City Scene: London

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Researching London was almost as much fun as being there! We checked out travel books from our local library, watched related videos, read blogs and searched the web for information regarding the best way to spend four days in London on our own. After months of doing our homework, we settled on an aggressive itinerary that covered everything we thought we wanted to see in the amount of time we had. We booked our hotel, purchased our London Pass and Oyster Cards, and felt confident that we could explore the city without getting lost or wasting time. Our trip also included four days prior to London visiting a family member in Southern England, but when it came time to say goodbye, we boarded the train to London. We were about to find out how good of a job we did on our homework!

We got off the train in Ealing, a bustling neighborhood in West London with well-known shops and restaurants where we booked our hotel. As a transport hub, Ealing has a convenient tube station and bus terminal. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the tube station. It was about noon when we took the underground to Green Park – the closest stop to Buckingham Palace. We arrived about 40 minutes before our pre-booked tour of the palace, so we made a quick pub stop to toast our successful first experience with “the tube”! So far, so good!

DSC06366 (2)Our tour took us through 19 of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace regularly used by the Royal family, but since the Queen was making her yearly visit to Scotland, the lavish rooms were open to the public. It was a treat to see inside what has become the focal point for the British people and the monarchy for generations. We also toured the extensive Gardens located behind the palace.

DSC06372 (2)After the tour we began our walk down The Mall, a wide elegant avenue between Buckingham Palace and the Admiralty Arch. We stopped for photos in lovely St. James Park which borders The Mall. The Admiralty Arch, completed in 1912 to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, is a curved stone building which links The Mall to Trafalgar Square, the official center of London. In the center of the square are fountains, Nelson’s Column and four giant stone lions which guard the column.

From Trafalgar Square, we walked to Picidilly Circus then back toward the Thames River. The National Gallery, St. Martin-in-the Field Church, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx Statue are just a few of the sights we saw on our way to the Victoria Embankment. We walked across the Hungerford Bridge and back before taking the underground back to our hotel in Ealing.

It was a rainy, dreary day in London, but our second day was packed with exciting venues so we were not deterred! We started at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we explored this architectural masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren from the bottom of the crypt to the top of the tower. For more than 1,400 years, a church dedicated to St. Paul has stood on the highest point in the city. The original church dates back to 604 AD, but the present building was constructed after the Great Fire of London. We got some impressive views of the city from the Golden Gallery at the top of the Dome.

By this time we were fairly comfortable with the underground, so we took the tube from St. Paul’s to the Tower of London. Our research suggested we get there before 11 AM to avoid the heavy afternoon crowd. What a fascinating place! From its early history as a grand palace to its decades of use as a prison, the Tower of London is an extensive complex of buildings and towers and walls. The most popular exhibits are The Crown Jewels, the White Tower, the Medieval Palace, and the Bloody Tower. Also popular are the resident flock of ravens. Legend has it that if these birds were to desert the Tower of London, the kingdom would fall – so taking no chances, the ravens currently living here have all had their wings clipped.

Adjoining the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge which spans the River Thames as a drawbridge. It has two Victorian-style towers that support the middle section when it is raised to allow river traffic to pass beneath it. We walked across the bridge to our first stop on the south side: the HMS Belfast. This grey warship, complete with guns aimed high, is a floating museum that gives you a realistic idea of what life was like on board the ship during WWII.

Following our tour of the ship, we walked along the South Bank – an eclectic mix of old and new. We stopped for a late lunch at The George Inn, one of the oldest pubs in London. We soaked in the historic medieval atmosphere and rested our tired feet before heading on. We still had lots to see!

We explored the Golden Hinde, an English ship captained by Sir Francis Drake which circumnavigated the globe between 1577 – 1580. We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before reaching the Tate Modern. This art gallery holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to the present day. It is one of the largest museums of contemporary and modern art in the world; and in the hour or so we spent there, we hardly scratched the surface.

We crossed the Millennium Bridge, the first new pedestrian bridge over the River Thames in more than a century. Built in the year 2000, it is an important link between the south bank and the historic center of London, easily connecting the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Back on the other side of the river, we took Paul’s Walk to the nearest tube station and returned to our hotel. We spent the evening exploring Ealing.

Our itinerary for day three in London included so many stops we weren’t sure we’d get to all of them – but we did! Just like we did on our first day, we took the tube from Ealing to Green Park then on to Buckingham Palace. At the west front of the Palace is the Queen’s Gallery. Works of art from the Royal Collection are exhibited here on a rotating basis. About 450 works are on display at any given time… and they are exquisite!

Just down the street from the gallery is the Royal Mews, home to a spectacular collection of ceremonial coaches and carriages, and one of the finest working stables in the world. The horse-drawn carriages and motorized vehicles used for coronations, state visits, royal weddings and other official engagements are on display. Horses are here only when they are not on duty or undergoing training away from London.

We took the underground to Westminster Station, climbed the stairs to street level and were immediately in awe of Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey! Some of the most impressive tourist sights in London are here in Parliament Square.

Westminster Abbey seemed more of a historical site than a religious site to me. Nearly every coronation since 1066 has taken place here, as well as several Royal weddings. It is the burial ground for famous politicians, sovereigns and artists including Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. There was a respectful hushed silence during our tour, but I didn’t notice many worshipers – perhaps it was just the timing.

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is the seat of the two parliamentary houses of the United Kingdom: the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The most famous feature of the Houses of Parliament is the clock tower, where the deep booming bell of Big Ben rings on every hour.

Located beneath the streets of Westminster are the Churchill War Rooms. It is here that Winston Churchill and his inner circle secretly directed troops and made crucial decisions during World War II. The bombproof complex has been preserved almost exactly as it was at the end of the war. You could easily spend an entire day here, although we managed to do it in a couple hours.

On our way to the Horse Guards Parade, we walked by 10 Downing Street, then toured the Household Calvary Museum and the Banqueting House. After so many museums, we were feeling quiet “English” so stopping at a pub for an early dinner seemed like the proper thing to do. The Sherlock Holmes is a traditional English pub serving pints and pub food, but the interesting thing about it is the complete re-creation of Holmes and Watson’s study and sitting room. Also, scattered throughout the pub is a large collection of items related to characters from the Sherlock Holmes books. The atmosphere was marvelous!

One of our favorite memories is the leisurely boat ride we took down the River Thames. It was fun to see the city from a different perspective and hear commentary about the attractions that could be seen from the river. We sailed from a dock near the London Eye (which we did not ride) to just under the Tower Bridge. While onboard, we had a light rain shower followed by a lovely rainbow! Off the boat, we skipped the first underground we came to and strolled on to the next one in order to experience the atmosphere of the city after dark, then we headed back to Ealing.

The agenda for the fourth and final day took us outside of London and required we travel by bus. About 12 miles southwest of central London is Hampton Court Palace. This spectacular baroque palace with beautiful gardens was once the residence of Henry VIII and some of his wives! We learned about their life in Tudor England; their public drama and their private pain. It was one of my favorite tours!

The Borough of Greenwich is 5 miles on the opposite side of London from Hampton Court; but we enjoyed the bus ride and didn’t mind the distance. We arrived in Greenwich in time for lunch at a pretty little restaurant on the banks of the Thames, then we proceeded passed the Cutty Sark (ship), the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum to the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill. The Observatory’s astronomical work allowed for the accurate measurement of the earth’s movement and established the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time. There is a gorgeous view from the Observatory downhill to Greenwich Park and across the River Thames toward London.

We spent all afternoon in Greenwich, then hopped on the tube around 5:00 for our final underground trip to the hotel. Big mistake! That meant we went from one side of London to the other in rush hour traffic! It was a bit crowded – just us and a million other people – but we made it back to Ealing with plenty of time to pack for our morning flight home. It had been a wonderful four days and we were feeling very proud of ourselves for accomplishing so much on our own. Other than the rush hour fiasco, we did just fine and chalked up another “city scene”!

See my “Travel” section for more City Scene posts!