I had booked the trip for September because of major annual London events, especially Open House weekend, when many important buildings normally shut to visitors are open. I had drawn up my list months earlier. I was dying to get into the striking Lloyd’s of London insurance company headquarters, never normally open, and I did, in a BBC video on YouTube. Then there was New Scotland Yard, courtesy of a PBS special, “Secrets of Scotland Yard,” archived on YouTube. Lambeth Palace, the ancient London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, rarely open and only for groups, was there on my TV. Same for Lancaster House, once a part of the St. James’s Palace and the film stand-in for Buckingham Palace interiors in many films, including Netflix’s “The Crown.” And I toured the very grand Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (their elaborate version of our State Department) via a visit narrated by Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary. YouTube had a few more on my wish list for that Open House weekend. I was on a roll.
Up next was an overnight train trip two hours north of London to Chatsworth House, probably the premier stately home in all of England. I discovered the gossipy 2013 PBS history of Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, with its gardens, fountains, and art inside and out. The documentary has grainy upstairs/downstairs photos and anecdotes over several centuries, especially about the shooting parties that hosted the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, and all the big shots of the time. One anecdote: to dish up the turtle soup fashionable for banquets then, a small imported green turtle was required for each guest, and the cost of 20 British pounds per turtle was the same as the annual wages of a kitchen worker.
My itinerary included three more out-of-town train trips, spaced out over the two weeks. YouTube made them real. The best of these videos was produced by the National Trust, which owns Knole, a vast estate set in a large deer park an hour south of London. The 16th-century house was owned by the Sackville family for many generations. At one time, writer Virginia Woolf lived at Knole with her lover, Vita Sackville-West. The video is beautiful and in many spots also funny, showing off the setting and incredible art and furniture with a touch of humor.
Also on my itinerary was a train ride northeast to Sandringham, the house where the queen spends most of the winter, open to visitors in other seasons. There’s a candid, though dated, 1998 documentary by Prince Edward, “Crown and Country.” The historical Roman city of St. Albans, a short distance from London, is another of my planned day trips and is another episode of the Prince’s “Crown and Country” series.
Like my trips out of London, for the days in town I was able to follow my plans — for nearly every museum, restaurant and even performance — on YouTube, and also on some favorite podcasts about London history.
One such day in town began with a colorful walk around the Mayfair district. There are several online, but the most entertaining one is posted by Joolz Guides, videos by an actor/historian who highlights curiosities around the city. He launches each of his posts with a jaunty “Pip! Pip! Tallyho!” On his Mayfair tour, he ducks into the venerable Savile Row tailor who invented the tuxedo for King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales; tails seemed too formal for the prince’s shooting parties at Sandringham. (Americans, however, gave the tuxedo its name, taken from a country club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.) And Joolz walks through Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade, where guards in the 19th century enforced a rule against umbrellas because they might block the view of prostitutes watching from windows high above to alert pimps and pickpockets of cops below.
I had reserved afternoon tea at the stupendous Claridge’s hotel. So I savored a YouTube video, “Claridge’s: Checking into History,” a lovely reminder of the art deco interior in the hotel said to be the royal favorite. I shall return!
The next London morning was to start at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at the top of Westminster Abbey, which opened in 2018 and would be new to me. They display art and artifacts long in storage, set in a modern museum high above the Abbey nave. A brief official video, “Visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey,” whetted my appetite for eventually seeing things like medieval life-size funeral effigies for kings past, when they used to display them on top of coffins in processions through the streets. I also loved watching an excellent video presentation of Westminster Abbey by London’s famous Blue Badge certified guides, who did three videos a week while they were idled by the lockdown. You can find the presentations on their YouTube channel, Guide London.
That evening, I had a ticket for one of three plays I planned to see. “Mousetrap,” the longest-running stage play in the world, is an Agatha Christie mystery whose surprise ending has not been spoiled by audiences over the decades. Surprise, there’s a 60th anniversary promotional video on YouTube with cast members teasing the twists and turns.
The rest of my London days (as viewed from Bethesda) played out this same way. I was able to find so much of what I was to visit by a YouTube search. Some highlights were a pair of throwbacks to Tudor times that encapsulate the time travel I love about London. In just one morning, I started with the annual September brass band parade straight through the ancient City of London, now the financial district, by the Tudor-robed students of 450-year-old Christ Hospital School, on a 2018 YouTube video. Then it was on to lunch I had booked in the nearby Tudor masterpiece that survived the 1666 Great Fire. Middle Temple Hall, where Queen Elizabeth I saw the premiere of “Twelfth Night” alongside (it’s believed) William Shakespeare, is the place where today’s barristers in the Inns of Court are sworn in and where anyone can book lunch alongside them. You can see it at “Virtual Venue Visit: The Middle Temple,” on YouTube.
Then the short walk to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. This museum — as well as the Victoria and Albert — stands out for its excellent YouTube channel with great video offerings. In “A Curated Look at Working From Home,” a National Gallery curator working from home and speaking in the gentlest of voices presents a tour of five paintings of interior scenes. It’s highly recommended, as is the Gallery tour by a Blue Badge Guide on the Guide London YouTube channel.
After all this heavy stuff, I should mention some lighter fare down the rabbit holes on YouTube. The stories of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes are on a “Whodunnit” YouTube episode by the Blue Badge guides. Try the National Gallery’s meditations on its YouTube channel, where a soft voice leads the viewer through a meditative slow look at paintings like Van Gogh’s swirling “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses.” And then there’s the YouTube recording of the lovely piano music played for afternoon tea at the posh Dorchester hotel. On the Fierce City podcast, there is a bawdy history of Nell Gwyn, the child street peddler who ended up the mistress of King Charles II. Finally, I loved watching several singalongs by the famous Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens, with tunes like “Roll Out the Barrel” (which sounds like Rawl out the Barrow).
My last day in London was to include a tour of the eccentric Dennis Severs’s House, which Severs, an American, bought in 1979. He decorated its 11 barely-lit rooms as though the French Huguenot family that lived in the house from 1725 to 1919 had just left, complete with smelly laundry, not-empty chamber pots, fires burning in the fireplaces. You can find a great atmospheric if not aromatic tour of the house on YouTube.
If I went a bit far in my love of all things London with that visit, I redeemed myself with the last stop: The Savoy Hotel’s video of its afternoon tea, which I savored right at home in Bethesda, lifting my pinkie right along with the Savoy’s piano.
Yes, I know, watching isn’t doing — or smelling or tasting. I’m hopeful that all of that will be safe by next fall. I’ve already made my reservations. I’ll be right there next September.
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.