Friday, October 17, 2014

London Day 1 - A Walking Tour

It was foggy when my plane landed at Gatwick Airport so I got my first view of the countryside on the train into London – rows of white houses with brown roofs and chimneys, church spires popping up from town squares. It was mostly green but the first signs of fall were starting to show in the trees.

I’d been really nervous about traveling on my own for the first time, but I didn’t have any problems navigating the airport and train. It wasn’t until I got to Victoria Station that I got a little lost. Which direction was the hotel? I ended up circling the whole block before someone pointed me towards Buckingham Palace Road. Then it was just a short walk to the Rubens, where Mama met me at the front door. The Rubens was a beautiful boutique hotel with doormen wearing actual top hats! I was able to grab some breakfast from the breakfast buffet before it closed, got a shower and then we were ready to roll.

Rubens at the Palace
Rubens at the Palace

The fog had burned off and it was a beautiful day – 70 degrees with a mostly blue sky – so we decided to get an overview of the city and take all our pictures while the good weather held. We started by walking towards the Thames River, passing by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. London was very walkable once we got used to looking the opposite way when crossing the street. Fortunately, most of the crosswalks had signs painted on the curb that told us to “Look Right” or “Look Left”. Very helpful. :-)  Every block seemed to have at least one of the iconic red phone booths. We wondered if anyone actually used the phone booths anymore, in this age of cell phones. Then we noticed that some of the phone booths said “Wi-Fi available”. I loved the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern. That was London.

Parliament Square

Big Ben

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

The first thing we all wanted to do was ride the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames. Jenny had wisely bought tickets at the airport the day before so we were able to skip the hour-and-a-half long ticket line and get straight on. Normally, I’m not a fan of Ferris wheels – legs dangling down, seat swaying, and inevitably they stop when I’m at the very top. Eek! But the Eye wasn’t like that all. It was 443 feet tall, the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe, but each of the 32 room-sized capsules was big enough to hold 25 people. It rotated slowly without stopping and took about 30 minutes to go all the way around. What an amazing view of the city! It was the perfect way to start off the trip.

the London Eye from Westminster Bridge
the London Eye

the London Eye

London Eye capsule

view from the Eye

on the Eye

From the London Eye, we took a City Cruises boat ride down the Thames to the Tower Bridge. When we got off at the pier, we walked around the outside of the Tower of London where volunteers were placing red ceramic poppies around the moat in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Britain’s involvement in World War I. The red flowers were a stunning contrast to the gray walls of the tower, a beautiful tribute. (

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge

Tower of London

Tower of London poppy memorial

By then we were all starving so we decided to grab some lunch and then tour the tower. We’d bought our tour tickets and had settled in at a nearby restaurant when we realized that it was already 3 o’clock and the last tour was at 4:30. I really wanted to see the tower when we had more time (and I wasn’t so jet-lagged). Thank goodness, Mary was able to exchange our tickets for the next day. What a relief! Now I could enjoy my lunch, a delicious lamb stew that was just the fuel I needed for more sightseeing.

When we were done eating, we took our first Tube ride to St Paul’s Cathedral. Jenny quickly proved invaluable in getting us through the Underground system, and since I hadn’t had much time to research before the trip, it was nice just to be able to follow her lead. Outside of St Paul’s Cathedral we saw the National Firefighters Memorial, a statue of firefighters during the Blitz of World War II. I had never realized how much of London was lost during this time. St Paul’s was actually hit with several bombs, but special teams of firefighters were assigned to keep the fires from reaching the cathedral’s beautiful domed roof. The Tower Bridge was spared from bombing because the Germans needed it as a landmark, which probably saved the Tower of London as well. One of Mary’s goals for the trip was to see some of the locations from the Harry Potter movies, so of course we had to take a stroll across the Millennium Bridge before heading back to the hotel.

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's dome

on the Millenneum Bridge

the Shard

That night we shared plates of tapas and a pitcher of sangria at La Tasca, a Spanish tapas restaurant, and then walked back to Parliament Square to see the lights and find a pub for Mary and Jenny. It was supposed to be just a short walk but somehow we ended up all the way at Trafalgar Square! I couldn’t walk one more step and was ready to revolt when we found a Tube station, and between the four of us (and an American man heading in the same direction) we figured out how to get back to Victoria Station. It was quite a day! I couldn’t believe how much we had already seen and done.

Day 2 - From the Tower to Sherlock

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