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London For The First Time

Okay, I spent the past several days living life with no time to write about it. But I did take down the odd note in my notepad and I will shortly preserve the experience in writing. I just got back from London and boy is EVERY part of me tired.

London Day One

I arrived at Gatwick airport a little after 7:30am London time. I was exhausted and I’m sure more than a little bedraggled. I had slept little during the week with hopes of being so tired that I would sleep on the flight to London. No such luck. I could never get comfortable enough and I was sort of wired by the excitement.

I filled out my “immigration form” – which was a little scary. I don’t want to STAY here, I just want to VISIT. Oh, I fill this out to visit? Okay…. I found that I got through passport control rather more quickly than I even got on the plane in my own country.

Would that the train station for the Gatwick Express into London had been as fast. I had pre-purchased my tickets, sort of like the will-call at the theater. I wanted to have as much of my trip pre-paid for as possible. So, I popped my credit card into the machine to get my tickets, and it, uhm, ate my credit card… bye-bye little Amex card. So, having destroyed a piece of British technology along with my card, I wander over to an information desk and tell them what’s happened. They send for help and tell me to go stand by the machine… joy… About 20 minutes later, help arrives. He asks what type of card it is, and I tell him, “Amex.” He asks, a bit more emphatically this time, what type of card it is, and I had my one moment of being an ugly American. After he finally asks me to describe the card, I figure out what he means and tell him that it’s one of American Express’ Blue cards and is sort of a clear plastic. Ah-ha! That card won’t work in any machine in this country , my new friend tells me. After 30 minutes spent freeing my card from the machine, he takes me to a counter to help me retrieve my tickets. I leave, slightly defeated and tired.

My original plan had been to get into London and drop off my bags at the hotel followed up by a “hop-on-hop-off” bus tour of the city for which I had also prepaid. Luckily I wasn’t locked into any specific day. I felt too tired for it. I decided instead to drop off my bags and visit the Tower of London and the environs near there. After figuring out that Victoria Underground and Victoria train station are two separate entities basically adjacent to one another, I learned my way around the city enough to drop off my bags and spent most of the day at the Tower.

The Tower of London is part of my family history and the cultural history from which I spring. To walk those same halls. To wander past ancient Roman Walls nearby. I can’t imagine living in a city with such a context of history all around. It makes one feel fairly small. I took one of the Yeoman Warder tours and totally enjoyed it.

Afterwards, I took a tour of Tower Bridge, the bridge that everyone thinks of when they think of London. It was pretty cool to imagine that London was capable of a draw bridge such as this a hundred years ago. The mechanics behind it were impressive. You would never look at this stone structure and think of it being so sophisticated But the stone is just the outward appearance. Tower Bridge was designed to complement the Tower of London which is adjacent to it. It’s really a fairly advanced – for its time – metal bridge on the interior. I took the walks above as much for the view as anything else.

At this point, I figured my day was pretty much done. I walked from Tower Bridge past the Tower of London and took a train to Leicester Square, where I wandered, eventually finding myself at Trafalgar Square. With its crowds of people enjoying the London version of heat wave, it all really sank in where I was. I saw Big Ben in the distance and decided to set off down the street for a look see. As I’ve known I would for years, when I came into view, I found myself uttering that infamous line from National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament.

I took the train up to Piccadilly Circus, and I walked down to Hamleys Toy Store, of which I had heard so much. It’s an over two century institution in London and apparently one of the largest toy stores in the world. While it was neat, I think I had built it up and beyond what I saw. I had hoped for more import toys. It seemed to mostly be things I could have purchased in the US, not so much the rest of the world.

That done, I was pretty exhausted for my first day, and I took the train back to my hotel and checked in. I found an internet cafe near the train station and e-mailed family and friends of my safe arrival. Afterwards, I found dinner at a McD’s near the hotel and then pretty much collapsed for the night.

London Day Two

I woke up early and got showered and ready for my second day. I walked down to a 24 hour grocer, Budgens. I got some yogurt and milk and such was breakfast that morning. I also began a four day quest for plain M&M’s, but never found anything but peanut M&M’s. I don’t even eat M&M’s that often, but discovering their absence from my new landscape was disturbing! Went back to the hotel and had my little breakfast while waiting to go on my one package tour of the trip.

The trip started off fairly uneventfully. The tour company had two tours going to Stonehenge that day, although with different side trips. The bus that picked me up was actually for the other tour but the two drivers picked up people in their common areas and then met up and shuffled us between the buses. One family who was picked up by my bus but was going on the other tour apparently decided to have a little breakfast when they should have been getting on the bus. This was something that the driver for our bus didn’t let us forget about all morning.

Now, let me say that the tour itself was great. The guy who led it was incredibly knowledgeable on the subject matter of each place we visited. He went out of his way to make sure the trip ran smoothly for all of us. I just realized part of the way through the tour that it wasn’t my style at all. I had known this before I booked it, but with such a short trip to begin with, I was afraid that I could easily fritter away an entire day trying to get to Stonehenge on my own. I probably wouldn’t have seen anything else, either. So, if I hadn’t gone this way, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all. But I don’t even WEAR a watch. I haven’t in years and years. At work, I’m at meetings, etc. on time. I make sure of that. However, in life outside, I hate living by the clock. And everywhere we went when the driver finished telling us what he could and was ready to let us run free, there was always the detail of when we should be back on the bus to maintain our schedule. In some places, I didn’t care as much as others, but it did illustrate what I already knew deep down, that I don’t travel well with time constraints like that.

At any rate, we began our trip by visiting the village of Avebury and its standing stone circle. I knew that Stonehenge wasn’t the only stone circle in the UK, but I’m not so familiar with the others. It was rather interesting. Less of this circles is intact, but it was still quite interesting to see the different styles. I believe, if I recall correctly, that Avesbury was actually older. I know it was a different style. The builders of Stonehenge shaped the stones in that circle. At Avesbury, the stones were stood upright in their natural form. Modern researchers do believe that the stones were selected for their shapes and had some symbolic meaning. While there, the driver gave us little dousing rods and set us on a path of Ley Lines. Because of my friend, Brandy, I had heard some of this topic before. Apparently, there’s some belief that many of the ancient sites in England (and elsewhere I suppose) rest on some sort of energy lines, be they magic or explainable by science or what have you. All I can really report is that my dousing rod test showed the most activity of anyone in the group. Both of my rods spun around to point back at me when I walked between a set of stones. The driver said he’d been trying this for several years and found that this particular set of stones created the most results. While in Avebury, we also visited a little local gift shop and had a little free time before continuing on.

Afterwards, we drove through more of the English countryside. Along the way, we passed by a couple of chalk horses carved into hillsides both in distant times past and in contemporary history. We also passed by a lot of burial mounds that were of the same or older vintage of Stonehenge. There’s some belief that Stonehenge may have been built as a sort of shrine to all the dead that are in the mounds that dot the landscape around there.

We ultimately ended up at Stonehenge where we were given an audio tour and sent off on our own. The audio tour was pretty good. I would have liked to have been able to take one of the tours where one gets to go inside the circle itself, but I was content to be so nearby. The ropes really don’t keep you far from the stones. It’s amazing to realize that our ancestors were capable of something on that scale. With the tools I posses now, I would not be able to remotely build something like Stonehenge. The details in how they sculpted the standing stones, not just for appearance but to the point of building wood-working-like joinery into the stones to hold them together…. I just don’ t know what to say. I was impressed.

Leaving Stonehenge, we went into a nearby village. I believe it was Amesbury, where we had our pub lunch. It was a small town. I would say the size was somewhere between the town I grew up in, Montezuma, and where I attended college, Americus. I was struck that the “pub” was really little more than a small town cafe. It was nice, but it also drove home that a small town restaurant the world over is pretty much the same. I listened to the music in the restaurant beat out a fair number of 80’s pop songs from my side of the ocean. The food… I probably should have tried the chicken rather than the beef. I am a picky eater, and the beef didn’t excite me. It was really my only foray into British food outside of the odd bit of candy the rest of my time there.

After Stonehenge, we drove to Salisbury Cathedral. Along the way we passed the country estate where rock star, Sting, lives. That was rather entertaining as an unexpected side-note. Salisbury Cathedral was breath-taking. This was one of those places that I wished for more time. I saw a couple of ancestor’s tombs there. And I got to see a copy of the Magna Charta. Definitely a place to spend more time one day.

From there, we drove to Old Sarum. Basically, before Salisbury was built, the settlement was there but had grown to fill up the top of the hill and could grow no more. The whole settlement moved down to where Salisbury Cathedral was built. Old Sarum is the remains of the royal castle that once stood there. It afforded a great view of Salisbury and the surrounding countryside. It was a nice cap to the journey.

We headed back into London through the typically American traffic jams. So, it’s nice, again, to see how alike we are in some ways. Even if the English do drive on the wrong side of the road!

That evening, I took the train in and took a walking tour for Haunted London. It was great fun. The guide was wonderful and I got to see some of London, the back alleys and such, that I never would have visited otherwise. In London, I discovered that the city is not just the main streets. London is crowded with small alleyways, which are populated with shops and pubs and such. As an American tourist, I never would have though to wander down the Alleys. I learned more about London, about the Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

Exhausted from the long day, I wandered through Piccadilly Circus and headed back to the hotel and another night’s sleep.

London Day Three

I woke up early enough to get ready to be at Portobello Road Market by 8am. I had a quick breakfast at McD’s and hopped the train for the short ride to the next station. I probably could have walked had I been confident about the streets.

When I got there, the Market was just starting to warm up. By the time I left two and a half hours later, it was a hub of activity. I didn’t get a lot, but I did find some decent-priced matted prints that I bought. Some will be for myself, others for gifts. I took tons of pictures. There were some decently priced stuff, but nothing that I was both in the market for and could reasonably get back here with. I would definitely go again some-day.

Afterwards, I went back to the hotel and dropped off my purchases and then headed off on foot to Baker Street to start my hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city. Was a lot of fun. I definitely see why people often do this on their first day. I had a far better understanding of the central city afterwards. I took plenty of probably bad pictures (motion, bus railings in the way, etc.), and I got a nice sun-burn on my head that’s evolving into a decent tan now. When the bus got near Parliament, I hopped off to take the included river tour of the Thames. That was way more fun than I had expected. It was perfect weather for wandering down the Thames and seeing the sights from there. That took about an hour and I walked from the docks at Westminster pier to Westminster Abbey and took my tour. There was unfortunately no Verger led tours on Saturday, so I had to do an audio tour. Again, the audio tour worked well and I enjoyed it.

The tour of Westminster Abbey concluded near the votive candles where you were invited to light one for yourself or someone, etc. I lit one in memory of my grandmother who passed away last year. I had not planned to do this. I did not think it would feel so meaningful, but the emotions were almost overwhelming. Maybe I’ve shaken a little more of the pain that has lingered with that lose. Maybe…

Afterwards, I visited the gift shop and then hopped back on the bus and completed the tour ending back at Piccadilly Circus, ostensibly where the tour proper had begun earlier.

I wandered through the area again and had a sandwich (late lunch) at Trafalgar Square. I contemplated dipping my tired feet in the fountain I was sitting on as many kids and adults were wading there. I tipped my fingers into the clear water only to discover that the British understanding of warm water and my understanding, as someone who hails from the Southern U.S, differs dramatically. I settled for sitting there and appreciating the warm sun.

Afterwards, I headed down to the Embankment tube stop for another walking tour. This one was about murder and crimes. The tour guide was incredibly entertaining. His tour was nearly two and a half hours and I was entirely absorbed by his stories. Between his expertise at leading the tour and that I had begun chatting with a fellow American who was in London working on her advanced degree in Art History, I totally lost track of the time.

Standing at the last stop on the tour, the time hit me. As he concluded, I had a half hour to make it to the Tower of London for the nightly Ceremony of the Keys. I had written and requested tickets in advance, as you must if you want to attend. Still, while I would have normally gotten there quicker, I should have had time. I ran back to Embankment tube stop in about 5 minutes to hop a train…. And I discovered that the train situation had worsened. The Circle Line was already down for maintenance. The district line, the only other option to get there was also partially down for maintenance issues… The train pulled in just as I got there, but the driver was taking a break (he had been going back and forth from Embankment to the end of the line, the only train on that part of the route)…. My hopes sunk. His break was to be around 15 minutes… I had 20 left to get there. With no idea how truly far away the Tower was, I sat out on foot. I alternated between walking and running along the Thames. I probably covered 2.5 miles give or take in a half hour, but it was not enough. I was still about a mile away when I ran out of time.

I returned to the hotel defeated and tired. I ordered a pizza and read for awhile before bed. I still had a great time, and I will do the ceremony one day.

London Day Four

This was my last day and the only day that I didn’t set a wake-up call with the front desk. I woke up about 7:30am and sleepily gathered myself together and took a shower. I walked down to Budgens and grabbed some milk and cookies. I had discovered on Friday on my bus tour that I was rather close to the northern side of Hyde park. It was less than a five minute walk. So, I had resolved to have a fairly leisurely Sunday morning. I walked through the park. Deep in Hyde Park, it was hard to believe that one was in a city the size of London. It was a beautiful place and being the beginning of spring, an ideal time to visit. Coming out by the back of Buckingham Palace, I proceeded on through Green Park, coming out by the gates at Buckingham. It was only 9:30am and I had been told that in order to see the Changing of the guard, one should show up about an hour early. I should have still had another hour, but I could see that if I wanted to see this, my meandering would have to end. The fence was already fairly full of spectators. So, I sat in front of my spot at the fence for two hours…

While the ceremony is quite well done, etc., I’m not so sure I would have waited there two hours. There was perhaps too much a feeling of being at Disney land when the marching band whipped out their sheet music and the stands for it. It was a good memory, but not something I can envision repeating ever again. I took an ungodly number of pictures through the fence.

Afterwards, I headed for the British Museum, my next stop. I spent a little more than three hours there and it was not nearly enough. I took a highlights audio tour because I had just missed a live tour that I would have to wait another hour to take. The audio tour in this case was not so great. I did learn some. I did see some astounding treasures, including the famed Rosetta stone. But, I want to go back with more time one day. Specifically with either some better plan of what I want to see or perhaps a lead tour.

Leaving there, I stumbled across a comic shop on Great Russell Street directly across from the Museum!! Yes!! I was excited. I had to go inside, but I didn’t buy anything. They didn’t have any of the back issues I was searching for. Although their collection of Trade Paper-Backs was phenomenal, the stuff I knew well enough to buy, I could get for cheaper here in the states. Still, it was nice communing with my geek side for a little bit.

Afterwards, I headed for the Underground at Tottenham Court Road Underground station. I was heading back to the Piccadilly Circus area. I did not, however, realize that I was leaving at the same time that some championship soccer game was winding down. I have never seen so many drunk, happy, and enthusiastic soccer fans! You would think it would be a little scary, what with the shattering beer bottles and all, but the general spirit of the crowd just kind of grabbed you. I rode the train to Piccadilly Circus, where I’m sure a good number of soccer fans also jumped ship.

I was getting fairly tired at this point I had a little more souvenir/gift purchasing to do and got it out of the way before settling down at an internet cafe in a Burger King there across from the Eros statue. I caught up on some e-mail with friends and family. Afterwards, I went across the street and had my only real sit-down meal for the trip at Garfunkle’s. By the time I was done, it was too late to try to head down for the last walking tour, Jack The Ripper, that I had planned on. Instead, I hung out in Piccadilly Circus and Leicester square. Eventually I found a place called the Trocadero where I played video games, Dodge-ems (bumper cars), and more. I don’t know that America has anything that would compare. Dave & Buster’s would be the closest, and the Trocadero would win!

About 10:30pm, I bid farewell to the still bustling Piccadilly Circus and headed back to the hotel to pack up and prepare for the trip home.

The next morning, I bundled off for the airport and bid my farewells. I’ve promised myself, it won’t be the last time!

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