My sister, who last visited at Christmas, had a school trip to Paris planned for the first few weeks of May, followed by a summer program in Jordan starting in June. What to do with three weeks free in Europe? Travel, of course!
She flew down to Bologna from Brussels last Saturday, and we spent the weekend searching out hotels and flights, and wound up with a week in London. We left last Monday, getting into Stansted Airport at noon, followed by an hour in customs and then a bus ride to the city. Once we got in, though, it was incredible.
Our hotel was in Vincent Square, near Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, so after we checked in we went for a walk to see the sights. Our first stop was Buckingham Palace, where we ogled the guards and nearby Olympic preparations, followed by a walk in the park, where we got ice cream.
That ice cream was my first in quite a few months, since gelato and ice cream are incomparable. Gelato is indeed yummy, but when confronted with ice cream I made sure to get a flavor that had a ribbon of something running through it (gelato is notorious for being basically one flavor, though you can get two to a cup.) Treats in hand, we took a stroll through the park along the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, which led us to London’s Hyde Park.
I distinguish London’s Hyde Park because Cincinnati, where Rosalynd lives, has its own version of Hyde Park. To get to the one in London, you pass under the Wellington Arch. Its quadriga, the largest bronze sculpture in Europe, depicts an angel of peace descending into a chariot of war, and was modeled on one seen by Edward VII.
Hyde Park was gorgeous! We saw a flower garden, a huge pond with ducks and paddleboats, tons of people doing bootcamps, and lots more walkers and bikers around. It was definitely worth the visit.
We rounded out that night with dinner at a good English pub, which for me meant fish n chips and for Rosalynd meant fried cheese n chips, both with mushy peas and an English beer called Old Golden Hen. It was good.
Tuesday morning, we woke up and took care of some business, like booking our flights home and getting out cash, and then headed to the Tower of London. My friend Yaron, who lives in London, had sent me a list of things to do in the city. On that list, the Tower came up as an expensive option, but in my opinion it was worth it. The Tower of London was the original castle for the Kings of England, and still serves as a functional royal residence though it is out of use. The White Tower, that original one, now houses a display of royal armor. The other buildings house exhibits on torture, the crown jewels, and various prisoners of the tower.
We spent the rest of the day Tuesday walking along the river (and getting more ice cream) and shopping on Oxford Street. There, we paid a visit to Primark, the UK’s version of Target. It was crazy! There were people everywhere!
Wednesday, we decided to spend the day as the ultimate tourists. We woke up, went to see Westminster Abbey, walked by Downing Street, met with friends for lunch, went to the British Museum, and finally went up in the London Eye at sunset to see London by night.
Westminster Abbey was incredible. It’s the resting place for the royal family and many of the United Kingdom’s greatest literary figures, including Jane Austen, Lord Byron, George Eliot, and Chaucer, to name a few. There was a whole guided tour (narrated by Jeremy Irons) and for being as full of tourists as it was, the reverent ambiance was maintained. There is nothing quite like knowing you’re standing at the foot of Queen Elizabeth I’s tomb, with the coronation chair just around the corner and a monument to Shakespeare beyond that. One of the most incredible parts, however, was running into Rosalynd’s roommate’s family just outside the Abbey. We were throwing out our coffee cups and heard someone shout, “Rosalynd!” and looked over, and there they were!
During our tourist wanderings, we stumbled across an historic event: the substitution of Canadian mounties for the Queen’s home cavalry. In honor of her Diamond Jubilee, members of the royal family are traveling around the world this year, and while we were in London, the Prince of Wales was in Canada. The last Diamond Jubilee was Queen Victoria’s in the 1890s, and when that occurred members of the Canadian mounties were invited to stand in for the cavalry at Buckingham Palace. This year, the invitation was repeated in honor of Prince Charles’ visit, and Roz and I were there when the mounties took their first post.
For lunch, we met my friend Yaron at a tube stop near the British museum. To my surprise, we were joined by another UK Fulbrighter, Calynn. I met them both at the conference in Brussels, as their topics of study are closely related to the EU. It was good to see them and catch up, and it was wonderful getting to eat lunch in a park outside under the sun (with plenty of sunscreen, too.) We also got our food at Pret a Manger, which seemed so iconically British to me.
After lunch, we went to the British Museum, one of the ones on Yaron’s list. All of the museums in London are free, which is fantastic, and the British Museum is both free and famous. It’s home to the rosetta stone, many of the statues from the Parthenon, and tons of pieces from European and Balkan history. We spent a happy afternoon there, in the midst of history.
Quite a few of our hours in London were spent questing for internet, which was in short supply at our hotel. So it was that after the British museum, we found ourselves passing time in yet another Starbucks. Those trips were remarkable for me, having had no access to large coffees in cups of the sort one can carry around and sip from. I made sure to get my fair share of Chai Tea Lattes, smoothies, and Starbucks snacks.
That night, we went to the London Eye to see the lights of the city. The Eye was not quite what I expected: I knew it was a ferris wheel of sorts with glass walls, but I expected that, like a ferris wheel, it would pause to let us on. Instead, we had to walk quickly to keep up with the passing car and hop on.
Inside, there were tablets with information on the panoramas, a seating area, and a photo op. As we went up, we learned that one of the ladies in our car was afraid of heights, so we had fun joking around about our phobias. One of the best parts of London was being so comfortable with the language that we could make conversation with strangers whenever and wherever we wanted to. It’s something I miss about speaking my native language all the time.
Early Thursday morning, we made our way to Victoria station to meet a tour group for Stonehenge. Coffee in hand, we boarded the bus for the two hour drive there. Our driver gave us a mini-tour of the neighborhoods we passed through until we hit the point where most passengers were falling asleep or not paying attention, and then we just rode on in silence. When we got there, we were handed audio guides and told that we could walk around on our own, which was excellent. And Stonehenge was fantastic.
During the audio tour, we got to learn the whole history of stonehenge and the layers of development there. We learned about the origin of the stones, their arrangement, and heard some of the theories on its origin and purpose. With all of that, the most fascinating part for me was learning that the bluestone, the material in the sarsens, is always warmer than other rock, no matter the weather.
After our visit to Stonehenge, we thought we’d need to spend the rest of the day on the fantastic. To us, that included a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, Abbey Road, and Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum is set at 221B Baker Street in London, an address that, according to the copper outside, never actually existed. Instead, they found where it might have been on old zoning maps and converted the property into a Victorian house with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia inside. My Mom would love it.
From the museum, we set out to accomplish our other tasks. First up was finding Abbey Road, which failed:
But we did find King’s Cross!
London was really a wonderful place. We got to eat tons of ethnic food, like really good Thai, Japanese, and Indian, we got to see so many historical places, and all the while we were charmed and awed by the people and places around us. Definitely worth the visit.