I can’t believe I’ve finished my sixth day in London! At this rate the remaining 14 days are going to go by quickly! As short as this week has seemed however, my brother and I did get a lot of stuff done. On Wednesday I promised you guys I’d give you details on the things we’ve experienced so far. I also said that I was going to try not to talk–er, type–as much as I normally do since I don’t have the means to upload any pictures yet. Below are some highlights from my first week in the UK. It is a little bit on the longer side, only because I waited so long to post this…my bad!
Day One: Landing in Londontown
The flight from SFO seemed so short! After having traveled to places like Chile, India, and New Zealand, sitting for 10 hours on a direct flight didn’t seem so bad. We reached Heathrow airport around 7 AM BST and made it out the terminal in about an hour. Once outside we checked out a map of the London Underground (“The Tube”). We followed the easy-to-read signs to the station and the appropriate line. With the help of a station worker my brother and I each bought an Oyster Card (sort of like a having a Clipper card in SF/the Bay, where you keep adding money and can use it on BART and MUNI) and beeped our way onto the platform. We made it to our hostel, checked in, grabbed lunch and then started feeling really really really sleepy, with good reason: it was barely 6 AM in CA and we hadn’t slept much on the flight. After napping for a couple of hours we agreed to take it easy for the rest of the day: we caught a movie (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), had dinner, and crashed again once we were back at the hostel.
Day Two: Yay for Walking Tours!
The cool thing about taking your time when you travel is that you don’t have to rush anywhere. You don’t have to pack a week’s worth of sightseeing and activities in a couple of days, nor are you required to adhere to a strict timetable. We’re going to be in London for a total of ten days. That’s plenty of time to see all the major attractions and dig up some neat local activities as well.
We started our first real day in the city by taking a free walking tour of London’s main sites: places like the Royal Palaces, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Downing Street, as well as other monuments, squares, and gardens. If I had to recommend one thing to travelers, no matter what major city they were going to visit, I’d tell them to FIND AND JOIN A FREE WALKING TOUR. Seriously, you won’t regret it.
Our tour guide was Ollie, a loud, boisterous, hippie-looking 20-something, who incidentally had only started giving tours a month ago (he could have fooled us, he was that good). Here’s a couple of things we learned on our tour:
- The UK is among a minority of countries that drive on the left side of the road. The reason for this comes from jousting, a medieval sport where two horsemen carried lances and galloped towards each other with the intention of dismounting the other rider. With the lances in the right hand it made sense to stay on the left side of the oncoming horse, so that your lance was as close to your opponent as possible.
- How do you know when the Queen is staying in Buckingham Palace? Check out the flag flying on the palace roof. If it’s the Union Jack, tough luck, she’s not in; if it’s the Royal Standard, hooray! you might be able to catch a glimpse of Her Royal Highness.
- The most recent break-in at Buckingham Palace occurred in 1982. Michael Fagan had lost both his job and his wife (she had left him), so he did what anyone in England would do: stroll down to his local pub to drink away his sorrows. While drunk he managed to enter the Palace by climbing the back gates. He did trip several alarms, but the palace staff shut them off thinking they were faulty. Fagan then spent a good chunk of time eating cheese and crackers, sitting on the throne, and finishing half a bottle of wine before making his way into the Queen’s bedroom (he wanted to ask her for a job, you see). The story goes that while talking to her he asked her for a cigarette, so she called downstairs to have somebody bring one up. Her staff knew she didn’t smoke so figured something was wrong. They alerted the guard and Fagan was apprehended. Following his break-in Fagan was often seen on various TV talk shows, so I guess in a way the Queen did find him new employment.
- Piccadilly Circus, a famous intersection in London’s West End, has nothing to do with animals and acrobats. “Circus” comes from the Latin word meaning “circle”, or a round open space at a junction.
Day Three: Another Walking Tour through London’s Seedy Underbelly
The third day in London was equally chill. After a homey breakfast at Muriel’s in South Kensington (right outside the Tube station, about a 10-minute walk from our hostel) we made our way over to London’s East End to meet up with another free walking tour. Our guide this time was Shabby, an aspiring musician and artist, who was waiting for us by Liverpool Station.
The part of London we walked through currently houses some of the city’s burgeoning artists and creative types, but this area has a much darker history. East End traditionally housed London’s poor and sick. It was a shady neighborhood that boasted most of London’s violent crime, prostitution, and drug use. It was the site of several London fires, the principle target of the Blitz during World War II, and the location of several charnel houses (buildings where human remains were stored–East End had so little space that you effectively had to sign a contract with your parish that said your body could be buried for up to five years, after which it would be dug up and thrown into a charnel house with other skeletal remains…). You may also recognize this area as the location of Jack the Ripper’s murders. So yeah, pretty creepy history.
The last leg of the tour was spent walking through Brick Lane, an area of East End that has experienced successive waves of immigration in its long history as a textile, weaving, and tailoring neighborhood: French Huguenots in the 17th century gave way to the Irish and Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, who were in turn followed by Bangladeshis in the later 20th century. This one street is currently home to hundreds of delicious curry houses.
I really enjoyed this tour in particular because it showed us a part of London that we wouldn’t have otherwise known. Case in point: a couple that joined our tour were Londoners from West End who had never been to this side of the city before. After the tour ended we had some street food in Brick Lane before heading back to our hostel.
Day Four: The Final Walking Tour (For Now!)
Another day, another walking tour! Can you tell we really really enjoy these? ;)
This one took place in the City of London. Something I hadn’t known before was that what people know as “London” is actually three different cities: Greater London, the City of Westminster, and the City of London. Our guide Lauren explained that the City of Westminster and the City of London were like islands within Greater London. What was interesting to learn was that the City of London is almost completely isolated politically from Greater London and the City of Westminster. While the latter share police and other civic personnel (like the Mayor of London), Greater London has its own police force and mayor (whose only concern is the financial well-being of the City of London–she has no political power, nor do the 7,000 people living in the City of London have any voting rights).
The walk took us through the UK’s business and financial capital, over the London Bridge (not to be confused with the Tower Bridge), through Borough Market (a wholesale and retail food market in Greater London…everything looked so delicious!), down the south bank of the Thames River, and back up the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Day Five: I’m Going to Hogwarts! (I wish!)
Like most kids our age (and younger I guess…) my brother and I are huge Harry Potter fans. Unfortunately for us the Warner Brothers studio tour is sold out until mid-September, long after we leave, but we were still able to get our wizard fix by visiting Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station! This is definitely something I’d recommend you do if you’re into Harry Potter. There was a 30-minute queue (line), but it was totally worth it! You can take your own pictures or buy pictures taken by a professional photograph (they cost £9.50 each at the souvenir shop). There are also several props you can use (scarves from your favorite Hogwarts house, Harry’s glasses, and a wand!). If you want to wear a scarf there’s even a guy who tosses it up in the air just before you take the picture to make it look like you’re running through the wall! It’s an extremely well-done tourist attraction, none of the workers/photographers ever hurried or rushed you (in fact they were very accommodating and surprisingly cheerful for people who had to deal with kids and parents all day). And best of all it’s completely free (unless you choose to purchase the professional pictures, of course)!
Spent the rest of the day walking around King’s Cross before meeting our uncle and his family for dinner and dessert later that evening. Got to cross of two other things from my London bucket list: riding in a black cab and in a double-decker bus! :)
Day Six: Reunited With Some Familiar Faces
Today we got a chance to connect with some friends from back home! They had left CA about a week and half ago and were touring Madrid, Paris, and London. Luckily our paths crossed in London and we had a chance to spend the day together. Although my brother and I had only been here about a week, and we’re usually always connected to Facebook/WhatsApp/etc, it felt very refreshing to see familiar faces in unfamiliar places.
After a bite and a drink at a local pub (side note: I am getting very, very accustomed to being able to pop into pubs throughout the day. They are incredibly cozy and charming. I wish we had more of them in the Bay!) we went to check out the British Museum. Like most museums in London it’s free, which explains the large crowds we saw. My recommendation would be to get there early, maybe you’ll avoid the crazy afternoon rush. I don’t know whether it was having to fight our way through families and large tour groups or being intimidated by the size of the museum and the collection it housed, that made us want to leave shortly after entering. We walked around a couple of rooms, including the sections on Egypt and North America, and after a brief study of the Rosetta Stone made our way out.
We had plans to enjoy some afternoon tea at a place near Kensington Palace, but unfortunately it closed before we got there (around 5 PM). High tea shall have to wait until we’re next in London (we’re going to try to make it out for tea in between our trips to Scotland and Ireland). After coming back to the hostel, changing, and relaxing a bit, we all went back out for dinner at a cute Italian restaurant located half a mile from where we were staying. Tummies full, our friends walked us back before heading home themselves.
Days Seven through Twenty:
Plans for the next two weeks include traveling to the English countryside (this weekend our uncle will be showing us around Oxford, Cotswold and Bath), taking the train to Scotland (to see Edinburgh and Glasgow), and flying to Ireland (to see Dublin and Galway). We’ll still have a couple more days in London between these trips, so if you’re reading this and have any suggestions or recommendations for fun activities, please let me know!
Until then, cheerio! :D