bjarvis: (Default)
It's been 10 days of touring so far, and I should write a few notes about the highlights (and lowlights).

Hop-on/Hop-off bus tours: Yup, you'll see a lot but surface traffic is so horrible that every circuit takes hours. Wear a hat and bring a drink. Best views from the upper deck, of course; the lower deck sees practically nothing.

Buckingham Palace: Great tour, including a temporary exhibit of the Queen's fashions over the decades of her reign. It's the Queen's town home and working residence, as well as reception & welcome halls for state visitors. If you've seen photos of the Queen greeting heads of state, it was probably here. We also saw the changing of the guard, kinda: the interesting stuff is inside the grounds and walled off from public view so regular tourists have to be content with watching the guards come & go.

London Eye: It's a big ferris wheel, but you can't call it that and still charge about $50 USD to go up. It's a half-hour slow revolution with spectacular views. Still, you might get better views from the dome of St Paul's Cathedral for less, if you can handle the stairs.

Walking tour of the Victoria & Albert. I was grateful to have a guide to show off a few highlights of the collection and give a lot of background information about the facility and the exhibits. That said, the place is huge and being part of a tour means that you can't just drop out to examine a gallery which strikes you as fascinating. And did I mention there's no air conditioning, something I find a little horrifying in a museum dedicated to preserving the past? Go, but consider skipping the guided tour.

Jack the Ripper tour: lots of fun! We only visited two of the murder sites as the others have been built over since 1988. Still, the nighttime walk and tour through some of London's legendary back alleys was a thrill.

The Tower: this was one of the best tours I experienced. Yes, the crown jewels are impressive (as well as the other accoutrement of the coronation process) but for me the good stuff was the chapel where you'll find the burial sites of Anne Boleyn, Catharine Howard, Thomas Moore and others, as well as the chance to stand at the site where Anne and Catharine lost their heads. The White Tower, the oldest part at nearly 1000 years, was fascinating in its structure & style. Go do this; personally, the trip would have been worthwhile if I never saw any other tour.

Kensington Palace: huge disappointment. You have a self-guided tour of some of the apartments of George III, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria (she was raised there), but the rooms are unimpressive, the exhibits forgettable and the chronologies of the signs & displays were hopelessly jumbled. You will see little about the day to day life of the residents and nothing at all about the infrastructure of royalty or the work of the non-royal staff. Skip it, but visit Hyde Park around it.

Churchill War Rooms: See this. These are the underground rooms from which Churchill ran his government during the height of World War II, including the map room, communications room, BBC broadcasting room, personal rooms of Churchill and his senior staff, the kitchen of his personal cook, etc.. Bonus: they have a separate hall which is dedicated to a birth-to-grave biography of Churchill.

Walking Tour of Old Westminster. This outdoor walking tour pointed out some interesting items about Westminster Palace (Parliament), the buildings nearby, and some of the side streets. Yes, I learned a lot but I'm unsure still it was worth the money. It's kinda interesting to know that PM Wilson didn't live at 10 Downing Street because his wife objected to being physically close to the secretary with which Wilson had an affair, but I didn't really need that info.

Day trip to Avebury and Stonehenge: OMG, totally worth it! We had a two hours bus drive out a prehistoric grave barrow, now a heritage site, then on to the village of Avebury which is built entirely within a henge of standing stones. Great pub, too, and very scenic. Stonehenge itself was another half-hour away and has an excellent interpretation center and shuttle buses up to the stone structure. It was smaller than I was expecting but very impressive. Go see it.

Walking tour of St Paul's Cathedral: great tour. There was lots of good info, a lot of highlights and, for the brave & strong, a chance to walk 500+ steps up into the dome of St Paul's. It's not actually that hard since the first half gets you to the whisper gallery, a viewing area around the inside of the dome looking into the church's interior. The next 100 steps get you to the spacious lower outdoor viewing platform, and then you can make the final run up to the very narrow and crowded top viewing platform (with a view from a landing directly down into the church, to the very center of the floor a couple of hundred feed below. Completely worth it, just for the views.

"The Mousetrap" I saw this in 1979 or so as dinner theater in Toronto but had long since forgotten the plot and the identity of the murderer. It call came back to me half-way through the first act, but it was a still a fun performance.

Walking tour of the British Museum: same issues as the V&A (too fast, no air conditioning, no chance to pause to examine thing which catch your interest). It didn't help that our tour group was twice as large as it should have been so our guide couldn't be heard from the back, and I think simply gave up on crowd management 20 minutes in. Disappointing. Go see the museum, skip the guided tour.

Whitehall Palace Banquet Hall: The original Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire centuries ago, but the banquet hall survived. Charles II converted it into a reception hall, moving the masques to another location. He also commissioned Reubens to pain a series of enormous paintings which were then installed in the ceiling of the hall, giving it grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty. It's an odd self-guided tour: just lay back on the provided beanbag chairs and let the pre-recorded audio walk you through the art, the architecture and the history as you take it all in.

Tour of the new Globe Theater. This is a faithful replication of Shakespeare's Globe Theater which was originally located only a few hundred feet away in the early 1600s. We didn't see a play but we did sit in the seats to watch a tech rehearsal, and the exhibition hall was fascinating. If you have any interest in theater or Shakespeare, go see this.

"Kinky Boots" Many friends have loved the show but I knew nothing about the plot or content. It wasn't until the orchestra was warming up that I realized it was a musical (I suspected, but...). It was a great show and members of our group who have seen other productions thought it was a superb presentation.

Windsor Castle: so worth it! We had to take the train from Waterloo station down to Windsor, a trip of nearly an hour. Compared to years of Via Rail and Amtrak, this was the smoothest, quietest and most comfortable train I have ever been on, and it was only about 15 pounds for an open return ticket. The palace itself was everything you'd expect a royal castle & residence to be: extremely awe-inspiring, historic, and beautiful. Hey, Kensington Palace: this is what a real palace looks like! And you must tour St George's Chapel on the castle grounds: so much history!

Westminster Abbey: totally worth it! This was one of the most expensive tours we went on, but it was worth every pence. There are so many famous people buried in the Abbey: I'm still wrapping my head around having stood by the graves of Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Edward III, Edward the Confessor, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Dirac, Herschel and more. The list is too extensive to place here. My greatest regret is that photography isn't allowed because (a) it's an active church and (b) it would cut into book sales at their shop.

Hampton Court: go visit. It was a half-hour train ride out of Waterloo station but I enjoy the rail system here. We saw the living quarters of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (Wife 1), the public halls, the kitchens and the gardens. We also spent some time in the Georgian wings, where William III had initiated major renovations & updates. Actors walked our group through the investigation & interrogations into Catherine Howard (Wife #5)'s affair with Culpeper, culminating in the death sentences issued by Archbishop Cranmer. (Side note: only three women have been executed at the Tower in London: Anne Boleyn (Wife #2), Catherine Howard (Wife #5) and Lady Rochford, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting who was said to have assisted her affair with Culpeper, or at least kept Catherine's secret. Last week, we visited that very site at the Tower.)

Our tours are done. Saturday morning, ten hours from now, we depart our hotel and head to Heathrow for our flight home.
bjarvis: (Default)
I knew about some words which needed translation between Canadia (and American) English and British English but a few caught me off guard. Sure, I knew lorrie is a truck, crisps are cookies and mates are friends. There were some surprises...

Signs in the subway aren't "exit," they're "way out." It's more descriptive and closer to spoken English than written form.

The road signs aren't "yield," they're "give way."

I'm accustomed to seeing "no loitering" signs in Canada and the US, but in the UK it's "do not alight here."

I'll add more as I recall them.
bjarvis: (Default)
Dear London:
Why do you have Pret A Manger on every street? What is this obsession? Not even the US has this many Starbucks.
bjarvis: (Default)
Landing on Wednesday, we did little more than walk around our immediate neighbourhood, then take the hop-on/hop-off bus tours. The bus tours themselves took many hours as street traffic is beyond deplorable. Still, we got to see a lot of places and get a general lay of the land while not pushing our sleep-deprived selves too hard.

Thursday was given to a visit to Buckingham Palace, including the changing of the guard. The halls of the palace were all that one might expect in regal opulence: expensive, impressive, & awe-inspiring. Later in the day, we had a ride on the Eye, walked around the vicinity of Westminster Palace and 10 Downing Street, and a few other sites.

We did a walking tour of the Victoria & Albert Museum Friday morning. It was just a taste of the building rather than an extensive visit but it was impressive nonetheless. The Tower of London, however, was all I had hoped. It was the one must-see site I wanted for this trip. Yes, the crown jewels were amazing, but I was more fascinated by the White Tower, the original tower of the complex now nearly 1000 years old, the chapel where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey are buried, the room where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned the last 12 years of his life and so on. Amazing.

Friday closed with an evening walking tour of the Jack the Ripper story. Fortunately, it was not a live re-enactment. Many of the murder sites no longer exist, having been built over in later decades, but we were able to visit at least two spots where bodies were located, as well as see the churchyard and the mission shelter where most of the murdered women frequented.

Our visit today was to Kensington Palace, residence of William of Orange & Queen Mary, William III & Mary II, Queen Anne, childhood home of Queen Victoria, etc.. And frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. None of the rooms seemed especially regal in any fashion: we could have been visiting any home of any well-to-do family. And the rooms were generally laid out as museum displays rather than as they were as living quarters. Rather than learn something about the lives of the royals who lived there, we just got highlights of their careers and marriages, all of which we could get from any history book or web search. I was hoping for much more and left empty handed. Not recommended.

Because we were in the neighbourhood, we dropped into Harrod's. It was horrifyingly packed and busy: I'm not claustrophobic but I was quite happy to get out of there again as quickly as possible. I will not be returning.

Because of the rain, we decided to simply stay at the hotel and catch up on sleep in the late afternoon. And I finally had the traditional fish & chips at a local pub for dinner: it would be a missed opportunity to be in England and not try that stereotypical dish.

Tomorrow: The Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Palace tours.
bjarvis: (Default)
It's been a great trip so far... so many things to see and do! And naturally, so much history.

There's been weird stuff too, things I hadn't considered previously but should have foreseen, as well as somethings which are just off the wall.

I knew people drive on the left side of the road and the driver's seat is on the left side of the car. I should have thought through the logical conclusions: most on-ramps and off-ramps are logically on the left and the fast lanes would be to the right. Obvious, if I had bothered to think.

On the other hand, the entire service industry seems to be Polish, not British: the front desk staff at the hotel, the serving staff in the restaurant, the bartender, the shop clerks, the servers at the local restaurants, even a couple of the tour guides. The only British folks I've encountered were the staff of the Underground, and most of the tour guides.

Having employees from other EU countries is natural, but I don't understand the propensity for Polish workers to come to the UK. Are they also congregating in other EU countries? Why isn't London attracting Greeks, Czechs, Romanians, etc., in the same numbers? Or are they, but I'm not seeing them yet?

I'm delighted my credit cards are working well here --what a great time to be alive-- but I thought "pin & chip" tech was more advanced here. Yes, the machines like my chip cards, but then they spit out a receipt and summon an attendant to verify my signature as I sign the slip. WTF?! The UK seems to be the middle tier between Canada (who does it right) and the US (which is paleolithic).

Grocery store are filled with sadness. I have never seen such huge shelf & refrigerator space dedicated to single, prepared meals before. Dinners for singles, not dinners for couples. It is fridge after fridge of loneliness. They should stock the sugar next to them to offset the bitter taste of their dinner.

The Brits seem to adore crowds & queues, even when they don't have to. When given an option to space themselves out in a large room, they still form up in a concentrated smaller space. Groups of friends still cluster together in groups, but then push the clusters against each other rather than taking up the space of the room. Even in stores with multiple registers open, they seem happier to line up behind one rather than spread themselves to the available spaces.

I'm impressed how clean the city is. I haven't seen seen any homeless folks and no one has begged me for spare change: I get accosted multiple times per day when walking in DC, and Toronto is little better.

I rarely hear car horns here. In the instances where I did hear them, the situations were fully justified. By contrast, I wouldn't recognize DC or New York City if the horns ever stopped blaring.

But the traffic! So many cars and so little space for them. I think walking is faster than driving in most instances, and the tube is better than both for distances.

I love the tube. It's well-lit and, well, working, unlike DC. And it doesn't make me want to scrub myself in bleach or use ear plugs like NYC. And it goes practically everywhere, unlike any other place I've ever visited. On the downside, the exact rates seem to be a state secret: no signs are posted anywhere and only some stations are equipped to display your fare charge and remaining balance as you depart the station. It's all distance & zone-based so the calculations are complicated and would be difficult simply display in a poster, but some hint would be nice.

We still have a week to go so there's still so much more to see & experience!

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