When I arrived in London in 2007, a warm, rushing feeling swept over me — exhilaration, pure and simple, and I’ve been unable to fight off my obsession with all things English since! I spent two days with my family there en route to Italy, and the experience was totally life-changing. For the past two years I’ve been dreaming of making it back to the UK and, when the opportunity finally presented itself, I decided to take that vast and terrifying leap out in the world of travel . . . on my own. And what an amazing weekend I had.
My friend Stacy is studying at the University of Westminster in Harrow, just outside the city, and has been in my favorite place since September. At the gentle (and then forceful) persistence of my parents and sister, I booked a ticket in March to visit her this past weekend. And then I planned. And packed. And obsessed. And worried. And ultimately became very, very excited — though still very nervous!
On Thursday, May 21, we left for Dulles International Airport in Virginia. My 8:45 p.m. flight took off right on time and, for the first time in my life, I made it onto a plane after saying goodbye to Mom, Dad and Katie at security. I changed out my money before boarding so that when I landed at Heathrow Airport at 9 a.m. May 22, I was ready to go. And that was a good thing.
My British Airways flight was comfortable, if not exactly spacious! I managed to get some sleep on the six-and-a-half hour plane ride over, crammed up against the window with two British businessmen to my right. Just listening to the lilting, exotic accents of the flight crew — and my fellow travelers — was enough to get my blood really pumping! Hearing and seeing Brits in the flesh was more than a little exciting. Most of the nervousness I felt saying goodbye to my family melted away as I watched our plane creeping closer and closer to the UK on the TV screen in front of me.
By the time I landed at Heathrow, I was running on pure adrenaline. I had to keep my passport firmly in hand as I made my way through customs, telling the British agent that I was “on holiday” and staying with a friend for just four days. She stamped my passport wanly and let me pass. I turned on my American cell phone, a little worried about what sort of charges I was incurring, but definitely needing to find Stacy! She rang almost immediately and told me where to find her . . . which wasn’t a problem, really, considering I spotted her almost immediately after leaving the international arrivals area! I yelled out to her and waved while she snapped a photo of me with my heavy red suitcase, and we hugged as I started chattering unstoppably.
After making our way over to the underground station in the airport, Stacy helped me buy my first day pass for the Tube — and thus began my obsession with London’s popular mode of transportation! The underground lets you go anywhere, do anything and be wherever you want — all for roughly seven pounds (or $11). I was completely fascinated by all the travelers getting on and off our car, many of them glancing over casually as the two American friends talked over one another — we hadn’t seen each other in six months! I couldn’t believe that I was actually in England — that I successfully navigated my way through two airports and travelled alone! This was absolutely a huge step for me.
And so my first day in the UK began with the two of us taking the tube to Harrow and getting settled in Stacy’s dorm room. I commuted to college and never had the “dorm” experience but, from what I can tell, her building was very nice! Stacy’s room was great and fine for me, an Anglophile who didn’t really plan on getting much (or any) sleep while in London. I unpacked a bit, took a shower and repacked my bag. Then we went out on the town.
I hung out and napped a little in the salon where Stacy was getting her hair done, and then we went downtown to do a little shopping on Baker Street, have dinner at Pizza Express and see “Angels & Demons” at a Vue movie theater. I bought plenty of souvenirs as soon as they were in front of me — it’s hard for me to pace myself when I see tons of stuff emblazoned with the union jack! For dinner I had a “Legera” pizza — a centerless pizza filled with salad! It was something different and, though jet-lag really caught up with me around meal time, I toughed it out. Before going to the movie we stopped in W.H. Smith, a large British bookstore, and I bought the British version of J.K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and a paperback for my sister.
And that tied in perfectly with our other afternoon activity — seeing Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station! It wasn’t really easy, and we did a fair amount of wandering before spotting it. I was trying to spot it on my own but, after circling around a few times with no luck, I broke down and asked a security guard. Conscious of my accent and not wanting to play into any “rude American” stereotypes that might be circulating out there, I tentatively walked up to the sharp-tongued man.
“Hi, excuse me. Can I ask you a stupid question?” I began, smiling sweetly.
The guard eyed me with amusement, flicking his eyes between Stacy and me. “Let me guess. You’re looking for Harry Potter?”
“Yes, actually, I am. Is it that obvious?”
The guard laughed. “He’s not working today. You just missed him,” he said. “And he doesn’t work bank holidays.” (Monday was a bank holiday. I don’t know what that means, but there you go.)
Stacy and I both laughed with him as he indicated that we should keep going around the corner, heading back toward the end of the station. We thanked him and found the queue right after that — our tourists, including two Americans, who also stopped by to see the famed spot. After waiting our turn, Stacy snapped me “pushing” the cart right through the wall — something all Hogwarts students must do at the station in order to board the train bound for school. I was thrilled to be there and totally camped it up! Tourist attractions are made for me, I’ve decided. I buy into everything with fervent enthusiasm.
The movie was really good and I enjoyed sharing Stacy’s “sweet and salty” popcorn — there’s no artificial butter going on there! We chose a mixture of the two offerings — the sweet or salty kernels. And after getting a ribbing from the theater employee about the movie at “2050” — the clocks are all on 24-hour time — we got to enjoy the film. All of the summer previews were for American movies, which really interested me to note!
We made our way back to the dorm after the movie, making it back to the room around 11:30 p.m. After I called to check in back home and set out my clothes for the following day, Stacy and I settled in to talk and watch an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous,” a British television show she loves. We both fell asleep while watching the show on her laptop, an activity that proved to be a weekend tradition.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. I was so worried I would be exhausted and useless on the trip, so I packed a case of Red Bull to chug every day before we set out. It turns out I really didn’t need it, though — I adjusted surprisingly well to British time and woke up bright and ready to go at 9 a.m. Saturday. By 11:30 a.m. we were fed, dressed and on the tube headed to Green Park, just outside Buckingham Palace. And our string of good luck began — we walked right up to the palace in time to see the changing of the guard! Just as I was commenting on how I though the event took place each day at noon and maybe we would catch, I glanced down for the time and realized that I couldn’t have planned it much better myself. We shot tons of photos, mostly crowd shots, from atop a barrier, then moved in closer to take photos through the fence.
From Buckingham we walked across the street to the Hard Rock Cafe, where I picked up souvenirs for my friend Kelly. I took several shots of the iconic red telephone booths here, as well as the red postal box. I basically just had the camera glued to my hand and fired as often as was physically possible. And my battery never once died! Not even when we got to Hyde Park, our next stop, where I photographed one beautiful, flawless pink rose after another.
And speaking of flawless? I fell in love with the man working at the hot dog stand just at the entrance of Hyde Park. I didn’t exactly go to Britain thinking I’d find someone to share my everlasting love, but let me tell you — this was the guy! Stacy laughed as I ordered my hot dog and grabbed a bottle of water, then walked away with a star-struck, dreamy expression on my face. He was very nice, though a bit hurried, and just looked like the classically handsome British guy I would dig. I got not one but two adorable smiles from him, and our fingers brushed as I handed him a two-pound coin! Too bad I’ll never see him again. Stacy managed to snag a picture of him as I hastily ate my lunch en route to the neighboring gardens.
The flowers at Hyde Park were easily the prettiest I saw all weekend — and probably the nicest I’d ever seen. After I showed Stacy how to get some macro shots — oh, how I love macro! — we both wandered up and down part of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk in the park to take pictures of the beautiful roses and other flora and fauna. Lots of folks were out lounging in the sun or snapping photos, too, but the park is so big (350 acres) that we weren’t exactly walking on top of one another. I took almost 90 flower shots before we headed on through the park, wandering downtown until we came upon the busy London streets I expected to see and made detours into Harvey Nichols, where Stacy interns, and famous department store Harrods, where I grabbed souvenirs for my coworkers and grandparents. From that busy intersection we hopped on the tube again to head to Piccadilly Circus, the next item on my list.
Piccadilly was nice, though not quite what I was expecting. While it was very crowded and in the heart of the city, there wasn’t really anything to do there — it’s just a giant intersection. So that was a quick jaunt. After plenty more pictures, we stopped inside the tube station to ask for directions to Trafalgar Square from Piccadilly. On our way to Trafalgar we paused to get dinner at TGI Friday’s, a very bustling restaurant. Now before you go crazy about me eating at an American restaurant when I’m in England, let me tell you — the food was totally different! And the place was hectic. But Stacy and I had a really good chat and, thus fortified by chicken and Diet Coke, we walked on to Trafalgar. I took a nasty fall in Leicester Square on the way, but managed to get back up with only a bruised knee, hurt ankle and wounded ego! I still have a really sore bruise several days later, but absolutely nothing was going to ruin the trip for me!
Trafalgar was awesome — so beautiful and enchanting. Exactly what I pictured it would be! Evening was fast approaching at this point, and the “golden hour” was spilling over the fountains and gobs of people gathered everywhere in front of the National Portrait Gallery. Stacy and I hovered on the large set of steps and listened to a group of protestors railing against “the media” and the infiltration of conservative ideas into the hearts of Brits, and I did a fair amount of quiet heckling! But I was too mesmerized by the square to worry about a group of people yelling about the same stuff they yell about here. After I walked partway down the steps, Stacy excitedly told me to look out. I did. At a group of rowdy football (that’s soccer for we Americans, natch) fans hovering around one of Trafalgar’s giant lions.
“What, at them?” I squawked, snapping a photo.
“No, not at them! Look up. Over there.”
And there, illuminated in the distance, was Big Ben.
Now, I saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in 2007 — but from the top of a cold, windy double-decker bus tooling along at 30 or 40 miles per hour, barely pausing by the majestic structure. Definitely not from the ground, and definitely not when I had plenty of time to admire how awesome it really is. After hanging out at Trafalgar for a while more, we decided we had to get closer to it. And so we started walking.
Like my dad always points out to us when we head to neighboring Washington, D.C., things definitely are much farther than they appear! Big Ben seemed to be calling out to us — and not from that far away. Though the sun was starting to really set, casting shorter and shorter shadows over buildings and cars, we took off toward it. And not twenty minutes or so later, we were standing right in front of it! I was sufficiently impressed, I’ll say that. Both by our ability to keep walking — even with the busted ankle and whatnot — and our ability to track it down quickly. We walked by the River Thames and took plenty more photos of Ben, parliament and the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel just across the river. Highlighted in the pinks, oranges and blues of the sunset, it was absolutely an amazing sight. We lingered for more than an hour snapping photos and watching others walking with us across the bridge stretching across the water, everyone looking so content in the cool air.
Flush from our success at finding Big Ben and other London landmarks and not yet beaten down by absolute fatigue — that would set in later — Stacy and I foolishly headed off along the riverbank in search of Tower Bridge. A police officer had vaguely told us the direction in which we would find it and, having absolutely no concept of far it really was, we started walking. We passed London Bridge — you know, the one that’s falling down? — and trudged along for what felt like hours, eventually stopping another passerby to ask how much further Tower Bridge actually was. He told us we would find it after passing several more bridges and, lo and behold, we eventually did! It was still very far in the distance — way too far to walk, even if it wasn’t already after ten p.m. — but we did admire it for a while before trying to find a tube station.
The closest one, we were told by another guard, was Southwark. So after dragging our sore, tired feet and sleepy heads along the sidewalks of London, we eventually came upon the station. At that point, my entire body was absolutely ranting at me — what did I think I was doing?! We’d been walking for almost ten hours straight, pausing just to have dinner. My busted knee and ankle were getting sore. Jet-lag and crankiness were setting in. So Southwark couldn’t come along fast enough!
Until we realized it was closed. The station was closed.
I tried not to panic as Stacy guided us over to a nearby bus station, where we waited with a crazy woman ranting about how “they ask too much” (who they were and why they were asking “too much” of this poor lady, I’ll never know) until one of the familiar red buses appeared to save us. We rode to the Elephant & Castle station and took the tube back to Harrow, a very long ride for two sleepy ladies but a welcome relief from our day of extreme touring and walking. I barely remember falling asleep Saturday night, but I did call home and filled my mom in on many of the sites we captured on film.
Things were pretty slow-going Sunday morning. When I woke up on the air mattress, I felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer and smashed in almost every part of my body. My feet and legs hurt so badly, they felt permanently cramped and twisted. Just wriggling my toes hurt. I forced myself to shower, put on some comfortable clothes and slipped on a borrowed pair of “trainers” (or sneakers) from Stacy. Much to my mom’s chagrin, I’d only packed sandals — I had absolutely no idea how hard I would be on my feet! Being so notoriously stubborn, I once again learned my lesson the hard way. At least I’d actually thought to pack socks.
Thank goodness our Sunday was a little bit less hectic, far more low-key — and included a trip by train out to Surrey to visit Hampton Court Palace, home of King Henry VIII. Dad and I are obsessed with “The Tudors,” the popular Showtime television show detailing the lives of the notorious womanizer and powerful English leader whose power and religious influence still impact modern British society. I loved touring the building and the traditional English gardens, many of which were enormous and different than I expected. Although they originally called for rain on Sunday – the only day precipitation was in the forecast – it was really hot, sunny and completely cloudless. We walked around the perimeter of the huge estate, getting sunburned and people watching. I really liked the huge, crazy-looking shrubs around the property! I felt like I was in a totally foreign place.
Like the times I’ve stood in the Sistine Chapel, rode in a gondola in Venice or looked up at the Roman Coliseum, it was impossible to realize where I actually was as I was there. We look at pictures in books, read about places online and watch movies and TV shows set in these famous places but, when you’re really standing there yourself, the experience is so surreal that it’s hard to really grasp what’s going on. I couldn’t really fathom that I was standing in King Henry’s real dining room, looking up at beautiful stained glass windows and tapestries originally created for him in the 1500s. How can modern onlookers process that? It’s craziness! And we don’t have anything nearly that old in America, so the antique quality of everything is totally a strange concept for me.
After we were finished enjoying Hampton Court, we walked back up the bridge over the Thames and got this famous ice cream my good friend – and Brit by heritage – Palmer is always talking about, complete with a chocolate flake stick! I’d never even heard of it, but he promised me it would be delicious. Definitely good. Stacy enjoyed hers, too, right before it fell off her cone and she caught it one-handed! It got all over the front of her dress and dribbled down her chin. We laughed as we tried to find a washroom for her clean up, eventually making it back to the train station. Thankfully it all washed out!
Back at the dorms that night, Stacy cooked spaghetti for our final dinner – comprised of ingredients we’d gotten at a British grocery store, Sainsbury’s, that morning. Stacy pointed out how much cheaper food prices were there, including a loaf of bread for 98p (about $1.56). We ate the delicious dinner in the dorm kitchen with the windows open – very pretty and relaxing – and watched “The Devil Wears Prada” on Stacy’s laptop. We chatted away for the rest of the night before eventually falling asleep around midnight, another nightly tradition.
I woke up early Sunday feeling completely, utterly exhausted – all of the running of the past few days definitely caught up with me! But since I only had a few hours left before my 3 p.m. flight out, we had to make the most of my remaining time in England. We took the tube to Harrow-On-The-Hill for breakfast and made a quick stop in Primark, a big Irish clothing/accessories store in what looked like a mall (but Stacy tells me it wasn’t). If I didn’t know for a fact that my suitcase was about to burst open at the slightest touch, I probably would have grabbed some tops! Everything was very inexpensive and really colorful. The place was jammed.
We walked heavily back to the dorms for the final time that morning, gathering up all of my stuff and walking back to Northwick Park, Stacy’s underground stop. She helped me lug my gigantic bag up the stairs – elevators, or lifts, are shockingly scarce – and we said goodbye before I boarded the train for Heathrow again! Since the ride is about an hour and a half, I told Stacy I would be fine to get to the airport alone – all I had to do was change trains at King’s Cross and make sure I boarded the ride car to Terminal 5. I was pretty freaked out about doing this early in the week but, after spending all weekend on the underground, I was cocky enough to believe I could find my way by myself!
Thankfully, I did – and it was really an awesome experience spending those last few hours by myself. As Stacy herself told me, it really made me feel so calm, independent and alive . . . just really exhilarated. I know it sounds pretty silly to talk about riding a subway like that, but I can’t exactly describe it! Just being so far from home, having made this journey alone and finding my way . . . it was really powerful for me. I listened to Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and “Strawberry Swing,” my favorite song, came on, my eyes started to tear up. As Chris Martin croons, “It’s such, such a perfect day . . .”
And it was – a perfect day, a perfect weekend. We all know that you can’t visit the same place twice, and I really wondered if I’d built London up into some sort of crazy ideal over the past few years. The last time I was there with my family I’d just graduated from college and hadn’t yet started my full-time job, so I was flying off without the sense of adulthood and responsibility I now associate with my everyday life. That was the first time I’d been overseas and was totally overwhelmed with culture shock, but this time I knew more of what to expect.
I just wasn’t sure if I would . . . feel the same way about it again. I’d fallen in love with a city where I’d only spent two days – and this time, only four. But the weekend was enough to not only stoke the embers of my obsession with England, but really send that flame soaring skyward! I loved it as much as I hoped, and haven’t felt so in the moment in years. I didn’t worry about work or anxiety or anything while I was there – I was just there. I finally, finally let myself be here now. Definitely magical.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some of the little things that made the weekend special, but I’ll add them in as they come up over time! Thanks to everyone who listened to me prattle on and humored my Anglophilia leading up to and following this event . . . and thanks in advance for listening to all of my stories – the ones I’ll probably be telling for the rest of my life!
I took more than 600 photos while I was gone, and I’ve posted many of my favorites on my Flickr account. Check those out here.
If you’re interested in just my garden photos from Hyde Park, check out the blooms here!