In June my husband David and I celebrated our 25th anniversary with the trip of a lifetime. We spent two weeks in England with brief forays into Wales and Scotland. We left on Friday, June 16, from the Greater Cincinnati Airport. We woke up at 3 a.m. to make our 6:30 a.m. flight. We should have slept later. We got checked in and found our gate with plenty of time to spare. Then the delays started due to the mechanical issues with our plane. We finally flew from Cincinnati to Toronto around 10:30 a.m. Of course, when we arrived in Toronto, we had missed our connecting flight to London. We spent the entire day at the Toronto Airport waiting for the next flight. We finally started the next leg of our journey at 6:30 p.m. The airline did give us vouchers to eat and I met a random woman from Nashville who helped me pass the time for a bit. She had a layover for her plane to Greece.
On our flight to London we sat next to an English gentleman who was on his way home. He gave us lots of ideas for our visit. We landed at Heathrow without any issues around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. To save money, we took the Tube (the London subway) to our hotel. Note to self: Always read all signs. When we went to switch trains, we found out the Tube stop right next to our hotel (one of the reasons why we selected it) was closed for the weekend. We walked several blocks from Earl’s Court (the area where I stayed on my first visit to London when I was in college) all the way to Kensington High Street. Our hotel was only about a block from there.
We were exhausted and just wanted to shower and brush our teeth, which we had not been able to do for 24 hours. Even though we had called to let the hotel know we would be late, they had given our room to someone else, so we had to wait while another one was cleaned. When we finally got into a room, we cleaned up and hit the town. They say the best way to deal with jet lag is to get on local time as quickly as possible.
We made the mistake of walking to the Portobello Road flea market. It was farther away than expected and it was so hot. We found out during our time in London that they were experiencing the worst heatwave since 1976. Instead of the clouds and 70s I expected, we had sunshine and high 80s every day. The market was not as impressive as I remembered from my first visit. We walked through it, then decided to take the Tube to Harrod’s. We had seen the food court on one of Andrew Zimmern’s shows and wanted to check it out. It was quite crowded and overwhelming. There are multiple rooms full of options. We decided on the chocolate-filled croissants, which were delicious.
Our next stop was Picadilly Circus. From there we walked down to Buckingham Palace.
That morning the city had celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday. We happened to see the Queen’s Guard as it was returning to the stables. Very impressive! After this, we ended up skipping the Changing of the Guard, since with only five days in London, we had to pick and choose our activities.
The next day, we decided to visit the British Museum thinking it would be an air-conditioned respite from the heat. No joy! Only the Room of Enlightenment had air conditioning and it was the last room we entered. The Egyptian collection was interesting, but I had forgotten they had sent King Tut back to Egypt. The Saxon exhibit was probably my second favorite.
We ate dinner at a pub under a Tube overpass that night. I was hoping for Sunday roast. I had forgotten that most places close by 6 p.m. on Sunday. I guess most people go out for dinner around lunch time. I ended up with pork, but I did get Yorkshire pudding.
We took a Jack the Ripper tour that evening. During our walk, we went past part of the wall the Romans built around Londonium. Pretty cool! Our guide took us to the site of the murders sharing the stories of the murders, the victims, the investigation and possible suspects. The person he mentioned who seemed the most likely to me was a man named John Druitt. An obviously troubled man, he had written to his family for help claiming he had done unspeakable things and was afraid he would do them again. Instead of getting Druitt the help he needed, his family contacted London police and told them they thought he might be the Ripper. Druitt ended up committing suicide by jumping into the Thames River. His body was found shortly after the last Ripper murder.
Also on the tour we visited the pub where one of the victims got drunk the night she was murdered. It has been preserved exactly the way it looked during the time of the murders in the late 1800s. We also saw a building that was basically a homeless shelter where all the victims probably stayed at one time or another. You could still see the separate entrances for men and women.
The next day was the Tower of London. Just as on my first visit, the Tower was my
favorite spot in London. There is so much history there. So many momentous events took place there like the executions of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. Kings and queens have stayed there the night before their coronation since William the Conqueror.
On my first visit, for some reason I was not able to go into all the buildings. This time we got to see everything and I was super happy. I had always heard about the “graffiti” on the walls. I didn’t understand how graffiti could last for hundreds of years. Then I saw it for myself and realized it was actually carved into the walls. Apparently, the walls where the higher class prisoners were kept were made of a very soft stone. Some pieces were rather ornate and included drawings, but mostly the carvings were the words and or names of the prisoners. We walked all the way to the top of the White Tower, which was William the Conqueror’s original castle. There were displays on each floor, including arms and armor. I even got a photo of a bathroom that dated from Norman times. Our tour ended in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, which I had read about in books, but finally got to visit. Many famous historic figures are buried there including Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More.
After the Tower, we walked across London Bridge and to the Burroughs Market. I recommend checking it out. There are all kinds of food stalls. We had delightful grilled sandwiches for lunch and goat milk ice cream for dessert. After our break, we were refreshed enough to jump on the Tube to see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It was amazing to be walking the streets beside these historic landmarks. Westminster was closed for the day by the time we arrived, so we didn’t get to go inside. We did spend some time in a park situated between Big Ben and the House of Parliament and Westminster to avoid rush hour on the Tube. It gave us a chance to soak it all in and get off our feet. I have no idea how many miles we ended up walking while in London, so I didn’t feel quite so guilty about not working out while we were gone. Our hotel did offer exercise classes. I thought it would have been interesting to take one. One day was yoga, which I think I would have enjoyed, but another day I walked past the gym and it sounded like a German drill sergeant was leading the class. I was happy to skip that one.
A word of advice: take any travel blogs you read with a grain of salt. One I read before our trip said that Little Venice was one of the beautiful, hidden gems in London. No, it wasn’t. It took a lot of effort to find this place. Basically it was a little canal with colorful river barges that had been turned into houseboats. There were a few nice willows, but the landscaping left a lot to be desired.
The same blogger led us astray a second time. Our GPS was not particularly helpful and it was another abnormally hot day in London as we tried to find a park named Hampstead Heath. We finally found it and it was nothing special. As we were walking around the park, we came to the bottom of a hill. I thought the promised view would be at the top, but David didn’t want to climb the hill. I said I would scout it out for us. I found the view and I could see St. Paul’s, but it was teeny tiny. When we left the park to find a Tube station, our GPS said the nearest one was like five miles away, so we decided to call Uber. Within a few minutes, a friendly gentleman picked us up in his air-conditioned car. We drove about half a block down the hill and what did we spy? A Tube station. Ugh! We did get back to our hotel quickly and in comfort, though, and it didn’t cost that much.
Notes: The service in London restaurants is terrible. It takes forever to get your food and you normally have to ask for your check. I am sure part of it is a different cultural mentality. Also, servers there aren’t working for a tip. Either you don’t tip or there is a specific tip built into your check, so they already know what they are getting.
If you have access to a free bathroom, use it. You don’t want to use the bathrooms in the Tube, they are not very clean. Plus they usually charge you 50 pence to use a public bathroom. Even finding a public bathroom to use can be difficult.
One of the things I found surprising in London was the extent of the American influence. We found so many of the same brands, companies and products we have at home. Of course, there are McDonald’s and Burger King, but when we went into Boot’s Pharmacy, they carried the brand of moisturizing eyes drops I use.
Grocery stores like Tesco are a good place to grab a snack or lunch. They had their own brand of chips that I found in a flavor I loved – sweet chili jam and goat cheese. I want to ask Kroger to see if they would develop their own or talk Jungle Jim’s into carrying them.
On our last morning in London, we returned to Heathrow to pick up our rental car and begin the next stage of our journey. To be continued. . . .
Suzanne Yowler has been a Circulation Assistant at the Florence Branch for three years. She has always loved to travel. Suzanne and her husband David are already planning their next adventure.