(Seems like eyewitness testimony ought to be saved while it's fresh...)
So I have these friends who occasionally come to London and do classy touristy stuff - they go theater, they stay in a nice hotel, and eat in nice restaurants. And today - March 26, 2011 - they wanted to have tea. It was only after we'd agreed to meet this afternoon at three in Jermyn Street that we all discovered there was a BIG MARCH in central London today. I do a lot of things for causes, but I flee crowds, especially crowds superintended by police who like kettling as a tactic.
But I'd promised. So we met, at three, in Jermyn Street. "We have three options," said my host. "Pick whatever," I said. "I didn't come for the food."
They chose Fortnum and Mason's first floor, where you can get sandwiches, ice cream, and pastries.
The march was proceeding along Piccadilly outside, but seemed pretty good-natured. After a while, a change in the sound of the shouts outside drew our attention. I looked out the window: a lot of people seemed to be staring at the front of the building and crowding toward the entrance. After a bit, I realized some of the noise was coming from *inside* the store. Over in the crockery section (across from the food area we were sitting in) I could just about see hooded heads and the odd flag, after a bit the hi-vis vests of the police. There was singing. There was no sound of smashing crockery. Outside a pole began to shake (which turned out to be people climbing up onto the shop awning). There was smoke visible and a look out the window showed that to be from smoke bombs. The staff told us to stay away from the windows.
We hung on, having paid the bill, figuring where we were was effectively the safest place to be.
At 16:30 a continuous announcement began over the PA to the effect that the store was closing and everyone should leave.
We got up and walked out of the food area. F&M has a circular central core with a metal fence around it on the 1st floor. The protesters were sitting around it with banners draped. The police were standing and watching. Shoppers were filing out. Impressively, none of the expensive crockery piled on the tables all around the protesters seemed to have been touched.
The announcement said all entrances to the store were closed except the one onto Piccadilly. Since that's where the march and troubles were, that was the last place we really wanted to go. One of my friends asked a staff member if there was a back entrance we could use; he went and checked and then ushered us behind the counter and down a back stair, which exited onto Jermyn Street. A bunch of other people were coming down that same stair from the floor(s) above.
We went back to their hotel and watched the coverage on BBC News. I was just as glad we'd gotten out the back way, as the footage of Piccadilly showed the police herding people into controlled groups. I'd say that in a situation like the one we were in it would have helped if they'd made it clear how they would going to handle people exiting into Piccadilly where the trouble was. There was no way to know if they were going to hold everyone exiting the store or usher them away or what. There were enough police inside the store that you'd think they could have used them to relay information.
I was due at an address on Charing Cross Road toward TCR tube at six, and left shortly before. The reception desk guy said the webcams he had loaded showed Trafalgar Square was empty, so I should try that route. Walked down St. James Street, down the steps by Carlton Gdns, and to T Sq, where the police seemed to have a cordon around the square itself, which had a lot of people in it. The streets and sidewalks were reasonably empty, though, and I walked around the square and up CX Rd without incident.
En route home at 9pm nothing of note, except that there was so many people filling the area leading to the Piccadilly line platform that I turned off and took the Northern line to Embankment instead before heading west on the District line..