I grew up on a steady diet of the British children’s author, Enid Blyton. I couldn’t wait for each new book to arrive at the library and I could not imagine anything finer than to solve mysteries with the Secret Seven or go off adventuring with the Famous Five. I thought at one time that I would run away to Great Britain and grow old in a thatched-roof cottage, next to a brook, in fields lined with hedgerows and dotted with fluffy sheep. So it seems strange that it has taken so many years of my life to make it over here. But here I am – riding the rails with my sister on an impulsive tour of the UK and Ireland for an undetermined period of time. A few weeks at the least.
I purchased London Passes for our six days here. The passes include access and priority entrance to many popular attractions and there’s an option to add a transit pass for specified dates. The passes and guidebooks arrived in Canada by express post three days (!) after I ordered them online, so we had them with us when we landed at Heathrow and could use our newly minted passes to take the Underground from Heathrow to Paddington. We got more than our money’s worth as far as attractions go, and the travel pass not only got us on the Underground but on any city bus, without having to figure out fares and fumble around for change. You can also pick up your London Pass at Heathrow Airport on arrival. When our legs couldn’t carry us another step we jumped on a city to bus to anywhere – places with names like Archway and Mudchute – just because we could.
We stayed at a two or three star hotel (depending on whose review you believe) in Paddington, which turned out to be remarkably well located just a few steps from Kensington Park, with Kensington Palace at one end and that other big palace…oh, yes…Buckingham at the other.
This street is pretty typical of the neighborhood we stayed in just off Bayswater Rd.
A cruise along the Thames is a great way to get your bearings around the city and is included in the London Pass. This is of course the iconic Tower Bridge. It’s even more spectacular in person than on the telly.
About 15M tourists visit London every year and the City takes it’s tourism revenue very seriously. So seriously, in fact that there is a by-law that prohibits companies along the riverfront from advertising or putting up signs. This building has been converted to condos now but it was originally the head office of a world-wide manufacturer of a common food item, who found a clever way to get around the by-law.
This building was introduced by our tour guide as a ‘lunatic asylum’. I was pretty astounded that such prime real estate would be given over to a public health facility. When I checked my guide map I found that it’s the new London City Hall.
This is the latest addition to the London skyline. The Shard stands 78 stories high and is the tallest building in the European Union. It was completed in 2012 although several people on our tour wondered out loud when it would be finished. This seems to be a common sentiment with Londoners, too.
A number of locals described Piccadilly Circus as “just like Times Square”. Well. It’s a lot cleaner than Times Square, the tourists are quite a bit more orderly, the streets are broader, it isn’t closed in with skyscrapers and it doesn’t have a naked cowboy. At least not when we were there. It does have a huge billboard though, and I was completely impressed that along with the Coca Cola and Virgin ads, the billboard periodically displays the current status of service for the various lines of the Underground.
Kensington Palace has been a residence for members of the royal family since the seventeenth century and is now the residence of William, Catherine and young George. A section of the palace is open to tours and is well worth a visit, not to mention the lovely stroll through Kensington Park to get there.
Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne at the age of eighteen and reigned for more than 63 years. She is the longest reigning British monarch and the longest reigning queen in the world. She grew up in this palace and many of the public rooms are represented as they were during her time. Her childhood playroom is one of the rooms open to the public.
The tour includes clothing worn by royalty through the years and a relatively new exhibit of fashions worn by Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.
Princess Margaret lived at Kensington Palace, as did Charles and Diana. This was where banks of flowers were left at the front gates in the mourning after Diana’s death. Wallpaper with sketches of Diana’s life are incorporated into a £12M restoration of the palace, and Kensington Park is the site of the understated Diana Memorial fountain.
That other palace is also nice. They do tours of Buckingham Palace on selected days but it’s a popular option and was fully booked before we settled on this trip. We hung out at the gates, hoping to be invited in but the Queen was not in residence. The family firm has been modernizing itself in the past decade and that includes updating the Queen’s personal guard with something a bit more intimidating than a rifle with a bayonet.
Clarence House, the official residence of Charles and Camilla is just next door to Buckingham Palace – close enough that Liz can pop over in her slippers and hair rollers for a cuppa with Camilla. This mansion is not open for tours and can’t even be seen through the gates. Charles and Camilla were in town when we dropped by but were too busy with their many royal duties to make time for tea.
So we went instead to Fortum and Mason, the Queen’s official provisioner, and had a completely hedonistic lounge through six heavily carpeted floors of gorgeously displayed, seriously extravagant luxuries at prices that would rival a kings ransom. Or a queens. I confess to being shockingly close to paying the equivalent of $500 Canadian for a scarf – a sin of covetousness that would take me to St. Paul’s cathedral within the week as an act of contrition.
It’s hard to imagine, touring this spectacular city with it’s historic buildings, that this was also the scene of such ruin during the Battle of Britain in WWII. Some 100 tons of explosives were dropped on sixteen cities in the UK and in each of them you can still find reminders of the bombings – damaged pillars, pock marks and cracks in buildings, In the early days of the war the decision was made to house the British War Cabinet – now known as the Churchill War Rooms – in a bunker under the British Treasury. Winston Churchill worked and lived here for much of that dark period and the rooms have been left very much as they were at the end of the war in 1945.
While in the area we stopped by 10 Downing Street to see if David and Samantha Cameron might have us in for tea. Or rather we got close enough to the official residence of the Prime Minister to peer through the iron gates and have a nice chat up with some of the locals. 10 Downing is the dark grey house.
It’s impossible to capture this amazing city in one post – or in one trip for that matter. Stay tuned!