Europe Trip 2012: Part 3 - London

London-1.jpg

We had the dreaded night flight from Singapore to London Heathrow, flying with British Airways. It was the first time I’d flown with BA and I wasn’t impressed. After the great Qantas flight it was like stepping back in time. It looked like they hadn’t updated their cabins for 20 years. Small TV screens, less leg room, shoddy seats and why don’t BA employ cabin crew under 50?

Trip Series Links

I didn’t sleep, I never do on flights. We arrived at Heathrow just after 5am on the Tuesday morning and was met by my parents at Arrivals. It was great to see them again. It had been 2 years since we last saw them - when they came over for our wedding.

On our way out of Arrivals I spotted some vending machines selling PAYG SIM cards so I picked up a couple up for Rach and I. We had both made sure our phones were unlocked before travelling. Having Internet access would be very handy in London. I’d already loaded up my iPhone with London-specific apps. The only problem is, as we discovered, it’s a bit of a pain for visitors to top-up the phones. We had o2 accounts and when we tried to top-up online it wouldn’t let us because they don’t accept credit cards registered to an overseas address. How stupid is that? I rang them and they confirmed that our only option would be to top-up at one of the shops. This was ok in London but it meant we couldn’t use the same SIM when travelling around the rest of Europe, or at least we could only use it until our credit ran out. It was handy having the SIM in London but even if you don’t buy a SIM you could probably get away with wifi. The city seems to be blanketed with free wifi hotspots.

I was surprised to find when we got to Venice that the overseas data charges for the 02 SIM was only £1.99 per day. That’s in stark contrast to the Australian telcos who charge a fortune for overseas roaming. Incidentally, we had also purchased TravelSIMs from Australia Post before we left, which work in any country. My advice is if you want the SIM primarily for data, forget it. The TravelSIM is fairly reasonable for phone calls but for data it’s a rip-off, if you even manage to get it to work that is.

I digress. We had booked into the Princess Square Hotel near Bayswater - a cheap B&B. It’s in a great area, a couple of blocks away from Hyde Park and close to both the Bayswater and Queensway tube stations. It’s cheap but you get what you pay for. There wasn’t enough room to swing a cat in our room. It’s pretty standard in London for the rooms to be small but that one took the biscuit. Oh well, we had no intention of spending much time in the hotel. At least the beds were comfortable.

Accepting that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the flight I had paid for the night before so that we could get our heads down for a few hours as soon as we arrived. That was the plan. As it happened we were wide awake, eager to get amongst it. I say ‘we’, Lauren was straight off - snoring her head off. We let her have a couple of hours and then headed out.

London Day 1

We didn’t have much of an itinerary for the first day. We figured we’d pick up tickets for the Big Bus open-deck bus tour and start the circuit. This was Lauren’s first trip to London (that she could remember) so the hop-on hop-off bus tour is a good way to get an orientation of the city. With the Big Bus ticket you also get a river cruise on the Thames included.

That would be later. First we caught the tube to Oxford St, had a walk down Oxford St towards Piccadilly Circus, stopping for lunch on the way.

There were a number of things that we were looking forward to with this being our first trip back to the UK in 5 years, and one of those was to have a proper pub-lunch. This may seem insignificant but it’s surprising how much you miss the little things. The pubs in Australia are very different. They’re good too in their own way but there’s something very cozy and quaint about a traditional English pub serving proper Ale and pub-grub. Bliss!

After lunch we continued our walk and came across one of the Big Bus tour outlets so picked up our tickets. The tickets last for 24 hours so if you purchase them in the afternoon you can use them until the same time the following day, which is what we did.

We had planned to meet my parents at some point in the afternoon, we were just waiting for them to ring. We hopped on the bus and made it as far as Trafalgar Square when they rang us to say they were on their way. We told them we’d hop-off and meet them in Covent Garden.

Covent Garden holds fond memories for me from my time in the Navy. I was stationed at what was then the St Vincent Maritime Communication Centre (ComCen) for a brief 6-months - underneath the old Foreign & Commonwealth Office building just off Trafalgar Square. If you go to Trafalgar Square then on to the Mall, there’s a long line of elegant buildings directly on the left after you go through Admiralty Arch. The ComCen was deep under there. I’m assuming the location isn’t covered by the Official Secrets Act (oops). It’s quite hard to find. I remember the first day I started. I had the address but couldn’t find the entrance. I even asked for directions from some policemen who were in the area and they didn’t have a clue where it was either. I had to ring the ComCen and get someone to come out and show me the entrance. It turned out to be quite an amazing place. During the long night shifts we would often go and explore the underground tunnels, built during World War II to connect Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament.

Covent Garden is only a short walk from Trafalgar Square so when we finished the day shifts it would often be the start for a pub crawl. If it was good weather we’d also occasionally head down to one of the floating pub moored up on the Thames in Westminster.

Covent Garden

Again, I digress. We walked to Covent Garden with a quick detour past the Lamb and Flag pub - a favourite watering hole of Charles Dickens.

Covent Garden wasn’t much different to how I remembered it. Steet artists plying their trade and pavement cafes serving over-priced drink.

Covent Garden Charlie Chaplin

We had a walk around the markets and paused for a while to watch a violin quintet entertaining the diners tucking into their Paella.

Giant Paella Covent Garden violin quintet

While waiting for my parents to arrive we had a quick wander into the Covent Garden Apple Store - well you have to don’t you! Apple Stores are tourist attractions in their own right - each one an architectural work of art.

Apple Store staircaseCovent Garden Apple Store

Once my parents arrived we had afternoon tea in Covent Garden and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the West End. From Covent Garden we walked through Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and on to Regent St and Oxford St to do a bit of shopping, including a stop at Hamleys, the famous toy store, for Lauren.

Piccadilly Circus

I was determined to travel light for the trip. I did - too light. Hand-washing underwear in your hotel room is all well and good if you can then get them to dry. Sorry Rick Steves, I let you down, but in my defence travelling as light as I had started out was always going to be a problem with an itinerary like ours, which involved heat and 100% humidity, followed by a UK Autumn and then 0 degrees in the Swiss Alps. Layers, I know.

H&M London

On the way back to our hotel we stopped for dinner at a Bella Italia restaurant on Queensway, which was so-so.

London Day 2

On day–2 (Wednesday) in London we picked up the Big Bus tour again near our hotel and stayed on it all the way around to the Tower of London. We passed too many sights to recount, again, a reminder that you could spend a year in London and not see everything.

Once we got to the Tower we headed for a Costa Coffee and waited for my parents. Costa Coffee seems to have taken over the UK since I left, they’re everywhere. I used to like Costa Coffees and Starbucks before I came to Australia. I now know there’s a lot better coffee in the world. Australia has become renowned for its great cafes and baristas in the last few years, particularly Melbourne.

We didn’t go in the Tower of London - that was planned for Friday. When my parents arrived we all took a cruise with City Cruises down to Westminster. That stretch of the river has some great sights including HMS Belfast - a Town-class Cruiser that was one of the largest and most powerful British Cruisers during World War II. My uncle served on her during the late 50s. It’s now a museum administered by the Imperial War Museum. The trip down the river was made even more enjoyable by the pilot who looked like Captain Birdseye and whose commentary had us in stitches.

HMS Belfast

On arrival at Westminster Pier we walked over Westminster Bridge and down the South Bank promenade past the London Eye.

London Eye

We stopped off for lunch at Wagamama and then had a look around Tate Modern. The major art galleries and museums in London are now subsidised by the government - meaning free entry. I’ve been to Tate Britain before but this was my first time in Tate Modern.

Outside Tate Modern there was a local school group reciting a passage from Shakespeare's The Temptest.

South Bank London

I have mixed feelings about modern art. Some of it is extraordinary and interesting. Some of it is pretentious nonsense.

After the Tate Modern we walked across the Millennium Bridge (or the Death Eater Bridge as it’s known to Lauren), designed by Sir Norman Foster, to St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to tour St Paul’s Cathedral as we had dinner plans.

Millennium Bridge

That evening we went to Searcy’s Champagne Bar for cocktails before having dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa. The meal was superb - possibly the best we had on the trip.

London Day 3

The third day in London, Thursday, was mad. This was the one day when there was no flexibility, I had pre-booked everything.

It started with a tour of Buckingham Palace - one of the highlights of our trip. This was the first time we’d been inside. Talk about bling, I thought the Vatican was opulent. We took the audio tour through the State Rooms, which for this year only included the Jubilee Diamonds display. This was followed by a walk through the gardens.

Buckingham Palace Gardens

On completion of the tour we made it out just in time to catch the arse-end of the Changing of the Guards.

Buckingham Palace 1

We then headed along Birdcage Walk to Parliament Square. Rach and I had tickets for a tour of the Houses of Parliament while the grandparents took Lauren for some lunch. We spent a few minutes in Parliament Square before the tour, taking in our surroundings and admiring the statues of Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.

Parliament Square is a great starting-point for a tour of Westminster - between Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square. It starts with the statue of Boudicea riding her two-horse chariot - the Celtic warrior who refused to be Romanised. After Julius Caesar invaded and established Londinium, she lead a briefly successful revolt in A.D 60 after Roman soldiers raped her daughter. The revolt she led resulted in the slaughter of 60,000 Roman soldiers, but they were eventually overcome. Boudicea and her family took poison to avoid surrender.

Boudicea

Looking across from Parliament you have St Margaret’s Church, often confused with Westminster Abbey by tourists. Westminster Abbey sits behind it. Whereas Westminster Abbey is the site for coronations and royal weddings, since 1480 St Margaret’s Church has been the place for politician’s weddings, including Winston Churchill’s marriage to Clementine.

Interestingly, the corner where Parliament Square meets Whitehall was the site for the world’s first traffic light in 1868. More recently, Parliament Square, along with Trafalgar Square, has been the focal point for many protests over the years, particularly in the last decade with the protests against the Iraq War.

The HoP are only open at certain times of the year, when parliament is in recess. Luckily for us, the parliament was in recess for the party conference season.

Parliament

The tour was fascinating. Commencing in the 900 yr old Westminster Halland then following the path the Queen takes during the State Opening of Parliament - from the grandeur of the House of Lords through to the relative slum that is the House of Commons. While we were in the HoP we spotted Tanni Grey-Thompson, now a member of the House of Lords. We also spotted Yngwie Malmsteen (Swedish rock guitarist) being given a personal tour by a MP. I’ll be honest, I had to look Yngwie up as I’d never heard of him.

After the tour we walked up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. I love walking Whitehall, there is so much to see and consider. You have the great ministries of state, including the Ministry of Defence and Treasury. There’s Downing St on the left of course, although these days there’s not much to see. You can’t even see the famous door of 10 Downing St from the iron gates. The last time Rach and I stood outside the gates we were interviewed by an American news crew. We were walking past Downing St and spotted a commotion with lots of TV cameras, so stopped to see what all the fuss was about. The next minute we had a microphone stuffed in our face asking what we thought of the news of the birth of the Prime Minster’s (Tony Blair) latest child. What can you say to that? I wanted to say ‘who cares’ but I’m sad to admit I was much more diplomatic. I’ve no idea if it was broadcast.

In the middle of Whitehall you have the Cenotaph. I once took part in November Ceremonies as it’s called in the Navy - part of the Armed Forces guard that accompanies the Queen and other dignitaries who lay their wreaths during the 11th November ceremony to commemorate Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Sunday. I was press-ganged into it due to an incident I had in Antwerp, Belgium a few months earlier. I’ll save that story for another time.

Cenotaph

Further up Whitehall you have Banqueting House on the right. A few years ago, shortly after leaving the Navy, I attended an IT vendor event at Banqueting House, without knowing the history of the place in which I was standing.

Banqueting House is what’s left of Whitehall Palace - once the largest palace in Europe. Originally built for King Henry VIII and further extended over the years for other monarchs, including Elizabeth 1, Whitehall Palace once stretched from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Palace as it was then known).

Today, you can stand facing Banqueting House and look up at the 1st floor windows to the site where, in 1649, King Charles 1 stepped out on to a wooden platform, uttered his final word “Remember”, before having his head chopped off at the orders of Oliver Cromwell. The history books tell us that the anti-monarchist Oliver Cromwell went on to become just as dictatorial and corrupted by wealth as the monarchs before him. A few years later he would succumb to infection and was buried at Westminster Abbey. Then ironically 12 years to the day after the execution of King Charles 1, Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed and posthumously executed - his severed head displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685. There’s statues of both Charles 1 and Oliver Cromwell at either end of Whitehall.

Before arriving at Trafalgar Square you also have Horse Guard Parade on the left, most recently the site for the London Olympics beach volleyball.

Horse Guards

At Trafalgar Square we met up my parents and Lauren. Trafalgar Square is, culturally and geographically, the centre of London. It’s a shame then that the authorities allow it to be spoiled by tacky crap. My photo’s of Trafalgar Squares are spoiled by the sighting of a large black ‘sound portal’ , put there for this year’s London Design Festival. Oh, and cranes. There seemed to be cranes everywhere. I found it really hard to get any photo’s of London that wasn’t spoilt by cranes protruding into my shots. How dare they carry out construction during my visit! Here's a shot that I took of the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square that i like:

Fourth Plinth Trafalgar Square

From Trafalgar Square we headed for our next appointment - afternoon tea at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s advertised as having views out over Trafalgar Square but in truth you can just about see the statue of Admiral Nelson on top of his column, you’re certainly not looking down at Trafalgar Square.

You can’t come to London and not have Afternoon Tea! After stuffing ourselves with sandwiches and cake we took a brief tour of the highlights of the National Portrait Gallery. I particularly enjoyed the contemporary photographs.

From there we walked back towards Covent Garden as we had tickets for The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. We were slightly early so went for a pint around the corner at the Lyceum Tavern.

A trip to London is not complete without taking in a West End show. When deciding on which show to see my first choice would have been Les Miserables. However, we have an 11yr old daughter and given that we would be spending much of our time in London dragging her round from one historic sight to the next, we figured we’d let her choose the show, as long as her grandparents were happy with the selection of course. She chose The Lion King.

I’ve never seen the film of The Lion King so went into it with no clue of the story line. My only knowledge of The Lion King was Elton John belting out The Circle of Life. I had an open mind and gave it a go, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s a spectacular production but within 30 mins of it starting, all the walking and fresh air got the better of me and I dropped off. Ok, the beer might have had something to do with it too. I still couldn’t tell you what the story is about. Everyone else enjoyed it though.

Our original itinerary was for the grandparents to take Lauren home after the show while Rach and I hit the West End, possibly to a comedy club or Jazz club. That was wishful thinking. Maybe when we were in our twenties we could have handled it but after the show there was only one place we were heading - Bedfordshire. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

London Day 4

We had one final set of tickets to use for our last day in London before driving up north to see the in-laws in Doncaster. After popping to see my uncle in Ladbroke Grove (who my parents were staying with), and then having a very cheap (by Brisbane standards) but hearty breakfast at the nearby Sainsbury’s cafe, we took a bus and then tube back over to Tower Hill to pick up our tickets for a tour of the Tower.

I’ve been inside the Tower of London before, as had Rach, but it was many years ago and we knew this would be something that Lauren would enjoy. To be fair, she had shown an interest wherever we had visited. She showed a lot more interest and patience for history and art than I’m sure I did at her age. Even so, a guided tour by the Wardens (beefeaters) telling stories of the gruesome murders and executions that took place at the Tower is always good fun for the kiddies (and adults).

Tower of London

The tour was as entertaining as I remembered. After the tour we spent some time visiting the Crown Jewels, White Tower and the Royal Armouries exhibition.

Tower of London

On completion of our visit to the Tower we headed back to pick up our cases so we could try and get a head start on the Friday afternoon traffic heading north. Unfortunately however, we had left it a little late and ended up spending 5 hours on the A1.

We had packed a lot into our 3 and half days in London but there was still a bunch of places on our original itinary that we didn’t manage to fit in. At least we would have another chance when we later returned from Paris before our flight out of Heathrow to Hong Kong three weeks later.