London Bound

BY Steve Friess

April 05 2011 6:55 PM ET

GAY PRIDE LONDON X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMSo 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.

















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