UK Trip Part 4

After 4 days in Scotland and 2 in York, Phil and Kathy have recently arrived in London, and are going to stay for 4 days. Pictures from the entire trip can be found here.

Thursday, September 1st
Because I didn’t do it before, let me take a bit to tell you about our hotel. In general, this was the best hotel of our trip. We were quite glad, given the heat wave, that we had air conditioning. However, we quickly learned that we were either cold or hot, and there were very few adjustments we could make to the temperature. Also, I was dismayed to learn that a strange noise I heard in the ceiling of our bathroom was due to the air conditioning, and there was nothing they or we could do about it (the noise persisted even if we turned our air conditioning off, because it was a system noise). We were able to open windows, but because of the configurations of the buildings, there’s a corridor of noise, so it was best to keep them closed.

Our room was clean and relatively spacious. We even had a couple of chairs and table. Also, the hotel was in a great location. We were walking distance to two different underground stations, and we had many restaurants within walking distance. In addition, we were happy to find that there was a Starbucks and Caffe Nero on the corner, so I could get my lattes in the morning. We were very close to the theater district, which was by design, and yet, the streets where we stayed weren’t overly busy, and therefore weren’t loud and dangerous.

In addition, I was quite to surprised to find that we were two doors down from the Grand Lodge of England. Given both my familial and friends’ connections to the Freemasons, I found it ironic and amusing that we were so close to this landmark without knowing ahead of time.

The hotel clearly catered to business guests. As such, there was no tourist information in our room. Indeed, there were no pamphlets about the hotel itself in the room (which I found odd), so we both forgot that there was a sauna and spa downstairs. However, this also meant that high speed Internet access was available, so we were able to catch up on our e-mail and purchase tickets for the attractions we wanted to see (to the tune of £15, but at this point we had spent so much money we didn’t care).

By the way, this is a key if you ever visit Britain. Most, if not all, attractions allow you to purchase tickets online ahead of time. Doing so means you miss the lines and, in the case of the attractions that only have certain times for tours or openings, you can plan your visit to the minute.

The first morning in our hotel, after dealing with the strange noise and sleeping in a bit and purchasing Internet access, we headed out to the Tower of London. Luckily, Phil and I have traveled to NYC together before, and we know how to navigate subways together. The London Underground is fabulous, with the exception of the lack of air conditioning. We navigated our entire trip using the Underground, and this was no exception. 

We were going to skip getting a tour, but we happened to stumble into one of the tours that had just started. So, I have to tell you, I really knew nothing about the Tower of London or what the heck it was beside the fact that it has the Crown Jewels. Perhaps the Tower’s site summarizes it best:

Founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7 and enlarged and modified by successive sovereigns, today the Tower of London is one of the world’s most famous and spectacular fortresses. Discover its 900-year history as a royal palace and fortress, prison and place of execution, mint, arsenal, menagerie and jewel house.

OK, then, there’s a lot to see, and the best way to get the initial introduction to the place is by getting a tour with a Beefeater (or Yeoman Warder). The Beefeaters actually live at the Tower in addition to working there. Our tour guide was a curmudgeonly sort, but fuuuuny. At one point, one of the little boys on the tour had gotten behind him, and was rolling about on the grass. Completely without warning, the guide yelled, in a booming voice, “GET OFF THE GRASS” and then went back to talking. The boy ran back to his mother sobbing, and the Yeoman apologized for making him cry but explained, tongue-in-cheek, that he has to do that every once in awhile to prove he can still do it. I warmed up to him even more after this because he reminded me a bit of my own Grandpa, or for that matter, my elementary school principal.

He had quite a few funny lines. At one point he was telling us about the ravens who live at the Tower. The Tower keeps ravens because Charles II was told that unless the Tower kept at least 6 ravens (they now keep 8 or so), it would mean the destruction of the Tower, the fall of England, and the elimination of the Monarchy. Apparently, during WWI, they were down to only 2 ravens, and this was just before the US joined the fight, so they take the superstition pretty seriously. In any case, our guide told us that the ravenmaster lets the birds wander about until 8 PM or so, at which point he whistles and they all get in the cage. He said the ravenmaster is the only man he knows that can whistle and get 8 birds into bed in 10 minutes.

The tour ended with a visit to the chapel, in which quite a few of the tower’s famous prisoners and execution victims have been buried. He was pointing to the various sites in the chapel and then pointed to the organ and said, “that was built in 1999 and has absolutely no history whatsoever.” Like I said, funny. The chapel is still used for services, and the residents of the Tower are members, and the public is also welcome to attend.

After the tour ended, Phil and I headed in to see the jewels, which, indeed, are quite impressive. We also made our way around to see various other parts of the Tower, but did not focus on the creepy side of it. I’m sure there are plenty of ghosties and things, but we didn’t see any, nor did we go look for them. I was amused, however, to see the change in armor sizes for Henry VIII. He went from being a fairly athletic handsome lad to a man with a 56 inch waist. Moral of the story, don’t get married 6 times.

After the tower, we got a bite to eat, and then walked down to the Tower bridge (which IS NOT the London bridge, you silly Americans), and walked out to the middle of the span.

I found myself a bit intrigued by both the City Hall and the Swiss Re tower. What interesting architecture in the midst of all this stone and grandeur!

Then, we headed back towards our hotel, but stopped in Leicester Square to see what the discount ticket outlets had for sale. We decided to go see “The Woman in White,” which is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s latest. After freshening up in our room, we headed back out to the theater. We were pleased that we could bring our cocktails into the show, and order some for intermission as well. On our way into getting our seats, there were two sets of double doors. Everyone was going through one, and there were no signs or anything else that said not to the other. I said “is there any reason we can’t use this one?” An English gent beside me said, “no, you’re American, you can go wherever you want.” Haha.

The show was visually stunning: they used video and CGI superimposed on blank background as the scenery. There was one moving wall, but nothing was painted, and other than some basic furniture, that was the only stage decoration. I felt sort of like I was playing “Myst” or the “7th Guest,” and it was a very engaging atmosphere. The performances were technically perfect, and the orchestra did a fabulous job. The story itself wasn’t bad, and I felt the show moved along quickly. However, I do have the feeling that Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber is phoning his stuff in nowadays. I mean, who needs another hit show? I did not walk away from the show humming any of the music, indeed, about 5 minutes after I walked out of it I wouldn’t have been able to remember any of it.

We walked back towards our hotel, and this time stopped in one of the aforementioned Indian restaurants on our hotel’s street. It was quite a good meal; they say that Indian food is now the national food of England, and I don’t doubt it.

At this point, our feet, having walked miles and miles for a week straight, were rebelling. My feet had huge blisters. Phil’s ankle was making it difficult for him to move. Yet, we knew that we had two more full days in London and much to see, so we tried to get a good night’s sleep and take our Advil and not think about it.

Friday, September 2nd
We had ordered tickets for 2 PM for the London Eye, and we wanted to fit something in before that, so we headed over to Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the Royal Family, but much like the Bushies, they’re on Holiday every August and September. After HM Queen Elizabeth II experienced her “annis horribilis” in 1992, when her children got divorced, and there was a fire, and there was much bad press, she decided to open up Buckingham Palace to the public during these months. Boy am I glad she did.

We headed over to the palace and the crowds were lined up 40 or 50 people deep for the changing of the guards. We went to buy tickets for touring the palace, and found that if we got tickets for 11:30 (the entrances are timed) we would not be able to stay out and watch it. I figured that I could probably see it better on TV or DVD than standing amidst thousands of tourists, so we went ahead and went on the tour. This tour is fabulous, and if you’re ever in London during August and September, you should go. First off, since we had chosen to go in during the changing, we could hear the bagpipes from inside. Furthermore, we could stand inside the palace and look out through the courtyard and the gates and see some of it from the other side.

The tour included an audio guide, and I found myself in my own world as I strode through the State rooms, including the ball room and dining room and the gallery. I imagined all the people, famous and not, powerful and not so, who had strode through these halls and I found my head swimming. They also included an exhibition of the “white wardrobe” that the Queen Mother wore on her 1938 diplomatic trip to Paris. Of course Phil sort of breezed through this, but I enjoyed looking at all the clothes.

Back on the tube, and over to the London Eye. I had heard about this, again, from Samantha Brown, and had read that it was a great way to see the city. Phil was apprehensive about it because he’s got a bit of an issue with heights, but you are completely enclosed and you can sit in the middle, so it was no problem for him. It was a perfect day (well, it was a bit hot) and the scenery was fantastic. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We walked across the Thames and ended up going to Westminster Abbey (of course taking pictures of Big Ben and Parliament along the way). I did not realize, until this visit, the Westminster Abbey secondary function is as a tomb and you visit it to see all the people that are either buried or commemorated there. For instance, there is the “Poets’ Corner,” where lots of literary types are laid to rest or memorialized. Also, there is the coronation chair, which amusingly enough, has graffiti carved in it, because it used to be down on the ground where people could get to it. We had also already seen the “Stone of Destiny” that used to lie beneath it, because it had been returned to Scotland and now is in Edinburgh Castle (it’s a stone with some grooves in it).

Back out into the sunlight, we walked about, and wandered into a pub to have a very late lunch. Then, we hopped back on the tube and headed over to Harrods. Oh, the wonders of Harrods. You must visit this store. I was entranced, especially with their Food Halls. The food, oh the food. We had the most marvelous gelato.  If we ever go back, we will have breakfast, lunch, and dinner there. The entire store is just a temple to decadence and we quite enjoyed it. I was amazed that we saw so many women in burkhas wandering about and looking at all the fancy clothes. Women of all cultures love pretty clothes…this is one thing on which we all can agree. I figured that it’s no worse for them to look at them than it is for me, because I can’t wear them or buy them either.

We were at a loss as to what to do that night because we had seen the shows that were available and we weren’t too excited: either we had already seen them or we had seen the movie or we didn’t care. So, we thought about going to see some jazz, but Ronnie Scott’s was sold out, and most of the other clubs were either too far away or had bands we weren’t excited about. We went back to the hotel, rested a bit, and then ended up having dinner near the hotel at the Scotch Steak House. I thought perhaps the bad decor meant good food – sometimes they can only focus on one thing at a time. Don’t go here. Once again, the promise of tasty highland beef was ruined by the fact that “medium rare” is a mystery. I mean, really, when most of what you purportedly sell is steak, how can you do it so badly? Eh, at least we had decent cocktails. What can I say, sometimes we’re stupid tourists.

Saturday, September 3rd
Last day in London…we should be whooping it up, right? Eh, not so much. We were exhausted, our feet hurt, and we were really ready to go home. However, we knew that we wouldn’t the opportunity to visit London again too soon, so we looked around for a low impact activity. We ended up deciding to visit Kensington Palace, most well known as the former residence of Princess Diana. To get there, we went to the Notting Hill stop on the tube and wandered through Notting Hill. It is every bit as charming as the movie about it suggests, and it’s quite obvious why people live here. Indeed, Kensington Palace is in a charming location, adjacent to Kensington Park, and it was an absolutely lovely day.

First off, though, we had to go past the gates covered with flowers and pictures of Diana. Oh, I thought, she died August 31st…this is a memorial. And, well, just a bit creepy, really. Of course, it’s probably a lot less creepy than what goes on at Graceland when it’s the anniversary of Elvis’ death.

Parts of the tour through the palace were equally, um, strange. Princess Margaret used to live here, and her apartments have been opened up for tours, but there’s nothing in them. Well, there are pictures of how the apartments looked in the 60’s when they lived there. Of course, Princess Margaret was one of the more interesting royals, and she ended up divorcing her husband, but none of this is mentioned on the tour.

What’s also strange about Kensington is that they acknowledge the existence of Diana through a display of her dresses. However, other than this, there are no other mentions of her on the tour. It’s fairly obvious that the royal family would love to forget her, but they do appreciate the money her name brings in. Ah, mixed emotions.

Kensington was also the home of Queen Victoria, well before she was queen, and when she found out she was to be crowned. The tours *do* talk quite a bit about Victoria (albeit no one mentions the fact that she hid away after her husband died for 25 years, but you know, history forgives all) and you get to see the bedroom where she was born. Apparently, Kensington was the “home in the country” where the royals went to get out of the smog of London. It’s only 3 miles away, but it is very different then downtown and very lovely.

As I mentioned, Kensington has Diana’s dresses and also has some of QE II’s dresses. Di’s are, of course, much more exciting.

After the Palace, Phil and I wandered through Kensington Park and enjoyed the day. We were all touristed out, and we just didn’t have the strength to look for more things to see.

Upon returning to our hotel, we discovered that our Internet access was not working. We hung about the hotel for awhile, but it turned out that it would not be working again until Monday. So, we looked in our guides for Internet cafes, and decided that we would head over to the Virgin Megastore to get online and get our boarding passes. Well, it turned out that Continental doesn’t allow for getting boarding passes pre-printed for Gatwick, but we did buy our tickets for the Gatwick Express, and I got an e-mail from my new friend Pliable, who suggested some places for us to visit.

We went back to our hotel, and then finally, and I’m not sure why we didn’t go sooner, walked over to Covent Garden. It was fabulous to see the new opera house, and the market looks great…I wish we would have seen it during the day. We ended up having dinner at a restaurant suggested by Pliable, Chez Gerard, and while their “frites” were indeed good, I made the mistake of trying once again for a steak, because I hate to be defeated. It was, well, OK, at least better than I had had. Oh, and I’m done with beef for awhile. We sat on the balcony, enjoyed the street music, and talked about our trip. It was a great last night.

Back in our room, my wonderful husband performed his duties: he packed. I gather, he packs. He’s a bass player, and he used to fit his enormous double bass into a Nissan Pulsar, so he’s a wiz at fitting lots of stuff into small spaces. We went through our drill of packing everything except that which we needed for the next day. We are quite good at this by now.

Sunday, September 4th
After a discussion with the hotel about a meal that was erroneously charged to our bill, we headed out, via taxi, to Victoria Station. We congratulated ourselves on the fact that we had done the entire London experience, to that point, on trains or on foot, and this was our first taxi ride. However, I was quite glad we had decided to take the taxi that morning. First of all, London cabbies are very very well trained, and they know what they’re doing, and they’re also very funny. Next, we got a very interesting perspective on a Sunday morning in London, and even saw the Buckingham Palace guards drilling in fatigues. Last, and most importantly, it meant that we didn’t have to haul our bags down into the tube, transfer stations, and then come back up to get on the Gatwick Express.

The Gatwick Express was a wonderful experience. We were dropped off in the right place, we got in the elevator, got out, and there the train was, doors open and ready to head out. The train was air conditioned, we got a cup of coffee, and we got to sit :-).

Gatwick itself is quite chaotic, although I hear from Phil that it’s less so than Heathrow. We dragged our bags through throngs of people and then waited in a looong line, and then we were in the duty free shopping area. I bought myself a Harrods tote bag, and Phil bought a bottle of scotch, and then we ate breakfast, and then got on our plane.

When we arrived in Newark, I had this strange feeling that I should just stay there, that I was already home, but I got on the flight to Seattle anyway. Customs and security were long but uneventful, and we had plenty of time to catch our flight home. By the time we actually got home, we had been up for almost 24 hours, and we slept the sleep of the dead, and therefore got back on our normal schedules fairly easily.

I am so grateful that we got to go on this trip. Our feet recovered after a few days, and our wallets will recover over the next few months. I do hope we get to go back before I’m too old to do all that walking.

But, I’m glad to be home.

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