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Trip Report London, April/May 2013

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Our original flight had a 1.5 hour layover in Chicago, but in view of United’s recent service to us, and all the whining about delays due to the politicians, I called and was able to switch our first flight from 1900 to 1400, which gave us a long layover in Chicago, as they do not allow standby changes on international flights. We were off on time at just after 2100, and actually arrived a bit early at Heathrow, which was good because our apartment manager had arranged to have a driver waiting to take us to the apartment, but I needed to buy a SIM chip for the old cell phone I use overseas, and get some cash.

I had read somewhere that SIM Local provided chips that enabled free calling in London. The way it was written, it sounded like the chip was free. It wasn’t. 25 GBP for the chip and some time. I should have used Skype, but I found their site a bit confusing, and I didn’t want to rely on something I didn’t understand, and I was concerned that AT&T would charge a lot for international data roaming, since Skype uses that. Any way, I got my chip and called the driver, who wasn’t there. He said he was sorry he was late, but was just parking and would be in in a few minutes.

I used the time to get some GBP from a “no charge” ATM. After I put in my data, they informed me that the exchange rate would be about 1.68. The mid market rate had been 1.54 the previous day. Since I was rushed and tired, I agreed, but on reflection this sounds like I could have found a better source of local currency. At least when the transaction finally hit my bank, there was no additional charge from Mastercard. It’s my fault, because I let myself get put in a situation where I was rushed and didn’t have time to look for another ATM. I’ll know better next time. My advise is to be on the alert for such schemes.

The hostess met us as the apartment and showed us how things worked, except for the lighting, which is very modern and irregularly self operating. We spent a lot of time trying to turn the lights off in the closets in the bedroom, but could not locate the switch. It turns out they are on motion sensors, but there is also a four-way (possibly 5) switch that tells the motion sensors how to act. The bathroom has a similar situation. I got up to use the bathroom, and turned on the switch. When I finished, I turned off the switch, but the lights stayed on. I tried hiding in the hall so I would not set off the motion sensor; I pushed the switch, and the lights went off, but then came back on; I held the switch down and the lights went off, then on, then off, then on. I went back to bed, ashamed to be an energy waster. In the morning the lights were finally off.

Other than that, the apartment, in Chelsea, is very nice. The building is old, but the apartment is very modern. The neighborhood is quiet, and it is only a block from the Thames. There are only a few restaurants nearby, and they have no reservations available frequently. There is a small grocery nearby.

We spent the balance of Saturday exploring the neighborhood and trying to arrange dinner. We ended up buying some dishes at M&S and eating in the apartment. I was a bit disappointed in M&S; they were more like a grocery, without a deli counter.

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    Sunday, we were up early for a good breakfast in the apartment. I was a bit disappointed in the pastry I had found the previous day, but my wife liked hers. We looked around today and it seems that there are not a lot of bakeries here, except at the train station. The groceries have some, but not to write home about.

    We set off to get our Travel Passes. We walked to Victoria Station, which is apparently three stations, but we finally found the right one. On this walk I confirmed what I thought I had seen the prior day. I have a Garmin GPS, with the London city maps. This is apparently programmed to find the absolute shortest distance from where you are to where you want to go, so every time there is a jog or alley that will save you a foot, they send you that way, and you get lost. This morning, I had looked at the map our apartment manager had provided, and noted that I could walk down the Chelsea embankment, then take a road, that changed to another name, that would take us directly to Victoria Station. As we walked this simple route, I compared it to the instructions from the Garman, and noted multiple instances where they would have veered me off the direct course and, from all appearances, never gotten me back to it. As soon as I got our zone 1 and 2 seven day travel cards for $30.40 GBP each, we set off to visit Dulwich Picture Gallery, not because it was our first choice, but because you get there by taking a train from Victoria Station, and we were already there. The Garmin said take a train through X to Dulwich north, then a couple of busses and walks. Alas, that train no longer runs, so we took a train to Dulwich West and a walk to the Gallery. We went through the gallery and a special exhibit of Murillo and De Neve, which was good, even though we were not familiar with them. The gallery itself has a lot by the English masters, and even three Rembrandt’s. It is not a huge gallery, but had enough to keep us busy for half a day (including lunch). Incidentally, my seven day travel card bought at the railroad station has some 2 for 1 offers which saved me 11 GBP at the gallery.

    Incidentally, the paper seven day travel card comes in two parts, a picture card, for which we had brought photos, and a data card showing the coverage and validity dates of the card, both in a three part plastic holder. To get on a bus, you just show it to the driver. But to get on an underground, you have to find an attendant, show him your card, and he opens the gate (entering and leaving) with his pass. At least that is how we did it for four days, until an attendant pointed out that you can remove the data card from the folder and slide it into a slot under the Oyster card sensor, and it will suck it in and spit it out and open the gate. That’s a lot more convenient than finding an attendant each time.

    When we got back to Victoria Station it was a bit late to go any where else and we were tired, so we bought a nice looking ham and cheese sandwich and found our way back to the apartment using our new travel cards on the busses. We are going to nap now, then have dinner. In two days now, it has been cool, but largely sunny, with only a short light rainfall.

    Monday dawned and I had a plan. When we make our plans, we each make a list of what we want to see, then I consolidate them. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace had not made my list, but my wife wanted to see it. Since I realized that I could not get my merit badge for visiting London without seeing this, it made the final cut. So our plan was to see the changing of the guard, then visit the Queen’s gallery, which has a Vermeer (since we were right there), then visit Kenwood House (to see another Vermeer). then to visit Harrods to check out their food courts. A full day, but doable.

    We arrived at Buckingham Palace at 1000 and grabbed a spot by the fence. I was wedged against a column to protect me from pickpockets, while my wife was glued to the fence like a limpet mine (she takes the pictures). The weather was nice, and we had a ton of pictures of what transpired inside the fence. But a lot of the action is outside the fence and we didn’t have a good view of that. In any event, the ceremony ended about 11:45, and we proceeded to the Queen’s gallery, only to find that it was closed until May 11 as they were changing the displays. Disappointed, we found our way to the metro station and worked our way to Kenwood House. On the way, we had a very nice Turkish lunch in Archway, but I have forgotten the name of the restaurant, which was near the metro station. When we finally got to Kenwood House, it was closed for refurbishment until November 2013. So we did not get to see the second Vermeer we had planned this trip for.

    A whine about how these galleries do business. Our travel is primarily to see what we consider great works of art. I know all museums and galleries have more art than they can display, so there are times when the rearrangement of their display impedes visiting. Yet absolutely everywhere we have gone, excepting Lugano, Switzerland, has been able to display their major works, even while rehangings or refurbishment is done in some rooms. We visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam while if was being refurbished, but they had placed their most popular works in an area that was still open, and if you didn’t read the signs, you would not have known that you were not seeing all they typically display. Similarly, their museum of modern art was closed, but they had made arrangements to display much of that work in another building (not all of it, because the climate control in the temporary museum was inadequate). So I was bitterly disappointed that these museums in London are so inconsiderate of their clientele that they would make no effort to allow us to see some of the works they have. The Vermeer in Kenwood House is said to be considered by many the most beautiful painting extant, and they had apparently hidden it in a closet.

    Anyway, the grounds at Kenwood House were beautiful, and I would go there to see their art if I could be certain that it was available.

    We did find our way to Harrods to visit the foot halls. To get to them we had to go through the cosmetics and perfume areas, and I have never seen so many well made up women in one place. It was almost as if they were not real, as real people are not that perfect looking. I didn’t notice the men.

    The food halls were busy, but shopable. We had previously been to a M&S, and there is no comparison. Harrods has many prepared items, and none of them is prepackaged, so you can ask for a certain quantity of this, or of that. We spent some time in the food halls at KaDaWe in Berlin, and I would give them the edge, but Harrods was a close second. The prices were higher than M&S, but the quality was far higher. We bought enough to two dinners and breakfasts, so we will be dining well in the apartment. Harrods had some Claret, made in France but labeled as Herrod’s, that was reasonably priced and quite good. If there are any typos in this section of the report, blame them on the Claret.

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    Tuesday morning we awoke and had a nice breakfast in the apartment. We then set off to the National Gallery. Things are getting easier to find as I grow to understand how the underground and busses work. I no longer rely on my GPS, but go to the London transportation website and copy their instruction for each trip. We got to Trafalger Square and had a look around, then stopped in St; Martin’s in the Field, as I have always enjoyed their music.

    We then entered the National Gallery. They don’t allow photography inside, and are serious about it. We never take pictures if they say not to, but I see a lot of people who ignore the instructions, and here the guards were quite persistent in preventing pictures. I’m not complaining, because if they have rules, we should obey them. But taking pictures without a flash, as we do, does not pose a risk to the pictures, so I think they should allow it, subject to consideration of the laws concerning unauthorized copying.

    The museum is vast, and was fairly crowded (especially the rooms with works of the impressionists). We did find the two Vermeers I had wanted to see, and to my delight, the guitar player from Kenwood House has been hung here temporarily. So I withdraw part of my prior rant about not displaying works during refurbishment, but Kenwood House has far more great works than this one painting, and I wish more had been available. We stopped for lunch in the café, and it was not as good as that at many museums, but the convenience and the chance to rest were welcome. We usually visit a major museum one day, then go back another day to resee what we really liked. Because there are so many museums in London, and our trip is so short, we squeezed this into one day. After our review of works we really liked, we were almost exhausted and headed back to the apartment for dinner and bed. Tomorrow will be a full day; the weather has remained cool and clear.

    Wednesday was another beautiful day. We were rushed because I had bought tickets to see Les Mizerable that evening. We started out at the Courtnauld gallery and it was quite good. I would urge everyone to make time for this. I was particularly drawn to the Manet painting of the waitress behind the bar. We stopped to see that three times.

    We then went to Hyde Park Corner to visit Apsley House. It is pretty much preserved as it was when Wellington lived here after defeating Napoleon. There is a lot of art hung here, many by noted artists, but it is not well lit and reflects what was, rather than what we expect today. Still, it makes you think of the greatness of the man who liberated Europe.

    We then went outside to see the arch and memorials, then started to try and find our way to Harrods. The route was not clear. We did blunder into a nice lunch at L’Eto at 10 west Halkin street. My wife had a nice quiche and a hot chocolate; I had a lemon merinque tart and a glass of white wine. The bill was under 22 GPB, which I thought reasonable given the toniness of the neighborhood and the cafe. Finally, we found our way to Herrods (after a detour to Nicolas at 219 Brompton road, a nice wine shop that unfortunately did not have the brand of calvados that I was seeking) and replenished our food store for the apartment.

    We then rushed home for a little rest, as we had made a dinner reservation at 1800 in association with our theater tickets. We were a little late for our dinner, as I didn’t know the neighborhood and when I found Haymarket Street (The Spaghetti House at 66 Haymarket) I didn’t realize the addresses on one side of the street increased going one way, while those on the other side increased going the other way. In any event, the meal was served quickly and was not bad considering the price (12.50 GPB each, plus wine, for two courses). When we left, we asked for directions to the Queen’s theater, and unfortunately those we got were not correct. So we wandered the neighborhood for awhile before finding a man who pointed us to Shaftsbury, and we found the theater by spotting the marque with the waif on it.

    Because I had ordered the tickets late, all that were available (and there weren’t many) were described as having limited vision. That was certainly true. I’ve sat in balconies before, but these balconies are of defective design and there are no decent seats except in the first row.

    We were able to enjoy the show, however. The performers were largely capable, and the stagecraft was exceptionally good.

    Getting home was an adventure. That neighborhood is very active, but it was hard finding someone who knew where the underground station was. Finally we found a fireman who was very helpful, and got home a bit after midnight.

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    Thursday is laundry day. We look for apartments that have washing machines, so we only have to take half as many clothes. The disadvantage is that washers and driers vary from place to place, so it takes some study to make them work. In any event, the weather promised to be nice again so we picked one major destination for the first half of the day, London Tower. My wife had put this on the list; I hadn’t because it didn’t seem interesting to me and was reported to be crowded. Getting there on the Underground was easy. Getting in wasn’t. The signs didn’t seem to make clear where to go, but we could see the complex, so we started walking around it; we got to the bridge and got some nice pictures, then went along the river to where there was an apparent entrance; after awhile we realized that was the group tour entrance, but the help was too busy to tell us where the non group entrance was. I looked at all the groups going in and wondered if I really wanted to deal with such a crowd. We walked farther along the side and found an entrance, but they told us there we had to go to the ticket office at the top of the hill. I looked at the crowds again and asked whether I wanted to see a place whose main distinction is that it is where the British murdered some of their ancestors. I also noted that the underground station was at the top of the same hill. I took it as an inspiration and we left

    As we rode the underground back, I noted a station for St. James Park, so we got off to look for a place to lunch. It is a lovely park, and a lot of people were there to enjoy it. We found the Inn in the Park, and the restaurant was between servings, but the café was open and had some very nice food. My wife had a muffin and a cappuccino; I had a muffin, 12 sweet olives, and a small white wine. The tab was 18.20 GPB. We ate on the terrace and enjoyed the food, the weather, and the birds and people going by. Lunch doesn’t get any better than that.

    We got back to the apartment, wrestled with the combined washer/dryer, which worked well and now we are clean and enjoying a nice dinner.

    Friday again promised nice weather. We started by getting to Westminster early, but still didn’t beat the crowds. We walked to the middle of the bridge to take pictures, which gave a better view and was less crowded. We went to the London Eye; the promotional coupon we had had expired at the end of April, but the rate for seniors was not bad. It included a pre-ride movie (I think they called it 4D) with special glasses and mist and bubbles released into the theater at the appropriate time. I was a bit leery because the movie featured a sea gull, and I was afraid the special effects could go too far. It is a short, loud, upbeat movie and worth taking the time to see. The ride itself is very sedate and you almost cannot tell you are moving, but it gives a lot of opportunities to take pictures and, from the top, get better oriented. At the top we looked out and saw the café in St. James park we had enjoyed the day before.

    After the Eye, we walked back across the bridge to see Westminster Cathedral. As the books warn, there were long lines to get in, so we just appreciated the outside view. Even though it was early in the day, our ultimate objective was the Wallace Collection, and I wanted to get there in time for lunch, as I had read their restaurant was very good. Alas, I had conflicting and unclear information on how to find them. We got to the Marble Arch easily, but then started an extended neighborhood tour that didn’t end until I found a helpful policeman, who told us we were standing by the back corner, and could enter by going to the front. We had used up a lot of time so we checked our coats and headed for the restaurant. We picked the restaurant rather than the café, and had a pleasant sunny table under a glass roof, so it was almost like eating outdoors.
    We had a liter of bottled water. My wife had a flamed leeks and artichoke salad and some freshed baked madeleines with chocolate sauce. I had millefeuille white asparagras and a glass of Chardonnay. I stole one of my wife’s madeleines while she wasn’t looking, but I couldn’t reach the chocolate sauce. The service was good and the food seemed of gourmet quality to me, although the only thing I could really judge was my stolen madeleine, which was excellent. The tab with gratuity was 47 GBP, more than we usually spend for lunch, but this was special. We then found our way through the house, which is fairly large and full of fine furniture, artifacts, and art. The collection itself is free and well worth taking the time to find it. On leaving I asked instructions from the young lady at the coat check, and she explained very well how to get to the Bond street station and we found our way home from there.

    That evening we ate at Foxtrot Oscar at 75 Royal Hospital Road (right across the street from our apartment). I think this has recently become a part of the Gordon Ramsey empire. The menu was not extensive, but we were able to find things we liked, which were very well prepared and served. We had a liter of bottled water and each had pea soup, which was sweeter and more delicate than the pea soup we had had before. My wife had a burger and I had mussels and we split an Apple Trifle for desert. We shared a nice bottle of red wine, which drove up the tab by 35 GBP to 102 GBP, optional service charge included. I thought the price reasonable, given the quality.

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    Saturday morning we started at Victoria Station (a bus runs from near our apartment to Victoria Station, and back, so we use Victoria Station as a frequent starting point) where we bought a travel card to cover Sunday. Then we moved to Winchester, where we planned to catch a boat. We were early, so spent some more time looking at Winchester Abbey and environs. Then we bought our boat ticket (an all day hop on hop off ticket at half price with our travel card coupon) and got in line for the boat, which was to depart at 1000. I took the time to read their brochure more carefully, and while they listed many points of interest along the river, they only stopped at Westminster, the Eye, London tower, and Greenwich, so it looked like we would have to find another way to see the Globe Theater. The boat is fairly slow, so you have a lot of time to look at things along the way, but it also takes a big chunk out of your day. We finally arrived at Greenwich and the first main site is the clippership Cutty Sark,, mounted on land and very impressive. We took a lot of pictures, but skipped the tour as we were pressed for time. My wife wanted to visit the Greenwich market, so we went through there. It had a lot of foods and goods, and was busy, but not overly crowded. We decided not to lunch there because there weren’t a lot of tables, and I don’t like to eat standing up. A bit further up the street we found a place that looked authentic with standard English food. We had meat pies (your selection of meats) and mash (mashed potatoes, with gravy) and a couple of local lagers. The food was very filling and simple, in part because we had declined some of the options like eels and liquor, not being adventurous. The whole meal was 12 GBP.

    When we stepped outside it had started a light rain, but we headed for the observatory. When we got to the gate, we realized it was still a long walk, uphill in an attractive park, in the rain, and decided we didn’t really need a picture of us straddling the time line, so we turned around and headed for the Cutty Sark (the tall masts are like a beacon, making it hard to get lost) and it stopped raining. We opted for a picture in one of those red phone booths, then returned to catch a return boat. We rode back only to London Tower, then took the underground to London Bridge station. Our objective was the Globe Theater, but when we came out of the station we found the Borough Market and realizing we wanted to see that and needed something for dinner back at the apartment, we entered. This is primarily a food market, and is not in a big square, but rather straggles through alleys and some open areas. It was difficult to shop because it was very crowded. I thought perhaps Saturday afternoon was not the best time to visit, but I seem to recall reading that Saturday is when the most vendors are there. We shop at a similar facility in Cleveland (the West Side Market) and have learned to time our visits for when the most vendors are present (and not sold out), but the crowds are less thick. Most prepared food at the Borough Market is made to be eaten there, but we found a few places that would package the food. I’m not sure of the name of what we bought (other than some strawberries), but I would describe it a something like an enchilada of Asian derivation. The lady selling them told us how to cook them (they could be eaten cold, or warmed), and we enjoyed them for dinner. They were fairly spicy but not to the degree that you felt burned, and tasted quite good.

    By now, we were tiring, and decided to forego the Globe Theater for that day. We had had some adventures on the underground that took a lot of walking that wasn’t in our plans. As we were about to enter the underground, we passed a wine shop, and I stopped in to see if they had Calvados. He said no, but gave us directions to the Whisky Exchange a few blocks away. More walking, but this was for a cause. The Whiskey Exchange is inside Lathwaites wine shop at 1 Bank End, London SE1 9BU. I write that out because I may want to return as they had four or five brands of Calvados, including one I have been seeking for years.

    We returned to the underground, got lost again when I confused Central and Circle lines, and finally found our way home. So far, we’ve been here a week and a day, and have had only minimal rainfall and generally pleasant weather.

    Sunday again gave us excellent weather. We rushed around trying to see what we hadn’t, yet get back home in time to pack. We started with a visit to the British Museum. We were a bit late because the bus driver missed the stop by about eight blocks and we had to walk back, but we still got there just after opening. So did everyone else. It was very crowded and we decided to limit our visit to a few choice objects. One was the rosetta stone that was twelve deep in people taking pictures. We did get to see it, but not well. We planned to walk over the millenium bridge and see the Tate Modern and the Globe theater. We had instructions from London Transport on how to get there, but the bus they recommended left us in a concrete maze with no signs. Finally I followed some signs to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the rest was easy. There were a lot of people on the bridge and at the Tate, but not so many that it was hectic. By the time we got to the Tate we were hungry so we went immediately to the café. Service was good, but the kitchen was a bit slow. My wife had fish and chips and a lime and lemongrass iced tea; I had the daily fish special and a carafe of nice chardonay. The food and drinks were excellent. The tab, including service charge, was 42.40 GBP.

    We then spent some time in the galleries, but didn’t get enthusiastic because modern art is not our favorite genre. We went outside and sat in the riverfront garden and enjoyed some street musicians. When our energies were restored, we took the short walk to the Globe and took some pictures, but they were doing a performance so the tour we wanted was not available. We walked back over the bridge and found Blackfriars underground station nearby (I wish we had known this getting there) and were shortly back home to rest and pack before dinner.

    We ate again at Foxtrot Oscar. We had a liter of still water; my wife hada bone marrow starter, a pork chop entree and sticky toffee for desert; I had manzanilla olives as a starter, a pork chop entree, and a chocolate Mousse for desert. We shared an excellent bottle of Rioja reserva. The total including service charge was 111 GBP. The food was superb.

    We returned to the apartment and packed. In the morning we had yoghurt and orange juice, straightened the apartment, and our driver showed up promptly at 0900. At Heathrow we went to the Star Alliance lounge and they had a small breakfast arrangement including unsweetened yoghurt, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, good coffee, and sausage. I like sausage, but the British sausage was exceptionally bland.

    Our plane left promptly at 12:20, but in Chicago United apparently lacked a crew, so we boarded half an hour late, then sat at the gate until a crew showed up. They had television on this flight and people were enjoying a ball game. The yahoo in front of me apparently had suffered profound retarded development and was jumping around and yelling instructions to the players, so it was an unpleasant flight all the way. Even my wife wanted to smack him.

    All in all we had a nice trip with good weather, but London certainly was crowded.

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    Hi Clevelandbrown,

    I really enjoyed your report. Merci. Wow, you folks really got around. Kudos on mastering the Tube and busses for so many of your excursions. You gave very practical information. Sorry that the Kenwood House was not open. Now that’s a place I never heard of – just looked it up.

    I am also an art lover and will return to London in late June. At the top of my list is the Courtauld Gallery. I will be staying very near there at the Strand Palace Hotel. I also hope to visit Apsley House. As you mentioned it may be dark but worth visiting.

    You made it to my favorite museum, the Wallace Collection. What a gem, eh? Again, really enjoyed your trip report.

    God save the Queen…

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    Nice write up, I struggled with London Tower until my Claret fuddled brain kicked in and saw "Tower of London".

    I suspect a fair few galleries have so many great works that they cannot show them all, Mrs Bilbo tells me the V&A, for example, has 20 times as much material as wall space.

    Changing the Guard is not a good way to spend 2 hours as you discovered.

    Getting around town used to be easy using a book called an AtoZ (A 2 Zed) which shows you all the streets but I admit with the arrival of electronic telephony I'm not sure if these are still available. Ideas anyone?

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