London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 6

We headed out for another day of sightseeing in London.  Let me mention that the weather has been unseasonably warm here…highs in the upper 70’s are summer like for this area.  It’s delightful to be outdoors, not so much on the tube or on the bus.

We started our day by heading for Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard.  The pageantry is quite impressive, taking about an hour.  We found a spot on the rail around the monument, facing the palace.  It was a real good spot to see it all.  The only better place would have been along the tall iron fence looking right at the courtyard.  There, you would miss some of the parade, but you’d see and the saluting and such as well as be able to better hear the music from the marching band.  All in all, though, ours was a satisfying experience.

From Buckingham we wanted to travel a good distance to the British Museum.  We opted to ride a double decker bus all the way from Victoria Station to the museum.  It was quite a ride.  Listen to me very carefully here: you don’t want to drive in London.  It’s beyond impossible!  Still, sitting in the upstairs front seat is worth the ride and I highly recommend it as a way to see the city from an entirely different perspective.

Our afternoon was spent at the British Museum.  It’s an amazing place.  We spent a great deal of time in the Egyptology area, checking out everything from the Rosetta Stone to seeing several mummies.  The Greek and Roman exhibitions are just as impressive.  We walked and looked and sat and rested and walked and looked some more.

Since we enjoyed our bus ride to the museum, and since we knew the tube would be packed and hot, we opted to ride the bus out of the downtown area and at least part of the way back out to Canary Warf.  It started out as a stroke of genius.  We got a front seat and watched the city go by.  Things went well till we were about 20 minutes from where we needed to switch to light rail.  Then, everything ground to a halt.  We never did see what happened, but we sat still watching motorcyclists ride between cars and buses, having to weave back and forth to keep from hitting mirrors and bicyclists who must have a death wish riding right with them – and nothing else moving.  Finally, people started getting off the bus and we followed suit.  It was only then that we realized that the tube we ride nearly everyday had a stop about 3 blocks from where we had sat for so long.  We crowded in and were back at our stop in about 10 minutes.

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 5

After three days of serious sight seeing we decided to take the morning off.  Jackie did some reading and I took a serious mid morning nap!  Around 11:30 we headed out for some lunch and a “softer” afternoon.

We hopped on the tube for Kensington and a tea shop I found on the internet.  We wanted a fairly “local” experience and the Muffin Man was just the right place.  It’s on a side street, but fairly easy to find (that is unless one misses the street and walks a few blocks before deciding they must have missed it!).  We checked out the local map at a bus stop and found that our street was the very first one we crossed a few blocks earlier.  One thing about London, the streets aren’t very well marked.  Your best chance is to look up on the sides of buildings near an intersection.  Even then it doesn’t always work out.  Anyway, we had a nice lunch with some tasty Earl Grey tea and then Queen Mother’s Cake for dessert.

From there we boarded a double decker bus to the world famous Harrod’s Department Store.  I think it’s the biggest store I’ve ever seen and it reminds me of Macy’s but with a wider variety of merchandise.  Jackie had a terrific time looking around.  I had to restrain her from buying granddaughter Sarah a $600 party dress and grandson Matthew a diamond covered model car.  I couldn’t stop her at the chocolate confectionary though and she blew through a few English pounds on chocolate pretty fast.  She nearly persuaded me on a few $1000 men’s suits, but I managed to hang in there.  I did seriously check out a $3000 comfortable chair (on sale, mind you) for about a half hour while she looked around.  Visiting this store is, seriously, an event not to be missed.

As I said, we were taking it easy today so our next stop was nearby Hyde Park.  London has several wonderful parks, but I think Hyde is the best known.  The weather was perfect and the park was filled with people enjoying the late afternoon.  We sat on a park bench and people watched as joggers, skate boarders, and bicyclists passed by.  A lot of people were out on the the grass picnic style – and I mean a lot – thousands of people enjoying the park.

We waited till around 6:30 before getting on the tube to head back out to Canary Wharf, hoping the rush hour would be backing down.  No luck.  We were packed in like sardines.  It’s rather comical really.  All these people obviously standing too close for comfort, hanging on to the rails, bouncing and swaying in rhythm…and no one talking or even acknowledging one another.  No eye contact.  It’s not that people aren’t courteous, they offer seats to the elderly, make room for one more “sardine” to be packed in till there’s literally not room for another person.  It’s quite an experience.

Another interesting thing is what a hurry everyone is in.  No one really walks – but, instead, they move at almost a jog.  A sign on the escalator advises people to “stand right” so all the runners can charge by on the left.  They’re in a hurry to where ever it is they are going.  In similar fashion to the tube, people generally don’t acknowledge one another.  If you ask someone for directions, they will politely help you out, but otherwise, people seem invisible to one another.

We’re finding it easy to get around so far as the big picture is concerned but a bit harder to find exact places because of the lack of street signs.  Of course finding one’s way is half the fun!

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 4

Tuesday night’s sleep wasn’t as good as we hoped for.  We’re experiencing the “other” part of jet lag.  The first is just being worn out from the trip and trying to hit the ground running.  The other is that our bodies are struggling to adjust to getting up at what feels like 2:00am and going to bed at 5:00pm in the afternoon.  Still, the only way to beat it is to press on, and press on we did!

The only biggie on the agenda for the day is a visit to Tower of London.  The construction began there  before 1100 when William the Conqueror built a tower on the river Thames as a defense against invaders.  Now, it draws millions of visitors each year.

It’s famous for, I think, three things.

First, of course, is it’s history.  The Beefeaters lead tours and serve, in general, as congenial hosts.  These are all retired military men who take their jobs as historians and protectors of this place quite seriously.  Their tours are fun and informative.  When some ladies ignored the warnings to not take photos in one building, the gentleman stopped them and then made them erase the photos to his satisfaction before they could go on. 
We enjoyed several floors of displays in the armory.  There’s armor worn by kings, weapons, and lots of other really neat things to see.

The second big deal is that the British Crown jewels are on display here.  I’ve never seen so much gold and diamonds and other precious stones in my life.  Of course, that’s one of the “no pictures” parts of the place.  In fact, to view the crown jewels, you stand on an escalator sort of deal that moves you along.  You can go back and ride as many times as you wish, but you can’t stop in front of any of the main displays.   However, there are other amazing things you can stand and see – almost beyond description. 

The third reason the Tower of London is famous is because of the many prisoners who were held and tortured and executed there including a couple the wives of King Henry VIII. 

In the face of how some were mistreated at the Tower I shouldn’t complain too much about how leg weary Jackie and I became during our hours there.  Up and down stairs, standing, walking – by mid-afternoon our legs were starting to call the shots!  It was time to head “home” for a break.  We found our way to the light rail and made our way back to nearby Canary Wharf.  Maybe by early evening we’ll have enough energy to go to a nearby restaurant for a nice supper!

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 3

Monday night came early and we were glad for it.  We went to bed about 8:00 local and 2:00 “home time.”  After going pretty much without sleep overnight Sunday and then hitting the ground running for a day of sightseeing, we struggled to stay awake that late.  Jackie pretty much slept all night.  I conked out for about 4 hours and then woke up.  I’m no fan of sleeping pills, but I took one and then slept the rest of the night.  We both woke around 8:00am feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

We walked a few blocks to the Canary Wharf pier and to the Thames Clipper into the heart of London, passing under Tower Bridge and seeing many of the famous sights of London from the water.

After taking some photos of Big Ben and Parliament we walked over to the Churchill War Rooms and Museum.  It was here that Winston Churchill lead England through WWII.  It’s quite an interesting place and we surprised ourselves by staying about 2 hours.

We grabbed some sandwiches from a shop that is part of a chain, Tesco Express.  Prepackaged sandwiches, chips and drinks.  We ate, sitting on a wall with many other locals and tourists, right across the street from Big Ben.

From there we hopped on the tube headed for our next destination.  It’s easy to see why Londoners have a love/hate relationship with the tube.  You can go about anywhere on the tube and trains are quite frequent, generally less than 5 minutes apart.  However, the trains are very crowded and not air conditioned.  On one journey we made people were packed in, standing room only.  Hardly anyone speaks and everyone reads the paper or a book – I guess it’s a way to isolate oneself in such an uninsolated situation.

Our other big stop of the day was the British Library.  One room, in particular is worth visiting.  It is full of rare books, etc.  including 400 year old Bibles, original Shakespearen manuscripts, and one of the earliest handwritten copies of Handel’s Messiah. 

We found our way back to Canary Wharf, the Wall Street of London.  It also has a huge shopping mall.  At one end we found a big grocery store and bought some supper to take back to the flat. 

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 2

After a red eye flight from Houston to London we arrived in London tired, but energized by “trip adrenalin”.”  Traveling by the London Tube is a great way to get around and we bought an Oyster Card for travel around London this first day and then for the later parts of our trip.  It’s like a debit card for public transportation – easy to use and charges fares around half of what they would if by individual tickets.
However, we also bought a London 7 day Travel Card from a rail station to use starting Tuesday.  The cost of the card is about the same as using an Oyster card, but it has a great feature – there’s a 2 for 1 promotional for holders of the rail Travel Card.  Many of the big London attractions participate.  With the Travel Card we get unlimited tube/rail/bus transportation in London and the 2 for 1 deals.  So, starting on Tuesday we’ll be on the pass.

Again, we knew we’d be pretty tired from the flight and time difference so we planned a fairly easy day that included lots of outside activities.  For us that meant hopping the light rail and going to nearby Greenwich to visit the London Royal Observatory and then the the Maritime Museum.  The Royal Observatory is the home of “Greenwich Mean time” – these days called UTC.  The Maritime Museum is right there, and it takes you through nautical history.  Frankly, we were running on fumes at the museum and only saw a fraction of it.  However, we may go back before this trip is over.

We walked around Greenwich a bit, then headed back to the huge mall near our Canary Wharf Apartment to grab a few supplies before limping to the apartment to try to stay awake till 7 or 8 local time.

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 1

Jackie and I have talked about making a trip to London and/or Paris for years.  Of course, it’s a big deal financially so it’s mostly been something to talk about while not really expecting to do it.  A few months ago we talked about it a bit more seriously.  We know that retirement may not be real soon, but it is lurking out there.  We know we won’t be able to afford such a trip as retirees so, in some ways it is now or never.

I’ve kept an eye on airfares and they were always too high.  We’d pretty much given up on the trip for this year, hoping airfares would drop before our eventual retirement.  Still, I’ve kept an eye on fares, and a few months ago, I happened to think of it and checked.  To my surprise they had dropped by quite a bit.  It was still hard to commit to such a trip, but, after thinking about it a few days we decided to go for it.  The next day, the airfares went right back up and never came down again.

Our friends cheered us on – I especially appreciate the support from the good church I pastor.

So, on Sunday afternoon we headed for IAH for a 9 hour flight to London Heathrow.  We flew British Airways – economy class.  It wasn’t bad, although it would, of course, be nice to sit up front in one of the fancy seats.  The flight leaves at 4:20pm Houston time, but it’s already 10:20pm in London.  If the traveler can trick their body into sleeping on the flight it’s a very good thing.  Both Jackie and I got some sleep – or at least we dozed a bit.  Still when the flight arrived at 7:00am local time, our bodies thought it was 1:00am.  A six hour time difference is nothing to sneeze at!

Sleeping on the flight would have been a bit easier had it not been for a church tour group on the flight.  They were headed for Athens and in a festive mood.  As we tried to sleep a group gathered around the seat right behind us for good natured chatter. 

Still, it wasn’t too bad.  We had already planned to take it easy the first couple of days anyway.  It took about 2 hours to clear UK immigration and then another hour of riding on the famous London Tube to our destination – a nifty studio apartment near Canary Wharf.

You can see lots of photos from our trip on my photo album.