A Royal Lunch
by Hal Trussell
It was noon, London time, when the airplane wheels hit the runway. We’d just left Morocco and the 11th century and arrived back into the 21st .
Traveling with me were my daughter, Lily, and son, Clay, college students whose appetites had certainly been tested in Marrakech and remote mountain villages. Now passing through passport control, with modern civilization and culture within our sights, we were ready for some big-time food. The three of us had exactly the same thing on our mind. It was time for a really great lunch!
Landing at one London airport, Gatwick, we were departing later that evening for Rome via another nearby airport, Stansted. The train from Gatwick would take us into London, and there we would catch a different train for Stansted.
We had a good three hours before that rail connection. I had once worked in London, and remembered a place in Piccadilly that would be a real treat for lunch.
Given my kids were newcomers to London, my announcement that I was taking them to Fortnum & Mason was greeted with indifferent shrugs, the whatever attitude of youth. No matter, I knew the food would be delicious. But I had no idea what a truly grand surprise was in store for us.
The Gatwick Express whisked us into historic Victoria Station which crackled with fast-paced Londoners. Lily’s and Clay’s eyes roamed the cavernous interior. Although they had never been here, they recognized the name and sensed the intensity of history. After all, Sherlock Holmes used this rail station, and some guy named Churchill.
A quick look at the tube map and we took the line to Piccadilly Circus. Civilization beckoned, and from a land of donkey-drawn carts we stepped firmly into the modern world — albeit with a light London rain — suitcases in tow, Fortnum & Mason just a brief walk down Piccadilly.
Purveyors to Royalty for nearly 300 years, the two founders began their partnership in 1705 when one of the Queen’s off-duty footmen, a young William Fortnum, made a deal with a grocer named Hugh Mason to make candles, enterprisingly acquired by melting down last-night’s Palace candles which were discarded daily.
“Unfortunately due to the recent incident…” the doorman to the sumptuous department store graciously explained, referring to the ‘05 subway bombing, we could not leave the bags with him. But since what we were really after was lunch, “perhaps the restaurant would accommodate,” he suggested.
The maître d’ took a very deep breath when we stepped into The Fountain Restaurant, suitcases and all. He was still across the room, but everything about his body language was a diplomatic “NO.” I left my suitcase with the kids at the door and met him halfway to discreetly plead.
I told him of my many previous visits before fatherhood, the brief opportunity I wished for my children, and I took a deep breath, sensing a softening as the maître d’ glanced beyond me to the damp boy and girl in the doorway, as if he were going over the Dickensian significance of these two hungry young first-time visitors. Then, with the style and grace befitting his position, he tactfully solved the dilemma by seating us at a corner table along the rear wall, Our suitcases were placed mostly out of sight against the wall behind us, upon which was a long mural depicting the fanciful exploits of Messrs. Fortnum and Mason as they gathered food products for their store from the far reaches of the known world. The room itself full of diners and bursting with energy.
Too casually dressed by London standards, we were nonetheless a happy trio looking forward to a truly civilized lunch. The waitress, a sweet young woman, politely smiled as we ordered our strange assortment.
My daughter went straight for some comfort food: rare breed hen Eggs Benedict with English Breakfast tea. Her brother honed in on the fresh Coastal Haddock deep-fried in light batter served with fresh hand-cut chips and a vanilla shake.
I was tantalized by the Scottish Calves Liver and dry-cured bacon with mashed potatoes and red onion gravy. I added, “a chocolate milk shake, please.” After a week of camels and donkeys, just the thought of it sounded so very good.
Two elderly and very well-dressed women at the next table were finishing their lunch with tea — wearing white gloves. Occasionally their conversation drifted our way as they shared gossip, oh, so very polite, about everyone they knew, followed by a discussion of investments and banking that was particularly refined.
Fresh hot apple pie was our quick dessert. Gathering our gear I effusively thanked the maître d’ and inquired for the nearest tube to Liverpool Station. “Green Park Station,” he assured was a very short walk down Piccadilly. “And it appears the rain has stopped,” he observed, gesturing like a magician toward the window.
Indeed, after a crisp English walk, we reached the edge of a large park where a sign pointed to sidewalk stairs leading down to the tube. Suddenly I hesitated, as though cast into a spell, mesmerized by the huge open green expanse.
There was something familiar about that park. I looked into the trees in the distance, recalling something from my dusty memory. I asked a passerby. “Yes,” he thoughtfully responded, as though briefly mulling the whole of English history, “that’s the Palace.” He pointed, “Just there”.
I checked my watch. Liverpool Station was only a quick 5 minutes away. And we still had an hour before our next connection.
“Okay, kids, we’ve got a few minutes…. Let’s go see the Queen.” And across the park we walked, suitcases in tow. What iconic tourists we must have looked.
The park was quiet and empty, and the grass an endless carpet of the kind of deep saturated green that comes with a heavy overcast sky. Pleasant solitude and welcome exercise — accompanied by the soft grind of suitcase wheels on the pathway.
At the pathway’s end, a crosswalk led directly to one of the world’s most recognizable buildings. The usual daily group of tourists from around the world had gathered in front, taking photos, admiring the majestic splendor.
I could see the changing of the guard was just beginning. I told the kids to hurry over. I would stay at the curb and watch the bags, and they would meet me back here in 15 minutes.
I soon lost sight of the kids as they crossed the street and joined the crowd to see the ceremony. An older English couple approached and waited for the light to change, while up the street I noticed a small motorcade slowly coming our way. I could discern three black vehicles, with flags on the fenders and a front and rear motorcycle escort.
Suddenly the lead motorcycle sped up and came directly toward the couple and me, stopping in the crosswalk, right in front of us. The policeman smiled graciously and asked that we not cross until the cars had past. “Of course,” we agreed, and he rode onward to the next crossing. How polite he was.
Parliament was just a bit further down the road, and I wondered who might be going to a meeting there. Some mid-level foreign dignitaries, no doubt. Downing Street was nearby; perhaps they were even going to see the Prime Minister.
The motorcade had slowed to a crawl: three jaguars with a sole motorcycle to the rear. As the first car passed, I noticed two passengers smiling and chatting in the rear seat. One was a stately woman with grey hair and she had on the most gorgeous camel-colored coat. I couldn’t get over how plush and beautiful that coat was. Standing with three suitcases, I watched as she glided by, close enough to touch.
As the last car passed, in dawning disbelief, I turned to the couple and asked, “Was that…?
“Oh yes,” they said, before I could finish, nodding affirmatively and with pride, “that was the Queen.”
Effortlessly, the motorcade circled the Victoria Memorial, and as if by magic, the crowd parted, the giant gates opened, and the motorcade slipped between the guards and into the palace grounds.
Moments later the kids returned, elated by the spectacle. We walked back across the park and caught the tube to Liverpool Station.
We had been in London a total of 2 hours. In that short, but remarkable time we had lunch and did a little sightseeing. The cost of our Gatwick Express train tickets were £14.90 each ($28). The tube rides were £1 ($1.87) per ticket. And our exceptional lunch for three from the purveyors to English Royalty was a handsome £49 ($92), and worth every shilling.
But our encounter with the Queen…. That was priceless.