Initially I wasn't going for the full time, but after some arranging and finally finding a place to stay for a reasonable price (I highly suggest using VRBO), I decided I'd leave on the 31st and come back on the 6th. Mainly because I wanted to be around for Guy Fawkes Day. Then came problems, due to Sandy the ebst chance for me getting to London on plan was via Los Angeles. Sure it's only 3 hours the wrong way, then an extra two hours back. But the price was right. And more importantly there were seats available.
And here I'll throw in Non-rev traveler tip number 1: Be flexible in routings and times. You never know when you'll have to go west to get east. It luckily worked out pretty well and I was able to get on (in premium economy no less) and with no one in the seat beside me. About 10 hours later, I landed at Heathrow. The flight went pretty smooth and I was well taken care of. Non rev tip #2, if you bring some nice chocolate for your crew, they seem to be exceptionally accommodating and generous with food, beverages, and first class amenities kits (the eye shades came in particular helpful when the nearest passenger decided to read about halfway through the flight). After a short interrogation by Her Majesty's Customs, I was allowed in the country.
The accommodation I had booked via VRBO.com was a nice separate bedroom/bathroom in an apartment a block off the Thames. I had a private entrance and the rest of the apartment (Also rented out) was walled off by a security door. The location couldn't be beat really, especially at the price. I had essentially a hotel room in a prime location for half the going rate, with a pub on the corner and block walk to the South Bank.
|View from the South Bank of the Thames, one block from my flat.|
After meeting the owner, a brief tour of the area, and settling in and washing the funk of 14 hours of being in an airplane, I set off to meet up with Maggie. It was dark by this time (being that dark comes in London at shortly before 5 PM this time of year). After dinner with Maggie and her hosts, it was time to tube it back to my place and crash. On the way back I was passed by a parade of police vehicles escorting a vehicle with a royal standard flying. I didn't get a good look inside the car, but that's kind of cool. Of course I popped in for a quick pint of Ale at the Thirsty Bear Pub, a neat place in Southwark with tables that had your own taps and an iPad installed for the customers use.
Friday saw the tourist activites begin in earnest. A meet up in front of a Notting Hill bookstore (not the one form the movie), then breakfast at Cafe Diana before heading to Kensington Palace. The place was a small and sparsely decorated royal residence. OK, it was neither small no sparsely decorated. You could visit the Kings Apartment (as used by George I and George II) and the Queens Apartment (as used by Queen Mary II). Also there were special exhibits dealing with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration and another of Princess Di memorabilia.
|The Kinds Apartment - Kensington Palace|
After, a walk through Hyde Park (and past some giant geese and pigeons) brought us to the Prince Albert memorial for a couple photo ops. Then down to Buckingham Palace to see what the Queen was up to (turns out didn't look like she was out doing a lot that day). Afterwards, a traditional lunch of English meat pies and off to Westminster Abbey.
I feel I should give a little bit of personal history. This is my second trip to London, the first being my first international jaunt ever way back in the spring of 1999 (the first stop on a 3 country week and half trip). So much was changed since that trip, both with me and with the city itself. For instance, the area I stayed for this trip wasn't much thought of at the time of the last trip. It was sort of run down with not much happening. That's all changed. The movie Notting Hill came out after I came home, so that area was considered a very interesting tourist area, unless you just wanted to walk down streets of houses and shops. I was much poorer then and didn't do a lot of the things I paid to do this time. Plus, that being my first time abroad, I was a bit bewildered and generally awestruck at all times. And there wasn't a proliferation of travel websites, iPhone apps, and easy to find information on the interwebs.
For instance, last time I stood outside Westminster Abbey, I took a picture, and went across to Parliament (where I did go inside and watch a small debate in the House of Commons). This time, I paid the fee and went in. It's well worth it. It's a beautiful cathedral with history just oozing about. You walk past the graves of kings and scientist (Newton and Darwin... the latter i find it amusing that he's buried in such a notable church given a general rejection of his theories by the church). Also there are poets and composers, and memorials to many more notable people who are not buried there. I highly recommend this as a stop on any trip to London. And then over to Big Ben, Parliament for photo ops before splitting up and making plans to meet for dinner.
The next morning, the plan was to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham the off to the Tower of London. Well, apparently everyone else had the same plans. Buckingham was packed, and despite arriving 45 minutes before the ceremony we were no where near the front and in a good viewing spot for the ceremony. We did watch some of the guards parade by, then squeeze through the crowd to get to the tube and head to the Tower.
The Tower is a must see, more than worth the price of admission (and since we bought a year pass for two it was a must see twice). And definitely take a tour with one of the Yeoman Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters (and supposedly no one knows why). If you have the time, take two tours, since each Beefeater tells different stories of the history. Though I think they all involve MURDER!! After the tower, and deciding the lines for the crown jewels was ludicrously long, we headed over for a quick look around Piccadilly Square before splitting for the evening. And i was off to explore some more historic pubs, places where Dickens and Shakespeare had once popped in for a pint for example.
A quick note, it seems that every Frenchman had taken a long weekend and ventured to London for a holiday. The place was lousy with French, and eastern European to a lesser degree, tourists. I suppose that explains the outrageous hotel prices (high demand), but it was just annoying. Another good reason for mid week visits.
Sunday morning brought rain. Which given the time of year, I'm surprised it took that long. The plan had been to start early back at the tower, and hope for shorter lines. Well, that plan was replaced by sleeping in until the rain was forecast to stop. And to the credit of the BBC, they were pretty well spot on with the time the rain would move out. While waiting outside the Tower tube station, I watched the filming of a car chase scene for some movie or TV show. And I found it amusing that anyone would use London for a chase scene. I mean, I get the use of the scenery, but realistically... you're not going anywhere fast in a car in that city.
The rain had indeed scared away a lot of the tourists, and we pretty much were line free at the Tower for most the day. After that, we headed over for a proper high tea at the Orangery. Orginally built for Queen Anne with the intention of being a type of greenhouse, this very classy place serves traditional teas, crumpets, biscuits, and of course cucumber sandwiches (though I preferred the smoked salmon sandiwches) complete with the crust cut off. All very posh.
After that, we had dinner at a local Kensington place with Maggie's host. Ffiona's (that is spelled correctly) was very delicious English fare with a little bit of a twist. Also, apparently Georgia May Jagger (Mick's daughter) frequents the place on first dates (I guess he has a lot of those???).
The next morning I woke up early for no apparent reason. And determined to remember, remember the fifth of November (ha), I took off for Trafalger Square and the National Gallery. Since it was so early, I decided to take a nice walk down the Thames, crossing on footbridge by Charing Cross, and up to Trafalger Square for coffee and a croissant while waiting for the gallery to open. Turns out, I'm not much of an art critic and that all 13th Century Italian paintings seem be representations of saints, Christ, or the Madonna. It seems that as you journey through the years, the subjects get less religious and a little bit more creative or secular (I think this may have something to do with less and less Church domination of everything after the Renaissance.. just a theory). The paintings, as time goes on, get more and more abstract in nature. And I have to say, I do really like Monet's and Van Gogh's works. We had visited a modern art gallery the day before (Tate Modern) and I really don't "get" that stuff. After the Gallery, I headed over to the British Museum, but decided not to go in, having been there years before. Instead, I had a pint in a tavern once frequented by Karl Marx and George Orwell (who, in my one political comment for the week, more people should read today). I decided to walk over to the Dickens House and Museum, since it was relatively close. Unfortunately I found it closed for renovations.
|Trafalger Square : from left to right: National Gallery, Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields Steeple, and the Lord Nelson Monument|
After the full day, met up with Maggie and we went over to St Pauls Cathedral to take in the Evensong service. This being my first ever event in a Anglican Church, I looked on with interest and enjoyed the choral performances. It's much more, i suppose ceremonious is a good word, than the Southern Baptist church I grew up with. Afterwards, I took off for White Chapel to visit the Ten Bells, a pup made famous (infamous) by Jack the Ripper. Then back to Southwark and a couple other recommended dinner and drinking places. I ended up stumbling (not in the drunken sense but in the unexpected sense) into a pub full of local musicians "jamming" in the corner. It was pretty damn cool.
The next day it was time to go. Headed back to Heathrow for the flight home. (I really enjoyed Delta's lie flat seats). Non-rev tip #3: Flying back to the US requires you to pay a boatload of taxes, and the UK it came out to about £185... don't be surprised by this. Once again, I brought chocolate for my crew, and once again it was greatly appreciated. Back in the US, I was again interrogated by Customs. I get it, they ask questions and judge your response to get an impression of why you're really there.. but it's freakin annoying. Maybe it's because they flip through seeing full pages of stamps and visas from your less than normal destinations. Who knows.
It was overall a great trip. I had good company and we, for the most part, had surprisingly good weather. I do feel like I walked more in the last 5 days than I have in the previous year, and have the aches and sore feet to show for it. But the pain is worth it. And a reminder it's time for new shoes.
SO that's my triumphant return to London. There's still more I would like to have done (especially outside the city), but time ran out. Good reason to go back I suppose. It's an expensive city, but there are ways to save money (lots of museums are free, and the tube/bus system is extremely economical and useful... just remember to mind the gap).