Adventures in the UK Part I: London!

Wednesday the 24th of August, with our little Volkswagen piled with luggage, ready to begin a great adventure, my mother and I set off to Starbucks, then to Toronto, and finally to London’s Gatwick airport. Upon arrival, we caught a train to Victoria Station at the heart of the city where we dragged our unwieldy luggage into that model of efficiency, the Tube. I love the Tube, but that certainly does not mean that I enjoyed pulling two 45 pound bags up many stairs in a busy underground station was not my or my mom’s idea of a good time. Fortunately, after that things could only get better, and they did! We stayed by at the Tune Hotel near King’s Cross Station, where they do have a fine Harry Potter store and photo-op at “Platform 9 3/4,” which we somehow ended up visiting three times in two days.

King's Cross Station

King’s Cross Station

King's Cross Station

King’s Cross Station

To start our whirlwind tour, we hopped onto a hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus tour which came with complementary Thames River cruise tour. Here are a few of the photos I snapped from the top of the bus and the river boat!

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The Elizabeth Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben (This is the most common bit of trivia you will hear from London tour guides: Big Ben is actually the name of the largest bell in the tower which tolls every hour, and the tower itself is known as Elizabeth Tower)

The Elizabeth Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben (This is the most common bit of trivia you will hear from London tour guides: Big Ben is actually the name of the largest bell in the tower which tolls every hour, and the tower itself is known as Elizabeth Tower)

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Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British government

Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British government

Westminster Abbey over the rooftops of London

Westminster Abbey over the rooftops of London

Fun with statuary

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Detail from the exterior of Westminster Abbey

Detail from the exterior of Westminster Abbey

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the pillars of an old Thames bridge demolished long ago

the pillars of an old Thames bridge demolished long ago

Some words to ponder courtesy of the Tate Modern

Some words to ponder courtesy of the Tate Modern

Enough said

Enough said

Traitor Gate at the Tower of London

Traitor Gate at the Tower of London

St Pauls' Cathedral

St Pauls’ Cathedral

The Eye!

The Eye!

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I am convinced that we saw the bluest skies London has ever known: it couldn’t have been less like the traditional image of foggy London town, but it was perfect photography weather! Friday, our second day in town, we¬†took the tube to Westminster for some quintessential phone booth photos and a visit to Westminster Abbey. Every corner of the Abbey holds enough history to fill volumes, but one particular corner drew much of my attention. Poet’s Corner is the world’s finest memorial to wordsmiths. In the corner, which was first christened Poet’s Corner when one of its first occupants Geoffrey Chaucer gained literary fame, the literary pilgrim finds a wall of memorials, statues, and placards honoring the likes of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the Bronte’s whose remains are buried elsewhere. The floor of the corner, however, is a patchwork of names of genius marking their resting places. Technically, photography is not allowed in the Abbey, but I may have accidentally taken some pictures while trying to send an important text message, silly me.

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Here you can see Lewis Carroll, George Elliot, T.S. Elliot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins along with many others.

Here you can see Lewis Carroll, George Elliot, T.S. Elliot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins along with many others.

Thursday afternoon, we visited the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. There, we appreciated the incredible works of the great masters and the of pastry chefs in their tea room. Planning to continue our day of wonderful art, we decided to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum but stop at Harrod’s for a bite to eat on the way there. One does not simply pop in and out of Harrod’s; the place is a lavish, expensive maze, devouring tourists’ time. Basically, it was worth seeing, but took longer than expected! After a late dinner at a cafe we went back to our hotel for the night.

Saturday was the day of Dickens and Shakespeare. In the morning, we wandered the Inns of Court and Chancery Lane in the footsteps of the novelist and many of his greatest characters while waiting for the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty St to open. The museum is in the home where Dickens and his wife lived early in their marriage and early in his literary career. After buying a nice assortment of Dickensian knick-knacks in the gift shop we made our way down to the Strand to Twining’s Tea Shop and the legendary pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

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Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty St

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Staple Inn on Chancery Lane

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Where can I get these plates?

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Victorian households sometimes kept hedgehogs in the kitchen to eat pesky bugs, hence the museum had this lovely prop hedgehog. Who knew hedgehogs were such a utilitarian pet? Where can I get one?

The Cheshire Cheese was a favorite of several authors, Dickens even immortalized it in a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. I do believe this was my favorite place in London. Walking in is stepping over a threshold into the epitome old and enduring London, the London that rose from the ashes of the Great Fire and pushed on through the smog of industry and the smoke of bombs, the London which never dies. The ground floor consists of two close rooms, one with a small bar and one crammed with curtained booths, a fire place, a long oak table in the left corner, and a caged grey parrot. Out of context, it’s nothing. However, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities¬†smashed a glass in that fireplace, Dickens and Samuel Johnson both dined at that long oak table (and so did I!!), and that parrot was a successor of Polly the legendary swearing parrot whose death after decades entertaining pub-goers made front page news across Britain. Below the ground floor, one finds three levels of cellar dining rooms hung with artifacts honoring the pub’s most famous customers.

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After lunch we paid a brief visit to the beautiful Somerset House to see their Impressionist exhibit. That evening saw us dashing through Southwark’s winding streets to the Globe Theater for a performance of Macbeth. As “groundlings”, we stood right up against the corner of the stage. The show was without a doubt the most impressive stage performance I have ever experienced. being so close to the actors was amazing, but the staging and creative production design were even more impressive. The show was a mix of eerie, raw, supernatural elements and quirky symbolism, as exemplified by the witches who were represented by puppets made from dismantled mannequins and voiced by a trio of offstage singers chanting hauntingly. As the director stated in the program, he wanted to change the image of the witches to make them unsettling for modern audiences who aren’t intimidated by the same images of witchcraft as the Elizabethans, and he managed to find a rather effective way of setting us just on edge enough.

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Somerset House

Our view in the Globe!

Our view in the Globe!

Sunday we went to mass at St Patrick’s Church in Soho Square. Amazingly, the talented church choir of five sang a full baroque mass composed during the persecutions of the Reformation by William Byrd; it was completely unlike the hymns we are used to back home! Next, on to Baker Street. I think we waited longer to get into 221B Baker Street, the famed address of Sherlock Holmes, than we waited to do anything else! It was worth it to see the imaged recreation of Holmes and Watson’s Victorian flat.

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That afternoon, we did make it to the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of the world’s finest decorative arts museums, and wound through a few galleries before they closed for the day. Then, it was time to bid farewell to London and move on to Edinburgh. From the rather sketchy and pungent Victoria Coach station we took a sleeper coach (a.k.a. the night bus, or Harry Potter’s “Knight bus,” as we like to call it). I would highly recommend the night bus to anyone, not because it is comfortable or really all that enjoyable, but simply because it is the most absurd and hilarious form of transportation imaginable. The bus was lined with bunk beds, and as we got on we were given muffins and water bottles before being ushered into our bunks by a conductor with a very nanny-like attitude. As the bus heaved with forceful stops and keeled with fast turns, we were thrown from side to side in our bunks, leaving a London behind until next time, and there will certainly be a next time.

Part II: Edinburgh is coming soon, so check back!

 

 

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