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Trip report - Two weeks in London - April 2009

Trip report - Two weeks in London - April 2009

Old Oct 30th, 2009, 01:34 PM
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Trip report - Two weeks in London - April 2009

Prologue/planning
I am in my early 40’s, living in Vancouver, Canada and had never been outside of North America before. I decided to do something about it. My primary interest was in history (Vancouver has many good qualities, but a sense of history is not one of them), with art and architecture also of some interest. I picked London for my first trip because a) I knew more about its’ history that I did about most European countries, and b) I wouldn’t have to worry about language issues.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of trip traveling between cities so I decided to plop myself down in one place and explore.

My trip planning was mostly done using the internet, I did buy a couple of guidebooks, which were helpful in getting an overview, but generally the web allowed a much greater degree of detailed planning, right down to maps of each days itinerary.
Pre-trip purchases:

Historic Royal Palaces pass: Allows for entry to Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. Good for one year.

Return train ticket to York. (planned day-trip, did not work out as planned, for better or worse I will let you decide)

Ceremony of the Keys ticket – every night (for the last 700 odd years, although it was apparently late once or twice during the Blitz), the Tower has a formal ceremony to secure the tower for the night. There is no cost, but you do need to apply well in advance for a ticket. (a couple of months in advance, possibly more if your plan on going during peak tourist season)

Travel day – (April 1st/2nd) A long flight, and an encounter with the police!
My flight was due to leave around supper-time and I was mostly packed already, so I spent the morning waiting impatiently for departure time and doing some last minute detail planning.
Flight was scheduled to take 9 hours and 10 minutes direct from Vancouver to Heathrow. Spent an extra 45 minutes on the tarmac in Vancouver, apparently the departures were backed up for some reason. Other than that, the flight was uneventful and I actually managed to sleep for a couple of hours on the flight, which I usually can’t do. Arrived around 11:30 local time, spent about an hour clearing immigration and gathering luggage (customs was painless, waiting for the luggage less so). Took the Heathrow Connect into London, which dropped me off less than a 10 minute walk from the hotel.

I stayed at the Oxford Hotel (on Craven Terrace, about 150m North of Hyde Park.). Before I comment on my experience there, I should point out there are actually 2 Oxford Hotels in London (the other is in Earl’s Court I believe, and has a less than stellar reputation) I had a single room for which I paid 55 pounds per night, including tax. As accommodations in London go, this seemed pretty cheap to me.
Good points: Cheap (to me anyway), private washroom (not a given in London), ensuite microwave, coffee maker and mini-fridge, fairly quiet, reasonably centrally located, Laundromat

Not-so-good points: Breakfast (free cold breakfast was included, but I didn’t find it very appealing. After the first week, I stopped bothering with it, just kept bananas, milk and some granola bars in my room), bathroom in particular was small, stairs were steep and narrow( I have size ten feet, and if I put my toe against the base of the next step, a good 2 inches of my heel would be hanging out over the edge of the previous step) Oh, and no elevator.

Would I stay there again? Absolutely, all I need is a clean quiet space to lay my head at night, I wish the breakfast was a little more appealing, but the microwave and fridge more than ample compensation.

Anyway, I had figured I would be tired so I didn’t plan much for my first day. After checking into the motel, I wandered around to Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens and went to Kensington Palace. Hyde Park was pleasant enough, but… well, I am just spoiled living in Vancouver I guess. Trees and natural beauty are pretty much a given here. But it was nice to be out in the sunshine and stretching my legs after the long flight. The palace was impressive (Paintings, ceiling mural etc.) to me at the time, but paled in comparison to what was to come later.

After leaving Kensington Palace, I went for a walk in the neighbourbood. On St. Petersburgh Place, I encountered this brick church (actually, a synagogue, which probably helps explain what happened next) that I thought looked neat, so I took a couple of pictures of it. No sooner did I do this than two police officers came wandering in my direction, wanting to know why I was taking the pictures. They were very polite, it was all pretty harmless really, but it was a little disconcerting, especially considering I had been in London for about 4 hours.

I started tiring fairly quickly, so I found a Pizza Express, had some supper and called it a night.

Tomorrow: 13 hour day, including Westminster Abbey, Churchill Museum, and the Ceremony of the Keys.
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Old Oct 30th, 2009, 02:49 PM
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hi glenmd,

that hotel does sound like a bargain, especially with the fridge and m/wave. did you find yourself using it much?

looking forward to seeing London through your eyes,

regards, ann
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Old Oct 30th, 2009, 03:32 PM
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Day 2 – The day I got lost in Hyde Park

Another sunny day dawned and I decided I would walk from the hotel through Hyde Park, and past Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. (roughly 4km). So I set out around 8:15 (plenty of time I thought to make it to the abbey for it’s 9:30 opening). After about 30 minutes of walking, I approach a monument which I could swear I recognize from yesterday. I check the map again, and sure enough I am now further from the abbey that I was when I left the hotel. <blushes>. So, I reorient myself and make best possible speed to Westminster, glancing at Buckingham Palace on the way (which really doesn’t look that impressive from the outside, and they only run tours in August and September, so the outside was all I was going to see).

Westminster Abbey was my first awe inspiring moment in London. So much history, burial place of monarchs dating back to Edward the Confessor (possibly earlier, his was the one I remember), I particularly liked the notion of Mary I and Elizabeth I being buried together, given the diverging paths they steered the country on during their respective reigns; the coronation chair, complete with graffiti from choir boy … if you go, take the verger’s tour, it helps fill in some of the history (and when I was there, it was the only way to get into Edward the Confessor’s Chapel, due to its’ age.)

I spent about 2.5 hours in total inside the abbey. Afterwards, I walked around the Westminster area bit, taking the obligatory photos of parliament and Big Ben. This was my first real encounter with the volume of tourists in London. I mean, Westminster Abbey was certainly crowded, but it wasn’t until I was outside on the street that realized the full scope of the situation. Everywhere you turned there were walls of people taking pictures, ready to mow you down if you slowed down too much. Anyone who lives or works in that area of city must hate tourists. By the end of the two weeks, I was starting to hate them too, and I was one!

Next up was the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms – mildly interesting, but as someone who knows a fair bit about the history of the period, I wasn’t that in awe of it. One amusing thing I saw in there: There was a sign that was kept updated on what the weather conditions were on the surface, because apparently for a lot of the staff that worked down there rarely got to the surface themselves. Maybe amusing isn’t the right word, now that I think of it.

I popped into the Banqueting House to have a look at the ceiling(the only thing in there basically) and headed across the Thames. Then I proceeded to walk a long the south bank of the Thames, just taking in the city and the people. I stopped for supper, and dropped by Tate Modern for a little while. My interest in modern art in pretty limited, but I figured it was worth a look, plus I had time to kill before the Ceremony of the Keys, which wasn’t until 9:30. Some of the exhibits were… interesting. One that stood out for me: an artist had taken 25 objects made of silver: cutlery, serving platters, a trumpet etc., had them flattened by a steamroller, and then suspended them a uniform 6” from the ceiling. What the point of this was I have no idea.

The Ceremony of the Keys was interesting mostly of the point of view of continuity. Seeing the same ritual that has been carried out night after night, unchanging for 700 plus years was very satisfying to me.

Finally, back to the hotel and a well deserved sleep.

Tomorrow: Sir John Sloan’s Museum and the Imperial War Museum
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Old Oct 30th, 2009, 03:41 PM
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glenmd, I'm enjoying this a lot. You aren't the only person who gets lost in Hyde Park. I had a similar experience too.
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Old Oct 30th, 2009, 04:02 PM
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Great report so far. I had similar feelings to yours about the Abbey's verger tour (great) and the Churchill Museum/Cabinet War Rooms (interesting but not completely my cup of tea). Looking forward to more.
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 02:46 AM
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annhig: The fridge I used to keep milk and some fruit in mostly, along with leftovers occasionally. The microwave, I used a few times to make supper when I didn't want to go out.

It was definitely handy to have them.
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 02:50 AM
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Day three - How fatigue cause me to succumb to a tourist trap.


I set out on foot before 9:00 headed for Sir John Soane's Museum. Encountered a couple of nifty little "green" squares along the way, enclosed with fencing and with benches for sitting. I found these very soothing, even surrounded as they were by roads. Reach the museum about 10:30ish, which was later than I had intended, which meant there was a line to get in (the house definitely has a limited capacity for people). Waited about 10 minutes. Unremarkable from the outside, the museum (which was the man's actual home when he was a alive) was a marvel on the inside. First, the house itself has very little artificial light, there are skylights everywhere of all different sizes. And in every last single square inch of space (and I am NOT exaggerating) was filled with curios, sculptures, paintings etc. Original artifacts stand side by side with 18th century reproductions. And books, many, many books. Well worth the time to go see it.

From there I walked South a bit, and eventually hopped on a bus to The Imperial War Museum. The museum covers the wars of the 20th century, mostly focused on the 2 world wars. This was period of history I knew a fair bit about, and so I was looking forward to it. I wasn't disappointed. Along with the displays of weapons and uniform and historical information on the course of the conflicts, there were other displays on how civilians were impacted, from rationing to a whole section of how conflicts affected the lives of children. Of course, given the nature of the material, a lot of it wasn't a particularly happy experience (in particular, I remember a copy of a letter written by a child to her before they both got on life boats, unfortunately the child did not survive), but I did find it very informative.
Then there was the Holocaust exhibit. The are age restrictions on who can enter (IIRC, under 14 requires a parent, under 11's are simply not permitted.) There is a reason for this. But honestly, while there where some disturbing images and descriptions contained, the real horror comes from the stark way in which the entire history, from Hitler's rise to power through the arrival of the allies in Germany, is laid out in front of you.

I spent a good 4 hours in the IWM (and probably could have spent more). After grabbing a bite to eat, I started wandering in the direction of the London Eye. I had planned on skipping the Eye (16 pounds seemed like a awful lot of money for what it basically a giant amusement park ride.), but by the end of day 2 I had already realized that my 75 pounds per diem for food and attractions was much more than I needed, so I said what the hell. Plus sunset would be coming in the next hour or two. so the timing was good. I got there and discovered that there were in fact 2 lines. The regular line and the express line. The regular line looked like about a 30 minute wait, just to buy a ticket, then another 45 minute to actually get out the ride. On the other had hand, there was no line to buy the express ticket, and you were permitted to bypass most of the line to get on the ride. So naturally I took the express line. It worked out well, the sun was going down as I went around with wonderful views of the city.

From there it home to bed.

Tomorrow, Windsor Castle.

PS Oh, you want to know how much the express ticket for the London Eye was. Well, if you insist... 27 pounds. Yep, about $50 Canadian.
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 03:17 AM
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byw you can book London Eye tickets in advance.....

http://www.londoneye.com/
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 05:02 AM
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What's the "regular" price for the Eye?
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 05:08 AM
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Loads. About £15 I think. It's been a few years since I was on it. It's expensive but worth it (IMHO).
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 02:32 PM
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We brits really do seem to be struggling with the whole camera thing. Some times people think they own their face, some people think you take their soul if you use a camera, some people think if you photo buildings you are going to blow them up and some people think taking pictures of children means you want to have sex with them.

Mad eh
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 06:03 PM
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Day 3 Windsor Castle or "What is the point of being Queen if you can't stop every airline in the world(apparently) from routing their flights directly over your kitchen?"

Set off fairly early (by 8 or so) and headed to Waterloo Station to catch a train to Windsor/Eton. Train was on-time. took less than an hour. Windsor Castle is all of a ten-minute (at most) walk from the train station. There were of course oodles of people, but in the outdoor areas is wasn't too terrible. There are regular guided tours leaving from the entrance. There is no additional fee for them and I wholeheartedly recommend that you take one. It was both entertaining and informative. Once humorous tidbit I remember from the tour: Apparently Elizabeth I was a big believer in the virtues of exercise, so much so that she would have her staff gather in the yard on a regular basis to exercise together. If she wasn't pleased with their efforts, she would set the dogs on them. I didn't have the presence of mind to inquire if they were corgis.

During the tour it was occasionally hard to hear our guide, due to the never ending procession of commercial airliners, every 5 to 10 minutes or so one would pass overhead.

After the tour finished up, I headed into the state apartments (or rather, the line to enter the state apartments, about 20 minutes for me). The state apartments are overwhelming in the level of opulence. 50 ft. high ceilings, magnificent paintings on every wall, suits of armour and weapons ... I don't really have the words to describe it all (and of course, no photography is permitted, so I can't show you either ). You really have to see it for yourself. If you are going to Windsor Castle, you definitely need to see the state apartments.

There are a couple of pieces of Windsor castle that aren't open every day, both the State Apartments and St. George's Chapel. The day I went St. George's chapel was closed (I had checked ahead of time, but this was the day that fit my schedule, so I was willing to miss the chapel).

After leaving the Castle, I took some time to wander around Windsor and Eton, where apparently they have a healthy swan population (there were 2 or 3 dozen in one small area, with of course a gaggle of tourists on the shoreline watching and feeding them. While wandering near Eton College, I was tempted to see if the gift shop carried school canes (purely for the sense of history, not in any way intended for recreational purposes ), but I thought a) It was fairly unlikely that the official school gift shop would carry such an item and b) I was not really interested in attempting to explain such a purchase to some humorless customs officer.

I think Windsor Castle was my first encounter with police/military types wandering around with semi-automatic weapons. This was something I encountered in a number of places during my trip. I comment on it because I have lived in Canada for 40 plus years and never had this experience, ever. A little bit of culture shock I guess.

I was back in London by 4 or so, took it easy for the rest of the day.

Tomorrow, Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory, Museum in London Docklands.
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 06:13 PM
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Following along, and enjoying your report!
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Old Oct 31st, 2009, 06:54 PM
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Enjoying your report very much, and looking forward to more.
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Old Nov 1st, 2009, 09:02 AM
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Day 4 - Greenwich
Took the DLR to Greenwich, spent an hour or so in the Maritime Museum, did some walking in the area, including the spot where work continues on the restoration of the Cutty Sark, headed up to the Royal Observatory, then headed back on the DLR, and stopped for visit to Museum of London Docklands.

I had a hard time thinking of much to say about this day. It is not that the places I went were uninteresting, I enjoyed all of the them, but nothing really stood out in my memory. The views North back toward London from the Royal Observatory were nice. The one thing I did find fascinating (and your mileage may vary ) was the historical information on the development of how ships were able to determine their position East-West at sea. The ability to determine how far a ship was from the Equator by using the sun's position had been known for many centuries, but East-West positioning was much more challenging. Eventually it was figured out that if you knew what time it was in a specific place (say London) at midday ship's time, you could use that information to determine how far you were East-West of London. However, that involved having a method of determining the time in London that was both accurate AND not affected by the motion of the ship. Satisfying one of these conditions was easy - but satisfying both of them together proved very difficult indeed.

The Docklands museum is focused on the history of London as a port and was interesting in spite of my inability to recall much by way of detail.


Maybe my lack of memory of this day has to do with my mood at the time. I was traveling alone and I am an introvert by nature, which meant I basically hadn't spoken to anyone since I arrived in London other than servers in restaurants and other commerce related activities. I would never have believed it if you had told me beforehand, but I was actually feeling rather lonely. Yes, in a city of 11 million or so people. I was exchanging emails with a few people back home, but of course that is really not the same. Anyway, I got over it and pushed on with the rest of the trip, but it did shake me a little to realize how much I missed human contact.

Well, since this day was so brief, I will push on to tomorrow in the same post.


Day 5, The National Gallery and Phantom of the Opera

Tuesday started with a visit to TKTS booth in Leicester Square to purchase tickets for Phantom of The opera (and Mamma Mia for the following Tuesday). TKTS, for anyone reading who is unfamiliar with them, are supported by the various theatres as a place to get discounted theatre tickets. If you are looking for a way to save a little money and of course willing to risk the possibility that your favorite show maybe not have any seats available on the night you want to go, then TKTS is the place for you. I should mention that there are many other resellers in the same area, but as they are not backed by the local theatres, it is very much a situation where "caveat emptor" applies.

I then headed to the National Gallery. Like many of the museums and galleries in London, it is free. I do not pretend to have any level of sophistication when it come to art, mostly I just appreciate beauty where I find it, in whatever form it happens to come in. I was completely blown away by a lot of what I saw, both the sheer scale of the paintings and at the same time the level of detail in them. Not to mention the age of the some of works. The notion of looking at the works of people who in some cases had lived and died 600 years before I was born is humbling.

Having seen it, I don't really understand what all the fuss is about regarding Van Gogh's Sunflowers. There were many, many paintings that interested me more. (Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude comes to mind as one that stood out for me):

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/pa...f-saint-ursula

I suppose this is one of those places where that sophistication would have come in handy.


After a few hours, the crowds began to wear me down (a theme that was to recur in the days to come.), so I headed out. There is a shop in London that sells high end wooden chess sets (Chess & Bridge, 44 Baker Street). I spent some time looking various sets, eventually settling on one for about 250 pounds. This admittedly was an extravagance, but one I had budgeted for at least.

Then I had an early supper (or late lunch, however you choose to look at it) at a pizza express. I had a lot suppers there. There were a couple things about my dining experiences I should relate. One, the concept of toppings is very different from North America. My first night in London, I ordered a pepperoni pizza. It arrived at my table and there were maybe 8 or 9 tiny pieces of pepperoni on the entire pizza. In North America, there would be more pepperoni on every slice than that. The amount of cheese was similar. After two weeks of this, I kind of got used it. It certainly is healthier anyway. On the other hand, my first day back in Vancouver, I went to restaurant near my house and was very happy to have a "normal" amount of toppings, so perhaps I wasn't entirely convinced.

The other dining related adjustment I had to make was regarding the bill. I finished my meal that first night, continued reading my newspaper and awaited the arrival of the bill. And waited, and waited, and waited some more. Understand, the service to this point had been excellent, so I was taken aback. Normally at home the bill would arrive at my table a few minutes after finishing my meal. The notion that I would have to ask for it never occurred to me.

I headed home to change, then went out to see Phantom of the Opera, which I very much enjoyed.

Tomorrow: Hampton Court Palace.
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Old Nov 1st, 2009, 09:08 AM
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Glen, great report. Two weeks is a nice time to have in London.

Certainly it can be a bit lonely to be an introverted solo traveler. Taking walking tours (like with London Walks) is a good way to meet interesting people to talk to for a bit.
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Old Nov 1st, 2009, 09:38 AM
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I travel solo a lot, and when I get "lonely" (ie, wanting to have a conversation), I just chat up with neighboring diners or other folks standing in line (to an attraction, eg). It's easier in the UK, cuz at least most speak English. It's harder when I'm traveling in a country where I don't speak the language. In any case, I enjoy talking to strangers - be it locals or other travelers. Some of you may remember, when I traveled solo to London 2 years ago, I ended up sharing a table with a Hollywood star and we had a lovely converstaion over dinner!
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Old Nov 2nd, 2009, 08:49 AM
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TTT
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Old Nov 2nd, 2009, 04:58 PM
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I am enjoying your trip report and shared your sense of loneliness on my last trip to London, in May, even though I was actually in contact with other people I knew part of the time.
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Old Nov 3rd, 2009, 06:13 AM
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Day 6 - Hampton Court Palace

Traveled out to Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII (well, one of them. Apparently Henry's court couldn't stay too long in one place, since like a plague of locusts, they would devour all resources in a area fairly quickly). Lots of history here, very enjoyable. The state rooms weren't quite up to the standards of Windsor Castle, but fairly amazing all the same. And the largest fireplace I have ever seen (in the kitchens, like I said, the court went through a lot of food). There was also a fairly pleasant garden, complete with hedge maze.

Was beginning to slow down by this point in my trip. I spent a little over half a day at HCP, getting back to London around 3:30 or so. But I didn't particularly feel up to going anywhere else, especially since I knew tomorrow would be a long day.


Day 7 - British Museum

The British Museum was an anticipated trip highlight for me, one of the main things that drew me to London in the first place. It didn't disappoint. I spent 6 and a half hours in there, but I am pretty sure I could have spent 6 and half weeks and not run out of things to look at. Coming out of there, I could only assume that Greece and Egypt have no historical artifacts left, since apparently they are all here.

Mummies, cutting tools that are 10,000 years old, ceramics from every corner of the globe, a collection of Chinese jade, pieces of sculpture from the Parthenon ... the size of collections is almost beyond imagination. If you are coming here, plan a whole day.

The British Museum was one of the few places in London where picture taking was permitted inside, which was both good and bad. Yes, it allowed me to take a few pictures to show folks at home, but unfortunately, there where another 20,000 odd people with the same idea.


One thing I noticed in walking around London was that a of lot of the crosswalks have notices indicating which way the traffic is coming from. I can only assume that the authorities got tired of scraping dead tourists off of their roads.


Day 8 - Science Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

V&A is open late on Fridays, so I decided to go there last. As it turns out, this was an error. Both the Science and Natural History Museums had line-ups to get into them (it was a holiday), the Science museums seemed shorter, so I started there. Both museums are heavily geared towards families with small children, which limited their appeal to me. I did enjoy looking the various steam engines on display in the Science Museum.

The Victoria and Albert museum was much more interesting, but unfortunately even though the museum is open late, many of the galleries close early.


Day 9 - Tower of London

First rule: If you want to see the crown jewels (and why wouldn't you?), go early and go see them as soon as you get there. I waited maybe 5 minutes to see them, later in the day the lineup stretched for blocks.

This was another trip highlight for me. As is frequently the case, the guided tour is free and completely worth doing, it fills in a lot of the history and is entertaining.

I felt bad for the ravens. (There is a legend that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall. So, naturally they cheated and clipped their wings ).

Possibly because I went on the Saturday of the Easter long weekend, this was the place where I had the greatest problems with lines. Not so much to get in, but even to get inside individual buildings frequently had a 5-10 minute wait.

After leaving the tower (spent a good 4 hours or so). I headed South over the Tower Bridge, intending to go to see the HMS Belfast. However, the line-up to get onboard was fairly long, and I had spent enough time in lines for one day. Instead, I made for the Old Operating Theatre, which is fairly close by. There wasn't lot to it, but it was informative. I am glad I am not going to need to go to a 19th century hospital.


Day 10 - Kew Gardens

After the crowds of the last few days, this was a welcome reprieve. It's not that there weren't a largish number of people there, but once you clear the entrance area, there is a lot of room to spread out in, so I felt much calmer. The Gardens are remarkable in the sheer variety of plant types they have, especially including the contents of the various greenhouses. Everything from cactus to plants from Alpine meadows. Kew Palace is also on the grounds (and requires a separate entry fee).

I encountered a bird while there, very large and tropical, tail feathers at least a foot long. Not understanding it's place in the scheme of things, it steadfastly refused to stay still long enough for me to get a good picture (I do have a few of it walking away from me and one where only it's tailfeathers are in the shot ) While I was attempting to negotiate with the bird a mother and her approximately 4-year old daughter came by. The daughter was of course instantly smitten with the bird and started following it around. Her mother attempted to dissuade her from doing this (though honestly, the bird didn't seem particularly put out), and when her initial effort failed, she said to her (in the tone that all mothers seem to possess, that lets their children know that is time to start listening) "Abagail, that bird is special. Go bother the pigeons instead." Poor pigeons get no respect.

I spent a good 5 hours there (as I said, the gardens are quite extensive).

Next up: My scheduled trip to York.
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