The last time I journaled, of sights from the air and our canceled connecting flight in London, I had wished for a little more time to explore that city. Well, a year later, here we are…
The flyover view of London in 2012 is shown, which includes Westminster Abbey and Palace, River Thames, and the London Eye observation wheel.
It’ll be a quick 3 days here in London, followed by 3 days in Paris. That’s all the time we get. Our home base is a small hotel, located half a block away from the BBC Broadcasting House.
The BBC building is massive and an interesting mix of the original art deco style and contemporary glass. The oldest portion dates back to 1932, and the structure suffered two direct hits from falling bombs during World War II. One tore through the building and, being on a timer, detonated 55 minutes later. Seven people were killed and the destruction was immense, but the broadcasts from the building went uninterrupted. You can read more about that here: https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/100-voices/ww2/bh-bombs
The BBC Broadcasting House is shown illuminated at night in London.
London quickly has made the place we call home, Los Angeles, feel not-so-diverse, comparatively. Maybe the feeling doesn’t line up with reality, but parts of L.A. definitely are segmented (i.e. Chinatown, Little Armenia, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, uhh, Billionaires’ Row (haha)… You get the idea. And maybe there’s some of that here in London, but we are seeing a wide variety of races represented out on the streets.
We walk into a souvenir shop, and the young clerk is curious about us. He asks where we are from. We tell him.
“Oh, Los Angeles? Have you ever been to New York City?” he asks.
“Yes, we have.”
“I’d really like to see New York one day.”
“But not California?” I ask.
“Ummmmm…. No… sorry.”
We both laugh. We chat some more, and I learn he’s from Afghanistan. Considering the USA’s current military occupation and impact there, this conversation could have gone a couple different ways. Here, though, we are just people exchanging cultural observations about our own lives.
It’s getting a little beyond lunchtime, so we are on the lookout for food options. How about a classic British pub? We enter the first one we see, and it’s packed! A soccer/football game is on all the TVs, and we wonder if we are going to have to stand and eat.
A Middle Eastern man in his early 20s, with a long, thick beard, is sitting alone at a 4-seat table. These are literally the only open chairs in the restaurant, so we ask if he’s waiting on anyone else and if we may sit with him. “Please,” he says, gesturing to the empty seats. Among the small talk, we find out he’s from Turkey and goes to school in London. He’s curious what we know about his country which, admittedly, isn’t a whole lot. And we are asked if our media talks about the ongoing civil war in Turkey. We haven’t heard anything about it.
Sorry it lives up to the stereotype, but the food is straightforward and bland. The pear cider is pretty divine, though. It’s slightly sweet and unlike anything I’ve had back home. Even if the food was a bust, the company and atmosphere have been enjoyable. We finish up at the pub, then head back out to explore. Passing through Trafalgar Square, we continue south, then inspect Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. That famous and historic church is closed, in preparation for Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (the 60th anniversary of her accession as Queen). Thanks a lot, Your Highness!
We head to the nearby River Thames and start walking north, along the Victoria Embankment, toward the iconic Tower Bridge and Tower of London. The massive London Eye ferris wheel comes into closer view from across the water, then we stumble upon Cleopatra’s Needle – an Egyptian obelisk dating back to 1450 BC. During some millennia, it was toppled, and the 21m / 68 ft structure was preserved under the desert sands of northern Africa.
Cleopatra’s Needle, a 15th century BC Egyptian obelisk transported to London in 1877 AD, is shown along the Victoria Embankment next to the River Thames.
The Needle was presented as a gift to London in 1819, and no one came to collect until 58 years later. The move wasn’t an easy task. In 1877, the obelisk was moved into a custom pontoon. A boat bridge was installed above, outfitted with controls to navigate the ancient monument along waterways. A steamship towed it all along. The idea is sort of like tiller fire trucks in big cities, with a driver in front and one in back.
During the move, a fierce storm struck the Bay of Biscay. Six men trying to rescue the pontoon boat’s crew drowned, and the obelisk was cut free. It was found floating and undamaged days later. The journey soon continued. After months of being towed at sea, Cleopatra’s Needle finally reached London and was permanently set in place 10 months later.
Decades later, during World War I, a German bomb landed nearby and damaged the needle with shrapnel. The pockmarks were never repaired, so they’re still very visible today. Finally, this obelisk was part of a pair – the other, also called Cleopatra’s Needle, is in New York City’s Central Park. The obelisk in Paris, next to the Tuileries Garden, is part of a different pair, with its twin remaining in Alexandria, Egypt.
The entire walk along the river from the Palace of Westminster to the Tower of London is 2.8 mi / 4.5 km. I’m not sure it’s a good use of time, or a bad one, but this allows us to see some sights up close and learn things we otherwise never would have known.
Moving along, Tower Bridge inches closer toward us. It’s a beautiful day for a stroll. Birds are chirping, a light breeze accompanies the flowing river, and a lot of people in suits are sitting outside, taking in the sun. Runners weave around the pedestrians on the riverside path. Good for them. I barely have enough endurance built up for this long walk.
The iconic Tower Bridge of London, England spans the Thames River and is shown on a partly cloudy day.
Having crossed the river along the way, we finally cross back over via the Tower Bridge. It’s such a unique beauty and also weird. What kind of person dreams up a design like this? It’s certainly iconic and awesome, though, and convenient that the Tower of London is just on the other side.
The Tower of London (officially Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is shown in a daytime view from across the River Thames. The White Tower (shown) was built by William the Conqueror in 1078.
Ever so mindful of our travel budget, being in college would have saved us some pounds on Tower admission tickets. It’s been a few years since graduation so, after this “sole-crushing” walk, I also have to wonder how I’m holding up compared to the photo on my student I.D.!
The Tower of London complex is much larger than I imagined. Separate structures within the walls are the White Tower, Queen’s House, chapel, Waterloo Block (housing the crown jewels), hospital block, workshop, and Royal Regiment headquarters. There is a lot to see here.
The White Tower is our first stop. It was commissioned by William the Conqueror and completed nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1078. If you like old weapons, this is your kind of place. On display are cannons, guns, swords, spears, and suits of armor (including a couple for children and one for a horse).
Next, we take a look at the crown jewels. A giant, bank-vault type door protects the main room, and photos aren’t allowed inside. You are also dissuaded from stopping and congregating and looking for too long, so a people mover takes you by one side of the ceremonial crowns, orbs and scepters. Another mover, on the other side of the display, gives you an alternate perspective.
We booked a tour to Stonehenge. The bus was supposed to pick us up down the road from our hotel at 7 AM. It’s 7:20 and so cooooold this morning. Janine and I are literally shivering.
Fortunately, the shuttle pulls up a couple minutes later. The driver apologizes for the delay, and we are just glad to now have shelter from the morning breeze. The shuttle is nearly full. It’s great that our tour group is a small one. Yayyy!!! A short while later, we pull up at a bus depot and get corralled into a larger group. Booo!!! We then board a large, cramped, hot tour bus and start the roughly two hour ride to Stonehenge.
Out in the countryside, traffic slows to a crawl, and we get our first glimpse of the stone circle. Wow! I can’t wait to get off this bus and walk around.
We pull into the parking lot, then get out and file our way down the path to the stones. There isn’t really much to say about this moment. This ancient display is mesmerizing. The stones are larger than pictures often convey.
Stonehenge is shown in the English countryside on a beautiful day.
Deep in my soul, it feels like I have been here before. Well… I have… although during the prior visit I was 1 year old, having an elevated experience in a child carrier backpack. I’d like to think this international adventure started to instill something deep inside of me, although this was definitely the most ambitious of our family travels. We continued to explore but always within a drive from home. Still, I’m glad we weren’t always confined to our neighborhood we knew so well. I know people who, as adults, haven’t left their home state. That’s not beneficial for anyone.
You see what kind of influence my wife has on my decisions???
The tour bus takes us back to the depot. The shuttle that picked us up in the morning isn’t here to complete the return trip. Getting around in London seems fairly easy, though, so we gather our bearings and walk to Harrods, the famous department store that sells almost everything. This place is ginormous! The variety of, well, everything is really impressive. We look around at the wine, sandwiches, fruit, pastries, chocolates, cakes. Clearly we’re hungry. We grab a couple of the famous Harrods chocolate bars, sandwiches, and drinks, then head up the street for an impromptu picnic in beautiful Hyde Park.
We walk by Kensington Palace… We walk down a roadway called The Mall, which is nicely lined with Union Jack flags.
London, England – June 3, 2013: United Kingdom Union Jack flags line The Mall roadway, leading to Buckingham Palace, during a partly cloudy day.
To figure out dinner, we ask the clerk at our hotel for a recommendation. Italian it is. We walk a few blocks and spot the restaurant. It seems nice. To start out, we are served olives with orange wedges among olive oil and topped with cracked pepper. Even if you don’t like olives, you might enjoy this, as we are. The wine is good. The food is delicious. We debate about having dessert, and an older man dining solo next to us says “Let me get you something.” He summons the waiter and, a minute later, we are each sipping on a glass of limoncello. The people in this city seem amazing. Last night, we went to a small pub right by our hotel. It was someone’s birthday, and the birthday boy’s friends shared some cake with us. A lot of people here seem to have a generosity and curiosity that’s absent where we live.
This is our final, full day in London. Seeing Abbey Road Studios and the street crossing depicted on The Beatles’ famous album cover have long been on my bucket list. We walk that way (about 2 mi / 3.2 km), passing through part of The Regent’s Park. We pass a canal lined with houseboats, then Lord’s Cricket Ground. Soon enough, we end up at Abbey Rd.
Luckily, not a lot of other tourists are around, so we cross the road a few times with some locals that are probably tired of people like us. If that happens to be the case, the album was released in ’69, so get used to it!
These locals and I call ourselves “The New Beatles”
The day is slow paced and filled with R&R (rest and relaxation but some rock n’ roll, too).
This is my final chance to have English tea, which is on my must-do list. While here, I’ve come to learn the difference between high tea vs. afternoon tea. The afternoon version is tea with an assortment of small sandwiches and desserts. High tea includes the same but is more of a post-work meal, adding meat, fish, and breads. I don’t really have room for my half of the afternoon tea, but it’s a new, fun experience, so I manage to find an open spot in my hollow leg.
Afternoon tea in a London restaurant is shown. Order only if you’re ready to indulge!
LONDON TO PARIS, DAY 4
We are on the way to the St. Pancras train station, eager to get to Paris. First, though, we are stopping at the station across the street, King’s Cross, to visit Platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter. You have to believe you can get through the wall, or it’s not a pretty sight.
The train to Paris is nice and modern. It’s so quick, like the one we took from Rome to Naples. The lush countryside is beautiful and, suddenly, we enter darkness. A half-hour through the Channel Tunnel / Chunnel passes, and we are back to looking at the rural landscape. We are now in France and should soon find ourselves in the City of Lights.
"Exploring: Three Days in London" (June 2013) Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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