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Trip Report Trip Report: Snowy London, Glastonbury, and Salisbury/Stonehenge.

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Hi all,
Decided to put a trip report together for our vacation to the UK last week. Since many of our stops are well-covered here I won't go chronological, just give you my impressions of each place and some advice where it is merited. On our way home my husband and I were trading back and forth ideas of advice we would give to tourists travelling to the UK as Americans, and I think I'll start with that.


Our Advice:

1. Travel in the winter, if you can bear it. We had the best time travelling in the winter. It was amazing to us to see the kind of infrastructure that some of the major sites have to accomodate summertime visitors. The entrance, for example, to the crown jewels at the Tower of London reminds me of a entrance way for a roller coaster here in the states-- multiple rooms of velvet rope queue lines and videos playing to entertain the bored tourists. Luckily we had no lines anywhere and only stopped to watch a moment of the videos (the coronation of Elizabeth II-- very interesting to see pre-jewels). Same thing at Stonehenge, where we pretty much had the stones to ourselves. Seeing pictures from other friend's vacation I realize how mobbed the stones must be during the summer. HOWEVER, a caveat-- everyone told me that snow would not be a problem during our vacation (the guidebooks all say that snow in London at Christmas is a once-a-century event). Of course we had snow because that's how my luck runs! We had to cancel our plans for Canterbury since that area was the worst affected by the storms. But we had so many options and were excited by so many things that it was no big deal to swap our itineraries and we were no worse for the cancellation. Visiting in the winter is wonderful, but not if you have dealbreaker itinerary plans. If you're flexible, and willing to endure weather-related hangups, it can be very rewarding. For example, although we did have snow most days we had blue skies every day and not a whit of rain any day we were there.

2. Pack dark colors. I know, I know people say not to worry about how you look as a tourist, but really please think to pack dark colors, especially if you're travelling in the winter when everyone is all bundled up. My husband and I both had very bright, athletic outerwear that seemed out of place in some pubs and restaurants, which limited our options. Some places are cheap but have an upscale feeling, ie, places that have a cheap pre-theatre plate, and some of the pubs. Since we only carried on we only had room for one all-purpose coat, and mine was a bright pink Columbia parka. Unfortunately when you're travelling at breakneck pace sometimes you don't have time to run up to the room and freshen up before dinner so you need to pack things that will do double-duty, and dark colors seem to fit the bill nicely for that. Jeans and sneakers are fine, although for winter travelling I would suggest boots anyway, since they are more all-weather, but incidentally they also have a more formal feel.

3. If you have 4 days in London, plan a 3 day itinerary. 5 days, plan for 4. Its just the way it is! We planned on 2 sights a day and it ended up taking one day extra than what we originally planned. First off, guide books seem to plan for the least enthusiastic tourist. They said the TOL would take 2 hours-- no way with my enthusiastic husband who was trying to find a way into even the closed-off towers! It took us 4 hours going at a clipping pace with no break. I don't know how a family, travelling in the summer, could do it in less than 5 hours if they planned to see even the basics. And I could have spent all day at the National Gallery; I feel as if I didn't spend enough time and we must have spent 4 or 5 hours there. Plus you will slow down as your time on vacation wears on-- some days you just won't be able to get out of the room on time, sometimes lunch will take longer, etc. Plan frequent brain-relaxers. I felt very overwhelmed by what I was seeing at many galleries. I finally had to simply stop reading every placard and take the images for their beauty alone. Trying to appreciate the historical, social, and artistic context of every work is exhausting and your brain and body will need coffee breaks every few hours, so work it into your itinerary and budget.

4. GET OUT OF LONDON! London is great, it really is, but the real joys of our trip lay outside the city. It is great to see the history of a place laid out in museums, etc., but it is even better to see the history of a place in the landscape and in its people. Train travelling is as entertaining and edifying as a trip to a museum. Better still when the countryside is blanketed in snow :)

5. Yes that old stereotype about not having free refills on drinks at restaurants is true. We did find places that gave us refills on water, but on soft drinks it was nonexistent. Not that annoying except that as Americans we feel we have a right to free-flowing soda; we are a particularly thirsty and wasteful bunch it seems. Plus we were walking so much that we needed hydration. My solution-- drink beer. The portions are bigger and it seems less of a bad deal to spend 2.70 pounds on a pint than 2.10 pounds on a 10 oz coke. Not so good for hydration, though, so keep a water bottle with you if you need hydration during the day. If you dearly desire a coke that good-old standby McDonalds does a good big one. You have to go to McDonald's once during your trip, if only to view the spectacle that is Londonders affection for the place, plus the menu is different (Chicken Legend what?).

6. We didn't use this until our very last day, but Boots Pharmacy has a nice selection of takeaway lunch items-- a meal deal is less than 4 pounds. Take away seems pretty popular in London (as evidenced by the fact that every third restaurant is a Pret a Manger, every fourth an Eat, every fifth a Costa, etc. etc.-- the variety of London restaurants dips significantly if you take those out of the equation). Enjoy the humble tradition of London takeaway sandwiches. Everyone seems to eat them!

7. Pack your breakfast (assuming it isn't offered for free at your hotel). We packed cereal bars and drank the free coffee/tea in the room as breakfast and mid-morning snack. This allowed us to eat lunch and dinner without breaking our budget. Neither one of us is big on the "big-breakfast, no lunch" plan (who doesn't get physically run down around 1:00 and need a moment to rest and eat a bit?), plus it allowed us to sample the biggest variety of foods--breakfast in England and in our native Georgia being not so different, while lunch offered better variety. Plus you can take your breakfast with you so you don't have to plan for it in the morning.

8. The part of London that most first-timers will want to see is very, very, small. The boroughs are socially/culturally distinct, but are very close together so that getting from Westminster to Bloomsbury to Covent Garden is no problem at all. We bought 7 day Oystercards presuming that we would want to use the tube to get around, but found ourselves using it very seldomly for walking around London. Plainly put, when deciding whether to suss out the tube map, or the street map, learning London seemed like the best and most enjoyable use of our time, and the walking was no problem (caveat: we are 25, no kids, no health problems known to us). We did use the tube to get to Hampstead and to the various train station we needed for our day trips, and to the airport, so our card came in handy if only for convenience, but otherwise we did rarely use the tube. We do feel like real London champs now, having conquered the streets as much as we could, and on our last night we were even asked for directions from some Britons and were able to give them! I guess our bright parkas didn't give us away completely as Americans :)

9. London is not a 24 hour city, and by that I mean no offense, but it is true. We stayed at the Swissotel Howard, a stone's throw away from Covent Garden, all the theatres, the Strand, etc. So we were in the hubub. And yet, after 5:30 and especially after 7:00 your options for dining do become more limited. It appears that many of the cheaper eateries are geared toward lunchtime business customers, and close at night. On our last night we were looking for something cheap and light to eat after a week of eating heavy pub and ethnic meals, but none of the cafes that sell light meals were open. Pret a Manger, Costa, even Starbucks-- closed by 8:30 PM. Many grocery stores close at 10:00 weekdays and 11:00 on weekends, even during the holiday rush. Sundays it seemed that many places were closed all day long, and we did walk block and blocks to a fish and chip shop to find it closed. Literally I am telling you in small town Georgia this would be baffling! All our groceries, drug stores are 24 hours and the coffee shops are usually open until midnight. You'd think this would be no problem but of course when you are travelling you may find yourself eating meals later than you expected. Just recall this and try to make it a point to check out the hours or stop by early if there's a place you particularly want to try. All tube stops open no earlier than 5:30 and there are no 24 hour lines. This to me was shocking; I assumed there would be 24 hour service and so didn't even look into it before we left. Imagine running down to a tube stop at 4:50 to catch a 5:30 train and finding no-one but the newspaper man there to greet me! When I asked him where the nearest 24 hour station was, he looked at me like I was crazy. The early closings/late openings did not hamper our trip one bit, but it is good to know in advance. Typical American I suppose, expecting the whole world to be open for business at my discretion!

10. Getting around the UK is quite easy if you allow yourself the time to do so. I am telling you, getting to my inlaw's home for Christmas the day after our trip ended was more difficult than getting around England. They are great about signs and repeating directions in the UK. Getting through customs and from Heathrow to our hotel was a breeze. We also made record time back to the airport and security was downright pleasant. If you stand somewhere long enough, you'll either see a sign, hear an automated voice telling you which way to go, or some lovely Briton will ask you if you're lost and help you out. In America, no way. If you're lost there, you're done for. But remember in London to walk fast! Everyone seem to do this, and I believe that London seemed to me to be a faster-paced city than any I've been in before, including NYC where I lived for a short time. The pace is certainly slower on the outskirts of London. Hampstead, for example, has a far slower pace.




Well, this sums up my "advice" section and I'l start talking about our specific trips and will have pictures up shortly.

Future things to cover:

British Museum
Tower of London and Henry VIII armour exhibit
British Library
Keats House and Hampstead
Dealing with snow
Train travel to Bristol
Bus travel to Glastonbury from Bristol
Beautiful Glastonbury
Salisbury, the Cathedral, and Stonehenge
Tate Modern and the National Gallery
St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey
Restaurants: ethnic stops, Masala Zone, Rock and Sole Plaice, Pizza Express, pasty shops, various pubs, Wagamama-- the usual suspects.

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    er, should have clarified: I left the hotel at 4:50 to catch a 5:30 train to Bristol, not to catch a 5:30 tube train-- I just needed a 4:55 tube train to get to Paddington by 5:30 :)

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    Thanks for posting.

    I agree that it can be surprising to some visitors that the tube stops running around MN. However, there are night buses that serve all over london all night long.

    I must disagree with you about the lack of dining options at night near Covent Garden. Just chinatown alone, there are many restaurants that open until 2am or 4am. I usually attend an opera or a play when I'm in London, and I never have trouble finding a place to dine after the opera or play is over, which sometimes can easily be 10pm or 11pm or later.

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    Sounds like you had a great trip despite the once in a lifetime snow/ice accumulation. Can't wait to hear the specifics about the areas you covered.

    How long did it take to clear customs/immigration?

    Did you cover St Paul and Westminster in the same day? How close walking wise is it to travel from westminster to bloomsbury and covent garden?

    Did you cover every tower in the tower of london? Did you take the Warden tour? What time did you get to the tower? Did you walk across tower bridge? Sorry for so many questions but trying to gather as much info as I can for our upcoming trip next summer. I'll have to factor in more crowds of course.

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    I think it depends on your budget and tastes whether or not you'll have problems. Certainly there isn't a lack of places after 8:30 or so, you won't starve or even have to endure a bad meal, but if you have your heart set on a place, or are extremely limited by budget, its better to try to eat earlier, rather than later, when you'll have less options. In our particular case we had dined out at ethnic places and pubs nearly every night and wanted something light since it was our last night and we felt like utter gluttons! Or if you decide you need to go to the grocery store at 10:30 because of a splitting headache, but find the place closed where at home you would expect 24 hours access. If we hadn't wanted something specific, it certainly would have been no problem. Its important to be flexible. It seems to me when travelling that you're always dealing with the intersection of budget and convenience...!

    I didn't know that Chinatown was in Covent Garden? Is the Oxford St/Regent St./Piccadilly Circus area considered the same as Covent Garden? We passed through China Town on our way back to the Swissotel (at Temple Station) after walking to Piccadilly Circus. Although I spent a week there and almost exclusively walked, I still have little sense of where one places ends and another begins.

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    I seem to remember some discussion earlier - not sure if it was for cpilgtim - about the Howard and surrounding facilities. It is indeed on the edge of a more business-oriented area, but if you go further west along the Strand and up to Covent Garden, there are plenty of places to eat in the evening. But it is true that after business-type hours, the options are full-scale restaurants or Macdonalds-type fast food places. Cheaper cafes and sandwich bar chains are indeed aimed at the lunch market.

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    Well, work is a bit slow today so I'll start with some of the things we did.

    Our direct flight from Atlanta took a little over 8 hours and we flew out at 10 pm, getting us to LHR by around 1:00 if I recall. Customs was simple-- a short line and some generic questions. We did not have any checked bags so perhaps we dodged the worst of it. Since LHR is broken up into terminals and you do all your security there, the lines were nonexistent (this is not the case at our home airport where all security is handled through one line, then you split off for terminals after). We had a railpass that I knew had some extra days on it, so we used the extra day of time to take the express train to Paddington. Getting on the Express was dead easy. There are signs all over LHR for it; I am not kidding you it would be difficult to get seriously lost in England if you are even the least bit aware of your surroundings! If you disembark the plane at T-4 you get on a little connecting train to any of the other Terminals and grab the express there. We got our railpasses validated by the lady who sells the express tickets. When we got to Paddington we wanted to buy 7 day Oystercards, so we waited patiently in line to buy them, saw the big yellow button that is labeled "for Oystercards, press here" and then did exactly what they said--press it. Of course this was sheer idiocy...you press your Oystercard onto that button (a card reader) to top it off. We must have looked like yokels, which we are. Once we figured this out we decided to go to the ticket window so as not to look like wahoos any longer. One thing to remember about England/London is that maps of transport are generally not to scale and that they are generally presented left to right, meaning that a map of bus stops or tube stops are presented so that they can be easily read, but not in a way that correlate to the actual space or distance the line or route travels. This fouled my husband up a few times, as he is used to seeing, for example, bus maps that show the physical space in which the bus travels...hard to explain exactly what I mean, but you'll understand when you try it.

    We took the Circle line from the Tube to our hotel. Momentarily got on the green line, which was wrong, but the two follow each other for quite a while so it was no big deal to get off the train and catch the next Circle. FYI: different tube lines in London use the same track, and many lines have differing branches (aka, the Northern line can be via one or two different places) so read the digital signs on the platform that let you know what the next train coming is, and where it's heading. It is not like in NYC where the only train appearing on the tracks is the one you're looking for (or at least that is how I recall it being, although it has been nearly 6 yrs since I was there).

    Hotel was nice, with a good view of the Thames. We got there around 2:30 and ventured out for food. We were walking towards Wesminster, got our first view of Big Ben, and then decided just to walk north a bit to see what we could see. We managed first to hit The Strand and then to walk smack dab into Covent Garden. We were shocked at how small the city (well, the city center) actually was from how we imagined it would be. We wandered around looking for ATM/food and just basically getting a sense of the city. Ended up eating at Wagamama and walking to St. Paul's that night. Got to Wagamama and were the only ones there-- in our jetlagginess didn't realize that it was only 5:00, even though it was pitch black outside, so the dinner rush hadn't started. A big bowl of ramen and a beer is quite restorative after a long trip. We got back to the hotel as we were planning a big train trip the next day and wanted to get to bed early. But they started calling for snow so we decided to stay in London the next day. I must admit I was up on nearly an hourly basis looking for snow that first night. But luckily we had no snow at all and woke up to beautiful blue skies. Needless to say it was chilly outside! But at least no snow or rain.

    Our "real" Day 1 we did Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. I had planned for us to do the Abbey and the National Gallery together since they were so close by, but my husband was so excited about the BM, and I didn't want to be "miss-itinerary" so I consented. Westminster Abbey is overwhelming in both its beauty and historicity. Very much worth it. The audio tour is very worthwhile and the small museum is great. I took with me a pocket tripod and was able to capture some good pictures of the Cloisters. In the low lighting it is difficult to take good pictures there without a very steady hand (pics forthcoming).

    After the National Gallery we happened upon a place called The Banquetting Hall which my husband, a law student, had learned about in his legal history class. It was a beautiful place, with ceiling painted by Reubens, and it was the site of Charles I's beheading. The audio tour was a little tedious, but they did have a good video that summed up the history of the place.

    We stopped for lunch at Masala Zone on Floral St. Excellent lunch specials, drinks, and a perfect relaxing lunch atmosphere. We ended up eating there again later in the trip.

    Afterwards we went to the British Museum, where we spotted the beginnings of snow. The BM is an overwhelming place and I suggest you give it more time than we did. We were only able to see the Greek and Egyptian areas, some Assyrian, and a bit of the reading rooms, and we were there for 3-4 hrs. It is somewhat distracting that they allow people to snap photos there, although I was one of the ones doing it so I shouldn't complain. London museums seemed to me exceptionally busy in comparison to their American counterparts. I cannot recall the Met being as busy as any of the places we visited, and of course in smaller American cities the museums are certainly not as busy. The Parthenon friezes are amazing although my favorite part was the smaller exhibits of Greek jewelry, arts and crafts-- it is amazing what they were able to do without aid of modern machinery. If you're in a couple or with family, now's the time where you realize that seeing all this stuff together is impossible-- better to get to a museum and then set up a meeting point rather than try to drag to every item together. We got there late in the day so I would suggest getting there early to take advantage of daylight (since they have sunlight coming in) and to try and avoid crowds.


    For dinner we went to Rock and Sole Plaice, a chip shop which is apparently in Covent Garden although it is only steps from the BM, which is in Bloomsbury District. The place is crowded and so the service is not excellent, but the food is quite good. Ours was out quickly I think because it was already made when we ordered, but other people's looked more freshly fried. I fell in love with their amazing tartar sauce and if anyone knows how to make it or anything like it (American tartar sauce comes out of a bottle, is lumpy, and has too much horseradish), please let me know. This was light and spicy and full of fresh dill.

    We went to bed early this night because we wanted to get up early in the morning to catch the first Stonehenge tour. We walked from our hotel to Waterloo station and got a gorgeous view of London as it woke from its sleep. I will say on our train ride to Salisbury was great. Between London and Salisbury there was quite a bit of snow but it dried out before we got there. Still it made for some good pictures and it kept the crowds down at Stonehenge, which I will recount in my next post, as it merits its own.

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    europeannnovice questions:

    1. Customs/immigration at LHR was easy; the line was perhaps 20 minutes and then the customs part was done in a flash. They don't make you go through security again as they do in America. Coming home, security through LHR was easy-- really no line at all because of how well organized that airport is. Atlanta customs was more tedious; the lines are longer, but the questioning is not troubling, nor do they search your bag by hand, but they do make you go through security again upon entering the country, so make sure you have on the proper shoes so you can take them off in a hurry, and that you haven't packed your laptop deep in your suitcase, as you'll have to get it out again. If you have bags checked, you'll have to grab them during customs, have them searched/scanned, then recheck them and get them at the regular baggage claim before you leave. Just anothe reason not to check bags unless you absolutely must.

    2. We did not do St. Paul's and W. Abbey in the same day, we actually did one on our first day and another on the last day. I would suggest doing St. Paul's on a good clear day since they have the panoramic view. I wouldn't do both on the same day because a) they're on opposite sides of the city (not a bad walk, but still--better to be efficient unless you cannot for whatever reason) and b) they are similar in theme and to do both would be overwhelming.

    3. It seems like a breeze to get from Westminster, into Bloomsbury and then into Covent Garden. On our first day we walked from the Embankment to Westminster, had lunch in Covent Garden, and then went to a museum in Bloomsbury-- it never fazed us. They were like 15-20 minute walks between each place, but during that time of course we got a better sense of the city, selected restaurants to try out later, and stopped for pictures and to consult the map. It is not like in NYC where neighborhoods are sprawling and there are 50 blocks separating midtown from the upper west side or whatever; it is much more doable by foot.



    4. We got to the tower at around 9:30 and covered every open tower at the TOL and my husband was trying to find access to the ones that were NOT open, haha! We did take the Yeoman Warder tour, but that only covers the basics of the place. It is very worthwhile--entertaining and useful and very much worth it, even if to hear the story of the Yeoman Warder himself, who must have years of military service in order to quality for the position. Also there are place you go on the tour that I believe are easier accessed while on the tour (I mean the chapel when I say this-- I am not sure if you can go in there unless you're on a tour; even if you can, you'd have to do it in between tours, which are quite frequent). We did not buy an audio tour since that was on our last day and we were by then quite sick of audio tours. But the interactive exhibits give you enough context to understand what you're seeing.

    5. We did walk over Tower Bridge, we actually did so at night after touring the Tate Modern. We walked down the Thames on the south side and then walked across. We didn't do a tour or anything. The bridge is beautiful at night (take your pocket tripod for pics!!), but I think Waterloo bridge gives a better view of the city IMHO. Try going early in the morning. We didn't go over any other bridges, so perhaps someone else could give their two cents about which one has the best London view.

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    Well, all apologies for posting so often but I did just find a good explanation of the differences between UK and US Tartar sauce that sums up my distaste for the US version and newfound obsession for UK version:

    http://www.helpwithcooking.com/sauces/tartar-sauce.html


    And apparently the freshness was from parsley and chives, not dill. Stupid tastebuds.

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    Regarding The Howard, I did post about the Howard and its immediate vicinities before my trip and was pleasantly surprised at how well situated it was (as I must say many here had assured me it would be). It is in a more business area if you only consider the block immediately surrounding it, but it is close to Fleet St/The Strand which is very busy at all hours with much commerce. If you went left of the hotel you were smack dab in the middle of Covent Garden and the theatre district, right of the hotel took you to blocks of St. Paul's. We actually were looking for food on Fleet St. the first night and ran smack dab into St. Paul's--I had no idea that it would be that short a walk from our hotel! North of the hotel the area is a bit deader-- Kingsway and High Holborn we walked through a couple of times since there was a kebap shop there that we liked a lot, but that was almost the only dinner time option in that area, Burger King excepting. The Tesco/Tesco Expresses/Sainsburys we passed in that area all seemed to close around 9-11, depending. I also wonder if some places were closed because of limited hours before the holidays. We were actually there up to the 23rd.

    I did think that Chinatown was much closer to Soho than to what I thought of as Covent Garden. It is funny you should mention that because I noticed one night when walking through Soho (the night we passed by Chinatown), that many of the partiers in that area are out quite early; this was one thing that tipped me off as to how London is less of a "City that Never Sleeps" than say, NYC. Since it seems that pubs have last call before midnight, many of the partiers were drunk and on their way home by 11:45. I was, sadly, stone sober at the time, but it was fun to see all the revelryers in their paper crowns out and about.

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    Thanks for your replies. I have been to the Met when it has been mobbed with people and it is hard to get near the Greek/Roman anitiquities section with those crowds around.

    How long did it take to cross both Tower Bridge and Waterloo bridge? In my previous post I was told it should be a five minute walk across the tower bridge.

    We are staying in Holborn so I am interested to hear if there is anything else to eat around there besides the kebob place. Was Kingsway and High Holborn really quiet? What time was that? I was told though that it is an easy walk from Holborn to the strand and covent garden.

    You mentioned after the National Gallery you went to Banqueting house. Did you go into the National Gallery or only pass by from the outside?

    At St Paul, did you climb to the whispering gallery or to the dome above that. It is suppose to have a superb view if you can climb all those steps up.

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    oops, forgot to ask these: How long did it take to walk from St Paul to the tower bridge? I think you said you walked along the South Bank? Is there a pedestrian walkway along the Thames? Is that a better walk than walking along the north side of the Thames in the City area? Thanks again for the info.

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    Tower Bridge and Waterloo Bridge are both quick crosses-- 5 minutes is definitely enough to cross them, although depending on where you are it may actually take longer to get to them than to actually cross them, if that makes sense. So I would plan on crossing them when I was on that side of town. There's also the millenium bridge I forgot to mention as well! But that's right to the side of St. Paul's, so you can cross it when you visit there.

    We did stay to the south of Holborn, right on the bank of the Thames, and it is easy to get to anywhere from around there, a 10 minute walk tops to very popular places should you find the area lacking in options. Can you tell me the name of the hotel or address? If so I can look it up on google and see if I can recall what's around there. There are many many options during the day around Kingsway/High Holborn but many close starting around 5 and then later into the evening options get less and less. We walked from our hotel via Kingsway to New Oxford and Oxford St. one night to see Piccadilly Circus and there are plenty of places to eat that way on into the night. Didn't get to explore the Soho area much but I am sure there's lots of food options that way that are late nighters. Piccadilly Circus is a mob and unless you're into that sort of thing I don't suggest making it a must-do.

    We did go to the National Gallery, but on our last day. I'll try to give some tips and such for that one when I describe the later portions of the trip.

    We did climb to the top of the dome at St. Paul's and boy that was an experience! After a few days of rambling in the countryside during our daytrips (which I will describe in more detail later) we were yearning for something physical and less cerebral on our last day in London. St. Paul's was just that. It was like a highwire act getting up those steps...it is steep and they are wrought iron at the top. I am not afraid of much but I was shivering like a big baby once we got to those wrought iron steps! It was more than worth it, though, a real highlight of the trip. The view is astounding. You have to go to the golden gallery, though. It is the best. The first outdoor gallery ("the stone gallery") is ok, but the time it takes to get to the tippy top is worth it.

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    hi pilgrim,

    glad you had such a good trip - I'm enjoying reading about it very much.

    one thing, do I understand that you were staying near Temple Tube station and that your husband is a lawyer? reading your list of things done you don't mention the Temple - don't tell me you missed it!

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    It sounds exciting to climb to the top of St Paul. How long did it take you to get up to the top? Was it very narrow and crowded with people going in both directions up/down the spiral stairs? I don't look forward to that too much.

    We are staying at the Renaissance using some marriott points. I read that Great Queen Street has some places to eat but not sure if anyone has any good suggestions. As you said I have no interest in Piccadilly Circus. Did you pass by the Inns of Court at Lincoln Inn Fields?

    Please tell us how long you stayed at the National Gallery and what you saw there. Looking forward to the rest of your trip report.

    Also how long is the walk from Tate Modern ( my correction of earlier when I said St Paul) to the tower bridge? Was it a pedestrian walkway along the Southbank? Is that easier than navigating the city streets on the north side?

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    I read that Great Queen Street has some places to eat but not sure if anyone has any good suggestions.>>

    There is a gastro pub called Great Queen St opposite the masonic temple.

    It's very good.

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    Hi all,
    Got day 2 all queued up but here's some answers to questions first:


    annhig,

    No we actually didn't make it to Temple Church-- can you tell me its significance, particularly to law? My husband is a poet's soul (ha ha) with a lawyer's education if you know what I mean-- he doesn't take it too seriously....he's actually still in school and has a year to go. But I hate if we missed a real gem! We did walk around the Court of Justice building when a big court case agains the British Airways Union was breaking up.

    eunovice:

    I think our entire tour of St. Paul's was probably 2 hrs. long, but we did not do the audio tour and just kinda got a sense of the place before scaling the heights. The steps were very narrow but not too crowded (not sure how they do this during the summer-- maybe only groups of people go at once?). There's an opposite way of getting down that is just as narrow, but at least you have it all to yourself.

    I looked at the Renaissance and it seems like you'll have a plenty of places to choose from for eating but in all honesty you'll probably end up going out for dinner while you're out in other parts of town, which is what we did for the most part.


    I think we must have gotten at the National Gallery at 2:30 and stayed until nearly close, between 3-4 hours I think. It really needs more time than that if you want to see everything, but you'd have to break it up with lunch or a coffee break or something because it is so overwhelming that you'll need a break somewhere in there. One good thing about the National Gallery that we failed to take advatage of is its late hours on Friday nights, open until 9.

    From Tate Modern to the Tower Bridge...there is a pedestrian walkway along the Thames on the south side, although it is often diverted onto another block when restaurants and other shops take up the river edge real estate. But there are signs pointing you towards the river after the blocked-off portion is past you. It is a fun walk, though. I am not sure what the streets are like on the north side because we actually never walked them that far east, only walking along the Thames from our hotel to Victoria Tower, etc. If its anything like the Victoria Embankment, though, then they sould be fairly similar, it just follows the river. I actually "walked" from our hotel to Big Ben (yah, I know its the bell but its just easier to type!) on google street view before we left! That was useful!

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    Day Two was a real delight. As I had said, we woke up early and walked to Waterloo station to catch a train to Salisbury. The city was beautiful at dawn-- one of the advantages of getting an early start on a winter's day is getting to see the sun rise. My husband, having never been out of the USA, loved the train ride and seeing the countryside, etc. It was fun to watch the hillside rolling past us, although it worried me the amount of snow on the ground, since we hadn't called ahead to make sure that access to Stonehenge was open.

    Luckily by the time we got to Salisbury, the snow there had burned off, or possibly had never existed that far southwest. We took the stonehenge bus tour available at the station rather than taking public transportation to the site from the train station. I will recommend the tour-- even though it is expensive, it does include your admission to the site and to Old Sarum (which we did not visit) and the tour bus runs all day. Plus the tour is informative, even though it is a recording. Get on the bus first, go up the steps, and get in the front seats and you have a 180 degree view of the countryside, which is very beautiful.

    Stonhenge. Totally worth it. Breathtakingly beautiful. I didn't think I'd like it because I'm not much for that sort of mysterious stuff they talk about, but it was amazing to see. The audio tour was informative but somewhat distracting. I say spend some time seeing the place before you take the audio tour, as it is the beauty and majesty of the place, and not the crackpot theories about its origins, that will make your trip. Although our tour bus came back an hour after it departed we decided to wait for the later one. Get there early in the morning for a photographer's dream. The colors and sun are just gorgeous. I am not sure how busy this is in the summer, but judging from some of my friend's pictures it must be, because she didn't get any really panoramic shots of the stones. With only a few people there, we were able to get good shots and to really get a good look at it. Only thing better would have been to get the limited access to the stones, but going there on an un-busy day was second best.

    Salisbury. What can I say? I'd like to live there in an alternate life. The town is just great. Our tour stopped in the middle of town so we got off there, ate at a pub called the Coach and Horses (chicken and ham pie with chips, peas, and cider). That brown sauce stuff is great. Afterwards we walked through the city market (on Saturdays and Tuesdays I believe) to the cathedral. The cathedral is just gorgeous. After seeing the comparatively homely Westminster Abbey, I was floored. Salisbury Cathedral is very graceful. It is also very much a living church and when we went in they were practicing for the Christmas play. Tours are self-guided. There is a 5 pound suggested donation for entrance. Saw the old medieval clock and the Magna Carta-- wow, someone had excellent handwriting! You can take pictures inside, except for the Chapter House/Magna Carta display. Bring a tripod for sure if you want good shots. The cathedral close is lovely as well. Salisbury has some good shopping if you're interested, although we didn't have much time. Many nice boutique type places, all the department stores, plus a national trust gift shop right outside the cathedral close, and of course my favorite, a "Poundland"--apparently our forefather's equivalent to our native Dollar Tree. We walked back to the train station a different way from how we had come, this time through neighborhoods and over the River Avon. Just beautiful. Since trains come through there hourly on their way to Waterloo it was no trouble getting back to London.

    Ate at McDonald's that night for dinner in the middle of Piccadilly Circus-- am I the only one who has a morbid interest in the menus of non-American McDonald's? What's with the "Festive" menu, the tomato salsa, and the cheese melt wedgies? How is it that we created McD's but somehow don't get their most creative items on our menus? All we have are hamburgers and the odd "diet friendly" depressing salad option. How is is that no matter how they try to dress up a burger and fried pie it manages to taste the same as all the other burgers and fried pies? I had a Chicken Legend and a mincemeat pie. Piccadilly circus is a mess and I don't suggest going out of your way to see it. If you have people to shop for there are tons of terrible tourist shops there, but it is easier just to grab souvenirs at the gift shops of the places you visit than to seek out the tourist trap shops on Oxford and Regent St. If you're loaded, its probably best to get your souvenirs at the airport since they have all the same stuff for about 1/2 more price (don't even think about getting duty-free liquor unless you come from a place with better currency than the pound). Anyway, regarding Oxford/Regent St.-- it was worth it to see the Christmas lights which seem distinctly London. We did run into a Christmas fair that was going on and I got some good pictures of the lights and rides whirling around.

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    No we actually didn't make it to Temple Church-- can you tell me its significance, particularly to law?>>>

    Ann will know more about the leagal beagling that goes on there.

    The church is part of Inner Temple - which is situated where the Knights Templar were based (hence the name) and it's their church (which is why it's round not cruciform).

    It's probably now best known as being one of the major sites in the Da Vinci Code - and gets a lot of tourists on the back of that.

    It's the most Masonic place I've ever been.


    Piccies here:

    http://tinyurl.com/yddru4z

    Wiki:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Church

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    Thanks for all your responses. Can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip. Good to know that at St Paul you come down the steps in a different location so you are not bumping into those going up and vice/versa. Still afraid of the steep steps though so will have to judge when we get there. It sounds like it gets really steep to get to the very top though.

    CW-Thanks for another great pub suggestion. We will have to try it!

    I am sure we will also end up at a McDonalds at some point in the trip. Son will insist. Interesting to see how the menu differs from our "wonderful" selection. Curious too now if they do the happy meal equivalent for kids with the crappy prize inside. Anyway that is another topic.

    As far as souvenirs, I read that children can make a brass rubbing souvenir at St Martin in the Field which seems be very near the National Gallery.

    I think you went to the British Library also. Did you see the Magna Carta at the library as well?

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    Euronovice, you can look up walking distances/times on a mapping site. I like www.multimap.com for England; click on the walking option. I also look up walking times on my Tom tom GPS, using its preplanning option.

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    Hi all, pics here:

    http://www.facebook.com/album.phpaid=2645610&id=4900795&l=f72548ce34

    I had wanted to get some better ones, but the fact is that when you're travelling with other people, it can be annoying to others to be taking pictures all along the way. Funny how you're too busy looking at things to really take pictures of them. Plus you can't really fiddle as much with the camera and get the proper setting every time. The mini tripod was a good investment; I brought a larger one but never took it out once. I took nearly 1300 but these are a representative sample of the best.

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    It's delightful to hear a visitor enthusing about British food, brown sauce, for instance.

    Some US McDonalds do have regional variations, I remember pickled jalapenos with the Big Macs in Truth or Consequences NM.

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    Hi cpilgrim, like many others I'm very interested in your report. One question - you said re getting to Stonehenge:

    "We took the stonehenge bus tour available at the station rather than taking public transportation to the site from the train station."

    Guess I thought the Stonehenge bus tour or taxi were the only options-- was there other public transport available?

    Thanks very much~~

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    CW-Thanks for another great pub suggestion. We will have to try it!>>.

    A couple of others - The Ship behind Holborn Tube in Lincoln's Inn (another Inn of court like Temple). The thai restaurant next door's not bad either.

    The Princess Louise (just ask a local - and make sure you see the gents (really)

    The Cross Keys in Endell St (same street as the Rock and Sole Plaice).

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    hi again, cpilgrim,

    it wasn't really the Temple Church I was talking about [though it is very lovely, particularly when there's a service going on, as the choir is a traditional one with young boys and men, alla the English cathedral choir tradition] but the whole area of the Temple, which is where many barristers have their chambers, and which is still lit by gas-light. Inner Temple garden is particularly lovely but there are beautiful squares and a general feeling of peace and quiet so different from the hurley-burley of Fleet street.

    glad you got to see the Royal Courts though - I was amused to see the Great Hall used as a set in a Terry Pratchet film over Christmas - they didn't even have to change the paintings!

    as well as CW's gents, another great bit of local architecture is to be found in the foyer to the Law Courts branch of Lloyds - right opposite the Royal Courts on Fleet street.

    loving the report - my family gave me a dirty look when I laughed out loud at your liking brown sauce.

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    Day 3:


    Day 3 was a slow day. Neither of our two stops was open before 11, so we got a late start. There was no threat of snow this day, but we stayed in London since it was a Sunday and wanted to have better access to restaurants, and etc., than we may have had outside London on a Sunday. First we had lunch at a restaurant across from the British Library called O'Neills, a chain "Irish Pub." There isn't much in the way of food immediately apparent (meaning, right across the street--again travelling is really the intersection of convenience, quality, and budget) near British Library open on Sunday, so we ended up there. They had some good food deals, some 3.99 specials that looked pretty tasty. We had the Sunday roast beaf shared plate special, with fried potatoes and steamed veggies. It was good, obviously not the freshest, mother-made roast, but it hit the spot for sure. Wish America had more chains selling good homey style food that is not fried. Since we were right across from St. Pancras during the Eurostar meltdown, we saw many French people looking pretty distraught as they sipped their pints. The best thing about O'Neills was that they had a thing of red pepper jelly at every table-- I love that stuff.


    So here's where I get a bit critical/quizzical: Is it just me, or is it difficult for a tourist to find a proper "pub" in England? I think it stems from access (we're most often in the most touristy parts of any town- I know I spotted from the train some very nice looking pubs in less-visited destinations) and also American's false idea of what a pub will be like. We imagine a pub as being a jolly place filled with authentic chimney sweeps, Eliza Doolittle's dad, and some vikings to boot and everyone will be drinking some grog so thick you have to strain it with a sieve. But pubs we saw in the areas we visited in London seem largely to be the same, with the same lackluster beers on tap. I was surprised to find most people drinking Amstel, Corona, even Bud Diesel (wow, Americans are basically scared of Diesel, so I admire the British for going there). And although some at pubs we attended many people did drink Guiness, far fewer drank the British beers we Americans adore and assume all Britons treat like mother's milk-- Sam Smith, etc. It is just our fate in a globalized, postmodern world where nothing is "authentic" anymore? Or is it that American's idea of authenticity skews Mary Poppins and not what real people do? I think it is the case like in America, where all "American Themed" restaurants are a sham, not just to tourists but also to Americans as well. No Americans think that Johnny Rockets, Chili's, or Roadhouse Grill serves is actually proper "American food," but still people persist in building these things and we Americans dutifully go get drunk there and eat terrible "American" food. It would be like a Briton trying to find "real American buffalo wings"-- he would pass about 300 crap places before he found one place that fit his idea of "American dive bar" or "diner." And these crap faux-Americana places are built for Americans, not for tourists!! Seems to be the same in London where many pubs had a manufactured feel even though they were filled up with locals (well, by locals I mean people with a UK accent-- no clue if they're from London or not). We did twice pop into London's Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, but both times could find nowhere to sit or nearly to stand, London at Christmas being particularly jolly and everyone is out to drink. It did seem as authentic, unassuming as any place we went to, but it also seemed super locals-y and it did make us somewhat intimidated, pathetic as we are. Some mix of the two extremes was perfect for us. On our last night we did find a pub we loved, but I'll talk about that when we get to it.


    **end critique**

    British Museum is amazing. Won't even go into it because it would spoil it all for you. Beyond overwhelming, you will be pinching yourself over Shakepeare and Milton's own handwriting, Mozart and Beethoven as well, and John Lennon's compositions on the back of a birthday card. My favorite part, as a literary-minded gal, was the section including the Beowulf manuscript, the original proofs of Tess, Jane Eyre, and! Persuasion. Amazing to see Hardy's scribbles and rewrites, the tiny slips of paper upon which Austen composed her novel, and that Bronte had to number her own pages. Humbling to say the least!

    Then we rushed to take the Northern line to Hampstead to see Keats House. Hampstead is a lovely area and it really felt homey. Seemed a little more expensive than the other parts of London we visited, but it was beautiful, with gorgeous families and babies. Reminded me of the fancy sections of Brooklyn. It was nice to get out to another side of London; I wish we could have stayed longer in that area as there appeared to be many good restaurants and neighborhood pubs there. There was a lot more snow on the ground here, so walking down to the house was somewhat treacherous! Keats house is an absolute pleasure-- it is just open to wander around and take pictures at your own pace. Such a sweet place, they have Fanny Brawne's engagement ring, and the most amazing part was to look out windows that Keats writes about in his letters, sharing the same view as his own. After seeing so many manuscripts behind glass it was a neat experience to be able to really step into the shoes of the authors. The house is a gem.

    That night we went to dinner at a Kebap place on Kingsway. It was amazing (not exactly visually appealing, but again that's part of the appeal), and we would return again for dinner a few nights later. The portions were giant and the price was right-- only about 5 pounds per person for a giant kebap and some fries on the side. There were literally pools of fat on the bottom of the plate when we were done-- eating a kebap this messy, fatty, and amazing is not work for the timid.


    So, about this brown sauce-- a more piquant version of America's A1?

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    I think that you do have to get out of the touristy parts to find pubs that are filled with "locals"--whether the locals are upscale business sorts or Vikings! Last year we stayed at a BandB in Belgravia that, while just a few steps off of Knightsbridge and all its busy glitz, was on a quiet mews off Kinnerton and felt like it was in a different city (village?) Just steps from our rooms were 2 small pubs filled each evening with locals; I know we were the only Americans! The Nags Head and the Wilton Arms both "felt" very pub-y, whatever I mean by that. A couple other times, like in Dover or Oxford, when we ate in pubs near tourist spots, they were definitely more like a chain, non-descript but still satisfactory small restaurant. So to find a real pub, I think you have to venture further into neighborhoods.
    (And I became a real fan of pub food last year because of its value and variety, so while I don't imbibe of the spirits, I still enjoy a pub!)

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    We found a great pub, my first trip to Europe. We were on a tour and the first stop was London, but we stayed in Hammersmith. NOT the most scenic but the Picadilly line took us into the city center with no problems....but, back to the pub. It was called The Queenshead, and was full of locals, and the food was really delicuous.

    We ordered fish and chips, of course, the day we landed and it was an entire fish and took up the whole plate on top of a huge pile of chips!!!! So much for just having a snack..LOL

    On our next trip to London, my brother and I were thinking about buzzing out to Hammersmith just to hit that pub again, but it was a fair walk from the tube, and that was before my SIL got her knee replacments, so we passed, sadly.

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    So, about this brown sauce-- a more piquant version of America's A1?>>

    not knowing what A1 is, I can't comment.

    the ingredients of "HP sauce" or whatever version you had, are a well-kept secret or at least the recipe is:

    http://www.brownsauce.org/faq/

    as for pubs, most locals will have their own "local" which amy or may not conform to your idea of what a pub shold be like. the rest of us have to resort to guides like that compiled by CAMRA [campaign for real ale] to find somewhere that has decnt beer and [hopefully] food.

    given your lack of local knowledge, it sounds like you did pretty well "nosing out" some half-way decent places - that kebab-shop for example.

    looking forward to more.

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    Work is so infernally slow I am making another trip report update. Day 4 was a big day for us-- we went to Glastonbury via Bristol. Got up at 4:40 planning to grab the tube to Piccadilly and then take a 5:30 train to Bristol. Found out the hard way that the tube doesn't open before 5:30 and so we twiddled our thumbs for a few minutes in the room and then headed Piccadilly way. The train to Bristol had the shiny windows, plus it was dark, so we didn't see as much as we might have liked. Ate something called a bacon bap on the way...the cheapest thing in the buffet cart (by this time we were tired of granola bars). UK has far better convenience store bacon than the USA. Saw Bath on the way in and made a mental note to exchange a trip there for our cancelled trip to Canterbury, snow in Kent making that trip impossible for us.

    Got off the train and found a ton of snow in Bristol, and much ice. Asked a bus driver for directions to our bus stop and waited for a while. Love the digital bus stop readers; if we had that sort of thing in the US people might give public transport a try. It's great to know just when your bus is coming.

    The bus ride to Glastonbury was a highlight of our trip although my pictures barely show just how lovely it was, all hedgerows and enclosures just like I've imagined it. You must know this is all very exotic to bookish nerds like us. The snow wasn't coming down but it was on the ground and in the trees and the skies were blue blue. We passed through Wells and got a glimpse of the cathedral-- would have loved to go there had we time, perhaps some other time we will!

    Got to Glastonbury and I love that the bus takes you right to the entrance to the Abbey, which is in the heart of town. The Abbey is just wonderful. A definite highlight of the trip. The thorn was in bloom. Queen Elizabeth's cross there is beautiful (I have pics on another camera, will need to load those up). Arthur's "tomb" is lovely, and the grounds are just awe-inspiring, I can only let the pictures do the talking on this one and the pictures don't do it justice. Very hard to describe how very beautiful this place is, a very hallowed feel. The exhibits are simple but informative. Nice gift shop as well I must say, and locals were in there doing their Christmas shopping, which was fun.

    Next stop, lunch. Walked right by a pasty shop and ate there. Parsnip chips on the side...Pasty was good, exactly what I was imagining in the way of "pasty." As an American, this is real wish fulfillment, even if the pasty shop was obviously a chain....well, they don't have pasty shop chains in the USA so regardless this was a treat for me :) If they did have them here I would be 500 lbs!

    Feeling refreshed and belly-full, we took the long way to the Tor. It was cold and there was snow on the ground, albeit just a very little, but enough to make our trip up the hill a slightly scary one. Tramped-on-snow = ice if you give it long enough. Cold mud is slippery as well. Saw more than one little kid bite it on the way, but of course they probably intended to fall so very spectacularly. The view from the top is amazing, you can see the Severn from the top, as well as much farmland, pastureland, and hills. Made friends with some locals there to celebrate the Solstice. Again, pictures do better justice, but best for you just to go there yourself and check it out.

    On the way back to the bus we ran into the Chalice Well, and decided to drop in even though we're stodgy Protestants and don't really believe in all this mythical mumbo humbo. Still, these mythical spots are compelling. We just happened upon a Solstice celebration while we were there and without getting too political and/or religious here on the board I will say we felt more than a little awkward among the Druids and other religious type that were celebrating with chanting and the burning of a sacred Solstice bush. Wasn't sure if taking pictures was appropro with so many praying around us but I managed a few. For some reason I didn't think that a Christian relic myth would attract so many New Age worshippers. Like I said we are pretty much your typical born-in-the-blood protestant type (hey my last name is Pilgrim after all) and so we couldn't help but stifle a few awkward laughs at the poor druids' expense. I apologize. Americans laugh when intimidated, it's fact.

    After that we caught the bus back to Bristol and from there the train to London. It was on the train that we began noticing a serious amount of snow swirl and heard horror stories as people got on the train in various places. By the time we got to Reading, we were hearing stories of being in snow traffic for hours, sleeping in cars, abandoning cars, walking for hours in snow...people were in a panic, rightly so it seemed. Needless to say I was worried what London would be like if it was this snowy this far to the west. We got back to Paddington and noticed no real problems, although I believe the airports were having trouble and the outskirts of London as well. As luck would have it, we had another dry night and no snow problems. We ate at Pizza Express, much appreciated after a very cold day to have a beer and a giant pizza. I can suggest the Diavlo to anyone who is interested. I thought the inclusion of a cajun pizza on the menu was interesting-- is there much cajun food in the UK? I had not seen any signs of it until that night. Do UKers eat much cajun or creole food? New Orleans is my most beloved favorite city.

    We decided to stay on in London the next day because of the snow.

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    People regularly write books about the politics and economics of why pubs are never what they used to be, since before Dickens. A good-ish rule of thumb is to look up side streets and away from main shopping centres (particularly around tube stations and traffic interchanges): my guess is that the system-managed chains look for high footfall from passing trade. This is not to say that backstreet pubs can't be dives with dubious reputations, or places for grumpy old men to be enjoy being miserable in. Which is where websites like www.fancyapint.com and www.beerintheevening.com come in.

    Tastes: the drinks market seems to be geared to single young people, who go out more and spend more. They favour whatever can be passed off as new and trendy (and usually has not very complex flavours). So out with traditional bitter and other beers that need careful keeping, and in with easy-to-store chemical stuff. Much the same may be going on with food-passed-off-as-American. It's the reverse of American expectations of our pub culture.

    Incidentally, your excitement about manuscripts etc - I think you meant to say the British Library, rather than Museum.

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    "Tastes: the drinks market seems to be geared to single young people, who go out more and spend more. They favour whatever can be passed off as new and trendy (and usually has not very complex flavours). So out with traditional bitter and other beers that need careful keeping, and in with easy-to-store chemical stuff."

    Amen to that, I think it's a source of national shame that we have hundreds of years of brewing tradition and the best selling "beers" are continental, Australian or American style lagers. If there was ever a doubt that saturation TV advertising works, the sales of lager certainly dispel that anyway.

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    Thanks for mentioning www.fancyapint.com, PatrickLondon. I was just going to post a link for europeannovice.

    >>Ate at McDonald's that night for dinner in the middle of Piccadilly Circus-- am I the only one who has a morbid interest in the menus of non-American McDonald's?<<

    Mr. Pickle does. We were going to eat at a McDonald's on Queensway in Bayswater, but ran into another American who said he had gotten food poisoning there, so we decided to give it a miss.

    And, as tarquin said, you can get a green chile cheeseburger at our New Mexico McDonald's - and it's proper green chile, not pickled jalapenos. :-)

    Great trip report so far!

    Lee Ann

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    Sorry for the delay in trip reporting....new year festivities with the fam prevented me from doing any more. Thought I'd ring in the new year by wallowing in the old. Plus my memory of the trip is getting weaker with every passing day so I need to get all this out before I've completely forgotten it!

    Day 5 was an odd day. Started out stressful but ended up being very loosy-goosy indeed. We were planning a trip on day 6 so we needed to get all the London stuff done today: the Tower of London, St. Paul's, and the National Gallery. Stupid, yes. Just wait and see how well our big plans turned out!

    Had more and more trouble getting up early as the week wore on, so we got out the door a little late on this day-- not good for our big plans. Still we managed to get to the TOL in time for the second yeoman warder tour of the day. I was a bit crabby due to our late start, but there's nothing like the Tower of London to give you some perspective on suffering-- quite a bit of it happened there! The tour was great-- informative, entertaining, and FREE. It certainly doesn't cover all or even most of what is available to view there. My idiotic guidebook said the TOL would take 2 hours. I cannot believe how undershot that is. 2 hours isn't even enough to take the tour and see the jewels, and it is certainly not enough to see all the towers and to see whatever exhibition they have in the white tower. It took us from 10 AM to 2:00 to see everything that was available. I don't suggest getting the audio guide as admission to the site is quite expensive already, plus the exhibits are very interactive and informative anyway so the audio tour would serve only as a distraction. I'm all about information limitation-- too much information can really be distracting; you end up feeling like a zombie, reading placard after placard. The White Tower was hosting an exhibit of King Henry VIII's armor that was amazing-- really a highlight of the trip for me and I am so glad we were lucky enough to see it while it was there. The armor literally looked like it came out of a cartoon-- exactly as I imagined it as a child, but more menacing in person. There was no line for the crown jewels so we opted to view them and they are beautiful, although the most interesting part to me was the bathtub-sized punch bowl, solid gold of course. The most fun part was walking across the walls of the TOL to the individual towers-- fun to pretend as if we are medieval soldiers, plus the views are awesome.

    Walked to St. Paul's afterwards, looking for food along the way. It was cold so we were in the mood for something substantial, hearty, and savory, so no takeaway would do us. The walk from the TOL to St.Paul's seems long when you're hungry but it was a fun walk-- nice to see a different part of London. Maybe a bus would have been a better choice if time was of the essence, but by this time we had scrapped our plans to do Saint Paul's and the National Gallery in the same afternoon so we were not in a hurry. We ended up at a nice Thai restaurant, Thai 33, that certainly fulfilled our requirements.

    By the time we got to St. Paul's it was only 45 minutes before closing, so we opted not to go. We had kinda decided against a daytrip on our last day since so many areas were affected by snow, plus we were tired and hadn't really got to just stroll about in London--since we had gotten there we had always been on the move towards some destination. So we walked over the Millenium bridge and then found ourselves right at the Tate Modern. We hadn't planned on going there, so we felt no pressure to see everything, so the whole thing was a pleasant surprise. The place was crowded as heck and I don't think the pictures are displayed for maximum viewing potential (some are up so high that they are hard to view), but I guess when you have so much to show you have to make sacrifices. We then walked from the museum down to the Tower Bridge, took some pics, and walked across. At this point we were dead tired so we took the tube from the Tower back to Holborn and partook of the same kebap glory I've spoken so fondly of before. Afterwards we went to Sainsbury's so I could buy my fill of British junk food-- digestive biscuits and double decker bars, etc. I love to go into grocery stores; it really gives one a sense of how the locals live. Seeing as how I just recently spent 200 dollars on 3 weeks (hopefully more) worth of food at Walmart (it was a trunkful), it is interesting to see people bop in and out of Tesco and other places with their dainty amount of goods.

    Since we had decided not to day trip the next day we could stand to go to bed a little later so naturally we decided to get drunk. We tried to stop by Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, but found it crowded past our toleration, so we ended up down the street a bit at a place called The George, which is also on Fleet St., across from the Royal Halls of Justice. After squeezing into and out of Ye Cheshire, The George, with its cheery Christmas lights and ample table space, seemed welcoming to us. The tap selection was a little lacking, although my husband did have a OTT (apparently a local brew) that he enjoyed very much, twice actually, and I stuck to mulled wine and hard cider, since I was feeling very Christmassy indeed. Online reviews of The George that I have read since returning say that the bar is dreary, but we enjoyed it-- it was the perfect place to wind down after a busy day, and we certainly felt comfortable there as tourists. Then again we are stodgy married folks-- this place wouldn't be good if you were looking to make friends or hook up!


    One thing I would suggest to people visiting London is to do research on restaurants and pubs before going. I resisted doing this, although I do it for nearly every trip I ever make, because I didn't know the scale of London and thought it might be stressful and taxing to traipse around the city looking for specific restaurants. But the part of the city that is most accessed by tourists is, as I've mentioned, quite small and navigable, so I think in hindsight I would have selected more places in advance. Still, we didn't have a single bad meal on our trip, so a lack of planning did not affect us too much.

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    The Sainsbury's store you mentioned is part of their chain of convenience stores, which they have opened in the past few years, mainly in urban areas. There are similar shops run by Tesco, Somerfield, Waitrose and the Co-op. Most of the Sainsbury's and Tecso stores are much larger, but they are situated in suburbs and out of town. They are not usually as large as U.S. or French supermarkets, but have the same range of food and non-food items.

    English (and Welsh, but not Scottish) law restricts the opening hours of large stores on a Sunday, but these convenience stores can open whenever they like. Their prices are usually a little higher than you would pay in the larger stores with the same brand name, and they tend to concentrate on the higher quality ranges and smaller pack sizes. It is easy for tourists to get a misleading idea of the way that your average British family does its shopping, which is generally in the large supermarkets. Most of the companies also offer home delivery and internet ordering. Besides the names I have already mentioned, you will find others with names like Morrisons and ASDA. ASDA is actually owned by Walmart, and has some of the same characteristics. Although successful, they are not all-conquering, and have been slower to innovate than the others.

    Those who choose to drive around Britain may notice the stores that have opened at Motorway service areas. These were once best known for their poor and expensive self-service restaurants. The food and drink on offer now is much better quality, but there are also shops like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose which sell their usual range of ordinary grocery items and upmarket convenience foods. They are worth looking out for if your are going self-catering and need to have a quick meal on arrival.

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    As someone who's spent a fair slug of his life being paid to wander round supermarkets throughout the world and observe what's going on in them, can I offer a couple more cautions to those mentioned by chartley:

    - There are practically no "locals" shopping in the supermarket-operated convenience stores around WC2. Your London travels were in areas where next to no-one lives - and most of those few live in tiny households, often for only a few days a week. Most customers of the stores you've looked at work locally: they're buying food for immediate consumption, or a few ingredients they've run out of to use at home (typically several miles away) that night. The "Friends"-style shared flats single 20-something Londoners live in are all a few miles further out. The much bigger supermarkets they do their big shop in, in Islington, Camden Town or along Gloucester Rd, all have basket sizes (as they're known) somewhere between a D'Agostino's and a Wal-Mart. Typically, an Inner London shopper at a proper Sainsbury or Tesco buys more than their apparent equivalent at a D'Agostino's: getting to Inner London supermarkets is so much more of a hassle than in New York, people try to limit their exposure to the horror abnd cram more shopping into the experience.

    - Similarly, where more conventional couples and families live, Britons typically buy more at a time than Americans. There are far fewer stores per head in the UK, and roughly the same amount of food spending per head gets concentrated into half the amount of food selling space per head. So suburban Britons don't meander into their nearest supermarket as unthinkingly as their US equivalents (they often have to pay to park, for a start), and tend to concentrate their spending into far fewer trips.

    - All of which said, in many countries what you see during the day in a supermarket isn't how most people shop in that store. To a much greater degree in Europe than in the US, most food shopping is concentrated into 6-8 in the evening and into weekends (and in many places, into the last 2/3 and first 2/3 days of the month). What you often see outside those times is minuscule top-up shopping by people with an immediate problem, or too much time on their hands.

    It IS socially revealing to go into a foreign supermarket when its customers are doing the same kind of shopping you normally do. It's misleading though to go into one in a location or at a time when they're doing something completely different.

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    It is good to hear about the real experiences of London shoppers-- we were beginning to think that people in London simply didn't cook! We figured since it seemed to us that you must have to be rich to live in London, you were also able to afford not to cook as often as well. This is the case for residents of large US cities, such and NYC or San Fran. The selection of meat, for example, in the various small grocery stores we went in, was so small that if anyone like us went shopping there, the staff would have to replenish it about a trillion times a day. I was also surprised at the amount of, as you say, upmarket, organic, or gourmet items in the stores and did have to wonder if America is the only place in the Western World where this stuff doesn't comprise the majority of products offered (the Marks and Spencers Simply Food places, for instance, I guess they would be the equivalent of our Whole Foods or another gourmet food store, but there seemed to be more of them than there are gourmet food stores here, but that's again city life for you-- out in the boondocks we don't get much in the way of gourmet). We did pass a very large Tesco or Sainsbury's, can't remember, outside of Wells that did seem like it would be more equivalent to our Walmart, so I figured that most people in the UK did their shopping in an environment that was more like ours, excepting Londoners. But if you're
    an Inner London shopper and you are making a larger shopping trip, how do you get it all home? Do many Londoners have cars? I recall when I worked for a short time in NYC going to a 2-story K-Mart that was attached to Union Station but never did see a Target until I visited some friends in Queens and spotted one from the train. However at the time I was living on the Upper West Side and people did seem to do their shopping at small grocery stores around the city, or at specialty-type stores. I didn't see any large chain stores in Manhattan excepting a few in Harlem.

    I am curious, outside of London, do most UK towns have a city center where most commerce seems to happen? In the USA, most towns/cities have a downtown area that really only serves a historical purpose-- almost no real commerce happens around this city center, the only reason to go there is for banking or the post office, or to go to a government office. Most shopping is concentrated in strip malls along the highways and bypasses. The city center usually either rots away or ends up being simply for historical enjoyment/recreation-- if a city is developed, its historical center might have bookstores, antique shops, cafes, or restaurants, but no real day-to-day shopping. When I was in Glastonbury it seemed the case that the downtown was used mainly for tourist type stuff and boutiques, but the city center in Salisbury seemed very well-developed, with department stores and etc. So I was curious how the cities are generally set up and used.

    I found it very interesting to go into large supermarkets in Japan and see how they are set up, with various boutique-like mini-stores (giving it a faux-european flair), and as a child I lived in Korea and so I got to enjoy the massive department stores that are there and in Asia generally, but the most socially revealing trip to the grocery store I've ever had was in Cancun mexico. My parents hired a cab to take them to a Wal Mart, which was located very far away from anything remotely touristy. The seafood selection was enviable!

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    The inner London "metro," mini, or whatever supermarkets are generally for people who work in the area (plus visitors of course.) If they also live centrally and don't have a car, then they may well have to shop for food everyday as there is a limit to how much can be carried. So, sort of like the continent, but not quite the same merchandise.

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    >.I am curious, outside of London, do most UK towns have a city center where most commerce seems to happen? <<

    Yes, but there is concern over the impact of "big box" superstores in more parking-convenient locations; and, perhaps paradoxically, complaints over the homogenisation of High Streets, with the same old chains imposing the same old shopfront designs and corporate identities.

    But no doubt flanner will have the pukka gen on this.

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    Lovely photos! You have a lot of talent. Well done.

    I see we had a similar trail one day - Boudicca, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey then the photo of Winston Churchill and Big Ben together. (I haven't posted them yet - still sorting). Absolutely love your silhouette of Boudicca. I am a big silhouette fan!

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    the Marks and Spencers Simply Food places, for instance, I guess they would be the equivalent of our Whole Foods or another gourmet food store, but there seemed to be more of them than there are gourmet food stores here

    Marks and Spencers isn't a gourmet store. The food part is just a more upmarket Supermarket.

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    A wonderful, well written and amusing report.Well done.
    I loved the bit about expecting to see Eliza Dolittle's Dad at the pub!
    I also wholeheartedly agree with below.
    "I finally had to simply stop reading every placard and take the images for their beauty alone. Trying to appreciate the historical, social, and artistic context of every work is exhausting and your brain and body will need coffee breaks every few hours, so work it into your itinerary and budget."

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    cpilgrim - Thanks for the very detailed and interesting report. It is always so nice to see people who have asked questions on the forum come back and tell everybody how it went.

    I am so glad you appear to have had such a good time.

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    Wow....I simply cannot believe how long it has taken me to complete this trip report! I started out so strong...thanks for all the kind comments!

    But anyway! Our last day. We got up kinda late (I blame the pints) and made it to St. Paul's well ahead of their closing time (they were closing early for Christmas services). I had vaguely heard something about a panoramic view but I had no idea what to expect....here's a tip: get to St. Paul's early and get there on a clear, pretty day if you can. Our day was overcast and still beautiful, didn't faze us at all, still....if you can, try for a pretty day!

    The inside of St. Paul's is just gorgeous, breathtaking. In terms of what church we liked better, felt was more inspiring, I believe I must be a St. Paul's girl and he a Westminster Abbey sort of fellow. While nothing can trump the sheer history of Westminster, the cohesive aesthetics of St. Paul's, and the solemn prayerful atmosphere are very lovely and make for a very affecting experience. I had seen so many memorials and monuments on my trip, but I believe John Donne's memorial was one of the most beautiful I saw. Make sure to see the Nativity sculpture with the bowing doggie :)

    By this time we were totally off audio tours and the like, having been innundated with them early on. We decided just to enjoy, soak in the sights for a little while, then we made it up the stairs to the Whispering Gallery. It is a thrill to see the black and white tile and all the robed personnel walking along the floors of the church. We didn't try to whisper, though :)

    We then went up to the next gallery, the Stone Gallery, I believe. It is amazing to me what we were able to do in the UK as far as being in old buildings. The walk up to the gallery was a bit of an adventure, the floors were slippery, it is a spiral staircase so you get a bit foggyheaded, and there are places with no handholds. Really, in America this would be considered some sort of insurance nightmare, there would be ugly reflective tape all over the place and some stuffed animatronic creature telling you to watch your step. Same thing at the Tower of London-- many of the walks are very narrow and slippery. I'm telling you in America this would be lawsuit city! The Stone Gallery isn't very impressive since the stone columns obstruct the view. There was a bit of rain coming down so we decided to head up to the Golden Gallery while we still had time and while the rest of the crowd was walking the Stone Gallery.

    The trip up to the Golden Gallery...wow. Fearsome! I had yearned for some sort of physical experience on this day. So much looking at placards can make you yearn for something that engages the other senses, piques other emotions. This walk did the trip. It wasn't dangerous I know, but there's something about those stairs--- spiral, tiny, wrought iron, hardly seeming sturdy. Plus they are not complete steps-- your foot could go straight through the back of the steps since there's no iron to catch it. And on a soggy day! The steps are in cages of metal wire which enhance the sense of danger. I did feel like Quasimodo. My husband said the twentysomething year old girl behind him on the steps was whimpering the whole way up.

    Still, the view from the Golden Gallery was totally worth the trip up the steps. It is just an amazing view. I am one for panoramic scenes, though. I love the Stratosphere in Vegas, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Floating Gardens in Osaka-- I am a sucker for this stuff. After a week getting to know London, to see it from above was a treat.

    We got back down the steps, went to find Blake's tomb in the crypt, and then left as they were closing for the day. We walked back up to Covent Garden, had lunch again at Masala Zone (how I will miss thee!), and spent the rest of our day at The National Gallery. Spent too much time with the Impressionists and not enough time with the rest of the place. The National Gallery seems manageable when you look at the map, but to really look at all the paintings you need to take your time and take many, many breaks, lest you risk glazing over. Going to the National Gallery did confirm to me that there was something almost supernatural about those artists-- intellectually one can see what each artist was going for, technique-wise, but to discern their mental patterns as they put their art together, it is almost impossible for my mind to concieve how they could see what they saw in raw material. Just unreal to me.

    We were dead tired after our trip to the museum. We stopped by some gift shops to get last-minute Christmas presents, then headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. At this point it was raining-- the first real rain we had gotten on our whole trip. It ended about the time we got to the hotel. We collapsed and packed a little, and finally trudged out for dinner, our last outing of the trip. After a week of heavy foods we weren't much for dinner and were hoping to find something light, but getting a late start many of the cafes were closed for the night. We walked around for a while looking for a cafe, and then the rain came up again. We ended up, of all places, at McDonald's (which seem to be as ubiquitous in London as in America). I had some sort of "Festive" chicken sandwich, and he had a Big Mac. Oh, and a McFlurry of course :) Not quite as light as we had hoped, nor was it very authentic for our last meal in the city, but it hit the spot, and its never unenlightening to visit a McD's overseas in my opinion!

    We had planned to walk around some but the rain was coming down hard at this point so we sadly headed back to our room. Packed up and watched some UK Christmas specials on television-- now I know why everyone was wearing those paper crowns!

    We left out around 7:30 the next morning for a noon flight, took the tube to Paddington. Since we didn't attempt a 3rd daytrip we had time on our railpass to burn so we took the Express. The tube dude told us it was a ripoff, and it probably was, but for first time travelers it is good to know just exactly how much time it will take to get to the airport. I believe if we were to come back (and we sincerely hope to!), we would not take so many convenience shortcuts-- we would not get a railpass, we would not take the express, we would not stay in the center of town in a business style hotel. Still, since it was our first time and we didn't know what to expect, it worked for us. London, however, is EXTREMELY manageable and daytripping is really really easy, so in the future I believe we would take more risks.

    Security at Heathrow was downright pleasant, we got there with more than enough time-- time to burn, really. They were having Carolers in one of the airport lounges-- very Christmassy and something we would not see stateside at all. For some reason our Christmas spirit extends only to cheap decorations at the mall. The terminal didn't have many options for food, just a Costa and a more upscale sit-down place and a coffee stall (if you've been in an American airport you know we need at least 9 option of greasy food to keep us happy), but we did find a gem-- a meal deal at Boots Pharmacy. 3.50 pounds for a sandwich/salad, side (chips, cookies, gum, candy), and drink, tax included. You select the one you like and there are tons of options. If this deal exists at other Boots, I am happy to recommend it, as the food was tasty and filling, not to mention cheap as heck.

    Boarded the plane and back to Atlanta. The plane was rambunctious since most people were headed to their vacations, not returning as we were. Many Britons traveling to Atlanta on their way to Disney World, cruises, and Mexico for the holidays. Landed safely with no trouble and was able to make it home in time for the annual Christmas Eve dinner! Gorged ourselves, packed gifts, and passed out early. Great trip. Now we're planning another UK trip for next summer! An all countryside/non-London trip. So I'll be back on the boards soon!

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