We had Thursday off for Reformation Day (yay for eastern Germany…), and since I don’t have class on Fridays or Mondays (yay for being done with my degree already), I decided that this would be my chance for once nice, long trip to somewhere of my choosing.
I chose London. I’d never been there before, but I’d heard amazing things about the city from almost everyone I know who has been there. Also, my friend Joey is in London studying abroad until December, so if I wanted to see the city and see a friend from home, this was my opportunity! I spent 4 full days in the city and did a LOT during that time, so I’ll break it down by day 🙂
Thursday: To skip over some ridiculous hurdles I encountered during the planning process, I arrived in London on Wednesday around midnight. My hostel for that first night was, just by chance, right in the middle of the action… only a 15 minute walk (not counting getting lost, of course) from Westminster Abbey. Bright and early, I grabbed a trusty tourist map from the hostel and headed out to see the sights on my own before catching a free walking tour at 11.
I saw Westminster Abbey (from the outside only), cruised past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which I’ll admit was not quite as big as I had expected), walked across the Waterloo Bridge to see the London Eye from up close before heading back across the Thames to the Whitehall neighborhood near Charing Cross. Then I (eventually, after getting a little turned around) walked to Trafalgar Square, which is the first place I really realized, “Whoa! I’m in London!” Why that didn’t occur to me while looking at Big Ben or literally gazing out over the Thames, I’m not sure, but Trafalgar Square is bustling with double-decker buses, you’re surrounded by huge, impressive buildings and statues (and currently one ridiculous blue chicken), and in the rush of all the activity, I could hardly believe I was actually there!
From there, I walked down Pall Mall past St James’ Palace and Park, which then led me past Buckingham Palace. At this point, it was about 10:30 and the tourists were swarming in for the Changing of the Guard an hour later. However, I kept walking through the Green Park to where my walking tour would soon begin! I found the tour group, which included several other Americans, a few people from France, some native Englanders (is that what they’re called?), and maybe some other people thrown in there. Our guide was a native Londoner, and he showed us around the major sights with a perfect combination of informative-ness and humor. We saw all the stuff I had already seen that morning, as well as the Athenaeum Gentlemen’s Club (so many famous members! It’s crazy), Horse Guard’s Parade, and some parts of the Houses of Parliament complex I’d missed. And probably some others I’m forgetting right now. It was great to actually hear some of the history behind the sites rather than just walking around and looking at buildings, as I normally do 😉
Outside Prince Charles’ residence
Horse Guards Parade, aka the site of the 2012 Olympics Beach Volleyball! I don’t know why that fact blew my mind more than anything haha.
After the tour, a group of us grabbed lunch at a pub. It was really interesting hearing about everyone else’s travels… what brought them to London, where they’ve been before, where they’re going next.
My next stop was the Churchill War Rooms, an underground exhibit in a bunker near the Houses of Parliament where Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet would work and (mostly) live during the Battle of London and the rest of the war. Despite all the other (free) museums, I really, really wanted to see this one, and it did not disappoint. It was incredible to see the rooms from which Winston Churchill commanded the progress of the war–and many of them were in their original condition, as in at the end of the war, the workers turned off the lights, locked the door, and left, and then it got turned into a museum. As an amateur WWII buff, it was absolutely fascinating to see the maritime maps, the BBC radio broadcast center, the scrambled phone from which Churchill could directly call Roosevelt or Truman, the Churchills’ private dining room… it was just awesome.
By the time I was done at the museum, it was already getting dark, and I had to pick up my bag from my hostel and move down to my new hostel in Battersea, where I’d be staying for the rest of my trip. I was glad that I decided to finish up my sightseeing in the city before heading down there, because it ended up being quite a haul. However, my hostel had an absolutely charming bar and free wifi, so it was a great place to relax before going to bed every night. (Actually, it was mostly a bar… you walked into the bar, and then you could continue back towards the rooms. Kind of like the Leaky Cauldron! Awesome!)
Friday: After my absolutely delightful first day, I worked hard to put together a perfect plan for Day 2. I wanted to see the East End, as I’d spent the previous day all on the west side. Because I’d bought the East End Tour ticket, I figured I’d take the tour at 11 and then spend the rest of the day at some other East End sites: the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Globe Theater, maybe check out some of the markets… and of course because this was November 1, aka All Saints Day, I would start by going to Mass. So I found a Mass scheduled for 9:30 right near Tower Hill.
However, my first experience with London public transit was not smooth sailing. I got on my first bus headed the wrong direction, and then because the hostel WiFi had stopped working on my phone (since I wasn’t in the hostel anymore, obviously), I didn’t really have a contingency plan. So I saw a bus going to London Bridge and hopped on it. After about an hour (the buses stop approximately every 3 seconds), I wasn’t even halfway to London Bridge, which was not even my eventual destination. So the first chance I got to disembark and hop on the Tube, I took it.
The Tube is wonderful, but why must it be so expensive?? However, the alternative is the bus… it took about an hour to get from Clapham Junction to Elephant & Castle. Gag.
At this point, I had 10 minutes before Mass was supposed to start. So I got on the Northern line and then changed to the District line, sprinted to the church, got there at 9:39, decided that it was worth it to still go, and then realized that the church was totally empty. Apparently because the parish school was on holiday, they only had masses at 12 and 1. So I made the snap decision to skip the tour (my ticket wasn’t bound to a particular day, so I could always go Saturday or Sunday) and spend a few hours at the nearby Tower of London until Mass.
The Tower Bridge
The tower itself!
The Tower of London was my one big splurge for the week. It cost 18 pounds, but I knew I’d regret it if I came all the way to London and didn’t even see the Tower. Because, you see, as much as I am a WWII buff, I am probably an even bigger Tudor England enthusiast. I have read countless books about Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and King Henry’s other wives, and even though the Tower is kind of a gruesome place, it was totally cool to actually BE there. I went on a tour guided by one of the yeomen who lives at and takes care of the Tower, and once again was glad to hear the history behind the places I was seeing. There have been some very famous prisoners at the tower… Sir Walter Raleigh, who is even more hated in England for his introduction of line dancing from the States than he is for bringing tobacco here; William Penn, who was released from imprisonment on the condition that he leave England, which he did and shortly founded Pennsylvania; Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of Nazi Germany; and of course Anne Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and even future-Queen Elizabeth herself!
And, not to mention, the Tower is now the home of the Crown Jewels. I couldn’t take a picture of them, of course, but you can imagine that there was some intense diamond action going on in there.
After getting my fill of Tudor history, I headed to Mass at the Roman Catholic Church of the English Martyrs. It’s always so refreshing to go to Mass in English! 🙂
During my post-Mass Wifi sesh at Starbucks (seriously, God bless Starbucks for their free Wifi on every corner!), I finally got a response from my friend Joey saying that he was free to meet up later that evening after his lab! We decided to meet at the British Museum, so in the meantime, I headed back to the West End.
My first order of business was to find somewhere to eat, so luckily I stumbled upon a delicious Thai restaurant whose spicy Pad Thai and hot peppermint tea helped me overcome the fact that I had slept horribly the night before. Seriously, I think I will dream of that Pad Thai until August, when I can get back to Thai Cottage 😉
The restaurant was right across the street from the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I chose the latter and treated myself to a few hours of (free) museum time learning about Britain from 1600-1900. I always immediately regret committing large chunks of time to a museum, because inevitably, my feet will start hurting and my main objective will become trying to find a bench to sit on instead of actually enjoying the museum. However, I never learn my lesson. But at least this museum was free!
The gorgeous lobby of the V&A Museum
Then, I made the near-fatal decision to get on the tube at 5:15, which I can only assume is actually rush hour, and it was terrible. I did make it to the British Museum, though a little late, and immediately realized that it was a terrible choice of a meeting place for 2 people unable to contact each other via cell phone. It’s huge and there are people everywhere. However, after about 15 minutes of frantic searching and trying to borrow someone’s phone, I finally found Joey!
A bit about Joey, in case my readership ever expands and people are curious.
This is me and Joey near the George Washington statue on UT’s campus. We love freedom, clearly. (And Mary. And America.)
Joey is my brother’s age, a 3rd year at UT. I met him after he went on Longhorn Awakening his freshman year, but actually the first thing I knew about him was that he had a class with my brother! Small world. Joey is a Plan II major, so he is currently holding down the Plan II/Catholic fort after all of us graduated last year. Except he’s in England now. In any case, he is a rockstar Biochemistry/Pre-Med kinda guy, which means he knows way more science than me and he has to do things like go to labs on Friday afternoon. After we finally connected, we got to spend the weekend doing fun London-y things, gossiping about our mutual friends (I mean, what?), and being our sassy selves.
At this point, I was really tired of museum-ing so we decided to get something to eat and then just walk around for a bit. Joey introduced me to the wonders of Pret, a ubiquitous, affordable organic-y eatery on every block. With our sandwiches in tow, we headed to his university plaza, where we ate, avoided fire jugglers, and talked about our abroad experiences. It’s always nice to talk to people going through the same thing as you! (I always make it sound like I’m at war or something, don’t I? I don’t mean to be dramatic.)
Since I knew I had quite the trek to make back to my hostel, the night ended there, but not before we made plans to go to High Tea together the next day!
To be continued, since you’re a rockstar if you’ve even made it this far!