This tour was similar to our tour of Turkey and Athens, where we took a guided tour for the first part of the trip and switching to a self-guided tour for the remainder of the trip. This time, our tour was through Globus; they were very well organized and our tour guide, Dominic, was very helpful (more about that later).
We landed in Heathrow Monday morning after a direct flight from Ottawa. This was our first direct-to-destination flight, which is very nice compared to the layovers or bus rides we needed for previous trips.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we signed up for the optional “Taste of London” evening, which was a delightful French meal at Chez Gérard, followed by a 1-hour boat cruise on the River Thames. We started by the Tower of London, went east under the Tower Bridge, then headed west until we passed the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament), before returning back to the quay by the Tower of London.
The next day, we had a quick bus tour of the city. We stopped to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We discovered on the trip that many of the impressive buildings we saw did not allow photography inside. This includes St Paul’s, so we have no pictures of the interior. We then went to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guards.
In the afternoon, we had a day-trip to Windsor Castle, one of the royal residences for the Queen. We toured the royal apartments (but not the ones currently in use by the Queen), St George’s Chapel and saw the impressive dollhouse built for Queen Mary. It includes exact miniatures of actual items in Windsor castle, and even has working plumping! The miniature wine bottles are filled the correct wines and spirits. Windsor Castle stands above Eton College; George Orwell was an Eton student.
The next morning, we left London for our Southern England leg of the tour. Our first stop was Hampton Court Palace. This palace dates back to the time of Henry VIII. The palace was not open when we arrived, but the magnificent gardens were more interesting anyways.
The next destination was Oxford, where we had a short tour of the colleges of Oxford University (the oldest English university – c.1167). After the quick tour, Rosa and I stopped to eat and shop at the nearby The Covered Market (1774). The bakery was notable for the very creative hand-made cakes, topped with marzipan decorations.
On our way to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we stopped in the small village of Bladon. Here we visited the burial plot of Sir Winston Churchill. He is buried in his family plot, not far from where he was born.
In Stratford, we visited the cottage of Anne Hathaway, before going to see the familial home of her famous husband, William Shakespeare. We went inside (again, no indoor photos allowed) to the room where he was born – a special moment. There was an original pane of glass that was etched with the names of other famous authors who had made a pilgrimage the home.
After dinner at the hotel, Rosa and I went for a walk through the town to the church where William Shakespeare was buried. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped for a peaceful moment on a park bench where we could talk about life.
The next morning we were off to another small village, but the name eludes me. We walked around before getting on the tour bus for Tintern in Wales. There we saw the incredible Tintern Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1131, but was surrendered to King Henry VIII during his establishment of the Church of England. The lead from the roof was sold and the skeletal remains began their centuries-long decay. The remains are incredible and eerie.
Our final destination was the city of Bath, named after the Roman baths that were established over the only hot spring in Britain. We were advised not to touch the water, as there is a waterborne amoeba that can cause meningitis. The baths are surrounded by shopping streets and is next to the Bath Abbey. The Bath Abbey is unusual for the square-topped spire.
Before dinner, some of our group went for a short visit to the nearby village of Castle Combe, which has been described as one of the most beautiful villages in England. We walked around, and then stopped at the pub for snacks and drinks over interesting conversations with our fellow travelers Joan and John.
At dinner, Rosa and I dined with Dee Dee, Sandy and Crystal from our tour group. One memorable thing from the dinner was that an immature seagull (judging by its coloration) repeatedly walked up to the patio door and rubbed his (her?) head against the glass. He did this over and over, and never bothered with the other patio door, which was open. Rosa and I went for another short walk in the evening, as the weather was so nice. In fact, during our tour England was having a heat wave, which caused the daytime temperatures to rise to 27-32 C.
In the morning, we left for Stonehenge. Stonehenge started approximately 3100 BCE (meaning it is around 5100 years old – older than the great pyramids of Giza); the monumental stones date to between 2500 and 2700 BCE. The public is not allowed to approach the stones (except for special cases such as blind people) except on the summer equinox.
Next was Salisbury Cathedral, the tallest in England. It was magnificent. This is the only church that allowed photography, except for the day we visited because of a school choir event – they did not want tourists taking pictures of the children. The cathedral houses the oldest working clock in the world. The attached Chapter House contains one of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta (in Latin), which dates back to 1215. The Magna Carta was one of the first documents that led to our current government and laws.
We stopped at lunchtime in the town of Arundel. I had the classic British cuisine: fish-n-chips. The fish was very crispy, which I liked. After lunch, we walked around – Rosa shopping and I looking for interesting things to photograph.
We finished the day in Brighton, along the English Channel. We had a tour of the Royal Pavilion, which was a palace dating back to the early 1800’s for King George IV (then the Prince Regent). The interior was scrumptious, with breathtaking decorations. The memorable rooms included the grand dining room where great chandeliers hung from huge dragons. The entire building is styled as Indo-Saracenic, with Chinese and India aspects. The exterior was also very unique.
At dinner, Rosa surprised me with a birthday cake. She had been working with the tour guide Dominic to arrange for the cake (which was delicious). Everyone sang “Happy Birthday”, including the piano player. Sandy, Crystal and Dee Dee joined us. We stayed and talked with them for hours and hours, long after the dining room had emptied. After that, we took a short walk along the waterfront.
The next morning, I got up early and went out to take some pictures of the West Pier. The West Pier was built in 1866, but was destroyed by a succession of storms and fires in the 1980’s and 90’s.
After breakfast, we left for Leeds Castle. The castle dates back to 1119. It was one of the royal residences starting with King Edward I of England. It is surrounded by a moat with a single drawbridge and portcullis. It was in use (no longer by the royal family) until the 20th Century. Before we left, we took many pictures of our new friends on the main lawn.
We headed back into London. We spent the final night of our tour in our hotel in Hammersmith, but not before Rosa did more shopping around Harrod’s. In the morning, we moved from the Globus hotel (Hilton Hammersmith) to the lovely Luna-Simone Hotel, which was much less expensive and more central. The #24 bus stopped right in front of the Luna-Simone, and it took us to most of the places we wanted to visit, or to a subway stop if we needed to travel further.
As the next morning was Sunday, I wanted to go see Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. On Sundays, anyone who wants to speak his or her mind publically can do so at the northeast corner of the park. We arrived outside Hyde Park, took some pictures at Marble Arch, and then headed in to see what was happening. There were at least four speakers, but only one (pictured at left) drew a large crowd of hecklers. It was fascinating. All of the speakers we heard were talking about their views on religion; some were being heckled mercilessly by the crowd.
After that, Rosa and I split up – she went shopping and I went to the Imperial War Museum. As you enter the grounds, you are greeted with the massive 15” main guns from British battleships of World War II. The museum had examples of the German V1 and V2 rockets, various WWII planes, a Polaris missile, a German Enigma encryption computer, a simulation of a World War I trench, and many other historical documents and exhibits.
Rosa and I met later in the afternoon and we headed for the London Eye. Each capsule on the London Eye can take about 25 people and a complete revolution takes about 30-minutes. You can see most of the interesting sites of London during the ride, but because of the reflections in the glass, the photos did not turn out perfectly. After the ride, we walked along the Thames and over a bridge to the Houses of Parliament.
The next morning, we visited Westminster Abbey, which was a highlight for me. The Abbey dates back to 1245, but it was built on the site of previous abbeys that go back as far as the 7th Century. As with other interesting places in Britain, no interior photography was permitted. The current Abbey is the burial site of many of the monarchs of England. In places, the halls are so tight from all of the memorials, and the walls covered with plaques to various famous persons. Non-royals that are buried here include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and many famous authors such as Charles Dickens. One part of the Abbey deserves particular mention is the Henry VII Lady Chapel, built in 1503. The interior is magnificently decorated with intricately carved detailing. The Abbey also houses King Edward’s Chair, which has been used as the throne on which the British monarch sits for the coronation. It has been used by every coronation since 1308.
After the Abbey, we visited the London Dungeon on the south bank. It was not as interesting as we had hoped, and at times it seemed very cheesy. There is a ride called the Death Drop, which is supposed to simulate falling through the gallows trapdoor. Even through I expected it, and I knew I was safe, I have to say I freaked just for a second – it was a longer drop than I anticipated and in complete darkness.
We left the London Dungeon and walked along the Thames, past HMS Belfast, and then across the Tower Bridge to the Tower of London. We bought the last tickets for the day and went inside just as it started to drizzle. The highlight was the Jewel House, which is the home of the Crown Jewels; the Crown Jewels have been kept in the Tower of London since 1303. The Jewels were really amazing and dazzling, and include the Koh-i-noor diamond, which was the largest known uncut diamond (it has since been cut to increase its brilliance, but lost 40% of its weight in the process; it is now 105 carats).
The next day brought us to the west side of London, starting with Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. It was fun. Some of the waxworks didn’t quite look right (the uncanny valley effect?). But it was fun to be able to practice close-up portraits without annoying the models, as they were all wax. I am very proud of some of the photos, as I was working with my flash settings to get the lighting just right.
We visited the nearby Sherlock Holmes Museum, and then on to Abbey Road. I visited the EMI Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded over 90% of all of their albums and singles. The wall along the street was covered in graffiti to The Beatles. Apparently, the wall is repainted once a year and the graffiti is permitted. You can walk in the door of the building, but there is a security desk just inside to prevent fans from entering the studios. Outside is the famous crosswalk (zebra crossing) pictured on the cover of the Abbey Road album, the last recorded by The Beatles. I didn’t want to take the same picture as millions of others imitating the album cover, so I choose to sit down and shot along the crosswalk.
Our last stop was Kensington Palace, which had been the residence of Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales. The entrance gate was the focal point of the outpouring of grief when she died. In the palace (which did allow photos) were many of her dresses – she was a very stylish woman. We neglected to bring our umbrella this day, as the forecast did not include rain, but when we were ready to leave the palace, there was a torrential downpour. We had to buy another umbrella from the gift shop. The rain was so heavy, some of the subway system were closed due to flooding.
Our penultimate day started with a trip to the walk-in clinic. I had come down with a nasty cold, or possibly flu. As we were flying home soon, I wanted to get some help and also assure myself that I had not come down with swine flu; I did not want to be barred from flying. While I waited for the prognosis (upper respiratory track infection), Rosa did more shopping at the House of Fraser, another large department store. Next, we went to the area around Harrod’s, where I went for a walk to see the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall.
Next, we went to Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross and The Strand for more sightseeing and shopping. Trafalgar Square was surprisingly clean, as the city has spent the last few years removing the pigeon population, which once numbered over 35,000.
Our final day was one long walk, starting at Buckingham Palace, then up to Piccadilly for window shopping (actually, I bought pants), then through the very expensive Burlington Arcade, past Savile Row (including the former Apple Corps building used for the “Let It Be” concert), past Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and into Covent Gardens, our final stop. While Rosa shopped, I watched some of the many buskers in the Covent Gardens area. My dinner consisted of cookies from Ben’s Cookies (which I had first seen in Oxford) while Rosa had a crêpe.
We flew home the next day, Friday – another easy direct flight. We spent the weekend recouping from the trip and time zone changes.