British escape, part I: London, England

London is my BFF. On this, my third visit to England in four years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was pre-Royal Wedding week, after all — and having had the greatest time on my previous visit, nerves pulsed in my stomach. What if London wasn’t the way I remembered it? What if — two years later — I felt older, wiser — and thoroughly less enchanted? What if something bad happened and it was forever tarnished for me?

Oh, the agony.

Well. It wasn’t tarnished — or anywhere close. It was . . . comfortable. Familiar. It was a place I’d already navigated and seen and photographed, which opened up a whole new door for me: feeling less like a tourist and more like a local. Branching out and doing different things.

I wasn’t a local, of course; I was an enthusiast. And I met locals — including Lyndsey — and was still the sweaty, disoriented and Tube map-clutching American wandering around the city with her family . . . but that was okay. I had my bearings. And seeing Big Ben peeking through the treetops still gave me a happy, familiar jolt of excitement.

Twice before I’d taken red-eye flights to England and arrived in London just as the city was waking up. This usually left me bleary-eyed and exhausted for the full day ahead of me, so we made a different plan this time: leaving Washington, D.C., in the morning and arriving in London at night. So that’s what we did — getting to Heathrow around 10 p.m. local time.

It was a very strange sensation, watching the clouds turned golden as our plane dipped closer to the United Kingdom. “It’s sunset!” I cried at one point, peering at my small watch. Night closed in and encompassed the plane, tampering with my body clock. It was 3 p.m. at home.

After a good night’s sleep, it was off to explore the city on Thursday and hunt for royal souvenirs — and that meant leaving our hotel near Heathrow for central London, where we were staying in Islington. With four heavy, 50-lb. suitcases apiece, getting to the next location was a little scary. We packed up our stuff and found a bus that would take us to the closest Tube station, where I was in charge of navigating us to our next hotel.

I’ll toot my own horn right here: over the course of our four combined days getting around London at both the beginning and end of the trip, I didn’t get us lost on the Underground one time. This is all thanks to my friend Stacy, who taught me not to be afraid of the train system with its complicated, crazy maze of lines and colors and names. After stowing our stuff, we left to explore the city.

We hopped on the Tube en route to Knightsbridge, where we had lunch at Spaghetti House near the world-famous department store Harrods. Exhaustion was setting in at that point, rendering me a hungry, disoriented beast; I woofed down some pasta after laughing with my family about a guy who looked like Edward Cullen on a “date” that didn’t seem to be going well; neither he or the hairbow-wearing lady he was sitting with were saying a word to each other.

The man had show-stoppingly good hair.

After walking through Knightsbridge, it was over to Hyde Park to try and find “traditional English gardens.” Like me, my mother is never without her camera — and we were eager to find flowers to photograph. It was a gray day, but warm and without rain, so we embarked on foot for the park and a chance to see the Diana Memorial Fountain.

And that’s where I screwed up.

We’d gotten off the Tube at Hyde Park Corner, which was close to lunch but . . . not the fountain. Without a phone on which to check a map or the location of the fountain, I had no idea how far away it would be — but hey, I debated, how bad of a walk could it be? We’re on one side of the park; the fountain’s on the other. We need some exercise. We can make it.

Right?

Well.

We made it. An hour or so of walking, detours throughout the grass expanse of Hyde Park, stops to photograph a few stray tulips and a Ferris wheel that had taken up residence there and . . . we made it. But by the time we arrived at the fountain, we weren’t much in the mood for photographing little kids splashing in the burbling water.

We were exhausted.

I felt bad. No, really — I did. I was okay, but I knew we were all suffering badly from jetlag (it was barely morning at home!) and the last thing we needed was a miles-long walk around an entire British park. Still, my family was a trio of troopers! We even walked over to Buckingham Palace next, where we purchased royal souvenirs and loitered in the shops there. Television crews lined the streets surrounding the palace, some interviewing passersby and others doing stand-ups with wedding news. My sister, a video journalist, was drawn to the cameramen and anchors like flies to honey; we couldn’t resist pausing by a woman with a BBC lanyard to see if she needed any, um, interviewees. (She didn’t, I guess.)

And then? Then we walked from Buckingham to Trafalgar Square, one of my favorite spots in the city, where was I tremendously disappointed to see the fountains weren’t turned on (but I did get to make a wish in the Victoria Memorial fountain by Buckingham)! Crowds still loitered on the steps of the National Gallery and gazed at the large clock counting down the hours until the 2012 Olympics, which will soon take the city by siege.

We sat for a few minutes to collect our thoughts (and calm our racing hearts), then headed to The Sherlock Holmes nearby — a restaurant I’ve been dying to visit since first spotting it in a calendar years ago. It looked so pretty! So fresh! So British! And it didn’t disappoint. Dinner was delicious — a perfect collection of hearty and savory foods, and it was fun to sit in a place with so much atmosphere. Downstairs the pub was jumpin’, with the after-work crowd loitering in the streets for happy hour. In the streets. With beers. That was a funny sight, honestly: people drinking right out in the open. At most spots in the U.S., do that and you’ll have a nice chat with a police officer for your “open container.”

After dinner, my energy level was hitting a low point — and our collective legs were screaming from the miles we’d walked that day. We popped in a Waterstone’s bookstore en route to the nearest Tube stop, where I had fun looking at the differences between British and American book covers (like this one, for Emma Donoghue’s Room). Funny signs littered the store, too, and I really enjoyed the ambiance of wandering around a city bookstore in the evening. Though I left empty handed (trying to preserve much-coveted space in my suitcase!), it was a fun visit.

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, thankfully, I was feeling way better after a good night’s sleep. We hopped over to Covent Garden, another place that had long been on my “to be visited in London” list, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of the busy commercial area. Street performers were swamped by crowds of tourists and locals with cameras and phones, laughing at the antics of a man performing magic with audience participation. I loved walking through the open-air markets and dodging in the little stores.

Hunger was taking over by the time lunch rolled around — and how fortunate, because I was meeting up with the lovely Lyndsey of Teadevotee! We’d made plans to see one another when I announced my travel plans months before and found each other at Bill’s, a lovely cafe between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. I’ve met up with fellow book bloggers several times before and am never, ever disappointed; Lyndsey was exactly the funny, sweet person I felt I knew. She recognized me just as I recognized her and, after a moment of accidentally appearing in the background of a fashion commercial (?? Oh, London!), we made it the cafe.

Poor Lyndsey probably didn’t expect to dine with a table of journalists. It’s in our nature to pepper innocent people with questions, so the inquisition began: what do you do? What does your husband do? What’s life in England like? Are you excited about the wedding? (I’m sure everyone in London is really, really sick of being asked that.) Lyndsey was gracious enough to answer our countless inquiries and even brought me a gift: a copy of a Jane Austen biography that I’ve never seen and can’t wait to read. Sweetness! We said our goodbyes and snapped a few photos. I tried not to look like the frizzy-haired, jetlagged monster I was.

With hours to go before meeting up with our tour group later that evening to embark on an eight-day jaunt through the rest of the UK, Mom, Dad, Kate and I went over to see the London Eye, the famous Ferris wheel constructed in 1999. We queued up with hundreds of people to get a birds-eye view of London, which was awesome — and very different from the air! London is huge. Massive. Sprawling in every direction, giant and encompassing . . . and how strange to see Big Ben from the air, where it’s not nearly as majestic as when you’re on foot.

We took a riverboat cruise on the Thames River next, which took us up and down the river en route to Tower Bridge and back. I love being on the water — especially on vacation. You see so much more that way. Though I couldn’t snap many photos without someone’s head or camera in them, it was fun to see the city that way . . . and so nice to just sit down.

After the boat ride, I convinced my family to walk across Westminster Bridge, which spans the Thames, to get a closer look at Parliament and Big Ben (again). On my last trip, walking across that bridge at sunset was one of my fondest memories . . . magical and surreal. It felt good to be there again, but hard to believe — especially since I wasn’t sure when I’d ever make it across the pond again!

We wrapped up our third night in the city by having dinner at the hotel and getting a good night’s rest — and we’d need it. On Saturday morning, our alarms chimed at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. local time to begin the leg of our tour with Trafalgar Tours, which I’ll tell you all about . . . next time.

Hint: it involves the English countryside, cathedrals, countless medieval streets and clotted cream fudge.

If nothing else, you have to come back for the fudge.

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20 thoughts on “British escape, part I: London, England

  1. Great report, Meg! It sounds like you saw just about everything there is to see in London. I lived near London (like, one hour away) off and on for 10 years, and I think I’ve been there 3 times or so (I’m not one for big cities). So you’ve seen way more of London than I ever did (or probably will).

    Did you go to York too? It’s almost a must on a tour like yours! I lived there for 5 years and it’s a beautiful town. Hope it appears in your next report. πŸ™‚

  2. Holy cow, that was a busy day! I spent a couple of months over in London for work (a long time ago) and we invaded that city like we owned it. The underground does allow you to see it all. I remember that I had my worst hurting feet in my entire life when I was there. I wanted to chop them off and leave them in the garbage. Thank you for bringing back all the coolness of London!

  3. Sounds like you had an incredible time and it looks like you did as much walking as I did when I was in Rome last week. Thank God for flats! I love all the Will and Kate stuff- hilarious! I bet being at the city before the Royal Wedding was a lot of fun. I have a co-worker over there right now….I can only imagine. Great write-up and thanks for sharing your photos with us. I can’t wait to read more about the countryside and of course, the fudge. πŸ˜‰

  4. What a wonderful post, it sounds like you had an incredible vacation. I’m taking note of that Sherlock restaurant for when I go. I thought it was funny too, when I visited Paris, to see people drinking beer on the street!
    I can’t wait to hear about the rest of your trip! πŸ™‚

  5. It sounds like you really enjoyed your time in London, no matter how tiring it was! I think I’m used to people drinking in the street now, as we often see them outside pubs with pint in hand. I have seen far less Will and Kate memorabilia but I’m not in London; not surprised to hear it’s so crazy there!

  6. I love the way you wrote about this…from the food to your jet lag and crankiness…it sounds as though you had a joyous time and how lucky you are to still be able to take a trip with your family…

  7. Two things- If I ever make there, can you come with? I don’t mind walking miles out of the way to get to things, it’s all part of the experience.

    And, the fevered-ness of your writing and all that you packed in to just a couple of jet-lagged days made me tired just reading it!

    Can’t wait to taste clotted cream fudge with you.

  8. Hey, there I am! Doing my traditional photo thing of not being able to open my eyes in photos. You did not look like a frizzy haired monster in the slightest πŸ™‚ It was so great to meet you and all the family and I’m looking forward to reading how the rest of your holiday went. X

  9. I have these big dreams to travel and London is definitely on my list. I totally got swept away in all the Royal Wedding excitement and as I watched on TV I couldn’t help but think, I want to go there!!!! And I know that one day I will get myself across the pond. I guess until then I will just read about all the awesome experiences that you had! It sounds like you had a really wonderful trip and I am very glad to hear that. I am getting loads of awesome travel tips just from reading these awesome posts.

  10. You are not helping me avoid planning another trip to England. I haven’t been since 2003, and my husband and I love to fake plan our next international getaway. I can’t imagine how much fun it must have been to be there before the wedding. Fun!

  11. I’m wild about London! I went there for the first time last September for my honeymoon. We split our time between London and a few places in Italy so we really didn’t get too much time actually in London. I’m so ready to go back!

  12. wow! sounds like you had an amazing time in london! i’m looking forward to your next post of london. sorry to hear that you didn’t get to be interviewed by the bbc. that reminded me of the one time i did get interviewed by a news crew and i ended up sounded like a blubbering idiot. and shortly after the interview i just hoped that they would cut me out and not play it on the local news.

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