UK Trip V: More Westminster, V&A, and Unexpected Excitement

When last we left our intrepid tourists, they had faced the knotty problem of where to attend church on Sunday morning.  The solution was that my mom took my younger daughter to the LDS chapel, which is happily located next door to the V&A, and I took my older daughter to Westminster Abbey for a morning service.

This turned into a little bit of an adventure.  We had left lots of time for us to get there and planned to walk around outside before going in, but I made a mistake and hopped onto a Tube train that was going up a branch line instead of to Westminster.  At the very next station, we got out and waited for a train going the other way....for over half an hour.  It was the only time we ever had to wait more than about 3 minutes for a train, and it was because it was Sunday and a branch line.  By the time we got to Westminster station, it was about two minutes to 10:00, when the service was due to start.  We ran flat out the 4 blocks or so.  (Insert dialogue: 15yo daughter carrying heavy backpack: "Slow down, you're torturing me!" Mom: "If your pudgy old mother can do it, so can you!")  I was worried they would just close the doors at 10 and we would miss out.

There was a little line to get in, and a non-English-speaking tourist in front of us was confused as to why she and her group couldn't go in.  I felt kind of bad for her--she came all that way and everything, and she wasn't any too clear on it being a church.  But we got in, though of course still had our bags searched.  Since we were late, we were further back than I wanted to be and couldn't really see into the quire at all--but on the other hand, we were sitting on the front edge of Poet's Corner.  The service was lovely, with lots of singing from the choir and a sermon on using our time and resources as a stewardship to help others.  And quite a few people came in after us, so I needn't have worried quite so much.

After the service, we went further forward to look around a bit.  I had to say hello to the Great Pavement again, you know.  The exit was through the cloisters, which had been closed during our previous visit, so we got to spend some time there and even peek into the chapter house.  There were quite a few more famous people memorialized in the cloisters; Aphra Behn is buried there.  (She was one of the very first English novelists, writing in the late 1600s.)
Westminster cloisters

We took the Tube to South Kensington, which made me think of children in E. Nesbit novels, who often live in Kensington (of course, Earl's Court is really part of Kensington too, so I eventually thought to explain to my kids that the hotel we were staying in had once been a family home of the kind the Bastables lived in).  It was our job to pick up sandwiches on the way to meeting the rest of the family, and then we lunched on the lawn of the Natural Science Museum across from the V&A.  It was a lovely sunny day, cool and breezy, and there were families with little children everywhere.

The V&A is massive, on a scale to rival the British Museum, so it's overwhelming and exhausting, and you can't possibly see it all.  We had to pick and choose.  After looking at some Renaissance sculpture, we realized that I ought to ask about whether the casket I wanted to see was on display and where it was.  There was an immediate tizzy about this, because the information people said it was on the fourth floor--and the fourth floor was closed.  They didn't let this stop them at all, though.  After some telephoning and fuss, this tall Italian fellow got permission to take us to the fourth floor.  He escorted us up to the SIXTH floor, from which we could walk down the stairs to the fourth, and he took us over and showed us...a painting of a girl with a box.  There had been a little misunderstanding and the information people had rather jumped to a conclusion about what I wanted, but once we figured it out, we were escorted out again and down to the second floor, which had been open all the time.  They were so nice about it, and it was clear that they really go out of their way to help people who wish to see certain things.

There turned out to be TWO caskets on display, plus some other really wonderful embroideries, but I will try not to bore you further with them, except to say that the particular casket I was after is an exquisite piece made by one Martha Edlin as a girl, and you can learn about it here.  It shows a skill much higher than many other caskets, and depicts the seven virtues.

After the casket adventure, we looked at famous Raphael cartoons, fashion through the ages, and lots of other lovely stuff.  The medieval exhibits were particularly nice, and there was a funny applique piece made by a young girl that purported to show the story of Tristan and Isolde, but I couldn't see how; most of the pictures were of a knight fighting a dragon.  I imagined a girl like my 13yo daughter (who loves dragon stories) sewing it and thinking she'd just make the story more interesting.  When I saw some embroidered copes and robes that were far older than anything I'd expected to see textiles-wise, I asked if there were any examples of Opus Anglicanum embroidery, and sure enough, there was a fabulous cope in the next room!  It was stunning to see work that had been done in the early 1300s.  Then there were some wonderful medieval books as well; just amazing work.

Opus Anglicanum features these little windows.
We were pretty tired, so we went out to a courtyard where you could sit and relax, and have a snack.  There's a large shallow pool perfect for toddlers to splash in, and it was full of little kids splashing away.  The girls got some overpriced frozen yogurt, but I was just happy to sit down in the shade.  We also went and took a look at the tea rooms, which are the first museum restaurant rooms in London, each one lavishly decorated by a famous artist.  One is by William Morris, so that reminded us to look for the Morris things.  They turned out to be on the closed fourth floor, so that was a disappointment, but we consoled ourselves with a new exhibit on Europe 1600- 1815.  It was fantastic, but we should have gone through it backwards; it was all so so florid and overblown that by the time we got to the elegance of the early 1800s, we were mentally exhausted.

Courtyard of the V&A
My mom prodded us into eating at an actual restaurant, so we didn't have sandwiches for a change!  I had a burger, which is very different from an American hamburger.  Very yummy.

In the evening, we continued our newly-established habit of watching an episode of "All Creatures Great and Small" before going to sleep.  My 15-year-old had been wanting to watch it for a while, and we thought our UK trip was a great time to do it.  Since our room was on the top floor, under the roof, it got very stuffy and warm if the day was sunny.  It took me a long time to figure out how to open the window very much, because it was old and sticky, and I had turned on the 'air conditioning,' a machine in a box that made some noise and produced a tiny trickle of cool air.  So there we were, lying in bed at 10pm, writing in our journals and trying to stay cool...and the fire alarm went off!

At first I assumed I had done something to set off the room's smoke alarm, though what it could possibly be was a mystery.  So I opened the door, and all the alarms were ringing.  I went down the hall to check on my mom and younger daughter; they had been nearly asleep and were stumbling out, but I think they managed to put shoes on.  Mom grabbed her purse before shutting the door, and I turned around and headed back to my room, where I met my older daughter just as she popped out and let the door close behind her.  She had thrown everything she considered important (meds, phone, tablet, cable) into a bag and was ready to go, but she had forgotten to grab the key card, which lived in a little slot by the door that also enabled the electricity.  Our shoes, money, and passports were now locked in the room.

So we started down the stairs, all clad in our nightclothes.  Out of a high window, I could see flashing blue lights and, just for a second, sheets of flame in the windows across the street.  This was a realio, trulio fire.  At the same second, I slipped on the narrow, steep stairs and fell down, grabbing the banisters--but the left banister was in fact a ladder, and I brought that down with me.  So nobody else saw the flames; they were too busy worrying I'd hurt myself.  But I was fine and we zipped down, joining other people on the stairs.  We got out onto the street and the fire was in fact on our side; the flames I'd seen were reflections in the windows.  Our hotel was part of a terraced row of houses, with two houses to each hotel.  The hotel two doors down from us was on fire on the third floor.  Fire engines were everywhere, and a few hundred people were standing around, either because they'd been evacuated like us, or because they lived very close by.

We were almost the only ones in pajamas, because most others had not yet gone to bed, though there was a little old lady in a nightie and bathrobe.  It wasn't cold at all; in fact, for quite a long time it was just nice and cool, and I was perfectly comfortable standing on the street barefoot.  A Swedish couple who had been right next to the fire had (cleverly or foolishly, I don't know) brought all their luggage with them--it was already packed because they were leaving the next day.  The lady was very upset by my lack of shoes and kind of yelled at a policeman about it!  I don't know what he was supposed to do.  We just stood there watching like everybody else.  We could see a lot of smoke and water, but that was all.  My 13yo was pretty upset, and my 15yo was punch-drunk on adrenaline.  I just texted my husband that we were safe, and around 11:30 the hotel night manager said the fire was out and let us go upstairs.  He gave me a new card key and said it might not want to work since the old one was still in the electricity slot.

So we climbed six flights of stairs.  I sat down in my mom's room while 15yo tried unsuccessfully to get the door open and 13yo packed stuff into a backpack, just in case.  She was entirely correct to do so, because that lasted about one minute.  The fire alarm went off again and down we went.  The fire was not out, in fact it was in the roof, and the firefighters were moving their cordon down past our door.  At the time, we had no inkling of how really touch-and-go the whole thing was.  We found out later that the whole row of houses could easily have gone, and the firefighters had a very tough fight on their hands.  (You can see a news story and footage here.)

Eventually I got cold and got a space blanket from a paramedic, and we moved into the McDonald's around the corner along with several others from our hotel.  We all sat around and chatted, but by this time we were getting worried, since the McDonald's was due to close at 1am, and it was almost that.  Happily, around this time, a manager from another hotel showed up and took us all around the corner and down the street to his place.  We were installed in a very nice family room with a loft for the kids.  Really it was a step up from our actual hotel, except that the plumbing sounded like something was going to crawl out and devour us.  We were asleep by 2am.

Babyface Bobby

In the McDonalds--in my jammies

A view from the next day. 


  1. To hear a service at Westminster Abbey! I can only imagine how amazing that was. I love old cathedrals and chapels. The history, the beauty, the awe they inspire . . . I am glad you made it in time!

    That was very nice of the staff at the museum to let you onto the closed 4th floor--even if it was a misunderstanding. I don't think you would get that kind of service here in the U.S. at any of the big museums. And look at hte artwork on those caskets! So beautiful.

    I am glad you didn't get hurt when you slipped on the stairs and you all were alright despite the fire. What an adventure with the fire. It seems like whenever we go on vacation, something bad happens, however big or small (we often end up laughing about it)--although no fire, thankfully.

  2. Wow, what excitement! Something extra and unexpected that you'll never forget. I've been enjoying all your updates. It's the next best thing to being there!

  3. Oh my goodness! Adventure upon adventure! Though that last adventure would have been too much for my nerves. I must say, you, your mom, and girls seem to have handled it very well.

  4. I think I'd like going through the V&A with you! We ended up spending our time at the Science Museum since we had more of a background for understanding that.

    None of our rooms in England had air conditioning. We didn't think it would be a problem in September, but we got there during an unseasonably warm time so experienced some of that stuffiness, too.

    We never dealt with a fire, though! My goodness what an exciting night.

  5. Aw, thanks Joy! Sounds like a good plan.

    On the helpful V&A staff: they mentioned to me that they do try to accommodate people whenever possible, because so many come from very far away, hope to see one particular thing, and don't have a chance to come back. I kind of got the feeling that some folks throw fits, too, and they don't like fits.

  6. Wow! What an unexpected adventure! I'm glad it turned out okay for you.

  7. Quite the adventure! In all the times I've stayed in hotels I have never had an alarm go off.
    I love Westminster but so wish I could take photos in there.

    Have never been to the V and A, only gone by it. Will have to rectify that.


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