London Bound

By Steve Friess

Originally published on Advocate.com April 05 2011 9:54 PM ET

OK, OK, I admit it. We’re those kind of gays. We’re the ones who, long before we knew we were gays of any kind, begged our parents to let us get up in the middle of the night to watch Princess Di’s fairy-tale wedding back in 1981. We can speak intelligently about why Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth I was far superior to Cate Blanchett’s, we are as intimately aware of Prince Philip’s many faux pas as of Fergie’s, and we’ve followed every report of minutae, confirmed or fictional, regarding the April 29 nuptials of commoner Kate Middleton to the future king of England.

As luck would happen, we were due in a London suburb for a far less elaborate or famous wedding, that of an old friend who chose the especially dreary month of January to tie the knot. My partner and I had promised ourselves as little boys that we’d be on the sidewalk, not on our couches, the next time the Brits staged a wedding of the century, but we could neither afford to go twice in one year nor — as we semi-seriously considered — stay abroad for four months to see Wills wed.

Still, there was an upside to going ahead of the crowds: We could serve as travel scouts for like-minded queers en route across the pond for either The Wedding or, perhaps, Queen Elizabeth II’s as-yet unscheduled Diamond Jubilee celebration next year or, of course, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Part of the thrill of going to London, it must be said, begins with the flight, and British Airways is all luxury: ample legroom, which is critical on very long flights for those of us over six feet tall, and the sort of menu — steak, fish, salads, desserts, alcohol — that hearkens back to a bygone age of aviation.

I arrived with a little bit of trepidation because as recently as 2003, when I last visited London, there was a decidedly less-than-enthusiastic welcome for gay travelers that stung and surprised me given how notoriously more accepting Europeans are supposed to be. Asking for one single, large bed for two men elicited a curious, icy stare from the attendant at a well-known international luxury chain, and a surly taxi driver seemed put out when his two male passengers held hands as we rode to the Comptons of Soho bar on Old Compton, London's equivalent of Castro Street.

Eight years on, the city of Big Ben and that hideous gigantic Ferris wheel is ready for the gays. One year after my unfortunate encounters, England began recognizing same-sex civil unions as equal to marriage, so the most famous new papas in the British Empire (and its salacious tabloids) are, of course, Elton John and David Furnish. And just a week before our arrival, a British court issued a landmark ruling that fined an innkeeper at a seaside B&B nearly $6,000 for refusing to give a male couple a double room. In that decision, the judge wrote, “It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large. Now it is the other way around.”
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So times have changed, and that’s nowhere clearer than in the fact that the chairman of the prestigious Guild of Registered Tour Guides is David Thompson, an out gay man with a rapier wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things queer Britain. He does endless permutations of traditional tours but, as a founding partner of Gay Tours London, also offers what can only be considered subversive ones. (The going rate is about $400 a day for Thompson or his colleagues, more if it involves auto transportation or jaunts out of town.)

“The idea of sexuality needn’t be mentioned, or we can tailor a tour about gay history or contemporary London gay life,” he told me over tea in the spectacularly modern lobby bar of the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge on a rainy Saturday afternoon. “As, for example, I have a gay tour of Westminster Abbey, where the [royal] couple is going to get hitched, and it is entitled ‘Within These Ancient Stones Lie the Gayest Bones.’ We investigate all the gay inhabitants of Westminster Abbey, who are numerous.”

Thompson seemed to relish reclaiming the gay from his country’s history. He’ll dish on his tours about the irony that King James — of King James Bible fame — reportedly had the Duke of Buckingham as his lover, and take travelers to Sissinghurst Castle south of London for both its spectacular gardens as well as to reveal that it was the home of Virginia Woolf lover Vita Sackville-West and her beard of a husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson. Their son wrote in a memoir that they both “went off with partners of their own sex,” Thompson explained.

Much of the joy of travel, of course, is unearthing things on your own. We’re from Las Vegas, where there aren't a whole lot of gay-specific sites or activities, so we’ve become accustomed to preferring a mainstreamed vacation with a bit of gay on the side. Thus we made our own way to Westminster Abbey to see those tombs, down to the Tower of London to see the crown jewels, and even south via the train to Salisbury to see Stonehenge as well as the Salisbury Cathedral, where one of four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta is on display. (We also stopped in, for a little Vegas compare-and-contrast, at the Empire Club in Leicester Square, a casino owned by Caesars Entertainment. At 55,000 square feet and with just 20 slot machines, it was both underwhelming and a little sad.

On the gay-centric front, we also made our way, at Thompson’s suggestion, to the nation’s oldest — and probably stateliest — gay pub, King William IV. The Willie, as it’s locally known, sits in the northern suburbs far from London’s gay mecca of Soho (although accessible via the tube’s Northern Line) and claims to have been a queer watering hole as far back as the 1930s. It draws a decidedly butch, rugby-playing, and workaday crowd as well as tourists wanting to explore the enormous Hampstead Heath park nearby. We actually went up there for lunch but ended up discovering the relatively new La Creperie de Hampstead, a walk-up window also in King William IV’s three-story yellow-brick building where the hungry line up to devour mouthwatering crepes. After that, we went into the bar for a few pints.

Back in town, we made it to the charming gay café Café Espana (63 Old Compton St., Soho) and stopped in one evening at the bear bar King’s Arms (23 Poland St., Soho) for a pint in a relaxed, low-cruising atmosphere. That’s about as wild as we generally get, though; most evenings we preferred to take in a show in the West End or attend various events related to the wedding we were there for or simply enjoy the snarky wit of the BBC in our hotel room after a busy day of touring.

The fact is, we stayed at three different hotels, and many an evening, we really just wanted to kick back and enjoy them. (Being from Vegas, where we recommend tourists sample more than one resort on a trip, we chose to do the same in England.)

Two of our haunts were classic old favorites — the Langham and the Savoy —which had each recently undergone dramatic renovations just in time for the litany of tourist-magnet events ahead. And our third landing spot, the Park Plaza Westminster, is a new structure that rose from a once-hideous collection of industrial buildings on the opposite side of the bridge from Big Ben and the House of Parliament.

We first landed at the Langham in central London, one of the city’s first “grand” hotels built in the 1860s in the heart of the West End near the shopping districts. The stately old lady just enjoyed a rigorous five-year, $130 million renovation during which the stunning Italian classical stone facade on the six-story exterior was restored and polished up and the 425 rooms were reconfigured down to 380 more spacious and modern accommodations. As with most sites of British upper-class historical significance, there’s some Oscar Wilde trivia; he was commissioned at a meeting at the Langham to write The Picture of Dorian Gray for Lippincott’s Monthly.

After Wilde’s two-year imprisonment for homosexual acts, he was refused entry to the hotel. He would’ve been amazed, then, that more than a century later gay couples are very much welcomed at this intriguing combination of old and new as represented by the ornate exterior and renovated, über-modern rooms with black marble baths and sinks as well as flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet. It’s not difficult to imagine Wilde holding court from one of the lavender banquettes beneath the glorious Chinese-style chandeliers of the lobby bar, the Artesian.SISSINGHURST X390 (FAIR) | ADVOCATE.COM

From old-world glamour, we checked out the one-year-old Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, which, with rooms starting at $230, may just be one of the best bargains in this very expensive world capital. That’s not nothing, but it is kind of a steal considering the primo location across from Big Ben and its very hip, young vibe, from the expansive, sultry lobby bar to the huge rooms appointed with slick, minimalist furnishings. If the Langham was the sort of place the 19th-century upper class regarded as luxurious, the Park Plaza is what someone like Prince William would view in the same light today.

Finally, we concluded our trip at the Savoy, a few blocks away from Theatreland and gifted with stunning views of the Thames River. You know the Savoy even if you think you don’t, for this is where George Gershwin first played “Rhaphsody in Blue,” where Queen Elizabeth II first went out publicly with her future husband, and where Oscar Wilde carried on much of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. This is Hollywood’s London haven — Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Noel Coward all performed in the famed American Bar or Beaufort Bar, and Vivien Leigh met Laurence Olivier in the lobby — and we’re quite sure we encountered Nora Ephron in the elevator.

We checked in just in time, as the Savoy — where I had taken high tea in 2003 and remained lustful ever since for the rich, buttery taste of the finest raisin scones ever — had just reopened last fall after a three-year, $300 million overhaul. Indeed, it’s worth noting that even if you cannot afford a room at the Savoy (they can start at $500), at least take tea. Doing so is a classic, elaborate British tradition that can last two hours or more during which guests leisurely enjoy unlimited variations of special-blend teas as well as constantly replenished finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries in a stately room where they are serenaded by a tux-clad pianist. It costs about $50 per person, and reservations are required.

Having never seen the previous incarnation of the 268 rooms, divided into Edwardian and art deco wings, it’s hard to grade the Savoy on its overhaul except to say that the 450-square-foot Edwardian room we occupied was flawless right down to the daily fresh flowers. The difference between the Edwardian and art deco options is mainly about taste, the Edwardian having the more antique, regal touches of brocaded comforters and decorative draperies, whereas the art deco versions are sleek and modern, with primary-color paint and white-and-gray bedding. All have the modern elements — flat-screen TV, iPod docking station, spacious marble-floored bathroom — you’d expect from new digs.

Before we departed, we managed to do one very pertinent royal-related activity, the William and Kate Wedding Walk, opportunistically slapped together by the British Tourist Authority, whose site, VisitBritain.com, overflows with interesting and very reasonably priced group tours. The tour starts outside the building where Queen Elizabeth II was born (by cesarean, we are informed) and concludes outside Westminster, where The Wedding will take place.

There’s one problem with it: It’s very little about William and Kate and much more about their various forebears. In particular, and not displeasingly, the ghost of Diana looms, whether it be the jeweler that made her — and now Kate’s — engagement ring or the chapel where her body lay for visits from grieving subjects. Even the conclusion of the tour by our guide was Diana-esque: “After the wedding, Kate’s going to have a lot of titles after her name, but she’s going to have to work very hard to earn the hardest title of all, that of the people’s princess.”

I consulted with Thompson about why the tour felt so contrived.

“Kate and Wills are two very young people who are on the outset of their lives, and he just happens to be Queen Elizabeth’s grandson,” he said. “Come back in 30 years when their children are getting married and I’m sure the William and Kate tour will be far more interesting.”

What a splendid idea! It’s a date!