Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

England Day 4: Arrival in London!

I’m in London. After years of waiting to see this amazing city, I am finally here to stay for a few days. We decided to spring for a very central hotel that is walkable basically everywhere, and it has not let us down. We spent our day touring the basic landmarks of the city, found London quite navigable, and then settled down for a dinner of a complimentary wine, cheese, bread, and olive spread. We are living a posh London lifestyle—if only for a few days!

Our train left around the same time as our train to Bath, greeted by another sunny day in Salisbury. But this time, the train was full, so we had to stand the whole hour plus trip to into London. This would have been fine. However about halfway through the ride, the conductor announced over the intercom that the train had a light out, and would thus be terminating at Basingstoke—not Waterloo. I was very worried that we would not get in to London with enough time to see what we wanted to see, and then the whole schedule for the next three days would be off. After some very confusing messages and misleading communication to passengers by the staff, the train ended up going all the way through to London, on time. But the resulting stress of uncertain arrival really got to me. When we stepped off the train onto the Waterloo platform, I was very, very thankful.

After the train ride, we had to manage the Tube for the first time. We ended up having to buy new Oyster cards and fill them up with what we thought we would need to get to the Piccadilly Circus stop. Thankfully, this was only about four stops away on the Piccadilly line, so it was an easy first trip. The station was exactly as I pictured it, though the trains are a lot smaller than I expected. We got onto our train immediately after descending into the platform and found seats in the empty train. Crowded trains? I thought those people must be crazy. This was a breeze.

We made it to Piccadilly Circus in less than ten minutes. Impressive! I can see why the Tube is often the preferred method of transportation in London. After some navigating through the station and up the correct stairs, we found the street for our hotel about three blocks from the entrance. Not too shabby at all.

After quickly checking in and throwing our bags in our room, we tried to find the fastest way to Buckingham Palace… this turned out not to be the fastest way whatsoever. We even walked in front of one of the older palace buildings and thought it was the “back side” of Buckingham. I look back now and realize how stupid I was for thinking that, because even the back side of Buckingham is beautiful.

Anyway, we got a little lost and disoriented in our frantic attempt to try to make it to see the Changing of the Guard on time. Needless to say, once we finally found it, we were way too late to see anything of importance. I was almost disgusted at the amount of tourists lined up and pushing against each other to get a good shot of the guards. I managed to get one really good photo of a soldier and his Wolfhound, which I was quite proud of. Other than that, we got to see a mounted marching band (complete with tubas, regular French horns, and even bass drums!), another mounted guard, and a very tiny bit of the actual ceremony. We decided that we would try again on Friday, and arrive so early we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. But at least we would have a spot!

Once we basically gave up on trying to see anything important at the palace, we walked across the street to Green Park. There, we decided to let down a little and go on a nice walk. The clouds covered the sun most of the time, so nothing was too warm, but everything was a little muggy. Welcome to summer in the city, I suppose. But the trees, grass, and walking paths were a welcome sight after seeing so much concrete on our way over.

We basically then just kept walking and finding things that looked important. However, that’s the problem with London—everything looks important, even the buildings that look beautiful but are really just a Tesco or a Hard Rock Café. Yes, that happened a lot. But we found out that walking instead of taking the Tube is a really great way to stumble upon things that are probably important, but people might not see otherwise.

We basically then just kept walking and finding things that looked important. However, that’s the problem with London—everything looks important, even the buildings that look beautiful but are really just a Tesco or a Hard Rock Café. Yes, that happened a lot. But we found out that walking instead of taking the Tube is a really great way to stumble upon things that are probably important, but people might not see otherwise.

We then crossed the insane street into Hyde Park. As a side note, crossing streets in London is not nearly as easy as crossing them in Dublin. Things are much quicker, people will run you over, and they will not care. Do not even try to j-walk unless there is literally no one on the street—it’s for everyone’s safety. Anyway, we entered the giant green space of Hyde Park and found some awesome artwork displayed in various parts of the park. Then, we grabbed some quick lunch at the food stand and ate it on a bench by the bike path. We actually saw a man walk by with two giant blue parrots, one on each shoulder. That was interesting. Other than that, we simply enjoyed the nature while we had a chance, thankful to have some food and rest our feet.

Once we finished, we wanted to walk back the way we came. But we ended up stumbling upon a beautiful rose garden that, I found out later, is in fact called the Hyde Park Rose Garden. There were so many beautiful rose trees, curved up around arbors, making a surreal paradise for a flower lover like me. A fish fountain sits at center of the small circle, enclosed by tall evergreen bushes. All sorts of other flowers accompany the roses to make the garden a perfect place to sit, watch people, and relax for a while. We did not do that, but we had fun admiring all the pristine flowers. It was another accidental find that was absolutely lovely.

We found our way back exactly the way we had come from, and arrived back at Buckingham Palace to find it slightly less packed. Even so, there were still hundreds of people surrounding it. I was still fed up with trying to get nice pictures, but I trued my best. The sun was showing its face by now, so some of them turned out quite nicely. The gold accents and the perfect façade are really stunning symbols of the Royal Family. Everything is perfectly in place. I loved it.

Next, we wanted to see Big Ben, Palace of Westminster, and Westminster Abbey. We took the Birdcage Walk straight down to the Thames, where we saw the Royal Barracks—complete with a garrison marching down the sidewalk toward us in a very intimidating way—lots of expensive apartments, and the Imperial War Museum along the way. And then, all of the sudden, Big Ben came into our view. (Fun Fact: the colloquial name “Big Ben” is actually the name of the largest bell in the clock tower, not the name of the tower itself. That name comes from two of the greatest monarchs ever to grace England—the Elizabeth Tower.) I was stunned into silence. I had waited so long to see this stupid giant clock, and I could not really believe I was seeing it.

I honestly still can’t really believe it. I just remember walking along Palace of Westminster and thinking, “How is everything so tall? And big? And beautiful?” Big it certainly is—there are a total of 1,100 rooms in the entire complex. The glorious Gothic Revival architecture looks so incredibly detailed, even from down on the ground. No detail was spared, even in 1840. The Clock Tower was completed in 1859, thus completing one of the most famous geographical identifiers in the world. It was a completely existential experience for me. I am so incredibly happy I got to live part of my dream and see one of the most iconic symbols in the world.

Once we had both taken an unnecessary amount of photos of Big Ben and everything surrounding him, we moved on to try to find the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Because we had walked the length of Palace of Westminster, we ended up walking all the way down Millbank Street and cutting through the maze of little streets filled with brick buildings and lots of alleyways. We cut through on Tufton Street to what we thought would lead straight through to the Abbey. We were not wrong about that. However, it involved possibly/probably accidentally trespassing onto the Dean’s Yard of the Westminster School, where we witnessed lots of the smartest boys in England playing football, blasting rap from their centuries old dorm rooms, and speaking with their teachers like thirty year olds instead of the more accurate thirteen year olds. It was crazy. One boy actually scared Diana and I with how proper he was. I suppose this is just part of the culture, and it was cool to witness. But it was still pretty strange, and definitely awkward!

Successfully navigating the school, we thankfully exited through to the Westminster Abbey courtyard and made a spin through the gift shop. I did not need to see the inside, but the outside was gorgeous. The current building was constructed in 1245, but the original site has been used as far back as 1080—just after the Norman Invasion. It is the new monarchs after the invasion that started the tradition of coronating monarchs in the Abbey. Because of this tradition, the Queen’s 90th birthday brought a lot of pomp and circumstance to the entire place. There were people everywhere, trying to get a view of where she was crowned and buy her special commemorative china. In fact, the Abbey is not even a functioning cathedral anymore—it is simply a “Royal Peculiar”, which means the monarch, rather than the diocese, rules it. 

Pretty much done with tourism for the day, we walked back to the hotel via Horse Guards Road. This route had a slight diversion into St. James’s Park because of the marching and military band competition that would be going on a few days later. Corps were already on the field, rehearsing in uniform and preparing their music. When listening to bands like this, I never know why they need rehearsal. Everything sounds perfect already. We marched back to the hotel through the park, looking at the birds and flowers and listening to the music of the bands.

Eventually, we made it back to our hotel. By this time, we had walked around enough to know the general lay of the land, which was not too hard to manage. London might sound scary, but walking isn’t too hard if you know which roads are safe. Getting around is actually quite easy regardless of method. I was quite pleased with that. Even so, we had had a long day of being on our feet and were happy to collapse on our beds for a bit.

But then we started getting hungry. We decided to head to the closest Tesco (basically a five minute walk) and grab some fruit, biscuits (I got vanilla cream this time, as there were no oaties), and Belvita for breakfast. Though we got a great view of Piccadilly at sunset, it turned out that we really didn’t need any snacks. What we thought would simply be complimentary cheese and wine was actually a whole spread of bread, crackers, grapes, olives, five different types of cheese with paired chocolate chunks, croissants, hummus, chutneys, ice cream, and coffee or hot chocolate.

Really, we just called it “free dinner”. We certainly paid enough to stay in that hotel, so it was nice to have something ready for us that we didn’t actually have to pay for. It was a great cushion and a delicious meal, all three nights we were there. And the wine actually is endless—they will keep asking you if you want more, even if you are sure you don’t want any. Amazing. I have never felt so posh in my entire life. Again, I highly recommend this hotel!

Stuffed, we climbed back up the stairs and relaxed in the room. Yes, the room was small, and the bathroom didn’t have real walls… which could be weird at times. But the space was done well considering how little space there really was. Everything was clean, the wifi worked, and I had no overall complaints settling in there after a long but exciting day. I can’t wait to see what more London has to offer us in the next three days!

photo credit Diana Cleveland

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