London Revisited
November 2007

 
I used my passport for the first time ever when I went to England in December 1987 -- almost exactly 20 years ago. I've been back four times (2001, 2004, 2005 and 2006), all over the last six years, but I wanted to go once more, this time with Stefan. He had only been to London once, back in the early 1990s when he was in the German army (long story), and really wanted to go back. As luck would have it, I was asked to present at a conference in Blackpool this year, and thanks to German Wings, it was easy to arrange a meetup with Stefan for the weekend in London afterwards.

I guess that, officially, this was our honeymoon, but I really consider our honeymoon as those two weeks in Northern FranceA just before our wedding -- that felt more like a honeymoon.

FInding a hotel in London is always a HUGE challenge for me, because it is CRAZY EXPENSIVE and everything books up quickly. I tried to book a room at the Bayswater Inn via londonnights.com -- it's a "cheap"-but-clean hotel in a great location, and I stayed there in 2005 -- but it was booked out by the time Wells Fargo decided that, indeed, I had told them I was in Germany and my credit card should, therefore, function outside the USA. I looked for cheap deals via londonnights.com, but when I cross-referenced its recommended hotels over on traveladvisor.com, the reviews were HORRENDOUS. Somehow, I found the Central Park Hotel, also in Bayswater (and just down the street from Hyde Park), and decided to book it, through hotels.com. My verdict: clean, comfortable, tiny room with everything you need for a long weekend in London. If all you need is a place to crash every night, this is a good hotel -- unless you are really tall (the ceilings are oh-so-low). It's near two different tube stations (each served by different lines). We were stunned that there was a small flat screen TV in our room, and one night I sat reading on the heated bathroom floor nursing a twisted ankle, which was just what I needed. Stefan talked to a guest of another hotel in the little smoking booth on the street outside our hotel, and he said his place nearby was "a rat hole", so I think we made a good choice. As for breakfast: just go with the continental breakfast, which is included in your room price; the Central Park Hotel version of an English breakfast is over-priced and skimpy. You are better off having breakfast in a restaurant elsewhere (and the neighborhood has PLENTY).

I spent a few days in Blackpool beforehand for a conference, and got to stay at the historic Paramount Imperial Hotel Blackpool, which opened in 1867 and has hosted several British prime ministers, royalty and celebrities. One night, I got to stay in the Churchill Suite! The staff is nice and happy to help, and the food is excellent. Great place for a honeymoon (except for the town itself... the big eyeballs hanging everywhere freaked me out). Only complaint about the hotel: overpriced Internet access, but it's available throughout the hotel (your hotel room, lobby, etc.).

I arrived VERY late from Blackpool on a Friday, and met up with Stefan at the Black Lion Inn just around the corner from the Queensway Tube station. We ended up having a pint (or more) there almost every night of our stay. We had a light supper there as well one night -- very tasty.

LONDON TRAVEL TIP #1: get the three day tube pass if you are going to be in London for three days! Meter for meter, the tube is more expensive than a ticket on the Concord (if the Concord were still flying). Our three-day pass paid for itself by the middle of the second day! For our fourth-day, we got a one-day pass and, again, it was well worth it (especially since we had to take a bus at one point and it works with that too!).

LONDON TRAVEL TIP #2: bring all your foreign currency for exchange! We had Jordanian money left over from our Jordan trip in 2006, and I suggested that Stefan try to exchange it at Stansted Airport. It worked! Wish I'd remembered to bring my leftover India money...

LONDON TRAVEL TIP #3: Stansted Airport. This is my favorite London airport; the staff are in much better moods than the people at Heathrow, and it's way, way less crazy. You can save a few euros by taking the bus rather than the Stansted Express to and from London, but I recommend that, if you want to do that, you take the bus FROM the airport but take the train TO the airport, in case there's a traffic jam.

You could call this a continuation of our William the Conqueror tour -- we were in Normandy earlier this year, where William started out. I think we've now been to most of the places he "toured." Once again, we let Lonely Planet be our guide, specifically Lonely Planet Britain, and once again, it was right on the money with all of its suggestions (our favorite is its suggestion that, to avoid the lines at Madame Tussauds's, just don't go at all! -- as we hate wax museums, that wasn't a problem).

Our first full day in London -- a Saturday -- we began with a walk through Hyde Park. I'd been couped up in the stately, historic Imperial Palace Hotel in Blackpool for several days prior, and while I really loved that hotel, I was ready to be outside. The weather was overcast and cool, but I just really wanted to be outside for a while. We got to see archers practicing (they were not, however, wearing tights), lots of dogs running around, people playing everything from rugby to American football (and a dog attempting to join in a rugby game that I found highly amusing), and locals getting out and enjoying the outdoors -- something that's always a treasure in a big city. We walked by Kensington Palace, birthplace of Queen Victoria and last home of Princess Diana, but didn't go in -- we just weren't in the mood. We also walked around Victoria's monument to Albert, which I distinctly remember driving past 20 years ago -- it looks much better now.

Next, we headed to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Supposedly, it is "the most popular privately run museum in London." It's masterfully done to look as Holmes' apartment is described. I'm not sure you would get much out of it if you hadn't read at least a few stories (the movies are NO substitute). We loved it... because we are geeks; I'll always be thankful that Stefan got me to read the books. The museum is located, ofcourse, at "221b Baker Street," and the location really was a boarding house from 1860 - 1936. Outside, about a block away, I saw a guy running across the street from us, and then two guys running after him -- hope they caught him.

Later, we walked over to Buckingham Palace, down the main drag. I had major flashbacks of running around the area in the middle of the night back in 1987. I remember thinking at the time that I hoped to come back to London often -- glad I realized that dream. We walked around the neighborhood a bit, and I realized at one point we were passing the chapel where the Princess Diana Memorial was held earlier this year. Geesh but London is compact. The weather wasn't great, but since it wasn't raining, there were still loads of people about.

LONDON TRAVEL TIP #4: Plan to get to major tourist sites early! Beat the crowds! And your tour guides will all be fresh!
We went to bed early that evening because we wanted to head to the Tower of London as early as we could manage. But we watched TV for a while and -- I don't know how -- but I managed to sprain my ankle while laying on the bed . I hadn't taken my very huge, bulky shoes off; my feet were hanging of the bed and I was making little circles at the ankle, and I felt this pull on my left ankle... I didn't think much of it at the time, but I woke up in the middle of the night in MAJOR PAIN. I was almost in tears. My ankle was KILLING ME. No way could I tour anything with an ankle like this. I took several Advil, calmed down, and finally managed to get to sleep. The next day, my ankle felt better, but it was still painful. I put on much lighter shoes and hobbled around, hoping it wouldn't get worse. It didn't, but it didn't get better that day at all.

20 years ago, I'd visited just the outside of the Tower of London during my whirlwind tour of the city, and Stefan had balked at the huge line outside when he was there back in the 1990s. We were determined to see the inside this time, and had decided getting there early on a Sunday was the best bet. We were so right -- we got there an hour before opening, and because of the threatening weather, there was no line. We had a leisurely second breakfast at a nearby restaurant, then got into the sudden-but-very-short-cue for tickets. We got the second Beefeater (Yeoman Warder) tour of the day, and IT WAS SO WORTH IT. It was the highlight of the entire London trip. The guy was HILARIOUS. I think his name was Bill. I particularly enjoyed his beratement of children (for being, well, children) and Mel Gibson (for being so woefully historically inaccurate). There was one little red-headed boy who made it clear he really, REALLY wanted to hear the bloodiest, goriest stories possible, and Bill obliged -- often to the little red-headed boy's later horror. The guide also noted that many of the guards posted at various points within the Tower have just finished tours of Iraq or Afghanistan (I almost yelled, "Me too!!"). I got to see the female Beefeater too (she's the first one ever), and wanted my photo with her, but since she was on her way in to work, I thought I'd catch her later... and then never did (frown).

After the Beefeater tour, we went to have a look at the Crown Jewels. There was NO LINE. So we went round the moving walkway twice. It's definitely worth it to pay attention to the slide shows playing before you see the actual jewels, because they give you an idea of what everything is. The crowns are really lovely -- I think I should have one. We kept laughing over all the royal spoons. The swords and scepters we understood, but spoons ? What for? The Royal Cornflakes? (found out later, in the guidebook I bought for the tour, it's for annointment in oil. Very important).

We visited the White Tower, and were lucky enough to get there just as a tour was about to start. I was the only person in our group who found the tour guide funny. I found him highly amusing, actually, and laughed away while everyone else stood there silent. The Tower holds the armaments, which I don't really find all that interesting, but I did really like Henry VIII's armor and the small old stone chapel inside the building. Outside the White Tower, we got to see two of the famous ravens -- THEY ARE HUGE!! I had no idea they were such big birds!

We visited the "Bloody Tower", where a room is displayed as it might have been occupied by Sir Walter Raleigh; an original print of his "History of the World" is on display, and I enjoyed reading the page shown (it's yet another example of how taking the Bible literally is a very recent phenomena). But more moving to me was Beauchamp Tower, where Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned. What an incredibly sad story... outside, over the scaffold site is a very moving memorial -- if it doesn't get to you, you've a heart of stone.

I think I hit every gift shop on the grounds, but, though tempted, did not buy a replica of any royal spoons.

By the time we were done (no, we didn't see everything), it was dark and starting to rain. We had some supper, then went to Trafalger Square and walked around a bit -- and considered catching a movie, but nothing really grabbed us. So we headed back to the Black Lion, and then the hotel -- it was really nice to watch TV in English! My ankle was hurting, but nothing like the night before. I decided that, the next day, I needed to baby it as much as possible -- which would be interesting to try to do while WALKING. I so wished I'd had an ace bandage with me...

I regret that I didn't try to get any theater tickets earlier in the year for this trip. The only thing I could imagine Stefan liking was Spamalot , but I didn't try to get tickets months ago, unfortunately, and I'm scared to buy scalper tickets, in case they aren't real tickets. Going to London and not taking in a show is like... going to New York City and not taking in a show. There might have been other shows worth seeing, but it's so hard to find concise information on what's playing and who's in it.

The next day, Monday, the weather was cr*p, and luckily, we'd already planned to spend the day at the British Museum (yes, it's open on Mondays). We bought two audio tours -- the highlights tour and the Parthenon. I think the audio tours are worth the price. I refuse to try to see an entire major museum in one tour -- by the end, I'm not enjoying anything. I prefer to pick a few priorities. We chose to make the Egyptian collection our primary objective, with our second priority being the Greek and Roman artifacts. For us, they were the right choices. The Egyptian collection is excellent. I particular appreciated seeing the massive Bust of Rameses II that inspired Shelly to write Ozymandias, a portion of which is read on the audio tour. Ah, English literature classes of my past... At one point, on an Egyptian "false wall", I saw a hieroglyphic I had never seen: a very tiny-but-detailed impression of an old man's head. None of the other heads looked like it. I pointed out to Stefan and said, "What do you think it means"? He said, without missing a beat, "It's the Egyptian umlaut - seldom used." And for some reason, I thought it was a hilarious comment. Guess you had to be there.

The ruins of the Parthenon frieze (the Elgin Marbles) are fantastic , and I HIGHLY recommend the audio tour for it (although you will never be able to walk as fast as the narrator expects you to between chapters). And my hat is off to the British Museum PR department for their brochure explaining why they won't give it back to Greece; I may or may not agree with it all, but dang, it's brilliantly written. Whoever wrote it is the greatest propaganda writer ever. Another highlight for me are the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -- namely, the Amazonomachy frieze, a long section of relief showing the battle between Greeks and Amazons (why isn't there ANYTHING from the gift shop depicting this?! Come on -- I totally wanted something showing women kicking men's asses!).

We perused the artifacts from Iraq and mourned what has been lost from there forever, and the fact that we will probably never be able to visit all of the amazing sites there. I did NOT like the stone panels showing the lion hunt - it was the usual slaughter, justified in the name of safety (the description from the time of supposed lion attacks on people is absolutely outrageous and completely unrealistic). The items from Sudan and the pre-Greek artifacts were also outstanding. But by the time we'd seen all this, we were spent, mentally and physically, and the museum was about to close.

Believe it or not, I did manage to baby my left ankle all day: I treated it as though it were made of glass. I took all stairways leading down with my left leg leading, which prevented me every having to bend the left ankle. I know the people behind me in the tube and the museum were annoyed at how slowly I went, but I didn't care; I knew if I did that I'd be very happy by the next day. I could take upward stairs and flat walks normally, though a bit slowly. And, indeed, the next day, Tuesday, my ankle was almost 100%.

That night, we got a big, unexpected treat: we got to see an episode of Long Way Down . We're waiting for the DVDs, but we were excited to get to see a bit, right along with the rest of England.

Tuesday was our last day, but our flight wasn't until the evening, so we had many hours to fill. I wanted to see Westminster Abbey. When we got there, just after it had opened, and Stefan saw the admission price, he decided he did NOT want to see Westminster Abbey. So he waited outside while I toured on my own, which is probably just as well, as Westminster Abbey is mostly one big English history lesson. I paid tribute to Elizabeth I, a person I admire HUGELY. I walked over the plaque to Oliver Cromwell (I was going to stomp on it, but decided not to be rude). I walked down the aisle that so many monarchs have walked on their way to be crowned -- I'm not a royalist nor a royal watcher, but I am a history buff, and I totally got off on it. On behalf of Stefan, I paid tribute to Edmond Halley (the comet dude), Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. But the highlight was, ofcourse, the Poet's corner. I paid tribute to everybody buried or commemorated there. And cried. Had tears streaming down my face as I thanked all those writers and artists for leaving me works that changed my life for the better again and again. My only regret: that I didn't print out a list of all the famous people actually buried there (not just commemorated there), and a map of where they were buried, all freely accessible via the Internet.

We still had loads of time, so we took photos outside Parliament with the clock tower in the background, listened to Big Ben chime 11 o'clock, took the tube over to Cleopatra's Needle and took more photos, then headed over to the Marble Arch to see what it was. We walked over to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park -- there was no one speaking, and I couldn't think of anything to say (for once), so we walked through the park towards our hotel. It turned out to be MUCH farther than I thought, so we went over to take a bus back to our hotel. We gathered up our things and headed over to the tube station, but it was closed "at the request of the police." Hmmmm... so we walked over to the Bayswater station.

Got to the LIverpool street station, bought Stefan's ticket for the Standsted express, had a relaxing ride to the airport, and had a four hours to wait for our flight. Which, believe it or not, passed really quickly. And everything else was uneventful.

Pictures of the adventure.

What I was reading on this trip: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and lots of brochures.

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