Category Archives: London

My Summer Vacation, Day 3: Running Around Town

NOTE:  if you hover your mouse over the photos, a description will pop up. 

While I swore I wouldn’t do the double-decker bus tour thing, it only took me 3 minutes to change my mind.  It was actually very cool since they give you a running commentary about the places you are driving through.

 

Note to self:  Next trip must walk down Bow Lane, the only street in London that hasn’t moved or been changed since Elizabeth I’s time. 

 

We ended up touring St. Paul’stoday instead of later in the week as originally planned.  It worked out for the best.  St. Paul’s was rather awe-inspiring.  Jacki and I found ourselves in tears more than once while there.  The first time, when they were sharing stories of how St. Paul’s has always been a place people flock to during difficult times.  They specifically shared how over 30,000 people came to St. Paul’s on 9/11 to offer comfort to the thousands of American citizens in London.

 

The second time was when we walked behind the high altar and discovered a very touching memorial to all the service men who fought in, and for, England during WWII.   There is a beautiful book with the names of each and every one of them; including their rank and their hometown.  Obviously I knew the role the US played in helping Britton, I just had no idea of the depth of gratitude they had for it.  This was not a small memorial and it was in the place of highest honor in the Cathedral.  It was moving.  Sadly, St. Paul’s does not allow photos.

 

We picked up a wonderful lunch of fresh crusty bread, pasta salad, cheese, and raspberries and had a picnic on the steps of the Cathedral before catching the bus for the Tower Pier for our boat trip on The Thames.

 

Funny story about The Great Fire Memorial.  When Charles Wren (the designer) went to King Charles II to request his likeness be used, King Charles refused him.  His reasoning was he didn’t start the fire!  Priceless.

I can honestly say the hardest thing I’ve ever done is stand outside the walls of The Tower of London and just walk past it.  I’m not sure but I think at some point, Jacki had her arms around me, pulling me away from it.  *sigh* I must add, even Jacki was a touch awed by the sheer size.  I’ve seen a million photos but nothing, NOTHING, prepares you for the real thing. 

 

Jacki said from the planning stages that she wanted to take a boat trip on The Thames.  The only thing we could find on-line were day-long trips and we just couldn’t figure out how to work it into the schedule.  It wasn’t until we got there that the ferry-boat option became known to us.  So we took the ferry from Tower Bridge Pier to Westminster Pier.  We saw Big Ben at Westminster Castle (known as Parliament to you non-history buffs – bet you didn’t know it used to be a Royal Residence, did ya?), and the usual stuff on that corner.   I won’t bore you with pics of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace.  The following are just some fun pics of cool stuff we saw while running around this area London.

         

We walked The Mall, saw the Banqueting House where Charles I was beheaded, saw the back entrance to St. James Palace.  The Banqueting house is the only building that remains of the original Whitehall Palace.  It dates to Henry VIII but it has been renovated and modernized so many times, nothing truly remains of the original building.  We did not do the tour.  Maybe next trip.   

 

Historical Note:  The Queen may live at Buckingham Palace but St. James Palace is still her official court (and has been the official court since Henry VIII) so it’s secured from us riff-raff getting too close.  At the time of our visit, Princes William and Harry (as well as the Duchess of Cambridge) were living there. 

     

We found, quite by accident, a set of river stairs from, Whitehall.  They were doing some digging and found them.  They are tucked away behind the Department of Defense (or was it Ministry?) with just a little plaque.  I was beyond THRILLED to discover it.  If we hadn’t decided to take a short cut, we would have walked right passed and never known it was there.  It was these little treasures I came to see.

    

We walked though the Horse Guard, the area they practice on today is the same field used for Tournaments and Jousting by Henry VIII.  If you watched Kate and William’s wedding, we walked the exact route their car took except for a shortcut through St. James Park. 

 

We continued on through St. James Park to Buckingham Palace, the big arch (as opposed to the two smaller ones), and I can’t remember what else we saw.  We walked through Green Park. There are no flowers in Green Park. Charles II compared his mistress to the beauty of a flower while walking through it. His Queen (Catherine of Braganza) demanded that all flowers be removed from the park and it’s been just green ever since.  There was so much!!!  Lots of memorials and statues.  I have tons of photos of those but they just don’t do the work justice.  I high recommend seeing them in person.

Historical sidenote:  Queens, New York is named for Queen Catherine of Braganza. 

I have to tell you what happened at dinner that night though.  Our waiter (different restaurant) asked where we were from.  Upon hearing Minnesota, he asked “oh, the place where the roof collapsed from snow?”  Jacki almost crawled under the table.  It seems mocking the Vikings is a worldwide past-time. 

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My Summer Vacation In London: Day 1

First of all, let me clear up a few misconceptions aboutEngland.

1.  The beer is always ice cold (and Budweiser was everywhere, including the corner store).

2.  Pop (or Coke for the New Orleans folks and Soda for the rest of the world) is served warm and if you ask for ice, you’ll be lucky to get 5 cubes.  And it’s expensive!

3.  It doesn’t rain every day but after twice getting caught in sudden, short, showers, we learned to not leave the hotel without our sunglasses and umbrellas.

4.  It gets HOT there.  We had 2 days over 90 and we both got mild sunburns.  We did not plan for this.  Everything we read told us to expect temps in the mid 70’s.

5.  The food was phenomenal!!!  I was prepared for so-so food but was gleefully surprised at the abundance of fresh produce and fresh, beautifully prepared salads and sandwiches in every convenience store we walked into.  None of that soggy, guess how old it is stuff from Super America.  The fresh baked croissants that you can buy in any store are worth moving there for.  I’m drooling just thinking about them!   Even the restaurants in the attractions served amazing food.  You’d think, since they have you trapped inside, it wouldn’t be anything special but I can honestly say we didn’t have a bad meal the entire time we were there.

The Flight

As I mentioned right before we left, our check-in agent at Humphrey Terminal asked what we had planned in London.  We mentioned the usual stuff and then Jacki popped up with “And Bon Jovi!”.  At which point Michelle (the ticket agent) screamed a bit and showed off her Bon Jovi Fan Club pin she wears on her badge lanyard.  It was a good omen.  She gave me her number, I need to find it and give her a call!

The flight was easy; the layover in Iceland was interesting.   We had planned to sleep on the plane since we were traveling at night but we went north over Superior and into Canada north of Goose Bay, then over Greenland before banking south into Iceland.  We were far enough north the sun never set and the plane stayed bright the entire trip.

Customs in Iceland is “different”.  We had to have our bags scanned and walk through a metal detector in order to enter the country – just for a 90 minute layover!  We then met with customs officials who I believe are trained to look intimidating and never show expression of any kind.  And then we had to meet with the same agents again 60 minutes later without ever leaving the secured area of the airport.  Very strange.

Arrival

After landing at Heathrow, we collected our bags and headed to immigration.  It was fast and painless.   I must admit, at this point I’m tired enough I’m probably drooling a little and not making much sense.  We still need to find transportation to our hotel and we need cash.  The airport is never the best place to buy cash but you don’t really have a ton of options.  Anyway, got cash, bought Oyster cards (refillable train cards) and figured out which Tube line to catch.

I came to love the tube system but it just isn’t meant to be done with a heavy piece of luggage.  ADA, as we understand and expect it,  doesn’t exist over there so walking up two – three flights of stairs to get to street level is the norm.  Elevators are rare and only the larger newly refurbished stops have escalators.  So here we are, dragging suitcases and carry-on bags.  It was an experience I never want to repeat.  I will spend the extra money on a car, thank you very much.  There are certain times when being economical it is just stupid.  This was one of them.

Being unsure where exactly our hotel was, we hopped off  The Tube at one of the closest stations.  It turns out there is a closer one (with elevators even!) but it wasn’t so far that it mattered.  Within 3 minutes of exiting the station, got our first taste of London weather.  It down-poured.  I mean POURED!  We were soaked through in a matter of moments, all the while we are trying to figure out where we’re supposed to go.  It was an interesting 30 minutes.  I’m sure there were many Londoner’s thinking “stupid tourists” as we’re standing under awnings with our bags and maps.  Oh well, that’s what happens when you hop a plane and a train with a “we’ll figure it out when we get there” attitude.  After getting our bearings and walking about 8 blocks, we finally arrived at the hotel.

Our hotel was interesting.  I’ll freely admit that we Americans are spoiled.  This was a 4 star hotel…. Let me repeat, 4 stars.  The hotel was on a quiet street of old townhouses that have been converted into a bunch of different hotels. The room was a very comfortable size (which I understand is rare in British hotels) but very worn looking.  The carpet was worn through to the padding in one spot, no a/c, no clock radio or alarm, no hand towels, no wash cloths, no Kleenex, and you could sand wood with the towels they were so scratchy.  They did offer an electric water kettle but only instant coffee.  Jacki and I both made the observation that our cheapest Super 8 motels offered more than this place did.

We knew we would have to share the toilet with others on the floor – this was really no big deal, it was 2 doors down and the hotel is very small with 3 ladies rooms for the 9 rooms on our floor.  And it was quiet enough that we ran down the hall in our jammies without ever running into anyone.  We did have a sink and shower in our room though they were literally right in the room, not tucked in a closet or adjacent room.  Again, no biggie, it was just a touch of culture shock.

What saddened me the most about the hotel was the staff.  They were very unfriendly and unwilling to help with anything (and we discovered it isn’t a British thing as everyone else we met were friendly, kind, helpful and unassuming).  They weren’t rude, just not very open, never smiled, never gave a greeting in passing.  We asked them several times to help us find things in the immediate area, like when we were looking for a laundry mat, and no one knew anything.  I asked once for a telephone directory or Yellow Pages and just received a blank stare in return.  She didn’t know what I was talking about.  I wrote it off to a language barrier.  I asked another clerk the next day and she at least knew what I was looking for.  I laughed when she handed it to me because in big letters it said “Yellow Pages”.

The British Museum

We took Tod’s advice (don’t stop in your room, drop your bags and go.  If you sit down, even for a moment, you’re done for) dropped our bags and ran out the door for the British museum, which was pretty much in our backyard.

      

Jacki at the The British Museum

The Rosetta stone was rather anti-climatic or maybe it was the 20 people deep surrounding  it that made it so.   The Pantheon Marbles, however, were amazing!!!  The pictures just can’t do them any justice.   The detail is amazing.  I could write about them for hours and could never adequatly convey how amazing? powerful? moving? they are.   More pics of the museum at the end of the post.

Did I mention how amazing they were?

We didn’t go through the entire museum, I don’t think you can do it all in one day, but we saw what we really wanted to see.

We walked around the neighborhood a bit, discovered the 2 parks (Bloomsbury Square andRussell Square) on each side of the hotel, found Starbucks (and how disappointing was that???), local food stores, drug store, etc.  I really liked the neighborhood we were in.  It was comfortable, everything we needed was very close, Covent Garden was a 15-20 minute walk, and we were on the Picadilly Tube line, which meant our Tube line connected with pretty much all the others at one point or another.   It was super easy to get anywhere we needed to go.

Please, allow me to rant about coffee a minute.  So we stepped into Starbucks, ordered a dark roast with room for cream.  I didn’t realize I was speaking in a foreign tongue.   First of all, I think they make their filtered coffee from whatever they swept up off the floor the night before.  It doesn’t taste like coffee.  And when I asked for room for cream?  I guess that meant I wanted whipped cream… UGH!  Turns out that half-and-half doesn’t exist there.  It isn’t that no one uses it; it just doesn’t exist, not even in the large grocery stores.  Milk is all you get.  I hate milk in my coffee; I mean I really hate milk in my coffee.  The lactose after taste is a total turn off.  Anyway, we learned quickly that you need to order an Americano with a small dollop of unsweetened whipping cream.  The very first thing I did when I got home was make a cup of coffee with half-and-half.  If you find yourself in London looking for coffee, ignore what you know and go to Costa.   http://www.costa.co.uk

For dinner, we stopped at a small café off Southampton Row.  The food was great but the service was awful.  When our French waiter asked where we were from, he exclaimed “the Vikings, yes?”  Jacki is convinced he was a Packer fan because we never saw him again after that.

Click on any of the photos to get a larger view!