Last day in London

Last day in London
London, United Kingdom

London, United Kingdom

We had no plans for today. It was our last day in London so we thought we’d just see what we felt like doing on the day.

We decided that we couldn’t in all good conscience stay 2 blocks from the British Museum and not go there, so that was our first stop. Lil Sis wanted to see the Rosetta Stone, and we duly located it, viewed it and were suitably impressed. Equally as impressive was the vast array of Rosetta Stone souvenirs. You name it, they had it: UBS sticks, paperweights, keyrings, fridge magnets, bookmarks, travel card holders, jigsaw puzzles . . .

We spent some time browsing through the British history section of the museum, looking at the artefacts from Celtic and Roman times. One of the features was the Lewis Chessmen (the most famous chess set in the world) (also available on a wide range of souvenir products). I was lining up a shot of the board when a man with a much bigger camera than mine, and therefore clearly superior to me elbowed me aside to take a photo. Then, not 60 seconds later, I was looking at the exhibit from the other side when a French tour group arrived to take up position exactly where I was standing. The tour guide manoeuvered herself into place precisely, while announcing loudly to the group, but obviously intended for me to hear, that tour groups had priority.

I don’t recall seeing any signs in the museum advising non-members of tour groups of this, but she said it so authoritatively I’m totally sure she was completely correct. I mean tour groups are the only people on schedules aren’t they?

Wedged tightly between this tour guide and the glass of the exhibit, I wasn’t exactly sure how she expected me to move out of the way so that her precious tour group could have the priority viewing that they were so clearly entitled to. I felt like staying there and listening to her talk, but I heard her saying something about non-group members not being welcome. She looked most offended, however, when she had to move so I could make my escape.

Of course a visit to London wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory bump-into-someone-you-know-at-a-famous- landmark routine. For us it was Lil Sis’s TAFE teacher at the British Museum.

After we’d had enough of that, we took the train to St Paul’s. We wanted to climb up to the top of the dome to look out over London.

We forgot one thing.

It’s Sunday.

They don’t allow people to tour St Paul’s Cathedral on Sundays on account of all the services that are going on. You can go in, but they ask you not to walk around. (You can, however, buy postcards.) So we saw what we could and then made our way, haphazardly, to the Millennium Bridge across the Thames.

This bridge is a footbridge only, and apparently was closed as soon as it was opened because on the first day, there were so many people on it the whole thing started swinging and they needed to further reinforce it.

We walked past the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe, but you don’t get a very good view of it, and had lunch at a Turkish restaurant nearby.

After lunch – which ended up being about 4pm – we did the 10 minute highlights tour of Tate Modern (we looked through the surrealists gallery). The vague plan was to make our way to the Freemason Temple via a couple of pubs and then head back to the hotel for an early night.

What we actually did involved a lot of walking, a couple of pubs and a lot more photos for the Monopoly Crawl. This became somewhat addictive, as we checked the map to see how close we were to the next street we needed, and debated whether it was too far or whether we should keep going.

So we ended up with a night time tour of some of the swankier parts of London. We admitted defeat when we got to the point that we’d need to go on more than one train to get to a couple of the further away places (but kicked ourselves when we realised how close we’d been to them at the Tower of London). I think we did well to get what we got, as we were really only in London for 3 and a half days.

We missed a couple of train stations, a couple of streets (some that we got from buses rather than going there), the Waterworks (we think Tate Modern used to be the Electric Company), and actually going to Gaol. That last one is probably a good thing.


A right royal day out

A right royal day out
London, United Kingdom

London, United Kingdom

‘When’s the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace?’ asked Lil Sis on the day we arrived in London.

It turns out this happens every second day during autumn and winter, and this matched up nicely with our ‘rest day’ Friday. So we thought we’d go and have a look.

While we were on our Hop on Hop off bus tour on Tuesday, Steve the guide mentioned that while the Queen was away on her summer holiday, Buckingham Palace was open to the public. This only happens for about 2 months a year, so we’d come at the right time.

Despite not being particularly enthusiastic about the Royal Family, we thought it would be a good opportunity to see inside the palace, which isn’t somewhere most visitors to England would see.

So Friday would be Buckingham Palace day.

There was a huge crowd outside the palace when we got there. The viewing points were directly outside the gates, across the road outside Green Park, where we’d walked through, and behind the Victoria Memorial. The Victoria Memorial position was easiest to access and there was still plenty of front row space behind the rail – we were told the main thoroughfare between that rail and the gates had to be kept clear, as this is where the Guard would be marching. There were quite a few police officers on hand to direct people to the correct places, as well as warning punters about bag security and pickpockets.

The horseback policeman was very quick to warn people to only cross the road at the lights, not at other points of the road. ‘Don’t make me get my pen out,’ he said.

Most of the action takes place behind the gates, so the people who had got there early enough to secure a position directly behind the fence would have seen it all. From where we were, we were limited to seeing the Old and New Guard as they marched past.

We decided it would probably be a bad time to try and get into the palace immediately after the ceremony, and a glance at the line confirmed this. The attendant told us it would be a lot quieter in a couple of hours, so we wandered through Green Park before heading off to get lunch.

We returned just before the entrance closed at 4.15pm. The tour of the palace takes in the State Rooms and the Gardens. There was an audio commentary, which meant we could take our time as we made our way through. It was spectacular, filled with more gilding (if that’s the correct term) than I ever imagined to see on the trip. Not really my sort of thing. It didn’t move me in the way Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral did.

As well as being the home of the Royal Family, the palace is one of only a few working palaces anywhere, and 450 people work there. It’s huge, having been significantly extended from its previous form as Buckingham House. (The first building on the site was built in 1633.) It first became a royal residence when it was purchased by George III in 1762 for his wife Queen Charlotte. The building was extended in the 1820s and became the official royal palace under George IV.

Once we’d been through the State Rooms, we were out in the Gardens, which were lovely. A cafe and official gift shop are set up for the public season, and the gifts and souvenirs are obviously a lot classier than those in the unofficial palace souvenir shops across the road.

Once we were done with the Palace, it was time to make our way to the nearby Apollo Victoria Theatre to pick up our tickets to see Wicked. I’d been looking forward to this for months and it lived up to its reputation. I loved it, and want to see it again! It was a little strange hearing the performers’ English accents, as I was used to the Broadway cast recording, but it really is a fantastic show in any accent and definitely been a highlight of the trip.

Hop on Hop off

Hop on Hop off
London, United Kingdom

London, United Kingdom

Our first full day in London. I woke up feeling relatively normal, which was a relief. Breakfast was included in our hotel rate, so we didn’t have to go anywhere. S

peaking of the hotel, you’d think our room would have a fridge wouldn’t you? Maybe this is just an Australian thing, because it’s not something we’d even thought about. However, at this hotel, you had to ask for a room with a fridge in it. We didn’t, so no fridge for us. Not a major deal in the grand scheme of things, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask for a different room, because we hadn’t realised until we’d unpacked yesterday. Repacking and unpacking again was not something I had any intention of doing.

We had tickets for a hop on hop off bus tour of London. There were several routes taking in various areas around the city and a stop for the ‘museum’ route was close to our hotel, so we duly hopped on the bus and plugged into the headset commentary. At one point the commentator reminded passengers to take all of their belongings with them when they got off the bus. This included their bags, coats, cameras and, of course, their children. We weren’t sure if this was supposed to be a joke or not.

After a couple of stops, we changed onto the route with the live commentary, which was a lot more personal. Our guide, Steve, was friendly and gave a really interesting commentary. During the day we learned that Steve doesn’t like modern art, and that jokes about no work ever being done in public servant offices aren’t just an Australian thing. There was a lot of information about the things we passed by and I don’t remember any of it.

We saw most of the landmarks you’d expect to see in London. Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament! (Although as we all know, Big Ben is the name of the bell, not of the tower, which is called Elizabeth Tower. The Great Bell chimed 12 as we went past.)

We played Spot a Monopoly Square (I’m sure we aren’t the first people to do that) and were basically overwhelmed by how much there is to see and how much we wouldn’t get to see in only a week.

The bus took us past Buckingham Palace, which is open to visitors at the moment while Her Majesty is away on holiday. (I noticed that this was how Steve referred to her, where we Aussies would just have said ‘the Queen’.) It’s tempting, because this opportunity isn’t available very often.

We crossed the Thames several times, including over the Tower Bridge, and ended up at Westminster Pier, where we took a river cruise back up the way we’d just come. The river cruise guide told us about the history of London’s watermen, and explained that it was a tradition dating back 500 years, carrying people and goods across the river. In recent years their role has changed to taking people on pleasure cruises. He said he was very proud to carry on the traditional profession of waterman.

The river cruise took us under the bridges we’d crossed on the bus, including London Bridge, Waterloo Bridge (built by women during World War 2) and up to the Tower Bridge, where we got off to visit the Tower of London. I didn’t have much of an idea about what I might want to see in London, but as soon as we passed the Tower in the bus, we both decided we wanted to go and see it.

After a quick lunch break, we made our way in, past the security guard whose job it was to confiscate any chocolate visitors might have, just in time for the start of one of Yeoman Warder tours. The Yeoman Warders are the bodyguards on duty at the Tower.

The tour was a little over 30 minutes and then we were free to explore the Tower on our own. We saw the Crown Jewels, the tower where the two princes were supposed to have been imprisoned, walked along the wall, saw the ravens (there is a legend that the Kingdom and the Tower will fall if the 6 ravens leave the tower, so Charles II insisted that they be protected – there are currently 6 captive ravens at the Tower -plus one spare).

We shopped for tacky souvenirs – which is going to be a theme of the trip, as always. If you haven’t worked it out yet, this will be a feature of the whole trip.

At the end of the day we hopped on another hop on hop off bus, but we were too late to catch the one that would take us back to our hotel, so we got off at Baker Street Station and caught the Tube to Kings Cross, where it was an easy walk back to our hotel, having dinner at a pub on the way.

Slabs will appreciate this, but when I was talking to the barman, he asked if I was from New Zealand. He was surprised that I wasn’t, because he said he thought he’d heard a Kiwi twang in my accent.

We made it

We made it
London, United Kingdom

London, United Kingdom

Remember that sleep I was going to get on the flight from Dubai to London?


We left Dubai at about 2am Dubai time (11pm UK time), with a revised ETA into Heathrow of 6.45am, apparently due to strong headwinds.

I did try to sleep but, apart from maybe an hour of light napping, and a couple of 20 minute blocks, it didn’t happen. From sneezing man on the last leg to wriggling woman in the seat behind on this leg, I had no hope.

So a 4am breakfast was welcome, and chicken curry with coconut rice was a nice way to start the day.

We finally arrived at Heathrow at 7.15am, and started to worry that we might be too late for our booked hotel transfer, which we had to notify if we’d be any later than 90 minutes past our pickup time.

Being new to border security/customs procedures, we had no idea how long this side of things was going to take. The clock was ticking past 7.30 and it really didn’t look like we’d be out of there before 8.00, so I suggested to Lil Sis that we call the transfer company.

What ensued I will put down to lack of sleep, but it involved an unactivated SIM, no reception, a credit card and a pay phone that charged rates that I’d expect to pay for a bus ticket rather than a phone call. We eventually found our driver and, in the way of everyone who goes overseas, found ourselves booked on the same transfer car as the lady who had commented on our light packing in Melbourne. Of course, she’s also booked on the same return flight as us next week.

Travel tip: Pre-booking the airport transfer was a great idea. The thought of struggling onto a train with our bags after so little sleep and more than 24 hours travelling was too horrific to contemplate. This is a situation where price becomes irrelevant. It took a bit over an hour to get to our hotel. I spent most of the trip looking at the buildings and comparing them to ones back home. The housing rows just out of the airport were really interesting and I don’t remember ever seeing anything like them in Tasmania. They looked typically English.

Luckily our hotel room was ready when we got there – this was worth the phone call before we left. A blissful shower was my first priority. I’d thought about having a shower in one of the transit airports, but once we were in the airports, it seemed like it was going to be a lot of trouble to organise. And I’d just end up feeling grotty again anyway. So I decided to put up with it. So the shower was great.

Then I managed to Skype Juniordwarf and Slabs. It was so good to see them. When it was time to go Juniordwarf kissed me on the iPad screen.

Then it was time to explore. We’re staying near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, and we’d found a craft beer pub in the next borough called the Holburn Whippet. It sounded like it would be worth a visit, so we made our way there for lunch via the O2 phone shop so I could buy a phone and an international SIM card.

Holburn Whippet serves light lunches: burgers, sandwiches, salads and pizzas. We sampled a couple of beverages, had a yummy lunch and decided that London wasn’t all that much different to Sydney (sorry London). I was expecting to feel different being in a different country, but I really don’t. Sure it’s bigger and older, but when you’re on the ground, the immediate space around you is no bigger than the immediate space around you at home. And while there are more people on the street and vehicles on the road, they are spread out over a bigger area, so there aren’t heaps more people or vehicles in your vicinity. The city ‘feel’ extends further out from the CBD than in our cities, but it still feels like one of our cities.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not what I was expecting. So while I’m on the other side of the world, and I’d been travelling for over a day, in some ways it doesn’t feel like I’ve gone anywhere. It’s an interesting feeling that I’m just going to sit with.

After lunch, we bought some postcards, looked for tacky souvenirs and oriented ourselves around the train stations. We found that when you book train tickets online and nominate a station to pick them up from, even though it says you have to pick them up from that station, you can pick them up from any station with a ticket collect self-service machine. So we picked up all of our tickets for the rest of our stay.

While we were writing out postcards in the hotel bar, it occurred to me that I’d gone almost 48 hours without sleeping. Following the travel advice on adapting to a new time zone, I really tried to stay awake until as close to my normal bed time as possible, but it wasn’t going to happen, and it was a 7pm bedtime for me.