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Trip Report Seven nights in London, day by day.

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I guess you could say I spent months on planning this trip. It was DW's birthday wish to be in Great Britain, so the pressure was on to make this a really nice trip for her. I consulte with her from time to time, but only to check on her "must see's." I booked everthing via the internet or phone calls in a couple of cases. I rely on Fodors and Trip Advisor a lot, but I take the TA reports with a grain of salt. Some lodging properties way down on the list are perfectly ok, and suffer only from lack of reviews. One must be alert to that. We spent a total of 5 weeks in England, Scotland, and Ireland. This is the London only part.

We were held at the gate at Dallas for over an hour. Seems like some lights in the first class cabin would not go off. After not being able to fix, we would have had to deplane, but apparently the folks in first class voted to go with the lights on, so off we went. Good for them.

Business class, upgraded with points and $, is really great. With those nice roomy seats, and our friend Mr. Ambien, we got some nice sleep.

1st day on the ground, arrival day, 20 June, Wed.

We arrived at Heathrow sometime after noon. Went immediately to the Heathrow Express, paid with my credit card, and off we sped to Paddington Station, arriving there is no time. We spent a few minutes studying the London Underground map, knowing only that I needed to get to Embankment Station. I was a bit intimidated in that we don’t have much cause for subway use in central California, and my experience with subways in NYC and Athens was not always pleasant. Plus we were lugging some heavy luggage. But it turns out to be quite easy, once you get the hang of it. I mean, it’s color coded. How can you go wrong? You take a green line, or a blue line, or whatever, to get where you want to go.
With information obtained on the Fodors Forum, I went to the underground ticket booth, and inquired about the Oyster Card, a handy little card that you swipe going into and out of an underground station. I got an Oyster card for both of us. There is a 5 GBP deposit, plus I put 5 GBP travel money on each. Most underground trips we made were 2 GBP each, and I didn’t know how much we’d use it. Turns out, we used it extensively and I “topped it up” a couple of times. You get a refund of unused cash plus your deposit when you are finished with it. You can also set it up to automatically get more travel money for you by hitting your credit/debit card, but I didn’t do that.

Steps in the underground system are not fun when schlepping around with luggage. But we got on the right line, and soon debarked at Embankment Station. (Doors are closing. Mind the gap!) We were only about 200 meters from the hotel, and found it quickly.

The Royal Horseguards Hotel is in the middle of Whitehall, close by the Embankment station, along the Thames, across the river from the London Eye. We were able to stay here for 7 nights with award points. I have posted reviews of this hotel on Trip Advisor and Fodors, so suffice at this point to say this place is sheer luxury with a great location.

After settling into our room and congratulating ourselves for getting here, we ventured out, stopping at the concierge desk for a map of the city. We also bought some “fast trak” tickets to the London Eye so we wouldn’t have to wait in queue (that means line, for those gentle readers who have not yet been to England).

We walked along the Thames to Big Ben, about a kilometer up stream. We gawked up at it along with about 10,000 other tourists, then crossed over the bridge and walked back downstream to the Eye. Turns out we needn’t have bought the “fast trak” tickets. There weren’t any lines, …..er, queue’s….., at this hour, about 5 pm. The Eye was fun, and the views were great, especially looking down on Parliament and Big Ben. Back across the river, we stopped into Tattershall Castle, a restaurant in a boat tied up on the north bank of the Thames near our hotel. There was an active bar scene of youngish professionals on the top deck, and below deck a sit down restaurant. We had a snack and a soda.
Back at the hotel, we asked for restaurant guidance. After freshening up and resting a bit, we went to l’Uliva, an Italian restaurant just up from Embankment on Villiers street. Excellent. For the next several nights, we had trouble sleeping. Jet lag, if you want to call it that.

2nd day, 21 June Thursday

We started walking to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard at 11:30. It was a short walk up to Trafalgar Square, but then it got nuts. The Mall, the road directly to the Palace, was closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Olympic related construction. We followed the “diversion” signs around the north side of the Mall, making lots of turns, finally arriving at BP at a little before 11.

There was no space up front at the fence. Already crowded many deep. We had heard through many sources that the best was to get up on the stairs of the monument in front of the Palace. So that’s where we got.

Soon enough, we saw all the pomp and circumstance of the changing, complete with bands and horse guards and red coats and bear hats and what all. It was impressive, to be sure. But the most exciting thing was when a confused tourist and his wife drove his car right into the middle of the whole thing, following the horseguards. Soon, he had a minimum of 6 armed guys surrounding his car, and he was trying vainly to tell them what he was doing in the middle of the Queen’s Royal Guard. Finally, they cut him some slack, got him turned around and out of there.

We decided then to walk into Hyde Park and go see Kensington Palace. When we got to the little lake, we stopped at the café and had lunch. Then we continued on. And on. And on. And on. Finally a guy in a golf cart came by and offered us a ride the rest of the way. We gladly took it. It was now raining, which was the norm for the next 5 weeks.

Kensington Palace was a real bust for us. The temporary exhibit they had of Princess Diana was pathetic, with only about 4 dresses and several pictures up on a wall in a small room. Not very impressive. Somewhat disappointed, we left Kensington, found an underground station (Door closing. Mind the gap!) and went back to the hotel, our feet sore


2nd day 22 June Friday

Still fighting jet lag, our bodies hopelessly confused, we were awake at 4 am. At 5 we gave up and got up, getting out the Michelin and discussing where to go today. Weather looked to be grey and rainy. We decided on the Tower of London and St Paul’s Church.

We hit the hotel’s very good breakfast buffet at a little after 6:30, lingered over coffee and reading some British newspapers. Doctors generally ignored their union, and did not go on strike. Problems with immigrants overloading schools with language problems, and British worker discontent about losing jobs to them. News that a judge had ruled if you get sick during vacation time, you must be awarded more time off. Banker scandal for LIBOR rate fixing. Editorials carping about this and that. Just like home.

We walked the couple of hundred yards to the Embankment station and topped off the Oyster cards with 10 more pounds each. I went to the ticket agent to do this, still not comfortable enough to use the machine. I put it on my credit card.

We checked the direction boards, and got on the eastbound Circle line. We got off at the Tower station (Doors closing. Mind the gap!) and were at the ticket counter at about 9:05 am. There was absolutely no queue. We walked right up to the window, bought our senior priced tickets (with donation), and headed directly for the crown jewels exhibit. DW had heard that was where the crowds tended to get large. We walked right in, there was hardly anyone there.

(“with donation” = Some attractions quote two prices at the ticket window; with and without a donation. You may choose the price without the donation, usually a pound or two less than the price you see on the boards. We always went with the donation.)

As we looked out at the castle, we were stuck by it’s size and medieval character. Walking though the gates, it was easy to imagine slipping back in time. We picked up the audio guides for 3 GBP’s each. They were very helpful and interesting. We choose not to take a guided walk/talk by the wardens.

The crown jewel exhibit was indeed impressive. We certainly marveled at the several crowns on display with their opulent quantities of jewels. We also ooh’d and ah’d about the display of banquet serving pieces. The armory in the white tower was also impressive, though not as large and complete a display as the incredible armory exhibit at the King’s Palace in Madrid.

We listened to the audio guide tell us stories while lingering around the monument now located at the spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded. We saw groups accompanied by docents go in and out of the old church building. We thought we might have shoulda done that, but we didn’t’. We also didn’t go up into buildings that required too many stairs; a nod toward our age caused physical limitations,

We saw a minor version of a changing of the guards in the courtyard surrounded by the living quarters of the military guards and their families who live there. Lastly, we climbed into St Philips tower and toured the old living quarters of King x-x-x-x-x-. The weather had become rainy and grey, and a cold wind blew off the river. We walked some of the walls that looked out over the Thames and the Tower Bridge, then left.

As we walked out, we found the ticket lines incredibly long and crowded. I would suppose one would be in line for at least 30 -45 minutes just to get a ticket. Inside the tower, the crowds had grown quite large as we left. We had spent almost exactly 3 hours at the Tower arriving before the crowds, which was probably about right for us, though one could easily spend another hour or so climbing all the towers. PS; there’s a good looking café on the grounds.

We consider the Tower of London one of the top three things we saw. The history and the jewels are extensive. Lesson: if you go to the Tower of London, a definite must see, get there early to avoid crowds, and go to the crown jewel exhibit first.

We walked back to the underground station and read the direction boards and map of the system to determine our best route to St Pauls station. We swiped our Oyster card and off we went. The one transfer from Circle line required a very long walk, with lots of stairs. I was sure glad I didn’t have any luggage. Our tendency to walk on the right had us ‘swimming upstream’ from time to time, and had to remind ourselves to walk on the left. On the escalators, though, you stand on the right. Go figure!

We exited at St Paul’s station, and walked the church grounds to the front. We passed a little patisserie and decided to have a sandwich and soda. It was very good. I didn’t get the name of the place, but it is at the entry to a shopping complex called Temple Bar right off the square in front of the church. Inside the church by about 1:30, we got our senior tickets and a free audio (definitely worth it). The church is beautiful, and we sat and listened to some of it’s history. (I didn’t know Diana and Charles were married here.)

We were scheduled to attend a musical tonight, so we had agreed to end our day at about 3. We had about 1.5 to 2 hours in the church, which was about right. It was impressive, and the crypt was very interesting. One could spend more time there viewing the tombs of the many important and famous people.

We got back on the underground and in no time were back at Embankment station, which was beginning to feel like home with a comfortable familiarity (Doors are closing. Mind the gap!). We had a wonderful dinner at the hotel, and had great conversations with two waiters (we were the only patrons at 5:30), both immigrated from Spain. We arranged to have our deserts after the play.

We saw ‘Dreamboats and Petticoats” and thoroughly enjoyed it. I got prepaid online tix from home for the up front rows, and picked up the tickets at “will-call.” It was at the Playhouse Theatre, about 100 yards from the hotel front door. Featuring mostly music from our era, late 50’s early 60’s, the crowd was definitely in our age group. After a while, we were all clapping to the beat and singing along with our favorite songs. At the end, we were all on our feet for the grand finale, a rocking medley of 3 or 4 particularly lively numbers. All the music performed live on stage by the actors. It was a real hoot for the right age group. That’s us.

Seated next to me, front row center, was a couple maybe early 20’s. The showed no animation, not clapping, or singing along; hardly moving during the whole show. I thought they would leave at intermission. At the grand finale sing along, they sat amid a sea of standing jumping clapping old folks. At the end, as we filed out, I asked the young lady if they had got in trouble and their parents made them come. She said her mom wanted her to see the music she had grown up with. I said I guessed they didn’t think much of it. She just shrugged and made a noise like yuccch! DW and I laughed.

What a great day!

3rd Day, 23 June, Saturday

DW really slept in today. Based on weather forecasts predicting more rain and wind, we decided to stay close to home today, as weather was to improve tomorrow. So late morning, off we walk to Westminster Abbey, about a 15 minute walk, but it took all of an hour.

As we turned a corner in Whitehall, we found ourselves right across from the Royal Horseguards getting ready to ride to the changing of the guard at Buckingham. It was exciting to see them up close in all their regalia, the large black stallions prancing proudly. Quite a sight that we stumbled into.

At Westminster Abbey, we got the senior discounts, and paid an extra 3 GBP for the excellent audio guides. We voted Westminster Abbey into the top three sights that we saw in London. It was excellent. It was very organized. We were in there from 10:30 to 1 pm. Was about right for us.

Exiting, we asked a guard how to get to Harrod’s Department Store, an iconic landmark DW had set her sights on. He quickly told us to take #9 to Charing, walk across and get on #11. Wow! How do they do that?

Following his instructions, about 30 minutes later we were fighting hordes of people in one of the most famous department stores in the world. I was unimpressed and bored. DW was frustrated and angry. Could hardly walk the aisles. Large lines at check out counters. I started calling it Harrod the Horrible. Turns out there is a summer sale. ‘Nuff said.

We did sit down at one of the “famous” restaurants (she had been looking forward to eating in this dining room), and had overcooked shrimp and chips, and mediocre halibut, for some 70 GBP. Outrageous! But having that big (if not good) meal so late in the day warded off hunger for the rest of day.

4th day 24 June Sunday

Based on some weather forecasts, we decided to go to Windsor Castle today, and Hampton Court Palace tomorrow. From Embankment, our window to all things London, we proceeded south to the Waterloo Station (Door is closing! Mind the Gap!), where we bought return (round trip) tickets and boarded the train to Windsor. With our senior discount, it was 11 GBP round trip each. We entered the castle about 11, and were out at 2. Felt like we saw everything we needed to.
We used the audio guides, and found them to be excellent. The number system was well organized. For most of the day, the sun was out, but it was windy and cool. The flag flying from the Round Tower indicated that the Queen was there, this being a Sunday.
We voted Windsor Castle into the top three attractions we saw in London. It was excellent and we really enjoyed our time out there. After the castle, we strolled the little village, and had lunch in a pub. The lunch was the Sunday Roast. DW was unimpressed. I loved it.
For about the first time since arriving, we finally relaxed a little. We had a good afternoon, and got back to our hotel about 6. With such a big lunch, we didn’t need dinner, so about 8 I went back to l’Uliva and got a couple of deserts to go and took them back to the room.

NOTE: Under the heading of shoulda, woulda, coulda, I did not purchase a train pass, which ended up costing us a few bucks. I did not analyze ahead of time the number of times we would us the train. Had I done a little more investigation, I would have been better off with a pass, money wise, even including the senior discounts we got.

5th day 25 June Monday

Today was the day for Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens. We didn’t know if we could do both these attractions in the same day, but found it possible. We started early, and in good weather, returned to Waterloo Station and bought a one way ticket to Hampton, deciding to do the Palace first. (On reflection, probably a mistake.)

In Hampton, we walked across a bridge and onto the Palace grounds. It was about 9 am, and the Palace opens at 10. That was ok, we found the rose garden (open) and sat there in the warming sun reading the morning papers. Very relaxing and beautiful and peaceful. Just before ten, we got our tickets, and used the 2 for 1 coupon provided by National Train Service. Along with the coupon, we had to show the ticket from our just concluded train ride.

The front of the palace was covered with all sorts of equipment from the just concluded Hampton music festival. They were taking things down, but the normal entry route was disrupted. We loved Hampton Court Palace and made it the third of our top three attractions in London. The audio guides were a bit confusing, and much too wordy for our taste, but still helpful. They were particularly interesting in the area of the castle where food was received, processed and cooked. Characters in costume, Henry VIII and one of his wives, kept darting in and out of rooms, yelling at each other. We wondered if it was Ann Boleyn, about to loose her head.

We had lunch in the Palace, and they try to replicate the type of cooking that was prevalent at the time. So we had a meat pie. It was very good.

We left the Palace, and with information from friendly staff, found the R68 bus at the bust stop near the train station back across the river. He told us to ride with him to Richmond, then switch to the 65 bus to Kew Gardens. Yes, our Oyster cards worked out here. It was a terrific bus ride, going through some very interesting villages and neighborhoods. When the 65 got to Kew, we got off at Lions Gate. A mistake. Should have stayed on for another mile to Victoria Gate, the main entrance. As it was, walked to the main entrance inside the park (again used our 2 for 1 coupon) to the main entrance, had a snack, and jumped on the little tram that runs around the park (4 GBP each).
I guess we had expected a little more color from flowers and such, but while I must say the trees were gorgeous, we were a little disappointed. Staff there blamed the weeks of rain and grey for the lack of flowers. Everything looked really soggy. We found the nearby Kews underground station, and in a short time we were back at Embankment (Doors are closing! Mind the gap!), and our hotel.

6th day 26 June Tuesday.

She decides to see, on our last day in London, the Royal Mews, the British Library, and the British Museum. I looked at her incredulously. She said, she only wanted to see the Magna Carta, the Guttenberg Bible, and the Rosetta Stone at the library, and the Egyptian antiquities taken from the Acropolis at the museum. “Just get me there,” or words to that effect.

I pulled out my dog-eared copy of the underground map and went to work. Now, a seasoned Londoner, I quickly plotted a course on the underground providing a minimum of walking. It was a brilliant piece of planning, if I do say so. I wrote down a little script and stuffed it my pocket.

First stop was the Royal Mews, wherein are located several of the most famous carriages of London’s historic coronations and other processional celebrations (like marriages, funerals, etc.). It was impressive.

When we left there, I snuck a look at my script, and announce confidently our next route, and we got out at the library (Door Closing! Mind the GaP!). We quickly found the targeted attractions, and lingered there reading some of the other incredible exhibits in that room.

Our next stop, the museum, was more captivating, as we kind of thought it might be. First we had some lunch in their café, which was good. We like the early Greek historic archeological finds, and took our time going through those rooms. Having recently been in Greece, and remembering the times our guide would talk about pieces of antiquity stolen by the British. Stayed there a couple of hours. Then we hopped on home via the shortest line. I don’t think she knew I had a cheat sheet. Hey, I’m an underground rat, I am.

We returned to the hotel in time to shower and change and get up to St Martins in the Field for a quick sandwich in the crypt, and then the concert in the church. A famous piano player played, among other numbers, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, DW’s favorite of favorite classical tunes. It was impressive and captivating, a fitting end to a wonderful time in London.

London is a very active town, and we were continuously amazed at the number of events that seem to be constantly going on. It seems there is something to do all the time. There is much more to see and do there of course, but 7 nights was about right for our first time to London. She was very happy with her time in London, but we were ready to move on.

Tomorrow, we leave for Bath.

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