Wednesday, July 13, 2016

London - Our Final Stop

I have a soft spot for London. It was the first place abroad that I travelled all by myself. And I liked it so much I stayed for two years. Kerry's introduction to London is not much different than mine and he stayed for almost a year. So for both of us, when we come here it's like settling into an old pair of comfortable slippers. This visit has been no different.

London continues to be fantastic. It has changed a lot since I first came in 1989. Then there were a number of dirty, deserted and creepy streets in central London - even in the middle of a regular work day. There was also the business of the IRA attacks in London, including the first (and I think only) mortar attack, which missed its intended target of 10 Downing Street. The Docklands were just starting to be built, the Channel Tunnel was not yet a reality, and the south side of the river kind of scared me.

Today we have found a London that is clean, bustling and safe. The transformation that had barely started when I returned to Canada continues. There are modern glass buildings in the City and a lot of cranes building more. The Docklands to the east is built up and booming. 

The new behind the old. So many new buildings built and being built all within sight of the Tower of London.

The south side of the Thames is now unrecognizable. I went to that side of the river just a couple of times in two years. Every visit had a definite destination and I wasted no time getting to that destination. It was creepy over there. But now, in the last two and half weeks we've been over there more times than I was during the two years I lived here. It's completely transformed with people, condos, restaurants and green space.

The Southbank never looked this inviting 25 years ago.

There are more affordable places to eat than when I was first here. So many terrific pubs and restaurants. Also, we've become real fans of the quick sandwiches, wraps (hot or cold), finger food, and cut-up or easy-to-eat fruit that can be found at a variety of places (Pret à Manger, Marks & Spencer Foodhall, Tesco Express, Sainsbury Express). These places are everywhere. And given that you're never further than a few minutes walk from a terrific park, we've been having a lot of lunchtime picnics.

There continue to be a ton of free things to do in London: The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Modern, and The British Museum are all free. 

The British Museum (home to many stolen significant pieces from around the world) offers quick 30-40 minute overview tours of certain rooms and themes. So fantastic that it's so easy to just pop in for a bit. Don't think the museum is losing any money though. It makes up the lost revenue for admission on the gift shop; it has some mighty fine goods for sale.

There's also just seeing things that are free: 
  • Buckingham Palace
  • The Changing of the Guard (quick tip - it's easier to see everyone go up and down the Mall rather than huddle with the throngs of people in front of the gate at Buckingham Palace)

  • Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) and Big Ben -- you can get in for free to see either the House of Commons or the House of Lords when in session. Surprisingly, there was no line up for either the day we headed in.

  • Trafalgar Square
  • Harrods
  • Kensington Palace
  • Sherlock Holmes Statue (outside Baker Street Tube) 

  • Paddington Bear Statue (at Paddington Tube)
  • Platform 9¾ (Kings' Cross Station)

  • Milleneum Bridge, from which you can easily see the famous Tower Bridge
Thanks to my pal JHJ, we found the Festival of Love at the Southbank Centre which included free crafts for kids. Who knew that Eamon would like weaving on a little loom so much! There was also a free concert featuring Gamelan (Indonesian ensemble music) in which JHJ played.

Looming at the Festival of Love

Of course, St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abby draw big crowds, but they charge big money to go in, so we have just admired them from the outside on this trip.

Kerry had some good eyes  for good shots this day. This memorial to the firefighters of the Blitz looks as though they are saving St. Paul's Cathedral from this angle.

And there's cuteness, and interesting, and weirdness everywhere you turn. And all for free!

The double decker buses remain. I still get a thrill taking the bus from one part of London to another - especially if I'm sitting in the top in the front row. And it's so much easier now that the buses have electronic signs announcing the upcoming stop.

It's also easy to spend money here. One of our favourite things to do has been to go on any of the London Walks on offer. They are two-hour walks on a variety of topics in a variety of neighbourhoods, for £10 per adult and kids are free. After your first walk, you can buy a frequent walker card for £2 and then save £2 on every other walk. We have yet to be disappointed. On every walk we have ever taken we've had a great guide, and learned so very much. This trip we've been on a walks for Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, and Mayfair (the most expensive real estate in London). We are giving the Jack the Ripper walk a miss this trip, but we will likely hit at least one more before we leave.

There's the theatre. So many theatres and so much to see! I love live performances and never miss a chance to go. Lucky for me, it turns out Meaghan is a real fan. We've separated from Kerry and Eamon a couple of times so that we could head off and see something that didn't interest them as much. We've not gone everyday, but Meaghan and I would sure like to try.

And let's not forget the Tower of London where so many treasoners have been imprisoned, and then buried beneath the chapel without their heads. A definite highlight is the tour given by one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters). And don't be shy of the big crowds. The Warders have big booming voices.

There are also day trips outside of London. This time we visited the Harry Potter Warner Brothers tour. Outstanding! The kids rode a broom in front of a green screen. We saw sets, and props and costumes, and learned a fair bit about the making of the movies. Such a thrilling afternoon.

Who wouldn't want the Burrow's kitchen with all that magic helping to get things done.
We also headed to  Salisbury, home of the tallest cathedral in England and the best preserved original Magna Carta (no photos allowed), 

and then onto Stonehedge -- probably the most famous hunks of rock in a circle anywhere.

We still have a couple more things to check off our list before we leave here on Monday for our final flight of our travel adventure. If all goes according to plan, by Monday afternoon, we will be back in Edmonton retaking possession of our home that has been in the hands of tenants since we left.

I can't believe that our 11 months of travel is coming to an end, but I'm so glad it's ending in London.

See you soon!

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