London Diaries

by Steve, September 26th, 2013
Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) from the London Eye

Emmy and I first started planing a London trip almost two years ago. We can thank Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and the rest of One Direction for the inspiration of the destination. They were a gateway for Emmy getting into other British acts and British fashion. Emmy says, “I was thinking of London as this perfect place. And it was.”

Other than Canada, I hadn’t traveled internationally since 1997, when Nancy and I got engaged in Lisbon and Wesley and I traveled to Prague.

To be honest, the UK was not the top of my travel bucket list for travel. But it should have been. We had an all around great trip. I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to travel in London, and how much I enjoyed the green spaces alongside the cosmopolitan urban culture and amenities. Public transit is extremely convenient; we took the tube everywhere except a cab to our flat on arrival and when we took the train to Windsor and to the Harry Potter studio tour.

Greek lunch in Windsor

We were both especially pleased at the ease (and quality) of vegetarian dining in London, something that is always stressful while traveling, particularly in continental Europe (maybe it’s better there now) and Latin America. It seems like almost every restaurant in London has a selection vegetarian items, all nicely marked with a “V” or in their own category on menu. (Even in supposedly prog Portland, we often don’t get this courtesy.) I assumed we’d be eating a lot of Indian food (no complaints there, mate!), but we never did, and we didn’t find the need to look for vegetarian restaurants, either (of which there are plenty). Somebody even rated London the number one vegan city in the world. I would have scoffed at that notion prior to this trip.

For a while we considered splitting the trip between London and Paris, even entertaining the crazy notion of a day or overnight trip to Paris. We decided this would be too much hassle and not enough time in either city, and decided to focus a full 10 days on London. We rented a flat instead of a hotel so we could just unpack and move in and have a full home base. This turned out to be a really good decision. It was less expensive than a hotel, still very conveniently located, and extremely comfortable and convenient (separate bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, and a huge terrace overlooking the neighborhood).

If you’re not me or Emmy or directly related to us, the rest of this may be boring. I’m just recording it from my hand-written journal for posterity. If you just want to see photos, you can see them all on Flickr (pictures of me and Emmy are protected; if you’re family drop me a line and I’ll send you a special link so you can see us).

Wednesday August 15 – Thursday August 16

We had a 1:45 pm flight from Portland to Amsterdam. Flying the northern route in the summer, “overnight” means a couple hours of darkness. Neither of us slept, and we found ourselves in Amsterdam Thursday morning local time (but 11:30 the previous night Portland time). We tried to Skype with Nancy and Zeke from the boarding area of the London flight, but the Wi-Fi there was too crummy. Short hop to London, where we walked through a labyrinth before getting into line for passport control. No trouble there, then got our bags and found a bite to eat at “Windsor Castle.” I ordered a “traditional” English breakfast (traditional except for the veggie sausage) with two eggs, mushrooms, potato patties, baked beans, tomato and toast. And a cup of coffee. (Sorry, Brits, I considered switching to tea but only for a second.) Em had veggie pasta.

Under a London sky
Parsons Green

We took a black taxi to our flat in Parsons Green, which has a charming village feel. Our flat was just up a side street from the eponymous park and just around the corner from two grocery stores. The tube stop was just a couple minutes walk. The neighborhood has lots of well-kept row houses and the main streets are lined with shops and restaurants. There are green parks in easy walking distance in all directions.

We walked a short distance to Carphone Warehouse to get a SIM for my phone and burner phone for Em (just in case we got separated on the tube or something). On the walk back to the flat we stopped to check out the tube stop (tube is actually elevated here) and then got groceries at The Co-operative. Sitting on the flat’s large terrace, we could hear to clickety-clack of the tube trains, but none of the roar or rumble you might expect (like from the El in Chicago). Also, they have cute little whistles that reminded us yanks of Thomas the Tank Engine.

We had planned to order in pizza and watch some telly, but Em passed out just before 5pm local time (9 am Portland time, 26 o 27 hours after she woke up the day before). I supped on some bread and cheddar and finally went to bed around 10.

Friday August 16

Trafalgar Square

Woke up at 3:30 and tossed and turned till 6. Got up.

Had breakfast then walked up to tube stop to buy Oyster cards (prepaid transit fare on RFID cards) and catch the tube to Embankment (20-25 minutes) for a short walk to Trafalgar Square in the light rain. No worries since we had umbrellas, which Emmy says she will now carry in Oregon. (Why on Earth don’t Oregonians carry umbrellas? A topic for a future blog post.) Trafalgar Square was nearly deserted, apparently due to rain and the fact that it was 9 am. We mugged for some pix under the giant blue cockerel (rooster) sculpture (simply titled “Cock” and apparently intended as a little feminist fun with the dour permanent statues of men around the square) and by the fountains before hoofing back to the Thames and across to the London Eye.

Giant bicycle wheel
London Eye

We rode the London Eye around, catching rainy views of Westminster Palace and the city, before jumping on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour which took us back across the Thames and then back again. We didn’t even know which bank we were on (south) when we hopped off and stumbled into Hay’s Galleria where we found Café Rouge and had a nice lunch. Em had warm, soft bleu cheese with two kinds of fresh bread and apple slices. I had hummus, roasted red peppers, onion and field greens on a baguette with a side of “frites,” the first of many “chips” I ate in merry old England (fries, my yankee friends, and who knew the French could make them so good?). We had a little post-lunch stroll along the Thames before catching the bus tour again up to Piccadilly Circus. From there, the shopping began. Between Regent Street, Carnaby Street and Oxford Street, we went to Top Shop, Zara, Monki and River Island, among others.

Hay's Galleria
Hay’s Galleria

After this we caught the tour bus to Buckingham Palace for an exterior gander, catching all the sights along the way. We walked to the Victoria tube stop from there and headed back to Parsons Green where we ordered pizza in to make up for the previous night.

Saturday August 17

We planned the shopping on the front end of the trip so Emmy didn’t have to bring as many outfits. Saturday morning we hopped the tube for a couple stops up to Chelsea and the King’s Road. Shops included Brandy Melville, Zara, Mac, and Lush.

We had lunch at a casual Italian restaurant. Em had very spicy red sauce on pasta; I got a baguette w/tomatoes, avocado and mozzarella. The Italian waitress had to come back and make sure she got my order right. (Apparently we say “tomato” wrong in the states. Who knew?) It was a pleasant lunch except when a local character with a flamenco fan wandered in was hustled out by staff. Much shouting and hubub, but it was over fast. And the food was good. And the espresso, too.

On the grounds of Fulham Palace

We walked back up the other side of the street where the shops seemed tonier (£495 for a skirt?!?) and headed back to Parsons Green to drop off the day’s haul.

We decided to explore the area of the flat, so we hopped on the tube to Putney Bridge and walked across the Thames to Putney. Then we took the tube back across and explored Bishop’s Park. Emmy got ice cream, and we watched lawn bowling. Adjacent to Bishop’s Park is Fulham Palace, the former Bishop’s residence. We walked the grounds there and saw a sculpture exhibition before returning to the flat.

Sunday August 18

Windsor Castle
The moat garden at Windsor Castle

We took the tube to Paddington Station, and then a train to Windsor. In Windsor, we had tea (well, Emmy had tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam, and I had espresso) on Church Street, the heart of old Windsor. After tea, we walked around Windsor for a while, then had lunch at a Greek restaurant (stuffed peppers for me; pasta for Em).

Then we went into the castle grounds and climbed the Round Tower (with a tour group led by Tom; tour only available a few weeks out of the year) for great views of the Thames, Windsor, Eton and the surrounding country. After this we had a tour of the precincts with Patrizia and then an audio tour of the State Apartments.

Windsor Castle
Statue in the moat garden

After the state apartments, we got to walk through the occasionally-open moat garden, which was really nice. We were too late for the Dolls House and the Queen’s Garden, and St. George’s Chapel was closed for Sunday services. So we’ll have to return, of course. And maybe next time the Queen will be around for tea (she was on holiday in Scotland with James, our host).

Monday August 19

At the British Museum
At the British Museum

This whole trip was the best-planned trip I’ve ever done. Emmy and I made up lists and daily itineraries, and we booked as much as we could ahead of time on the Web. But we knew some days we had too much planned, and we vowed to be flexible. This turned out to be one of those days when that kind of flexibility really paid off.

We started out at the British Museum, an incomprehensibly huge collection of imperial plunder and an important record of human civilization. Needless to say it was completely overwhelming. We lasted only about an hour before vowing to return someday when it wasn’t so crowded and grabbed the tube to Camden Town. Emmy bought a couple sweatshirts at a street market, then we had Spanish tapas for lunch, including Garbonzos con espinaca, arroz con verduras and a casserole of eggplant and toe-MAH-toes (still trying to say it right) in a white sauce and topped with cheese. Emmy got churros with chocolate sauce for desert. I helped, because why should she have to suffer alone?

Camden Lock
Camden Lock

As we were finishing our lunch, an English woman came in and apparently ordered an English breakfast. When asked how it was, she shrugged. “Eh.” “What do you mean, is something wrong?” asked the staff. “The mushrooms are bad and the eggs are rubbish!” she spat. I wanted to say, “Try the tapas, you’re in Spain!” but thought better of it. By the time we left, they were both smiling and happy, so I guess they worked it out.

After lunch we strolled through the crowded open-air markets and along Regent’s Canal where we stopped to look at the still-functional early 19th century locks. Pretty soon a long, narrow canal boat approached, and the tour guide alighted to operate the manual locks. Somebody asked the pilot about the tour, and he told her the to head across the street to buy tickets, and the next tour would be leaving in 45 minutes. We decided on the spot to do it.

The Jenny Wren
The Jenny Wren

The tour was 1 1/2 hours up Regent’s Canal to Little Venice and back. The boat docked just below the Camden Lock (AKA Hampstead Road Lock No 1), and this was the first point of interest on the way upstream. Our tour guide hopped off the boat and operated the lock, whose design dates to 1820.

Tour guide, deck hand, lock operator
Tour guide, deck hand, lock operator. Good at all three.

Along the way to Little Venice we saw some very large and expensive mansions and the London Zoo and traversed the very long (251m) and narrow Maida Hill Tunnel. We also saw three cops in a little inflatable dinghy who, on the way back down, tried to flag down our boat. “Might we have a tow? Our engine’s disabled!” asked one, holding a line out wishfully. She had to repeat herself a few times before the pilot responded. We couldn’t hear him, but it was clear he said “no” when he gunned the engine and the cops looked sheepish. “Oh, thanks anyway!” said the cop holding the line as we churned away. After docking, the pilot was joking with one of the other passengers about it. “They probably just ran out of petrol!”

He also remarked that when President Obama stayed in one of the mansions backing up to the canal, security on the canal was a bit of a joke.

After our unplanned cruise, we went to the British Library (this was on the agenda today!) and visited a remarkable collection of printed matter: manuscripts from Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Elgar, hand-written lyrics from John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Magna Carta, the oldest known English Bible, Shakespeare, and on and on. Mind blowing. Oh, and we also stopped by King’s Cross Station and took a gander at Platform 9 3/4.

Yes, that’s right, we saw the Rosetta Stone, the Magna Carta and Platform 9 3/4 in one day. And had a nice little cruise in the middle, and some great tapas and a little shopping, too!

Tuesday August 20

Inside the Monument looking down
Inside The Monument looking down

We planned to start the day at Shakespeare’s Globe, but ended up getting off the tube at The Monument, a 202 foot Doric column built in the 1670s to commemorate the 1666 London fire. We climbed the 311 stone steps to the top, just for kicks.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

Then we crossed the Thames and visited Southwark Cathedral. Lunch was next at a second-story Italian restaurant overlooking the Thames and the walkway. Great people-watching and good food.

After lunch we toured Shakespeare’s Globe, a 1997 replica of the actual Globe. We even got to sit in the box where HRH Prince Chuck sits when he attends.

Then it was across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we decided to skip the tour (we did poke our heads in the front and fully appreciated the exterior architecture) and get some water (Em) and espresso (me) at a café across the plaza. Then, since the day was yet young, we decided to head over to the West End and pick up our theatre tickets for Thursday night and look around.

St. Paul's and the Millennium Bridge
St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge

We found the Noël Coward Theatre and picked up our tickets to The Cripple of Inishmaan (starring Daniel Radcliffe). We thought it might be nice to check out Leicester Square for a little break, but it turns out One Direction was having their movie premier there in a few short hours.

The Square was mobbed with fans, some of whom had been there since Sunday. It was completely fenced off, so we just skirted it and walked up the way to Carnaby Street and Oxford Street for some more shopping.

Rush hour on Oxford Street
Oxford Street at rush hour

We stopped in Liberty just to say we did, and took some photos of its magnificent faux-Tudor interior. Then we did a little shopping at Primark before heading home.

Inside Liberty

Wednesday August 21

Italian Garden
The Italian Garden at Hyde Park

We started the day at Hyde Park, beginning at the Italian Garden. We followed the Princess Diana Memorial Walk along the Serpentine (lake) to her memorial fountain, then further around the lake to a café where I had my first English pint (in England) and we split a pizza and chips for lunch.

Sentries at Victoria and Albert
At the Victoria and Albert Museum

Next on the itinerary were the nearby museums: Science and Natural History. The Science Museum was very cool, but also very packed. After we had our fill there, we set out to the Natural History Museum, but found the line to get in too long. We decided to check out the Victoria and Albert Museum instead, and found that very interesting.

We returned to Parsons Green and went out to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, Café Rialto. I had a very nice veggie risotto; Emmy had pasta (just for something different!).

Thursday August 22

Tower of London
Tower of London

We got up early to tour the Tower of London. Now let me pause right here to explain my previous, pathetic yankee ignorance. I didn’t know that the Tower of London wasn’t just a tower used as a prison (it’s namesake White Tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078) but 12 acres of medieval castle. Just go read the linked wikipedia article and come back so we can continue our story.

Okay, so we had an orientation in the chapel by a Beefeater, who rattled through several hundred gory years of history in about 20 minutes before turning us loose to explore the grounds. We saw the crown jewels (not owned by the Queen, by the way, which is why they’re here and not in Windsor), did Ralegh’s walk (our ancestor Sir Walter was imprisoned here), explored the white tower, and walked atop the walls before heading back across the Thames for a nice lunch (Italian!).

At the Tower of London
At the Tower of London

After lunch, we headed back to the flat to get ready for The Cripple of Inishmaan.

The 1903 Noël Coward Theatre was beautiful inside, and our seats in the royal circle (mezzanine) were perfect. The play is a dark comedy loosely based around the real-life filming of The Man of Aran, and stars Daniel Radcliffe in the title role. It was a great script and production with a very strong ensemble cast. Radcliffe was impressively nuanced in a role that could have easily been overplayed.

Friday August 23

Dumbledore's office
Dumbledore’s office

With our trip winding down and a big afternoon trip to the Harry Potter studio, we decided to take it easy Friday morning. We took a stroll across Parsons Green and then up to Eel Brook Common, another local park. We sat and watched the kids on scooters and then strolled back to the flat for a spaghetti lunch (man, we sure ate a lot of Italian in London!). Then we took the Tube to London Euston station for a train to Watford Junction and then a bus to the Harry Potter studio tour.

The tour begins with a film, and then you enter the Great Hall. From there, the tour is self-guided. Major sets on display in the first of two sound stages include Dumbeldore’s & Umbridge’s offices, the Potion’s lab, the Burrow’s kitchen, the Ministry of Magic fireplaces, Hagrid’s hut, the Gryffindor Common room, the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, various props, etc.

From studio J, it’s across a small backlot to Studio K (get it?). In the backlot is #4 (and #3) Privet Drive, the Knight Bus, the Hogwarts bridge thingy and the house at Godrick’s hollow, as well as some of the giant chess pieces. And a butter beer bar. Into Studio K and the creature shop, and then on to models and drawings and plans of the elaborate sets and, finally, the model of Hogwarts used in many exterior shots. And of course the gift shop for wands, chocolate frogs and t-shirts.

Saturday August 24

The Temperate House
Panorama of the Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Since our Sunday flight was at 6:30 am, we planned to stay at Heathrow Saturday night. So Saturday morning we got our stuff together and took the tube out to Jurys Inn. We checked in, had some lunch, then took the tube back to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Sadly, the Temperate House, the largest Victorian glass house in existence, was closed for renovations, but we got to see it from outside and we got to explore inside the Palm House and the Water Lily House. We also got to do a treetop walk (an open-air catwalk 59 feet up) and explore a small portion of the 300 acre site in a persistent rain.

Edible Landscaping
Edible landscaping in front of the Palm House
Water Lilies
Water lilies

We followed our too-short visit (another reason to return) with dinner at Pizza Express in Kew, which, Emmy decided, is like our very own Pizzicato but better.

Sunday August 25

We had to get up a 3 to get a bus to the terminal and get checked in. We had to walk about 10-15 minutes in the rain with our bags over a pedestrian overpass to get to the transit center. We just missed our bus, but caught the next one 20 minutes later for a 5-minute trip to the terminal. The ticket counters weren’t open yet, but many people were bunched up ready to jump in line. It was quite the confusion trying to figure out where to go and what to do, but we finally got our boarding passes and checked our bags and got through security. Once at the gate things were much more relaxed. We posed for pictures by the Tardis and Dalek (we never did find any Dr. Who souvenirs!), and then waited to board our flight to Amsterdam, the whole thing over too soon.

Looking Back

The view from the terrace
The view from the terrace

We’ve been back over a month now, and still talk about our trip a lot. When we talk about highlights, we invariably start with one or two things, then keep adding things until we decide the whole trip was nothing but highlights. We owe a special thanks to James and family for letting us make their home our home; his advice and hospitality made all the difference. You can book his flat when he’s on holiday at airbnb.

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