“Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all: And more such days as these to us befall! ” ~William Shakespeare (II Henry IV, V, iii)

At the end of the last post, I was getting on yet another train during my recent Tour de England 2014, this time leaving Stratford-upon-Avon to spend the last three days of my trip in London.  During my last trip to the UK in 2012, I also spent a few days in London and was able to see many of the sights I’d always wanted to see: the Tower of London, a play at The Globe theatre, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the London Eye…among many others.  But let’s face it, once could spend a lifetime in London and probably still not see everything there is to be seen, so the key to spending just a few days there is making it manageable and enjoyable – and affordable, which is not an easy feat in the most expensive city in the world.

The day I got on that train to London was my birthday, and for some reason when I mapped out my trip I thought it would be a good plan to make my birthday a transition day.  I kind of wish now in hindsight I’d just stayed in Stratford and relaxed, but there’s another lesson learned.  The day started off good with a few very nice birthday cards from my family that I’d toted around England with me (including some of the world’s cutest handwritten messages by my nephews), and then a generous ride to the train station from my B&B owners.  It’s only two hours from Stratford to London, and once I arrived at Marylebone station I purchased a familiar Oyster tube card from the machines there and assumed my London vigilant travel persona.

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From nephew Hudson, that’s me next to Big Ben! (Juggling knives, apparently…)

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A very royal birthday declaration from nephew Truman

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And from 3-yr old nephew Wyatt, that’s a birthday cake!

I went a different route this time for London accommodations, and instead of a hotel, booked a spot in a guesthouse run by a private service.  It’s like a B&B but usually these houses only host one guest at a time.  My guesthouse was located in the very (apparently) trendy Holland Park area, just adjacent to Notting Hill and pretty close to a tube stop, just a few minutes walk. 

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

After depositing my bags I headed back out to my next destination: a Chocolate Tour of London.  I thought this sounded good – it does, doesn’t it?  I’d booked it a few months in advance and after a few lost moments around the Tottenham Court tube stop, found our meet-up spot a few streets away in front of an Arabic coffee shop.  It was hot, hot, hot this day in London, much warmer than at any other point on my trip so far, so that made the prospect of wandering around crowded London streets in a very large tour group to un-air-conditioned tiny chocolate shops much less appealing (even with the looming reward of free chocolate).

But wander around we did, about 30 of us (way too many people for this type of tour), through high-end shopping neighborhoods and Sunday street festivals filled with what seemed like every other vacationer in London that day.  Half of the chocolate samples offered to us contained rum or tequila, so I avoided those, and the other half contained coffee beans, so out of luck there too…  But I did enjoy our short jaunt through Fortnum & Mason, which I’m told is the grocery supplier of the royal family, and savored a raspberry-and-peanut-butter truffle at the last shop that packed a cute little powerful punch of cocoa-y goodness.  I wouldn’t do the tour again, but it was interesting to see a part of London I didn’t see last time and wouldn’t have gone to on my own.

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After the tour ended I took the tube to the St. Paul’s Cathedral stop, with a few hours to kill between then and my birthday finalé planned for later that night.  I’d seen the Cathedral on my last visit so didn’t go back inside, but instead sat on a bench right outside it and Skyped with my mom for a quick birthday call, red double decker buses whizzing by every few minutes. 

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I then walked south of the Cathedral, past the College of Arms (must make it in there for my next trip), and out onto the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to make my way to the south bank across the Thames.  I love the view from both sides of this bridge: from the south side, you look straight down and can see St. Pauls…and then from the other side, you look across and you see the unmistakeable half-timbered brown and white sides of The Globe theatre.  I made my way over to The Globe and stood outside for a few minutes to listen to the sounds of “Antony & Cleopatra” that was beginning right at that time – swords clashing and Roman soldiers screaming to the cheers of the audience, it was great.  I highly recommend you see one of Shakespeare’s plays here if you get the chance; I’d seen “The Taming of the Shrew” here in 2012 and it was thoroughly enjoyable, but those authentic wooden bleachers do wreak havoc on one’s back after a while, so definitely buy a seat cushion.

South bank view from Millenium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

South bank view from Millennium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul's)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul’s)

The Globe.  Iconic.

The Globe.  Iconic.

A play wasn’t on my itinerary this time – instead, I grabbed a quick and ho-hum Pizza Cafe dinner next to The Globe and then walked along the south bank of the river,  passing through back alleys alongside the Southwark Cathedral (where Shakespeare frequented when he lived in London), and crossed back over the river on the London Bridge.  I was headed back to one of the greatest sights in London (and really in all the world): the Tower of London.  I’d sent an actual snail mail request many, many months earlier to the Tower for a ticket on this night to see the ancient Ceremony of the Keys This ceremony is where they let a few visitors inside the Tower each night at 9:30 PM to watch the Yeoman Warders and sentry guards lock up the gates of this ancient fortress.

In 2012 I visited the Tower during the daytime and hobbled through the Bloody Tower with bloody shins (story here) for one of the best sightseeing tours I’ve ever been on (led by Yeoman Warder Bill Callaghan, follow him on Twitter @BillyBeefeater), but didn’t really even know about the Ceremony of the Keys that time.  I’m so glad I got a ticket for this trip – there’s a lot of pomp and yelling and actual bayonets involved, along with a huge ring of iron keys and several tall furry bear hats, and it’s really quite a spectacle to watch; the visitors even have to play a part with a verbal response at one point in the ceremony.  So if they lock the gates, how do we get out?  There’s one more side door just for this purpose through which they shuffle us at the end, with one of the Yeoman Warders gruffly barking at us “hurry up, get out!”  It was a very memorable end to my birthday and the best part of the day!

The exact point where I bit the dust in 2012...

The exact point by the Tower of London where I bit the dust in 2012…

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

The next morning I headed right back near the Tower to meet an American college friend for breakfast (she’s lived just outside of London for many years now) and then we went on a really great walking tour by London Walks called “Hidden London.”  (Their tours do cost about $15/person but the company offers a huge array of different walking tours all over the city and they’re well worth it.)  It was so great to see a familiar face after almost three weeks on the road, I nearly burst into tears when we sat down to breakfast at the relief of spending some time with someone who actually knows me.  I don’t mind traveling alone most of the time, but that feeling of comfort you get from being around someone who knows and cares about you adds a special aspect to the trip, and I was really grateful to her for making the trip and the time to hang out with me that day.

I’d heard about a special Shakespeare exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum and so after our walking tour I made my way there via the Tube.  What a massive place that museum is, I’ve never seen so much stuff-of-a-general-nature in one place – sculptures and artifacts and jewelry and paintings and china and silver and…well, just lots of stuff.  After asking three different museum docents, someone was finally able to direct me to the hidden Shakespeare corner on one of the floors.  It was very dark and somber and the exhibit items were in these shadowboxes, it was all a little macabre and not a large display at all, but I’m glad I went.  The museum also had the most striking and vibrant purple-ly blue hydrangea in their courtyard, unreal colors I never see where I live.

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

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After exiting the museum I decided to walk down the street to the famous (infamous?) Harrods Department Store.  Everyone’s heard of Harrods, and I didn’t have a chance on my last trip to visit, so I popped in for a quick look at what all the fuss is about.  What a dizzying maze of floors and departments; I especially liked the bakery and fromagerie sections, and even decided to take a break for some tea and scones in their tea room.  (I kind of wish I hadn’t, it ended up being both the most expensive and least tasty of all the cream teas I had during this trip…but now I can say I’ve had tea at Harrods I guess.)  I’m kicking myself for not remembering to visit the Princess Diana memorial in the store…maybe next time.

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

The next morning was the start of the last day of my 3-week trip.  I saved one of the things I’d most wanted to do for that last day: a trip to London’s New Covent Garden Flower Market – where all of London’s top florists and designers get their flowers and foliage.  After a Tube trip across the Thames to Vauxhall station, it was just a short walk to the warehouse district and the flower market.  The small sign that said “Visitor Entrance” over one of the unassuming doors belied what I saw once I entered the chilled warehouse:  flowers as far as the eye could see!  Every color, every variety, different heights and smells, with vendor after vendor filling every corner of the huge room.  And this was even after most of the day’s business had been done – I’d gotten there about 8:30 AM, but they open at 4:00 AM (!) and so I was really seeing the leftovers that day…but they were still pretty impressive leftovers!

New Covent Garden Flower Market

New Covent Garden Flower Market

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

There are 20 flower vendors at the Market, six plant vendors, and a few more that specialize in just foliage.  I explored for about an hour, taking a LOT of pictures of all the different offerings, and then had some tea at the little café inside the warehouse.  I saw flowers I’d never seen before, in colors I didn’t even know that existed for certain varieties, and in the midst of it all, I was surprised that I actually started to feel a little depressed; this Market is a mecca for anyone in the floral industry, and the tiny (by comparison) coolers of the few wholesalers at home now seemed woefully inadequate and just…sad.  I’ll never see this kind of variety and quality and lower prices where I live; I’d have to move one of only about four cities in the US with major flower markets, most of which are in California or on the east coast (and there’s no way I’m living in earthquake country), and even then they’d be dwarfed by this market.  And so I left with wistful feelings, glancing back over my shoulder as I walked out and thinking how lucky the local florists were to have this amazing resource at their fingertips.

Clouds of hydrangea

Clouds of hydrangea

Gobs of gerberas

Gobs of gerberas

Midnight purple callas

Midnight purple callas, a Georgia O’Keefe painting come to life

I wanted to relax on my last day in London, so after leaving the flower market I then headed back across the river to the area around Buckingham Palace.  No Changing of the Guard for me this time (one of the most overrated sights in the city, in my opinion, and I’d seen it last time); instead, I walked the length of the very peaceful St. James’ Park, which runs between the palace and the river.  Leaving the park, I strolled past Big Ben to take a few pics for my nephews, and then took the Tube up to the Kensington area, where I got pretty lost looking for a hidden city gem called the Roof Gardens.  I’d read about this oasis-on-a-rooftop some time earlier, and after walking around in circles for a while, was finally able to find it down a quiet side street.  It was worth the journey: seven floors up and through a black door, one enters into sculpted gardens with water features, shaded sitting areas, and even real flamingos!  There are actually three different gardens, in the styles of Spanish, Tudor, and English Woodlands.  I was the only one in the entire place for quite some time; eventually a few other visitors showed up but I was amazed how isolated and quiet the gardens were.  It was a great break from the bustle of the city and I’m glad I took time to find it.

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From there I walked a mile or so up to the middle of Holland Park, another really nice green space just south of my guesthouse.  On the way there I stopped to buy a sandwich, and had a nice picnic on a stone bench under huge shade trees.  It was then I noticed I was missing my rain jacket, a new one my mom had bought me just for this trip.  I suddenly remembered I’d put it down on a chair at the Roof Gardens, so I went into a restaurant in Holland Park and a nice hostess called the gardens for me; sure enough they found it and would hold it for me.  So, back another mile I walked to get my jacket, then another mile back to the park and through the rest of it to get back to my guesthouse – but not without stopping at a gelateria for a scoop to help beat the heat (did I mention how crazy HOT it was in London this time).  After resting and packing for my journey home the next day, I walked back down the street later that evening for what turned out to be a pretty decent veggie burger.  It was a good last day in London.

I’m actually not too fond of London, although I think it has its highlights.  As I mentioned before, it’s very expensive, always crowded, and I feel I have to be on even more of a heightened alert as a solo female traveler when I’m there.  The Tube is very convenient but it’s un-air-conditioned staleness gets pretty weary pretty fast in the heat of the summer.  And as nice as the area was where my B&B was located, I unfortunately had a somewhat negative experience there with the overbearing owner.  The city is iconic, and I’m glad I spent a few days there this trip, especially since I took a less-traveled route to explore some areas that most tourists probably don’t see.  But I find more with each trip that I prefer to get out of London, into the rest of England’s green hills and diverse countrysides.  Which, with any luck, I hope to do again very soon.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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