"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands ---
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1
You know me - if we're talking about England, the first person who comes to mind is Shakespeare!
Sorry yesterday was so boring - all travel related. Today gets much more exciting because we're finally in England!
We landed at about 11:30 local time, which is eight hours ahead of Albuquerque. A few minutes before the plane landed, Jules woke up from her amazing sleep and we were both getting pretty antsy to get off the plane! The real problem was that I had been sitting for 8 hours, which meant no standing, which meant no bathroom breaks...I was really starting to get desperate by the time we made it to our gate. Of course, they have this brilliant system for loading people onto airplanes in small groups so it isn't chaos, but deplaning is a ridiculous free-for-all! EVERYONE stands up the second the plane ride is over - and I don't blame them - but it just causes a massive traffic jam for about 20 minutes. I don't understand why they don't announce "now rows 1-10 may disembark" and so on down the plane. Anyway, I was at the back of the plane AND in the window seat, so I just sat and sat until every other person had left, and then I begged the airline staff to let me use the restroom before getting off the plane so I wouldn't have to wait until after customs, because I was pretty sure I was gonna die! They were super nice about it and one of them even offered to hold Jules for me.
Finally off the plane and on English soil (hooray!) for the first time in my life, I now got to wait in the huge enormous customs line. I figured it was going to be hours but after only a few minutes a lady told me to follow her, and gather up a few more people with babies/small children, and led us to the front of the line! (I'm telling you - you should TOTALLY travel with a baby. It makes some things inconvenient but you get to move to the front of every single line. It's terrific. ;-) Got our passports stamped and tried not to grin ridiculously at the passport official simply because he had a British accent. Everyone had a British accent. I was surrounded by them. It was heavenly!
Went to collect my luggage and had a bit of trouble collecting my buggy (that's stroller for you Americans), since it came out in a different place, but I finally found it and there I was, loaded down with an enormous backpack, a rolling suitcase, a baby, a sling, and a stroller, and sadly, still only 2 hands. This would be the most challenging part of my trip, as I had to navigate myself, Jules, and all our stuff alone onto the Heathrow Express, a train that goes from Heathrow Airport in London to Paddington Station, where I was then supposed to get a taxi to take me to Dad's hotel. I bought my ticket and got on board the train all right, with some ridiculous maneuvering of all my luggage, and sat for a few minutes. I was chatting with the lady next to me, who was from Japan, and then she and all the other passengers got off the train. I stayed because I knew I was supposed to go all the way to Paddington and we were still in the airport. After just a moment, she came back onto the train and told me I had to get off because this was the end of the line for THIS train and switch to another to take me to Paddington. Yikes! I don't know what I would have done without her help; she not only came back for me, but helped me with my luggage and showed me where to go to switch trains. I was so blessed by her kindess!
FINALLY on board the correct train, I stared eagerly out the window, but couldn't see much of the countryside; it was mostly industrial-type buildings and nothing terribly exciting yet. At last we pulled into Paddington, and I managed once again to maneuver all my luggage OFF the train onto the platform (sadly, not 9 3/4, but that comes later), get it all adjusted, and set off on the final stage of my journey: to find a taxi. I had never ridden in a taxi before, so that was exciting in and of itself, but to have it be one of the London "hackneys" was even cooler.
Okay, so this not the exact cab I rode in. My hands we too full to take a picture at that moment!
I have to confess something a little embarrassing here - ever since watching Season 1 of BBC's Sherlock I have been kind of terrified that the cab driver was going to murder me. Stupid, I know. Still true. So I was a bit nervous about climbing into a taxi in London, but I'm writing this, so everything was obviously fine. Unfortunately I happened to pick the only taxi driver in the entire city who was returning from a 6 month leave of absence and really had no idea where my hotel was - and I, of course, wasn't prepared enough and just had a hotel name, not an address or cross streets or anything. But eventually he figured out where he was going, and meanwhile I got to see London whizzing past in all its glory out the window! This was the first moment of my trip when it truly hit me that I was actually in London and despite being quite exhausted from being up all night, I got a rush of adrenaline and became extremely excited. Whoosh! And there went the Tower of London. Whoosh! There's Big Ben! Whoosh! The Eye of London. Not to mention the red double-decker busses and the taxis everywhere and all the little back and side streets with buildings that I knew nothing of, but radiated centuries of history...it was all overwhelming and wonderful and fantastic. (I know, I'm running out of adjectives. Sorry.) After a little mix-up with another hotel of a very similar name, the cabbie finally found my hotel and I tipped him (way too much, I found out later) gratefully, made my way to my room, and was finally hidden from strangers' eyes for the first time in over 24 hours. Whew!
Dad was still at his conference, and I had to will myself not to just collapse onto the bed and take a nap, but I knew that the best way to survive jet lag is to get on a "normal" schedule with your country as quickly as possible. So instead I took a shower while Jules had a nap (her schedule was totally messed up and she spent a LOT of time sleeping, I think in protest of the whole strange phenomenon, but that was good for me!) and then I had a cup of tea. One thing that was really interesting about English hotel rooms is that each one had an electric hot water kettle, two teacups, and a basket containing a selection of teas, sugar, creams, and a few little biscuits or cookies. That way each guest could observe four o-clock tea everyday! I quite enjoyed it - it made me feel even more "British" than ever, and their tea is much better than ours! Their tea baskets did have instant coffee, but it was terrible; Dad drank it, but I stuck with tea. ;-) About this time, Dad came back to the hotel room - this was a relief since the biggest flaw in our plan was how to communicate once I finally arrived! After he changed, we set out for our first evening exploring the city!
A view of our hotel from the ferry. It is literally ON the Thames.
Grandpa with Jules. That's our hotel in the background, on the opposite side of the river
Some old warehouse buildings in the Docklands area, a strange contrast to the tall modern buildings in the background
Once on the opposite bank of the Thames, we boarded a "water taxi" like the one below, which took us down the river and past many of the major landmarks in London. It was one of my favorite ways to travel. Not only was it the easiest to get on/off of with a baby and a buggy, but also a great way to see everything and a pretty quick way to travel.
The water taxi
It took us under the Tower Bridge
Past the Tower of London
Past the Globe Theater (I'll be seeing you again soon, good friend!)
Past the Eye of London, the only modern piece of London architecture I actually like
We disembarked near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and took a walk along the bank of the Thames, stopping to look at anything that interested us. I was pretty much giddy with excitement (and possibly a lack of sleep), so that was nearly everything!
I believe this was a WWII memorial
And this was from WWI
I was so excited to see the traditional red phone booth!
Even their benches are beautiful!
Finally we went up a flight of stairs and there it was, right in front of us: Big Ben! Probably one of the most iconic symbols of Britain, right before my very eyes!
Side note - Big Ben is actually the name of the clock inside the tower, not the tower itself. The tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. I felt sure you all needed to know that fact, in case you ever find yourself on Jeopardy...;-)
Right next to - and I do mean right next to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament is Westminster Abbey, one of the places I was most excited about seeing. It was closed for sightseeing by the time we arrived, but I most definitely planned to come back another day! Just seeing from the outside was an amazing experience. I confess I may have cried looking up at it for the first time.
Dad and Jules in front of the "little side entrance" of Westminster
Jules and I with both Westminster and Big Ben in the background
Here I am in front of the main entrance. Yes, I'm the tiny pink and black dot at the bottom. It is truly immense!
After walking around admiring Westminster, we sort of wandered down Whitehall Street, looking around and searching for a place to eat dinner.
Statue of Churchill
We passed Number 10 Downing street, where the Prime Minister lives.
I'm fairly certain this is the entrance to #10 Downing
We ate dinner in the upper floor of a little pub along Whitehall. Babies seemed to be kind of discouraged, if not absolutely forbidden, in the bottom level of the pubs, where most of the "just stepped in for a pint" people were, but were allowed in the second level where more people were eating. I had a ploughman's lunch, which is basically just a sandwich, and it was okay but not great. Then we walked past Charing Cross, through Trafalgar Square, and then on to Piccadilly Circus. I must confess, Piccadilly was the only part of the London I truly didn't enjoy. I had always read about it, but didn't entirely know what it was until I got there, and frankly I'm still not sure what the allure is. But apparently it is THE place to be on a Saturday night in London! Everybody in the whole city seemed to have congregated there, to just talk and "hang out" on the steps on buildings and memorials. There were street performers and loud music and giant billboards covering the beautiful old buildings, which offended me greatly. :-) It was kind of like Times Square in NYC, from what I've heard, although I've never been there myself. Anyway, it just wasn't really my "scene," if you know what I mean.
Cool horse fountain in Piccadilly
Atrocious billboards covering beautiful old buildings in Piccadilly
Sorry this post was SO ridiculously long. I'll try to speed things up tomorrow!