London-Day 8: "Sunshine, Rain, Laughter, and Pain"

Trip Start Jun 29, 2009
Trip End Aug 02, 2009

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Where I stayed
Travelodge Heathrow Central

Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7 – Day 8 – London: "Sunshine, Rain, Laughter and Pain"

Thanks to excellent insulated windows, the sound of airplanes on approach to Heathrow was so faint it never even registered, yet there was a good bit of noise at the Travelodge during the night. It was the usual variety – people hosting family reunions in the corridors, doors slamming, children running through the hallway at 3am chanting “REDRUM!,” etc. But we were sufficiently weary that it wasn't a hindrance to sleep. I woke up several times due to the aforementioned things, but promptly fell back out. I suppose some of that is to be expected at an airport hotel and, clearly, it is unrealistic of me to expect others to behave with consideration for their fellow guests.

Today’s plan was to visit Warwick Castle – one hour 45 minutes by train northwest of London, near Birmingham and Stratford-Upon-Avon. Returning to London in the late afternoon, I hoped we would be able to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum, which, like Dennis Severs’ House, is only open 1 evening per month, followed by a flight on the London Eye (a giant Ferris wheel alongside the Thames). Alternatively, I considered heading to the theater district to try to catch a glimpse of the Harry Potter stars at tonight’s UK premiere of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” I hadn’t completely ruled it out, at that point, and I knew the children would be thrilled beyond measure to be there. But I also knew that, realistically, in order to be anywhere within sight distance of the stars arriving, it would mean giving up practically an entire day in order to secure our spot. Having only 6 days in London, I wasn’t eager to do that.

Since I had pre-paid for our breakfasts at the Travelodge, I expected to grab a quick bite there before heading off. We were dressed and ready to go by 6am, hoping to eat and then catch the bus outside at 6:20, but the restaurant was not open yet. I remember looking on the hotel’s website and not seeing the restaurant hours posted there. I would have thought that, being an airport hotel and with guests needing to check out early for morning flights, the restaurant would be open in time to serve them. Silly, I know. When booking your room online, they offer a decent discount for pre-paying for your meals. My advice: unless you are certain of the restaurant hours and your schedule, skip it. Here was one meal I paid for but never used, and there were more throughout the week. Even with the discounted meals we did use, I ended up spending more altogether than I would have had I just played it by ear because I had to buy replacement meals for those we were not able to eat at the hotel.

The H98 bus stops right in front of the hotel. I spent considerable time researching the bus routes and schedules during my planning phase. The choice to stay at the Travelodge was influenced a great deal by its proximity to bus stops and the train station. We caught the bus there and rode to the Hayes & Harlington station. The busses are very crowded in the morning. In fact, I don’t remember a time when the busses were not crowded. Actually, every public transportation conveyance we used was fairly bursting at the seams at all times, day and night. It makes me wonder how London will manage with the crowds during the 2012 summer Olympics without major expenditures on transportation infrastructure. I know there are some projects underway, but from what I saw, there is still much work to be done and not much time to finish it. I don’t know exactly where the Olympic stadium and village will be located in relation to the city. Perhaps there is more work being done in those areas that I did not see firsthand.

We caught the train to Paddington, and then transferred to the tube for Marylebone, where we would get the train to Warwick. It sounds more complicated that it is in practice. We arrived at Marylebone at 7:20 and navigated the corridors between the tube station and the train station. This being a weekday morning, the place was swarming with people. It was a little easier than our first round of tube travel the previous day, but still a bit overwhelming at that time of morning. Eventually we found our way and I located a ticket vending machine. I had pre-booked and paid for our train tickets online. Now I just had to retrieve the tickets, which were good for off-peak, return travel, along the Banbury route (cost 31.20 with discount).

We had about 15 minutes before needing to be onboard our train, so we found a kiosk selling breakfast food. I bought 3 muffins and 3 drinks for 7.85. There were several empty tables outside the kiosk, all of which were littered with coffee cups and other assorted trash. We chose the cleanest one, pushing aside the remnants of other peoples’ breakfasts, and sat watching the humanity swarm past. After enjoying my delicious lemon & poppy seed muffin, I wandered over to the center of the hall to have a look at the arrivals/departures board, which seemed to be written in Latin as far as I could make sense of it. I ended up asking for help from an employee, who pointed me to the correct platform. Our train was just arriving. We waited for the stream of people to disembark, and then found seats in the 2nd class coach. Aside from the seats not reclining, the trains are quite comfortable and much preferable to busses for traveling any distance. Since I do a lot of driving where I live, I’m envious. I wish I had the option of taking a train for longer journeys. Yes, there is Amtrak, but it’s about as expensive as flying and far more restrictive. It just never seems to be the best option for me.

The journey to Warwick (which is pronounced “War-ick”; the second w is silent) was pleasant. K decided to sleep, while A and I admired the countryside rolling by. We arrived at 9:20am. At the station, I asked the gentleman at the service desk if there was a bus to the castle. He said there isn’t, but it’s only a one-mile walk, so we set out on foot. Fortunately, it was well signposted and we had no trouble finding our way. It was a beautifully sunny morning and the walk was enjoyable after having been riding for a couple of hours. Soon we arrived at the roundabout outside of the castle entrance. Standing on the corner of St. Nicholas Church Street and Castle Hill, near the church, I could clearly see the entrance to the castle on the other side of the roundabout, but there didn’t seem to be any crosswalks nearby where we could get across. Every time we attempted to step out, a car would come zooming up from out of nowhere and force us to step back. After this same scenario replayed itself several times, I was starting to feel like we were in some secret "Candid Camera" sketch or something. Eventually frustration won out over caution and we just made a run for it, straight across the roundabout. I found it kind of odd that there wouldn’t be a crosswalk at such a busy location with, presumably, many tourists walking in? Ah well. Maybe they want to prepare the tourists for running the gauntlet or other such medieval tortures within the castle walls?

The path to the castle takes you through a very tranquil, shady wooded area. The dense trees and foliage are built up high on either side, giving the effect of walking through a canyon of sorts. We were the only guests walking through at the time so it was very quiet, almost eerie. I kept expecting the Knights Who Say “Ni” to jump out and block our way, but we were spared. At least I knew where I could find a decent shrubbery, if worse came to worst. We reached the ticketing center about 9:45am. The ticket windows were closed until opening time at 10am, so we just hung out. There were some tables and chairs set out there, many of which were dripping wet. The kids found a couple of dry ones and sat down while I went inside the shop – the Coach House – and bought a soda. I asked for Diet Coke and got 2.00 Coke instead, but I managed. The girl who served me was quite friendly. She asked where I was from and we made small talk for a minute or two. I went back out to join the kids at our table and found it had started to rain. Our table’s umbrella spared us from the brunt of it. The English weather is so odd! It goes from bright sunshine to raining in a minute. A couple of minutes later, the sun was back out. And so it was throughout the entire day. At 10:00 I went up to the ticket window and got our tickets, which were included with the Great British Heritage card. Considering the admission price for Warwick castle alone would have been 30.00, I’d say the GBH card is an excellent deal.

We made our way through the gate and down a winding path to the castle entrance, pausing briefly to watch an archery demonstration. The grounds are quite scenic and just what you’d expect a proper “knights and ladies” type of castle to look like. Of course I realize that Warwick is prettied-up for the tourists and is rather young, as medieval castles go. Although its origins go back to 914AD, most of what is seen today is Victorian-era or later[1]. And, of course, it’s meant to be an amusement park, of sorts. I would describe it as a blend of a museum, a renaissance fair, and Disneyworld; there are no rides, rather “attractions.” All that being said, I feel Warwick Castle is a good blend of history and amusement. We all found plenty there to enjoy.

Making our way through the massive East gate, which spans a deep, waterless moat, we paused inside the central courtyard to have a look and get our bearings. Immediately to the left of the gate is the impossible-to-miss entrance to the Castle Dungeons. Of course that sort of thing appeals immensely to teenagers, and there was already a big line of them waiting when we passed. I wondered how so many people were already there in the queue, and walking all over the castle grounds, when we were one of the first few groups of people in through the gates at opening time. Very puzzling. Maybe there was a secret passage from the ticket windows to the inner courtyard that we missed.  Anyway, the dungeons are not included in the admission price. It costs an extra 7.95 per person to experience that attraction. I figured there wasn’t anything I needed to see badly enough to spend another 23.85. Considering the company that owns Warwick Castle is the same one that owns the London Dungeons and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, I had a good idea of what we were passing up. I imagine it’s filled with cheesy displays of mannequins being tortured and whatnot. I’ll pass. Fortunately, my two teens didn’t seem overly interested in it, so I escaped having to battle with them about it.

Other than seeing the trebuchet – the “headliner” attraction – I didn’t really have a plan. I would have loved to have seen jousting, but it wasn’t quite jousting season at Warwick yet. It doesn’t begin until mid-July. The first trebuchet demonstration wasn’t until later in the day, so we started off with a tour of the Chapel, Great Hall, and state rooms. Being from the United States, where castles are somewhat scarce, I’m easily impressed. And since I haven’t visited very many castles, it’s tricky for me to rank this one compared to others. It isn’t anything like Edinburgh Castle. It’s more like Holyroodhouse. Actually, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Brideshead Revisited,” it’s similar to that in feel, only with walls and towers around it. More of a palatial country house than an actual castle, if that makes sense. The rooms inside were all filled with fine furnishings and historical displays, all of which were appealing to my inner dork. We especially enjoyed the formal dining room where there is a wax figurine of a smiling Queen Elizabeth standing off to the side, around the corner from the entrance. A walked in, did a double take, and whispered to me, “Is that Queen Elizabeth?” We all busted out laughing as I answered, “Yes, A, Queen Elizabeth stands here all day and smiles at the tourists as they walk through.”

As we made our way through the house, my IBS began to stir. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say it’s a ticking time bomb inside a sleeping giant. I can count on one hand the number of times in a year when it affects me to the point where I have to alter my plans. There are certain foods that trigger attacks and, as far as I knew, lemon poppy-seed muffins were not on that list. So, this event was a complete surprise. Yay me! So, I’m standing in a hallway at the far end of this huge, elegant house. The nearest bathroom is way at the other end. And very suddenly my gut clenches up so that if I move, I might explode. There was no way I could walk. I had no choice but to just stand there, praying to merciful God to deliver me from this evil, and trying to think about baseball, Marilyn Manson, the price of tea in China, or anything at all that would take my mind off of making a run for the bathroom. The children questioned the queer look on my face, and the fact that I was nearly doubled over in pain. I explained that I was experiencing “intestinal distress” and they had better stop talking to me right now so that I could summon all of my superhuman powers of concentration. After about the longest 5 minutes of my life, the crisis was over and I was able to move again. We immediately made our way back along the winding path through the rooms we had already visited to the exit, and then across the front of the building to the bathrooms on the other side. I still wonder what the headlines would have read the next day had I not been successful. I’ll bet the wax Queen would not have been very amused.  I wonder if my travel insurance would have covered that particular scenario.

As I emerged from the restroom, it was raining again so we headed back inside the house to finish touring in there. We had made it almost through the first floor when I was afflicted, so now we ventured up the stairs to the second floor, pausing to admire the stuffed bear guarding the staircase. The second floor featured mostly bedrooms, which were equally beautiful and impressive. We finished up there sometime after noon. The rain had stopped once more, so we decided it would be a good time to catch the next trebuchet demonstration. The kids wanted to climb up the mound and the tower behind it, so I excused them to do that while I made my way down to the riverbank to wait for the show. There were big groups of school children there, seated on the grass enjoying their lunches. Since the grass was wet from the rain, I opted to remain standing on the paved path. My own children joined me a few minutes later, breathlessly telling tales of having been chased by an angry peacock along the way. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened, but it sounded like quite an adventure.

At 1:00, the crew arrived and began preparations for the trebuchet demonstration. This was quite popular with the castle guests and the area grew rather crowded with spectators. We were blessed to have chosen a spot near two groups of unsupervised teens who were squatting atop side-by-side picnic tables, challenging each other to see who could come up with the vilest language to impress the other group. I thought about moving, but I had such a good view of the trebuchet where I was standing, and they did quiet down some once the demonstration began.

The demonstration itself was quite interesting. A trebuchet is basically a giant catapult. The basket is loaded with a boulder, or other ammunition, and pulled down by the tension of a giant wheel. Once the tension is released, the boulder goes flying off in the distance, accompanied by great cheers and applause from the crowd. For those of you, like me, who are fans of the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, this is the device that Wile E. Coyote tried to use in order to flatten the Road Runner like a pancake, but instead he ends up having the entire contraption flip over on top of him. Good times! The show lasted about 10 minutes, after which time the crowds started to disperse. I video-taped the presentation to upload to YouTube (I’ll get around to doing that one of these days). I was thinking… if Warwick Castle really wants to make some money, they should charge an extra 7.95 per person to launch the trebuchet. I’d definitely pay extra for that.

It was starting to rain again (OY!) so we headed back inside the castle walls in search of lunch. We made it to the Undercroft just in time before the heavy rain started coming down and everyone was ducking for cover. There was a good assortment of food available. All three of us chose the carved meat (I think it was ham) with gravy, bread pudding, and vegetables. That, along with 3 drinks, cost 25.95. I felt it was a good value for what we got. The portions were substantial so it was more like dinner than lunch. It felt good to sit down and relax for a bit. We found a table in front of a fireplace. Although it was mid-summer, with the rain outside it would probably have felt good if there had been a fire going.

We ventured back outside around 2pm and found the sun had returned. The kids wanted to check out some of the other towers around the courtyard. They spied the steps leading up to Guy’s Tower. Seeing the sign that said it was, if I recall correctly, about 400 steps up to the top discouraged me from attempting it. I decided to remain on ground level. I found a nice place to sit where I could watch them and enjoy the precious sunlight. A few minutes later I glanced up to see K & A peering down from the top of the tower. Naturally, my response was to call up to them. “Hello up there!” to which they responded, “Allo? Who iz it?” in their best outrageous French accents. We proceeded to go through the routine, to the amusement of some onlookers and the consternation of others. Apparently, not everyone in England is a Pythonite. Oh well. That made it all the more fun for us.

My budding comedians returned to terra firma and we proceeded back out of the courtyard to explore the Peacock Gardens. K was a bit apprehensive, fearing another encounter with the foul fowl, but it was nowhere to be found. She did, however, find a beautiful, shimmering peacock feather lying on the ground, which delighted her so much she kept it as a souvenir. She carried it around with her for the rest of the afternoon and received some strange looks from other teens. I’m still a bit puzzled about that. Perhaps she had broken some sort of unwritten social taboo? Should she have turned in the peacock feather at the front desk? It’s just a discarded feather. I didn’t see any harm in her taking it and none of the staff said anything to her.

We strolled over to the garden, which was basically just a large, dry fountain, and then back to the small arena where the “Birds of Prey” show takes place. The next show was due to start in about 20 minutes, so we found seats on the bench there and watched people.  I noticed more groups of school children here and got to wondering if they attend school year-round. I mean, obviously they must or else there wouldn’t be groups of students wearing school uniforms there on a Tuesday in July. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the traditional summers-off schedule that my kids have at their school. Were it not that way, our 5-week-long trip wouldn’t have been possible. As we waited for the show to begin, we took out and put away the umbrellas no less than six times. Crazy, indecisive English weather!!

The “Birds of Prey” show was enjoyable. The handler dealt with four or five different kinds of birds – all eagles and hawks. He would send them out to find things or to circle around and then come back in on cue. The birds are both beautiful and fascinating, but I was a bit disappointed that the handler didn’t provide much information about them at all. Regardless, I could have watched them for hours, but the show was fairly short – maybe 15 minutes in all. When it ended, we decided to start making our way toward the exit. There were still a couple of unexplored towers, but we had seen everything else. By now it was approaching 3pm and we still had to walk back to the train station and ride the train for almost two hours returning to London. On our way out, we strolled through the luscious rose garden. Although many of the blooms were spent, it was still lovely. And of course we visited the restrooms because I certainly didn’t want to risk another emergency onboard the train.

We wandered back out via the forest path to the roundabout. This time, instead of trying to cross where we had come over in the morning, we ventured further down Banbury Street and crossed below the churchyard. Here, instead of dealing with four different streets all converging, we only had to manage to cross one. We detoured quickly through the cemetery in front of the church, where it looked like there were many old and intriguing tombstones, but we didn’t stop. Further along, we paused at a newsagent’s shop to buy some drinks to take with us on the train. It was the same story as we walked back to the station: open the umbrella, close the umbrella. I was very grateful I had remembered to bring it along. I suppose it’s second nature for people who live there to always carry an umbrella. For me, not so much.

We were underway by 3:30pm. The journey, again, was pleasant and uneventful, at least until we neared London where it was clear that an unscheduled monsoon had broken out. I have rarely seen rain come down like that. I was certain that the roof over Marylebone station must surely shatter from the force of the impact, and I wasn’t about to linger there and wait for it to happen either! But I needed to make a decision at this point. Considering the weather, standing in a queue outside Sir John Soane’s Museum was right out, as was standing outside hoping to catch a glimpse of Rupert, Emma, and Daniel. Obviously, the London Eye wasn’t a possibility either. No matter where we went from here, some walking outdoors would be required and, well, that wasn’t very appealing at the moment. It was just past 5pm – rush hour – so hiring a cab in a torrential downpour might not be economically prudent either. All things considered, I decided it had already been a full day and we might as well return to our hotel and make an early night of it.

Before heading down into the tube station, I stopped off at a very crowded in-station Marks & Spencer store for some food to go to take back with us. I spent 25.21 on several sandwiches, fruit, nuts, and chocolate (for dessert), then we ventured down into the tube station where it became apparent that one of two things was happening:  a) a new disaster film was being shot, or b) somehow the Thames had broken through and was now forging a new path through London via Marylebone station. I suppose there might have been a third scenario: c) God changed his mind and decided he would destroy the earth by flood again. Wow.  The platforms were swamped with several inches of water while more water was gushing in through the drain pipes coming from the streets above. Of course you know what I was wearing – my flip-flops – so I had to immediately revert to the “tip toe tango” from the previous week. Somehow we made it to our train and on to Paddington, where the same thing was occurring, even worse if that’s possible. It took substantial effort and dexterity to navigate from the tube station up to the train platform there. We boarded our train and heard an announcement over the PA system saying the station would be shutting down; very fortunate timing on our part to get the last train out. I wouldn’t have relished being stuck there for who knows how long until the trains were up and running again. I felt very sorry for anyone who was cursed enough to be caught outdoors during this weather. I don’t think even the most industrial-strength umbrella would have been any match for what Mother Nature was laying down that day.

The train back to Hayes & Harlington was full, but I didn’t care. As we moved away from the city, the rain seemed to lighten up. It was still raining when we arrived, but not nearly as heavy. And of course the bus was also packed, but no matter. I was happy to have made the journey while staying unscathed and relatively dry. We stopped off at one of the small stores near the hotel for some cold drinks to take back to the room around 6:30pm. After eating, showering, checking e-mail and watching some of the star-studded memorial to Michael Jackson on the TV, we were all ready for bed. Maybe it was just that I was spent, but I have to mention again that the beds at the Travelodge were very comfortable. I slept through, never hearing a thing except the alarm clock the next morning.


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