Monday, September 13, 2010

London Trip ... Part One

As you all know, I started out with a highly ambitious itinerary. As reality would have it, weather (rain and cold) and family necessitated some changes. Despite it all, we had an enjoyable, educational, and successful trip. Heartfelt gratitude for it goes to my family for their patience and for making it all possible.


We rented a poky, dusty, regrettable place in a highly desirable location: steps from Charing Cross tube station. This made trips to see everything 10-15 minutes at most. We bought an eight-day travel card for the Underground and used that exclusively. (Much cheaper, faster, and reliable than cabs.) However, be careful when choosing which zones you'll be traveling in. Off-zone extensions are expensive as are bus tickets (two pounds one way, change only). We bought roundtrip tickets on the Heathrow Express (the Connect is slightly slower but much cheaper) from the airport to Paddington and then took the cab to our apartment. These two trip to and fro the airport were our only cab rides. We also got one of our cell phones unlocked before leaving on the trip and bought a cheap SIM card from a store in the Strand for ten pounds. Free wi-fi is readily available with most lodging options (flats or hotels). We grocery shopped at the local Tesco for breakfast things and ocassionally picked up ready-made (AKA take-away or prêt à manger) from Marks & Spencer stalls in most tube stations. We took our camera with an additional zoom lens, a secondary camera for when we did separate things, and binoculars (useful in churches, the Eye, and for shows). Carrying a detailed street map and tube map are essential. Public institutions are free to everyone but also closed on bank (national) holidays.

Pet Peeves

Bottled water is extremely expensive (one to two pounds for a litre bottle). Drinking water fountains are rare, as are toilets. The last was the most irksome, especially when traveling with kids. This, however, did yield one rare benefit: We were allowed to use the Queen's bathroom at Buckingham Palace. No, the toilet seats were not gold-plated, but the soap was Molton-Brown and the hand-towels were a marvelous blend of cloth and paper and handsomely decorated.


We ate at: Grosvenor Arms, Lebanese, Korean & Japanese noodles, Oaxaca Mexican, Indian (west), and Italian. Everything was so mouthwateringly delicious, except for the Italian. That was execrable. Realized that small hole-in-the-wall places are more eclectic, bold, and tasty as opposed to a proper sit-down place (Italian) with linen tablecloths. Food, in general, is spicier than the average American food, even British pub fare. Finding the best chicken tikka masala I've ever eaten in a pub was surreal to me. Our agenda did include a mandatory pub meal. We ended up with two and excellent ales to accompany. Kids, even in the evenings, are allowed in the front section of pubs.

Touristy, Family-Oriented

We were tourists, first-time visitors to London, and we made no apologies for that. That did not mean, we ran around expecting people to talk American English or were rude/offensive in any way. Courtesy always wins back courtesy. However, we did do things that many visitors pooh-pooh as too gauche, such as riding the double-decker bus, making a phone call from the telephone booth, taxi ride, London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, fountain in Trafalgar Square, London Bridge, Lion King, and climbing trees in Osterley Park and in front of John Soane's Museum. In all our travels, what we've discovered is that we remember the silly, the mundane just as much as the profound, and for kids, it's important to give a broad spectrum of experiences.

What we should've avoided (and did leave partway through) was the Changing of the Guards, because it's more pompous than pomp and more ceremonious than ceremony. A brief conversation during this with two women next to me resulted in this nugget of wisdom: If those guards in their pouffy hats and hot multi-layered costumes actually had an emergency that required the palace to be defended, they'd have to call The Metropolitan Police and the army.

Another funny incident was overhearing a copper explain to a tourist that the queen was not in residence, because her flag wasn't flying overhead. But the flag that was there was the Union Jack. Do visitors truly not recognize the flag of the country they're visiting?


First impressions were that Londoners were rude to us and rude to each other, but then I realized that they weren't rude precisely, just impatient and curt. To some extent this is true of people in major metropolises versus smaller towns, but London seemed to be particularly prone to it.

I loved that everyone seemed to talk with an accent. The impression outside the UK is that there's a "British" accent. Well, not really. A person's accent is affected by the area they grew up in, the language that's spoken at home, the type of school they went to, their education level, their social class, etc. So our "different" accents were just thrown into the mix, not drawing much attention.

London's multiculturalism is a dream for travelers — I ADORED the sounds of so many languages, fabulously delicious food of every imaginable kind, colorful clothing, and the sights of people not trying to melt into one homogenous mass but rather exhibiting their Britishness as well as their ethnic origins. At the same time, it felt like streams of people flowing past each other carefully avoiding inter-mingling, co-existing but not very comfortable with the sounds, smells, and looks of their city. I felt pressure in the air that had nothing to do with the press of people around me.

But going back to courtesy. While Londoners seemed more self-involved than most folks in cities that we've traveled to — Parisians across the board were warmer and friendlier despite my execrable murder of their beautiful language — a smile, a look in the eyes, and a quick comment was always reciprocated. In the end, people are people. You treat others the way you'd want to be treated, and it's returned most times. It's these interactions with people that I treasure the most from my travels.

Modified Itinerary

Thursday: London Walks tour of Mayfair, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery (open till 9pm on Thurs & Fri)
Friday: Tower of London, St. Paul's
Saturday: Sir John Soane's Museum (closed Sun & Mon, do the guided tour for five pounds), British Library
Sunday: London Eye, Lion King at the Lyceum (buy tickets here)
Monday: London Walks tour of Westminster Abbey, Osterley (at least four hours)
Tuesday: Changing of the Guards, Buckingham Palace (three hours), Evensong at Westminster's Abbey (best evensong)


Cara King said...

Yeah, the restroom issue can be a pain! If you live in (or visit) London for long enough (or often enough), you start memorizing where the restrooms are. (Though I was never there with kids, which I'm sure makes it much more difficult!)

BTW, when you had your walking tour of Mayfair, did it include St James's, too? That's my favorite part, especially St James's Street.

Sounds like you had a great time!


Diane Gaston said...

What a great description, Keira! Thanks for sharing. I was particularly interested in your impression of the people of the city. I never experienced the rudeness you mentioned. But then people often call New Yorkers rude, but I've always found them just incredibly direct, which I felt was refreshing.

So glad you got to Soanes museum and Westminster Abbey. I cannot wait to hear more!!!

michellewillingham said...

Sounds like a wonderful time!! I left feeling like I'd only skimmed the surface...

Keira Soleore said...

Cara, my biggest regret was to not be able to do the St. James Walk. The Mayfair stayed up Bond Street and didn't venture into the St. James area at all. It was most definitely a FABULOUS trip overall!!!

Keira Soleore said...

Diane, yes, I've heard this about New Yorker and Parisians that they're rude. But I've never experienced it first hand. In fact, in Paris strangers went way out of their way to help us, sometimes, even when we didn't specifically ask, just looked lost. I may have forgotten the details about all the things I saw at the Louvre but I will never forget this.

Keira Soleore said...

Michelle, oh, yes. I felt like I was always rushing tither and yon and barely glancing at things. Even though, we had a much reduced focus for every place we visited, still, there's just so MUCH of it, that I always felt I wasn't doing it justice.

Anna Campbell said...

Keira, thanks for the update. Fascinating! I'm so glad you had a wonderful time and that you managed to fit so much in - I know you feel you missed stuff but you also SAW a lot too! Actually I remember the toilets in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square coming to my rescue a few times. The gallery is free and it's central so I used to pop in there when I was desperate ;-)

Cara King said...

Anna, I use them too! :-) Plus those in the National Portrait Gallery (depending on which way I'm going.) :-)

Keira Soleore said...

Hah, I should've tried using those gallery toilets. The public one next to Westminster (because they don't have one) is pound fifty. Highway robbery, I say. Overheard while I was in there, one woman to another: You go in. I can hold it. I'm not paying so much to pee.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Finally had time to check your blog, Keira. Great report!

We did the Mayfair London Walks this morning. I confess to being a little disappointed, but that's because it was a large group and--would you believe it?--not everyone is a Regency nut. I could have done without all the modern (ie, Victorian and after) stuff, LOL. But then I dragged poor husband back over to St. James's, up and down the streets, taking pictures of buildings. We had lunch at Fortnum & Mason, btw.

So far--we've been in England over a week--we've managed to avoid paying for restrooms. (Or as they say here, toilets.) We've had luck finding facilities in the Royal parks and galleries. And we always take the opportunity whenever we ate anywhere.

One more full day here--going to the Soane's Museum first thing. Thanks for the tip about the tour.

Keira Soleore said...

Sally, how wonderful to hear from you and know that you're enjoying your trip to London. I'm sorry the Mayfair London Walks was less than impressive. Yes, a bigger crowd makes for poor hearing and less opportunity to ask questions.

BTW, I was working on a detailed blog post on everything that we saw. I'm not done yet, but here's what I have for Sir John Soane's Museum. I'll cut and paste here.

Sir John Soane used his entire London townhouse like an advertisement for his architectural business (which he ran out of his home) as well as a showcase for his myriad collections of Greek, Roman, and Chinese ceramics, paintings, woodwork, etc. He was an early adopter of gas lighting inside the house (1824) for the same reason. He put together vellum bound copies of all his ideas, designs, and projects as a marketing tool for new clients stopping by. He also made extensive use of Picture Planes—multiple panels of framed ideas that either he or his assistants drew and painted that could be opened and blended in seamlessly into the wall when closed. Soane was known for his use of lights and spaces. Colored glass and mirrors, all angled and/or curved, is how he manipulated the light and space of a room. Soane also believed in curvaceous didactic architectural details that are natural as opposed to geometric lines that are man-made. He did bow to his clients' demand for gothic and palladian features, which were in fashion then.

Soane was lucky that his wife came into some money fairly early in his career, so he was able to buy into the Lincoln Fields terrace houses (two side-by-side made into one). This edge of Grosvenor Square was like an architectural and artistic ghetto. Architect Robert Adam, painters Turner and Jackson, and Shakespearean actor Garrick were Soane's contemporaries. Garrick and Soane shared their love for Hogarth and Shakespearean folios. Soane was very fond of John Robbins's Regency furniture. Hogarth's Rake's Progress is a series of paintings that depict the wheel of fortune turning in a gentleman's life. Hogarth painted these not for money but for social commentary. (Aside: Turner's yellow color is a non-hierarchical color.)

Soane was very proud of his Seti I's sarcophagus that he acquired from Belzoni in 1817. (Yes, one of the myriad Egyptian treasures Belzoni stole from the Valley of the Kings he excavated.) The British Museum dithered over the price of 20,000 pounds, which Soane promptly paid. He then held a three-day open house. The sarcophagus was lit from within and outside with specially commissioned lamps. All of London came to gawk, including Prinny.

Soane's townhouse is the norm for London town homes: steps leading up to a polished door with brass fittings and knocker. A narrow entry way and hallway lead to a long rectangular library on the right and stairs to the kitchen downstairs and to the upstairs bedrooms on the left. The library was the most spectacular of all his rooms, since this was also the room he received his clients in. Most of his portable treasures are displayed in the room. The ceiling is painted, paneled, with extensive mouldings and finials and also features paintings. One narrow door leads to the breakfast parlor in the back. Another even narrower door leads to his small study that leads into his dressing room (so if a client showed up while was working, he could be appropriately coated and bewigged. This led into his atelier in the back, which also had a back entrance so all this staff could quietly come to work without disturbing the household. Upstairs, he had an informal ante-drawing room that led to the main formal drawing room, with tall Georgian windows, expensive silk wall coverings, mouldings, the requisite pianoforte, and graceful Regency furniture (read: curvy). (The ottoman was particularly funky: rectangular with a top that dipped and curved up, so one end was higher than the other, supported by two short legs and two long ones.)

Miranda Neville said...

Hey Keira
I enjoyed both your London post and glad you had a good time. Londoners can be fairly snotty with tourists, I'm afraid. Sorry to hear they were worse than the French. Mon dieu, quelle horreur!
I adore the Soane Museum too. Also the loos in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
BTW, the Queen has her own flag, the Royal Standard (with her coat of arms and a lot of gold). The Union Jack flies whens he's away.

Keira Soleore said...

Miranda, my impression was that they weren't any nicer to each other. So I didn't feel singled out because of foreign-ness.

Heh, on the horror of Londoners coming out on the wrong side of Parisians.

Ah, so the bootiful loos in B'Ham palace have all been checked out. Nice! A sort of a behind-the-scenes hush-hush information for future tourists.

My surprise was that the poor policeman was explaining with a very straight face that that flag flying up there was the Union Jack. He must be totally resigned to all these tourists running about who can't even recognize his country's flag.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Wow, thanks for the detailed report on Soanes Museum, Keira. I think I was running out of steam by the time we visited--it was our last day in London. I couldn't get past all the archeological bits. I ended up not taking the tour. It wasn't advertised that I could see and the husband was losing patience with all this poking around museums. At the V&A and the British Museum, he could go off on his own, but he was trapped here.
But I did pick up a couple books, so I'm hoping to absorb more when I go through them.

Now I'm home and doing laundry. Couldn't decide which load to start with until I realized I didn't have any clean underwear. I love it when decisions are so easy.

Off to read your part 2 installment.

Keira Soleore said...

Sally, I'm glad you were able to see at least parts of Soane's. Just being in the space makes you appreciate how people lived and moved about in their daily lives.

All the best with getting your life back together. Going on a trip is so much work before and after that sometimes it almost seems like it's better not to go. But London is someplace that would always be worth it!