared perfectly and served beautifully, and the atmosphere so friendly and warm. It will be such a delight to take our entire group to this wonderful place for lunch in the fall! Suzi and I talked over the itinerary, she providing lots of excellent suggestions for our day in Greenwich and talking about settling our museum dates. I told her I hadn’t been able to find Susan at the V&A, and she gave me a look of blank astonishment when I said, “Susan Hunt.” She then reminded me that the name was Susan North, and I felt like such an idiot! So I’d missed our appointment for no good reason–just my bad memory! I wrote an email of apology to Susan that night!

After a lovely hour’s visit, we parted ways, Bria, Benjamin, and I heading into the Palace for our short tour. Photography is, unfortunately, not allowed inside the palace, which is a shame. We skipped the audio tour, as we were short on time, but I hear it is excellent, and that’s what we’ll be doing this fall. At right you see the front exterior of the palace behind its low brick wall (close-up below). It has a wing to the far left as well. The interior has its grand spaces and amazing rooms, but when you see the Princess Victoria’s bedroom, you’re rather astonished that it isn’t grander. Then you recall her rather unhappy childhood and realize it’s just as it would have been. In one room is an exact replica of the dress Victoria wore on her first day as queen when she met with her privy counselors. It’s a black dress (mourning for King William) with a white pelerine–really very pretty. And when you see it, you realize afresh how small Queen Victoria was. She’d have come just above my shoulder.

We had a lovely time going through the rooms and halls of the palace, though we had to carry Benjamin’s stroller up and down several flights of stairs. Good exercise! There is a current exhibit about the last debutantes presented at court (to Queen Elizabeth II in 1958). The debutantes donated many of their gowns, stockings, gloves, and even lipstick to the exhibit. There’s a fun room where you can try out dance steps of the 1950s or learn a proper curtsey (the deep, bending kind you give to royalty at court). All in all, it was a fun stop, and I know our fall tour folks are going to enjoy it, especially as the gardens will be fuller then (they were just stirring to life while we were there).

From Kensington, we were slated to hop a bus to Brompton Cemetery so I could perform a favor for a family friend. I had in my possession a giant skeleton key to one of the most famous mausoleums in all of London. According to legend, this tomb inspired the father’s tomb in “The Phantom of the Opera.” It dates back to 1915, when oil tycoon James McDonald I was buried there. His wife and son are also buried with him, but no one since. James McDonald V lives in the states and asked if I’d drop by and check on the mausoleum, as it hadn’t been opened in years. He wanted to ascertain its condition and see if any cleaning or repairs needed to be done. Needless to say, this was a very exciting errand! Having been provided with a map to the cemetery, I was armed and ready. Bria and I headed back over toward South Kensington Station to find the right bus stop for our bus, but it eluded us. It was not in the spot the map told us it should be, so I finally went into a Whole Foods market that offered home delivery, figuring they should know what is where. Sure enough, they knew where we needed to go, and as we trotted up the street, we spotted our bus just reaching the curb. Hurrah!

It took about fifteen minutes to get to Brompton, but the street we stepped out onto provided no clues as to the location of the cemetery, and I wasn’t sure if we should turn right or left. Looking left, I spotted a funeral home office and knew they’d be able to direct me. I popped in the door and was greeted by such a stereotypical sight that it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Two grave men (pun intended, I assure you!) were seated at matching desks, both wearing black suits with vests and black ties. Oh, how English! It was like something out of a Dickens novel. I fought back my smile and tried to look appropriately sober as I asked for the way to Brompton Cemetery. The younger man stood up and asked my business at the cemetery, to which I replied, “I’ve got a key to a mausoleum that I am to open and inspect.” He did not even bat an eyelash but replied, “Quite right; quite right.” Then he led me back to the doorway and pointed out where I needed to go — just two blocks down to the right. I thanked him and rejoined Bria, grinning at the whole scene. I’m sure it’s probably beyond normal in Britain to encounter Victorian-looking undertakers with three-piece suits, but it just tickled me!

We walked briskly down the street and entered the enormous cemetery gates. I was pretty sure we were at the wrong end of the cemetery, as this did not match my map, so I stepped into the “Friends of Brompton” office for assistance. The chap who came out positively pounced on the key and exclaimed, “We don’t have a copy of that; any chance you could have a duplicate made?” I promised I’d ask and followed his directions through the cemetery to the other side, passing the gigantic cemetery office in the center:

Now, this cemetery is famous for more than this mausoleum, of course. There are many well-known people buried here, but it is best remembered as being a favorite haunt of Beatrix Potter, who found on tombstones names for many of her beloved animal characters. There is a “Tom Nutkins” buried here, as well as a “Peter Rabbet” and a “Jeremiah Fisher.” You can read about this fascinating discovery HERE. There are many beautiful tombs and monuments in the cemetery, including lots of carved angels (so popular during Victorian and Edwardian times). Here are a couple I snapped as I passed:


We finally reached the mausoleum at the far end of the cemetery. It was certainly on the largest plot, surrounded by a large patch of ground where other tombs were positively crammed together. Quite an impressive sight–very art nouveau and very ornate, guarded by two angels on either side of the door:



Years of pollution and rain have made it look like the right-hand angel is crying. The door also had a green patina from years of rain and snow. It was no doubt bronze or possibly copper (more likely bronze):

As you can see, the glass has been broken out of the bottom of the door behind the floral design–a great pity. This must have occurred many years ago, as no traces of glass remain inside the tomb. You can see what the glass used to look like in this detail shot of the upper door:

It was now time for the moment of truth. Out came the key, and I swung aside the little rectangle covering the keyhole. Bria snapped a shot of me trying the lock:

The key turned in both directions, but, after a certain point, it would not budge. Vastly disappointed, I determined to see if I could find someone to help at the cemetery office. Accordingly, I marched back to the center of the cemetery and knocked at the door. No answer. I’d passed a policeman on a bicycle on my way around the building, so I headed back in his direction. He was just finishing up a conversation with an elderly gentleman when I walked up. I asked him if he might be able to assist me, and, when I showed him the key, his face lit up. In a thick cockney accent, he said, “Oi was just about ta ‘ave a cup uv tea over in the office, love. Why don’t you step in and ‘ave a look at the keys we ‘ave ‘angin’ around?” I followed him through the massive green door and watched as he fished around through several drawers before triumphantly producing a grocery bag absolutely loaded with skeleton keys. He dropped it with a clatter on the counter and began pulling out large groups of keys on chains. He knew which ones belonged to the cemetery gates and discarded those. I could only marvel at the sheer amount of keys in the bag–none of which were labeled. How on earth could anyone know which one would open which crypt? Not a single key matched the one I held in my hand, which I’d suspected after the Friends man told me they had no copy. Disappointed, the policeman asked if I could “wait a tick” while he had his tea. I told him I had a friend waiting and would head back down to the mausoleum. He promised to catch up quickly.

By the time I’d reached Bria and Benjamin, I could see the policeman heading towards us on his bike. It’s a good walk halfway through the cemetery! He came up and held out his hand for the key. I explained that it would turn, but only so far, and I was afraid of breaking it. He mentioned that leaning into the door might help. At any rate, he gave it his best try, but, finally, afraid of breaking the key off the lock, gave up as well, every bit as disappointed as we were not to get inside! He said, “You’d best ‘ave a locksmith out ‘ere to get at the lock, Oi’d say.” I mentioned that my husband would be coming through in a couple of weeks and could have a go at it with WD-40. He thought that might be worth a try. We stood around talking about the tomb for quite a while, and the policeman was extremely knowledgeable about the cemetery and its occupants. Turns out he is an absolute history nut and reads voraciously when he’s not working. He had anecdotes about all kinds of famous people buried in Brompton, about Beatrix Potter, and about all kinds of other historical figures in and around London. It was quite an amazing half hour we spent with him!

Since I couldn’t get into the tomb, I put my camera through the lower half of the door and photographed the interior, which is exquisite. Below you’ll see the altar, stained glass windows, tall vase, and vaulted ceilings.


Note the black marble columns flanking the altar. Extraordinary. Below are photos of the tomb vaults:


I also snapped a few more pictures outside the mausoleum. You can see beautiful little snowdrop lilies just starting to bloom in the yard around the tomb:

At the very front is a gateway with hinges bearing evidence of the gate that used to hang there. The yard is also surrounded by posts that used to have chains in between, all missing now.

The helpful policeman told us that many gates and chains were taken for scrap metal during WWI and never replaced. As this would have been right around the same time the last English McDonalds were buried there, it’s no surprise they were never replaced.

I snapped a few more pictures before we left, capturing the stained glass from the exterior and the cross on top of the front:


At long last we made our way to the gate, obtaining directions to the nearby station from the policeman on our way. We left the angels guarding the locked tomb and turned our thoughts toward high tea back at our host home in Dulwich. After two brief train rides and a short bus hop, we were back home and so happy to get into the warmth! Benjamin was thankful to see his bed, and Bria and I sat down to a delicious supper (“tea”) and a final evening’s visit with our friends. It was a lovely evening all ’round. We couldn’t believe our journey was already over and we’d be flying back across the ocean in half a day’s time! Our trip to the airport next morning was uneventful, and we boarded right on time. We arrived home ready to crash, get over jet lag, then share pictures with you! All in all, it was a fun quick stopover, and I look forward to fall all the more!

2 Responses to “Day Four: Kensington”

  1. From Rebecca:

    Thank you so much for sharing the fascinating story about the mausoleum. I live near Brompton Cemetery and it is one of my favourite places to take my daily walk in. I have often wondered at all the stories and people connected with the old graves and monuments. I immediately recognised the mausoleum and I will appreciate it all the more, now I know a little about its history.

    Posted on March 23, 2009 at 7:03 am #
  2. From Mrs. JDT:

    What a neat story about the mausoleum! Thank you for sharing it. It’s a pity you couldn’t get in, but brilliant that you thought to take pictures through the broken window. I got a great chuckle out of your description of the undertakers, too. How quaint! Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    Posted on March 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

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