London-Day 8: "Sunshine, Rain, Laughter, and Pain"
Trip Start Jun 29, 2009
12Trip End Aug 02, 2009
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Where I stayed
Travelodge Heathrow Central
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
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
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
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
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
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. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.