Travel Journal – London, Part One
November 7, 2008: Indeed, I am in London. It is very strange to be abroad in an English-speaking country! I left California November 5 – the day after the election. I left from Bakersfield and changed planes in San Francisco and then again in Calgary. I was flying first class – yes, I used every single one of my United miles! I thought it would be fun to stop in Calgary even though I wouldn’t get out of the airport. At least I could see what it looked like while flying over – and I was surprised how flat the country was, sort of like our plains. There was a dusting of snow on everything and it must have just fallen. All the Canadian papers were plastered with Obama’s face and huge headlines. Everyone was talking about his victory – joyfully!
After a few hours in the Calgary airport I hopped on my Air Canada flight to London. After dinner, I popped a sleeping pill, pulled on the eye mask, put in some earplugs, and darned if I didn’t actually sleep! When I woke up, people had already been served their breakfasts! Hooray! The seats on the Air Canada plane were much more comfortable than on United – they were much easier to sleep in.
Landing in Heathrow and maneuvering through customs, baggage, and finding transportation was much easier than our plane change here going to Paris. I took the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and got a cab to the flat I rented in Kensington. It’s $210 a night, which seemed expensive at first, but it was amazingly hard to find something in London that hadn’t already been booked – and I did this long ago! And London is the most expensive city in Europe, so considering, and considering what we paid for our hotel in Vancouver, the rate is actually not bad. Plus I can eat in – for which I am grateful. I’m kind of done with the restaurant thing for now – waiting to be seated, having to order, being polite, waiting, finding the food good or not, waiting some more, getting the bill, paying, ad infinitum. I’d rather do it myself.
So – in the flat, not quite tired enough to sleep but pretty tired, so I went out to walk around a bit. Kensington is an upscale area with shops, restaurants, etc. A Starbucks on the next corner – hooray! But they don’t know what a doubleshot on ice is. So back to double espressos. I went to a pub a few doors down for lunch – the Kensington Arms. Ordered fish and chips and got one big piece of fish, fried, but with the skin on. Yuck. For a recovering icthyophobe, that was a bit too much so I didn’t eat it. The bartender wondered what was wrong and I tried to explain so he took 25% off. I told him I didn’t expect him to do that but he did anyhow, so that was nice. Then I went to Waitrose, a grocery store, and got some things. Back to the old Peace Corps days – got as much as I could carry! I am near a Whole Foods, Marks and Spencer department store (which Rick Steves says is “down to earth,” so I may check it out, and down the street from Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived. Also near Royal Albert Hall – I’ll count how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall!
Came back, got into bed, pulled a pillow on my head. Ok sorry, couldn’t help paraphrasing the Beetles after the Albert Hall. But I did snooze while waiting for William to arrive, and when he did, he was suitably impressed with the neighborhood and my flat. Gosh, it was good to see him. He looked great. We went out for dinner, ended up at the Papaya or something like that, a Thai restaurant in the neighborhood, came back, visited, and he went back to his dorm. I went to bed.
Friday, November 7, 2008:
It’s 10 pm, and as I write this, fireworks have been going off for at least two hours! I can’t see them but I looked on the internet and there is a three-day fireworks festival or something and they are going off at parks all over London.
What a lovely day this was! Weather-wise and activity-wise. Blue sky, clouds, not cold, wow! Oh what a beautiful morning indeed. And afternoon. Blue skies smiling on me. Geez. This is like being back in the classroom. Everything I say reminds me of a song lyric. I’m sure the students got tired of listening to me break into song several times a period! Digression, duh duh da! Digression! Duh du Duh! Stop, Susan, stop!
But I slept well, went to Starbucks, and took the tube to Westminster. What plans I had evaporated as I did what I like to do best – just walk around and see where I end up. I walked around the Parliament buildings, Big Ben, the Westminster Bridge, Westminster Abbey (a Benedictine abbey like Monte Cassino), St. James Park, Trafalgar Square, etc. etc. This next Sunday is the British veteran’s day I believe, and at Westminster Abbey the entire lawn is full of remembrances – little miniature graveyards with names of soldiers from each different regiment and branch of service. Everyone it seems is wearing a poppy and I donated for one also. I remember my dad always buying a poppy from the veterans on Vet’s Day. The poppies are symbolic of Flanders Field, a battlefield site from World War I that is I think in Belgium, and the poem by John McCrae is recited on Remembrance Day throughout the allied countries in Europe:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
That’s just the first verse. Last year on Remembrance Day Mark and I were in Italy – in Sorrento – and we followed the Veteran’s Parade down to the town square, listened to the speeches in Italian and watched the laying of the wreath. This will happen here this Sunday on Whitehall Street at the Cenotaph – a large stone monument in the middle of the street – and the Royal family will be there. I expect that I won’t.
So walking around I had a good look at the London Eye, an “observation wheel” – Londoners objected to the term ferris wheel – that was built in 2000 to celebrate the millennium. I’m going to go up in it before I leave. A good walk around the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, which is not very old but is 320 feet high and the clock faces are 23 feet across. Big Ben is really the 13-ton bell, but that isn’t visible so everyone just uses the name for the whole clock tower.
It anchors the Houses of Parliament along the Thames River, which is where the kings and queens used to live when it was called Westminster Palace. That was gutted by fire in 1834 and the royalty moved to Buckingham Palace, while Westminster Palace was rebuilt as the Houses of Parliament. It looks lots older than 1834. The building has 1,000 rooms! The appointments in the House of Lords are red and The House of Commons green, which is what our state capitol in Sacramento is patterned after: the State Senate is red and the Assembly is green.
There is a new arts district on the South Bank of the Thames and I will do that walk before I leave. The Thames itself is 210 miles and links London with the North Sea. London was founded by the Romans as Londinium, a trade center on the Thames. The Romans really got around.
Westminster Abbey is across from Parliament and there is a park, Parliament Square, with a statue of Winston Churchill (among others) that has an electrical wire running through it because Churchill said that if ever a statue was erected of him, he didn’t want pigeon poop on it. Also here, on Whitehall, the first traffic light in the world was installed in 1868.
I had intended to walk along Whitehall but got diverted by St. James Park. Beautiful! And clothed in fall colors. Lots of birds including some white pelicans and a black swan. It was really hard to pull myself out of the park and continue down to Trafalgar Square. I passed 10 Downing Street, which was exciting for some reason.
Trafalgar Square is the Times Square of London. But it has the world’s largest Corinthian column, 170 feet, with Admiral Horatio Nelson on top. What I remember about Nelson from history class is that when he died during battle he said, “Thank God, I have done my duty.” For some reason that impressed me and I’ve never forgotten it.
Anyhow, St. Martins in the Fields is on one side of the Square, the National Gallery on another, and there are all kinds of statues including some very large lions. Trafalgar Square is the center of London and there is a plaque there from which all distances in London are measured.
It is tomorrow. Or today depending upon your point of view, and time for a visit to the Churchill War Rooms and Museum. The Cabinet War Rooms are the 27 actual underground rooms that were the nerve center of the British effort in WWII. I always get a thrill from being in an actual historic location. There were very small cubicles with cots where key personnel lived, Churchill’s room, office, and a bigger bedroom suite of sorts for him, kitchens, the telephone room, the map room, etc. etc. The Enigma was there! The famous code-breaking machine that the Germans never knew existed. There was a lower set of rooms where people slept if they couldn’t get out and I guess they were miserable – hot, noise from air-conditioning systems, smoky, full of rats and other vermin. I guess people were so fatigued that they just collapsed into sleep.
The Churchill museum was extraordinary. Everything about his life is there and there was a wonderful timeline that is a touch screen so you can zero in on any given day of his life. I was hungry so ate in the Switch Café – why not eat in an historic room? I had sausage and mash, which I believe should be called bangers and mash – sausage and mashed potatoes. Delicious. Diet coke though. Haven’t found a diet pepsi yet. What’s wrong with folks all over here and all over China? No Pepsi?
Now I made my big mistake. I was tired from walking and thought I would hop on one of those hop on hop off tourist buses that give one an overview of the city. It seemed like a good idea but it was actually very boring and not fun to be sitting in traffic. So I got off at the Tower of London and took the tube back to the Waterloo station, William’s stop. He met me and we went to his dorm room. There are a group of individual flats in a cluster and they share a common kitchen and television room. No one was there because this is Reading Week – a week off from classes so students can catch up on reading, which I am rather sure William has not done. His room looks like I imagine most boy’s dorm rooms look. In other words, a mess. There was a tortilla that had nicely dried into a Frisbee configuration and other food objects of varying ages. You get the picture. Same goes for the common kitchen area which William says is one of the cleaner ones in the complex. W says he has been baking a lot! Wow.
So I walked around the corner with W to the pub he works at and left him there. The White Hart. It was stuffed with people and very comfy feeling. He works again next Thursday and I’ll stay and watch him work a while then. But I left him to his 6-hour shift, took the tube back to my flat, and relaxed.
London, Days Two and Three, Nov. 8 and 9, 2008
On Saturday, which seems like a thousand years ago even though it was just yesterday, I went for a walk with no destination in mind. From my flat, I headed up Kensington High Street. The first thing I found was a wonderful park called Holland Park. It wound around apartments that were quite nice – but then I am in a very good neighborhood. The trees were all fall colors and it was windy with bits of rain. Watching the leaves blow in the wind was really quite lovely. The park had square areas called “Dog toilets.” I don’t know who does the ultimate scooping up but, as in Vancouver, dogs are accorded some amenities.
The park was full of people, dogs, strollers, and there was an enormous soccer field with lots of little kids playing. It could have been AYSO in Bakersfield – cars were parked, parents got out with kids and went onto the fields, others left. For a while I was quite confused as to if this was school PE or gym class or what, but then I remembered it was Saturday!
The park wound around and had gardens, fountains, an orangery – although I’m not sure I found it, whatever it is – tennis courts, kid’s playgrounds, and some nice rooms that I would say are used for events, judging from the broken wine glass in a bush outside. There was even a little restaurant although I didn’t walk that far in.
I continued along Kensington High Street and came across a monument to Princess Diana. On the walk back I saw a block of Iranian shops so I went in one to get some pastries and had a nice chat with the proprietor. He couldn’t speak English but a customer who was buying huge numbers of pastry platters did, so I told him that back in college – way back – the Iranian language was my minor. Alas, the only word I remember is the word for paper.
After a stop at the grocery store, I returned to meet William at the flat. We were going to Camden Market. I was excited to go anywhere with the name Camden because Bob Cratchit and his family lived in Camden Town! We took the tube and got to a very happening place! I think all the people in London were at the Camden market. Rick Steves says that Camden Lock Market is London’s 4th most popular tourist attraction! It was packed for sure, and the walk up and down Camden Town’s main street is full of punk types, people with Mohawks, tattoo and piercing parlours, etc.
We wandered through the arts and crafts market, had some lunch and later some tea, and returned to the flat. It was interesting and now I can say I have been to Camden Town! Hooray. If I designed a custom tour for myself, it would be a Dicken’s London tour.
There are some theaters right by where I am staying, and seeing the movie W was on William’s agenda. It opened in London on Nov. 7 even though it’s been out in the U.S. for some time. We went – 10 pounds for a ticket!!! Egads – and the movie was actually quite good. It left us both feeling sorry for W, which in itself is sad, because people don’t like to be felt sorry for. And if you are going to need that much “pity” you shouldn’t be the president.
We returned, I made dinner, and that was a day.
Today, Sunday, William slept late. Actually, I felt quite sure he would be sleeping until 3:00 pm (which he did), so I left a note and set out to do one of Rick Steve’s walks: the City Walk from Trafalgar Square to London Bridge. It was only two miles but it seemed like so many more!
I took the tube to Charing Cross – all these names we have heard so many times! Then I set out on Rick Steve’s The City Walk on Strand. I bought some chestnuts from a vendor at Trafalgar Square and asked him if I was headed in the right direction since my usual infallible orientation to north, south, east and west has failed me. I was, but he said, oh I couldn’t possibly walk to London Bridge – it was way too far! I assured him I wanted to walk but it wasn’t easy to escape without him putting me on a bus.
The City is the old part of London, from the days of William the Conqueror, the ancient Romans, Henry VIII, Shakespeare and Elizabeth I.
Since I was walking on Sunday, there weren’t many people about – but I had to go when I could go. It was also Remembrance Day and all over there were bleachers being taken down, so the city had a great number of ceremonies all over.
Lots of London was destroyed in 1666 – the Great Fire. But before that, in 1665, the plague decreased the population by about 70,000. Then in 1666 the city burned, which gave the famous Christopher Wren the opportunity to rebuild most of the churches and many buildings. Then, in 1940, the Blitz destroyed many historical buildings. London has had a rough time of it.
The walk started on The Strand, which used to be a riverside walk along the Thames with many mansions. In the 19th century the Thames was tamed, so to speak, with retaining walls, and the character of the neighborhood changed to businesses and museums. I walked past the Savoy Hotel and Theater, which used to be the mansion of the Earl of Savoy in 1245. Then I got to another mansion, Somerset House.
It has a huge and lovely courtyard which has fountains most of the time – but now it is a winter outdoor ice rink! At one time that would have sounded like fun, but I think I am beyond ice skating. There is a gallery there, however, the Courtauld Gallery, that has my favorite Manet and William and I are going there tomorrow.
There are a couple of churches in the middle of the street, “stranded” one might say! One is St. Mary-le-Strand (original name). What is neat about this church is that Charles Dickens parents were married here. And there are two interesting buildings nearby: one is the Government of Gibraltar Center, the other the Australia House. The Gibraltar Center is interesting because of course Gibraltar is not here – it’s in Spain on the Mediterranean, but it is governed from here. Why it’s still part of Britain I have no idea. And the Australian House, which is the Australian Embassy, was used as Gringotts in the Harry Potter movies.
The next church in the middle of the street is St. Clement Danes, one of the many built by Christopher Wren (this one in 1682). He build around 50 and 23 are still standing. It’s a Royal Air Force chapel dedicated to those who gave their lives in the world wars – 125,000 from the RAF. The walls are lined with Remembrance Books, hand lettered, and every day a page in each book is turned. There is one dedicated to Americans.
I passed King’s College – the Strand campus, which is where William has his classes. That was cool.
Next I encountered the humungous Royal Courts of Justice. The building has a gothic look and has 76 courtrooms! This is for civil cases – criminal cases are tried at Old Bailey. Across from that is a small, unassuming storefront for Twinings Tea – but it’s been there since 1706! The business has been in the Twining family’s hands for 300 years.
Next, again in the middle of the street, is the Temple Bar Monument which is a large griffin on a tall base. This divides the City of Westminster from the City of London. The Queen rules the City of Westminster while the Lord Mayor of London, who is elected every year, rules the City of London. So this part of London is just called The City.
Here is where the Strand becomes Fleet Street. I saw a barbershop but no demon barbers or Johnny Depp either. Too bad! At least the latter. At 17 Fleet Street however are Prince Henry’s rooms. He was the son of King Charles I and he kept offices here. The building, Tudor in style, was built in 1610 and was one of the few that survived the Great Fire.
Next on the street was Temple Church, but neither I nor other tourists could figure out how to get it. A guard let people out, but… I wanted to go in because this is a Crusader Church, build in 1185 under Richard the Lionhearted. It is also the headquarters of the Knight’s Templar. The Temple Church was used in the Da Vinci Code as the place where Langdon thought he would find an orb among the stone knights. But no, there was nothing.
Fleet Street used to be a publishing center for newspapers but no longer. Now every other kind of business is here but publishing. The next “sight” I saw was St. Dunstan-in-the-West. This is where the Great Fire ended (it started by London Bridge). The story is that 40 theology students battled the blaze instead of fleeing and finally the wind shifted, the Church was saved, and the fire burned itself out. Now this is an Orthodox Romanian church, and it’s near St Pauls, so I was confused for quite a while as to what I was actually looking at. The clincher was the statue of Elizabeth I. That is hard to mistake, and that is in front of St Dunstans. It’s actually from 1586 – Elizabeth’s reign, so it’s considered to be a good likeness and as accurate as anything that exists.
I was trying to find Dr. Samuel Johnson’s house but couldn’t, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Tavern, but couldn’t. This pub was build in 1538 and again after the fire, and was frequented by Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Tennyson, Yates, and even Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain! Drat it that I couldn’t find it.
I did of course find St. Paul’s – hard to miss it! It was the only building around that survived the German Luftwaffe Blitz in 1940. It did not survive the Great Fire, however, and was rebuild by Christopher Wren, becoming his most famous church. In its time, the Dome was the second largest in the world.
Another of his churches, St. Bride’s, was built in the late 1600s. It was known as “The Cathedral of Fleet Street” and “The Printer’s Church,” but most famous because the wife of a Mr. Rich, a baker, used the church as the inspiration to invent the wedding cake. Her wedding dress is in the crypt. But the church’s name came from St. Bridget, not the wedding cake.
Anyway, I didn’t pay to go into St. Pauls, but turned into Paternoster Square where there is a gate called the Temple Bar gate. It was build by Wren in 1672 with stone, but in 1878 a brewery owner carted it off to use at his estate. In 2004, the original 2,700 stones were brought back to The City and the gate was rebuilt. Anyhow, there is a big column in the center of this square called amazingly enough Paternoster Square Column! No one is really sure why it’s there but it’s believed to be a monument to the destruction of the Blitz.
Now I was in Cheapside. This area of town was Shakespeare’s hangout. Cheap meant market, and the streets are named things like Milk St., Bread St. – in other words, market items. The Mermaid Tavern was here but is no longer. That’s where Shakespeare met with Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Johnson, and John Donne for beer and conversation. Cheapside itself was completely rebuilt and redeveloped post-war.
In the center of Old London is a church called St Mary-le-Bow. This is where the church bells rang every night in medieval times calling residents back into the city. Now it has been rebuilt, of course by Christopher Wren, and there is a statue of John Smith in the courtyard. He retired here after Jamestown.
I continued walking and reached a corner called Bank Junction. Within a square mile there are 500 foreign and British banks. The Royal Exchange is here, which of course reminds me of A Christmas Carol so it was exciting to see. The Bank of England is on this corner also and it’s 3.5 acres! The Swiss Re tower is near here – a strange building that looks like a missile or bullet. Also the Mansion House is here – the residence of the Lord Mayor of London.
I was almost at the end of my walk. And I was pretty tired also so I was glad. But I was going to persevere until the end! So I got to a 202-foot column called The Monument. It is a tribute by Christopher Wren to the Great Fire! He made it because the fire gave him a chance to build so much of modern London.
Finally – the end! London Bridge. This bridge was first built by the ancient Romans! It established a north-south axis as the Thames flows from east to west. London became a trading center and was the first great urban center of the world.
So – I was ready to go to the Tower of London. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the Thames. So I walked down to Tower Bridge and crossed and found myself on the complete opposite side of the Tower of London – drat! By the time I walked around the complex and got to the ticket office I found out it was only open for ½ hour more. Foiled.
So I took the tube home and ate dinner and was glad to get off my feet. It really was a good day, though, walking and looking and learning.
So that’s it for days two and three – a bit dry perhaps, a bit of a history lesson, but hey – it’s what I did.