BY Steve Friess
April 05 2011 9:54 PM ET
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.