Deva (deva_fagan) wrote,

England Part 2: London

Continued from here.

We departed Chipping Campden with fond hopes of returning one day, and set off on our second week of vacation: in London!

~Day Eight: London, baby!~
We took the bus to MiM and then caught the 10:50 train to London. It was a Saturday, and the train was very crowded, but fortunately there were luggage racks at one end of the car where we could stow our large suitcase. We arrived in Paddington Station at 12:30, and decided to grab something quick for lunch from the shops. Bob had a sandwich from M&S, I had chicken tikka masala from Sainsbury (cheap and just as good as average restaurant version). We then purchased Oyster Cards from the kiosk -- in retrospect we might have done better to get the seven day pass, but didn’t realize it at the time. Though I am not sure that would have taken us to some of our more distant destinations, like Highgate.

We decided to take the bus to Chelsea, so we could see more of the city. This was fun, but would have been better had we had two smaller suitcases, as Bob hurt his back wrangling our larger single case up to the top of the bus, and we had to switch once in Trafalgar square. But it was delightful to see the city from the front of the upper level of the bus, swooping along the streets! And the bus let us off almost directly across the street from our apartment in Chelsea.

The apartment owner (we rented through AirBnB) met us at the apartment and showed us around. She was very helpful, and directed us to nearby sites and the Waitrose around the corner. Bob took a nap, and I went out to explore. I found the Waitrose as well as some old favorites from Paris: Pain Quotidian and Amorino. I got gelato from the latter to celebrate: Mascarpone Fig, Pistachio and Speculoos. Yum!

Once Bob woke, we headed out by bus (the schedules were quite confusing, but there was a simpler version in my Rick Steves guidebook that listed a few of the main lines that run through the popular areas) to Saint Paul’s, where we were planning to join a London Walks “Ghost Walk” at 7:45. We were early enough that we took some time to walk around, visiting the Millennium Bridge with a lovely sunset view of the Thames and the Tower Bridge. There were many extra lights up for the Olympics, and various events going on over on the South Bank, lending a festive atmosphere.

Saint Paul’s was very impressive. It hadn’t been a site I was all that excited by, but actually being there, staring up at the immensity of the structure, was awe-inspiring. I would have loved to visit inside for one of the (free) Evensong services, but we never had the chance.

We had a quick dinner at Pizza Express -- very tasty salad of rocket, gran padano cheese, & balsamic dressing and a plain pizza we split.

With a chai from Starbucks to fortify us, we set off on our tour. The crowd was thankfully not too large (these tours are just “show up and pay”). Our guide was excellent, very dramatic and excellent at making everything come alive. The sites themselves were not especially stunning (this was mostly in the old City portion of London, which I found less charming than some other areas) but we did find plenty of interest, such as the walls still pitted with damage from the Blitz, and the old graveyard where people have heard a monk singing. Our guide actually sang the song, very haunting!

We took the bus back home, once again grateful that it stopped so near the apartment!

It was a full day, perhaps a bit too full! I was finding London kind of overwhelming after the Cotswolds, so crowded and busy and noisy! And also missing my friends, feeling a bit disconnected from the rest of life.

~Day Nine: Tower Times Two~
I went out early as is my wont, enjoying yet another day of glorious weather. I went up into Kensington, past the Museum of Natural History, then Harrods (still closed), then on through the park to Buckingham Palace. Quite unexpectedly I ended up reaching the Palace just as the Paralymic Marathon was finishing, and saw the first several runners come in. It was stirring to see the visually-impaired runners with their guides running together, joined by tethers, coming in to the cheers of the enormous crowd.

I headed home to pick up Bob, and we enjoyed a picnic lunch of sandwiches from Pret a Manger (cheaper to go!) eaten in the park area along the Museum of Natural History. After a delicious dessert of gelato from Scoops (on the square by South Kensington tube station) we headed off to the Tower of London.

The Tower was very impressive and very tiring! We skipped the Beefeater tour because there were so many others waiting for it. But it may have been just as well as I was footsore from my earlier walk! The lines were not at all bad, even though it was a sunny Sunday afternoon. We got in to see the Crown Jewels easily (I was rather terrified by the enormous metal railed queue area outside, and could not imagine what it must be like at the height of the season), and had plenty of freedom to explore all the other sites. My favorite parts were the three swords (Temporal Justice, Moral Justice and the blunted Mercy blade), the graffiti in Beauchamp Tower (especially the IANE ones for poor Lady Jane), and the resident ravens, so glossy black and imposing.

I also very much enjoyed just sitting on a bench people watching. There were so many tourists from so many countries.

We then took the Thames Clipper boat from the Tower Pier down to Embankment, and walked past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, which were both as stunning as one might expect from such landmarks.

A quick bus home, and we headed out for dinner at a noodle/dumpling bar I’d seen earlier, called New Culture Revolution. The food was excellent, especially Bob’s Singapore noodles, and we took home our leftovers.

Then it was time to head back out: for a return to the Tower of London! I had sent a request several months ago for tickets to the Ceremony of Keys, which happens every night at 9:45. It is free, but only 25 people or so may attend, and you thus need to get the tickets in advance.

It was quite late for me (my normal bedtime is 9) but worth it for the atmosphere! The shadows of the marching soldiers, the flickering of the real lanterns, the clinking and clanging of the doors and the lap of the water behind us at the Traitor’s Gate. I did wish there were not quite so many people allowed, because it was hard to see some parts. If you can get a good spot in front, it is best! The ceremony is short.

There were more post-Olympic festivities going on across the river, which added an odd energy to the night, with a distant driving beat of drums and an enormous screen playing images of flames and dancers. If I had more energy I might have gone across to check it out!

But as it was we just returned straight home. At first I was worried about walking back in the dark, but there seemed to be many people out along the main streets from the tube to our apartment.

~Day Ten: British Museum~
After two days of feeling a little “off” I finally got my travel mojo back today, whew!

I went out on my own on the morning for a “pastry walk,” collecting scones from Harrods (after ogling the ridiculously ornate rooms), macarons from Pierre Herme, and a passion fruit meringue from Ottolenghi (I had read about this on a food blog and simply had to try it). I brought home this bounty for our breakfast. The meringue was the best, in my opinion. So deliciously tart, sweet and creamy.

Then we headed out to the British Museum! This was one of my favorite days of the entire trip. I really enjoyed the Bloomsbury neighborhood, and the museum itself was just stunning, from the building itself to the collection.

I was blown away by the enormous enclosed courtyard, under that frosted glass roof, everything so vast and pale, with the old library at the center wrapped in a white stairway. You really do just have to see it to understand. And of course, it is FREE!

We spent most of our time in the Egyptian and Assyrian rooms. The carvings of the lions in the latter are exquisite. We headed outside for lunch at Mooli’s, a few minutes walk away on Frith Street, where we feasted on delicious Indian-inspired wrap sandwiches. I also visited several bookstores for souvenirs (I liked Foyle’s best, even after visiting the enormous Waterstones later).

Back in the museum we went through the Mesopotamian and Persian rooms, but we were running out of steam. There is just SO MUCH.

Eventually we gave up and decided we would try to return later to see the mummies. We had reservations to visit the Denis Severs house that night. And we had one other stop first. As fans of the David Suchet Poirot series, we wanted to stop at Florin Court, where they film Poirot’s apartment. We decided to try to walk from there to the Denis Severs house, which was probably a mistake. It was not a pleasant or attractive area, and it just wore us out. Denis Severs house is near Spitalfields, and it would have been more fun to get there earlier and walk around that region.

As it was, we were glad to find a Wagamamas nearby, and had some noodles and dumplings for dinner, then made our way to the house.

The Denis Severs house isn’t going to be for everyone, but as fans of “atmosphere” we loved it. It’s a house that was decorated by Mr. Severs to evoke a Victorian house. You wander through it in silence (there are little notes EVERYWHERE reminding you to be silent and “let the house work its magic on you and become part of the story” or similar). The light is all candles and lanterns, and there are recordings of atmospheric noises, and even food set out (you can sniff the tea and strawberries). It’s jammed with knickknacks and you have to move with great care to avoid knocking into things, but it was quite an experience! There are also some steep stairs and narrow passages...

~Day Eleven: Highgate~
I spent my solo morning exploring Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. I had not planned to visit the latter but ended up so glad I did! I wish I had been able to come back with Bob -- I enjoyed it much more than the Tate Britain, actually! The rooms themselves are beautiful, and there’s such a glorious range of art. Sometimes I wonder whether seeing the art in person is really any better than seeing it on a computer screen or in a book, but I was so grateful to have the opportunity to see Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Cypresses, Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, and Vermeer’s The Guitar Player in person.

I walked back through Piccadilly, stopping at Fortnum & Mason and Burlington Arcade, and to peer through the window into the Ritz. All of it is so glitzy and overwhelming! Everywhere you turn in London there seems to be some beautiful bit of architecture, or some other lovely thing.

Once Bob was up, we headed out to Highgate, where we had reservations for the tour of the West Cemetery (only one a day, during the week, and only ~12 people allowed. I called the week before to make our reservation). We followed the directions from the Cemetery website to take a bus from the Archway tube station, then walk across the (lovely!) park. We brought more Pret a Manger sandwiches with us, which we ate in the park, watching local dogs romping on the rolling grassy slopes.

The cemetery itself was striking and (again) very atmospheric. It was moving to see the beautifully carved angels and crosses, growing over with ivy, with trees sprouting up everywhere, setting things askew. Nature taking over from humanity and mortality, green and inevitable. Perhaps not every tourist would enjoy this, but we loved it. Though again, the glorious weather probably helped!

We rested up afterward with tea and cakes at a cafe in the park, then headed back into the city to Westminster Abbey where we attended the 5PM Evensong service.

This was magical! And also, free! It was (in my opinion) so much more awe-inspiring to see the space being used in service, with the glorious voices of the choir lifting us all up. There was a large crowd, and clearly many of them were fellow tourists, carrying backpacks and shopping bags and ogling the architecture. We were (understandably) not allowed to sight-see as it was a religious service, but even so the route in and out passed by many of the sites. I was satisfied by this visit and had no yearning to return and pay to see the rest.

Back home we had a dinner of Indian food from Waitrose. We are not cooking as much as I had expected, partly because there is so much good prepared food, partly because we have been out in the evenings so often, and the city is so spread out we don’t have time to come home for meals.

~Day Twelve: Musical Theater Day~
Another beautiful day in London!

I went off on a morning ramble, stopping at Paul for French pastries for breakfast (delicious!). I took the tube up to Regent’s Park, but had to wait for the third train before I could get on board due to the morning commuter crush!

I walked up through the park, past the London Zoo, then up Primrose Hill for a view of the city. I explored some of the delightful Primrose Hill neighborhood (quiet and upscale, would be a nice place to stay I think!) then headed into Camden Town. The markets were only just opening, but I could already tell I was going to love this region, and very excited to come back later with Bob. More on that on Day Fourteen!

I did do a little shopping, after spotting an adorable owl shirt in one open stall. I decided I would wait, but then saw the same shirt again a little while later, at a different stall. And the shop-keeper offered me a discount as his first sale of the day. So I got it! I did notice lots of “beware pickpocket” signs, though, and kept my $$ close!

Back home again, I picked up Bob and we went out for lunch at Pizza Express, which we found to be ever-present, reliable, and not too expensive. This time we had the Banoffee Pie Sundae and oh my word it was delicious (banana, cream, toffee, chocolate). A quick bus trip and we were at the Victoria Apollo for our matinee of my favorite musical of all: WICKED!

We’ve seen the show twice before, but love it so much we decided to see it again in London. And in a lovely stroke of luck, our cheap seats were upgraded, and we got to move down to the front of the mezzanine, right across from the Time Dragon above the stage. We sat in our new seats, jittery with excitement. There is nothing quite like live theater. One of the orchestra was amusing us by warming up with bits of the Charlie’s Angels theme song. And then, finally, the show!

It was an excellent production, though it was a little odd to hear some of the songs sung with British accents!

Afterward we were happy, but drained, and decided to get the bus up to Chinatown for dinner. It was very colorful and bustling with sightseers and theater-goers. We ended up getting dinner back on Frith Street, at a wonderful Thai restaurant called @Siam. Bob’s massaman curry was the best food of the entire trip, I think, and my own vegetable pad thai was really tasty too-- so fresh and flavorful!

As we were sitting there, talking about how much fun it had been to see Wicked, I said it was too bad we couldn’t see any other theater. Then we realized that we were, in fact, right around the corner from Les Miserables, and it was only 6:30. So we quickly paid our bill, and ran around to the box office, and got tickets for the evening show!

It was an indulgence, but so worth it! I had never seen Les Mis, and our seats were center, six rows back from the stage. Wow. It is not my favorite story, but the music is wonderful and being so close made it even more powerful. I loved it!

~Day Thirteen: Borough Market and the Tates~
I started my day with a walk along the Thames, looking across to Battersea Park and the Peace Pagoda. It was fun to encounter a number of elderly pensioners from the Royal Army Hospital out on errands in their uniforms.

Then Bob and I headed to one of my must-visit sites: Borough Market! It was packed, even early on a weekday. I can’t imagine what it’s like on a summer Saturday! Everything smelled and looked amazing: Vietnamese chicken curry, enormous piles of bread and cheese, acres of fresh fruit, dozens of different fresh mushrooms, and more.

I got one of the famous Kappacasein grilled cheese sandwiches I’d read about, and it was indeed tasty (though too big! I wish I could have gotten half as I had to throw out part). Bob got a venison pie from Pieminster, also very good. I wish I had had an extra stomach for the fresh pasta and ruby grapefruit juice and baked goods of all sorts.

We ate our food by the nearby church, then headed on to the Tate Modern. I am not as big a fan of modern art, but had wanted to see the building itself, and walk along the Thames river walk. The building is indeed impressive, especially the enormous hanger-like main hall. And since the museum is free we were able to just wander inside a bit, then go up to the top floor for tea with a beautiful view over the city.

The river walk was chaotic and colorful, with tourists and school groups and buskers everywhere. I walked out along the graceful Millennium (pedestrian) bridge, and listened to a young fellow playing spacey synthetic music.

Then we caught the Tate-to-Tate boat, which gave us a nice view of the city from the river. It turned out the Tate Britain was not all I hoped, as much of it was under renovation, and all the Pre-Raphaelites were in an (expensive) special exhibit I couldn’t bring myself to pay for. We headed home for an early night, to regain our energy for our LAST DAY.

~Day Fourteen: Camden Market, the Canal and the Zoo~
I started my last full day with a special treat: breakfast at the Wolseley, one of the fancy establishments that also serves fine teas and such. This was fun, though I would not do it again, or perhaps I would return for an actual tea. The atmosphere (art deco glamour!) was the best part, as the food was surprisingly just-okay given the exorbitant prices. They also tried to put me in a side room at first, though when I asked, they moved me to the main hall. It was interesting to watch all the business men and women in suits and fine dresses, and wonder what their lives were like, that they would eat at a place like this regularly!

Back home, I reconnected with Bob and we headed out to Camden Town. We loved this, and wished we had had more time to visit. We didn’t buy anything, but it was such a great place to just people watch and ogle the goods. We especially loved the Stables market, which is built in the old horse stables, full of dim and twisty passages lined by small shops full of antiques and cheesy souvenirs and glittery jewelry and cool gothy fashion. And numerous giant bronze horse statues! It was a bit like I imagine Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books...

One of the most impressive stores is Cyberdog, the entrance flanked by giant brilliant chrome robot statues, and inside is like something out of Bladerunner or a William Gibson novel: low throbbing techno music and bright neon and space-age clothing.

We had lunch at the Camden Lock market along the canal, hitting several different delectable food stalls for our meals. My Jamaican chicken wrap with fried plantains was delicious. After that, we hunted down the Chin Chin Laborist ice cream parlour, where they make your ice cream fresh on demand with liquid nitrogen. It was entertaining as well as delicious. I had vanilla with honeycomb, while Bob had special flavor of the day, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, made with PB ice cream with bits of caramelized toast, and a swirl of jam.

After a bit more wandering and a peach boba tea, we headed back to the lock to try to catch a canal boat to the zoo. You can purchase a combination boat and zoo ticket, and the boat lets you off at the zoo, then you can get back on when you are done and continue on to Little Venice.

The canal boat ride was restful and lovely, with views of enormous manors and sculpted lawns. We enjoyed our visit to the zoo as well, especially the butterfly tent, warm and moist and full of greenery and free-fluttering butterflies in all colors.

Back on the canal boat, we continued on to charming Little Venice, where we admired the house boats, and then found the tube station.

For our last evening, we made one more stop at the British Museum, which was open late on Friday. Just enough time to see the mummies and get souvenirs! We thought about trying to eat on Frith Street again, but the restaurants were packed and the streets thronged with theater-goers, so we caught a bus back to Chelsea and went to a small Italian place on King’s Road (Ca’puccino) for a light but delicious salad caprese and foccacia. We went to bed shortly after that, since our early flight meant waking up at 4:45AM to get to the airport.

~Day Fifteen: Heading Home and General Ponderings~
We planned to take the tube to Paddington and use our return Heathrow Connect tickets from there. However when we got to the station we discovered the Circle Line was out of service! Eep! But then we realized that it would be just as fast to take the tube directly to Heathrow, so we did that, and it was much more relaxing and easier to manage than switching at Paddington would have been. And no more stairs!

At Heathrow, there was a convenient station to turn in your Oyster Card and get a refund for anything that was left on it (you filled it up as you went, using kiosks in the tube stations).

We spent our last pounds on snacks, souvenirs, and books, then headed off home!

London was not a city I fell in love with, but I did really enjoy myself there. Perhaps I would like it more if I returned again, knowing more what to expect. Generally it was just a bit too spread out, and without the consistent beauty and charm I found in places like Paris or Venice. This trip taught me that I really do love a city I can walk. If we returned, I might stay in Bloomsbury or Fitzrovia, and enjoy myself more thoroughly.

On the other hand, I think the food we had on this trip was some of the best vacation-food we’ve had. A big part of that is my learning better what works for me: cheap but tasty and satisfying sandwiches, pastries, and ethnic foods if we are going to a sit-down restaurant.

~Resources & Notes~
I did a lot of reading in advance about the Cotswolds, including trip reports from other travelers who did not rent a car. I’ve listed some of my favorite references below!

General Cotswolds Info:

Car-less Cotswolds Info:

Castleways runs between Winchecomb and Broadway via Stanton (sort of...)

Pulhams runs between Moreton/Stow/Bourton

Johnsons runs between Moreton/CC/Broadway

This is the apartment we rented in Chipping Campden:

And the apartment we rented in London:

And here are some London links:

Favorite eats:
Tags: england, travel
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