"Go everywhere in the world and tell the good news to everyone" – Mark 16:15
England is an obvious must see for everyone. London is a huge city with a variety of many different colors. This city offers an entertaining nightlife, an amazing theater district, large parks, a thriving business district, ancient castles, gorgeous cathedrals; the list goes on and on. There is something for everyone in London. The countryside is just as amazing and beautiful, with so much to see and do. This trip, we stayed in London and traveled in a rental car through the countryside. This was our first time driving in a foreign country.
The afternoon sun was beginning to fade as we found ourselves wondering yet another distinctly different area of London. As if school was being let out for the day, the hustle and bustle of the business district came to life. Slowly, well-dressed men and women began to pool outside and around the perimeter of the local pubs. It looked to me to be more of a cultural event than a simple 5’oclock pint. The intriguing part was the fact that they were all STANDING and drinking OUTSIDE the establishment, and not because it was nice weather and there were tables and chairs set up.Glass pints and wine were being enjoyed. Small ledges were built into the sides of some pubs. It seemed odd to me for patrons to have glassware allowed outside the establishment, but I suppose that is the norm in MY culture. As we walked, I noticed some of these social pools were rather large – even flooding into the street. I have since learned that the after-work-drink-culture IS a very real thing in London, as it’s not just a way to unwind after work, but an excellent way to network.
I was pleased we had stumbled upon this intriguing part of London at this particular time. These unplanned occurrences are often what end up being the most interesting experiences for a tourist!
Getting colder …
Although I had already seen the Tower Bridge, I was determined to actually walk across it before we left. Although it wasn’t Windy, it was like a bone chilling ice tornado on the actual bridge. I accomplished the walk, but I’m not certain that it was entirely worth it! On a positive note, standing on the actual bridge at night is a truly beautiful view of London. Looking to either side, the city lights reflect off the river. Although bitter, the harsh chill in the air seemed to make it even more surreal than it would have been on a warm evening.
A happy ending to a not-so-normal touristy night …
We were officially frozen as we made our way back to the Parliament area to get a few night photos. We decided to stop into a small pub directly across the street from Parliament. The pub was filled with locals and parliament staff that had just got off work. Instead of football (soccer to Americans) being shown on the televisions like in every other pub, the Parliament session that was currently in progress across the street was being shown (parliament sessions sometimes go till ten or eleven at night.) We attempted to eavesdrop on some of the conversations in an effort to expose ourselves as much as possible to the culture and setting!
I tried the London brewed beer, “London Pride” which I enjoyed very much. The bar maid explained to my husband that these “blokes” didn’t know what fun was and that if we wanted to have a good time at a pub in London, we should head up to Soho. I already knew Soho was the nightlife capital of London, and was planning on going there on the last day we would be in London- St. Patick’s day!
I was feeling quite adventurous as I peered out the window of my cab to inner city London that chilly Sunday morning. Out of all the times we had vacationed, this was the first time I had gone anywhere alone without my husband by my side. I was a bit nervous, but mostly excited. I felt a zing of adrenaline that you only get at certain times in your life – that feeling you get all the time when you are a kid – your first time doing something unknown. That’s one of the prime reasons I love travel. Those experiences get less and less as you grow older – you have to search for them as an adult, they don’t come daily as they do when you are young and the world is so new.
Anyway … It was the morning after St. Patrick’s day and we were both feeling less than ideal. But I was in London, England for the first and perhaps the ONLY time in my life, and no amount of two-in-the-morning whiskey was going to hold me down. We had a train to Paris to catch later that morning and I was determined to see something perhaps frivolous to others before I left.
Leaving the hubby in bed, I hailed a taxi like a regular pro. Of course all of the normal thoughts went through my head – will I get back in time, how far exactly is my destination from my hotel, will the cabbie kill me, how do you pay a cabbie, do I even fully understand this currency, am I going to get ripped off ???
Fortunately, all went well, and I have to say I was quite impressed with myself. After the cabbie left, I confidently spun around to face what I had been ever so eager to visit.
There it was –221 Baker Street.
The real location in London of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s residence. I just love Sherlock Holmes 🙂
Tourists are welcomed inside the house which holds a gift shop on one side and a Victorian replica of what the house would have looked like as described in the books (had it been real) on the other. You walk up several flights of old rickety stairs going from room to room all the way up to the attic. If nothing else, it is interesting to see the inside of one of these old English homes.
Upon entering, I met an extremely friendly blond hair gal from Switzerland who was touring around Europe as well. She too, had fell victim of late night St. Patrick’s shenanigans and had just arrived to London by train. She reported to me that she hadn’t slept and inquired if I’d like to accompany her through the house as well as other parts of London. I would have been so inclined to another adventure with a new person, but I was on a time crunch as it were. So I went through the house with her as best I could before I had to run. We even posed for a picture together as I was Sherlock and she Watson! Oh, what an experience it would have been though getting to know a fellow European and establish a relationship with her. I wish I had more time.
The tall narrow home was adorable and didn’t disappoint. Before I left, I just had to buy a souvenir, but feared I wouldn’t have enough money for the taxi back. So on to my next adventure I went down the street to a cash machine as they call it in Europe, (ATM in the United States). Regrettably, I had let me husband handle the money the entire trip, and was really not at all familiar with the currency or how to summon it from a Cash Machine. Luckily it was very user friendly and easy. Again, I couldn’t believe how smooth everything was going. I frantically purchased my souvenir, hailed a new taxi, and made it back in plenty of time for my next adventure – Paris.
If your wanting to experience a taste of quintessential old England suburbs that hold some of the most enchanting villages you will ever lay eyes on, look no further than the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds are a set of villages in south central England that cover a 25-by-90 mile area of the English Countryside. There is no main “sight” to go see in this area, just the actual villages themselves. Most villages include a town cathedral and a main street with shops that you can visit. Not many tours come out to this area, so if you have the opportunity, it is best to visit by car. For a laid back day and a taste of the old world, this visit will be worth it.
Our last day in England was St. Patrick’s Day. I had planned it that way, of course. I have always wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s day in a different county as it is one of my favorite holidays. It probably would have made more sense to have planned it when we went to Ireland, but we went there for our honeymoon and we wanted to get married in the summer. England was the next best option!
The morning of St. Patrick’s day in London was cold and wet. I was happy that it finally rained at least one of the days we were in London- that’s what any tourist expects and almost wants on a visit to London. I wanted the real “feel” of dreary London and I got it.
First, we went back to Westminster Square for a final look at the abbey and Parliament. We then walked to the other side of the Thames River to the London Eye. Now, I’m not one for giant ferris wheels and I feel very strongly that something of this nature greatly takes away from the charming buildings of 18th century London, but I had to take a ride on the eye because I knew it held superb views of the city and you can’t get views like that anywhere else. On the eye, you get a real perspective of the enormity of London. When you are tubing around underground London your whole trip, you really don’t realized where you have been in perspective to everything else around you.
We captured some great pictures that day especially since it was an overcast. The eye takes you one time around at a very slow pace and gives you ample time to take in all the views of the city. You stand in a giant pod with a few other people, where you can move about freely to look at each side of the city. It is well worth the money.
We then hunted down the famous Abbey Road and Paul McCartney’s home. Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles used to record, is directly across from Abbey Road. After taking some great pictures, we rummaged around trying to find Paul McCartney’s home. In the middle of all this, it started to rain and then it started to pour! It took a few minutes of running around in the rain to find some place we could take cover which was not easy to find in the residential area we were in. We finally found a restaurant to take refuge where we ordered a hot pot of tea and soup. My hair, pants, and shoes were soaked and my thick wool coat had gained 10 pounds of soaked up rain- so much for enjoying London’s dreary weather 😉 The restaurant was named Richoux and there were pictures hanging all over the walls of all types of celebrities hanging out there. I guess it could have been some kind of famous restaurant and we didn’t even know it.
We decided to head back to our hotel to get on some dry clothes and head out for our St. Patrick’s day bash. Although my husband was hesitant, I insisted we go to Soho for the night’s celebrations. As I’ve mentioned, Soho is the entertainment center of London, and although it can be a bit sleazy, and you definitely need to be aware of your surroundings, Soho is the place to go for any type of night life in London.
It turned out Soho was just the ticket! We had the time of our lives. We started our night next to the theater district at an old pub. It was packed on the ground level, but you could climb up to a loft where you could look down at the bustling street below you. This is probably my fondest memory of London because to me this was real London, the hustle and bustle of life at its fullest. I sat and stared out the window grasping my cold cider for almost an hour. Oh, and that’s the other great thing about London, they have all sorts of ciders on tap in the bars. So delicious and much better than regular beer!
Later, we met a few Irish kids and a girl from Wales and ended up hanging out with them for the remainder of the night. We had an amazing time! This is the kind of experiences that sticks with you after you have come home. To actually get involved at a personal level with the locals in their culture is what really heightens your experience when traveling. I will definitely never forget that night or them.
Day four of our trip we drove out to Beachy Head. Beachy Head is part of the miles of white chalk cliffs that line the English coast. For various reasons, the cliffs of Dover are the most famous and well known, but I wanted to see Beachy Head because it holds the highest of all the white chalk cliffs and the second highest cliff in England. Unfortunately, this makes it one of the top suicide spots in the world.
Beachy head is absolutely jaw dropping. I really don’t know what more I can say about it than this. The pictures say it all. The feelings I had at beachy head were mixed. It was actually a very emotional experience. These cliffs are truly intimidating. The mighty see below seems to remind you of how small you are and how powerful it is. You are also reminded of the many suicides that have taken place there by the small crosses that are randomly stuck in various spots in the earth. My emotions ranged from fear and sadness, to intimidation and captivation. It is quite a zen experience that centers you with reality. There is so much to think about here- life, death, history, time, nature and the world.
These cliffs are just remarkable. They are a true natural beauty of our world that will simply take your breath away. It is a shame more people don’t visit Beachy Head and go straight to the well known Cliffs of Dover. I still wanted to visit the cliffs of Dover as well, but we didn’t have the time. The cliffs of Dover are famous for facing continental Europe at the narrowest part of the English Channel and therefore signify the historic threat of invasion. On a clear day you can see France in the distance. Dover also holds a 12th century castle and World War II war tunnels within its chalk cliffs.
Our first full day in England we began with visiting Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t get to see the changing of the guards, we saw the horse parade and followed the parade down to the bottom of the street that leads from the palace to the horse parade area. The horse parade area was nothing but a big square pad of dirt which I found amazing how they transformed it into the women’s outdoor beach volleyball venue for the 2012 Olympics 4 months later. If you walk under a breezeway past the horse parade you will be on the street where all the government building sit, including number 10 downing street, the seat of the prime minister. If you walk farther past this in one direction, you will run into parliament square that holds the grand parliament building, Westminster Abbey and the Supreme Court building. The other direction will take you to Trafalgar Square.
Buckingham palace is great, but it’s definitely not the grandest palace I’ve ever seen. You can only tour this palace for 2 months out of the year when the queen is away on holiday.
As for Parliament, you can only do tours when the houses are not in session. This includes Saturdays throughout the year and six days a week during their designated months listed on the website. This really bummed me out until I found out that when parliament is in session, the public is allowed to come in and watch it live in person! In the process of this you are able to view several other rooms and hallways of the building including the grand Westminster Hall, which I think is a great trade for not getting a full blown tour, if not better due to the fact that it is completely free whereas a tour is not! Once we were admitted in, we surprisingly had free rain to move about to the different rooms as we pleased. We were able to see both houses in session, the feisty house of commons and the distinguished house of lords. What an experience! You can stay as long or short as you like, which is wonderful for a tourists who has many things planned in their day. Visitors sit in the balcony for easy access in and out. If you are early prior to going into the sessions, they will take you in a room and explain all the ins and outs of Parliament to you. It is very interesting although the room was very small and hot and I had to keep kicking my husband to stay awake which was kind of embarrassing! Ha!
Viewing the inside of parliament was the one thing I absolutely had to do on my visit to London. So many people go to London without actually visiting the house of Parliament and I think many people don’t realize that they can tour or go in and view the sessions. I am glad I did my research ahead of time and was able to partake in this great opportunity. It was such an experience to say I have done this when not many people have. If you go online you can view the schedule of times the houses meet and schedule your visit accordingly. You can attend debates, question time or watch committees. All is listed on the website. http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/ You do not need to buy tickets in advance, only make yourself known to the Visitor Services staff who are standing on the side of the building (or ask a cop). Entrance is based on a first come first serve basis, and you would need to leave time for security check.
According to the online site, the guided tour takes 75 minutes and includes the Commons and Lords Chambers, the Queen’s Robbing Room, the Royal Gallery and Westminster Hall.
The famous Westminster Abbey is located directly across the street from Parliament. Be aware it can be closed for unexpected reasons like the queen being there (which was the case when I was there) or closing early on Saturdays. Due to these road blocks, I never actually got to go into the Abbey although I was right by it for 2 days of my trip!
After touring Parliament we had to get back to our hotel to get ready for the play I’ve wanted to see all my life- Les Miserables. I grew up listening to the soundtrack and know every word to every song, but I have never seen the play or movie. London’s elaborate theater district rivals with Broadway with roughly 40 venues for performance. We saw the show at the Queens Theater, a charming little theater house. I remember how the floor of the stage was quite slanted, lower in the front and higher in the back and the center of the stage turned like a giant wheel making the illusion of the actors running or moving in the scenes. Due to this layout, and the actual theater being fairly small, I think no matter where you sit you feel like you are almost in the stage. As for the actual show, it was everything I thought it would be- phenomenal. The actors were superb and every voice was amazing. I was so glued to the stage that my husband thought I was mad at him!
I wanted to ensure a perfect seat so I researched online and purchased my ticket prior to coming. I read online reviews to decide what seat would be the best. I am glad I ensured a good seat, but I also know you can get greatly discounted tickets if you show up right before the show and ask for any available seats. I didn’t want to take this risk and not be able to sit with my husband or be stuck on the end of a bad row or something, but my sister and her husband actually did this while they were in London and it worked out great for them. I actually would advise to buy your ticket in London whether you get a discount or not, because we had such a hard time finding the venue amongst the oodles of them that we almost missed the first part of the show. You can never anticipate what your day may end up being like once you are actually on your trip, and over planners and organizers that just have to have their tickets prior to going sometimes get punished for it. Again, if there is anything I have learned from traveling it is that you just cannot plan for everything no matter how hard you try. It is great to research and prepare in advance so you know all your options, but when it comes down to it, in many situations, it is best to just go with the flow and decide when you are there based on the how you feel that day, how much time you have etc.
The theater area is close to the racy nightlife area of Soho and close to this area is the major shopping district and Piccadilly circus. This area is like the Las Vegas or New York of London. This is where all of the entertainment, night life and partying happens. After walking back from the theater, we actually ended up in Piccadilly circus. After I got home people asked me if I had been to Piccadilly circus and I told them I didn’t think so. I didn’t realize at the time that I had in fact been there not only one but twice on the trip. And each time I thought it was a totally awesome area. Piccadilly circus is like the Time Square of London, lined with amazing buildings and major high end shopping. We walked the perimeter of the artistically curved building upon entering and exiting the theater area in Soho. The huge curved buildings in Piccadilly are amazing and very appealing to say the least. We were amazed as we walked along them, they seemed to just keep going and going! This area has a completely different feel from other parts of London, which is why I say there is something for everyone in London depending on where you go.
I wanted to switch, but by the time we arrived after a 14 hour flight and transferring from tube stop to tube stop, I didn’t have it in me to go looking for a new one. I figured it was only a place to sleep after all.
Our hotel was located in the Bayswater area which is more residential and about a 5-10 minute walk from the Paddington tube station. This area was pretty far from most tourist sights except for the Royal Albert Hall which you could walk to via Hyde Park. The area surrounding the hotel was charming. The reviews online were great, which I still can’t understand, because the hotel was by far the worst I’ve stayed in Europe.
The hotel was ran by young adult middle eastern folks and upon entering the lobby you almost fell over from the heat mixed in with the reek of incense that they had burning in huge pots in the lobby. Strange, but not necessarily bad. Other than the odd smell, the lobby and hotel restaurant seemed nice enough. The worst part came after getting off of the elevator into the claustrophobic hallways.
Now I have been in many European hotels, so I am used to their smallness, but holy crap, these halls were so narrow it was hard to get our luggage through them! Along with the narrowness, they were disgusting dirty. The carpets were filthy and faded to the point they just needed to be completely ripped out and replaced. The lower part of the wall had some weird mesh cloth on them that was ripped and peeling off. The walls were dirty and needed to be repainted.
Other than the expected small size of the room, although smaller than most average rooms in Europe, it was a little better. The room had wood floors which saved it from looking like the nasty hallway, but the bathroom could have passed as a small outhouse. The floor looked like what is used in gym locker rooms and the sink was ridiculously small with nowhere to sit your toiletries. The corners of the bathroom were fifthly and the beds were pretty uncomfortable as well.
Again, I need to remind you that I have been in many European hotels that have never bothered me. I can handle tiny; hell I can even handle not clean. I am not a clean or germ freak in any way. But I can’t handle non-functional or filthy. Still, you surprise yourself on what you can handle when you are out of your element, comfort zone, and lacking sleep. For someone who hates flying over sees as much as I do, anything looks good at the end of it. So needless to say, we stayed. Despite the negatives of the hotel, the view from our window was lovely, capturing the charm of the outside surrounding area.
After settling into our hotel, it was evening and time to find a place to eat and wonder around a bit before passing out for the night. We ended up walking through the huge Hyde Park and ran into the grand Royal Albert Hall on the other side. It was dark now as we walked further past trying to find a place to eat. It was pretty quiet, and we soon realized we were in the University area. The buildings were grand and beautiful- I would have never guessed it was a university until I started reading the titles above the entrances of the buildings. There was hardly anyone around at all, except a student here and there. We walked further and after giving up on our search for a traditional English pub, we found an Italian restaurant that was good enough.
This ended our first day in London.
And further …
If there is anything I’ve learned from my London hotel experience, it’s that no matter how many reviews you read or how much time, energy and research you spend on your little laptop back at home, you will NEVER truly know what to fully expect until you actually get there. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to find the perfect hotel. Be flexible and perhaps willing to grab a hotel when you get there. Hotels are everywhere and many are similarly priced in the same areas. Do general research and then just go with it. It’s actually kinda fun. If I hadn’t already booked and paid for an entire week for our London hotel months prior, there is no way I would have stayed.
Also, if you don’t pre-book you have the flexibility to leave the city early for your next stop or stay longer if you decide you want to do more things. Don’t restrict yourself. You’re trip is expensive and you should be comfortable. But again, sometimes a lemon is all part of the experience, so don’t let it ruin your trip. Just go with it. Things never turn out perfectly. The only way to know what your truly getting is to actually pick it when you get there. Pop into 2 or 3 places in the area you are most interested in and have them explain their prices and show you a room. It is worth it in the end.
The tube taking us from the airport to inner city London seemed to take about a half hour or so. It was a Sunday afternoon and we passed through many residential areas where I noticed the locals out enjoying the day in the parks as we all do on Sunday afternoons. I have always found it interesting that no matter where in the world you go on this earth, we are all generally the same. We all spend time with family, work, play sports, grocery shop, eat, sleep, get married, have babies, worship, have parties, poop and pee. Language, skin color and location are very small differences when you really look at the big picture. Our similarities are far more the same.
While riding into the city, I noticed the distinct difference of housing layouts and structure from the homes where I live. In the United States, everyone has large homes and yards for themselves. We even rent off sight storage unites to house all of our excess junk! The reality of this really bothers me. The London houses were the classic narrow brick homes stuck together all in a row, with small gardens and gates in the front just like you would see in the movies. The quintessential English rooftops and clay chimneys were charming. It just seemed to me like life was a bit simpler here and I liked it. Why do we need all that stuff anyway??
We had to change trains to get to the Paddington tube stop that was in the Bayswater area where our hotel was. We were now in inner city London, but we wouldn’t have known it, because we had been underground for some time. We had to emerge in the city to switch to the next tube station and I will never forget that moment we walked out into the busy world of inner city London for the first time. The feeling of “We are finally here” came back. I felt like a mole coming up into some other world, engulfed with the hustle and bustle of life, traffic, smells, and buildings- it was a great feeling. There is something surreal about actually being in such a famous and historic city that you have learned about in books and seen in movies your whole life.
Once we got on the next tube, we arrived at our destination and one of the main tube stops, the Paddington Station.
I hate this feeling. This feeling is almost enough to deter me from traveling oversees all together, but I tell myself after a day of rest, it will all be worth it. I always feel physically ill when I get off a plane after sitting for 13 hours or more. My stomach is sick and I ran into the bathroom the last hour of the flight because I thought for sure I was going to throw up. I am just counting down the minutes till landing. After they turned off the air when we were waiting to get off the plane it got so stuffy I wanted to hyperventilate. I haven’t slept at all, my neck kills and I’m starving. I think about how funny it is that by the time you actually get to the place that you have been anticipating and planned for over a year, the only thing you want to do is shower, have the privacy of your own bathroom and find a bed. Human needs outweigh all.
Finally off the plane; liberation! Even though I’m half dead I feel like I could fly! Oh crap, the worst part; customs, waiting for your luggage, finding the train into town, language barrier etc. etc. etc. This will be enough to throw me over the edge. I am beside myself at this point. I think to myself, “I chose to do this as a vacation? I inflicted this on myself? I rather be at work right now!!”
London customs were absolutely ridiculous. It was the worst customs line I have ever been in. Maybe we just came at the wrong time, who knows, but it was literally an hour and a half long wait and there were no bathrooms until after you went through customs. Not even kidding.
Line for United Kingdom citizens- 0 people
Line for everyone else- 100 People
I almost fell asleep standing up. The Australians in front of us reeked and every time I got a big whiff of them I wanted to throw up again. I look at my watch; it’s 5 a.m. where I live. I find a clock on the wall; 1 p.m. in London. I have been up for a full 24 hours now.
We are finally on the train to the city. I get my first glimpse of a small residential neighborhood and already see the vast difference from my own country; street plans, clay chimneys, old narrow brick homes stuck together one by one . . . All my negative thoughts instantly melt away and I don’t care anymore how crappy I feel.