London Day 1: In Which I Climb 500 Steps and Then 500 More

And now everyone has that song in their head. Because word association.

The biggest impression I have of London overall is the architecture, specifically how OLD everything is. I realize that much of this is intentional design, in order to have a coherent visual theme throughout the city, but so many of the buildings are centuries old. You can tell just by looking at the bricks and stone that make up the magnificent structures, and even the graffiti looks like art rather than vandalism. Even the ones that say “arse”.

There’s no such lettering on the splendid Windsor Castle, and I pity the fool who would dare try.

IMG_0080Look at that blue sky! No photo manipulation here, folks!

Going to Windsor today, 17 July, was actually a last minute decision, as seems to be par on course for my life. (I don’t really understand golf idioms.) I woke up pretty early in the morning, and started doing some London research, which admittedly should’ve been done earlier. This is all I had scribbled on the way to LAX:

  • Day 1 (Wed, 16 July) – Big Bus Tour, London Eye
  • Day 2 (Thurs, 17 July) – St Paul’s Cathedral, Natural History Museum, Science Museum
  • Day 3 (Fri, 18 July) – Windsor Castle, Monty Python Live!
  • Day 4 (Sat, 19 July) – London Pass: Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe, Thames cruise
  • Day 5 (Sun, 20 July) – Daytrip to Bath (the city)
  • Day 6 (Mon, 21 July) – British Museum, National Gallery, Harrod’s

I obviously had to rearrange some things once Wednesday turned out to be a no-go, but as you can see, I did have a vague outline of what I wanted to do and see while we were there, though nothing resembling an itinerary, with prices and locations and train schedules all neatly written out. This actually worked in our favor, because even though today I had planned to do the whole bus tour, London Eye, museum thing, I also looked at other landmarks and attractions for the rest of the week to make up the revised schedule:

  • Day 1 (Wed, 16 July) – SLEEP
  • Day 2 (Thurs, 17 July) – Big Bus Tour, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye
  • Day 3 (Fri, 18 July) – Windsor Castle, Monty Python Live!
  • Day 4 (Sat, 19 July) – London Pass: Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe, Thames cruise
  • Day 5 (Sun, 20 July) – Daytrip to Bath (the city)
  • Day 6 (Mon, 21 July) – British Museum, National Gallery, Harrod’s

But lo and behold, I discovered that the State Departments of Windsor Castle were closed on Friday (just that one day out of the whole bloody month). What are the State Apartments? Well, in short, the interior of the castle and pretty much the whole tourist attraction they have set up there. With some intel from TripAdvisor forums and Yahoo!Answers, I realized that it really wouldn’t be worth it to go that day, since we’d be missing out on quite a lot. Last minute research for the win! So at 06:30, I woke Mom up to tell her our entire day’s plans were changed and hey, isn’t it about time we got going?

IMG_20140717_091543I think I would have been a trainspotter in another lifetime.

The only way to get to Windsor is via train, which just delighted me. There are passenger trains in California, of course, but not as many, and certainly not as convenient. (I’d only been on a train once!) After getting ready and eating our complimentary British Buffet Breakfast in the hotel restaurant (thanks again to my grandfather), we ventured into Paddington Station to buy our tickets to the castle. Two tickets, really, one to Slough and then a transfer from there to Windsor. Again, for any travelers reading this, it’s all quite simple and easy to figure out – the National Rail website has a wonderful trip planner that you can use, and the public transportation option on Google Maps is also useful. And naturally, there are information booths with helpful people ready to answer any questions. Figuring out the tickets was simplicity itself – go up to the machine, input location info, insert money, boom – tickets. The hard part was finding the right platform, as Paddington isn’t exactly small. That’s where the nice attendants come in, to point you in the right direction.

Long story short, we made it to Windsor Castle right when it opened. Just as I had planned, of course.

IMG_20140717_100530Forget the building, look at that well-manicured lawn.

First of all, it’s a castle. That may not impress a lot of people, but it certainly impressed me. A real, working castle. Built in the ELEVENTH CENTURY. Perhaps it’s the history buff speaking, but that’s incredibly awesome. And old. And huge.

We joined a tour group at the beginning, because I like tour guides. It’s better than wandering around, looking at random objects and buildings, and you also learn about history and why things may or may not still be relevant to today. I LIKE LEARNING, OKAY?

IMG_0078This was inside the inner courtyard, inaccessible to the public.

We learned that the Queen visits Windsor nearly every weekend, and we actually saw a moving van delivering some of her things inside.

IMG_0082I’m trying to let the pictures speak for themselves, because my glob, it was beautiful there.

Unfortunately, we sorta lost our tour group in the crowd, and had to set off on our own from there. We found the State Apartments, which were every bit as worth seeing as everyone on the Internet said. No pictures allowed, unfortunately, but they look exactly how you might think the interior of a castle should look. Great vaulted ceilings, carpeted wooden floors, knightly shields on the walls, and portraits and gilded furniture everywhere. I have no idea what the private apartments for the Queen and her staff look like, if they are more modernized or what – I did notice a copy machine in one of the windows – but it was easy to see royalty living in these halls. My imagination was kicked into overdrive, just thinking about all the feet that had walked the same path I was walking, and the people sitting in the chairs, relaxing and talking about both important and trivial things, and I wondered how many of them thought their dressers would be awed and oohed over in the future.

There was a section that housed some amazing silverware and er, goldware (I dunno, it was plates and goblets made of gold), and a plaque dedicated to the restoration team who repaired the Castle after the 1992 fire.

IMG_0102This photo has little relevance to the surrounding text, I just like it.

We also saw an exhibit that displayed royal documents, which was quite interesting, especially a cute letter written by a young Bonnie Prince Charlie to his father. He not only had very good handwriting for a seven year old, but the description next to it detailed his tumultuous adult life, which just goes to show we have no idea what the future holds in store for us. (Or something equally profound.)

There was also Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, which was enormous and probably would not have fit in my childhood house, let alone my room. The detail on everything was exquisite and perfect and tiny. The creation of doll furniture is truly a lost art form.

IMG_0083Random people once again ruining a perfect shot. *tsks*

Since we hadn’t looked at a schedule or anything, we only caught the tail end of the changing of the guard ceremony, but judging by the hordes of people grouped around the area, we probably wouldn’t’ve seen much anyway. As you might have been able to tell from the brilliant blue sky, it was quite warm that day, and I don’t know how those fluffy-hatted guards didn’t just keel over from heat exhaustion. It was mostly sympathy that made me not want to take a picture with one standing in his box, and also embarrassment, and maybe a bit of hipster stubbornness. (EVERYONE takes one of those pictures.)

IMG_0088You could see pretty far away up on the walls.

Windsor itself is actually a lovely town area, with loads of shops and restaurants, and really warrants a whole half-day, if not an entire day, devoted to checking out its nooks and crannies.

IMG_0108It’s very hard to get more British than this photo.

I think we saw a decent amount, but in any case, we had to get going, because we had an appointment with St Paul.

IMG_0111People were literally feeding the birds, though bread now costs more than a tuppence.

As part of the package deal that my grandfather got with our airfare and hotel and everything, we also got free tickets for St Paul’s Cathedral, valid only today, the 17th. My research had told me that it was a worth a two-three hour visit, hence why we left Windsor in such a hurry, because it was going to close to visitors at 16:00.

(Traveler’s Tip #4: Many landmarks and attractions in London close early, usually between 17:00-18:00. This can make it difficult to see everything you want, especially taking transportation into account. The museums are open late on Fridays, and there’s always pubs, restaurants, and theatres open if you like that sort of nightlife, but for sightseeing tourist things, you really need to get an early start.)

We made a quick pit stop at the hotel to grab said tickets that we had forgotten (d’oh!) and took the Underground to St Paul’s Cathedral.

IMG_1630The Paddington Underground entrance. …And a bus.

A quick aside about the infamous Tube: it’s actually pretty sweet. And goldurned convenient. You can get to anywhere and everywhere in London, and there are maps plastered all over the place. You’ve probably seen this before:

Visit London: Underground Map
Visit London: Underground Map

And sure, it looks mighty confusing. But when you’re actually there, it all makes sense, and as long as you know the place where you’re going, you can figure out exactly how to get there. More precise maps and schedules are located inside and also on the trains themselves (those ones are extremely simple to figure out). Trains come every few minutes, and then it’s just a matter of making you don’t get excited and get on the wrong one. This is surprisingly not that easy to do, since the platforms are divided by east and west, and if you do get on the wrong one (which I did, twice), it’s pretty simple to figure out how to get back on track. And again, there are attendants standing around who apparently know the entire map like the back of their hand (perhaps they have to get it tattooed on there), and can tell you exactly which lines to take to get you where you wanna go. Also, Google Maps and the Transport for London website can just flat out give precise instructions. Overall, I really liked the Underground, and never did I feel unsafe or lost. Everyone, EVERYONE uses the Tube, and perhaps it’s foreigner naïveté, but I can see how there might be a sense of community among those who ride, a sort of “we’re all in this metal death trap together” kind of thing, and it’s best if you just have a good attitude about it all.

It’s not for everyone, of course. Some of the trains are nicer than the others, and it can get very crowded and very hot especially during peak hours of the morning and evening, when everyone is going to and from work, respectively. More on that later. On to St Paul’s!

IMG_0363Ugh, so gorgeous.

I LOVED this place. It was so beautiful and had such a rich, involved history. The tour was easily one of the highlights of the entire trip, because I learned SO MUCH. Our guide was awesome and knowledgeable, and since there has been a church of sorts on the site for over 1000 years, it is deeply ingrained in London history. So we not only learned about the cathedral itself, but all that happened around it. I imagine, though, that much of it is common knowledge to native-born England dwellers, like the Great Fire of 1666 and the heroes that are the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson. I had a cursory understanding of such things, as most Anglophiles do, but never had I realized how important these events and people were, and how much they influenced the country.

Mom was a little surprised at my enthusiasm, and I by the lack of hers. She justified it by pointing out that she grew up on the East Coast, in Boston and other New England cities. She had been to museums and landmarks filled with history plenty of times, and I simply hadn’t had those experiences. Be that as it may, we don’t really have cathedrals in the United States, at least not like this, and certainly not where I live. And as awesome as seeing Philadelphia and Gettysburg and other such places would be, I’ve had “American” history shoved down my throat my entire life. It’s refreshing to see and learn about new – well, to me – and exciting things, and the English are wonderfully blunt about their checkered past. They make no excuses for the atrocities committed by the British empire, and don’t necessarily handwave it away, either. It happened, it was bad, we’re trying to do better now, time marches on. England isn’t perfect by any means, of course – and I’m waxing political here, but I like that leaders and other public figures can be criticized for their weaknesses, rather than pretending that “founding fathers” were the epitome of perfection.

But I digress. Back to pictures!

IMG_0114The “How many photos can I take of the same thing” game!

Once again, no pictures were allowed of the interior space, and that’s because St Paul’s is actually a functioning church. People go there to worship on a daily basis, which is why the tour had to make some unique upgrades. Every visitor is given a iPod touch (hard to tell inside its protective case, but there’s no doubt that’s what it is) that has a number of videos and audio tracks on it, so you can wander at your leisure around the cathedral, and select which item to learn more about. The actual tour obviously didn’t need these (and also the little installed alarms would go off once we left the main floor), but we were given headphones and a radio device that was connected to the guide’s. In this way, we could all easily hear what he was saying, and he didn’t have to raise his voice and disrupt the worshippers. Pretty cool.

The tour was an hour and a half long, and though I was very footsore by that point, I wish it had gone on longer. The interesting thing about the cathedral is that it’s quite modern, relatively speaking. The current building was built by Christopher Wren and his team from 1675-1708, but much of the structures contained within date much later than that. Quite a bit of it had to be rebuilt after being bombed in both World Wars, and some parts were not able to be completely saved. There are loads of World War I memorials – and also scattered throughout London, it was quite a big deal – and even an American Chapel, dedicated to the American soldiers stationed in the UK during World War II. Three large stained glass windows are decorated with the insignia of each state, some very detailed – I couldn’t find California – and others not so much. Nevada’s just said, “NEVADA”. Oh Nevada.

The overall design is strictly Anglican, though Wren was greatly influenced by Catholicism, the famous dome being the greatest homage. A mural of the life of the apostle Paul adorns the main interior, though it is in black and white, as King Charles II felt it was “too Catholic” to have it in color. And the Duke of Wellington was all over the place, including his tomb. The crypt of St Paul’s is open to visitors, and is unique in that it is as big as the main floor above it. I’m not superstitious at all, but it was a bit eerie walking over what are essentially graves, and sad seeing that quite a few had their names completely worn away. Who were they? What had they accomplished in their life? Why were they buried here?

My head was near bursting with information, and the cathedral still held more surprises! There are three galleries in the dome and they are all accessible by stair. The first one, the Whispering Gallery, can be reached in 259 steps, and I believe there’s an elevator for those unable to make the climb. It opens up into a splendid circular view of the floor below, the over-enthusiastic protected by a high sturdy railing. It’s also aptly named, as there are holes in the walls, and some guy was trying to whisper to his family all the way across from me, and I could hear him as well as if he had been right behind me. CREEPY. Mom was completely wiped out by this time, but I wanted to climb more. I actually didn’t know at the time where the other staircase lead to, except higher, and I figured I’d regret it if I didn’t at least check it out. I didn’t realize it was a one way trip, either.

IMG_0123Whoops.

I told Mom I’d brb, and started the climb to the Stone Gallery, another 119 steps. This staircase was VERY narrow and steep, so just a warning to those who may be claustrophobic or not exactly in the best physical condition. It led outside, on the bottom rim of the dome. Here, we could take pictures, and it was lovely being outside and so high up.

IMG_0116That wall on the side reached way above my head, impossible to fall over. 

I walked around for a bit, mostly grateful of the cool breeze and the totes awesome view. It was around this time, due to eavesdropping, that I realized I couldn’t go back down to the Whispering Gallery. You could keep going up to the next level or go all the way back down to the cathedral floor.

IMG_0147Where were you earlier, sign?!

If you recall, mine nor Mom’s phone was working properly, so I couldn’t call and let her know where I was. But then I heard (again, eavesdroppping) that they closed the Whispering Gallery at 16:30, and I assumed they would shunt everybody back down to the floor. So I figured I’d go the rest of the way and meet Mom at the bottom, and all would be well. I had already made it this far, y’kno?

I bid farewell to the Stone Gallery and headed up the staircase to the Golden Gallery. It wasn’t as steep as the Stone Staircase (as I assume it’s called) and was actually mostly in open space, the first part being metal and circular and somewhat similar to a service staircase you might find in an old hotel or something. About 150 steps. Traveler’s Tip #5: Do not wear a dress on this staircase. There are people climbing immediately below you, and well…

There was a small room before the final bit to the top, and it had a window in the floor. Peering through it, you could see all the way down to the cathedral floor. Y’know how they always say people look like ants when you’re up really high? Well, the people milling around on that far away ground really did look like little bugs. I felt empowered.

IMG_0122Butterfly in the skyyyy… I’m up so very hiiiigh

There was actually a bit of a queue once I neared the top, and when I saw the view, I understood why. You could see the whole city!

IMG_0127Helloooooo, Thames!

It’s also quite a small balcony, so not too many people can fit on it at one time, and of course everybody was reveling in the scenery and enjoying the fruit of their vertical labor.

IMG_0130From vey up herr, you all look like leetle antz!

It was quite a spectacular climax to my visit to St Paul’s, and I’m sure I looked every inch the rubbernecked tourist as I leaned over the balcony, trying to see everything possible.

IMG_0138Quite impressive, London is.

Going down is always much easier than going up, though it was yet another very narrow and steep staircase, and I found myself nearly doubled over at one point to get through a passage (I’m 5′ 10″, so). As I had correctly eavesdropped, we wound up near the cathedral floor, and I could have doubled back to the Whispering Gallery, but I had assumed Mom had already made her own way down. Traveler’s Tip #6: Never assume anything.

Mom wasn’t anywhere I could see, and before I had the chance to hike back up the first stairs, I was escorted away because the evening service was about to start, as it was nearly 17:00. So I loitered around the roped area that was keeping the visitors away from the worshippers, looking for any short blonde ladies. It was England, after all, so there were quite a few, and in the end, Mom found me, and she was understandably rather distraught. I promised to plan better in future, and we walked back out into the English afternoon sunshine.

IMG_0148An arch that…is probably important in some way.

As I said earlier, most of the sightseeing sights were already closed or closing, so we decided to see what else was nearby. The main street was called Cheapside, which I found wonderfully hilarious, considering we were in the financial district.

London, if anything, caters to its tourists. There are always maps and signs around, practically on every corner, and they helpfully indicate the most popular destinations and even tell you what’s a five or 15 minute walk away. Perusing one of these maps, I saw that the Museum of London was a nearby locale. (Most of London’s museums are free!) We decided it would be a leisurely way to finish our day – if it hadn’t already closed.

IMG_0150A vicious Keep Left sign.

Some of the best memories I have of London are simply just walking around in it. The architecture never ceased to amaze me, and it didn’t have that shanty town feel that Los Angeles has. There’s obviously crime and other problem areas, and we didn’t really see any of its more shady bits, but during our time there, I felt quite comfortable and well, happy.

IMG_0154Even the alleys were cool.

Anyway, we found the Museum of London, and it had not closed – yet. We had until 17:40 (British times are weird, just saying; some of their TV programs start at like, a quarter past the hour or a quarter to, it’s just bizarre).

IMG_0157We climbed a flight of stairs to get here – only to see an elevator further on.

Now, I love museums, and I can enjoy them in different ways. The in-depth way of going around with the audio headphones and looking at and learning about every single little detail – or just trying to see as much as I can and get a general feel of the whole place. Obviously on this trip, I employed the latter method, and honestly, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything in any of the museums we visited, at least not to the point of regret.

I always admire the people who set all the items up and try to make it look interesting, rather than a bunch of glass cases scrunched together in a room. The Museum of London had fantastic interior design, and even interactive elements for kids. There was a section that was meant to be like old timey London, with a bunch of shops all decorated to look as authentic as possible, like a tailor’s, a public toilet (which you would’ve had to pay to use), a toy shop, a blacksmith, a baker, and so on. The whole place is essentially a timeline of the City, from its Roman days (A.D. 50!!!) to the current era. Much of its Roman ancestry is still in use today, namely its narrow, straight streets. There was also a broken down bit of wall visible from one of the museum windows, with an arrow helpfully pointing out that this was a piece left over from that time. A real Roman wall! Now I want to go to Italy. (Mom facepalm’d at that – she’s been dreaming to go to Venice for as long as I can remember.)

Even though we only had about a half hour (and I don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures), it was a great speedy introductory course to London, as we learned about its place in history all throughout the centuries, its major locations and events, all the various kings and queens and prime ministers, and all the bouts of plague and fire. It would have been nice to stay longer, but as it was, we found ourselves back in Cheapside around 18:00.

IMG_0152A police box. (Though perhaps not the type you’re thinking.)

We poked around, seeing if there was any place we might like to eat at, but most of the restaurants were of the pub, fast food, or takeaway variety. Understandable, as their primary customer base are business peeps, who need quick and easy meals. We decided just to head back to the hotel.

Remember what I said about peak hours on the Underground? It’s really, really, really best to avoid traveling during that time. (Traveler’s Tip #7) Evening peak time is from 16-19:00, and it’s actually a little more expensive to take public transportation in those hours, even with our Oyster cards.

(N.B. re: Oyster cards – Very useful. You fill them up with monies and you just tap it on a big yellow button to get through the gate into the Underground platforms. It automagically knows how far you’ve traveled, as you tap it again when you leave the station, and you can travel as much as you want, on the Tube or the buses, as long as you have enough monies on the card, and it won’t charge you more than £8.40 a day. They also have Travelcards or you can buy single day tickets. It really depends on your travel plans and how long you’re in London. Here’s a helpful link if you want more information. We bought the regular Oyster cards, not the Visitor ones, but I don’t know if there’s much of a difference. You have to put a £5 deposit down, but if you want that back, and any balance remaining, you can do so at an information kiosk or even at Heathrow. We didn’t, but that’s because we forgot.)

IMG_20140722_063919Because the world is your Oyster. (Get it?)

We had the means, it was just the opportunity that was less than stellar. The Tube trains were packed to the gills, people squeezing themselves in like sardines, and mere centimeters away from getting their noses chopped off by the doors. And it was very hot and humid.

I guess I’m more easygoing than I give myself credit for because I wasn’t much bothered by any of this (though I will throw the biggest tantrum when the computer doesn’t work, for real). We had to get back to the hotel, and this was best, easiest way to do that. I was squished into the back of the car, grabbing onto the little bit of the handrail that I could reach, and sweating like the dickens. Them’s the breaks, I shrugged. Mom, on the other hand, was miserable. She had claustrophobia worse than I realized, she felt like she couldn’t breathe, and we were on the worst, busiest line, the Central. Fortunately, the Underground is fast and efficient (for the most part). Once we got closer to Paddington, we switched to the nice spacious Circle line, and the rest of the journey passed smoothly.

Mom vowed never to go on the Tube again.

I felt otherwise, but hey, when the momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Momma was also hungry (you may have noticed that we didn’t eat all day), and we were both too exhausted to dine in, so we utilized English takeaway to bring back to our room. We went to BarBurrito, which is technically a wannabe Chipotle, but I personally liked it way better because it wasn’t as spicy and there were more options. We were both skeptical about Mexican food that was so far away from Mexico, but it was actually pretty good. And here was me thinking I’d miss my weekly burrito fix.

More tired than I realized, I practically passed out as soon as we finished eating and Mom had to test my breathing, thinking I might have died or something. I would have to do last minute research on doing the Big Bus Tour and the London Eye tomorrow in the morning.

(Author’s Note: Apologies for the late post! This was supposed to be published yesterday, cos I thought I could bang this out in a couple hours on Tuesday morning. I was WAY wrong. But a new post will still go up Thursday tomorrow, so whoo, two posts in a row!)

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5 thoughts on “London Day 1: In Which I Climb 500 Steps and Then 500 More

    • Yup, saw all those except Buckingham Palace. Which was a little disappointing, but the others more than made up for it – and it’s definitely on the list for next time!

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