Going to London was a huge goal for me when I knew I was moving here and we booked our tickets and accommodations a week after I first arrived in Germany (in fact, when looking through emails in June to gather all our London information together, we discovered I had first mentioned my wish to go back in May 2014). I had a specific time frame in mind, early July (July 2-6 to be exact), in order to be in town for a particular event. No, it was not to celebrate America’s domination in the War of Independance in the losing country, but instead for the Royal Henley Regatta. The website claims it is the world’s best known regatta, which I would argue it’s probably tied with The Head of The Charles at this point, but it is a regatta I had pinned in the back of my mind for “some day.” The Henley is like the Kentucky Derby; known to be an event to try to get into society’s best dressed columns and sipping fancy drinks underneath large hats, but it is also an important athletic event that can place competitors on the world stage. The Henley is all of that but with a distinct “Britishness” to it.
Before we get to the Henley though, we arrived in London a few days before to have a look around and meet with some of Zach’s friends who are now living there. Actually getting to London was hectic as there were massive flight delays between Heathrow and FRA and at one point we were starting to panic that we wouldn’t be able to get to our bnb (in a suburb called Ealing) at a decent hour (the hostess informed us the door would be locked after 10:30). But after the flight before ours finished boarding (an hour and a half after their original take-off time) we snuck around to the British Airways counter behind the gate and asked if there were any available seats. There were two, and being the first in line to ask they were ours. When we landed (a bit after our original arrival time), we grabbed a taxi to get the our lodgings. We generally don’t take taxis when we travel but it was late and the Heathrow Express would get us to the place well after 10:30, and we just didn’t want to take the time to figure it out. The convenience of not having to deal with that cost us 55 pounds, $86 USD, for a 20 minute ride. That stung.
The next morning we started off with a bike tour. We again used Fat Tire Bike Tours and found our meeting point by an Underground Station near the center of town. As a side note, this meant that Zach has now done all four tours offered by the company and he gets a t shirt. Again, fantastic tour but unlike Paris, this was much more about information about the city rather than a scenic ride. We went through some neighborhoods, spent quite a bit of time along the river and had lunch in the Borough Market. Our bikes were comfy and the tour guide was great, we saw a lot of London in a little amount of time and were able to pick out the spots we wanted to return to for a closer look. One interesting fact we learned was London did not develop from one city that expanded, but rather is made up of multiple cities that have become the larger London we know today, though the actual City of London is an incredibly small area.
A quick note about the market: getting lunch here was a GREAT idea. The amount of vendors was actually overwhelming and we ended up each having second breakfast so we could sample some more. I love pie, in savory or sweet form, and England does pies. We ate at Pie Minister for our 11sies and later on in our trip we found their retail site, where we ate there again. It’s located in South Bank and is in a little area with jewelry, art and unique clothing shops as well as some other restaurants. Highly recommend.
After our tour we headed up to see Zach’s friends Marco and Rebecca up in Primrose Hill. We took a walk to the top of the hill there and took in an excellent view. Walking back down we realized we were parched and sat outside a pub for awhile. the pound is quite expensive compared to the dollar right now and we realized food and drink were racking up quite a bit in our budget so early on. When we go again, we’ll know to have a little more set aside for meal times.
Once we said our goodbyes, we decided to walk into Camden Town on their recommendation. Camden was, interesting. Other words that are used to describe this area include “alternative,” “goth” and “hippie.” To compare the neighborhood to some I know in the states, it was parts Bardstown KY, Queens NY, Portland OR and 14th/U St. corridor in DC. It’s ethnically diverse, full of restaurants, loud music from all over, art/graffiti everywhere, and has interesting alleyways one can get lost in. Take all of the aforementioned places and relax the rules on alcohol and socially acceptable pornography, and this is Camden. Some of the little shops had fun pieces for the home and some were little more than shacks leaned against walls selling bizarre counterfeit items. We walked in and out of market squares, alleys and all over in general looking at everything, which sounds lame, “why wouldn’t you look at everything you’re in a new place,” but there was just a lot to constantly look at.
When we reached the end of Camden Town, we decided we weren’t so far from King’s Cross and as we weren’t going to do any Harry Potter themed activities (which makes me sad, but it’s so expensive I was much less sad when I realized how many pies I could get for one tour) we walked to the station and decided to sneakily take a picture at platform 9 3/4 instead. Turns out, there is no “sneaky” about it. The line was very long to get a picture under the sign for the platform against a brick wall. And, you can’t even do this yourself anyway; there’s a gift shop right next to this spot and there you can sign up to have a professional picture taken, complete with luggage cart and “flying” scarf and the whole setup has security guards around it. The setup looked kind of lame, and I didn’t want to pay, so I held up my camera and took pictures whenever the security guard looked away. I don’t know if one is allowed to take pictures in this matter but I decided to not risk it and tried to be inconspicuous.
The next day was the 4th of July and we were tired from the day before. We bought Big Bus tickets and decided to cruise around until something looked interesting. I recommend these hop-on hop-off tours as they’re excellent value, seeing the city from up high gives you a better idea of the lay the land, and they generally have an added bonus to the price. In most cases we’re finding, if the city has a river through it (which most big European destinations do) the hop-on bus also has a hop-on boat and it’s included for free in the bus ticket price.
On this day we did both and had a great time cruising around both on the streets and on the boat. We eventually got off at the Tower of London, a place we biked by the day before and decided deserved a more in depth visit. In addition to extra tours, the bus companies often have discounted tickets to other venues and sites that can be booked along with your bus ticket and we did this for the Tower when we bought our bus tickets.
We spent a few hours at the Tower even though we estimated we’d spend maybe two hours there tops. There’s an excellent self-guided tour that walks along the walls, through towers, and through courtyards with displays in each room. It’s pretty neat walking in and on top of the old walls and when you pass by a window there’s always a different view of London. We took a break in the moat and had some ice cream, watched a period performance from a distance that starred Anne Boleyn, then made our way back outside. The guards of the Tower live within the complex and their homes circled the main complex, it felt a bit strange to stare into people’s windows as part of a national museum.
We grabbed another hop-on bus that took us over to Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was expensive, 25 pounds each, and neither of us could justify that cost. Supposedly, one can go in to hear the Quire (choir) practice at 5:00pm for free, and in this way get a glimpse of the interior. But I couldn’t really find a guarantee nor was there any description of what there is to see from this viewpoint. So we walked around the outside of the palace instead. On this day, one of the gates was open so you could take unobstructed pictures. The guards were friendly and joked with the tourists and from what I could tell it’s not everyday the gates were opened so we caught it on a good day. I also finally learned the Abbey is “Westminster” and not “Westminister” so that was a win.
The third day was spent entirely at the Henley, so no London touring on this day.
Our last day we had planned to be spent around the suburb area we were staying in. We chose Kew Gardens because they have lockers that fit our luggage, they were an easy (double decker!) bus ride from our bnb and it was a pretty easy train ride to the airport after that. We love finding gardens in other cities so this was an excellent end. There is a mansion that used to house royalty for small periods during the summer; this was worth the visit as it’s so well maintained. Some of the displays weren’t even roped or closed off, so even though they can’t be touched, it felt like being a house guest of the time period. The gardens have little cafes in them and some cafeteria like places as well. We grabbed some sandwiches from one and found a little spot among the trees to have a lunch picnic.
When it was time to go, we headed to the nearest Underground station, switched at another station for the Heathrow Express, and then to our gate and then home. The only excitement at this point was a fire at Heathrow that evacuated an entire terminal (and caused the Express to skip that stop) that didn’t affect us so we had a leisurely trip home. At home however, we discovered Germany had broken historic heat wave records and our apartment temperature reflected that. London was having a “heat wave” as well while we were there but there was no possible way a foreigner would have known it, unless he were to speak to a Londoner describing the incredible heat of 80 degree weather. Europe is not a fan of air conditioning so temperatures were a bit more than unpleasant. We salvaged what we could of our poor plants and then ate ice cream in order to cool down to fall asleep.