October 11, 2013

London, Part 1

“People are coming from around the world, and they’re seeing us, and they’re seeing the greatest country on Earth, aren’t they?”  Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, regarding London 2012 Olympics

Carol writes:  We had always planned that our visit to London would come at the end of our 3-month stay in the United Kingdom.  In hindsight, that seemed to work out well for us because I don’t think we could have had an appreciation of the London scene without some historical context. 

There is no doubt that London ranks right up there among the top five most remarkable cities on this planet.  It is a city of 8 million inhabitants and thus is very busy and hectic any time of the year.  We had heard that driving in London had become a nightmare over the years.  We soon learned that as a means of trying to control the number of motorized vehicles jockeying for use in its crowded streets, a London “congestion fee” was instituted.  If you want to drive on London city streets, you must pay extra for the privilege!  Needless to say, that put a stop to a lot of discretionary traffic.  Then, the city fathers went a step further to deal with London’s air pollution problem and created what is called a “Low Emission Zone”—which essentially includes all the roads inside the M-25, the giant ring road that encircles London.  All motorized vehicles that want to drive inside the ring road must be certified as having modern emission controls.  If your vehicle is old and doesn’t meet standards, you must pay a fee to drive inside the ring road.  Wow!  Is this going to catch on in the rest of the world?

So…while I had been prepared to experience terrible traffic congestion in London, instead, we found that both of these usage fees seemed to have worked quite well.  Over half of the vehicles on London streets appeared to be either taxis or buses, not a big percentage of private vehicles at all.  From our point of view as pedestrians, traffic appeared quite manageable!

London has fabulous public transportation by means of the famous Tube (London’s subway system), in addition to a massive bus system.  We used both to navigate around London and found them to be very efficient and convenient. 

Since our RV had not been certified as meeting minimum emission standards, for our 10-day stay we chose Alderstead Heath, a campground just outside of the Low Emission Zone and well outside of the congestion fee zone.  We even enjoyed our 25-minute commuter train ride into London every day.  Our daily commuter train ticket entitled us to a roundtrip ride into London, plus unlimited bus and Tube usage, plus 2-for-1 admission to several major tourist sites that we wanted to visit!  I call that a lot of incentive not to drive in London…which we didn’t want to do anyway.

So how did we occupy ourselves for a week in London?  Our approach was an organized one.  We laid out a list of what we wanted to see organized by location.  We targeted indoor venues as the ones we would visit on rainy days and saved the outdoor ones with long walks for days with blue skies.

As luck would have it, we met what I call one of our ‘travel angels’—you know, that stranger you meet in a fortuitous encounter who turns out to help you just when you need it the most.  On our first train ride into London, a very nice young woman told us to follow her, thus providing us with much-needed help in navigating the train depot with a change of trains.  We chatted on a different train with another travel angel who asked us if we knew that tours of Buckingham Palace would be over for the season in just two days.  Of course, our planning hadn’t gotten down to fine details like that.  In any case, she told us where to go for tickets (if any were still available) and pointed out which way to walk as we exited Victoria Station.  To our joy, we were able to book a 4 p.m. tour for that afternoon!  As we exited the ticket office, luck was still on our side and the “Changing of the Guard” was about to conclude at Buckingham Palace.  We lined up along the fence and snapped away with several hundred other tourists.

Afterwards, Al took my ‘I was there' shot in front of the palace.

In order to fill in the time until our 4 p.m. ‘invitation’ to Buckingham Palace,  we headed over to the ‘Churchill War Rooms’, pretty much near the top of our planned attractions.  As expected, the remarkably preserved underground war rooms were fascinating.  The members of the war planning team sat at this table chaired by Sir Winston Churchill.

From a tiny room in this complex, Churchill made a personal phone call to President Franklin Roosevelt, pleading for America’s help in the darkest days of the war.

In the museum section there was an enigma machine, one of a handful of such machines that were used to crack secret Nazi code ciphers.

We walked through a dozen or more of the underground rooms that housed Churchill, his wife, and the War Cabinet.  Particularly poignant was the very small, unadorned private dining room used by Churchill,

and the simple bedroom used by Lady Churchill during her visits to see her husband.

This rudimentary kitchen fed those who were housed underground.

The map room with its oversized maps and bank of important telephones was a powerful image.   In this somber underground War Room, it wasn’t hard to imagine the planning, angst, and everyday momentous activities that took place there.  It was a pivotal time for Great Britain—and the world—and we felt almost as if we had walked through hallowed halls.

On a lighter note, our tour of Buckingham Palace was awesome!  We had seen royal splendor in many lavish palaces and castles all throughout our stay in the United Kingdom, but we were a bit unprepared for how sumptuous and well maintained the state rooms of the Queen were.  Lavish, splendid, laden with art and furniture treasures…fill in with every superlative you can imagine.  No photos were permitted inside…well, you have to see to believe, so here are two from the Internet that merely hint at how splendid the state rooms were. 

Here’s one of the rear of the palace as we exited.

What a first day in London!  We got back to our campground after dark, with our heads spinning at the sights we had seen, not to mention our successful navigation of London’s public transportation.  We agreed that we would have to pace ourselves the rest of the week.

The next day we explored the central city area and saw Big Ben,

the London Eye (elected not to pay the equivalent of $60 for a 30-minute spin for two),

the Houses of Parliament,

…and Westminster Abbey,  ”the greatest church in the English-speaking world,” the place where “royalty have been wedded, crowned and buried since 1066,” as Rick Steves says.

We elected to make our next day a museum day.  London has so many museums, and many of them are world-class.  At the top of iconic Trafalgar Square,

with its massive four lions (one of the symbols of England) at the base of an immensely tall granite column topped by none other than Lord Horatio Nelson, is the National Portrait Gallery.  This collection of portraits is basically a walk-through of hundreds of famous people who have been such a key part of the nation’s history.  Because Queen Victoria’s life story was so poignant and her reign was the longest of any monarch, Victorian memorabilia has become one of our favorites.  I loved the exquisite detail of her portrait, including the wristband she wore with her beloved deceased husband’s picture on it.

At the Brontë Parsonage we had heard about a painting in London of the three Brontë sisters that was done by their brother Brantwell.  It was fun to recognize it as we came upon it.  It had a bit of a ghostly touch due to Brantwell’s second thoughts about including his own likeness in the background.

With the passage of each day in London, it was becoming obvious to us that we had a tall order to fill in trying to see the best of London in seven days.  Likewise, I have come to realize that in one short post it is impossible to blog about all the experiences we had in London.  Call this London, Part 1.”         To be continued…

“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present.”  Anna Quindlen

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