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London Trip Report: 6 days in this wonderful city are not enough!

London Trip Report: 6 days in this wonderful city are not enough!

Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:10 PM
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London Trip Report: 6 days in this wonderful city are not enough!

My husband, our teenaged daughter, and I just returned from a whirlwind 6 day trip to London over my younger daughter�s school spring break. I�ve never posted a trip report before, although I usually keep a travel diary during a trip. So, here goes!

I will start with the general things (transportation, accommodations, etc) and then go to each day�s activities. (I had no idea this report would turn out so LONG!)

PLANNING
We took a 2 week trip to Germany, Vienna and Prague this Christmas with both daughters, so we had modest plans for spring break (were going to drive somewhere in the US).

But�

In mid January a friend told me that she had just found frequent flyer tickets on Delta to London. I jumped online and booked our free tickets for early March. The availability of the award tickets dictated the actual days of travel (Saturday both ways), leaving us 6 full days (and a few hours) on the ground in London.

Because this trip came up rather last minute, I had a fairly short learning curve. Once I had the plane tickets, I had to put trip planning on the fast track. I bought a few promising guidebooks and maps, and borrowed a few others. Fortuitously, I found out about the Fodors travel forums (fora?) just as I was getting into serious research for the trip. It is an amazing font of information, and provided so many great leads.

Every bit of the research I did came in handy. At the same time, I had tons of information that I just didn�t have time enough to assimilate. My husband had a fabulous time on this trip and repeatedly complimented me on how all my preparation paid off.

TRANSPORTATION
Our plane landed at Gatwick at 6:30 am on Sunday, March 5. My husband has traveled to London on business a fair amount, and has always taken the Gatwick Express, so that was his preference. We bought the 4-for-2 ticket (in our case 3-for-2). Under this fare, up to 4 �adults� (over age 15) traveling together pay the same fare as 2, which is £50.

The biggest drawback for us is that this fare is not available on the train but must be bought in the station (also could book online at http://www.gatwickexpress.co.uk/ ). There were only two ticket windows open first thing on Sunday morning (the Gatwick Express window wasn�t one of them), so the line was pretty long. One of the windows was completely monopolized by a couple who seemed to be arranging a leveraged buy out of the entire railway system.

I liked that the trains have a sizeable luggage rack on the ends of the cars as well as the overhead racks (pretty small). When we arrived at Victoria Station 30 minutes later we took a taxi to our hotel in Mayfair.

We purchased 7 day travelcards at our local tube station. The Transport for London website has a ton of information: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/ about the new (since January) fares. There�s a 34 page brochure that is available online as a pdf file that I printed and read. The fares are pretty complicated, but I had gleaned that a 7 day travelcard would most likely be the most economical for us. I knew that we would be taking a combination of tube and bus. The 7 day travelcards are now available only on an Oyster card (I think), but the 1 and 3 day may still be available on a paper card. We paid around £22 for each 7 day travelcard. We were not charged the £3 deposit for the Oyster card itself (because we put the travelcard on it rather than just a cash balance). If we remember to bring the Oyster cards back with us on our next trip (yes, we can�t wait to go back!), we can always add a cash balance or travelcard to it in the future. The Oyster is very convenient � you just tap it on the card reader at the entry and exit gates at the tube, or when boarding the bus (the machine was able to read it through my travel billfold). Faster and simpler than the paper ticket.

Our first tube ride didn�t actually materialize because they had a weekend construction closure on the Piccadilly line. We heard on the news that there will be a significant number of future weekend closures on the tube. At least one line is going to close entirely for an extended period of time, beginning this summer, I think. A list of planned work on the underground and the related weekend and temporary closures can be accessed at:
http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/realtime/planned.asp

We ended up taking the tube a fair amount. The weather was rainy (and cool/cold) for most of the trip, so it was nice to do the walking and waiting out of the elements. Also, some of our travels involved somewhat long distances, so the tube made sense. We did take the bus as well � it really is fun to be on the top of a double decker.

next: ACCOMMODATIONS and NAVIGATION
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:12 PM
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ACCOMMODATIONS
This is the first major family trip that we have taken without our older daughter (her college spring break dates do not coincide with her sisters). I looked at triples and at flats, but ended up with the Holiday Inn Mayfair because it has rooms with two double beds and the location is fantastic. I have had a foot problem since December (hampered me a bit on the Christmas trip). Long, boring story, but after many x-rays, etc, I received a brand new custom orthotic 10 days before this London trip. I had no idea how much walking I would be able to do, so the hotel location became very important to me (in case I needed to go back in the middle of the day) as well as the proximity to transportation.

The hotel is just off Piccadilly in Mayfair. The Green Park tube station (3 tube lines connect there) is within a block, and busses run along Piccadilly. It is a short walk to the West End, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street and Hyde Park. The hotel reviews on TripAdvisor were mixed (as usual) but we found the rooms have all been redone recently. Our room was very nice, small but not as tiny as I expected. We were able to find corners and tables for our luggage so we wouldnt trip over our stuff.
Bathroom was also good. With the minimal amount of time that we were in the hotel, one room worked out fine for the three of us.

We did not book our reservations to include breakfast, which is pretty expensive. For simple baked goods/coffee, Starbucks is directly across the street and Café Nero around the corner. The Wolseley is about a block away with very good breakfasts (about the same price as the hotels). For take out options, Sainsburys is about a block and theres a Marks and Spencer food hall right at the Green Park tube station, also a block.

NAVIGATION
Based on many recommendations, I bought a London A to Z pocket sized book map. I had also bought a London map made by Red Maps (212 255-4645) in my local Barnes and Noble. I had a few other maps that people lent me.

I ended up using the Red Map for 98% of the time, as it gives a very good overview coupled with impressive detail. The map covers more of central London than many other one page maps (from Earls Court in sw to Maida Hill in nw to Shoreditch in ne to Bermondsey in se). What I liked about it is that it is very legible, has every street labeled (little alleys are not included), and, best of all, has the tube stations clearly shown and the tube routes drawn on, with color and name of line. The back of the map has lots of listings for various attractions, shopping, and major streets. The Red Map is a laminate/weatherproof material, which held up well with all of the stashing and pulling out, refolding, and lots of rain. You can see the map at: http://www.globecorner.com/t/t41/20962.php

I used the A to Z for tricky details or far flung areas.

next: SUN, GLORIOUS SUN (day 1)
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:15 PM
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Day 1 (Sunday, March 5)
SUN, GLORIOUS SUN!
For the first time ever, I actually got sleep before an overseas trip! Usually I am taking care of the thousand details and packing most (or all) of the night. Because I was fairly rested and it was an early flight, I didnt sleep on the flight over. The flight was smooth and uneventful. Also on time.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Mayfair just after 8:30am, and learned that we would be able to get into our rooms before the 2:00pm check in time. Yay! We left our luggage. Thanks to this forum, we had 9:30 breakfast reservations at The Wolseley, about a blocks walk. We were nearly a half hour early, but the restaurant was not full, so we were seated right away. The restaurant is spacious and comfortable, with tile floors. The staff were very warm and friendly a great welcome to London. The three of us had two teas and coffee (excellent), French toast, omelet, waffle, bacon, toast, and I cant remember what else. We were hungry and everything was fantastic. The total bill was £35.

After breakfast, we set forth for the Brompton Oratory (Catholic church), next to the Victoria and Albert. We went to our local tube station, Green Park, and purchased our Oyster/travelcards, then hopped on the Piccadilly line. We were only able to go for one stop because of weekend construction closures on the tube line. My husband wanted to walk, but I was nervous about my problem foot and voted for the bus. We caught the next bus west, which ended up bearing right onto Kensington Rd. As this didnt seem right (can you tell we were just a little tired from jet lag?) we hopped off a few blocks later.

We walked through small streets of Knightsbridge, just beautiful on a sunny crisp Sunday morning, and came along the side of the Oratory, passing Trinity Church, a lovely church which is behind it. We were too late for the 10:00 service, so went next door to the Victoria and Albert museum to poke around, use the restrooms and get information about which galleries would be open for the Wednesday late hours. We had a few minutes to explore the Oratory (neo-renaissance style) before the 11:00 Mass, which was sung in Latin. It was quite the ethereal experience as we drifted into dozing with what sounded like the heavenly chorus for our lullaby. The homily was quite good (I was awake for that part), and the church was full.

Then it was back to the hotel to check into our rooms and take a brief nap. Getting up from the nap was so difficult, but the gorgeous weather called to us. We set forth for the South Bank. The day we left home for London, I had checked the weather forecast. Seeing sun predicted for our first two days, I booked tickets online for the London Eye for 5:30 (sunset) the first day. We took the tube to Westminster (would have been a nice walk through Green Park and St. James Park but I was still concerned about my foot). What a thrill to come out of the tube and see Big Ben (well, we didnt actually see the bell) and the Houses of Parliament! I hadnt expected to like Big Ben so much. We were totally taken with London by this point. (Look, what cool light posts Look, theres the Thames Look, what insane hair on those kids)

We walked along the Victoria Embankment to the Hungerford/Jubilee Bridges where we crossed the Thames. The pedestrian bridge was crowded, and people were milling about on the South Bank. There were street musicians, mimes, living statues, and other performers. We were able to pick up our prebooked tickets for the London Eye with no queue. The Flake cart drove away before we could buy any, but we found wonderful gelato in the County Hall building. We enjoyed the large Dali sculptures on the river bank. Then it was time for our flight on the Eye. The boarding line moved steadily and we walked onto our pod with about 15 people. The sunset views on the 30 minute ride were fantastic; good for about a million pictures.

We crossed back over the Thames on the Westminster bridge and then back to Mayfair. Dinner was at Strada, a pizza/Italian place that was open on Sunday. Two pizzas, one pasta, and I think we all had salad. The food was excellent, and the individual pizzas were quite large. Cost for three with wine, beer, coffee and tea was £58. We strolled back to our hotel, enjoying seeing all the posh shops on Regent, Savile Row and Bond Street, and relishing the nice clear weather.

The best part of the day, besides falling head over heels in love with London, was that my foot tolerated the walking surprisingly well (and it continued to improve throughout the week!).
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:37 PM
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Noe,
I'm so glad to see you've started your trip report! It sounds like your vacation got off to a great start! I can't wait to hear more!
Lynny
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:47 PM
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I'm enjoying your trip report. I like your description of the couple who were arrranging the buyout. I couldn't stop laughing. I think the same couple has been in front of me at the airline counter.
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 04:53 PM
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Noe, thanks for posting this delightful report. I am taking the trip right along with you. Keep it coming.
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 06:59 PM
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thanks, lynny, tledford, and cmcfong!

Here's a link to some pictures from our trip:
http://tinyurl.com/hp3nk

Next: HISTORY LESSONS (day 2)
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 08:04 PM
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Day 2 (Monday, March 6)
HISTORY LESSONS
I had a difficult time blasting my husband and daughter (especially) out of bed. We finally got rolling the British morning TV shows are immensely entertaining, by the way after a quick coffee shop breakfast. We saw St. Margarets and then Westminster Abbey. The sun streamed through the stained glass and all the tombs were interesting. I was especially moved by the tomb that contained Elizabeth and Mary, and the grave of the Unknown Soldier. My very favorite part was the medieval cloister and the octagonal Chapter House (love that old old stuff!). Also, there were these random framed bits of very old pictures propped around, which were cool but totally unidentified.

We met a friend for lunch at a little café in the Tottenham Court Road area. After lunch we walked down Charing Cross, stopping in some of the booksellers shops. By Trafalgar Square we realized our sunshine was gone and the wind picked up.

We continued down Whitehall Street, and went into the Banqueting House, the first Renaissance building in London (I think). The main hall was built as a double cube, and was a very impressive space, with Rubens paintings on the ceiling. People were having a grand time sitting on the throne at the end of the room and taking pictures until one of the staff found out and put an end to it.

Back out on Whitehall we took pictures with the horse guards and looked down Downing Street. We toured the Cabinet War Rooms which were fascinating (I especially liked the map room). There is a new (in 2005) Churchill Museum that is also underground; its entrance is on a hallway about halfway through the circuit of rooms. The museum was very well done, but we didnt get to see all of the exhibits because we were running out of time (this will become a familiar refrain). My favorite part of the museum was standing on these little squares on the floor, each of which activated a recording of Churchill delivering a wartime speech.

We scooted back to our hotel, picking up takeout from the Marks & Spencer food hall. Than back out to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see A Man For All Seasons. We thought the acting was great and loved seeing a play about historical events that took place RIGHT HERE IN LONDON!!! The coolest part was the interval. They sold ice cream right inside the theatre, and my daughter got a big kick out of the wall they lowered that said safety curtain right on it
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 08:09 PM
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Thanks for the wonderful report. Looking forward to the next installment. Enjoyed your photos very much. My wife & I are planning our first visit to London and I know we will benefit from your report. Thanks again!
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 08:34 PM
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Hello noe, what a great report to read while fighting a cold! You have a way of making one feel like they are on the trip with you, and love your sense of humor, the comments you throw in at the most unexpected times..ie "until the staff found out and put an end to it", giggle! I am looking forward to your next installment. And am so glad that you did well your your foot, not fun to travel with a foot problem.
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 08:41 PM
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Hi noe, you did very well inspite of problems it was a wonderful trip you have shared with us.
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Old Mar 15th, 2006, 10:27 PM
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Great report, and fabulous pictures.

What kind of camera did you use?
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 04:20 AM
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Thanks, George, loveitaly, cigale and luveurop - there's nothing like traveling!

My camera is a Canon PowerShot S410 Digital Elph (4MP) which I love because it slips into any pocket. My husband took the last few with his updated version of the same camera, the SD400. It's even smaller and has 5MP, but I actually think mine takes better pictures (especially in low light).
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 04:25 AM
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Day 3 (Tuesday, March 7)
MORE HISTORY, AND LITERATURE
It was even harder getting the crew out the door this morning, and there was no sunshine to help me out. More amusing British TV. My daughter really wanted to see some Shakespeare, so after the coffee shop we went to Leicester Square to try to get cheap seats. The only seats they had were too cheap (we didnt want to be in the top balcony) so that was kind of a waste. We called the box office and booked some seats in the stalls. For Shakespeare, we had a choice of Hamlet or As You Like It. Since our other 2 plays on this trip are serious/sad, we chose the comedy. There are only so many tears that I will voluntarily choose to shed in one week!

It was raining pretty hard, so we pulled out the trusty umbrellas and made our way to Fitzrovia (Warren Street tube station) for lunch at the Indian YMCA (a tip from this forum) in Fitzroy Square. It is a cafeteria in a hostel, and was filled with a cross section of people (lots of office workers, we seemed to be the only tourists) enjoying the delicious curries. Great food, very cheap (paid in cash, and dont remember the total, but I think it was around £20 for all three of us).

We hopped back on the tube (out of the rain) to St. Pancras and Kings Cross where we wandered around trying to find the beautiful St. Pancras station that I had seen in pictures, only to realize that it was wrapped up and under construction. Duh!

We dripped our way to the British Library and the simply amazing Treasures room. The Magna Carta was not on display, but we saw the Gutenberg bible, the Lindisfarne Gospels (my favorite), pages from Da Vincis notebooks, Beethovens tuning fork, Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, the original Alice in Wonderland, manuscripts from just about every notable British poet, and lots more. I loved this place, and could easily have stayed much longer (sigh, this was the story of London) to drink it all in.

Back out into the cold rain and down to the Tower of London. We arrived in time for the last daily Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) tour. Our guide was very amusing and we enjoyed the hour. Then the Crown Jewels, which we had pretty much to ourselves (enjoyed these more than I thought I would) and the White Tower, including St. Johns chapel (wow! very old) and the armory. After this, we had to hustle to grab some food and get to the theatre. Pret a Manger closed just as we got to it, but then, like a beacon, a Pizza Express appeared. Warm, cozy and quick; decent pizzas, with wine, beer and some salad, £36.

We saw As You Like It, staged in somewhat contemporary dress. It was very amusing, especially the second act (better if you dont try to use logic on the story line). We were very excited to see Shakespeare RIGHT HERE IN LONDON!!! (with real British accents rather than the fake ones we always hear in the US). Once again much entertainment from the ice cream and the safety curtain at the interval (what can I say, we are easily amused).
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 05:27 AM
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Day 4 (Wednesday, March 8)
OLD CHURCHES, OLD CLOTHES
I got my daughter moving this morning by promising her that if we started at a decent time, I would work in some vintage clothing shopping with her in the afternoon. Its amazing what a little motivation will do!

This was moms old church morning. We went first to St. Etheldredas Church in Holborn. I had read that it was hard to find, and followed directions that took us down a small alley and past a little pub and through a tiny passageway. It was all terribly quaint. We ended up on the street where the church is, which is happens to be plainly marked on my map and would have been plenty easy to find. But I was glad to have seen the cute pub and small passageway. Kind of gave a feel of how it might have been in medieval times. The church itself is a 13th century double decker church. There werent many lights on, so it probably looked the way it would have when it was built. Parts of the lower church are thought to date from pre-medieval times.

The second church we saw was St. Bartholomew the Great, near Smithfield meat market (which we walked through very interesting). This is from the 12th century (built by the court jester of Henry II), although half the church was torn down in the time of Henry VIII. The original portal remains near the street, with a Tudor gatehouse built over it, and this is how you enter. The part of the church still standing was used through the centuries as residences, a blacksmith shop and a printing shop (Ben Franklin worked there), until it was restored as a church in the 19th century. The church is Romanesque/early Gothic and very beautiful.

We walked on (raining but not as cold) to St. Pauls where we climbed up to the dome. My daughter was a bit frightened by the final spiral stairs up to the Golden gallery, but we made it, and the views were well worth it. It was so interesting to be in between the inner and outer dome as we climbed. We checked out the graves, monuments, and memorials in the crypt and the Henry Moore sculpture of Madonna and Child.

My husband headed off to spend the afternoon at the Tate Modern (which he loved, especially the Kippenberger show) and my daughter and I grabbed sandwiches and headed to Sloane Square where we shopped as we made our way down Kings Road. We ended up at Steinberg and Tolkien, a two level vintage clothing shop. We had a great time searching among the racks of clothes. My daughter found a 70s velvet dress in the 70% off room that fit her perfectly and a tank top with the Union Jack in sequins couldnt pass those up.

We met up with my husband at The Good Earth, a Chinese restaurant in Brompton. At this point we were like drowned rats. I actually felt bad giving our raincoats and parcels to the person at the coat closet. We were starving, and ordered a ton of food. The appetizers were all very good (dumplings, dry ribs, spring rolls, and one or two more), but the main courses were disappointing. The restaurant wasnt very crowded; I think there were more staff there than patrons. Price for 4 or 5 appetizers, 3 mains, beer and wine was £75.

After dinner, we crossed the street and went to the Victoria and Albert, which stays open until 10:00pm on Wednesdays. There was live music and a bar in the lobby (atrium?) and a nice young crowd. The ground floor galleries, the special exhibit, (and sometimes some of the other galleries) are open for the evening hours. We especially enjoyed the dress collection, but found the special exhibit Fashion-ology to be somewhat of a dud and not worth the special admission price.

By the time we retrieved our things from the cloakroom, the wet shopping bags were in an advanced state of disintegration. Im sure we raised a few eyebrows as we dragged in to the hotel lobby with our shredded loot. Luckily the things inside the mangled bags had managed to stay fairly dry, except one shoe box (boots actually) which came apart (we wouldnt have room to pack it in the luggage anyway).
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 06:07 AM
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The safety curtain is actually a fireproof barrier and by law it has to be lowered during every performance to show the audience that it's working. In case of fire, it would be lowered to keep a fire or smoke away from the audience.
In the days of gas lighting and candles for footlights, it was very important, but I suppose that even today if a fire is going to break out, it might well be on the stage or backstage.
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 06:36 AM
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Thank you so much for including prices on what you paid for meals. I sure do wish more people would do that. I'm glad your trip was so wonderful.
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 06:42 AM
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Great trip report so far, noe, and FABULOUS pictures! (this from a fellow photo enthusiast!) Keep er going!

London is indeed the heart of the western world, IMHO.
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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 07:10 AM
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Great report and fabulous pictures.
Thanks for sharing.

We were in London for a week in December with our 2 boys (11 and 14 at the time) - we loved London and this report brings back those happy memories.

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Old Mar 16th, 2006, 08:19 AM
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I'm enjoying your report so much! In one month my husband and daughter (15) will be off for our 6 day trip to London. Can't wait!
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