September 15-17, 2015 – London.

September 15.

Our main activity for today was to visit the Museum of London. Our friend Jim came to our hotel after breakfast, and as we were walking towards the museum, he gave us an informal tour of some of the sights along the way. We passed through the green at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (very quiet and serious, away from the noise of the city), down into the Silver Vaults near Chancery Lane (incredibly ornate silver decorative pieces – almost like a museum but everything for sale), and by the jewelry stores on Hatton Garden (window shopping only). After we had been at the museum for a while, Jim decided to leave (we have all been here many times), and we made plans to get together again the next day. Denise and I spent the rest of the day at the museum, focusing on the exhibits about early and then modern Britain, skipping the medieval and early modern entirely (not enough time to see everything, especially since we were reading everything and trying to absorb all that knowledge). As if to show ourselves that we’re really tough, or for some other reason, we decided to walk back to the hotel, even though bus and subway were readily available. Needless to say, we were wiped out by the time we got to our room. But we feel that walking is the best way to see London, and that’s why we’re here, so that’s what we did. And we loved the experience.

September 16-17.

When we began our last day in London, we had thought that we’d be going to the British Museum for a few hours, but when Jim arrived, we just wanted to sit in the hotel lobby for a while and chat with him. Turns out we stayed there for the rest of the day. We always have a lot to talk about with him (he was an English teacher in a former life), but we were also enjoying the parade of hotel guests through this very busy lobby. Quite ironically, Denise and I were in London during Fashion Week, and many of the people we were watching were clearly “fashionable,” unlike ourselves. Their clothing, hair, makeup, and posturing kept us entertained.

Because it was Fashion Week and rooms were all booked up, we had to leave the Hoxton this afternoon and spend our last night at an airport hotel. So we walked through the rain to the Underground and eventually ended up at the Novotel Heathrow. This is another hotel chain that we’re familiar with, and we like that its rooms are large and clean with free water and tea. Next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we took a taxi to the airport and were on our way back to New Jersey.

We had been too long away from London, so the chance to see our friend Jim again after our Jewish Heritage tour gave us an even greater incentive to make the trip. It was everything we had hoped for.

Jim and Susan before Entering the Silver Vaults

Jim and Susan before Entering the Silver Vaults

London Building with Traffic

London Building with Traffic

Jewelry District in Hatton Garden

Jewelry District in Hatton Garden

Entrance to the Museum of London

Entrance to the Museum of London

September 14, 2015 – London.

Buckingham Palace today. We took the Underground to the Green Park station, followed the directional signs for the palace as we walked through the park, and emerged at the right front corner of the palace grounds. We walked around the front of this imposing edifice to the left side visitors’ entrance and waited a short time in the 9:30 tour group line. We had saved ourselves some aggravation by having our tickets in hand. Denise had sent off for them, and we received them several weeks ago. We picked up audio guides and followed the directions as we entered the palace.

To describe what we saw, one would have to use the most over-the-top words available: opulence, elegance, extravagance, luxury. Our tour included only the public rooms, so we didn’t see the private apartments, the kitchens, or the service rooms. But what we did see was amazing. There were lots of people going through with us, but the crowds were not oppressive. We visited a number of different rooms: the entryway; grand staircase; blue, green, and white salons; music room; state dining room; grand ballroom; silk tapestry room. Throughout the tour, every room was filled with so many paintings, sculpture, and other precious objects that we could hardly take it all in. In one room, we saw some of the gifts that foreign dignitaries have presented to the Queen: a Mexican art piece, bowls and platters, a model of a Hindu temple, vases, etc., etc. The opulence of the rooms was breathtaking: the wall coverings, flooring, drapery, upholstery, and especially the ceilings, each more ornate than the last.

In addition to our tour through the public rooms, the itinerary included stops at a number of display cases depicting other aspects of life in the palace: the sewing department where the Queen’s dresses are made, the kitchens, the wine cellars, the silver and gold plate maintenance rooms, the cutlery and tableware department (with a note about how all dishes are washed by hand – and very carefully), the office responsible for all the invitations that are sent out every year. Buckingham Palace is a big operation that employs hundreds of people, and they all seem to have the same purpose: to make it all perfect. At least, that’s what we saw today.

The audio guide was also very informative. We learned about the history of the various rooms, important events that happened there, which monarchs made contributions to the development of the collections displayed, and how the current Queen and her family have used the rooms. Information was also provided by videos running in continuous loops. They explained how the state dining table is set or what happens during the Queen’s garden parties. We were so happy that we were finally in London at the right time so that we could have this experience.

We had also purchased tickets for the Palace Garden Tour. This was actually just a guided walk along the path that circles the grounds. The guide, a proper English lady who loves her job, pointed out certain features, special areas (such as the play yard of the Queen’s children), and trees and shrubs of particular importance (such as trees planted by various royal personages). When the tour was over, we were near the exit, but we walked back to the palace, thus completing the circuit of the grounds, and had lunch at the Garden Café, outdoor seating under a large tent. Before leaving the grounds of the palace, we did a little souvenir shopping, of course, thinking we might be able to help with the Queen’s cash flow.

We had decided that we would spend the rest of the afternoon walking back to our hotel, so we took off along Piccadilly, then along Long Acre, then to King’s Way and Holborn. Along the way, we stopped a couple of times – for tea and shopping, notably Paperchase, Ryman’s, and Stanfords, all map and stationery stores. Walking in London is one of our all-time favorite activities.

Right Front Corner of Buckingham Palace

Right Front Corner of Buckingham Palace

Front of Buckingham Palace

Front of Buckingham Palace

View of the Back of the Palace from across the Lake

View of the Back of the Palace from across the Lake

The Great Lawn behind Buckingham Palace

The Great Lawn behind Buckingham Palace

Tourist Facilities behind Buckingham Palace

Tourist Facilities behind Buckingham Palace

Garden Café behind Buckingham Palace

Garden Café behind Buckingham Palace

 

September 13, 2015 – London.

Today was our day to visit Greenwich. The weather forecast was iffy, and we decided a boat ride might be a good option. We made our way via the Underground to the Westminster pier, where we embarked on a narrated tour to Greenwich. The “boatman” who spoke to us was a scruffy-looking guy who gave us a lot of information about our route and the sights of London. Most people got off in Greenwich, but we stayed on the boat because the ride continued to the “Thames Barrier” after another 45-minute ride. This contraption has something to do with too much ocean water (the Thames is tidal) coming up the river and having river monitors erecting a barrier for the purpose of controlling it. How the whole thing worked is not clear to us even though we did see it.

The boat then returned to Greenwich, where we disembarked and walked to the visitor center in the Old Royal Naval College. To reach the observatory, where the Prime Meridian is located, we had to walk up a long hill in a beautiful open park. Many other tourists were walking as well, few of whom were speaking English. Actually, some were, but in a dialect that I could hardly understand. Dialectal variation in British English is far greater than in American English. At the observatory, we visited the home of the resident astronomer, toured some exhibits having to do with time and ship navigation, and made a point of standing on both sides of the meridian. I’m not sure why it’s so important to do that, but that seemed to be everyone’s objective. When we were complete with the observatory, we walked back down the hill, wandered around in Greenwich for a while, and then caught a bus back to the city. This ride gave us what was, for us, a new view of London – East London. This area is full of not-so-great-looking apartment blocks and small shops. We saw black people and white people, but not too many others, so I don’t know about the ethnicity of these neighborhoods.

View of Big Ben and Westminster from the River Thames

View of Big Ben and Westminster from the River Thames

View of the Tower of London from the River Thames

View of the Tower of London from the River Thames

The Thames Barrier, Downstream from Greenwich

The Thames Barrier, Downstream from Greenwich

Inside the Old Royal Naval College

Inside the Old Royal Naval College

Plaque in the Old Royal Naval College

Plaque in the Old Royal Naval College

24-Hour Clock and Measurements at the Greenwich Royal Observatory

24-Hour Clock and Measurements at the Greenwich Royal Observatory

Denise on the Prime Meridian

Denise on the Prime Meridian

View from the Greenwich Royal Observatory

View from the Greenwich Royal Observatory

 

September 12, 2015 – London.

We had planned to spend the day with our friend Jim. We were up early and walked our bags over to our new hotel, where he joined us. Both the clientele and the staff in this hotel are very young – probably none over 35. The lobby is very welcoming to people who want to use the internet and is provided with comfortable seating and agreeable wait staff. After some discussion with Jim, we decided to walk along the south bank and experience the Borough Market. So we walked from the Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street intersection down to the Thames, along the water to Blackfriars Bridge, along the south side of the river, thence to the market. The walk was quintessential London: narrow streets, juxtaposed old and modern buildings, flowers in abundance every so often, lots of people and traffic. The market was mostly stalls of food vendors – all types of food, all sorts of ethnic varieties of everything. Many vendors were offering tiny bites of their products: cheeses, tea, sweets, etc. People were completely crushed together, many carrying the food they had purchased and eating as they walked. Also, on the periphery of the market many people were just sitting on the curb enjoying their purchases.

Leaving the market, we continued along the river, crossing back over on the Millennium Bridge. The Thames is a busy river. Earlier, we had noticed many, many rowboats, evidently from all over England and Europe. Some kind of rowboat race was happening. As we crossed the pedestrian bridge and headed towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, we came upon troops of Morris dancers who were entertaining the passersby in a small open space. I’ve heard of Morris dancing and know it’s very old and very English, but a lot of what they were doing looked quite silly. In the meantime, both the dancers and the onlookers were having a good time. Needing a break, we sat for a while and enjoyed the performance and the pleasant weather. On the way back to the hotel, we walked along Ludgate, Fleet Street, and then the Strand. These are very famous street names for a person who majored in English in college (me). We parted from Jim and decided to have dinner in the hotel. This turned out to be a good idea. The food was good, but the service was special. Our server was a young woman from Poland with whom we shared some of our very positive impressions of her country. Her life in London doesn’t sound too easy. She works a 60-hour week and has a one-hour commute each way. She made that sound like a not uncommon lifestyle.

London Building with Lots of Plants and Flowers

London Building with Lots of Plants and Flowers

Rowboats on the Thames

Rowboats on the Thames

The Globe Theater

The Globe Theater

Crowds at the Borough Market, London

Crowds at the Borough Market, London

Jim with Us on the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul's in the Background

Jim with Us on the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s in the Background

Morris Dancers, with Onlookers

Morris Dancers, with Onlookers

Flowers in London

Flowers in London

London Street Scene (Dragon on Pedestal)

London Street Scene (Dragon on Pedestal)

September 10-11, 2015 – London.

September 10.

Our last night in Poland we spent in an American hotel, the Courtyard Marriott. This is a chain we know well. It even has a shower curtain in the bathroom, unlike most hotels in Europe. I wonder if it’s an American invention. The hotel is directly across the street from the airport terminal and at the same level as the check-in counters, and we appreciated the convenience as we were leaving. We did a little shopping to use up some zlotys and then waited at the gate for a short time before boarding.

The contrast between the Warsaw and London airports was most striking when we arrived at Heathrow, where we had to walk for what seemed like miles to reach the Underground station. We boarded the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square, where we changed to the Northern Line. After many, many steps with our heavy suitcases, and with the help of a kind Brit for part of the way, we reached the surface and walked a short distance to the Bloomsbury Hotel. Overcome by the heavily scented lobby and guest room, we requested to cancel our reservation (at no cost) and were directed to another hotel a block away, the Bloomsbury Street Hotel. This one was adequate, but we could stay for only four nights. We decided to deal with that problem later. Our friend Jim, whom we met on the world cruise earlier this year, came by about six, and we walked with him over to the flat he’s rented for a few months. It’s in a modern high-rise which has an interesting view of London rooftops. We sat with him in his living room for a few minutes to catch up on news and then walked out into his neighborhood, which is bustling with pedestrian, construction, and vehicular activity. A thriving neighborhood, I’d say. We eventually found a busy Italian restaurant (staffed by real Italians) and had a pleasant meal together. After discussing plans for the next few days, we called it a night (as they say).

September 11.

After breakfast the next morning, we were talking to the desk clerk about extending our stay there when I noticed the wallpaper behind the reception desk. Turns out it is reproductions of pages from Mrs. Dalloway, which is appropriate because Virginia Woolf lived nearby. Some of the pages were handwritten, which contributed significantly to the impact of the design. The clerk did find an additional day for us, but at a much higher cost, so we realized we still had a problem. But rather than wasting a beautiful day working this out, we decided to take the Underground to Kew Gardens.

We spent a lovely day there. First, we took a narrated tram ride around the park to get oriented, then entered the Palm Court, which is a huge glass conservatory almost overflowing with an incredible variety of plants. Next, we came upon a “skywalk” which was similar to the ones we had taken in Western Australia and in Singapore. We ascended 100+ steps and walked a circuit through the treetops. There wasn’t much of a view outside of the park, but we did have one unexpected treat. We spied two green birds that looked like parrots poking around in one of the trees. They were almost the same shade of green as the pods which covered the tree. Later, I heard them screeching and saw them flying away. I’m sure there’s some great story about how parrots got to England, but the mystery remains for me. We finished our visit to the gardens by going into the Princess of Wales (Alexandria, daughter of Queen Victoria) Conservatory. This is a newer building of glass, but it has computer-controlled climate zones and exhibits of plants from at least ten different areas of the world: cactus, tropical plants, ferns, bromeliads, lily pads and other water plants, etc. We also came upon an eighteen-inch iguana, who seemed to be lolling about and posing for pictures. An attendant explained that the conservatory has four of these creatures: they eat the cockroaches! By the end of the afternoon, we were tired but glad to have finally experienced some of the attractions of Kew Gardens. We returned to the city, decided to change hotels again, and were able to reserve a room at the Hoxton in Holborn, a short distance from our previous hotel.

Palm Court Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Palm Court Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Us on the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

Us on the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

View of the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

View of the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

Modern Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Modern Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Striking Pink Bromeliad at Kew Gardens

Striking Pink Bromeliad at Kew Gardens

Lily Pads at Kew Gardens

Lily Pads at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens Resident Iguana

Kew Gardens Resident Iguana

Desert Climate at Kew Gardens

Desert Climate at Kew Gardens