Contrary to almost all guidelines that I normally use for selecting an adventure destination, London was chosen for its expediency. Diane and I normally travel as an empty-nester couple, free to spend two weeks to explore a new location. I plan for culture, entertainment and relaxation all based on the premise that it is for an over-50 adult couple. So take that notion and throw it out the window.
Our youngest had recently graduated from university (Central Florida, Go Knights!) We decided it might be fun to share an adventure with him and his older still-single sister (a young accomplished professional). The married kids and their families… oh well, sorry, can’t take the whole crew.
The youngest, Austin, already had a new job, so we knew time off would be an issue. Likewise his older sister, Dawn, had a busy schedule as well. The questions were pretty basic. What is the most accessible European city? Is there a European destination where language is not an issue? For the average American, the answers are easily the same: London.
We broached the idea with our two single kids. Dawn was not available, but Austin was, and as expected he only had roughly a one-week window. At least now I knew that planning would revolve around three adults for roughly one week in the London area.
As mentioned during the planning for the Scotland adventure, Diane and I had both been to London a couple (or more) decades ago. So how much had London changed since the 1980’s? Were there any must-see sights near London? Again, I turned to my constant travel advisor, Rick Steves, for his latest London edition, as well as on-line resources such as TripAdvisor.
In planning for previous adventures, I was looking at a two-week span for an entire region or country. Now I was looking at a week centered on London – seven actual full days excluding travel time. Luckily there are many itineraries available on the internet to compare and contrast. Immediately what jumps out at the prospective visitor is that London is BIG. Many famous neighborhoods are thriving near the city center. Naturally the subway system (the Tube) and the rail system are known for consistency and relative accessibility, so getting around should not be a problem.
Much of what drives my early efforts in the planning stage is figuring out an itinerary of where we’re going to stay and for how long. For this adventure, staying the entire time in the same place seemed like the best idea. No point in moving suitcases needlessly. Basically my planning reduced to simply findings flights and finding a single place to stay.
Most itineraries were saying five days were sufficient to see most of the sights in London, so that left one or two days for excursions into the countryside. Diane had never seen the white cliffs of Dover. A bit of investigation revealed high speed train service from St Pancras Station in London to Dover as part of the London to Paris channel tunnel (chunnel) connection. Dover was officially on the list! I thought it might be nice to see the famous cathedral at Canterbury either on the way there or back, so that was an option. We had enjoyed seeing Balmoral in Scotland, so a side trip to Windsor might be interesting as well.
While our previous Scotland adventure was mostly travel by automobile, this London trip looked like no car was needed. Trains were available for the airport, all nearby small towns, and subways for the city.
Since Austin’s time off is a consideration, we’ll stick to the end of May. This follows the now traditional approach of going relatively early in the tourist season, but gives us the Memorial Day holiday. As with Scotland, the rainfall and temperature averages look reasonable for late May as well.
Since we were including my son on this trip, and he lives in Orlando, I looked into tickets from there as a base. London has large airports for international travel, the primary two being London Gatwick and Heathrow. Low and behold, tickets were direct from Orlando to London Gatwick for less than half of the cost of flying from my home in the Florida Panhandle. Direct flights! The specter of spending the night in JFK on our previous trip to Scotland was still very fresh, and I had no desire for a repeat, especially with such a relatively short visit. Luckily the cheapest option was also a Delta partner: Virgin Atlantic Airways. Tickets were bought and this new adventure began to take form.
Instead of starting with a Big City Experience for this trip, the whole thing was more or less a Big City Experience. Having flights in hand, the next effort was where to stay. This was much more problematic with an extra adult, as now two beds were required, with preferably two bedrooms. I quickly found that AirBnB was a very viable option for a flat versus two hotel rooms. After some searching, some disappointments, and some more searching, we were able to find a reasonable looking place in the Covent Garden area that had the two separate bedrooms and close access to the Tube. AirBnB? This was going to be a new experience! It was also a concern, since the flat was not going to be available until 3 pm, and our flight was arriving at 7:00 am. Some quick checking showed that luggage storage services were conveniently available at Victoria Station, the final stop for trains coming in from Gatwick. Based on prior experience, the last night of our stay would be at the Hilton at Gatwick Airport.
Having had success with city passes, I looked into what was available for London. The London Pass covers several of the sights and activities in and around London. It is also rather expensive, so the challenge on such a pass is to at least hit the break-even point on what you pay for the pass versus how much you save from having the pass. I had enjoyed the Vienna Pass when visiting that wonderful city, so hopefully the London Pass would provide similar benefits. The London Pass comes in various lengths of time, either 1, 2, 3, 6, or 10 days, with the time starting on the first day you use the card. It’s worth noting that the first full day will be charged regardless of what time of day you first use it, so if you use it at 11 pm, then your day 1 will have lasted for 1 hour. An upside to the London Pass was that Windsor was included!
Some investigation into Tube transportation revealed that having the Oyster card is indispensable, so I purchased the 6 Day London Pass with a pre-loaded Oyster card (50 GBP) for each of us. Six days on the card was sufficient since for the last day in London we would overnight at the Hilton at Gatwick. That basically freed-up the last day for including a town near Gatwick in the itinerary. Brighton is a popular destination for the locals, and is reasonably close to Gatwick, so I decided that we would see what an English beach community looked like for our last full day in the UK.
Other considerations were must-see restaurants and theater productions. Some research showed the popularity of the Fenchurch Restaurant at the top of the “Walkie-Talkie”, a unique building in downtown London known for its unusual shape and amazing views of the city. Checking on-line showed that reservations are practically a necessity, so we booked for the end of our first full day in London, the thought being that it would be a way to have a nice introductory top view of the city. Diane was very keen on seeing a play, so we booked tickets for “Wicked” on an evening near the end of our stay. The thought was that we would be settled-in to the London scene and would be ready to get off our feet and enjoy a little escape.
Except for these fixed events, the rest of the trip could be more free-form. I sketched out a rough idea of things to do on the different days, but ultimately it was more a prioritization of what we wanted to experience while we were in the UK.
An itinerary of sorts was formulated. Unlike previous adventures that required the itinerary to be location based, this one became more of a planned daily focus:
The Big Question: Do we have enough time to do justice to London? I was having the opposite problem on this adventure than I had with the previous trip around Scotland. There we were spread very thin moving from one location to another. Here we were spending basically the entire time in the same general locale. Still, London is BIG. Many neighborhoods, sites and experiences are there, plus we were planning day trips to Dover and Windsor, leaving five days to see the city (counting the Sunday we arrive). That sounds like enough, but, as always, time would tell.
Would the weather hold? Much of what we were planning required at least a little cooperation from the weather. Going to Dover in a downpour would not have the desired effect. Likewise Windsor would be more problematic in a deluge. Nothing was set in stone except for the Fenchurch Restaurant and “Wicked” – everything else was intentionally flexible.
: Unlike our previous trip to Scotland, the flight was on time and generally worry free. It was my first experience travelling with Virgin Atlantic, and the check-in process was slightly different but familiar. The fleet of 747 aircraft was a nice surprise, as was the match-up with Delta as far as the now expected trans-Atlantic amenities: free wine, lots of food (supper, snack, breakfast) and free recently released movies and entertainment. Austin, still displaying his recent time at the university, was overjoyed to find that free mixed drinks were likewise included. If it weren’t for the need for at least some attempt at sleeping on these overnight journeys, we might have arrived a little too happy (as in mildly inebriated). I’ve never been accused of denying myself on these excursions.
On the downside of a flight like this, there is the inevitable jetlag. Diane and I have a standard of “powering through” the first day at a European destination. The flight from Orlando to London was roughly eight hours, but the six hour jump forward in time basically eliminated any potential for a normal sleep time unless you’re one of those lucky few who can ignore the cumulative cacophony of jet noise, random conversations, snoring and crying babies. Austin had noise cancelling headphones and was able to get more sleep as a result, but Diane and I were both running on a couple of 20 minute catnaps through the flight. We had left Orlando on Saturday at 1720 and deplaned in Gatwick at 0700 on Sunday morning.
: As citizens of the USA, we get special treatment in the UK, at least at Gatwick (not something we experienced at smaller Edinburgh). We, along with a few other countries that have a good relationship with the UK (part of the European Economic Area, or EEA) have a special line for passport control (ePassport) that was designed for rapid processing. Beyond a doubt this was by far the best European entry experience I have had.
: Contrary to what I was led to believe from online sources, LGW is a large, modern airport. Baggage pickup was fast and easy, and finding the trains was likewise relatively easy.
: I wish I had done more research on the trains to London from LGW. The non-stop “Gatwick Express” train to London’s Victoria Station appeared to be the easiest choice. Had I done a bit more checking, I would have found that the regular local trains are half the price and almost as fast with only a few stops. For me, the time saved was not worth the expense. It was, however, simple to find and allowed our first use of the Oyster Cards. I’m not sure what we would have done without an Oyster card – I saw no way through the gates without some sort of electronic pass card. The 35 minute train ride was just long enough, and smooth enough, that we were fighting sleep by the time we arrived at Victoria station.
Victoria Station, the arrival station for basically all trains from Gatwick, is huge. Having had the plan of storing luggage at Victoria, I set off in search of “Luggage Hero”, the low priced storage option I had found online. Surprise, surprise – they’re closed on Sunday! I was left with the only in-station option I could find, the appropriately named “Excess Baggage Company.” Their pricing was also excess, ultimately costing GBP 50 for the privilege of their holding our four bags for roughly eight hours. It would have been more, but we stuffed the smaller backpacks into the larger bags – ridiculous. Victoria does have several restaurants, but with our early arrival we were willing to settle for some fresh coffee at Costa.
: I knew that London would involve a lot of time underground – specifically using the London Underground, or “Tube.” Luckily with a fold-out Tube map, kindly provided by Rick Steves’ book, we were quickly able to decipher the best ways to get from point to point. This hardcopy map was especially important during those dread times of “no signal” for our smart phones. From our first moments in London to our last, the Tube played an intrinsic part in all our destinations. Organized using the end destinations of each color of line, the system was easy to use.
The stations each had their own character. Some were relatively small with limited walking to change lines, while others demanded Olympian efforts to get from one line to the next (I’m looking at you, Tower Hill). The Covent Garden station could only get to street level via (usually packed) elevators, unless you were willing to brave the 193 steps for the emergency staircase. Sometimes the lack of air movement was stifling, and sometimes there was a steady breeze. Mice were not an unusual sight, but generally the stations were clean and well-maintained. Rush hours were unmistakable, as sometimes the platforms were so crowded that even being able to get on the next train was a question. During those times, standing room only was the norm as travelers squeezed in before the doors closed. Other times it was more reasonable, but travelers should always be aware of business days and times.
Walking, very quickly, was for us the alternative to the Underground. We would walk from Covent Garden to Buckingham Palace, followed by a walk to Harrods’. Another time we walked from Westminster Abbey to the Imperial War Museum then to the Shard. Granted, these could have been done via bus or Tube, but walking seemed to make the most sense at the time.
One of my disappointments is that I did not take the time to become more familiar with the bus system. No doubt it would have saved both time and calluses.
We immediately were introduced to the aforementioned Tube system. Oyster cards remained awesome as we rattled our way across London from Victoria station to Spitalfields for the Brick Town Sunday Market. After some confused walking we resorted to using our cell phones to find our way. We were there so early that we walked the area as the booths were being set up. Brick Lane is an interesting neighborhood, so we enjoyed it immensely. Between the Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, there was a wide variety of crafts and food. As a result, our first food in London was from the unlikely SumUp Bejing Dumplings booth near Brick Lane, and it was delicious.
I thought we should see some traditional London touristy spots, so first we popped into a traditional pub, in this case The Woodins Shades, theoretically for a drink but primarily to use the restrooms. Austin boldly ordered a Nicholson’s Pale and I a Fuller London Pride, while Diane stuck to a stomach-friendly Earl Grey tea. The relatively flat English beer did not set well with Austin’s palette, so I had to finish both (I genuinely enjoyed the taste). On to the sights, so we hopped on the Tube and headed to the Tower. I mentioned that I had been to London many years ago, and much of the skyline has changed, but the Tower and the Tower Bridge remain the same. It was fun to see the excited countenances of Diane and Austin as we emerged from the subway station, despite their exhaustion.
We walked across the bridge and had the fun of seeing it raise for a passing ship. The crowd was thick, and I had to chuckle at the forest of raised arms with cellphones taking in the whole event. Crossing to the south side of the Thames we settled for some afternoon food and drinks at Sainsbury’s, with a nice outdoor table with fine views of the Tower and Tower Bridge.
Our AirBnb host was great with text communication, so we arranged to meet at 1500. I paid the extortionist fee at Victoria Station for our bags and we made our way to Covent Garden to our home for the next six nights. The host representative was a super nice guy with an eastern European name and an accent to match. This was not unexpected as the listed host also had a similar name. Everything went smoothly, and soon I had a huge key. We were able to relax in our own space and, despite our tradition of “powering through”, those inviting beds were too much to resist.
After awaking from a two hour nap, it was time for more food and drink! I should not have been surprised that many place closed early on a Sunday night, so it took some time before we found a large pub called Shakespeare’s Head, complete with appropriate signage. It took us a while to realize that all ordering was through a smart phone app. My tech-savvy millennial son quickly downloaded the app and had soon our orders placed. In no time we had our flat but delicious English beer with fish and chips and mushy peas.
After a good night’s sleep, we were refreshed and ready for a full day. After a quick coffee, we were off to Tottenham Court Road Station to return to the very Big Stuff that we had previewed in previous day’s exhausted state.
The London Pass included the entry fee for the Tower of London. Unlike some similar passes, however, it did not really have a “skip the line” option. Rick Steves’ book had recommended early arrival to the Tower to avoid lines, but our pace was still a bit lagged and we didn’t arrive until ten. Of course the place was in full swing by then, so we patiently waited in the line at the gate. It was too late to have any visitation strategy once we were inside, as a long queue had already formed for the Crown Jewels. We dutifully joined this wait also, and I was surprised to see it still was a good idea to join relatively early. By eleven the line for the Jewel House was twice as long as it had been for us. The Crown Jewel displays, as expected, did not disappoint.
The Beefeater tours are a brilliant way to get a deeper understanding of the Tower. Our guide had a quick wit and a dry humor that went beyond his costume and underscored his years of actual military experience. The entertaining storytelling and discussions of the various parts of the tower added immensely to our enjoyment.
Taking a quick bite at the cafeteria at the Tower, we followed with some Starbucks across the street. It never ceases to amaze me how there is a Starbucks near every prime location. In Vienna there had been one across the street from the Hofburg Palace. Now here was one across the street from the Tower of London. Is Starbucks a coffee company that owns real estate or a real estate company that sells coffee? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.
The Tower Bridge entrance was also included in the London Pass. One of the advantages of such a pass is that you do some things that you might not do otherwise, simply because the cost is already paid. In this case we ascended via lift to the clear walkways above the bridge. I’ll admit to having a case of acrophobia, so I always view these clear walkways with some trepidation. With some urging from Diane and Austin, as well as from a nice bridge employee, I stepped onto the “glass.” I still have the sticker I received from the employee as a reward. It was a nice day, with plenty of fine river views of the city. I was happy for the experience, and thankful that I did not need to change my clothes.
We took the time to visit the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and the entry fee was covered by the London Pass. We did not climb the 528 steps to the top of the “Golden Dome”, but we did climb the steps to the roof for some great views. The crypts inside contain some of the most known names in the history including Admiral Horatio Nelson and Arthur, Duke of Wellington.
Keeping the subway busy, we made the round-trip back to our flat in Covent Garden to freshen up and to upgrade our clothing before riding back for our dinner reservations at the Fenchurch restaurant at the Sky Garden. This unmistakable “Walkie-Talkie” high-rise near St Paul’s and the Tower of London has a 37th floor garden bar, viewing area and restaurant. The food was wonderfully presented, the views of the city at night were extraordinary – the whole experience was well worth the effort.
A wonderful Monday was followed by a pretty Tuesday morning. First up – the classic changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Our stroll took us first to the impressive Trafalgar Square with its imposing column and lions. This normally would have been our first view of London’s own Big Ben, but instead we saw the structure completely wrapped in plastic and scaffolding, with only the clock face visible through the obstructions. London repaid us by way of compensation, as we were able to enjoy St. James Park with its lake and flowers on our way to Buckingham. On arrival, the crowd wasn’t as bad as expected, and we settled on Rick Steves’ recommended perch on the dais of Queen Victoria’s statue. As time approached for the event, an official looking gentleman began repeatedly calling out “There is no ceremony today”, “Ceremony is tomorrow, not today.”
A little research showed that yes, contrary to what I had understood, the ceremony days for May did not include Tuesdays.
With a tinge of disappointment, mostly in myself for not having known beforehand what days the changing of the guard ceremony took place, we joined the rest of the crowd heading back into St. James Park. We soon saw a crowd forming at the nearby home of the Household Cavalry. We effectively caught the back of the lesser known “Changing the Life Guard Ceremony” of the Queen’s Household Cavalry. We stood for a while with the colorful men and horses as they waited for their comrades to finish the actual ceremony on the other side of the substantial Household Cavalry complex. We at least were able to witness how well these young soldiers were able to stay in formation with their mounts, despite the occasional need for the horses to relieve themselves.
A short distance away was the famous Westminster Abbey. The weather was turning a bit gray and moist, and of course at noon the crowd was crazy. The line to get in took about 30 minutes, but once again the entry fee was covered by the London Pass. The long queue gave time to appreciate the sculpture detail near the door. Once inside, it was an overwhelming gothic interior, with ridiculously high ceilings and famous graves throughout from Darwin to Dickens. Notable among the graves are those of Elizabeth I and her sister Mary, as well as the only floor grave that cannot be trod upon, The Unknown Warrior. No amount of words suffice for such a place as Westminster – it is simply a cannot-miss location in London that must be experienced in person.
After all that culture we were all starving, especially Austin. Diane loves Hard Rock Cafes and we had agreed to make the effort to go to London’s offering. Somehow we walked from Westminster back through St. James Park, past Buckingham Palace, down Constitution Hill to the Wellington Arch. I took the time to view the nearby Bomber Command Memorial, not realizing how hangry Austin had become after walking for 1.5 miles with no food. We thought we were almost there but alas, getting to The Hard Rock across from Piccadily added quite a bit of walking to an already long walk. Luckily Austin restrained himself and I continued in ignorant bliss as we finally arrived at the restaurant. Burgers and beer never tasted so good.
Showing how much a pre-planned daily itinerary can spin completely out of control, Diane now strongly “suggested” that we make the effort to see the relatively nearby Harrods Department Store. The façade of the store was like so much of London, hidden by maintenance scaffolding. However, once inside there was no doubt that this was a store unlike any other. From the Egyptian motifs at the escalators to the presentation of the outrageously expensive handbags and wristwatches, Harrods did not disappoint.
Teetering on exhaustion, we used the Tube to get back to Covent Garden. A stop at the Crown & Anchor pub had the desired calming effect. We stopped by the flat to freshen up, and instead ended-up napping for a couple of hours. Rather than give up on the day, we decided to try a nearby restaurant that always seemed to have a waiting line in front. Thus we found ourselves at 9 o’clock at night shivering in line outside the Dishoom Indian Restaurant. Gratefully we accepted complimentary hot tea as we waited with the others, ignoring the occasional panhandler. The wait was only 30 minutes or so, whereupon we were given a pager and escorted to the downstairs bar. In retrospect, it is a brilliant business model as we enjoyed drinks while we again waited. And the customer service was very welcoming. This wait was much shorter, and soon we were enjoying some of the best Bombay-style Indian food that I have ever tasted. By the time we were finished, it was 11 at night, but we were happy.
The forecast was reasonably sunny for Dover and so, with a little prodding on my part, we made the extra effort to get going early despite the relatively short night. The high-speed rail station at St. Pancras shares the location with the famous (for those who are Harry Potter fans, such as Austin) King’s Cross Underground. Austin dutifully took pictures of the station signs. The ride from St. Pancras to Dover was a quiet and comfortable one hour chance to view the southern English countryside. The first glimpses of the white cliffs were exciting as we neared our destination.
Dover was a bit confusing at first, but luckily we wandered by accident to the extremely helpful tourist information center. Supplied with maps and a new-found sense of direction, we finally stopped for breakfast at a lovely little pub called The Eight Bells. We were surprised to see that it was another “Wetherspoon” pub, much like London’s Shakespeare’s Head, where an app is used to order. This time we already had the app, so in no time I had a traditional fry-up while Diane and Austin opted for Eggs Benedict – delicious.
Dover castle is a little under a mile from The Eight Bells, much of it uphill. It’s a pleasant walk, though, and the castle grounds are impeccably maintained. The castle is in great shape, having been in use as recently as World War II as a military command center. The current structure dates back to 1179 AD, with the interesting interior portions having been restored in 2009. A Roman lighthouse, one of only three surviving in the world, is on the grounds next to a Saxon church which itself dates back to around 1000 AD. The lighthouse is really not much to look at, but knowing the history made it much more interesting. The church was quite pretty for a small building, so we sat for a few minutes and took it in. We took time to view the museum of the Queen’s & Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment that is housed in the castle which was small but very well done.
While the castle area is fascinating, the real draw for Dover is the famous chalk white cliffs. Luckily our weather was clear though naturally quite windy and chilly. The National Trust welcome center has a small café, so we refreshed with a snack before starting the main portion of the hike. I was thankful that I was wearing hiking shoes, since the path tended to get rough in several places. The views were awesome though, firstly with a full scope of Dover Harbor and its stately ship and ferry traffic, followed by truly breathtaking views of the cliffs themselves. We did the full hike to the South Foreland Lighthouse, though the best views were seen by the halfway point. The total hike from Dover Castle to the Lighthouse was 3.5 miles, with naturally another 3.5 miles to return. I was pleased that Diane and Austin were willing to help me satisfy my urge to be a completionist and hike to the lighthouse, but if I had it to do over again we would have saved both time and our legs and stopped at the two mile point. The best sights are the first main view looking east, followed by the reverse view looking back at that same cliff.
After all that hiking, it was back to The Eight Bells for a fine lunch of Fish and Chips with mushy peas. The rain started as we waited on the platform for the return train at Dover Priory. Having logged a total of 9+ miles of hiking, we were pretty-well shot. My planned itinerary for the day had included a stop in Canterbury for a look at the famous cathedral, but there was not enough time or energy for the stop.
After washing up at our flat, it was time for supper. We enjoyed the wide variety of food options in London, and made our way to nearby Eat Tokyo. It was super crowded, and after such a challenging day, the overpriced sushi tasted better than it probably was.
Hoping to catch up with some of our missed items on the itinerary, we steered early towards the Churchill War Rooms. This attraction is always on the recommended list of the various travel websites, and I do have an interest in World War II history, plus it was included on our London Pass. We dutifully joined the long line forming at the entrance but, unlike Westminster Abbey, after a short time it became apparent that line wasn’t moving. It turns out that the best way to get in is to book tickets online for a specific time, and people smart enough to do that were always getting a “skip the line” treatment. The rest of us were getting same day tickets, effectively, for empty slots left over from the reservation system. It became clear that the wait would be way too long, and I mentally kicked myself for poor planning and gave up.
There is so much to see in London and I was starting to feel the time pinch as our time was nearing its end. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) had been on my list for Tuesday, and the family again agreed to indulge me at the cost of seeing Kensington Palace. We had a nice stroll across Westminster Bridge, taking in the Thames and the London Eye. Rather than riding the Eye, we decided to put the Shard on the day’s schedule after the IWM. The journey took us into the less touristy parts of London, but we enjoyed the mile-long walk, nevertheless.
The museum itself was smaller than I expected but still full of wonder for a history buff. As we arrived, we were greeted by the sight of two imposing 15-inch guns from former Royal Navy battleships, surrounded by well-maintained rose-covered grounds. On the inside, displays ranged from a Battle of Britain veteran Supermarine Spitfire suspended from the ceiling to a complete World War I trench, complete with British tank. For me, the IWM was a highlight on this trip, and I’m thankful for an understanding and patient family.
Another 1.3 mile trek through more non-touristy London (Newington) took us to the base of one of modern London’s unmistakable landmarks, “The Shard.” We joined another long ticket queue, but at least the price was covered by the London Pass. Tickets in hand, and having gone through a security checkpoint, we then joined another long queue to take elevator (nobody is taking the stairs for this one). The lines moved at a reasonable speed, and soon we were at the 68th floor. Viewing decks are also on 69 and 72, so we enjoyed the view from each. There are plenty of food and drink opportunities – prices are steep, but sometimes you pay for location, and we did.
Near the Shard is one of London’s oldest and most famous pubs, The George. It is a popular 17th century coaching inn, complete with timber beams, friendly staff and cozy atmosphere. We appropriately enjoyed steak and ale pie and Morland Original beer, finishing with some of the best bread pudding I have ever tasted.
A tour of the Southwark area continued with brief visits to the Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral and the Golden Hind replica. The cathedral was especially worthwhile, almost like a smaller Westminster Abbey, though we did have to pay to use the restrooms there. Borough Market would have been more fun if I was hungry, since there was plenty of food choices along the lines of Sunday’s Brick Lane market. The Golden Hind replica sailing ship was nicely done, though it would be more fun with children since the crew was dressed as Pirates. There is a lot to see in this part of London and I would have loved to have been able to see more, but it was time to get ready for “Wicked.”
Lack of familiarity with a city the size of London often leads to unforeseen difficulties. Our show was at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, literally across the street from Victoria Station. Our proposed supper location was perhaps two city blocks from the theater. Leaving our flat two hours before the show should be plenty of time…
Getting to Victoria Station took longer than planned due to the larger-than-expected crowds of people leaving work and heading home from downtown London. The subway was packed, making our three stop journey more problematic. Arriving at Victoria, I picked the wrong exit (the place is huge). The Italian restaurant that we chose, Tozi, proved surprisingly difficult to find given our general lack of a sense of direction, even with the assistance of Goggle Maps.
Once we were seated at Tozi, we were confronted with the reality of traditional family-style Italian restaurants – they take a lot of time to do anything. The theory is that you are there for the evening, but we basically had dwindled our time down to 45 minutes before the show. Despite emphasizing to the waitress about our situation, by the time our food arrived we had about 20 minutes before showtime. The family serving of Lobster Linguini was all noodles with no discernable lobster, but we hurriedly ate and paid over 100 GBP for the privilege.
Luckily the play, “Wicked”, was amazing, with first class acting and singing. Even though the play has been continuously running since 2006, albeit with varying cast members, there was no sense that the performers were bored or tired – quite the contrary. The casual atmosphere of the audience and the allowance for food and drinks at the seats was appreciated. It was a lovely ending to another eventful day in London.
One of the highlights of the London Pass is free travel and entry to Windsor. The catch on the free travel is that you must follow their system of taking the Tube to Paddington, catching the train from Paddington to Slough, switching to the train from Slough to Windsor Station. You show your London Pass to the ticket controller at Paddington to start the process, but it cannot happen prior to 1230 in the afternoon. Whew.
Those London Pass rules for Windsor allowed time for another opportunity. Having missed the famous Changing of the Guard on Tuesday, and verifying that it was, indeed, going to take place this day, and being blessed with more relatively clear weather, we made the trek back to Buckingham Palace. Arriving shortly after 10 am, the crowds were already thick, with barriers and mounted police well in place. The struggle to find a decent viewing spot was real, but we were able to squeeze in near our previous choice at Queen Victoria’s feet.
Expecting a sea of bearskin hats, we instead had The Queen’s Gurkha Engineers with their small black caps, and The Central Band of the Royal Air Force with their more modern wheel hats and contemporary uniforms. In fairness there was a Guards’ unit with the Bearskin caps, but all formations were smaller than expected. I’m not going to say I was disappointed, but it was different than I expected. While the ceremony was ongoing, the Household Cavalry stole the show as they trooped by on their way to their own ceremony, the same that we had caught a portion of on Tuesday. There is a certain magnificence to the Napoleonic-style uniforms with the armored cuirass and plumed helmet, all while in near perfect formation on horseback. They marched effortlessly past the barricaded crowds, revealing how routine this must be to the horses and soldiers of these ceremonial units. We stayed till the end of the event, becoming part of the tourist tide that flowed away from Buckingham Palace.
After the ceremony we angled through Hyde Park so I could see the famous “Speaker’s Corner”. It was another relatively clear day and the park was refreshingly green, but to my disappointment there were no speakers. Given that it was early afternoon on a Friday, it should not have been a surprise. There was, however, a little kiosk there that served a few bakery items where we met a pleasant young woman from the States. She was visiting the UK from Luxembourg, so we shared some general observations about London while brunching with our sandwiches.
Taking the subway from the Marble Arch station at Hyde Park to Paddington, we were able to show our London Passes to the ticket controllers as expected. The 25 minute train ride to the tiny station at Slough went smoothly, and after a few minutes a small regional train from Windsor pulled up to our lonely platform. Slough to Windsor is only 12 minutes, and excitement grew when we could see the castle as we approached Windsor.
The station at Windsor has a nice, touristy vibe to it, complete with a replica Victorian-era locomotive. The very short walk from the station to the castle took us past the very inviting Harte and Garter Hotel, made more inviting as we witnessed some patrons taking an early afternoon tea, complete with trays of biscuits, jam and small cakes. Mouths watering, we took some time for some delicious Shepard’s Pie and Quiche Lorraine.
The Royal Standard was flying over Windsor Castle, reflecting that the Queen was in residence. Joining the steady stream of tourists, we followed the self-guided tour plan with the help of the included audio guide. The castle grounds are enormous, reflecting the needs and influences of rulers dating back to the 12th century. The State Apartments are wonderfully opulent, museum-like with an abundance of art in the form of furnishings, paintings and architecture. For me, St George’s Chapel was the highlight, with strong baroque influences and an overwhelming sense of history. On a side note, I was once again deprived of Queen’s Guards in bearskin caps, as the honored Guard unit was once again wearing the black caps of The Queen’s Gurkha Engineers.
While at the castle, a great spot to catch up on souvenir purchases was the Middle Ward Shop. I can’t think of another place where there is such a variety of Corgi socks (yes, I bought some). Thinking of family back in the US, we also bought postcards, thinking they would enjoy seeing a postmark from Windsor. Unfortunately the shop did not sell stamps, so as we left the castle we made our way to a small gift shop across the street with hopes of buying stamps there. Not only did they not sell stamps, they informed me that the only place to buy stamps was at the post office and it would be closing in five minutes! Following their directions, with single-minded focus we quickly turned the corner and headed down Peascod Street. As we still could not see the post office, Austin and I gradually broke into a trot, and then an all-out sprint while I dexterously held my wristwatch in view and agonized as the time ticked to closing. Holding on to hope, we finally reached the post office only to find that they were going to be open for another hour! No doubt the heavy breathing was concerning to the other patrons, but we happily purchased our stamps and mailed our postcards. Such effort required refreshment, so we cooled down with drinks at the nearby Windlesora pub.
Soon we were back on the train. While at Slough’s small platform, we had the unexpected thrill of a high speed trains blowing past without pause. The blast of slipstream was impressive as various refuse and small animals were lifted into the air (I might be exaggerating about the animals). After arriving at Paddington, I realized that I did not know how to get to a ticket controller to use the London Pass without going through the gates. Caught up in the rush of passengers, out of desperation we used our Onion cards to get through even though I knew it was going to cost.
To add a final insult to my intelligence, in my exhausted state I picked the eastern Edgeware destination from Paddington, thinking that the Yellow circle line would let me change at Baker Street to get us back to Covent Garden. What I did not consider was that the Yellow line ends at Edgeware, and that it would not continue to Baker Street. So we took a detour to Edgeware, just to return back to Paddington.
For supper we did not feel like more walking, so we chose the restaurant that was literally under our flat, a nice place called Thai Square. A plate of Drunken Duck and a bottle of Merlot was a great way to wrap up a generally wonderful day of adventure.
The morning of our last full day in England started bittersweet as we packed our luggage and left our home of the previous six days. For our needs, this Airbnb had been a solid choice in a great location.
Arriving at Victoria Station, Austin figured out that our Onion Card balances were too low to get to Gatwick. The ticket controller was very helpful, and offered the suggestion to ride a “local” train to Gatwick instead of the Express, with savings of about 50% versus a time cost of an extra few minutes. The ticket machine for recharging Onion cards proved a surprising challenge for us three computer-savvy adults, much to the annoyance of the queue behind us. We were able to use the price for the local train to match our Onion Cards to where all three cards ended their use with less than one GBP remaining.
The local to Gatwick was indeed as painless as advertised, with the short stops hardly noticeable. The airport Hilton was very accommodating, allowing us an early check-in into a lovely room that had two American-style queen beds. The hotel also had its own Costa coffee shop that we took advantage of before embarking on our next adventure.
One thing to consider when planning day trips is the day of the week. Here we were, on a sunny Saturday, deciding to go to one of England’s most popular weekend destinations. Our first clue was when we got on the train to Brighton: standing room only. For roughly the next hour and a half we stood in the aisle as more people crammed aboard at each stop. On arrival in Brighton, and not feeling like walking, I finally jumped on a bus. Luckily the driver was sympathetic to these American tourists, and told us about the City Saver Day tickets that, for 5 GBP each, gave unlimited bus access for the day.
Not really knowing what we were doing, we found some nice seats on the bus and rode it all the way to Brighton Marina. Taking some time for a nice walk around area, we settled down for lunch at a seemingly popular restaurant named “Coast to Coast”, advertising American cuisine. Why not try the “Florida Salad”? It wasn’t necessarily what would be served at home, but it was close enough to be tasty, plus we had a pleasant view of the marina.
Hopping back on the bus, we rode to within walking distance of the famous Brighton Palace Pier. The crowds thickened as we approached the beach area. It was a nice day, and plenty of people were taking advantage of the sun, even though it was a little too cool to really be beach weather for Florida folk. The beach was decidedly brown in color, and it was easy to be snobbish when comparing to Destin’s sugar-white beaches back home. The pier itself had the majestic look of the early 1900’s, but the actuality of what the pier is now is simply shopping, food and carnival rides. We walked the length of it, stopped for a beer, enjoyed the view back toward Brighton, and then headed back into town.
“The Lanes” is the old town area of Brighton, with quaintly twisting roads and alleyways. Again, the look was appealing but the actuality was shops, restaurants and pubs. We enjoyed looking in several of the shops, and took time for a beer at a wonderful little pub called “The Seven Stars” with its art-deco ambiance. Strolling back to the train station, we thankfully had seats for the ride back to Gatwick.
Brighton for me was a paradox. It was clearly a popular location for the locals, and it had a certain charm, but it was not what I was looking for. Smaller tourist towns all have a similar vibe, and much of what I was seeing could be found in type, if not the exact item, in the beachy areas of Florida. Perhaps this part of the itinerary was the biggest disappointment for me and others who are looking for deep cultural roots. If those exist in Brighton, with few exceptions they’ve been whitewashed by modern commercialism.
Staying at the airport for the last night continues to be a successful strategy. The Gatwick Hilton has the reasonably decent Garden Restaurant that we leveraged for supper. A good night’s sleep and a lazy morning was followed by an uneventful flight home.
The trip overall could be counted as a success. The weather cooperated for those key days in Dover, Windsor and Brighton. We hit most of the highlights of London and, despite missing many, we were able to leave with a strong sense of what London is all about. In my ritual of post-trip expense accounting, the London Pass roughly broke even. Austin had a memorable graduation trip, and Diane and I could add more adventures accomplished to our repertoire.
In my experience, most hotels also have rooms available for us early arriving international visitors. The inconvenience and expense of storing our bags at Victoria Station, plus the added pressure to meet up with the host at a precise time and location, made for an impact on the travel experience that I was happily unfamiliar with. Most likely future trips will involve the hotel option.