A Spring Jaunt to London

Because I’ve been busy with teaching, this (painfully detailed) write up is a little late.

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Rob and I had been talking about taking a trip to London for a long time, so we got off our asses in May 2011 and made the journey across the Pond.  I had been to London once as a child, but (as my mother says I always insist on mentioning) I spent most of the week sick in bed at the hotel.  Rob, a long time fan of British TV (Doctor Who in particular) and Britain itself, had never been.  So it was time.

I’m not sure I got the super-dooper best deal out there, but I used Virgin Vacations to book our flights and hotel.  It was easy, convenient, and the cost seemed pretty reasonable.  I had always heard good things about Virgin Atlantic and they have non-stop flights from Dulles to Heathrow, excellent for a nervous flyer like me.  There was a hotel available right next to Victoria Station, also seemed like a good choice.

Our flight to London was an overnight one. I was hoping for a glimpse of aurora borealis (which some people have photographed on trans-Atlantic flights) but had no luck there.  But we were treated to a yummy dinner…much better than anything you can get on domestic flights these days.  Hell, they don’t even serve you full meals on domestics anymore.  Rob happily took pictures of everything he could see out of his window; he spent most of the time glued to the live inflight map on the entertainment display.  Of course, not much sleep was to be had for either of us and it didn’t help that there was a mother and child in the seats in front of us that I can only describe as the British equivalent of white trash.  A horrible thing to say but it fit.  Mucus spraying everywhere, out of control kid, mother screaming at her to no avail. Nevertheless, on the whole, we had a good flight and arrived in London tired, but in a good mood.

The Heathrow Express train to London is expensive, but we just wanted to get squared away in our hotel so we paid for it.  It was comfortable and quick.  Looking out the window, Rob said London reminded him of Baltimore.  The UK and US have this in common: train tracks going through not-so-nice-looking areas.

We expected our hotel, Hesperia London Victoria, to make us wait until afternoon to check in, but they had a room ready for us at 9am.  That was nice even if it was a very small room and gave us a chance to relax a bit before our whirlwind London sightseeing began.  We also made a little trek over to the train station looking for breakfast.  Yes…we ended up at KFC.  WE DON’T CARE.

Our first sights in London were Westminster Abbey and Big Ben/Westminster Palace.  We didn’t go into either one, but they were on the way to the London Eye, which we did have tickets to.  The Eye is an enormous ferris wheel (my mom would love it), with great views of the city.  I thought it was an appropriate thing to do on our first day.  It was a little cloudy but the views from our passenger pod were awesome and there were no height or dropped camera fears from in there.  Our walk back to the hotel took us by Buckingham Palace.  Not the right time to see the changing of the guard, of course, but we weren’t too bothered.  That’s one of the few things I remember seeing on my childhood London trip anyway, though I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

First priority our first full day in London (Monday 5/16): going to the Tower of London.  No, actually that was the second.  First priority was going to the Wyndham’s Theatre box office to check on getting tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing, which was starting previews that week.  The 10th Doctor David Tennant and one of his companions Catherine Tate were starring as Benedick and Beatrice.  Rob and I had tried multiple times to get tickets online before we left home, but the website didn’t like us or our American credit cards.  Or something.  When we got to the box office, there was a lineup for a ticket lottery.  No regular tickets were left.  We lamented to one of the box office attendants about our website trouble as we prepared to leave.  And it’s a good thing we did!  She looked us up in the computer and it turned out we had 8 tickets reserved under our names collectively!  A lucky (for us) glitch in their system didn’t release the tickets we had tried to reserve when the transactions failed.  So we picked two seats and were set to see the play on Friday night.  Awesome!

Then it was off to the Tower of London.  One of the place I do remember from my childhood visit to London, but only hazily.  Since I love history and historical sites, and Tudor history in particular, I was excited to visit again.  Armor, crown jewels, ravens, it’s a pretty amazing place and the site of the captivity/execution of many historical figures I admire/sympathize with.  I spent way too much in the gift shop.

We spent the late afternoon trekking to Warr’s London, Europe’s oldest Harley-Davidson dealership.  It wouldn’t have been on my list of places to visit on this trip, but Rob’s brothers wanted tshirts so we went.  I didn’t complain.  It was off the tourist-beaten-path and we did run into some subway problems but we managed to make it there just before they closed.  Even with the delays we faced, we were pleased with the cleanliness and efficiency of the London Underground.

The next day we had a tour booked to take us to Stonehenge and the City of Bath.  Our bus pickup was only a few blocks from the hotel, but it did not come on time and this led to Rob being rudely ejected from an office building lobby where he had ducked in, feeling ill from the wind and cold.  I know the tourists probably annoy the crap out of the people who work there, but it was just inhumanly mean.  Once the bus did come, we faced massive traffic delays on the way to Stonehenge.  So we only had about an hour at the site.  That was actually plenty of time to see the stones.  It was raining and a steady walk on the circular path around them was fine.  But it meant that I didn’t have time to do one of the things I truly love: thoroughly peruse the gift shop. Sigh.

The second destination on the tour was the City of Bath, fascinating to me because the site has been occupied for 2000+ years.  The Roman Baths (which give the city its name) are the main attraction.  Our tour included admission to the Baths, which were constructed 60-70 AD.  They were beautiful, even if the water was green and stinky-looking.  They warned us not to touch it.  Don’t have to tell me twice. We had a lot more time in Bath, so I did the gift shops and we had lunch.  That is when Rob discovered the only people (according to him) in Britain who can make a good mocha: Costa Coffee.  Previous tries at a Starbucks and Krispy Kreme in London had been disappointing.  Before the bus left to go back to London, we had just enough time to hop over to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.  Housed in a nondescript Georgian townhouse, it’s where William and Caroline Herschel lived for a few years in the 1770s and 1780s.  William discovered the planet Uranus from the back garden.  That part was under construction and not accessible but the house had a lot of interesting Herschel and astronomy artifacts.

Our tour to Stonehenge and Bath was through Anderson Tours.  Rob was extremely annoyed with the traffic problems in the morning, he thought they should have had better contingency plans to deal with it.  He didn’t think our tour guide was all that great, either.  I thought he was fine.  I thought the bus was too cramped.  Rob thought it was fine.  So, mixed feelings on the company, though I think I probably would go on another one of their tours if I was in London again.

Wednesday (5/18) was Doctor Who Day.  In the morning we took the tour of the BBC Television Centre, the only Americans along with some Brits and a bunch of Dutch kids.  It was fun to get a behind the scenes look at a TV network.  Rob loved it, because it was the home of Doctor Who, and because he also works in TV himself.  We got glimpses of some news areas, studios, green rooms.  Later in the afternoon we had tickets for the Doctor Who Experience at the Olympia Two exhibit hall.  I’m more of a casual fan of the show; Rob has been a fan since he was a kid in the 70’s.  Seeing all the props and memorabilia was a once in a lifetime experience for him.  We happened to be there at a non-crowded time and day, so Rob was able to hang around all the exhibits and take pictures to his heart’s content without annoying or crowding any other patrons.

Thursday (5/19) took us to Cardiff, the capital of Wales.  Both Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood film there, so it was high on our list of places to visit.  Locations in the city often double for other places in Britain on the shows, but Cardiff is actually where Torchwood takes place (until the most recent season, which moved much of the production over here to the U.S.).  The train to Cardiff, less than two hours, was nicer than most trains in the U.S.  God, I wish we had a better train system here.  We wandered around the waterfront Cardiff Bay area, under which Torchwood used to be headquartered.  And then spent the rest of the day exploring Cardiff Castle.  The Castle is a fascinating mix of a Norman Keep, Victorian mansion, and old Roman tunnels that were used as WWII bomb shelters.

I got in my astronomy tourism on Friday with a visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. A nice walk from the subway through Greenwich Park brought us to the Observatory, which sits on top of a hill with a great view of London, particularly Canary Wharf.  The Observatory was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II, with the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed as its head.  It’s the location of the Prime Meridian (0deg of longitude).  When someone says “Greenwich Mean Time” this is place is what they are referring to.  Yes, I couldn’t leave London without taking a gander.  Sadly, it’s only a museum today and no longer a working scientific institution. We perused the exhibits on time and navigation, got the obligatory “Hey, I’ve got one foot in the Western and one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere!” shots on the Meridian line.  There’s also an excellent planetarium.  We had to go to a show geared towards schoolkids, but we didn’t mind.  We actually appreciated the harsh hand, jarring as it was, that the guy leading the show took with the kids.  Americans are too soft on unruly youngsters.

We took a walk through the City of London on the way back to our hotel and saw two famous churches: St Paul’s Cathedral (lots of history, most recently Charles and Diana’s wedding) and Temple Church (built by the Knights Templar).  Nearby the latter was the Temple Bar, topped by a griffin statue, which was high on my list of London landmarks to get a picture of.  We didn’t go into either of the churches, because we had to get back and get ready for the last thing we were doing in London: seeing Tennant and Tate in Much Ado About Nothing. The Wyndham was packed and cramped; they had no trouble selling those extra tickets we had accidentally reserved. Much Ado is, I think, one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies and in Tennant’s and Tate’s hands, it was, not surprisingly, hilarious.  Modern costumes, modern music.  Tennant was even in drag at one point.  This was the best way to end our time in London.

And just when we were getting over our jet lag and finally adjusting to London time…we went home.  That’s how it always works.

Our only big complaint on the trip was the crappy wifi our hotel had. It was free but the signal in our room was very spotty. Otherwise we were happy with our accommodations. We’re not very adventurous when it comes to food, so we ate a lot of pub and fast food. Lots of fish and chips. I found out that I love mushy peas. It was a good trip.

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