Trip Report - London & Beyond

Nov 26th, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Join Date: May 2006
Posts: 261
Trip Report - London & Beyond

Great Britain – What worked, or didn’t

We recently returned from our trip to the Great Britain, and it’s time for a trip report. We left the states on Aug. 27 and returned Oct. 15. I would have started writing sooner, but we were felled with bad colds just as we returned home. Drat that tour guide with a sore throat!

We had a fantastic time and enjoyed every area we visited. Since this was our first trip to Great Britain, we were the usual gawking tourists and mostly did the touristy things.

And by the way, I’ll warn you that once I start writing it’s sort of Katy bar the door. I do tend to write a lot. Be forewarned!

Before writing about the trip itself, I want to post some things that I learned or which worked well for us. Experienced Fodorites surely know them, since you taught me, but other newbies, like myself, might find them helpful.

First, many, many thanks to all the Fodorites who helped me. You were kind enough to give extensive advice about itineraries, transport, lodging, and much more. Thank you so much. Some of those who helped me were noe847, cholmmondley-warner, PatrickLondon, yk, PalenQ, janisj, Morgana, alanRow, GreenDragon, rogeruktm, annhig, Bill_l, nona1, flanneruk, owain, xyz123, sashh, and nytravler. I know there were many more, and I’m sorry for all I’ve left out. The size of the list makes me aware of how much help I needed. Thank you all. I know our trip was much, much better for the help you gave.

In one of the first threads I read on Fodor’s, somebody said to check VRBO for lodging. I didn’t have a clue what that meant (Vacation Rental By Owner, but I googled it and found it to be a great way to find lodging. We ended up with flat VRBO #52647 for a much lower price and with far greater amenities than we could have gotten at a hotel or B&B. More about that later.

Outlet strip to go
One of the most important purchases for our trip was a six-outlet travel power strip. It was light, very compact, essential and packed easily. Many of our rooms had one available outlet, or even just one after unplugging the light, so this strip enabled us to charge whatever we needed and operate the computer all at the same time. We had four cameras with attendant chargers and a phone.

Buying BritRail
Because we were traveling entirely and extensively by public transport, we bought the BritRail Flexi Pass, which gave us 15 days of train travel in a two-month period. This was a great choice for us. We could change our itinerary and not have to worry about changing tickets, and we could make as many changes to as many different trains as needed. Making the effort to get discount tickets may have cost less than the pass, but in convenience alone, I think the pass was well worth it even if the cost is more, which I strongly doubt.

PalenQ, and perhaps others, suggested buying rail passes from Rick Steves or budget travel rather than the BritRail site This was another good idea. I ordered from Rick Steves and received not only the passes, but a DVD of travel tips, information on train travel, a sketchy but helpful map of major train routes in Great Britain, and 20% off at his travel store.

Northeast & Cumbria in Traveline

Traveline is very helpful for planning trips. Plug in your departure and arrival points, and it will give you a number of options. It includes trains, planes, buses, ferries, metro, coaches, and walking if you need to do it, say between bus and rail stations. It appears to love buses, however, so, since we were traveling entirely by train, I de-selected every other mode of transport.

When Traveline opens up, it asks you to choose the region for which you want information. Not all regions format their information in the same way, and I liked the North East & Cumbria region’s format and details best. It provided the train’s ultimate destination, which made it easier to pick out our train on the station information boards, and it listed the platforms of arrival and departure. When we had short times between trains, it was very helpful to know in advance the platform we would need. Since each region can be used for travel anywhere, I used North East & Cumbria for every train, no matter where I was or where I wanted to go

Day Bag
I spent a lot of time deciding on a day bag – as many of you know. I got many good suggestions from Fodorites and checked the bags out in catalogs. Then I decided to spend a day in stores tracking the bags down if I could and trying them out. I took with me all the things I thought I might want in the day bag so that I could see exactly how (and if) they would fit.

The bag I decided on was the Eagle Creek Scout. Some bags I could find only through a catalog. They might have been just as good or better, but I was able to see the Scout in person and test it. And it turned out to be a good choice.

It can be worn over the shoulder or around the waist, and I liked that. I wore it both ways, but mostly over my shoulder. It has two outside web pockets. I use one for my water bottle and one for an umbrella. It has a pocket on the flap, which was handy for things I wanted easily accessible, like my camera. I liked the padded divider on the inside, so that if I took my video camera, it was protected. The bag has plenty of pockets, so I could be organized. I made a point of putting things in the same pockets each time so that I could find them easily.

If I wanted to take a lot of stuff – cameras, directions, map, tickets, sweater, rain poncho, lunch, or more -- it would all fit, but the bag isn’t too ungainly or heavy to use for long days of sightseeing.

Transport for London’s Journey Planner
This helped me almost more than anything. Mostly, it gave me confidence. Before we arrived in London, I sometimes wondered if we’d spend the two weeks in the flat, powerless to figure out the tube. Oh, if I’d only known how easy peasy it is. But since I didn’t know, the journey planner was a great help.

Put in any starting point and any ending point, by station or stop, post code, point of interest or street address, and it will provide exact directions on getting there, including such things as where you change lines, what line to take, whether you will need to climb stairs or will have an escalator, and the end station you’ll need. For example, if you are going to Archway by tube, you’ll want to go toward High Barnet.

Even more helpful for me were the maps, which show the station and area around it, including streets and points of interest. This helped me group sights. The maps also gave me a much better feel for the neighborhoods and getting around in them than the maps in the guidebooks. We used these maps for our daily excursions.

I left the States with a great stack of printed maps and the instructions on getting to the day’s destinations and used them at the first of our time in London. Then we began to feel like old hands, relaxed, and usually left them at home.

Things that were not so good
I bought some paper slippers from Magellan’s that were supposed to be good for when you had to take off shoes at airport security, for wearing on the plane, or even in a hotel room. They come in 10-packs. I found them flimsy, hard to put on, easily torn, and pretty much useless.

I also convinced myself to buy a pill wallet. It folds open from the middle and on each side it has eight rectangular, plastic containers to hold pills. The containers can be taken out and carried with you, which I thought might be handy, but it was a feature I never used. The soft plastic of the containers tended to stick together and made it hard to load the pills and get them out. Also, since the containers were numbered, but not identified by day, it was harder to tell whether I had taken the day’s pills than with my usual box.

I got a clothesline with loops that can be hooked onto doorknobs or whatever and doesn’t need clothespins. I like the concept of this, but I was never in a room where it would work. There never were two places to hook it that it would reach, so the verdict is still out.

sallyky is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 05:55 PM
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London – The first two weeks

Personal -- First, a little background. My husband, John, his cousin Jerry, and I, all in our mid-sixties, made the trip. Jerry was able to stay only for the two weeks of our first stop -- London. We are generally active and have backpacked together and enjoy hiking. John has plantar fasciitis, though, and our walking may be curtailed.

Goals & Itinerary -- We are all interested in history and art. John and I studied English literature. So we wanted to see museums, art galleries, and literary and historical places, and also just to get a feel for London. After London, John and I wanted to see varied areas and decided where to go by what I’d read in guidebooks or what friends had advised. We decided from the outset not to make a point of finding literary places, but visiting them if they fell into our ken. Otherwise, we’d never get anywhere.

John refused to drive and didn’t want me to, so our trip after London was entirely by public transportation: trains between cities, sometimes buses in cities, and tours to see the surrounding countryside. We stayed entirely in B&Bs, most of which I had researched prior to leaving the US.

Our itinerary was crazy. I think it was janisj who mentioned a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I intended a tour to Hadrian’s Wall from the Lake District, but after I had made reservations in Windermere, the tour was cancelled due to high fuel prices. So we wanted to stick in some time along the wall. We also had been introduced to friends (English) of friends (US) via e-mail, and they invited us to visit and be shown the “real” England, but they could do it only on a particular weekend. So our final schedule was London, Edinburgh, Windermere, Haltwhistle, Olney (almost back to London), York, Shrewsbury, Bath, Penzance, Salisbury, and Horley, to be near Gatwick. I know there are more craziness than I have explained, but, trust me, there are reasons for all our erratic rambling.

Past travels -- We have each made one trip abroad; each was a group trip, organized and led by group leaders. We simply did as we were told. Little did we know how easy that was. For this trip, I was researcher and tour guide leader, and the guys pretty much did as they were told. Not necessarily a bad thing, though sometimes being the ultimate decision maker seemed a pretty heavy responsibility.

Prior Expenditures -- Along with the British Rail Pass, I also bought Heritage Passes, an Oyster Card, and a seven-day travel card. I also booked tickets for the Big Bus Tour (a mistake, as you will hear), Buckingham Palace, Parliament, and the Globe. I made B&B reservations in Edinburgh and Windermere because in the spring when I checked on lodging, the first four or five B&Bs were filled for September. I assumed that after September it would be easier to find rooms, not always a good assumption.

OK. I’m tired of preliminaries. I’ll have you bored to tears before the trip even starts.

The Trip Begins – Finally -- John and I have lived in a 33-foot, fifth wheel trailer (caravan) since we retired nine years ago, so when Jerry told us we could park our home in his backyard while we were gone, instead of paying for a campground spot, it made sense to depart from his home in Kingsport, TN. Plus, security at little TriCities is a snap compared to bigger airports.

So our first adventure was moving the RV from our previous campground and backing it from a residential street through an 11-foot-wide gate into Jerry’s backyard. What looked like a cinch when we had examined the gate months earlier, turned out to be a lot harder in the reality, though if that silly speed limit sign hadn’t been in the way, it probably would have been pretty easy.

But finally we were parked, with only minor damage to Jerry’s magnolia tree, and resumed packing. We’d been packing for several weeks in an unfocused sort of way, but with the trip just days away, it was time to concentrate, pondering whether an item was worth its space and weight. Even so, and even with lists, it seemed we made daily trips out for some last-minute supposedly essential item.

When the day arrived, we flew Northwest to Detroit, endured a six-hour wait, and set off for London at about 9:30 PM, arriving at Gatwick about 10:00 AM Aug. 28. I found sleep was impossible, what with turbulence, meals, announcements, and a crying baby. I don’t know how I would change that next time.

I did gain a new view of jet lag. I realized that even if I were sitting in my own living room in the same time zone, staying awake for 32 hours straight would make me feel absolutely terrible, never mind the complication of a time change. So sleep is obviously the secret, if only I could figure out how to make it happen.

The clouds had cleared away a little as we flew over Ireland, and John joked he was glad they did because he had hated that we weren’t going to see Ireland this trip. And now we had.

Day 1 – Getting settled When I made arrangements for our flat, the owner, Lynn, told me she could arrange to have a car pick us up. Considering what I’d learned on the forum about making our way to Archway, and thinking about how tired we’d be and that we knew nothing about the Tube, we decided to take the car. For us, this time, it was a very good choice, though we might not do it that way again.

Lynn had said she would arrange to have a car pick us up, and all we’d have to do was look for a person holding up a sign with my name on it. Great! I always wanted to be met like that . . . except . . . when we arrived, there was nobody with a sign with my name on it. I called the car company and they had no record of a car being hired. But they could pick us up. We’d just have to wait till someone could get there. Many phone calls and much time later, a driver was on his way and even had a notion where we were. With Gatwick so big and us so unknowing, I had a hard time telling the driver where to find us.

This made me very glad we had a cell phone and SIM card. And here I want to give many, many thanks to xyz123 for the great information and advice about phones and yourcallworld. And special thanks to sashh, who had a T Mobile SIM card lying around and sent it to me free. Sashh, I’d meant to send personal thanks long before this, but have just found your address. Thanks very, very much. Things would have been even more difficult if we hadn’t had a phone ready to go.

We got in the car with great relief and headed north to Archway. The guys were in back and I was in front. As we sped out of the airport and into traffic, it was all I could do not to squeal as I saw cars headed right toward us. No. Wrong. We were just rounding a curve and the cars were on the other side of the road. Yikes! Then cars came roaring up from our left. I bit my lip not to make a sound. No doubt total fatigue had something to do with it, but I was terrified by all these rushing vehicles being in unexpected places. I turned to see if the guys were as terrified as I was. Nope. They were asleep.

After a bit, I was somewhat adjusted and we had gotten off the major highway and onto roads where the traffic was calmer, i.e., more congested. Now I was trying to figure out if we were going in the right direction. Absurd. How would I know? At times I would see a name I remembered from the maps, but it was usually for a place that shouldn’t be where we were. I consoled myself with the notion that sometimes signs just point to a direction; they don’t mean the road or neighborhood is right there.

After a bit we saw some interesting areas, as well as some scruffy ones where buildings were deteriorating and the people looked rough. The guys were now awake, and we were all nervous that we would be spending two weeks in one of these neighborhoods, but eventually we drove through Highgate, which was nice looking, and arrived at the corner of Holloway and Elthorne. It didn’t look bad, and we were much relieved. The price, £65, was what Lynn had said to expect, so we hadn’t been hauled all over Christendom on our journey. We lugged our numerous bags out of the car and made our first trip up the 92 stairs.

We knew there would be a mighty climb, but since there was also a great view, a dishwasher, wifi, a washer/dryer, TV, phone, and more, we had accepted the stairs. There also turned out to be plenty of room to spread out and relax. We got the tour of the flat and had lunch from the goodie basket of cheese, crackers, chocolate, cookies (Oops! Sorry. I mean biscuits.), and fruit provided. Lynn had said in an e-mail that she wanted guests to feel comfortable and restored when they arrived, and we certainly did. Then we got ourselves settled and headed out for exploration, supper, and then some groceries. Alas, waiting for the car at the airport left us with no time for any excursions further afield, even if we’d felt like going.

We walked over to the tube station to check it out and get a notion of what we needed to do the next morning. As we walked we also checked out the small shops and wide range of restaurants, including Italian, Greek, other Mediterranean, Indian, some pubs, a fish and chips place, a place offering a complete English breakfast, and, yes, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The neighborhood is very much regular folks. I’m sure we were the only tourists, and we liked that. We enjoyed seeing people from so many different backgrounds going about their business. There seemed to be a wide range of ethnic groups, many different types of people, clothes, and styles.

One of my favorite things became looking out the window first thing each morning and last thing each night to see what was happening on the street. There was always somebody about. We love the neighborhood. It just seems very vibrant and alive, very energizing.

After examining the tube station, we walked up the hill to see the statue to Dick Whittington’s cat. I was excited about this, as I remembered being enthralled with this story from childhood, though I had only vague memories of the details. As I recalled, the cat’s mousing ability enabled Dick to become the Lord Mayor of London.

Later we somehow got the whole story of the cat. I had forgotten it had to be sent off by ship to be bought by an eastern King whose palace was overrun with rats. It was the cat’s purchase price that made Dick a political figure. According to the version we read, the king was told that the cat was worth a fortune because she and her future kittens would keep his kingdom rat-free. Her kittens? Hmm. I wonder how Miss Puss produced those kittens in that previously catless kingdom?

We wandered about, trying to decide on a restaurant, and finally chose the fish & chips place to have what we thought of as a typical English meal on our first night. Turns out, however, that while the food was English, the cook and waitress were not. The cook asked if this was our first English fish and chips, and when he found out it was, said he really wanted us to have good memories of this meal. And we do. It was quite good, and he was very welcoming.

Fish and chips, and tea for two was £13.60.

We also learned that there, at least, tea only comes hot, not iced, and it will have milk. When I was a child, my mother would give me tea with milk when I was sick. But the adults never put milk in their tea. After trying it though, John and I decided we like our tea that way.

We then did a bit of shopping at a small Sainsbury’s right across the street from our flat and hauled our groceries up the 92 steps. It didn’t take long before we were trying to figure out how to raise our groceries via a rope to the window and lower our garbage the same way.

We looked out our window one last time to see St. Paul’s and the Eye in the distance, grinned huge grins, assured each other that we really were in London, and collapsed into bed.

sallyky is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 06:46 PM
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Looking forward to the rest! And your preliminary info wasn't boring at all. I've been working on my albums of pics from our July 08 trip (14 nights in London with 5 day trips) and your journal just reinforces my "wanna go back!!!!" feeling.
texasbookworm is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 07:03 PM
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Fun report, sallyky.
stokebailey is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 07:42 PM
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I'm enjoying this so far (not the least because it's so well organized!). Looking forward to more.
sf7307 is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 08:03 PM
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I agree that your pre-travel information was great - lots of new things I've never seen added before. Thanks for the link to the London Journey planner - why did I not know about this before? I'm sure others have mentioned it, but I was probably too lazy to look at it It's a great site.

Never knew there was such a thing as a travel strip outlet - will have to look into that.

Looking forward to the rest of your trip report!
Anna1013 is offline  
Nov 26th, 2008, 11:38 PM
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Really interesting to read your report. You've included lots of things that most people don't which makes it a bit different.

Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the next bit....

PS Coming from a family where tea is always hot and always has milk, it's interesting to read that was a bit unusual for you. We had the reverse on our trips to the USA. Iced tea seemed to us be very strange.
KayF is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 04:37 AM
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You'e making me "homesick" for the flat in Archway, sallyky (I'm longing to hear "this train terminates at High Barnet" again on the subway!)

Did you see the Banksy on Highgate Hill across the street from the tube station?

Looking forward to reading more!
Apres_Londee is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 04:52 AM
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>>We had the reverse on our trips to the USA.
>>Iced tea seemed to us be very strange.

Kay -- In the US, John and I usually drink water, but Jerry loves iced tea. He sometimes felt deprived in London. I sometimes drink hot tea in the US and would drink more if restaurants did better. Often they give only one small cup of hot water. Iced tea is offered again and again, but it's often tough getting more hot water.

texasbookworm -- I haven't even finished the trip report for this trip and I already wanna go back too!

Apres_Londee -- We didn't see the Banksy. Don't know how we could have missed it. So glad you enjoyed the flat too.
sallyky is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 11:10 AM
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London -- Day Two -- Aug. 29 -- We go for a ride

Most days we didn’t set an alarm. Generally we’d get up about 7:30 and start getting ready for our day’s excursion. We’d eat breakfast at the flat and pack lunches for the day. Then we were off.

John wanted a total oat product for breakfast, so while Jerry and I enjoyed our multi-grain Cheerios, John ate Oatabix. Jerry and I tried it – once. Aargh. I’m sorry, but that stuff is awful. It looked like something I’d feed horses. And when it got soggy, it was even worse. Then the texture made me gag. But John mumbled about cholesterol and plugged away at it.

This day we were nervously excited about riding the tube. Since I’d already ordered a 7-day paper travel card for me and an Oyster card for about the same amount of money for John, we were ready to ride. The idea was to see which would prove most economical and then buy for the second week. Jerry ended up buying a 7-day travel card loaded on the Oyster card. John needed to reload after about four days, maybe because we often rode during peak times, so my travel card was much more economical. Not to mention the savings on the two-for-ones.

When Jerry bought his ticket, the man at the counter asked if he was voting for Obama. Jerry said that was kind of a personal question, which caused the man to laugh – a lot. We are surprised at the interest in Obama and American politics generally. Many of the papers have articles about Obama.

I enjoyed seeing what people read on the tube. This morning I noticed a person reading Sartre and another reading Lolita. And always many people read the free newspapers.

A friend had told me that once the trip turned from expectation to experience, we wouldn’t be so anxious. He was right, and it is equally true of the tube. What with the vocal announcements, the message board, and the maps on the sides of the cars, it was easy to watch obsessively to see where we were and when we needed to exit. So we made it to Victoria easily, and were quite proud of ourselves, especially for remembering to get out of everybody’s way before regrouping and wondering what in the world to do next.

We were a little overwhelmed by Victoria Station, as we tried to figure out where to exit for the Big Bus Tour, our day’s agenda. I had bought tickets to be delivered in the States, thinking it would make things easier, but that was a mistake. I did not get tickets, but vouchers, which had to be exchanged at the office near Victoria Station. We could have bought tickets in London at any Big Bus stop and not had to go to a specific place.

But here we were in Victoria Station, clueless. We had already decided that asking for help was to be our approach, so I asked a flower seller for the way out. She snarled at me in no uncertain terms. Oops. Maybe not such a good plan.

Never mind. We found our way out and found the Big Bus Company and got our tickets. Now all we needed to do was find the actual bus stop. Not so easy. We walked into chaos. There were people all over the sidewalks. Tourists with much luggage were pouring out of a hotel. The three of us could hardly keep together. Then a lovely young man, as helpful as the young woman had been horrid, noticed we were floundering and asked if he could help. Yes! He got us oriented and gave us directions. We were off.

What a delight to see all the places I had been studying about for months, and had heard about for many years – lovely buildings, Harley Street, Carnaby Street, Pall Mall, Wellington’s Arch, Whitehall, the Horse Guards, and the Big Ferris Wheel. Big Ferris wheel? Yes. To add to the debate about the London Eye, our tour guide called it the big Ferris wheel. John did some research later and concluded that it is not a Ferris wheel because the cars sit on top instead of hang down. More fuel for the fire.

When we got to the Tower, we got off the bus to take the river cruise to Westminster. The bus was great, but it put distance between us and the things we were seeing, so they seemed a little unreal. It was fun to be part of the crowd at the Tower. It was a beautiful day, so we ate our sandwiches on the plaza as we watched a man in medieval garb demonstrate catapulting water balloons in the Tower moat. There were enough tourists that we were glad we were not here in the high season.

The river cruise was great. We saw the Globe, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, the gherkin building, and many other sights. Then we rejoined the bus tour to finish out the circle. We had a somewhat better tour guide this time, giving us much more information and telling more jokes than the first one. When we went past St, James Court, he told us that was where the Wimbledon players stayed during the tournament. Court, get it? Moan. He also told a vampire joke that included Frankenstein and Margaret Thatcher, but I can’t remember it.

Jerry wanted to visit Harrod’s, so we hopped off the bus to go there. What an amazing place. Mostly we visited the food section, which was the most exotic part of what we saw. High priced furs or shoes or bags are impressive because of their large price tags, like the $1400 handbag, but the food section is impressive because of the kinds of items, such as quail and grouse, and the way they are presented, such as the whole fish or hams with the legs still attached. And of course there were more usual things such as the chocolates of all kinds. The whole store was most opulent.

The food hall had many little lunch counters, if you could call them that, offering various kinds of food. Later I learned the store has numerous restaurants, one for gelato, one for oysters, one for pizza, and so forth.

Maybe the most exotic things, though, were not for sale. There was a statue of King Tut and a memorial to Dodi and Diana. That took us aback for a moment, mostly because of the amount of time that has elapsed since their deaths. Another thing that surprised me was the large number of older middle easterners shopping there, though I guess the connection would make that a given too.

Anyway, the whole excursion was quite an experience. We searched hard to find some little item we could afford for a souvenir. I finally got a tin of tea, which of course has Harrod’s written on it, so, when the tea’s gone, it will still be fun to show people.

We would love to have stayed longer, but we wanted to get to Borough Market before it closed. Thanks to those who suggested that. We loved it. Here was another food court, but quite different form Harrod’s. Probably just as yummy though. Aside from the eating, it was fun to see all the foods. I tasted some pesto and thought it was so good I bought a small container, even though I thought it was way too much for us to eat.

Jerry had never had pesto before and he liked it. Over the next few days, we found ourselves dipping bread, crackers, or even cheese in it. It did get eaten. We also got some olives and cheese. We ate supper there too, with our primary criteria for food choice being whether we could sit down to eat. By this time our feet ached – a lot.

We got home, climbed our 92 steps and watched cricket on the TV. We loved it. We didn’t understand it a bit, but it was fun to watch. So endeth the second day.

sallyky is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 11:37 AM
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Terrific. I do like the way you write, it's like you are sitting next to me, telling the story.

Looking forward to more.
KayF is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 12:34 PM
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Sounds like you had a great time!

I do really love your style of writing. Can't wait for the rest!
Nov 27th, 2008, 01:41 PM
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Posts: 261
Thanks so much for your kind comments. It always feels good to know people are enjoying what I'm writing. I'm enjoying doing the writing too. I think we were often so busy going and doing, we didn't have time to really take in and absorb it all. Writing the report lets me live it a second time -- and at a slower pace!
sallyky is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 02:11 PM
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Another one enjoying your report...London is a favorite city and it's fun to see it through your eyes. Thanks for sharing!
Andeesue is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 04:31 PM
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What an enjoyable trip report! I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

Lee Ann
ElendilPickle is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 06:34 PM
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Oh, this is great! Wonderful so far. I remember your planning threads and was wondering how things worked out.
janisj is online now  
Nov 27th, 2008, 09:43 PM
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Yay I got mentioned in a trip report, doing a celebratory dance now.

I love seeing an outsider's view of Britain and this is so easy to read.
sashh is offline  
Nov 27th, 2008, 10:18 PM
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Alas, I did not contribute to your journey but am really loving your report - and you are 'giving back' for the next newbie!
Rhea58 is offline  
Nov 28th, 2008, 07:58 AM
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London – Day Three – Sat., Aug. 30 – Church and State: Westminster Abbey and Parliament

For some reason we decided to eat out this morning and got the full English breakfast: eggs, onion rings, beans, tomato, mushrooms, bacon, and sausage. We were pretty happy with everything but the sausage. It tasted to me like the soy sausage we have in the States to cut the fat content. And there wasn’t much spiciness to it.

As we were to find in many restaurants, the waitress was not British. Cost for two was £10.90 with tea.

At Archway tube station, we were talking about which train to take and a man standing near asked if he could help. He not only helped, but we had a lovely conversation till our train arrived. More than once on Fodor’s, I have read that the English, especially Londoners, do not easily engage in conversations with strangers. I am thinking I might have to revise my thinking on that. Perhaps looking lost is the conversational enticement.

Our agenda included Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the dismounting ceremony of the Horse Guards, and as many of the other things in the area as possible: the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, Westminster Cathedral, the Banqueting House, the Jewel Tower.

Obviously we were way too ambitious, as we made only the first three. We know about ourselves that we when we look at things, we really look, so estimates of time have to be doubled or tripled for us. Also, as some Fodorites have mentioned, you have to figure in the time getting places, casual looking, toilet breaks, eating, loafing in the sunshine or whatever else comes along.

We were going to Westminster Abbey to take the first verger tour, which began at 10 am, and arrived well before time, so we walked over Westminster Bridge to take the requisite pictures of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. We were not the only ones. The bridge was crowded with other people taking pictures and milling about to view the Thames. The morning light was fantastic and gave a glow to the buildings and especially the clock tower. And we were thinking – ah – we’re really here.

Since I strongly believe in being early rather than late, I am often very early, and so it was this morning. We had time to walk along the Houses of Parliament and view the Cromwell statue before taking in St. Margaret’s Church on our way to the Abbey. Not that we set out to view the Cromwell statue. We hadn’t even known it was there. But it made sense, since he did, after all, lead the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. And we learned Cromwell worshipped in nearby St. Margaret’s, which the Pilgrims felt was more fitting for worship than the bigger and more ornate Abbey. John Milton was a parishioner too.

I would certainly recommend a look in at St. Margaret’s along with the Abbey, especially as it is so close. And even more would I recommend the 90-minute verger tour. It was fantastic. Well worth the extra £3, though perhaps our guide was especially good. He was bouncy, energetic, funny, and very informative. He carried a flag so that we could see and find him in the crowds of people and at one point he was skipping along with his flag flying high.

Because we took the tour, we were able to enter parts of the Abbey not open to other visitors, including the shrine holding the tomb of Edward the Confessor. We saw the stones worn down by pilgrims’ knees and felt the weight of history, the long line of kings and queens, and the spiritual aspect of this awesome place.

We also were taken into the quire, the rows of seats where the choir sits, and got to sit there ourselves while the verger talked about that part of the Abbey. We learned the Abbey is called a royal peculiar because it reports directly to the monarch, and we saw where the Queen sits when she is in attendance.

Because Westminster Abbey is a working church, and perhaps to remind the many visitors it is so, a prayer is broadcast for a minute or so every hour. I’m sure it is difficult, with so many tourists, to maintain an awareness of the building’s spiritual center. Naturally enough, here and at the other major church buildings, people focus on the architecture, history, and beauty of the building, but the churches regain their spiritual identity during services.

One of the most interesting things to me was the verger’s description of how the Abbey looked during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He described the physical structure, where people were sitting, how she was dressed and what took place. In 1953, my parents didn’t have a television and my grandparents, did, so I spent the night with them so my grandmother could wake me in the early hours of the morning to see the coronation. When I, age 10, grumbled at the early hour, she told me this was very important and that some day I would be very glad to have seen it. She was right, and never more so than when I stood in the very place where it happened.

We learned that vergers tidy up a church, being responsible for its upkeep; they lead people in and out of church; and they lead the religious participants as they move about the church. Originally vergers used a stick, perhaps because they also had to keep animals out of the building or the people inside behaving, but now they use a heavy silver or golden rod.

At one point, our guide, answering a question I hadn’t heard, said he’d been a virgin for 11 years. What!? I puzzled over that one for some time till I realized he’d said he’d been a verger for 11 years.

The only thing we didn’t like about Westminster Abbey, and the houses of Parliament too, was not being able to take pictures. Oh how helpful they would be in remembering the overwhelming number of things we saw. There’s so much to see in the Abbey that there’s no way I can describe it. We saw tombs, effigies, memorials, the coronation chair, statues, the poets’ corner, the numerous 10-foot Waterford crystal chandeliers given by the Guinness brewery family, regalia of the Order of the Bath in the Henry VII Chapel, the museum, the cloisters, and more. The mind boggles. Writing this, I realize, yes, I will have to go back.

I find from my notes that I was struck by a number of random things. At the effigy of Mary, Queen of Scots, someone had managed to get flowers through the wrought iron palings surrounding her tomb. It looked difficult to do, but when I mentioned it to the verger, he said there are often flowers left there. I didn’t notice the kind of flower, to note if it had a special meaning of remembrance or mourning.

This is one example of many we accumulated over our stay of how, as with the American Civil War, people do not forget, regardless of the number of years that have passed. Maybe it were better so, but it’s also touching in a way.

There are many great people buried or memorialized in the Abbey, including many scientists, but a surprise was Charles Darwin. He seemed a strange choice to be found in a religious edifice, but the verger said Great Britain does not see a conflict between evolution and religion the way the US does. They do not believe evolution and Christianity are mutually exclusive. Plus, Darwin’s contribution to science was so important that he was honored by a state funeral and buried close to Isaac Newton.

I particularly liked the Henry VII chapel, which holds the stalls of the most senior members of the Order of the Bath. That made me think about the origins of the word installation. The members’ banners, helms and crests are displayed above their stalls. They are colorful and medieval looking. The crests are created by the members themselves, so they often were quite interesting and unusual. There's a rooster; there's one with a hand holding what appears to be calipers; numerous ones with dogs; numerous birds; a bear dancing; and a dog or bear playing a musical instrument. To see a great picture, click this link and be sure to enlarge it.

The poet's corner was of course a major hit since John and I were both English majors and once hoped to be teaching English literature at the university level. We felt like we were among old friends. What an amazing thing to be among the burial places and memorials of such august company. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spencer, Byron. All our friends.

By this time we were pretty much exhausted and sat in the north cloister to rest our feet and eat our packed lunches, the dreaded cheese sandwiches.

After lunch, we hustled over to the Houses of Parliament for our tour, thankful we had come to London while Parliament was on vacation. We went through the extensive security and waited excitedly for our timed tour to start.

It was wonderful. The furnishings themselves were impressive enough, but we also saw the Changing Room, where the queen dons her robes if she is to speak to Parliament. We stood among the benches where the members sit, though we were told our own bottoms were not allowed to touch them. We saw the lounge. We learned that while the Queen is not allowed to go into the House of Commons, a member of the House is held hostage at the Palace. We vastly enjoyed hearing the stories and seeing the beautiful architecture.

In the big anteroom where we waited for our tour, there is a replica of No. 10 Downing Street where folks can get their pictures taken. Of course I had to do that.

I wish I could remember more, but my memory is a blur and my notes are sparse. I remember oohing and ahing, but not much specific.

From there we went to the Horse Guards to watch the dismounting ceremony. Two guards on horseback were stationed outside the courtyard where the dismounting ceremony eventually took place. Lots of people were crowding around and getting a picture of themselves with a guard and horse or patting the horse. Despite thinking the horse might take exception to that, I decided I needed a picture too and got myself right in there.

John and Jerry decided to sit until the ceremony began, but I toured the museum and found it very interesting, though that may be because I am a horse person. The museum had uniforms, harness, history of the Guards, and video on training and the life of a Guard.

I had a nice chat with a young man working at the museum who asked me if the weather was hotter in London or where I came from. London. Absolutely. He was quite surprised. Me too, for that matter. But it had been cool when we left Tennessee and was sunny, hot and humid in London that day.

When the time came, we really enjoyed the dismounting ceremony. We were able to see with no problem and the process was impressive. Following some Fodorite advice, I had decided on the Horse Guards ceremony rather than the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and, of course, the guys had to go with me. ;-) There was a great deal of marching, order giving, and feet stamping, not only by the human participants, but by one of the horses. It was pawing the ground quite a bit. Some observers might have thought it was counting the assembled tourists, but I have owned horses and I knew exactly what it was saying: I . . .want . . . my . . . Oatabix!

We’re glad that so many streets are tourist friendly and have painted instructions on them saying “Look Left” or “Look Right.” That probably saved us many times.

On aching feet, we worked our way back to Archway, feeling that we were handling the underground pretty well, even when I didn’t have step-by-step plans with me. We were so tired we struggled into a Greek place with foods in hot pans right at the front. There were no menus. We told the owner what we wanted – i.e. we pointed -- and slumped into chairs at the back of the small restaurant. I then decided I wanted a salad too and went back to see if he had any. Oh, yes, he said. That comes with it.

We very much felt like he was taking care of us. First he brought bread, olives and hot peppers, as well as water to wash them down. Then we had salad with sauce, lamb stew, and rice in goodly proportions. It was £9.60 for two. Good price too. Less than we paid for breakfast. It wasn’t haute cuisine by any means, but it was good and filling. We were quite happy with it. And we enjoyed the owner’s solicitude.

We spent the evening in what became our routine. John downloaded pictures to the computer as backup. I organized what we’d need in the way of tickets or directions for the next day’s excursion. Jerry did whatever else needed doing. And we watched cricket any night it was on.

Watching the news on TV required an adjustment. I’m still disoriented and found myself thinking, “Huh. They all have English accents.” Well, duh.

sallyky is offline  
Nov 28th, 2008, 09:28 AM
Join Date: Oct 2007
Posts: 2,337
I really like your style of writing with bolded headings, etc. Am really looking forward to the rest of your report (I LOVE the UK)!
travel2live2 is offline  

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