With Olympic fever still fresh in our minds, the timing seems right to chat about my trip to London. I went there in 2008.
We stayed at the Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt in South Kensington, not far from Kensington palace. We were told that the hotel was originally someone’s residence and that did not surprise me. The hallways were narrow, the stairs were tight, and the rooms were very small. In our tiny hotel room, we had to crawl over our luggage to get in and out of bed. In the bathroom, the toilet and tub were practically touching. A man could probably relieve himself mid-shower without much trouble. That said, I was pleased our accommodations were “authentic”. I have stayed in many a hotel and they tend to blend together in my memory. This is one I will always remember. It showed its years and I hoped the walls held many secrets. The “lift” was small and slow, obviously wedged into the structure years later for the hotel conversion. There was not much room for the visitor, much less his things. Plus, you waited quite a stretch for the little thing to come back. So my husband and I ended up carrying our luggage up and down the flights of narrow stairs. This trip was going to be a real calorie-burner.
It was near dinnertime when we arrived and I was eager to hit the streets before the sunset. Rushing to freshen up, I plugged in my hairdryer, converter and all. Within seconds, the overly hot air singed a small grouping of my bangs clear off. The scent of burnt hair filled our small hotel room and I stood for a moment staring at my detached strands still in the hairbrush. I don’t think Samantha Brown ever had this kind of moment. Word to the wise, use the hair dryer provided by the hotel, if possible. Otherwise, the lowest setting of your own appliance should be utilized. I quickly did a nice Donald Trump comb-over to cover my faux-paus – possibly my lamest travel moment ever – and hit the streets. Traveling can be such a learning experience.
I loved walking between the beautiful buildings and seeing the small streetcars pass by. It was exactly as I expected and I let myself feel the weight of the history that lingered there. We strolled through Harrod’s, passed the Victoria and Albert Museum, and ended up at a small pub for supper. I was told that Harrod’s would be a cool experience, but I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. We did not have the time to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, but the building sure is beautiful to behold. The English pub where we dined was your typical British design. The main floor is a casual bar meal while upstairs is a more refined dining experience. We ate upstairs and enjoyed a quiet first meal in London. The food was not particularly spectacular, mostly bland. English cuisine is not particularly known for exciting flavor. I have heard, though, that the best meals are found in the countryside. Food tip: Many of the pubs in London have similar menus. Try for variety and check out other eating establishments while you’re there. Regardless, the pub food was fine, I loved the quiet setting, and I was ready to explore more. After a night’s rest.
The next day, we ate a traditional breakfast in the hotel dining room. This included beans and toast as well as black pudding. Black pudding is a blood sausage tinted a dark brown – not your fun idea of “pudding”. Everything was edible and filling, so it pleased me just fine. The taxis were impressive. The small vehicles are so efficiently designed that me and my travel pals fit perfectly. I like to think of it as a modern, more classy version of the clown car with all of us piling in and carefully peeling out. Our first stop was Buckingham Palace. Crowds of people were already gathering for the changing of the guards. We opted to wait and watch as well. I am a fan of the royals and their legacy, so this was on my to do list. Being that we stood there for well over an hour in a crowd of pushy people, I probably won’t do that again. Still, I recommend that a visitor experience this at least once. It was exciting and regal.
St. James Park is lovely. We walked from the palace to the park and it happened to be an unusually, sunny day. Speaking of which, there was no fog while we were in Londontown. To say I was disappointed, would sound downright spoiled. But I was. A little.
Not far from St. James Park is Westminster Abbey. This was hands-down my favorite stop on this trip. Amazing. You are staring history right in the face, seeing many royals in their final stop in the physical world. Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and all the brilliants minds laid in Poet’s Corner, just to name a few. Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleeves, is also buried here. Dear Henry thought that Anne from Germany was not handsome enough for him, so he annulled their union. A better fate than some of his other brides. Thanks to the Westminster gift shop, I learned an easy way to remember all of Henry’s six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Elizabeth I was the “virgin queen” and daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Mary Queen of Scots is Elizabeth’s cousin and was not originally buried here. If you recall, Mary was beheaded by order of her cousin Elizabeth for suspected treason. Mary’s son, James, had her relocated to Westminster years later.
Westminster Abbey is a travel site that stays with you. The Gothic architecture, the funeral effigies, and the stained glass all make this home of living history impressive. Aside from the burials, this is a site of coronations as well as royal weddings. Many amazing beginnings and endings took – and will continue to take – place here.
Diagonal from Westminster is the famed Big Ben. Most people believe Big Ben is the clock tower located at the end of the Palace of Westminster. That is almost correct. Big Ben is actually the large bell on the inside of the tower, behind the face of the clock. There are other, smaller bells located inside the clock tower as well. The clock is always on time, but there have been rare instances where it was slightly off. One such scenario involved heavy snow and ice. For the most part, you can rely on the timing of this well-known clock tower.
The Tower of London is quite the Medieval fortress. An easy ride on the Tube (London’s Underground, AKA subway) took us to this daunting castle. To be honest, I was a little intimidated when I entered its great walls. Stories of torture and execution swirled in my head, but the tower is much more than a gruesome past. And I should note that there was never an actual torture chamber, despite popular belief. Throughout the centuries, the tower has served as a palace (residence), a prison, an armory, a treasury, and holds the Crown Jewels, among other things. The term “The Tower” is misleading since there are many towers, or buildings, within the complex. The main residence and the central building within the complex is the White Tower. The White Tower literally towers over the whole compound at approximately 90 ft. high. All of the buildings are within a double layer of walls around the perimeter as well as a moat. There were many attempts to capture it, making its security a high priority.
We walked all over the complex, weaving in and out of the buildings. The Crown Jewels were both gorgeous and unbelievable. As you can imagine, security was tight at this exhibit. We walked into various rooms, some decorated to give you an idea of how it might typically look. Even though the Tower functioned as a residence, it didn’t feel very homey to me. Then again, castles aren’t usually considered cozy. Especially when you know there are people fighting for the crown. Fortress first, home second. Henry VIII was the last monarch to call this site his home.
Even though the tower had many uses, it still holds dark memories. Elizabeth I spent some time imprisoned in the tower before she became queen and the infamous Princes in the Tower were potentially murdered there. There is a long list of people who were locked away in the Bloody Tower, some who never made it home. Traitor’s Gate is where suspects floated from the Thames River into this London fortress. Anne Boleyn allegedly haunts the chapel and the residence inside the White Tower. Other apparitions have been reported by the nighttime staff as well. Speaking of lives lost, the site where the scaffold was originally located is now a memorial. There is a glass pillow with the names of those executed encircled around it. I like to call this the “oops” pillow. So sorry about that whole beheading thing, way back when. As I noted earlier in the article, it was strangely sunny and pleasant. Sitting in the Tower Green near the “oops” pillow, I hoped that there were some warm, family memories there, too.
Just outside the Tower of London is Tower Bridge, commonly mistaken as London Bridge. London Bridge is actually further upstream. Oddly enough, the old London Bridge was purchased and relocated to Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Random.
Another easy Tube ride took us Piccadilly Circus. And it is exactly that. A circus. After enjoying long lovely walks in London, soaking up the heavy history, Piccadilly was a bit much for me. This West End district is known for its shopping and entertainment. The digital signage reminds me of Times Square in New York., with the hustle and bustle to match. The traffic was intense and we did not have enough time to explore beyond the chaos. I also broke down and bought a wildly expensive Starbucks coffee while we were there. I split it with my husband to justify the purchase, but it was not really worth it. This was not my only expensive beverage purchase. I ordered what I thought was a Bailey’s shot on ice in a London bar. The British “shot” is about half the size and double the price. Trust me, that will be my last $30 glass of anything.
While I may have had some very “American” moments during this trip (burnt hair, ridiculously expensive drinks), London, England is a wonderful place to visit. The rich architecture, its storied history, and the regal traditions makes this location a must see. I hope to go back and see the countryside. See if the food out there is really as good as they say. Even if it isn’t, I know I am still in for a great trip.