After Edinburgh, we took a train to London. Although eating as locals eat is one of my main travel objectives, we broke down and ate at McDonald’s at the Edinburgh train station. Even though it was American fast food, they had local specialties on the menu, and Barry had a bacon roll, which we had earlier during our trip at a local diner (not as good as the real thing).
The train ride was Barry’s first, and the scenery was beautiful. We rode down the east side of the island, passing through Newcastle and York (what seemed like MILLIONS of bicycles covered the platforms at York), and following the coast line for the first hour. We enjoyed the lighthouses, beach houses, farms, and rolling green hills dotted with sheep while listening to podcasts we’d loaded on our phones. I listened to Rick Steves talk about places we’d been and were going, and he listened to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
We arrived at London King’s Cross Station (no Platform 9 3/4 that we could find) and set out on a bus to our hotel. We walked a few blocks and found it on the bank of the Thames. The room was huge and beautiful, with a gorgeous view of the river just outside. Barry had included the fact that this was our honeymoon on the reservation, and we found the bed covered in silk rose petals and, just inside the front door, a note congratulating us on our marriage with a plate of cookies and sweets. Very sweet and romantic. Also, the bathroom was huge and glorious.
We only had a little time before we needed to leave for the evening, so we walked a few blocks to a Lebanese restaurant, where I had a tasty lamb gyro. We walked back, changed into nice clothes, and rushed to the bus, which took us to the historic Old Vic theater. Near the Waterloo train station, the Old Vic is a famous playhouse built in 1818 with a long, rich history of Shakespeare. Laurence Olivier was a major company player here, and Kevin Spacey is currently the artistic director. The black-and-white photos lining its walls were incredible, reminding me of the history we were right in the middle of – Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Zeffirelli, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Ben Kingsley and others. I’m not a big Shakespeare fan at all, but Barry is, and we were both amazed by the history of this place. As if that weren’t enough, the show we were there to see was “Much Ado About Nothing,” starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave! It was SO awesome to hear that booming voice coming not through a television or radio, but from just a hundred feet in front of us, reverberating up off the ornate paneling lining the theater. But as much as I love James, Vanessa Redgrave stole the show. I had no idea what was going on most of the time due to the outdated language, but she helped me understand through her inflection and body language, something no one else in the show really pulled off.
The view from our hotel is even better at night, and we walked down by the water for a while. The Thames fascinated me the first time I visited London during my college semester abroad – I just imagined the immense change its banks have seen over the centuries and wonder if the city’s first inhabitants would even recognize the waterway now.
Day #2 was mostly spent walking through the city in the rain. We started off with a trip around the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel on the river near Big Ben (now called Elizabeth Tower). The pods are huge and fit about 15 people at a time, and there are iPads around the perimeter that help you figure out what buildings you’re looking down on. It moves almost imperceptibly, and it took a long time to reach the top. It was a great way to get an overview of the city before delving into it. I’ve been to London before, but it’s very different as an adult with a bigger worldview; plus, one other big difference – MONEY. I was on my parents’ dime the first time, and I felt terrible spending much. I saw a lot then and had amazing experiences that I am immensely thankful for, but this trip was very different – and wonderful!
We crossed the Westminster bridge to get to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament. Crossing the river, I learned how windy the city is when my umbrella blew inside out! You can only tour Big Ben tower and Parliament building if you’re British, so we just admired it from below in the rain. We wandered through the Jubilee Gardens and made our way to Trafalgar Square.
We ate lunch at a SoHo pop-up restaurant I found on Trip Advisor called “The Full English.” It’s inside a nightclub called Zebrano, so during the day, you can eat there, but after dark, they whisk all the restaurant stuff out of the way and turn it back into a nightclub. It was traditional English food; I had a breakfast corned beef hash, and Barry got the Full English breakfast (he detests the idea of hot tea but ordered it just to warm up, and he didn’t hate it). The hash, which I make versions of all the time, was made with surprising ingredients – pickles and coarse-grain mustard. I would never in a million years think to add either of those things to a hash, and the fact that both of them worked together surprised me! SoHo is an adorable, fun area of town, and it was fun to walk through it.
We rode a red double-decker bus to Westminster Abbey. Again, I’ve seen it before, but we really took our time and used the audio guides (narrated by Jeremy Irons). The amount of intricate stained glass was mind-boggling, and seeing the memorials to poets, playwrights and writers in the Poet’s Corner was really neat. Barry lit a candle and filled out a prayer card for my brother, and we said a prayer. We also saw the oldest door in Britain from the year 1000! Mary Queen of Scots’ tomb was there, and that was neat to see after coming from Scotland and hearing her story.
We walked to Buckingham Palace and saw the Queen’s Guard, the Victoria Memorial, and the elaborate gates (too late in the day for a tour). Then we walked nearby to St. James Park and Green Park, both of which are beautiful, calm, and green, despite the number of people milling around. We sat in St. James for a while and just enjoyed the view. And the squirrels. The squirrels were entertaining.
We wandered for a while after that – or at least I thought we were wandering. Barry the Master Planner had found the original site of the Republic of Texas Embassy, and he led me around a corner and down a short hallway, and there it was! So neat! Fun surprise for this sixth-generation Texan.
The evening was full of foodie fun that I just can’t skip over, despite my father’s imperative before we left to stop taking pictures of everything we eat and take pictures of cultural significance (I believe local food when traveling IS of cultural significance, but that’s another post). Dinner was at Union Jacks, a Jamie Oliver restaurant! Barry got a pizza with crust so fresh, you could taste the water, flour, yeast and salt. We shared house-breaded fried haddock (with wasabi tart sauce!), which we knew we needed to try while in the UK; it was light and crispy and flavorful. I got a Warm Roast Pumpkin and Squash salad (it was October and in season) with ricotta, apple balsamic and honey-roast chestnuts. I watch Jamie on TV and have read his magazines, and I immensely respect the ideas behind his Food Revolution. I know he’s usually not there, and it’s run mostly by other people, but it was a real treat to eat at one of his restaurants.
The adventure began after dinner, when Barry wanted dessert. We walked in the direction of Chinatown looking for a candy place we found online (score for free wifi!). The Candy Cafe was really hard to find, just an unmarked doorway with sign near an interior stairwell. We went upstairs wondering what the heck we were getting ourselves into. It opened into a tiny room with about 8 small tables, an open kitchen, two windows, and a wall-mounted TV playing Chinese music videos. Barry got a banana nutella crepe, and I had an amazing mango-y…extravaganza. It had diced mangoes, tapioca balls, mango ice cream, shaved ice, and mango syrup. People would just appear at the top of the steps, and the Chinese staff would seat them if there was room. It was the most amazingly-bizarrely-awesome food adventure.
Day #3 was all about Wimbledon! We had a traditional English breakfast at Jax on the Junction (a little disappointing after The Full English, although I kind of dig the baked beans with breakfast) before taking a bus about 30 minutes to the sleepy little town. We walked about 10 minutes through residences and a golf course, and then all of a sudden, there it was – The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club! We were both tennis players in high school, and Barry was a certified tennis coach for a while, so this was really fun to see in person. We took a tour of the club, which apparently you can’t pay to be a member of – you have to be chosen for your love of tennis and willingness to take part in putting on the tournament every year. The easiest way for a regular person to become a member of Wimbledon is to WIN Wimbledon. The tour took us past all the major courts (with paper falcon kites waving in the wind to deter birds), Henman Hill, the giant scoreboards, the interior broadcast studios, and the court where Isner and Mahut played for 11 hours, the longest match in tennis history. We got to sit in the stands of Court 1, where you have to win a lottery to get a seat for the finals. There’s a Wimbledon museum, too, and they’ve got every piece of tennis history you can imagine.
When we got back into London, we spent a couple of hours in the British museum. It’s huge, and all we had time for was the highlights tour at warp speed. We saw Cleopatra’s mummy, the Easter Island statue, the Rosetta Stone, some incredible Asian vases, and a huge collection of ruins from the Parthenon. It did feel a little weird looking at so much British Empire plunder that should really belong to their respective countries, though.
After sitting on a bus in gridlocked traffic, we got off and RAN the rest of the way to the Tower of London to make it before it closed. We made it with about 3 minutes to spare, and we followed the map straight to the Crown Jewels. They were breathtaking – the sheer volume of gold was staggering, and displays showed the glittering items in use over the years, which was really neat. We also saw instruments of torture, climbed narrow stone spiral staircases, wandered through a huge store of historic armor (as in, Henry VIII and William the Conqueror historic), and watched the sun set over the castle walls while we had a snack of fish and chips from a street vendor (although we had skipped lunch, walked/ran several miles, were starving, and anything probably would have tasted great, they were excellent!).
Dinner was at Masala Zone, an Indian chain (this Covent Garden location had Indian dolls hanging from the ceiling…not sure why, but it was festive). My unimaginative husband got grilled meat, and I got a thali platter so he could try bites of several different things (I will never stop introducing him to healthy new foods, some of which he will like), and we had gulab jamun with pistachio ice cream for dessert. There may have been more red wine. Covent Garden was beautiful, with a lot of night life (including another Union Jacks location). We walked across London Bridge, which had a view of the Tower Bridge – beautiful at night, with boats and seagulls above and below us. We came across the Monument, a 202-foot-tall obelisk built in the 1670’s in a tiny square to memorialize the Great Fire of London.
We couldn’t leave London without a trip to the Globe Theater, so we dragged our 4 suitcases at least a mile over cracked and uneven sidewalks, up and down stairs, and on more than one bus. After that exhausting trip, we hid them in some curtains and took a tour of the Globe. It’s not on the site of the original, but it’s very close and modeled after it (we saw the Rose Theater down the street). We sat in the ground and top-floor seats, saw the thatched roofing, and got close enough to the stage to see the trap doors and mural-like painting designed to look like marble from the audience.
London was a really fun part of our trip. The subway system is world-class and much cleaner and more pleasant than any other we used on our trip. I was also struck by how everything is designed in a compact yet decorative way, from the street signs to gates to park benches. I’m so glad I got to return and really do it right, and being there with someone who loved every minute made a big difference.
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