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 that unnecessary.
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 Seedsexhibit 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 London.
M. Denise C.You can visit my own blog here. Do you h
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