by Guest Blogger M. Denise C.
I had never been to London nor had I ever
travelled abroad alone when I challenged myself to a very spur of the moment
trip to London a few years ago. Because of my work schedule, I went in late October
as it is hard for me to take vacation from November through March. The timing
for this first trip to London turned out to be perfect for me.
I arrived in London one fine Tuesday
and gathered my suitcase from baggage claim at Heathrow before jumping on the Tube. My hotel was only a block away from Earl's Court Station, a
really great area in South Kensington to be staying. The pre-purchased travel
card I had bought online was awesome and I enjoyed not having to hassle with buying any travel
tickets during my stay. Now that I am a more seasoned traveler, I purchase an Oyster card and load it for the recommended amount for however long
I am staying. I have yet to take a cab ride in London—it’s the Tube or walking
for me. I learned a long time ago that you really get the feel of a place if
you forego taxis and walk or take the local transit system. I will make
exceptions going to and from airports, but staying on the Piccadilly line made
I arrived at my hotel, Base2Stay, that I found
by clicking around on Google Maps. My blogging friend, Thomas, who has that great blog on all things bookish, MyPorch, had told me the area around Earl’s Court was a great place to stay. Base2Stay had a cute little single room and was very modern. The room
had a twin bed (I went cheap) and a closet, a desk, a flat screen TV, a little
kitchenette with a sink, microwave, fridge, and dishes and silverware. The
bathroom was huge in comparison to the room itself and had a wonderful
towel rack to keep towels toasty warm. There was no restaurant or food
service or gym at this hotel (which is why the rate was cheaper, but so very
nice and modern). Base2Stay has since opened a sister hotel in Soho that I
would also love to try, but it is just not as convenient to a Tube station.
Since I went to London on the cheap and had a kitchenette, I would eat oatmeal for breakfast, eat a decent meal out at lunch at a pub or a restaurant, and then I would eat light or at a takeout place (Pret-a-Manger) or bring something back to the hotel for dinner. One of the best meals I had was at Cafe in the Crypt located under St. Martin in the Fields church (the Queen’s church). It was only £10 and was very British (chicken with potatoes and root vegetables and a gravy and red cabbage).
The first thing I did upon arrival was to walk around the neighborhood
to get orientated as to my location and the major roads nearby (Earl’s Court Road,
Brompton Road, and Cromwell Road). South Kensington was very quiet and pretty away from the major streets. A very nice neighborhood as far as I could
tell--lots of gardens and cool flats, and townhouses galore.
I then walked east down Cromwell Road and passed by the Museum of Natural History and the
Victoria and Albert Museum (above), neither of which I had time to visit. That
is what I like about travel - there are always things you miss, which warrants a
return trip. I then caught the Fulham 14 bus, as recommended by Thomas, and loved seeing London from the front row of the upper deck.
I went past Harrod’s, by Hyde Park
Corner and around Piccadilly Circus. I rode the bus until it stopped at Euston Station. While I was sitting up on the second level taking in the London sights, I'd been aware that people had been getting off at each stop, but I hadn't realized that I was now completely alone on the top level. I went downstairs, but didn't see anyone, so I
walked to the driver's area and asked if I was supposed to get off. The driver started
laughing and said that he hadn't seen me up there! Yes, I was supposed to have
gotten off! He let me ride down a block or so and directed me to where I could catch
another bus going in my direction, but I decided to take the Tube back. By
that time it was dark so I called an end to my first night in London and settled into my room to watch Law and Order UK.
The next day I went from the hotel
to the Tube and went to Westminster Bridge and did one of the river cruises.
When I came out of the Westminster Station, I looked up and there was Big Ben in
all his glory! Beautiful. They were working on parts of the buildings the clock
tower is attached to (Parliament buildings). So awesome to pop out of the
station and look up and see such an iconic building.
The river cruise took about two hours to travel from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich and back. I enjoyed seeing the
London Eye, an old battleship called The Belfast, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tate
Modern, the rebuilt Globe Theatre, the Tower of London, Canary Wharf, and
numerous buildings that are now converted into flats--some of which are very
beautiful in design, all seen from the boat. And several pubs were pointed out, too!
We also crossed under all the great bridges: London Bridge, the Millennium Bridge,
Waterloo Bridge and the famous Tower Bridge. I stayed on board for the thirty minutes
we were at Greenwich and chatted with the boat crew. I should have jumped off, though,
and at least had a look at the Cutty Sark, which was dry-docked there. Next
time I will probably stay in Greenwich for a few hours and go to the Maritime
Museum and Observatory.
After that it was time for me to go
to Hyde Park Corner and hang out there for a while as I had planned. There are
several war memorials at this location, the Wellington Arch, and a statue of
Wellington on a horse. Because of the Sharpe novels written by Bernard Cornwell, I have
become very interested in Wellington. Just across the street is the wonderful Apsley
House, Number One London (and namesake of this wonderful blog), which was the
residence of the first Duke of Wellington, as well as the successive dukes.
The next day I went to tour the
Duke’s home, Apsley House, which is a gem of a museum (as you probably know from
reading this blog). The current Duke of Wellington (the 8th) still lives
there with his family in private apartments that are not open to the
public. Eight main rooms of the mansion are open to the public. The first
Duke collected art and received art from the
Spanish after his army captured Joseph Bonaparte's carriage containing the loot at the
battle of Vitoria. There were lots of Caravaggio's and Murillo’s and Velasquez’s
and some very interesting portraits of his military friends and himself. And
there was this gorgeous china room that had china and swords and guns
displayed. One of the cool things for me personally was a jeweled saber from
the Tipu Sultan in India that the Duke somehow acquired. Wellington defeated
the Tipu Sultan in a battle in India (I knew all about that from Sharpe's Tiger--one of the prequel
novels by Mr. Cornwell).
There was a large dining room and one of the things on
the table was a huge (and I mean huge) table piece made all of silver that was
very ornate and honored some of his major battles in Spain and Portugal. The
house itself was restored to glory. Also, there exists a statue of a naked
Napoleon that George IV gave to Wellington after Napoleon was exiled and his
property dispersed. The sculptor was Canova. Apparently, Napoleon did not like
this statue after completion. I love how it landed in the Duke’s house! It is
so huge it is in the stairwell and the staircase winds around it. I wish I
could have taken pictures of my own in the house, but they were not allowed.
Oh, I forgot to mention that on my first day I was going
across a crosswalk (at Kensington South Station) and I saw Sharpe author Bernard Cornwell himself
and his wife and another lady crossing in the opposite direction. My jaw
dropped. I knew he was in town for a dinner and a charity event and several
book signings prior to the dinner, but I was shocked when I saw him crossing
the street. That really made my day!
Over the next few days I went to
places like the National Gallery (awesome), the National Portrait Gallery (one
of my favorites), the British Museum (did 2 free tours and enjoyed the
Enlightenment Gallery the most), the Tower of London (saw the crown jewels and
did everything there except I forgot to go in the White Castle), Trafalgar
Square on Trafalgar Day, the Horseguards Parade and changing of the guard
there, the Churchill War Rooms (excellent) and just walked around some busy
streets like the Strand, Oxford St., Regent Street, and around Covent Garden.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was St.
Paul's Cathedral. I spent a few hours there. It is one of the most beautiful
cathedrals, my first non-Catholic cathedral in Europe. And the audio tour was
also part video via an iPod. The crypt held the graves of both Wellington and Admiral Nelson, along with many others (and now Mrs. Thatcher is entombed there).
I walked up 257 stairs to the Whispering Gallery, but did not have it in me to
go to the top of the dome (150 more steps in a little winding stair case). Someday
I want to go back for Evensong.
I then rushed to Westminster Abbey
and missed going in because it closed at 4:30 and the last people were let in
at 3:30 and it was 3:35 when I arrived. I have since been there and enjoyed it
as much as St. Paul’s. I then trekked past Buckingham Palace so that I could say
I did. While I did make it to Waterstone's during my visit, I didn't make it to Hamley's
Toy Store, Foyle's Books, or Persephone Books, all of which were on my list. I ate at one
historical pub (The Grenadier) in Belgravia, but had wanted to go to a couple
of others. I did go to the
Museum of London, which was impressive. City museums turn out to be some of my
favorite stops. I also went to the Tate Modern and looked at the permanent
collection, but I didn't want to wait two hours for a ticket to a Gaugin exhibit.
I stared at Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds
exhibit in the huge outer hall for a long time.
Looking back, I really did do a whole lot in a
short amount of time. I was out for about nine to ten hours each day, and returned to my hotel when it was getting dark. It never rained, only misted after I had gone to see Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre, which was awesome and featured one of the riflemen from Sharpe, Michael Mears, as one of the leads.
I did get stuck in the elevator at Earl’s Court Station
when I was heading back to the airport at the end of my visit. It was early and I was
alone in the elevator, which kept going up and down, but the doors would not
open. So I had no choice but to push the alarm button. The voice of a security guard came over the radio and
before long they were opening the door for me. In hindsight, it was funny, but I'm still glad it was early
and no one else was around.
I've been back to London once since that first trip and I hope to take a third trip soon. On both of my previous trips I discovered that there is just too much to do
and see London and I only managed to just scratch the surface.
I will never tire of visiting
M. Denise C.
You can visit my own blog here.
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