Whitehall: a packed Saturday afternoon.
I emerged from the Westminster tube station into the hubbub of this favourite tourist trap and turned my back on Parliament.. The Parliamentarians had a lot to answer for. And I strolled up this busiest of tourist highways, straight past the place I had come to see without even noticing it.
Charles did not seem offended. He watched me amble past, and get distracted by the baubles and trinkets in Trafalgar Square. One Nelson’s Column later I concluded that I must have missed my mark, and turned round and pottered back, past the horseguards sitting patiently on parade amongst the throng.
Oh, there it was.
The Banqueting House in Whitehall. And there was a sign on the door. Closing at 12 today, it said. I checked my watch. 12:09.
I was not going away without having seen The Banqueting House, and that was final. I had come a long way today. Time for some blagging.
I made theatrical eye contact with the security man standing behind the glass and began mouthing my message . I gesticulated wildly at my watch and mimed joke-penitent. “Can I come in? It’s only nine minutes after time…”
His level gaze did not falter when faced by this eccentric vision of Middle England playing Marcel Marceau at the door.
“Are you a member?” he asked silently.
I scrabbled for my purse and waved my card. He gestured for me to open the door.
“You can go straight upstairs now,” he intoned with Jeevsian fix-itness.
I gasped my gratitude and clattered up the stairs, which are Victorian, for all you temporal snobs out there, and were nowhere to be seen when Charles I walked to his death.
And everywhere – in every conceivable place – there were flowers. Men were passing me on the stairs with shoulders full of daffodils, whole window boxes of Spring. Today there was a sumptuous wedding planned, and Festive was on the menu.
The hall itself is a masterpiece, with a Rubens ceiling to gawp at for hours and decor which manages to be both Royal and tasteful, a tricky balance not always achieved by the dynasties which have ruled England.
And the undercroft is a series of ancient graceful cellars which stretches beyond this building: Phil has toured some of the others in Whitehall, and I am left wondering if they stretch all the way up the street?
But I was not after the hall, or the cellars. No: I wanted the stairs, because before they were there, something momentous happened in front of hordes, tens of thousands, of onlookers, standing just outside. Samuel Pepys was there; he had skipped school to watch.
For this is where Charles I walked out of a window and onto a platform where he was beheaded.
The nice lady in the shop tells me he walked from his private chambers, through the great hall, to a place about where the stairs were, where a platform was rigged outside the window. And wearing lots of thermals to stop him shivering and seeming weak, and with incredible dignity, he allowed his head to be put on a chopping block and greeted eternity.
His likeness surveys Whitehall gravely from his perch, there where it happened. A memory of a grim business which has long since ceased to leave a nasty taste in the mouth and instead has been crystallised as history and folklore.