Because I couldn’t think of a more creative title.
Saturday, 19 July, was meant to be our big sightseeing day. Get up early, buy the London Pass, and get out there! So where was I at 6:30, the apparent best time to up and about?
My late night carousing (ha) had tuckered me out more than I realized, and Mom and I both slept later than intended. This made me a little agitated, though I had no one to blame but myself. While we got ready, I did research about the London Pass.
Now, many people (in my findings) don’t recommend this city card, claiming it to be more expensive than it’s worth. A few positive sites indicate that if you can manage three or more attractions a day, then it IS worth it, as you end up spending less on admission prices than you would’ve normally. It depends on your sightseeing preferences, location proximity, and transportation. So I took someone’s sample itinerary and tweaked it to suit our needs: Tower of London to Shakespeare’s Globe to Westminster Abbey to Thames cruise (free with ticket). A full day much like Thursday, as tomorrow (Sunday), we were going to be out of the city entirely.
The only place to buy the Pass was online or at certain kiosks located around London. I really wanted to get one from the concierge, having an idea that this person was a super amazing expert who could do anything we asked of him, because it’s their job, apparently. Sadly, he only informed us of a kiosk located in the train station.
Long story short, we couldn’t find it.
By then, it was after 10:00, and I was beginning to suspect we wouldn’t make our quota for the day. Mom questioned why we needed the Pass at all, and I had to agree – by this point, we probably wouldn’t have time to visit everything. (Remember that most places close early in London.)
So we hiked back to the Big Bus station. Yesterday, if you recall, we had bought a special ticket that was worth two days’ admission. I knew the buses stopped near the Tower of London, so this would save us some monies on Tube fare, albeit being a slower journey. I figured more sightseeing is never a bad thing, and we hopped on a Red bus to take us to the Tower.
Our new live tour guide was quite good, and funny in that archetypal dry British way. (He actually reminded me of the Conductor from The Polar Express movie, because he looked as though he had a full head of hair, only to take off his cap to reveal his baldness.)
He (predictably) gave us much the same information as our previous guides, though we learned some new things – and more bad puns. One interesting location was the Savoy Court, the only place in London where the turn-in street is on the right side rather than the left.
It leads to the Savoy Hotel, one of the most premier in London. Our guide said the street was designed like that to match its American counterpart, but the real reason is more mundane: to prevent cars dropping off or picking up people at the Savoy Theatre (which is next to the hotel on the Strand) from blocking the hotel’s entrance.
Whether a ploy to appeal to American tourists, or just a myth perpetuation, it was still a pretty interesting sight. We moved on, and our journey was actually cut a little short because there was a protest blocking certain streets – a demonstration “to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza and ‘justice and freedom’ for Palestine.” We didn’t see this gathering ourselves, as the driver took a detour away from the closed off areas.
Despite the shortened trip, it still took us well over a half hour to get to the Tower of London, and I mentally crossed off Westminster Abbey off our to-do list. It would’ve been an interesting location, mainly for its historic value, but I figured we had seen plenty of church monuments and dead people at St Paul’s Cathedral. Just another place to add to my “When I Return to London” list.
By now, I was getting pretty excited because I had heard so many recommendations for the Tower, it had become a “DON’T MISS OUT ON THIS THING” thing in my mind.
We had bought our tickets at the Big Bus travel place earlier, because it was cheaper. They offered all kinds of other tickets at similar discounts, and were generally very welcoming and informative. As such, we were able to waltz right in through the gate.
I was especially keen on meeting a Beefeater, having read a lovely book about them a couple years ago, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (which I may reread, now that I’ve actually visited the place).
The present Queen’s cypher is EIIR, standing for Elizabeth II Regina.
We joined the Yeoman Warders (the proper name for Beefeaters) tour group to receive a brief overview of the Tower’s history. Our guide, a lovely funny man, was particularly focused on the more gruesome stories, when the royal family lived in the central castle during a 500 year period, and executions and torture were commonplace.
He told us gory stories about beheadings and vicious battles, and how the entire city would turn out to watch executions. It was a total family affair, complete with picnics and lusty cheers. He also informed us of how the Beefeaters acquired that particular moniker. Back in the days of poverty and peasant oppression, only the very rich or frightfully important were allowed to eat red meat. Everyone else was stuck with fish from the Thames. The Yeoman Warders were guards of the knights, who ate meat due to their need to become big and strong to protect their ruler. As their guards, the Warders were allowed to eat whatever the knights didn’t, including their meat. Understandably, the other lower classes felt this was a little unfair, and despised the Warders for their special privilege. “Beefeater” was a derogatory term until the late 1800s, when a gin maker slapped their likeness onto their brand of gin, and suddenly everyone felt much more affectionate toward their friendly neighborhood Beefeaters.
As it was a Saturday, it was pretty busy, and the tour group was fairly large. This made it quite hard to hear, and Mom wandered off after awhile. I stuck it out, and was rewarded for my diligence by our guide’s suggestion to see the Crown Jewels as soon as possible, as the queue was already quite lengthy and would only grow longer as the day progressed. I relayed this information to Mom, and we got in line tout suite.
While we were waiting to enter the building, we struck up a conversation with two fellow Americans. One hailed from New Jersey and the other from Chicago, and we shared sightseeing preferences and grievances about the British way of life (namely, the lack of air conditioning).
Somehow we got separated once the queue led inside, and Mom and I were on our own again. No pictures were allowed inside, but I may indeed say that it was most splendid assortment of jewelry I had ever seen. I was particularly moved by the tiny crown always worn by Queen Victoria with her mourning veil, the one you always see in pictures and impersonations.
Mom was far more impressed than I, as she has a more nuanced understanding of jewels than I do. (And I’m not a fan of gold, no matter how valuable it is.) I was more entranced by the amount of detail on each piece, especially the sceptres, which tend to have beautiful scenic engravings. And of course, all the various Sovereign’s Orbs just looked like Holy Hand Grenades to me.
After gawking at the Jewels, I wandered into the Fusilier Museum, dedicated to the British infantry regiment. A interesting place, though nothing singularly notable stood out to me. I was tempted, however, to play the game they have set up for children, where you go round collecting stamps at certain exhibits, and turn it in for a special button. But it seemed too hard.
There are actually a number of things to do at the Tower, including an exhibit about torture, seeing the infamous ravens, and walking the walls. Most everything was stuffed with people, though, and I wanted to at least try to do more stuff today. But of course, we still had to check out the White Tower.
As I mentioned earlier, it was built in 1066, and housed the royal family for about 500 years. Though not quite as big as Windsor, it is still a proper castle, and it was fascinating to think about the hundreds of people who lived there, especially since the Tower had been open to visitors for centuries.
I could just imagine lords and ladies, and little children and their parents wandering around the same area as I was, just as fascinated by everything. The Royal Armouries was actually the first museum in Britain.
Over 2,600 Tower-related items were used to create this dragon.
The Brits certainly know how to do museums right, and there was a wealth of information to be had within, most of of relating to battles and royalty. And torture, of course.
People working on this beautiful structure for Armistice Day.
Since I had decided to forego Westminster Abbey, I felt there was enough time for me to check out one small nearby structure before heading to Shakespeare’s Globe. According to the British online news, there was a giant parrot in London – a visual tribute to Monty Python.
I realized this was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity, as it was only going to be around for the reunion show. As you can see from the picture, it was near the Tower Bridge, and thus only a short walk away from the Tower of London. The article cited it as being specifically in a park called Potters Fields, and I had mapped out a walking path before we left the hotel.
Now that we had finished the Tower, I explained to Mom what I wanted to do, and we set off, though she had to stop to use the toilet. While she was otherwise occupied, I stepped inside a gift shop to doublecheck the park’s location, because it had been somewhat tricky to find on the map. Neither of the cashiers had heard of the place, and from their accents, they were both English natives. Somewhat troubled, I left to rejoin Mom and we continued on our way.
It took a little wandering around, backtracking, and asking for help (NO ONE knew where Potters Fields was), but we finally figured out the correct direction, which led over the Tower Bridge. It was pleasant walk, as the pedestrian sides are well-protected from the busy traffic in the center.
Potters Fields was just on the other side, a relatively small park right on the banks of the Thames. Like most of the other city parks, it was full of business people on lunch break, and picnickers enjoying the brief bursts of sunlight that shone through the clouds. But no parrot.
Mom was a little irritated we had come all this way for nothing, and I too was disappointed. I knew they were going to move it to the O2 for the final show, so I guessed this had already happened. I later found out that that had probably been done days earlier, and was actually very likely at the O2 the day I was there, located somewhere in that giant arena. Curse you, delayed journalism!
Given that the Big Buses did not stop at Shakespeare’s Globe, I had planned on us just to walk there, along the Thames. Mom was already pretty tired, but she perked up considerably when I said our only alternative was to take the Tube. So we began our journey, stumbling across this:
This bench was part of the summer-long “Books About Town” exhibit, with benches depicting images and symbols from various famous novels. I had seen a Dr Seuss one earlier, but this Dragon one was the first that hadn’t had people sprawled all over it. I was especially keen on finding (and sitting on) the benches for Agatha Christie, Discworld, P.G. Wodehouse, and Sherlock Holmes, but these were naturally scattered all over the city, and would be a considerable distance to walk just to find them. I had tentatively marked out their locations when doing my research, and Wodehouse wasn’t that far from the Tower, but when Mom expressed how footsore she was, and we still had to walk to the Globe, I decided to abandon the idea. The fact that people were usually already sitting on them, giving no inclination to move for an American girl with a camera, was also a bit of a turn off.
Following the very convenient signs and maps on every block, we moved into Southwark, making sure to stay as close to the Thames as possible. There were loads of pretty shops and busy pubs. Surprisingly, it reminded me very much of a typical California seaside market – except without the sea.
It was actually quite a lovely walk, albeit long, and even though our schedule had gotten messed up (and no giant parrot), I was quite happy. London can be very beautiful, and I was pleased to be a part of it and to walk among the shops and people as if I actually belonged there.
When we finally reached the Globe, we were met with the news that the theatre itself – with the tours and exhibition – was already closed, a fact that was NOT indicated on the website. It was only around 16:00, and the Globe wasn’t supposed to close until 17:30. But they were having a performance that night or something, and so I could only take a picture of the famous theatre from inside the lobby.
Now, I have to confess that I’m not the biggest Shakespeare fan, and the only reason I wanted to go there was because of its historic value. And how could I call myself an English major if I went to London without seeing one of the greatest literary landmarks? So I figured visiting the gift shop would be enough to make up for it. They actually have a wonderful assortment of souvenirs there, a true treasure trove for Bard fanatics. I picked out some buttons for myself and my friend who actually digs Shakespeare. I did feel somewhat guilty, as I’m sure there are fans out there who would do anything to see this place and revel in its significance for their hero, and here was me, being completely cavalier about it all. Given the circumstances, though, that was probably a good thing.
The last activity on our list was the Thames cruise, but Mom wasn’t feeling up to it, and it didn’t interest me all that much either. I had seen the boats while on the London Eye yesterday, and people were crammed on board like so many sardines, not to mention that it was a one way deal: to get back where you came from, you’d have to take a bus or the Tube. So the only thing left to do was go back to the hotel.
I hadn’t planned ahead for this part of the journey, and as we had no working cell phones, there was no way to look up Underground routes. We wandered into the more residential area of Southwark, and everything become almost eerily empty.
Though you could faintly hear the busyness of the main streets and restaurants a few blocks over, we walked through quiet, largely vacant streets and alleys, and though it was a bit odd, I rather enjoyed seeing the lesser known side of London, where normal people lived with their families and friends.
Mom was getting frustrated by this point, and was eager to find ANY sort of public transportation to get us back. We had lingered at a cab area near the Globe for awhile, but no cabs came. I argued that a cab was an excessive expense, anyway; it was far cheaper to take the Tube. We finally found a main street that lead to an Underground station. Though the sun had only made intermittent appearances all day, it was rather hot and also humid, the Underground even more so. Mom was already feeling claustrophobic, and then when none of the kiosks would accept cash to reload our Oyster cards, she booked it out of there faster than spit on a griddle. (I’m bad at these Southern idioms, sorry.) By the time I caught up with her, she had already hailed a cab, and I climbed in without further argument.
The London taxi system, with the famous black cabs, is largely regulated, and you can spot hundreds all over the city. Most are indeed black, but some have advertisements painted all over the body. The cars themselves, like the Tube trains, are designed specifically for public transit, with one bench and two pull down seats, and a glass window separating you and the driver. They are also very clean (at least, ours was.) Most of London is very clean, actually; we rarely saw any litter at all, even in the busiest areas.
Our trip was indeed a bit pricey, but Mom was happy, and I had now ridden on every type of transportation London had to offer. When we got back to the hotel, it was barely 18:00, and Mom suggested we have a nice dinner tonight. After changing clothes, we headed out to search the Paddington streets. There are loads of little restaurants, as well as fast food chains, and we eventually settled on a Greek place, Kolossi Restaurant.
The food was excellent, though I admittedly say that as someone with very little experience with Greek cuisine. I don’t remember what my particular dish was called, but it was quite tasty. It was thus a relaxing evening, and we decided to top it off with McFlurries.
I had wanted one ever since our pit stop at a McDonald’s yesterday, because their McFlurries would obviously have different candies than in the United States. (Quite a bit of their menu is different, actually.) They were promoting Aero chocolates (see picture above), but they had their normal sweets as well: Dairy Milk Chocolate, Smarties, and Crunchie. I got the latter, and it was delightfully sweet and crunchy and delicious.
Before going to bed, I started doing research for tomorrow. I had planned on going to Bath, as it turned up regularly in good daytrips out of London suggestions. But for some reason, the more I looked into it, the less I wanted to go. See, I really wanted to see the English countryside, as a break from the citylife. I wanted to see the green fields and rolling hills and trees and just get a feel for else England can be. Bath seemed to be very much a tourist place, so I tried looking for other locations. One city that came up was Dover, near which are the famous white cliffs – which are actually not all that white; the ones typically shown in movies and pictures are the Seven Sisters. That fact wasn’t particularly off-putting, and I also liked that there was a castle there, the largest in England. It seemed to be a good combination of country and tourism, and so I decided that we would be heading to Dover in the morning.