On the way to, and in, London
07.01.2008 18 °C
Anica's favourite London landmark, Big Ben
How much of the British Isles can you drive on one tank of gas (sorry, "petrol")? It seems we're unintentionally trying to find out. We filled up while we were still in the Republic of Ireland, and then drove up the east coast to Larne in Northern Ireland. Larne pretty much closes at six o'clock on a Tuesday, it seems. Metal grilles are pulled down over store windows, and the only things left open were a bookmakers, a wine shop, and the Chinese-Thai restaurant where we ate. By then we had turned the car off (gasp) and spent the night at a B&B before driving just 1 or 2 more kilometres and parking it on the ferry. So it didn't take any petrol to get across the sea to Scotland. Is that cheating? Then we drove south from Scotland into England, passing by Liverpool, and stopping for the next night in Chester. Still a quarter tank of gas left.
Chester turned out to be a great place to stop en route to London. We have a room at a small inn just outside the famous city walls. These narrow ramparts of brown sandstone are one of the main draws. You can walk all the way around, passing by many different styles of gates and towers. So we did. At two miles long, it was the perfect way to stretch our legs after all that driving. From the walls, you get great views of the river, canal, Chester racetrack,and even peoples' back gardens. There's also a nice pedestrian-only area in the city centre where we had our dinner.
Chester: we break for walled cities
After a charming night's layover in Chester, it was on to London. Our final stop. But first, since we had time, why not stop in Oxford?
As it turns out, there's lots of reasons not to stop in Oxford when you only have a couple of hours to spare. It's busy and it's hard to find parking, for example. Then there's our own special reasons, like not having a guidebook, and the fact that we did lots of stuff, and thought clearly, only just yesterday. Two days in a row was obviously pushing it at this point in the trip.
Oxford does look like a lovely, historical town. It seems there may be a college here. We were almost going to take the hop on/off bus tour, but then the ticket-seller didn't want to accept our pounds sterling because it was issued in Northern Ireland. It looks funny! What a kick in the teeth to the loyalists of Northern Ireland. The rest of Britain doesn't realize the United Kingdom includes them. Finally, the guy said he would take the money, as long as it wasn't "Southern Irish, because we don't accept that." "That would be the Euro," I said. By then we'd missed the bus.
Back on the motorways. After a false start, we left Oxford behind successfully on a second attempt. We'd promised friends we'd come for dinner at 5:00 PM, and we didn't want to keep them waiting since they'd so graciously invited us on short notice. The Jones family, in case you're trying to keep up, live in Guildford, just south-west of London. We'd met Phil and Melanie, and their three daughters Rhiannon, Rachel and Alice, on our Egypt tour. It was great to visit with them in their home, and tell our travel stories again, and hear theirs. They do a lot of home exchanges, which is something we'd like to look into.
Our final task for the day was to find our hotel. Due a very complicated series of arrangements done to secure a week-long London flat rental, we were staying in the east end for the night. Our Etap hotel (which are an insult to the word "hospitality" but irresistibly cheap) was charmingly described as "behind the Esso station" off the North Woolwich Roundabout. Somehow, we found it. We just headed for where a whole bunch of Docklands hotels were and then went into the first one we could park at (a Travelodge) and asked them for help. Basically, I was asking: could you please direct me to your competition?
Back and forth across Greater London we go! After picking up the keys to our flat, we asked the owner for directions to Heathrow. He got out the London A-Z and plotted a course for us through all of London that, miraculously, we followed to a tee. Even after 21, 675 kilometres of driving in Europe, Jenn and I were quite proud that we'd negotiated this route through London without a wrong turn. The rep from Peugeot took the car off our hands (with less of an inspection than a rental company would even do) and suddenly...we were car-free! And completely relieved about it, after the frenzy of driving we've done in the past few days.
Immediately, we got on the Tube. The owner of our flat, Ron, had set us up with Oyster Cards (for the public transit; they just needed to be topped up) and a London A-Z. That's all you need to get around London. Plus, we've been here twice before. Samuel Johnson wrote that "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life." The good news: we're not tired of London! All three of us are tired of some aspects of travelling (for me, it's unpredictable showers and dingy kitchens), but we still love all that London has to offer. It's the reason we're ending the trip here.
Anica thought the Victoria and Albert sounded like a good place to start. She had read about the "Family Backpack" activity kits they had. We'd been talking it up as a recap of things from all the places we've been. We saw a piece called "Tippu's Tiger," symbolizing the victories of Tippu, the Sultan of Mysore, over the British, for example. In India we'd seen his summer palace and tomb when we visited Mysore. And they had artifacts that belonged to Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal. That's interesting because both the Taj Mahal, and the Agra Fort are empty inside. We saw casts of the coffins of Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquaintaine, etc. who were so prominently a part of the French Chateaux we'd visited. Jenn said that the V&A was a museum she'd come to many times if she lived in London.
V&A's Very Amazing chandelier
Next up was Harrod's, just down the street. Anica was amazed by this place, as we thought she would be. Last time we were here, Jenn was six months pregnant, and we bought a teddy bear from Harrod's that became Anica's first stuffed animal. This time Anica played with all the toys in the toy demonstration area, and we looked at the Egyptian room, Egyptian escalator and foodhalls. But we didn't buy anything!
I guess we saved our money for a night at the movies in Leicester Square. We have tickets to live theatre for later in the week, but London's West End is also a great place to see a big-screen movie. As long as you don't mind paying twice the normal price. You can stand in the middle of Leicester Square and see four huge movie-houses with one-of-a-kind enormous marquees. "Indy!" one read, trumpeting the new Indiana Jones. Another had giant models of the Panda from Kung Fu Panda. We went to see the second Chronicles of Narnia movie, "Prince Caspian," in a theatre with the best movie sound system I'd ever heard.
The square was packed with Friday night partiers when our movie let out. We went "home" on the Tube - back to our London neighborhood of Canada Water/Surrey Quays. Although this East End neighborhood is far from posh, there's really nothing wrong with it. The diverse ethnic mix reminds me of Toronto, like walking down a stretch of Bloor or Dundas streets.
After that final, fifteen minute walk from the nearest tube station (the closest one is being rebuilt) we were happy to be calling it a day. A very long, but fun, day.
Jenn went out with friends today, Lottie, who lives in London; Marny, who lives in Hannover, and spent the weekend with us in Berlin back in March; and Davy, who had also made a trip into London to meet Jenn. It was just Anica and me for a whole day out in London.
I took her to the National Gallery of Art, because Jenn didn't care if she saw that again. Anica printed out a themed trail on the gallery's "Artstart" computers. Her theme was "cats," so she learned about paintings with cats on them from the computer, and a map to follow. We also got her an activity booklet (the junior one, even though she could have handled the senior one, because it was just for fun). So that gave her lots to look for and do. I was looking for the Turner paintings, such as "The Fighting Tememaire," or "Rain, Steam and Speed," as well as the Impressionists, and other key paintings like Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks." Along the way, we spotted some paintings with "tricks" in them, like the distorted skull on the floor of Holbein's "The Ambassadors" painting. Basically, the NGA is one of the best collections in the world, a cross between the Orsay and the Louvre.
Despite dazzling sunshine, we ate lunch in a church basement. A crypt, actually. Why? Because St.Martin's-in-the-Fields' "Cafe in the Crypt" serves great food. It's one of London's worst-kept secrets. Lunch today was delicious, and reasonably-priced. As for the bodies? They've long been moved to a suburban cemetery, so it's not as ghoulish as it sounds.
They also have a brass-rubbing centre there, and Anica did one of William Shakespeare. She's going to give it to her Mummy, whom she's really missing today. A whole day apart!
Finally, the dazzling sunshine was ours to claim. We let the fountains spray us in Trafalgar Square, walked down The Mall, walked through St. James Park, looked at all the waterfowl, rented a deck chair and sat in the shade, listened to the concert band who were playing in a bandshell, checked out the front of Buckingham Palace, used the playground, and walked back through St. James Park...
...to the Cabinet War Rooms. Another one of my choices, of course, although I never got the feeling I was dragging Anica to these sites. She listened quite intently to the audioguide. It was easy to imagine what it was like during the Blitz, in World War II, with Churchill working in those underground rooms. They've been left untouched where they could, and meticulously re-created in other cases. It's a simple, but eerie, collection of rooms.
Art imitating art imitating a train that never came
It might have been a nicer start to the day if the Jubilee tube line hadn't broken down. Our 20 minute commute to Charing Cross ended up taking two and a half hours. The worst part was waiting. The best part was the walk. After the train took us just one stop, then conked out completely, we decided to walk from Bermondsey rather than wait forever for an overcrowded bus. It was about a mile long walk, then across the Tower Bridge (very cool) and past the Tower of London to Tower Hill tube station. Since it's on a different line it was running, and got us to Charing Cross where we were to meet Lottie and Marny. Which we did, but we were already exhausted.
Marny had a very sweet gift for Anica: a collection of things she bought in Berlin, when she was with us before, including some photos, and also some postcards of Hannover, so Anica could see what Marny's hometown is like. It was very thoughtful.
Back across the river, this time on foot by way of Hungerford Bridge, we ate lunch at "Giraffe," overlooking the Thames and in front of the National Theatre. It was a good choice: very kid-friendly for Sunday lunch.
Lottie then took us to the Imperial War Museum, which is also in Southwark. She was quite enthused about the war artists' galleries they have, and Anica liked the "Children's War" floors, which showed what evacuees and other children went through in England during World War II. They even have reconstructed a Anderson Shelter and an entire war-time house. I liked their large-scale collection of tanks (like Monty's), guns (from WWI to cold-war antiaircraft) and planes (from a WWI bi-plane to the front end of a Lancaster bomber). Normally, I'm not a big military historian, but they've got these displayed all in one big hall, and other than the Smithsonian in Washington, I've never seen such a large and comprehensive collection in one space.
Lottie treated Anica to some children's novels set during world war II. They're books that Lottie has loved, and she thought Anica would love them too. She probably will! In fact, she's already starting reading Judith Kerr's "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit."
Soon it was time to say goodbye. Marny had to get her flight back to Hannover. We ate dinner at an Indian restaurant in our neighborhood of Canada Water, where the waiter was amazed at how much Anica read!
Thanks, Lottie and Marny, for a great weekend.
At long last, today was the day for Legoland! This was Anica's choice for an amusement park day out in Europe, even over Disneyland Paris (where she thought the rides and the mascots would both be too scary).
Legoland is in Windsor, and we got tickets in London at the Waterloo station that covered the return train and shuttle bus, and park admission. Very easy, comfortable ride, but, like any theme park, expensive. Windsor is a gorgeous town, that exudes history and money. The castle dominates, looming over the train station and main street. Various building works are labelled by the monarchal monograms "VR," "GR," or "ER," depending on when they were built. Windsor is also the home to Eton and Ascot, and we rode past perfectly-manicured stables on our way to Legoland.
London is so much more compact than I remembered
Anica's writing about the Legoland rides, so I'll just give a few of my impressions of the place. First, there are a lot of things built out of Lego, mostly decorations (25 million lego bricks apparently). Mini-land is truly impressive: they've built all the London landmarks from west to east, and then huge areas showing other places in Europe. We could have saved a lot of time and money by just touring mini-land instead of full-size Europe! They had Amsterdam and Dutch windmills, Edinburgh castle, Mont St. Michel, and many more unusual choices.
Anica got her "driver's license" at the Legoland driving school. They watch a video, then head out into the mini electric cars on a realistic road layout. She has new respect for all those roundabouts I've driven through! Despite the safety talk, I think Anica was the only one to obey the stoplights. Good thing traffic was light!
Anica drives the blue car through Legoland traffic jam
As for the rides, they were quite creative, and the emphasis was not on rollercoasters. Anica does not like rollercoasters, we found out today (feel free to read between the lines of this massive understatement). But she enjoyed all the other rides and attractions.
All of us seem to be coming down with colds, and the lapses in brain power continue. Somewhere at Legoland lies Jenn's polar fleece jacket, left behind, after touring 28 countries with us, just days before we go home. She bought a zippered hoodie as a replacement because it's not consistently warm enough here to go around in just shirtsleeves.
Tomorrow is July. We left home in July of 2007. Wow.
1) Our guest house in Larne is big and very fancy. Larne is also a very quiet town.
2) I love P&O ferries! They have a restaurant, bar, shop, beruau de change, play area (2-6 year olds, so I'm to old), and everything! We watched a movie called "Click" on it. This time wasn't as fun/good as the other time exept the movie.
3) In Chester we walked the 2 (oh-my-gosh-long) miles on the city walls. It was very enjoyable.
4) We ate at Bella Italia which is a chain (for dinner).
5) We just dropped our car off! We take the tube.
6) We saw Prince Caspian.
7) The tube is very hot!
8) On the first day we went to the V&A. We got the family backpack and saw world wide stuff.
9) We had much fun with family backpack with cd player, fans, toys, colouring, guides and lots more!
10) We saw artwork from Europe and Asia. From Roman columens to Islamic carpets, it had everything!
"I Miss Mummy!"
Today Mummy went off with her friends Marny and Lottie. Plus Davie (a boy). But me and Dad had fun. We first went to the Natinol Gallerey and saw my favrite paintings! I have 3! 1. The train and the bunny: it had a train and a brown striped (?) buny. [note: this is Turner's "Rain, Steam, and Speed"]. 2. Minerva, Venus, Juno, Paris, and the goddess of war. Minerva, Venus and Juno are competing to win a golden apple. Paris is handing it to Venus (Minerva or Juno are prettier). The goddess of war is upset that Minera or Juno diden't win. [note: this is Rubens' "Judgement of Paris"] 3. The children, the cat and the eel! Simple! Read the title! [note: this is Judith Leyster's "A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel"] We had lunch at St. Martin in the fields. YUMMY! We then did Brass rubbing. And then we went to St. James Park. We saw a bird with a blue beak (?). Went to Buckingham Palace, saw the guards, played in the playground, saw the Cabinet War Rooms! Went home, had dinner, G.N., saw mummy, G.N.! For Sure. At least tonight.
"I see Marny! I see Marny!" Jumping up and down as I saw out of a papershop window. "Hide, hurry, run!" It was everything. We walked over and she said "Hello." And then she gave me my present. "Ooooh, ah?!" It came with: a beatifly lighthouse covered box with an Ampleman pen and pencil, a view from the Reichstag pamphlet, a photo booklet by Marny, postcards and candys. We then met Lottie and had lunch. Off to the War Museum! My favrite part: the Children's War (especially cartoon place). Lottie bought me three books! My favrite is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The others are Goodnight Mr. Tom and Carrie's War. Went back, said g.b. to Lottie, tube, coffee break, g.b. to Marny, decision time, tube, dinner, G.N.
Here the rides we did and what they were. Sky Ride: ride around slowly on a view ride. Fairytale Brook: take a boat ride through a fairy tale forest. Traffic ride: ride a Lego car through roundabouts and roads! Ballon School: push your ballon up while it turns itself around for great views. Charioplane: basic swing ride. Rat Trap: go on this playground and your sure to get lost! Only one slide and hard to find, go wild! Dragons Aprentice: a too fast and long queue ride. Spinning Spider: go crazy with spinning! Loki's Labrinth: A Viking-themed maze. Mini Land: see all the "mini" sights in lego. Sky tower: pull yourself up to the top and drop down. Show was excellent, dinner was, train wasn't, tube ok, bed, well lets just say G.N.!