European Adventure: London Calling
I must admit, it was very nice for a change to not have to be up at the absolute crack of dawn for a flight. My flight out wasn’t until 4:15pm and the first flight was to Montreal so there was no need to worry much about the line ups. Mom and Dad dropped me off then went off home to almost immediately turn around to catch their Iceland Express flight later on. Interestingly Iceland Express apparently leased the iron maiden tour plane when restarting the Winnipeg-Rejkjavik run and Iron Maiden’s lead singer actually pilots some of the runs since he’s qualified to do so. Hopefully they get him on the flight back and they can request Run to the Hills as they fly over the Reykyanes Ridge. I ran into a few mild delays due to some thunderstorm-power outages in Montreal and the resulting delays from us missing our slot in the busy London-Heathrow air traffic corridors.
Regardless, the flight was otherwise great. Had my usual problems in managing to sleep, but it wasn’t from lack of space. The cabin was laid out in a 2-3-2 pattern for economy and out entire section of the cabin had no one in the middle 3 seats. The attendant let me move over to have a row to myself and I was quickly curled up watching Rango and a few other movies as the night wore on. London appeared below around 10am and we were beginning the 18 mile hike to customs soon after. Thankfully my travel lady’s recommendation to have a firm departure paid off and after a quick query about my plans to leave from Rome I was waved through.
I loved every little bit of my exposure to England, few views over the edge as we popped out above ground at points. The anglophile nerd in me thinking “Oh that looks like Privet Drive” or “That looks like something out of Eastenders or Corrie St.” As we got closer I caught a few glimpses of skyline in the distance recognizable from one of the many British shows I watch. My enthusiasm level for finally actually having made it here was skyrocketing.
The hotel we were booked into turned out to be incredibly convenient, located right on the Piccadilly tube line it only took about 30 mins from platform to platform and soon after popping out of the Earl’s Court station I was in the lobby. So ended the easy part of day one though as the hotel didn’t have the room ready and in fact didn’t have it ready until 2 hours later after I’d done a walk of the area and found a scotch egg in a deli. By this point I’d been awake something like 26 hours so I wasn’t incredibly impressed. I was at that lovely level of tiredness where your emotions are a total roller coaster and your mood swings like a bipolar off her meds. My earlier excitement had faded completely and I was wishing my flight had been later. Sentiments only compounded when I finally got to go up to the room and found it was not the requested triple but a simple double of tiny proportions. It turns out the single bed went into the already tiny room and had been removed for some renos. I ended up on the bench in the lobby again for another 20 minutes while they rectified things.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Europe before, I’m well aware that hotel rooms over here are generally tiny by comparison. This one is just particularly funny because they bathroom is incredibly spacious, honestly it’s probably the size of half of the rest of the room and has a full bathtub. I settled in to wait for mom and dad, napping lightly until the phone rang from the lobby announcing their arrival. They’d had a few larger delays and some issues getting luggage so they ended up arriving later than expected. Our lack of love for the hotel has only grown though, broken ice machine, paid internet (in Europe, really?) and various other issues. Once they arrived we all settled in for a short nap to rest up a bit and ease the transition over to this timezone.
We made sure to set an alarm though so we didn’t sleep until 4am and wake up starving. Of course, being London it had since started to rain so it was a wet walk we went for to explore our surrounding neighbourhood. Food finally beckoned for us as we tried to figured out what time it was for us internally and we found a great pub on Glouchester Road and went for some solidly stereotypically English food with a Steak and Ale Pie, Bangers and Mash and Fish and Chips. Absolutely fantastic grub, and given the current exchange rate nowhere near the horror show price wise I’d been lead to expect. Dinner for 3 with a beer or cider each for around $55 cdn, can’t really beat that.
As I write this now we’ve bedded down to watch the Beeb and have come to a tentative decision to search for alternative accommodations for our last couple days here. I decided to try to write a few things down though before sleep was inevitable.
It turns out things were worse than imagined with the hotel however. The room was boiling hot and turning on one of the two air-conditioners only made things better for a bit as it had zero venting to the exterior. The actual proper wall unit is completely fubar and left us cooking all night and honestly probably only about 3 hours of sleep each. Honestly a night’s sleep on par with the worst hostel in Australia on my night from hell. It was only after we gave up on air conditioning and went to fan only on one of them that the temp dropped somewhere below 35C and we got some sleep.
Tuesday was an incredibly full day as we went out for our first real journeys into the city. Being that close to the tube line has been great though, a quick run took us to Leicester Square where we ended up picking up some tickets to Agatha Christie’s the Mousetrap which has been on stage here for 59 years. Mom has wanted to see it forever apparently but hasn’t had the chance until now. We ended up doing quite the walking tour after that though and headed to Piccadilly Circus since Leicester square was mostly closed off for pre-olympics renovations.
I found things very strange round this part of London. Absolutely gorgeous buildings all around extending into the distance on narrow streets, so surreal that both my mother and I felt like it should be a matte painting. At the same time, there are very sad things mostly related to global commercialization that depressed me intensely. Oddly enough this wasn’t McDonalds who actually seem to have tasteful signs a lot of the time. TGIFridays was the biggest offender to me, a location that looked like any other one with the stupid canopy but surrounded by all these gorgeous buildings. Blech.
Next we went over to Covent Garden and looked around the markets (strong resemblance to St. Jacobs and Sandy’s for me) The walking adventure continued with a trip down The Strand, spotting famous names from books and tv shows and generally just being a giant nerd in my own mind. We ended up walking down to Trafalgar Square and enjoying the first real sun of the day as we looked round. We’ll likely end up back there to go to the National Gallery.
We ended up deciding to hit Westminster as well as it was still early and headed off in that direction soon after. The recent scandal with Rupert Murdoch et al meant that the PM was recalled from a diplomatic trip and as we walked down Whitehall there were a vast number of media camped out waiting for Cameron’s return. It was really fantastic to finally see Westminster Abbey and the Parliament Buildings as I’ve always really loved those buildings but obviously have never seen them in person. The tour of the abbey was absolutely fantastic and unlike some others I could mention included the audio tour as part of the cost to enter. So many different tombs with such incredibly carvings and engravings in marble or other materials. We spent easily a few hours exploring the various niches of the abbey, learning the history and enjoying Jeremy Irons’ voice leading us around with the stories behind the monuments.
After leaving the abbey we actually started randomly searching for somewhere to eat, but before we realized it we’d gone partway to Buckingham Palace and decided to go the rest of the way. It turned out there was some sort of massive event going on, a large number of ambassadorial cars were parking and massive lines of people in various formal garbs and giant floppy hats were filing through security into the palace. Architecturally the Palace is really quite boring on the exterior but the gates and fittings are really gorgeous, and it was quite neat to see a big event in progress.
By this point our poor feet were getting quite sore and we were quite honestly starving. Again we set off in a random direction looking for somewhere to eat, making quite a wrong decision as we headed down into Knightsbridge and found nothing but high end shops and a few quite pricey restaurants. We got all the way to Harrods before we actually ended up finding somewhere that looked promising. Of course, I can’t skip the really exciting part of the day though. Walking across the street with dad I heard a sudden squeal and crunch from behind me then something bouncing along the road. Mom was either looking the wrong way or not looking at all and was clipped by a car’s wing mirror. She was pretty lucky not to be sent to hospital or worse and managed to only get a sliced open arm that was solved by a bandaid. She gave us quite a scare, something about coming to England is quite the jinx it seems, we’re just thankful it wasn’t more serious though I’m sure she scared the hell out of the driver.
After some hasty first aid and a delicious meal we caught the tube back to Covent Garden and went to St. Martin’s Theatre to see our play. It was quite good, though I’ll admit I half dozed off a couple times from fatigue before I had a coke at the interval. Unfortunately things did not get much better back at the hotel and we actually ended up having to change rooms the next morning in hopes of getting a better sleep.
The next morning Dad finally found a staff member to do something about our issues and we ended up moving to a room in the basement. This one hasn’t been perfect either since there’s a crew excavating just outside our window, but at least they don’t start until after 8 each morning and we can lower the temperature to something that can actually keep us from feeling like we have a fever. That morning we ended up getting a slower start that morning because of the move and it was actually almost lunchtime before we got to our destination for the day, the Tower of London. It actually took me a while to realize that though until I smelled Fish and Chips while waiting in line.
The tower itself was so much bigger than I expected, fully four different audio tours of various sections, some focused on the violent history of the tower, execution and such with others focused on the Crown Jewels or other things. The tower itself is really impressive with a mishmash of architectural styles in place from various construction projects and restorations. Despite that, it definitely has a sad vibe pervading it. Whether it’s intellectually knowing the history of the place or seeing the preserved graffiti of various prisoners who spent years locked within its walls there is a darkness there. It was a fascinating trip and despite the late start we managed to see almost everything on offer. The jewels were of course impressive (with an impressively long queue) but the armoury presentations were just as interesting as we moved through the other exhibits. We ended up staying there right til it closed. Of course we also took the chance to take a few shots of Tower Bridge and walked along underneath, buying some nuts from a street vendor and enjoying the view of the Thames.
The next morning we ended up heading to one of the places that had been on my destination list for a long time: The British Museum. I continue to be in awe of the London Tube, every bit as good as the New York system (and with much more pleasant clientele) as it got us there within about 30 mins with a short walk included. The building was impressive, and while I could list off a ton of things that we managed to see I’ll simply give you the highlights. The Parthenon marbles are of course what springs immediately to mind when you think of the museum, and having written a paper about them for my Art History course two summers back I wanted to have a good look. They’re every bit as amazing as I expected, but having written the paper I have to wonder just how much better they looked before the british “cleaning” scraped a ton of the surface layer off. I had to laugh at them saying there’s been precious little evidence for them previously being painted (evidence that they destroyed…) Their discussion of the controversy was equally disappointing making no mention of the other side of the argument most places in a really dishonest matter. On a more pleasant note I really enjoyed the Egyptian and Medieval sections as well, seeing the Rosetta Stone in person was quite neat though. More because of the history of the thing and what it has meant to understanding the culture than for its (still admittedly cool) looks.
After spending most of the day in the museum I think all our walking the previous few days had caught up with us. We were wiped, it was (unsurprisingly) raining again and we felt the need to go back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before dinner and another walk. Nearly every night the weather later in the evening has been quite pleasant and made for nice walks around the city. That night we went for a walk north to Kensington High Street and near the palace, (new home of Will and Kate I believe) checking out a few swanky looking restaurants. One of them even had a pepto pink Bentley Continental GT out front… revolting waste of a neat car.
As per usual the night ended with a pint of cider in a nice pub. My waitress turned out to be an auburn haired irish last with a charming lilt and pale skin. I was instantly smitten and wished I was better looking and living in London. Sigh…