London – Day Three

Day One
Day Two

Day Three began my actual tour of London.  On this day I included Buckingham Palace (pictured above), Westminster Abbey, a walk by the House of Parliament and Big Ben’s clock tower, and then a “flight” on the London Eye.

My plan was to catch the Changing of the Guards but of course I didn’t arrive early enough.  I got there shortly before the first ceremony begins (where the troops start) and it was packed.  My own fault, the guide books warned me.  One said it’s usually best to get there by 10:30.  He was probably right.

Instead, I jogged over to the opening ceremony and snapped a few shots of that.

This was as they first started to march their way to Buckingham Palace.

I kind of tagged along behind the soldiers back over to the palace.  Of course I couldn’t see anything but I took a few pictures of me in front of the palace and such.

After the ceremony, I took a stroll through St. James Park.  It’s not quite spring yet so I’m sure not as beautiful as it could be, but it was lovely all the same.

In the center there is Duck Island.  That’s of course the London Eye on the right side.

My stroll took a little longer than I planned because I must always stop and check out the animals.  The squirrels were mammoth and were tame enough to (still skittishly) come up and eat out of your hand.  And of course the pond had lots of birds.

I hear swans can be territorial and mean but aren’t they beautiful?

After St. James Park it was off to Westminster Abbey.  I was pretty proud of my sight-seeing plans on this day.  The palace and the church are actually quite close to each other.  Not a long walk at all.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey…what can you say?  The place is absolutely astounding.  A few notes, I think the audio tours here are free and I assure you, well worth stopping to get one.  Also, you are not allowed to take photos inside the church.

Walking in the main area (nave) I actually teared up.  I’m not overly religious or anything but it is amazing.  The amount of detail will blow your mind.  In the ceiling, in the woodwork of the choir area, on everything.  Then you walk around the different chapels with the audio guide giving a little description of whose tomb you are looking at, often including a short piece about who the person was and what significance they hold.  The history, the detail, the reverence of the place….it was breathtaking.

Before leaving I lit three candles in the provided area.  I really was at a loss for words so I just lit the candles and stared at them for a while.  I don’t know if that really serves its purpose, but I hope so.

Leaving Westminster Abbey I basically hopped across the street to the House of Parliament and the clock tower.

Massive.  And as you can see, they’re doing a little work on the Parliament building.

I skipped trying to go inside and watch Parliament at work, so I walked across Westminster Bridge to Bankside where London Eye is just to the left.

Before riding the London Eye I went on their little 45-minute river cruise.  It cost, I think, £9 or £10 with the purchase of your flight ticket.  Personally, not really worth it.  The commentary was rather lazy and pointless.  Especially when I took another river cruise down to Greenwich another day.  Much better.

The London Eye flight was excellent.  When you’re loading, the pods do not stop.  They line you up in 4 rows and let you go one row at a time.  Seriously, it never stops.

This was my pod approaching.  And not stopping.

The entire flight takes 30 minutes.  You don’t go fast at all and the views are pretty great.  I’m sure on a clearer day it’s even better.

As you can see, it was rainy when I was there.

After the flight I headed on back to my hotel.  About two blocks down from the Marble Arch tube stop is a little Sainbury’s.  It’s like a miniature grocery store.  It became my little nightly ritual to slip in here and grab one of the ready-made sandwiches, a little bag of crisps, and a soda.  So I made my usual stop and then headed on back to the hotel.

Highlights of the day had to be Westminster Abbey and the London Eye.  Both I would recommend people visit when in London.  They were both fantastic.

London – Day Two

Oh the woes of figuring out a cell phone alarm clock!  Day Two in London was actually an escorted day tour to Warwick Castle (pictured above), Stratford-Upon-Avon, and Oxford.  I set the alarm clock on my phone to go off at 6:45 AM because I had to be at Victoria coach station before 8:45 AM.  Plenty of time, right?  Not for the people who don’t know how to set their alarm clock!  Turns out, you have to actually Enable the alarm before it will activate.  Silly modern technology… 

The next morning I wake with a start.  Immediately check the time on the phone…8:02 AM.  Exactly 43 minutes before I’m supposed to be at the station.  So it’s going to be a repeat of Day One, huh?  It’s like that now?  My mind is racing.  It normally takes me an hour to make myself presentable.  The math doesn’t add up right there alone.  I’m screwed. 

If nothing else though, this girl is a fighter.  I’m not giving up that easy!  Fortunately.  I end up taking the shortest shower in history, spend about 8 seconds blow drying my hair, and call the front desk for a cab.  Make-up gets done in the cab on the way to Victoria station.  My hair isn’t as “finished” as I like it to be, but at least it’s clean. 

I make it to the station just as they’re walking out to the bus.  Hallelujah!  I fall in line like I’d been there the whole time and within 30 minutes or so we’re off to Warwick Castle.  The guide is quite knowledgeable and charming, telling us about our surroundings as we drive out of London.

Leaving the city there is gorgeous countryside.  Beautiful green, rolling hills.  Pastures of sheep grazing.  The farmhouses are those of storybooks.  Typically old stone homes sitting atop a sweeping hill with the green pastures rolling gently on every side.  I can’t keep the smile off my face as I gaze out the window.  This is part of the England I came to see.

I was aware that Warwick Castle had some form of reenactment programs they put on.  I was not aware it was so kid-oriented and was slightly disappointed when I discovered this.  It’s somewhat Castle Disney.  Regardless, it’s interesting and some beautiful scenery.

I finally found that knight in shining armor I’ve been looking for…

Has to be my favorite photo of the day.  This is some of that pretty scenery I was talking about.

After about an hour and a half self-touring the grounds of Warwick Castle, we begin on our 20 minute journey to Stratford-Upon-Avon, birthplace of the one and only William Shakespeare.

There’s a certain pedestal I guess I’ve placed Shakespeare on in my mind.  I’m a reader.  And in some small corner of my mind, I fancy myself a writer.  Books of older generations are my favorites.  Bronte, Austen…  I even collect old hardbacks.  There’s something in the language.  It’s like writing in those days was an art form of another level.  Take this for example: 

 ‘I’ve had some powerful dreams in my life.’
‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after.’

The latter is Emily Bronte.  It’s so much better, isn’t it?  Prettier.  It makes me want to dream myself, dreams that will stay with me ever after.

When I think of Shakespeare, I typically focus on the lyric of his words.  What a beautiful, ornate use of the English language he had.  I focus on the slight adoration I have when I think of the type of stories he wrote and how controversial they had to have been in his day.  Plays alone were considered morally corrupt.  Shakespeare wrote plays, but plays about interracial relationships (Othello), young love that defies family and social customs of the day in the name of love itself (Romeo & Juliet).  There are so many societal boundaries he overstepped.  I’m sure these things happened, it’s just no one talked about them.  At least in my mind.

And off on a tangent I’ve gone.  Sorry.  Ok, so Shakespeare’s somewhat on a pedestal in my mind.  You can imagine my dismay when our guide kind of drug him through the mud during our ride over.  He talked a lot about Shakespeare’s personal life.  Marrying an older woman, having three kids with her, and then running off to London for years when he did his writing.  I like Shakespeare on his pedestal in my mind.  I didn’t want to know he was human and could’ve been a deadbeat dad.  Come on!  ‘Done to death by slanderous tongue was the hero that here lies’.  (Much Ado About Nothing)  Thanks, tour guide.

Anyway, Stratford.  Shakespeare’s birthplace.

A view of the street Shakespeare’s house is on.  That would be it there, first on the left.

The house is small, naturally.  And once inside the first room, you find you are not allowed to take pictures.  *sigh*  So the only one I took was this…

I find some amazement in the idea that this is the same window William Shakespeare also looked out years ago.

Unfortunately, the tour involved a small space with lots of people in it.  Most were high school students.  Probably goes without saying, I quickly became jaded and hurried my way through the rest of the house.  The highlight for me was actually the actor in the garden after my tour of the house who I watched recite two Shakespeare pieces.

There’s magic in those words, I tell ya.

After the tour I had lunch in a little restaurant across the street.  An excellent panini with chips.  Bacon, cheese, and mushrooms.  Yes, it was worth mentioning.

And finally we’re off to Oxford.  A town known for its university (collection of individual colleges), and of course, Christ Church where part of Harry Potter was filmed.  Where the other towns were basically drop-off self-tours, in Oxford we were led on an escorted walking tour.  The same guide who dive bombed my Shakespeare pedestal just two hours before, took the group on a tour around the city pointing out buildings of interest and telling stories of the histories. 

Can’t remember which college this is.  It was where we unloaded from the bus. 

And this would be the “tour” we had of Christ Church.  A view of it from a mile off.  I’m not a Harry Potter fanatic, but if you’re going to bother mentioning it in the tour description, tour the damn thing.

After the disappointing 10 minute walk to that view of Christ Church, it was another 15 minute walk back to the bus where we then headed back to London.  They at least were nice enough to drop us off at tube stops that would take us back to our general area.  And this time, I didn’t get lost!!  Yay for paying attention!

All in all, it was a much better day than my first.  I did enjoy the tour.  Met a nice Canadian lady who I chatted with periodically during the tour.  It was a good day.

London – Day One

Day One of the trip started innocently enough.  Everything went smoothly the morning of the flight.  Made it to the airport on time.  An 8-hour direct flight – very little turbulence, free movies and tv shows provided for everyone, food was decent, and we arrived on time.

I only got one hour of sleep on the flight, either from excitement or nerves and that will begin the downhill slide.  Number one, I don’t do well without sleep.  Number two, after an 8 hour flight I felt nasty and just wanted a shower.  I don’t do well when I feel nasty either.

Disembark the plane, go through customs and my passport gets its approved stamp.  First one!  Next it’s time for me to hop aboard the Gatwick Express for my train ride to London only it’s 6:30 AM and the ticket counter outside customs is not open.

Instead I have to drag my two suitcases to a shuttle bus that goes to the other terminal, drag them another 1/2 mile or so to get my ticket, then find the train.  After waiting about 20 minutes, I board to find every seat taken.  I have to stand in the middle aisle with one huge suitcase and one carry-on suitcase for the 30 minute ride, rocking back and forth with the train trying desperately to keep my rear out of the poor gent’s face who was unfortunate enough to sit in the seat I stopped next to.

I arrive at Victoria Station and find my way to the taxi pick-ups.  Not long after I’m on my way to the hotel.  The taxi driver was lovely.  He pointed out places of importance along the way and threw in a little history for good measure.  Back of Buckingham Palace…Hyde Park…the first building ever built in London.

The hotel is a small converted townhouse and is actually quite cute.  The reception is down a narrow flight of stairs so I leave my luggage in the lobby and go to check-in.  Unfortunately their check-in time is 1 PM and it’s only about 7:30 at this point.  I can leave my bags with them, but that requires me carrying both down that flight of stairs.  It was not fun.

They do allow me to sit and eat a breakfast though which killed about 30 minutes and made me feel slightly more human.  I then pull my laptop out of it’s case and send emails to everyone who requested updates on my whereabouts.

I’m left with about 4 1/2 hours to kill.  I return my laptop and decide to take a little stroll around the neighborhood.  Let me go ahead and forewarn anyone planning on visiting London in the future….there are no “little strolls” in London.  Fair warning.

I’m exhausted, I’m nasty, and I just want my room.  Translation…I am ill.  I shoot out my hotel paying little attention to where I’m going.  I leave my luggage behind but I do carry my purse which suddenly feels 63 pounds heavy.

My hotel is about a 5 minute walk from Marble Arch so I’m heading in that direction.  I find it with no real problem and decide I’ll sit on a bench until I can check in my hotel.

I’d had a plan to walk through Hyde Park to Harrod’s, then over to the Victoria & Albert Museum but I just couldn’t make myself do it.  My feet already hurt because I was dumb enough to buy a new pair of sneakers a week before I left and not wear them at all before that day.  (Another tip – do not make that same mistake.)

So I sit on a bench at Marble Arch for a good 45 minutes.  I managed to take the following two pictures while I sat there:

This would be Marble Arch – from the bench I couldn’t be bothered to get off in order to take this picture.

And this would be a pair of shoes I spotted hanging from a tree.  I’m guessing the exhaustion made this fascinating at the time.

It takes about 45 minutes for me to get bored and cold enough to try and brainstorm something else to do.  I finally decide I’ll make my first attempt at the tube system and maybe visit the V&A Museum after all.  The Marble Arch tube station is directly across the street so I make my way over and off I go!  I navigated the tubes well enough and find myself outside South Kensington tube stop.

Side note:  I did lots of research before my trip, I can assure you.  I made detailed walking directions for each day of sightseeing and Day One was no different.  However, I soon found that reading out of a book or gathering information off a web site is no substitute for actually being there.  I was quite unaware that there are often several exits from a single tube stop.

I walk out of the station and find that my walking directions do me no good whatsoever.  I have no clue where I am.  So I walk back inside to a little shop and buy the London A to Z map guide I’d seen suggested a few times.  This map definitely helps, but it’s a little difficult to figure out where exactly you’re starting from and where each street is going just because the roads seem to be so haphazard.  (I end up having trouble with this the rest of my trip.)  Once you get started in the right direction though, it’s golden.

So I find my way to the V&A Museum and make my way inside.  It’s a free museum but they do ask for a small donation.  It’s only fair, right?

I pay for my entrance and immediately spot a “cloakroom” that I make a beeline for and drop off that ridiculous purse I’m carrying.

The V&A Museum is a great place to check out a history of decorative arts and design.  Unfortunately, I’m so tired I can barely focus enough to read the little plaques beside displays so despite my best intentions, my visit quickly declines to a quick walk-through.  I did manage to get some pictures though, and a few are below:

This is an amazing chandelier they have in the main area.

I think I remember reading that these were all remakes of the originals.  Impressive all the same.

Another remake.

It wasn’t long after that I found out you aren’t supposed to take pictures in there.  Oopsie. 

So after I skimmed through the V&A, it was finally time to go to the hotel for check-in.  Trace my route back through the tube and I start walking back what I thought was the way back to my hotel.  Um, it wasn’t.  When all was said and done, I spent at least 1 1/2 hours trying to find my way to the hotel by reading the maps in the A to Z book.  Keep in mind the painful shoes and the 63 pound purse. 

I finally found my street and hobble my way down to where my hotel should be.  It’s not.  I am very nearly ready to throw myself down on the sidewalk and cry like a baby.  I have a pretty fantastic sense of direction and I have never in my life been that lost.  Never.  It’s a very helpless, disconcerting feeling.

Fortunately a cab pulls up at the connecting street just across from me and I flag it down and run across to it. 

“I need to go to 33 Gloucester Place, please.”

“Gloucester Place?  This is Gloucester Place you’re on.”

“Yes, but I tried to find my hotel and it’s not here.  I don’t have a clue where I am.”

He pulls off to the side in order to search his map because I’ve probably blown his mind by this time.

“33 Gloucester Place, yeah?  This is it.  It should be right there.”  He’s pointing directly across the street.  I look in that direction and suddenly yes, that is my hotel. 

We both laugh at my idiocy and luckily he didn’t charge me the obligatory £2 just to open the door.  I’d been less than 20 yards down the damn street from the place.  I guess what threw me off was that I came at it from the opposite direction I originally left in (thanks to all the circling around I did when I was lost).

I finally am able to check-in.  My room is on the 3rd floor and there are 5 flights of stairs up to it.  No lift.  But I make it up there and that concludes London – Day One.

A song in my heart. :-)

Back years ago I had a carefree kind of humor….kind of silly, really.  Young and without care.  I did a lot of things without thought, just being me.  I spoke without thought, I laughed without thought, I was me…without thought.  It sounds simple enough but when I went through that hard time back when I was 18, it really sucked the life out of me.  I lost a lot of that carefree quality.  I knew then that I changed but I guess I assumed I just grew up.

That part of me has been gone a long time.  I have thought from time to time about how I used to write letters (the “emails” of days long past) to my friends and insert lyrics to songs, just being silly.  I think of days when it wasn’t so painful for me to open up to people.  When every interaction I had wasn’t overshadowed by the constant analysis going on in my brain.  Those were the good old days, when fear was found on a roller coaster or watching a scary movie.

Well, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’ve mentioned before that I have worked on letting go of some of those fears.  I’ve seen a lot of progress.  That constant analysis isn’t as prevalent as it once was.  Though still quite small, I can find a little trust for some people at times.  I have moments of being able to contribute to group conversations that I once wouldn’t have.  I’m certainly not outgoing, but at least I’m not always the wallflower cowering in the corner now.

I notice these changes and I’m quite proud of myself.  I was chatting with Playboy on the computer as I usually do.  There’s been a shift of some sort in our relationship recently.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when it changed or what caused the change, but there’s a new level of comfort there – I know on my part, but I think on his as well.  A new closeness.  Things are a lot smoother between us…easier.  We play and laugh a lot more.  The fears I have had that normally overpower me are a lot easier to control lately.  It’s still the same situation, but somehow I feel a lot safer with him in some way.  I feel miles closer to him and I know he’s seeing more of the real me than I’ve shown a guy in a loooooooong time.

Anyway, we’re talking and bantering back and forth joking around like we’ve been doing and then it happens.  I noticed he’d logged off as he sometimes does when he steps away from the computer.  A few minutes later I realized what I’d typed and what it actually meant.  I typed the words to Heartbreak Hotel…’Well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.  It’s down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel!’  I was being silly.  I was singing again.

…The song came back.  🙂

London, here I come!

Well, I’m finally all prepared for my trip to London this month!  Prepared but not packed, that is.

Let me tell you though, this little procrastinator has her pertinent information all neat and typed up including flight info, hotel info (yes, I finally reserved a hotel), a list of what I want to do that includes cost (in both currencies!!!), and a basic itinerary.  That itinerary is NO. JOKE. because this girl found a web site (walkit.com) that gives distance and walking directions from one location to another which I included in my itinerary.

Not only do I have my pertinent information organized, I have a file folder of awesome.  More detailed information and miscellaneous whatever-I-printed-out all grouped in one handy dandy manila folder that I have carried with me for about a month now in various stages of completion.  Now though, everything is complete.  Hotel’s done, itinerary’s mapped out, and I even booked a day tour.

I guess I could sum it up by saying that my best friend, who is Queen of List-Making, would be proud.  It is hella awesome.  I feel like I’m about as prepared as a person can possibly be without having actually traveled there before.

With all that said, I am equally excited and nervous about my trip.  I’ve done solo road trips before around the states – mainly to see hockey games – but I’ve never done a huge international trip like this, much less solo.  Scary, scary!!  But I think the worst part will be getting there.  Once I’m there I think I’ll be ok.  It’s that initial nervousness about venturing into the unknown.

Regardless, I will do it.  No going back now!  Bring on the fun, London!

A Father’s Love

This weekend I took my step-grandfather to see his family 4 hours away.  He’s in his 80’s and has Macular Degeneration – a condition causing loss of vision – so he is unable to take himself.  A man who has been self-sufficient and worked hard his entire life – who is still physically capable of doing pretty much anything he might want – is now forced to depend on others.  Live his life often dictated by the whims of other people.  That alone is motivation enough for me to use one of my vacation days in order to get him over there before dark falls, as it makes him nervous to travel at night.

His family consists of his daughter, granddaughter, and three great-grandkids.  To say his daughter is the highlight of the entire trip would be a gross understatement.  Of course he loves his entire family and looks forward to seeing them, but make no mistake about it, in his world the sun rises and sets over his daughter.

About the time we first enter the town his family lives in, the excitement starts to show.  He contains it well up until that point when it becomes too much for him.  His eyes light up, he begins talking non-stop about anything and nothing at the same time, his fidgeting that was once easy to overlook becomes comparatively loud and boisterous.

I don’t personally know much about a father’s love.  What it feels like, how powerful it is.  My father cut me out of his life about 16 years ago but even before that, I don’t recall it being anywhere near the realm of what I witness between my great-grandfather and his daughter.

A man who I never see cry steps away from hugging his daughter hello with tears in his eyes.  The entire weekend they are virtually inseparable.  He spends time interacting with the grandkids – both adult and child – but it all orbits the daughter.

I’ve questioned him before about these occasional weekend trips.  Who are you most excited to see?  With tears glistening in his eyes, he replied, ‘My daughter.’

I guess it’s just an odd thing for me to witness.  I have no concept of it.  It’s strange to me, but a beautiful interaction all the same.  That kind of love is not in the cards for me, but for some reason I still love to see it for other people.  Like Christmas…despite numerous painful and hurtful experiences, it still remains my favorite holiday.  Just for the hope of what it could be.