London 2016: Day 8

Portobello Road Market
Portobello Road Market

The final day in London.  On the agenda for today were the Portobello Road Market and the Feast of St. George.  I had my last hotel breakfast (I’m not a fan of British style scrambled eggs – too mushy for me) and checked out around 10AM.  Repacking my suitcase took less time than I was expecting.  And I managed to find the piece of fudge I bought in Cambridge!  I left my luggage at the hotel and set out for Notting Hill to explore the market.  I had plenty of company as I crept my way up Portobello Road.  The market is roughly divided into sections covering antiques, new goods, food, etc.  Plus, there are shops lining both sides of the road to stop into.  My only purchase was a custard-filled donut from the same woman I bought one from last time I was there.  One thing I will say about British sweets: none of them are overly sweet.  The donut was good, but left me wishing I had stopped for a scone instead.  Once I got to the end of the market, I wove my way back down Kensington Park Road to the tube.  Along the way, I peeked into several of the neighborhood gardens, almost all of which require a resident key to enter.  They were every bit as beautiful as the one Hugh Grant and Julia Robert’s climbed into in “Notting Hill”.

Next it was off to Trafalgar Square for the Feast of St. George.  It was basically a mob scene of food vendors, wandering performers, carnival, and performance stages.  Crazy!  I managed to find another fudge booth (Laura’s Fudge) and how could I resist?  Homemade clotted cream, dairy cream, and toffee fudge managed to find their way into my suitcase.  And an English Toffee and Butterscotch ice cream cone managed to find its way into my stomach.

Mind the Gap!
Mind the Gap!

From Trafalgar Square I decided to walk back to the hotel to pick up my luggage before heading off to Heathrow.  I arrived to find that the original aircraft had been swapped out for a smaller one and I was one of the unlucky ones (one of 40) who got bumped.  I tried unsuccessfully the find out what the criteria was for bumping since I had checked in exactly 24 hours in advance, but nobody seemed to either know or want to share the rationale.  Anyway, it took about a half hour to sort everything out before I was on my way with a seat for the next flight (about 90 minutes later) and a prepaid debit card for £237 for the inconvenience.  Not too bad!  Since I’ll be traveling to Scotland at the end of June I didn’t bother withdrawing the cash and converting it to US dollars; I’ll just use it then.  Of course, the later flight left me with some time to grab one last cider (Magner’s; not my first choice since I can get that at home, but I managed to drink it).  Then it was time to head home.  I wasn’t ready to go home in a homesick kind of way, but more in the “ready to be done with the city” kind of way.  And although I slept well in the hotel bed, it’s always nice to sleep in my own bed!  It will be a temporary goodbye to the UK this time as I’ll be back through Heathrow in less than 10 weeks for the next adventure…

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London 2016: Day 7

So… I saw the president this morning.  Of course, that’s not what I set out to do today.  But expected rain and colder temperatures put a bit of a damper on my original plans for the day (pun very much intended!).  My original plan was to do a day trip to Rye.  I was looking forward to wandering quiet streets, exploring the town, and enjoying afternoon tea.  I knew a couple of days ago that the trip probably wouldn’t happen and was having trouble coming up with an alternate plan.  Honestly, I would have been happy if I had been flying back to Boston today instead of tomorrow.  

Regent's Park
Regent’s Park

With no definitive plans, this morning I decided to pick a park I hadn’t visited yet and walk around.  Regent’s Park it was.  Regent’s is every bit as beautiful as St. James’s Park on a slightly smaller scale.  There are formal English gardens, a pond for boating, and plenty of open space.  Most of the flowers were in bloom, and I spent quite a bit of time taking pictures.  From there, I decided to take the bus over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, though I hadn’t decided if I would visit the V&A or the Science Museum across the street.  It was from the bus that I spotted the crowds (and hundreds of heavily armed police) gathered to see the president.  I decided to get off at the next stop and see if I could see anything.  Sure enough, there was the motorcade lined up to head to Windsor, where the president and first lady were scheduled to have lunch with the queen.  There was a tent set up around the presidential limo, and a tented private entrance to the back of the Grosvenor House hotel.  I stood around for about 15 minutes before the tent opened and the motorcade took off.  I forgot to set my camera to a fast shutter speed, but did manage to get a few photos.

Cast Courts, Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum

Next it was off to the V&A.  This was my favorite museum from my last visit to London.  I love the cast courts, which are full size plaster casts of historic columns, statues, etc.  It is incredible to walk around and look up at the massive size of some of them.  There was a one-hour introductory tour taking place shortly after I arrived, so I decided to join that.  One of the nice things about London is that many of the museums are free to visit (similar to Washington, DC) and offer free tours and talks throughout the day.  This tour spent a lot of time in the Asian art sections, but we did visit the cast courts for a few minutes.  The museum is made up of 145 galleries covering 12.5 acres; you could easily spend days there and not see everything.

 

For the rest of the day I did my own culinary tour of London.  I started at a small cafe I found online called Café Bella Maria for a scone and hot chocolate.  It was tiny and warm and all of the chairs and tables and decor were mismatched in a homey kind of way.  The scone was good, and the hot chocolate was even better.  Sadly, it was probably the last scone of my trip.  From there, I headed to Covent Garden to seek out the cider bar again.  First though was a stop at Neal’s Dairy Yard on the way where I bought a block of cheddar and met the gentleman who made it in Somerset.  I was assured it would travel okay in my suitcase.  Then, I finally located the cider bar.  Unfortunately, it is no longer a cider bar.  Bummer.  So I went in search of the other food item I wanted to try: Welsh rarebit.  I remembered seeing it on a menu at a pub near Trafalgar Square and managed to find it.  Coupled with a pint of cider, it made for a good final pub meal in London.

Regent's Park
Regent’s Park

I know I should try to stay up late to get myself back to US time, but I’m too tired to try to stay up late!  My flight doesn’t leave until almost 6:30 tomorrow night, so I’m heading to the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill tomorrow before tackling the crowds at the Feast of St. George in Trafalgar Square!

London 2016: Day 6

Rule Britannia!  Today was the Queen’s 90th birthday, and while there weren’t many celebrations in London to mark the occasion, I did get to hear the 41-gun salute in Hyde Park while I was touring Kensington Palace.  Today was also the day I decided I’m all set with the city and ready to go home.  It’s not that I’m ready for vacation to be over, I’m just tired of the crowds of people everywhere and city life in general.  I keep thinking back to last year’s April trip to the Cotswolds and wishing I had planned something similar this year…

Kensington Gardens
Kensington Gardens

Anyway, I’m making the best of city life for a couple of more days.  My first stop of the day today was Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens.  The park is quite large (270 acres; 625 acres when combined with neighboring Hyde Park).  I expected to spend a few minutes passing through on my way to Kensington Palace and ended up walking around for nearly an hour.  There are a few formal gardens, but the majority of it is open parkland.  After walking for a while, I made my way to Kensington Palace, the current home of William and Kate.  The palace is separated into the family living quarters and the historic areas, which you can walk through on a self-guided tour.  There are four sections to visit: the King’s State Apartments(focusing on King George II), the Queen’s State Apartments (showing how Mary II lived), Victoria Revealed (about the life of Queen Victoria), and the Modern Royals (a fashion display of dresses worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana).  There was a talk about the royal lineage going on while I was there, which I decided to listen to.  The first 10 minutes or so kept my attention, but I lost interest quickly about halfway through the 30 minute talk when I couldn’t keep track of all of the people.  I stopped at the Palace Cafe before leaving for a scone and hot chocolate.  The outdoor patio looked inviting until I stepped outside and realized it was quite windy and cool, even in the sun!

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace

I decided I had time to squeeze in a visit to Royal Albert Hall before heading back to the hotel to change.  Royal Albert Hall is most well known as host to the BBC’s Promenade series (“The Proms”) each summer.  The hall holds over 5,000 people and is an oval shape.  I’ve watched many recordings from Royal Albert Hall, so I was excited to see it in person.  Though there’s nothing playing this week that interests me, the tour was a great way to see the inside and learn about some of the history.  

By the time my tour was over I realized I didn’t really have time to get back to the hotel before heading to evensong at Westminster Abbey.  Jeans and sneakers would have to do for the rest of the day!  I found a bus heading in the direction of Westminster Abbey and got off at the nearest stop.  People were already lining up at 4:10 for the 5 PM service!  I’ve been to evensong at several churches in London, and Westminster Abbey is always my favorite.  There’s just something about sitting in the quire (a big reason for getting there early; it fills up quickly and once the quire is filled, everyone else sits off to the sides) and knowing how many major events have taken place in that same space.  This was the first time I was able to hear the full choir sing for the service.  The service opened with everyone singing “God Save the Queen” in honor of the Queen’s birthday.  

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

I intended to find a pub between Westminster Abbey and St. Martin-in-the-Fields church for dinner, but everywhere I looked, the pubs were overflowing with the after-work crowds (you can drink in the streets within a set area around the pubs).  I ended up eating in the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin’s, and it was actually a decent meal.  The café is actually housed in the church’s crypt and features cafeteria-style home-cooked meals.  Tonight’s meal was garlic and mustard pork chops with sides.  The special included the meal, dessert (apple crumble – yum!), and wine/beer/cider.  I was happy to try a dry South African cider – Savanna – and it was quite good.  I was actually at St. Martin-in-the-Fields to see the evening concert tonight.  St. Martin-in-the-Fields is known for hosting a variety of candlelight classical music concerts, one almost every night of the week.  Tonight’s was performed by the Belmont Ensemble of London and the English Chamber Choir and featured the National Anthem, Rule Britannia, and Vivaldi’s Gloria, among others.  It was a night for beautiful music!

London 2016: Day 5

“Do you hear the people sing?”  I woke up this morning with absolutely no plans for the day and ended up taking a walk through Hampstead this morning before seeing Les Misérables this afternoon… it was a good day in London!

Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath

I had thought about doing a London Walks tour of Hampstead this afternoon, but once I decided to stop by the TKTS booth for a ticket to the Les Mis matinee my plans quickly changed.  I decided to do my own walk around Hampstead instead.  I found a bus headed to Hampstead Heath and decided that would let me see some of the city on the way.  I took a seat upstairs and spent 30 minutes watching London go by.  I got off at Hampstead Heath and started walking.  I had heard of Hampstead Heath before, but had never been there.  Hampstead heath is a 790 acre park overlooking the center of London.  It was a quiet oasis and it is hard to believe it is so close to central London.  I walked to the top of Parliament Hill and then meandered my way back to another entrance.

Hampstead Village
Hampstead Village

After leaving the heath, I ended up stumbling upon the Buttery Cafe at the Burgh House where I enjoyed another outdoor scone and hot chocolate before wandering around the village.  I found myself exploring some of the back alleys and streets of Hampstead for the better part of an hour.  Hampstead Village is London’s version of Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I could have easily spent more time there, but Jean Valjean was calling!

I took the tube back to Leicester Square and made my way to the Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.  Les Misérables is easily and by far my favorite musical.  I don’t think I can say I’ve seen it a dozen times (yet), but I’m easily closing in on ten.  I saw it in London three years ago and it was just as good today as it was then.

After the show was over, it was time to eat a proper dinner.  I was looking forward to dinner at Da Corradi in Shepherd Market tonight.  Unfortunately, the bolognese was underwhelming.  Only one way to make up for that… cider!  I set out for Covent Garden to find a cider bar I had read about.  But, try as I might, I couldn’t find the place.  A nice security guard offered to Google it for me (I had an Amazing Race moment there) and managed to find the address.  I still couldn’t find it.  So I gave up and settled into The Globe pub for a sticky toffee pudding and cider.  If you’ve never tried sticky toffee pudding, do it!  Mine was served with the traditional toffee sauce and custard.  A great end to the night… yum!

London 2016: Day 4

I spent the day in Cambridge today.  I was looking forward to a fun day out of London, but I hate to admit I didn’t love Cambridge.  What I did love was my afternoon tea in Grantchester (more about that later).  I left my hotel around 8:30 AM and got to King’s Cross Station around 9:15.  Plenty of time to buy my ticket and find the correct platform.  I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but I did manage to snap a couple of photos at Platform 9 ¾.  The train ride to Cambridge takes about 45 minutes on the fast train, and then it’s about a 20 minute walk into the city from the station.  (You may be noticing a theme of a lot of walking in this trip!)

King's College Chapel, Cambridge
King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

My first stop was the tourist information office where I was able to get a map and also bought a ticket to go punting later in the day.  After that, I headed to King’s College to tour the chapel.  I love the King’s College Choir, so the chapel was high on my list of must-dos.  Unfortunately, the organ (which is in the middle of the church) is being restored and is covered by scaffolding.  The chapel is still beautiful, but the scaffolding was a bit of a distraction.  The rest of King’s College was closed due to exams.  I knew there wouldn’t be time to see all of the colleges in Cambridge (there are more than 30 of them!) so the only other one I visited was Trinity College.  There you can tour the chapel and the library.  Many of the colleges are backed up to the River Cam, and walking along the famous “backs” lining the river is one of the more popular things to do in Cambridge.  After I saw the back of Trinity College, it was easy to see why it attracts so many people.  The riverfront is sublime and surrounded by stunning historical buildings!

Now might be a good time to point out one of the main reasons I didn’t love Cambridge: the people.  Also the bicycles.  And people riding bicycles.  They were everywhere.  You couldn’t walk down the sidewalks because of the crowds.  And bicycles seem to be the preferred mode of transportation.  Even in narrow alleyways and streets, people come zooming around the corners at full speed.  There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of bikes parked along the streets.

Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College, Cambridge

Fortunately, there was one bright spot in the day, and it came in the form of a 4 mile walk to the neighboring village of Grantchester and back.  I had read about the Riverside walk online, and also about Grantchester’s unique outdoor tea room.  The walk follows the river for part of the way, and then traverses Sheep’s Green and Grantchester Meadow.  The village appears at just the right time.  There is a small village church, which I stopped in after my tea.  The Orchard Tea Room is just that: a picturesque tea room with seating and tables set up around the orchard.  You pick up food inside, and then find a place to relax.  All of the cakes looked yummy, but of course I opted for a scone with clotted cream and jam.  And since I don’t drink tea, hot chocolate was my drink of choice.  I lingered in the orchard for about an hour.  I was planning to take the bus from the village back to Cambridge, but the next bus wasn’t due for about 30 minutes so II decided to just walk back.

The Orchard Tea Room, Grantchester
The Orchard Tea Room, Grantchester

When I got back to the city, I participated in the other big Cambridge attraction, “punting on the Cam”.  Punting involves a long narrow boat (a punt) driven by a punter who moves the boat by pushing against the bottom of the river with a pole.  The punting trip is about 45 minutes along the Cambridge College Backs.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  I was stuck in the middle of the boat, facing backwards, with some other tourists I clearly did not know.  You basically sit on cushions on the floor of the boat.  In order to see forward,  I had to physically turn around and look over the heads of the people in front of me.  It was a long 45 minutes.  With a better seat, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more.  My last stop in Cambridge was back at the King’s College Chapel for evensong.  Evensong is a sung evening church service offered in many Anglican (and some Roman Catholic) churches.  After the service, I found a bus back to the train station for my return to London.

Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge
Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge

London 2016: Day 3

It was “freezing”, cloudy, and windy this morning, so I probably didn’t enjoy my walking tour of Greenwich as much as I otherwise would have.  Greenwich is one of the parts of London I haven’t visited before, and was on my short list of must-dos this time.  I decided to take another London Walks tour so I would be able to learn more about what I was seeing.  The tour didn’t start until 10:30, so I had some time to walk around Westminster and the Tower Hill area before meeting up with the tour group.

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Our tour to Greenwich started near the Tower Hill tube station.  We walked over to Tower Pier and took a City Cruise boat ride to Greenwich Pier.  The boat ride took about 25 minutes.  By the time we arrived, the previously sunny skies had turned completely cloudy, and the wind had picked up.  It wasn’t a biting cold, but more the type where after about 15 minutes in it, you feel chilled to the bone.  The walking tour was entirely outdoors, and we walked around the main attractions in Greenwich, including the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.  We also stopped for pictures at a less-well-known spot where the Prime Meridian is marked.  

Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, Old Royal Naval College
Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, Old Royal Naval College

After the tour ended, I had one thing on my mind: warmth.  I walked through the Maritime Museum and made my way back to the Naval College to visit the Painted Hall.  Both the ceilings and the walls are painted, and the room is absolutely beautiful.  Across the green is the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, another beautifully designed space.  After warming up a bit in the buildings, my next stop was to find some food.  I walked through the main “town” area of Greenwich, then headed uphill towards Royal Hill.  My plan was to visit a tea room for a scone, but the tea room was both tiny and crowded, so I ended up at the Greenwich Union pub for lunch instead.  The Sheppy Cider (a medium-dry from Somerset) and croque monsieur (though more of a ham and cheese than a French croque) were a perfect mid-afternoon lunch!  After lunch, I walked to the top of the hill by the Royal Observatory to take some photos overlooking London before taking the DLR train back to the city.

I went through and edited my pictures from the Greenwich part of my day and then decided I had warmed up and rested enough to tackle another walking tour tonight.  Tonight’s walk was my favorite so far… “Old Westminster by Gaslight”.  Liam was the guide and he was incredibly knowledgeable and likable right from the start.  We started at the Westminster tube station, and quickly made our way to some of the back streets in the area.  As we walked, Liam pointed out historical buildings and told us about the history of the gaslights.  Today, there are only about 1,500 gaslights left in London, kept burning by a team of just 5 men.  An interesting article tells more about these “guardians of the lamps”.  After the tour wrapped up, it was time to call it a night and give my tired feet a rest!

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

London 2016: Day 2

Despite the 5 hour time change and jet lag, I woke up promptly at 5:15 AM (which happens about 360 days a year).  Breakfast didn’t start until 7, so I had some time to ease into the day.  After breakfast, I was out the door for a Sunday morning walk.  I meandered my way through back streets in the general direction of St. James’s Park.  Almost all of the flowers in the park were in full bloom.  I walked through the park towards Buckingham Palace.  Along the way, I found a group of large pelicans and a family of geese, perfect photographic subjects. As I was walking, I could hear a bass drum occasionally in the distance and decided to find out where it was coming from.  I discovered a whole group of what appeared to be “guards in training” going through training exercises across the street from the park.  Pretty impressive to watch!

St. James's Park
St. James’s Park

From there, I walked by Buckingham Palace and through Green Park to get the tube to my next stop: the Columbia Road Flower Market.  It took some effort to actually find the market from the nearest tube stop (about a 20 minute walk), but once I did, it was a perfect way to spend the rest of the morning.  The road was literally wall to wall people with both sides of the road lined with flower stalls.  Everything from herbs to bouquets of roses and tulips was available.  The actual market probably runs for a half mile or so.  Behind the market stalls, the shop fronts are filled with antiques, knick-knacks, and unique items such as handmade greeting cards and housewares.  It was a morning where I really felt like I was in England.  

Columbia Road Flower Market
Columbia Road Flower Market

Before moving on from the flower market, I had one last stop to make.  It was time for my first scone of the trip!  In the back of the small Vintage Heaven shop is the Cakehole Cafe, a small tea room serving up scones, tea, and assorted cakes.  How could I resist a traditional raisin scone with clotted cream and jam?  It wasn’t the best British scone I’ve had, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I still had a couple of hours before my afternoon walking tour, so I made my way to the Old Spitalfields Market.  The market is a combination food vendor market and craft fair.  It was fun to wander around a bit before visiting the Sunday Upmarket just up the road.  This one had a lot of international foods and plenty of free samples.  

At 2 PM, I was ready to meet my London Walks tour guide for a walking tour of Little Venice.  London Walks gets consistently good reviews and I can see why.  For £10 (about $14), you just show up at the appointed tube stop and join the 2 hour guided walk.  There are literally more than a dozen walks offered each day.  The tour guide, Shaughn, was part comedian and part history buff, and was completely enjoyable.  The walk took in both the residential areas of Little Venice as well as the canals.  Many people live on the barges in the canals and pay about £10,000 per year for the moorings.  It is a beautiful area of London, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much on my own.

Little Venice
Little Venice

By the time the walk was over, I was pooped.  I took the tube back to Pimlico and walked to a pub that has a traditional Sunday Roast.  Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed until 5:30 and I was there at 4:30.  So I walked the mile or so back to the hotel.  I debated several other dinner options, but decided on the White Swan, where I ate my one dinner in London last year.  I enjoyed my first cider of the trip (I was way too tired to drink yesterday) along with a Hunter’s chicken.  If it’s possible, I’m even more tired tonight than I was last night.  Tomorrow is going to be another London Walks tour, this time to Greenwich.