London - first stop for Europe 2012
Trip Start Sep 05, 2012
20Trip End Oct 20, 2012
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We were very fortunate with the weather – the sun was shining and the skies blue as we flew over the city and its famous landmarks on the descent into Heathrow. This glorious weather remained with us for the first three or four days of our stay in London. It was 27 or 28 degrees each day and the locals were certainly making the most of the last few weeks of summer – sunbathing in parks, walking around shirtless etc. The Paralympics were still on, so the city was extremely crowded. There was also the Thames Festival, so the southern bank of the Thames was packed with people enjoying the various attractions that were part of the Festival.
The first few days we walked around 15km each day, exploring the city and various attractions. We did a tour of the Tower of London with a yeoman warder called Billy Beefeater who must surely be the funniest and most memorable tour guide we’ve ever had. Hugely entertaining, he has a Facebook and Twitter page and has been featured on Youtube. Here is a link to a site featuring him:
We also walked to Westminster Abbey and the houses of Parliament. Westminster Abbey unfortunately was closed for a wedding so we couldn't go inside. We'll try again when we return to London for a day and a half in mid-October at the end of the European trip. We did manage to visit the British Museum which was excellent.
We met up with a friend of my brother who has lived in London for over 20 years. He took us on a tour of the City of London where he works and some of the lovely old pubs in the area. Also St Pancras railway station where the Eurostar under the channel runs from.
We stayed in an apartment we rented from the owner on vrbo.com which was in a converted warehouse that used to supply the docks. The area (Shad Thames) is full of these apartments and is right near the Tower Bridge, on the south bank of the Thames. We loved the area – there are many small pubs and nice restaurants around and it is well located. Perhaps the only drawback of our area was that it wasn’t really all that close to the Tube. There are two stations about 10 minutes’ walk from us (Tower Hill on the north bank of the river and London Bridge on the south side, to the west of our apartment). Anyway we got plenty of exercise and got to explore the area, taking different routes each time to the station.
We had a Marks & Spencers store nearby where we could pick up food items to cook at home. Very much set up for the young, inner-city apartment dwellers. I think England must have had the same kind of revolution in food that we’ve had in recent decades – most of the food we had was very good and it is certainly not limited to the stodgy fare for which they were known years ago! For example if you go to an Italian restaurant here the staff will generally be real Italians who will greet you in Italian and seem to expect the customers to at least know the basics. I guess being so close to Europe really helps here. We also visited the Borough Markets which offered an amazing variety of artisinal cheeses and all kinds of interesting fare.
We also visited the famous Harrods store where I got Narrelle a nice pair of Jimmy Choos for much less than we would have paid in Australia.
As with Italy last year, being here makes us realize how far away we are from Europe. Britain and Europe are very closely connected these days, and there are so many Europeans from all over living and working in London as they are entitled to do under EU rules. Unlike some parts of Asia, we are nowhere near to being among the most numerous tourists here. Even from North America it is only about a 6 hour flight, so there are huge numbers of Americans here. They have all the American stores that we don’t get in Australia and you can get 'USA Today’ (European Edition) pretty much anywhere. As with the Europeans, we can see that Britain and North America are connected in a way that we are not, due to the much greater distances.
We took the train one day out to Hampton Court Palace, former home of Henry VIII and also William of Orange. We both loved the TV series ‘The Tudors’ (though we realize it was not exactly accurate historically!) so that was always going to be a highlight for us. Very interesting, especially things you would not necessarily think of such as the logistics of the kitchen keeping Henry and his Court fed and watered! Apparently one of the reasons the Court would periodically move around the country was that its prodigious consumption practically denuded a host region of livestock and other foodstuffs after a few months. Another reason of course was the primitive toilet facilities which meant that the palaces would stink unbearably after a while!
On another day we rented a car for a day to visit Bath. This was a lovely town with its Roman baths and other historical sights. We took a tour in an open-topped bus and learned all about Bath’s role as basically a party town for the elite classes back in the 1700s.
Perhaps my choosing a VW Golf convertible for this trip jinxed us weather-wise: from that point on the weather reverted back to what is apparently normal for this time of year - very changeable, sunny one minute, drizzly the next.
Getting out of London by car was quite stressful – even though we had a GPS unit there was so much traffic (tour buses, trucks etc) and it was difficult with all the roundabouts to position yourself in the correct lane to take the right exit. Despite my best efforts I accidentally wandered into the 'Congestion Charging Zone' at one point. I had to get onto their website within 24 hours and pay GBP 10 or else be fined much more than that for non-payment!
Once we were on the motorways it was fine – they drive much faster than us I think. The speed limit is 70 mph but many cars were doing 90 mph or even more. As with Italy last year the powerful Mercedes and BMWs seem to be driven here as their German manufacturers intended! Aussies by contrast have been cowed into submission by decades of zealous enforcement and few dare exceed the posted limit by much these days.
We had hoped to make this daytrip a circular drive, returning to London via Oxford and Warwick Castle, but the time it took to get out of London made this impractical. We did however stop at Stonehenge on the way to Bath which was interesting to see up close. Also interesting to travel through the English countryside along roads which were in some cases little more than narrow lanes. A few times we’d be caught behind farmers towing huge wagons of hay with their tractors. I suppose it is that time of year where they must start preparing for the winter months ahead.
We couldn’t do everything we’d planned in London. For example, we didn’t get to see a play in the West End or to visit Windsor Castle. We have one more day in London at the end of the trip so we may have a chance to do some more then. We very much enjoyed our stay in London, although we ran ourselves ragged a bit with all the walking and ended up with sore feet. We will try and take it easier at our next stop (Amsterdam) which will be a much smaller city. 6 days was not really enough to see London properly, much less the country outside London. It would be good to come back for a few weeks and drive around the British Isles someday.
On Wednesday night we left Liverpool St Station for the port of Harwich in East Anglia. We had purchased a combined rail/ferry/rail ticket that includes the train to Harwich, an overnight ferry to Hook of Holland and then the Dutch train to take us from there to our next stop of Amsterdam.