We woke up exhausted again today. It was another day that we slept in. On Friday we breakfasted at the creperie near our hotel that I wanted to try. It was run by real French people, so it had to be decent, right? Nope. The crepes were overcooked in my opinion, but I am no expert. Susan was willing to try it, but she didn’t like it. I was afraid she’d be turned off on crepes altogether, which wouldn’t bode well for our plans to visit France (the land of my ancestors) someday. Today, instead, we waited until lunch to eat.
This particular Saturday featured three Tube lines taken out of commission for work, the Picadilly line, which was our main mode of travel anyway, was overly crowded. It was our last day to really get in the last of the sight and to finish the tourist business. It was also St. George’s Day, a national holiday honoring, you guessed it, St. George.
We journeyed over to King’s Cross national rail station on the north side of London Friday to see Platform 9 3/4 from the famous Harry Potter books. It’s clear that there was a great deal of movie magic involved in creating the scene from the first movie. Platforms 9a and 9b don’t have brick walls between them as they did in the movie.
By Friday, we were pooped. We packed so much into three days, we had done so much walking, and we had spent so much time on buses and Tube lines that we were exhausted. The two of us slept in on Friday morning. Our plans to go museums early were scrapped. I could spend all day in a museum, especially ones with the large collections in London, but I know Susan doesn’t fancy them all that much. Without telling her, I modified our plans a bit. Without telling me, she was grateful.
We slowly got ready for the day, then headed for downtown London to check out some sights we wanted to get in before the trip was ended. We hiked first to Tower Bridge.
This is the famous two-towered bridge that I have always thought of when singing that nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Because it is a drawbridge, it always seemed logical to me that the game associated with the song includes two kids lowering the outstretched arms clasped at the hands over a third child. This is not the reality, though. London Bridge is a modern span, built in the 1970s, and like other public structures of that time, it is largely nondescript, especially in comparison to the Victorian, mock-gothic Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge was in the distance during our stop at the Tower of London during our Tuesday tour. We had a brief moment before going into the Tower of London to take pictures of Tower Bridge. Susan and I agreed to check it out for ourselves. The bridge is impressive, though narrow. Judging by the video stories told in each of the towers, the bridge was an engineering marvel. It was the first time a steel structure was to be built, and it came with steam engines to power the two lifting decks. Many people of the day speculated it couldn’t be done, but the engines worked right up until the decommissioned them in the 1970s (Why were the 70s such a horrible decade?).
While we were in the south tower, the lift operator announced that bridge was going up and we could see if from the observation decks, which were built as walkways for people to use while the bridge was up. They must have liked stairs in the 1890s, because there are about six stories’ worth in each tower to get to the walkways, which is now the observation area. And they weren’t enclosed in glass until much later. I can’t see how this was an appealing alternative to waiting for the ship to pass. Anyway, I digress. Susan and I were excited and surprised that the bridge was going up because our Tuesday tour guide, remember Rodney?, told us that bridge only went up about five times a year. I was thinking, “what dumb luck. We’re up here while the bridge is going up and we won’t be able to see it.” On the way down in the lift, though, the operator told us it goes up about five times A DAY.
From there we walked along the Queen’s Walk (everything is named queen, king, Victoria or Albert or both, or it has some nonsensical name like Tooting Bec or Picadilly), to the London Bridge Tube station where we Tubed to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of Susan’s religion, the Anglican church. She was unimpressed with that aspect, but like the building. They’re in the process of doing all kinds of cleaning and restoration to the building, and seeing it in process gives a unique before-after look. The exterior around the front door has been cleaned to look as it did the day Sir Christopher Wren presented it to the King and Queen in the 1600s, but the rest of it is stained an awful black color probably from the exhaust of millions of cars and other industrial particles in the air. St. Paul’s isn’t far from the formerly dirty Thames.
What I found most interesting is they have turned the crypt into a destination. There’s a gift shop, museum and something called the Crypt Cafe. It all sounds very morbid, but in a genius stroke of irony, it was a very lively place.
The rest of the day was a bit a of a wash. We had both taken to sitting and resting more than walking. We agreed to go to Covent Garden to look for dinner. We had heard that it was a neat shopping district. It was. in fact, it was laid out very similar to Quincy Market in Boston. But the main hall was more like a flea market than a shopping area. The area was flanked by arcades of expensive international brands, but nothing of interest to us.
After almost being hit by a cab, Susan and I ambled past another church named St. Paul’s that stood at one end of the quad, and was supposedly the location of the first Punch and Judy marionette show. Fittingly, a street performer was about to set up and go through his routine. He had a small electronic music maker and a suitcase, the latter of which he swung about a bit, then set it down and pulled out a long yellow rope. With a bit of theater panache, he laid the rope out creating three side of a square, making some people move out of the area now defined by the rope. He went back to his suitcase and motioned to the crowd in front of him, which pretty much ignored him. That was amusing. He tried to start his act, but oblivious Brits stepped over his rope and walked through his performance space. Next thing we knew, the music machine was gone and he picked up his rope and stomped over to some friends waiting in front of the church. Susan and I agreed that if this wasn’t part of his act, he should give up performing, because this was the best we’d seen of him yet.
We walked on and ended up in Leicester (like Lester) Square and supped at the Spaghetti House, which turned out to be really damn good, and a great spot to people watch. Dinner was slow and enjoyable. We finished the night with dessert in the Internet cafe nearby.
Another all-day tour today. This one also interested me. It took us into the countryside to see a medieval castle, last occupied by a real British lord in 1978, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Oxford, where scenes from the Harry Potter films were shot. Today’s tour guide, Jason, was dressed in a nice suit and car coat, but judging by his hair he looked like he was in a rock band at night.
The tour started with a long drive on the motorway through some of the greenest pastureland I’ve seen yet. Some were dotted with grey sheep, while others were carpeted with a yellow-flowering plant known as oil seed of the rape. That’s the name. I think it’s the same as rapeseed, which is farmed in Canada and turned into canola oil (Canada Oil). Susan took the opportunity to sleep, while I read the two of the daily tabloids. Jason was a knowledgeable and informative guide. He chatted over the microphone through most of the ride giving us various interesting history lessons and pointing out important landmarks along the way.
Warwick Castle in the town of Warwick (pronounced Warrick) was the first stop. It’s completely a tourist destination now, owned by Madame Tussaud’s, and there are even wax people inside. The first part of the castle was build 1,000 years ago, along with many other things in England, and it has a real torture chamber and dungeon. Some of the scracthings on the wall of the dungeon show that people actually lived in a 12-by-16 stone cell for years. Some were even forced into a small hole no bigger than a dog house. Others were sentenced to die in hanging iron, where they would be hung from the ceiling in an iron cage that encased their trunk. They would stay there until the rotted out of it.
Other parts of the castle were more pleasant, such as the state rooms, which were decorated much the way they’ve been portrayed on television and in movies. Large portraits of dead, but important, family members crawl up the walls. Madame Tussaud’s does a good job also bringing the castle grounds to life with various daily demonstrations. And there was a sign posted on our way out that Meatloaf was scheduled to perform there soon.
The most interesting part of the tour came next, in Stratford upon Avon, where William Shakespeare was born and is buried. The town resembles a period version of Wellesley. There’s a ton of great shops, and the property values are sky high. Many homes are into the £500k, which is about $1.1 million.
The house where Shakespeare was born is about 60 percent original, according to one guide. It was a nice house for the time, and it has held up well. They don’t have any true documentation that the room they say he was born in is actually the one, but they believe what was handed down through oral history because the family owned the home until the 19th century.
The next leg of the journey took us to a pub in the Cotswolds, which is a region of rolling hills and that-roofed houses. That’s it. We didn’t have any choice but to eat at this pub, and the cost of lunch wasn’t included in the tour price. We had budgeted for this, though, and the food was very good. On the way out, I stopped in the loo, only to be startled by the sound of small footsteps on the ceiling. To my surprise, I looked up and saw a dog standing on a skylight. When I got outside, I saw that two Jack Russell terriers lived in the residential portion of the pub, and they’re play area was the roof of the pub!
The Cotswolds led us to Oxford University, where we were set free to explore the 1,000-year-old cloisters and cathedral at Christ Church College. The cloisters and Tom quad, named after the bell in Tom Tower, were used in the Harry Potter films. The dining hall on campus, which was built later, was also used as inspiration for the dining hall in the film, but it was actually built inside an airplane hangar.
Our journey brought us back to London, where we Tubed to dinner in Picadilly Circus. Susan had been dying to try an Italian restaurant chain we saw all over the city. Trouble was, they didn’t serve chicken parm, Susan’s favorite, so she ordered pizza. I thought she had a lot of nerve, because we passed umpteen pizza places to get to this pasta place. Nevertheless we enjoyed our meal, then walked to the Internet cafe to end the night.
The subway here is known by two names. It is officially the Underground, and colloquially as the Tube. I believe it is truly an American trait to make the word Tube a verb, as I have used it here, “We Tubed home.” I haven’t heard any Brits speaking that way.
The Tube is laid out rather logically, although some naysayers might say it is overly redundant. It’s redundancy is it’s charm and appeal. See, we can go into most stations and have a choice of two or more lines. What’s more, we often only need to go one or two stops on one line to get to the line we want.
It also allows the Underground to close entire sections at both random and scheduled times. One night we got on and heard an announcement that the train wouldn’t be stopping at Holborn because of a security incident. That’s OK, because Holborn is a short walk to Covent Garden. On Saturday and Sunday, two lines were right out of commission all day. Although this caused us a bit of a long walk from Blackfriars to Embankment, we later learned we had another option to take a water ferry from Blackfriars Pier to Embankment Pier, and it was covered by our TravelCards.
Speaking of TravelCards, these were the best investment of the trip. We have spent more than our money’s worth on the Tube in these cards. I think they were about £38 apiece, but the number of times we’ve gotten on and off the Tube, including the trip from the airport has saved us a ton of dough.
Another part of the genius of the Underground is in its connections. Many connecting stations don’t have the over/under style connection as in Boston, like at Park Street or Downtown Crossing. Sometimes lines are hundreds of yards away in entirely separate stations. But the walk underground is not unpleasant, but there are a lot of stairs. If this were available in more parts of Boston, the subway would be more user friendly.
I posted this day in two parts because the post was getting too long, and it was two amazing experiences that need to be dealt with separately.
After lunch, we made our way over to Picadilly Circus in Susan’s quest to find the Hard Rock Cafe. We saw it on our Tuesday tour, but neither of us could remember exactly where. Our pubkeeper gave us directions to the one in Picadilly. After walking there from Trafalgar, which was a short walk, we found the Hard Rock Casino. Not the same thing. Susan was disappointed. I was in pain thanks to my shoes. I think Susan saw the pain on my face, so she agreed to let me buy theater tickets. It’s been my dream for years to see a show in the West End. I have this knack for finding good shows. I saw the “Sunshine Boys” on Broadway starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman for $10 a ticket on Broadway. After doing some research, and using Susan’s rule #1 (no singing), I found the perfect show. It was the David Mamet play, “A Life in the Theater” starring Patrick Stewart (aka Capt. Jean Luc Picard) and Josh Jackson (aka Pacey Whitter).
With some time still before show, we walked to the London Eye, a 300-foot tall ferris wheel. To get there, we got to walk across this neat footbridge that is canti-levered and suspended off a 19th century steel train bridge. It’s an interesting blend of old and new architecture.
The Eye, itself, looks like a huge bicycle wheel canti-levered over the south bank of the Thames. It’s owned by British Airways, so we were a bit skeptical based on our flight over, but this flight was much better. Passengers board the “capsule” while the wheel is still moving. It moves very slowly. They do stop it from time to time, though. The wheel then turns anti-clockwise when viewed from south (which is actually the east because of the orientation of the river at that point). The whole capsule is glass and steel. It is climate controlled, and it stays perfectly stable through the whole ride. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the capsule rides on a double track that encircles it, and goes around the whole outer circumference in a single revolution.
Still hurting from a day of walking in uncomfortable shoes, I hobbled back up the to Bakerloo Tube stop with Susan in Trafalgar Square, and we made our way back to the hotel so we could change. I had to put on my black shoes again, which I had traded after the Eye for a pair of trainers to ease my pain.
We Tubed to Picadilly again and found a delicious (pricey) steak house that looked right out on the Circus. From dinner, we went to show, which was well acted, funny and poignant, meaning, as you can imagine, Susan didn’t like it. After a brief stop in the Internet Cafe, we tried searching for the real Hard Rock Cafe, but ended up walking alongside the gardens of Buckingham Palace at 10 at night. We hopped a cab and went home. We needed our rest because Thursday is set aside for a long tour of the countryside.