After a solid nights sleep to re-gain a fraction of the energy exhausted during the four months on the ship, I woke up for another two exciting days wearing a few centimeters off my shoes and soaking in the sights and sounds of London.
Before I delve into the summary of what I saw, a few general observations from my time in London:
1) I’ll say it again: I couldn’t have picked a better time of year to visit Europe. London isn’t renown for stunning weather, yet I enjoyed sun and temperatures in the high teens and low 20s. With this terrific weather, I noticed something – England is regarded as much more socially and environmentally conscious than North America. This extended to the fact that almost every building had its windows open (even offices and stores). No “closed-building syndrome” here! The weather also made the gardens and parks more alive… London simply smelled awesome.
2) Aside from looking and smelling great, London was also very clean. No rubbish anywhere. This is even more impressive when you consider that London has nearly no trash bins. Almost all were removed following the terrorist attack on the London Underground to eliminate the risk of bombs planted in the bins.
3) I was surprised at how *OLD* London felt. Like, SURPRISED… I expected that it would be old, but it seemed even older than my farthest expectations. Granted, most of England is just plain ancient (especially compared to the Canadian cities I’m used to). But it was interesting exploring one of the world’s most significant metropolises, and feeling that all of its immense history was still intact and not brushed aside with the pace of progress. Traveling along the Underground or walking along the River Thames’ bridges, seeing the bricks and realizing that they probably date back to or before the Industrial Revolution. London has modern bits too… but on the whole it just seems so historical. It was absolutely fascinating seeing the history of urban life unfold before me.
Whereas my first day in London was a very relaxed, itinerary-free jaunt to enjoy my post-ship freedom and relax… on my second and third days I again resumed my usual brisk pace: cramming in as many landmarks as possible and yet savouring the experiences. London has more world-class landmarks per square inch than virtually any other city, and sorting through my photographs it’s obvious: it’s simply impossible to take a bad picture when everywhere you look it’s awesome sites.
The only challenge was the fact that most landmarks (Westminster Abbey, museums) forbid interior photographs. So, I had to employ my most expert ninja skills to sneak photographs undetected. Yes, I’m evil. But, remember, it was all a sacrifice for you, dear reader.
The risk of sneaking photos was offset by the fact that the main museums had free admission. I had to pay for Westminster Abbey (something about churches charging admission seems odd). St. Paul’s Cathedral also charged, so I picked where to spend my money throughout the day.
I began in Westminster, one of the two original “districts” of London. It and the City of London proper were the original centers of economy and power, and London eventually encompassed them both (and then some as progress marched on). Within a few blocks I saw Westminster Abbey (with all its Gothic glory and heros of royal and public life entombed inside), Westminster Palace (which is the House of Parliament, including Big Ben – which has a quieter chime than I expected), Westminster Bridge (with the most famous city skyline of all beside it), and the London Eye. The London Eye is notoriously over-priced, so I simply walked around it. Looks neat, I must say, but I don’t feel I missed out by not taking a ride.
In the evening I explored the financial district, enjoyed a pint among the fat cats of the British business world (and felt quite out of place), and went to Paddington station in search of a bear from deepest Peru with an affinity for marmalade. He was not to be found, but the station was very impressive – just like all of London’s architecture.
Had a delicious kebab from a Lebanese grill for dinner. Contrary to popular belief, London isn’t pubs and fish & chips as far as the eye can see. Rather, it’s all sandwich shops and kebab grills (Londoners love their kebabs, whether they’re recent immigrants or not).
Day three, more sites to see. The Tate Modern museum is as famous for its collection (including Monet’s Water Lilies) as for the successful conversion of the old downtown coal power plant (you can guess why they shut down a downtown coal chimney). Now, not everyone is into industrial/conversion/modern architecture, but I admit to having a thing for it. I was really impressed with the building and the use of space. I was disappointed, however, that my run of luck with landmarks being hoarded up/under repair/closed continued. The cavernous Turbine Hall, which usually houses massive art installations, was empty for a week of turnover before the next piece was installed (though you could see the filled-in remnants of the previous art… called “Crack,” an artist had literally cut a huge fissure into the floor). As well, the famous luminescent glass cap to the old smokestack was removed for repairs.
While Tate Modern is one of London’s famous new millennium-project landmarks, it is but one of several. Forming an axis between it and St. Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite side of the River Thames is the Millennium Bridge. The whole sightline from Tate to the legendary dome of St. Paul’s is a walk through history and the future at once.
I saved the money I would have paid to tour St. Paul’s (read that it isn’t worth the money) and instead enjoyed a delicious pot of tea and crumpets with honey (the honey on the crumpets is key). Mmmmm, how British.
After my tea break, I went to another Thames crossing – this one the most famous of all: the Tower Bridge. Passed by the Tower of London fortress (which houses the Crown Jewels) on the way. The Tower Bridge was worth paying to visit. You walk across the overhead structure for unsurpassed views of the Thames and the London Skyline. I can’t really describe much more than the photos can convey… it was just awesome.
(Oh, although London Bridge is famous because of the nursery rhyme, it’s the Tower Bridge that is the true landmark. The new London Bridge that replaced the one that fell down isn’t much to look at).
From Tower Bridge to the most famous London landmark of all – Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria must have been really full of herself: her towering gold-capped memorial statue stands as high as the palace and completely obscures the palace from down the street. But, together, the palace and memorial statue are actually very impressive. The interesting story of my visit to Buckingham was watching the ceremonial guards marching in front of the palace. I swear I’m not making this up: one of them slipped on the gravel and fell right to the ground. Poor guy.
Walked through nearby Hyde Park and saw the peaceful Serpentine lake and the curious memorial fountain to Diana (which, despite being extremely expensive to build, was a complete failure in design… they actually pay a full-time park warden to keep kids out of the fountain lest they slip and kill themselves). In Hyde Park was another over-the-top Queen Victoria memorial… this one a huge shrine to her late husband Albert. I read that there was general public outcry over how much money was spent on the shrine. But, when you have power, I guess you can do whatever you want.
From Hyde Park to Harrods, with its over-the-top (tacky, I would say) extravagance. Mr. Al Fayed actually has a wax sculpture of himself in his store. And then there’s the weird statue to Dodi and Diana. Eh, not my interest to get into that.
I rounded off the day by FINALLY having some fish and chips – at Covent Garden Market. They were delicious, but I chose to have them at a pub (I was really enjoying my ales on day three!), so I had to forego the authenticity of having it wrapped in newspaper.
Continuing the theme of ale and pubs, I toasted my final night in London with a visit to the pub near my hostel – joined by one of my fellow hostel-mates (he was from Hong Kong). I struck up a conversation with a locals gentleman at the pub, and understood roughly 40% of what he was saying.
Not bad, I figure. Great time in London. Next up, Stonehenge and Carlisle, England.