Updated: Nov 7, 2019
This is a pretty comprehensive chronology of my experiences in and around London in June 2019. Pick and choose what you'd like, or just look at the pics and captions (like National Geographic)!
Sunday June 9th (walked 2 miles)
The adventure starts with an 8 am flight from EWR arriving in London at 8 pm-ish thanks to losing 5 hours flying east. No matter, I’ll get them back later.
I arrived at Heathrow after a perfect flight on United. Watched The Green Book, and They Shall Not Grow Old. The first one may be one of my all-time favorites. The second one was a moving documentary about the British in WWI. Appropriate for this trip, but it saddened me.
With no checked bags, I rolled off the plane and followed the signs directly to the Underground. I used Google Maps to pick the right trains for me. The walk through the airport was comically long. They actually have signs along the way telling you how many minutes you still have to walk to the exit.
Next I bought an Oyster Card! My first taste of how efficient and clear the Underground system is. Armed with my new card, I rolled my bag onto a Piccadilly line train into London. The doors shut, the train pulled out and my wheeled carry-on bag rolled down the aisle away from me! Everybody stared at the stupid American as I ran down the aisle after it, retrieved it, and then lashed it to the seat next to me with a neat double half-hitch using the rope I had been carrying in my pocket to practice my knots.
After about an hour and a switch to the Victoria line, I alit (yes, they actually say alight instead of disembark or get off) in Victoria Station. Grand, beautiful building. A five minute walk through dark, quiet streets in the Pimlico section of town to my Airbnb at 21 Longmoore St.
Even though it was almost 11 pm, Robert was waiting for me as promised when I knocked on the outside door. He carried my bag up the narrow winding stairs to my room on the second floor. He was 30-something, long-haired, tattooed and pierced, and very nice. He showed me my cozy little room, exactly like the pictures on the Airbnb site, and showed me the two bathrooms (toilets or loos - don’t call them bath or rest rooms - that makes no sense) down the hall - one with a shower and one without.
I opened the old window wide, set my iPhone alarm, and went to sleep. The bed was excellent and the cool London air coming in through the window was splendid.
Monday June 10th (9 miles)
My first adventure was a five hour walking tour of all the classic spots in Central London. I put a bunch of bars that Ellen had provided into my backpack (I had been instructed that it was almost evil to use a belly bag, or “bum bag” as they call it), put on my coat, my raincoat and took my umbrella. Back to Victoria Station, but this time in the morning rush hour. It was magnificent. Londoners rushing in every direction. I basked in that for a few minutes and then took the Victoria line one stop to Green Park, which is adjacent to Buckingham Palace. We were to meet at the other end of the park in front of the Ritz Hotel, by two classic red English telephone booths. Of course I was way early, so I boldly entered the lobby of the Ritz and sat down in one of their gorgeous seating rooms next to a bust of Margaret Thatcher. I ate a bar and watched and listened to the wealthy tourists leaving for their day’s adventures. Finally I went outside to the 2 phone booths to meet my group.
I booked this tour at the last minute thanks to a chance meeting the prior Wednesday on the bridge of the Intrepid. I was speaking with a guest there from Britain. When I told him I was going to London for the first time in just a few days, Geoff told me that he was the owner of London Top Sights Tours and would be happy to give me a couple of his tours free.
So I got a space in this Monday morning walking tour and cancelled the bicycling tour that I had previously booked for the same time. And a good thing too. It rained for pretty much the whole five hours. With my raincoat and umbrella, it wasn’t a problem. I might have felt bad about the rain at home. But in London, everyone takes the rain very matter-of-factly. Since it obviously isn’t a big deal to anyone around you, it becomes not-a-big-deal to you too. By the end of my week, however, I heard from several people that Monday’s rain was one of the worst they had had in a single day in ages.
I was afraid the tour might be cancelled because of the weather. But about 30 people showed up so they broke us up into 3 groups. I got Stephen, who had to be the best one. He was in 18th century costume including a tri-cornered hat. He never raised an umbrella and didn’t seem to notice the rain, even when it was heavy. He spoke very well and I could hear him easily and clearly throughout the five hours. My family will tell you that is quite an achievement. We walked briskly, stopped often and saw so much. Here’s a partial list of the major sights we saw (this was an outdoor tour. We did not go inside):
Buckingham Palace. We arrived just in time for the Changing of the Guard. Because of the rain, much of the ceremonial portions were omitted. It was basically last week’s guard getting on their horses and leaving, and this week’s guard taking their place.
10 Downing Street. Unlike in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, you can’t walk right up to Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s door any more. Because of all the terrorist attacks, the street is gated at both ends with heavily armed guards clearing every pedestrian and vehicle that wants to go down that block. I watched them clear a pizza deliveryman on a bicycle. Probably delivering to Hugh. BTW, Theresa May had just resigned, so Hugh may have really been in charge in the Interim.
Big Ben (unfortunately encased in construction scaffolding)
The Houses of Parliament
The Whitehall Horse Guard
Then we took the Underground to the London Bridge area. Most of the group had to be instructed in purchasing an Oyster Card. Of course I was a pro already. Here we saw:
The HMS Belfast (Navy destroyer and museum)
The Golden Hind (exact replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the first to circumnavigate the globe)
The Tower of London
The Tower Bridge
The Millennium Bridge
Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (moved from original location)
The Tate Modern Museum
The tour ended at an outdoor market (fortunately located under a railway overpass) called Borough Market. I said good bye to Stephen and purposely made a show of tipping him five pounds because I could see that the rest of the crowd was just going to walk away. I hope at least some of them tipped him.
At the market I bought a terrific vegan curry meal and ate it at a table with a young Israeli couple. Unlike other Israelis I’ve spoken to, they loved their country and had no intention of ever leaving it. Then I made the rounds of the dessert vendors and chose an incredible flourless chocolate “tiffin.” It looked like a large fudgy brownie filled with almonds, cranberries and orange pieces and other stuff. They explained that they basically throw into the batter all the crumbs and leftovers from the other pastries that they make. It was awesome. Then the Tube back to my room to rest for a couple of hours.
I walked back to Victoria Station and took the Tube to London Bridge for an evening boat ride on the Thames (took me the whole week to get comfortable pronouncing it “tems”). I walked across London Bridge to the south side of London. The Thames tidal change is enormous, about 20 feet. Much more than the Hudson or East Rivers. The northern side had steep banks, and the south side was lower. As a result the north side was developed sooner and better, with the south side being the poorer one. Now that all of London is pretty much beautiful, the south side is just the newer side.
While it didn’t rain during the afternoon, as soon as the boat left the pier, it started drizzling again. I was one of about half a dozen people who stayed on the outside upper deck as we cruised one way and then the other, passing under all the bridges and listening to a guide talk about all the sights we were passing.
The cruise started and ended at the Waterloo Pier, which is the sight of the world famous London Eye, the biggest ferris wheel in the world. It’s got a couple of dozen sealed glass “pods” that could each hold about thirty people. You get on it like a ski lift. It never stops. When it’s your turn, a pod glides slowly by, the doors open, and you walk in while it’s moving. The views are spectacular, 360 degrees, and always changing. I snapped a lot of pictures of course, despite the rain.The crowds were light that night because of the late hour and the rain. It was just me and two other people. In the half hour ride we got to talking and they invited me to join them for dinner.
My Eye pod partners were Adam and Cate from Virginia, father and daughter. Cate had just graduated from college, is going to law school in the Fall, and her Dad was taking her all around Europe for a month. Adam paid for an Uber to take us to a restaurant they knew. We had half a dozen exotic small plates and mixed drinks (even me). We talked for a long time and then parted ways. Maybe not forever. Adam is coming to NYC next month. I gave him my contact info and told him we should have lunch if he had time. They took an Uber back to their hotel, and I decided to walk back to my room since the rain had stopped. I wanted to see what London streets felt like after dark. If it had been raining, I might not have forgotten my favorite umbrella in the restaurant. I never saw it again.
One last observation about London that day, as well as all the other time I spent in the city. There is almost no visible police presence. You almost never hear a siren, or see a patrolling police car, motorcycle or cop (Constable On Patrol, BTW). Of course at all the hard targets there are many cops to be seen with fully automatic weapons. But compared to NYC’s very visible 38,000 man force, the London force, which is almost as big, is strangely out-of-sight.
Tuesday June 11th (10 miles)
My first train trip on what they call the “overground” in London. As always I walked to Victoria Station, the hub for everything and took an Underground to the Euston station where I would pick up my train to the RAF Duxford Airbase, which is now a branch of the Imperial War Museum (IWM). I picked up a breakfast of a yogurt and granola cup and a banana to eat en route. Unfortunately while I waited for my train to be announced on the Euston departure board, instead it was announced as cancelled. I had to quickly rush to catch another train that was leaving in 4 minutes from which I would eventually link up to my original train at a different station. I just made it, but I wasn’t sure if I had the right train. I asked a few of the commuters around me. Got my first taste of speaking to harried London commuters on trains: Don’t. Finally the train emptied of commuters as I was headed about 100 miles north of London. So I went from one end of the train to the other looking for a conductor to ask. There were none on board! Fortunately a rail worker got on in a bit and I asked him. He told me to get off at the next station and what track to find my correct train. Whew!
The rest of the journey was fast, pretty and uneventful. I took out my iPhone Speed App and clocked the train moving at 112 mph! Finally arrived at my destination of Whittlesford where I took a bus (you pay cash on these country buses) to Duxford. Of course it started raining again. But with the exception of a beautiful B-17 and a C-47 on the tarmac, all the rest of the museum displays I wanted to see were inside eight huge hangars.
I started with a hangar that displayed very realistically, tanks, artillery and ground vehicles from WWI through the present. I had an unpleasant feeling walking through these vehicles all displayed in brilliantly designed and constructed battlefield settings which you walk through. The awesome destructive power of all these killing machines close up made me sad. It may have been the movie I had seen on the plane two days before. So as remarkable as that hangar was, I moved on to the airplanes I had come to see.
Duxford did not disappoint me. I think the collection may have been more complete and impressive than the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. They had every WWII aircraft I wanted to see except a P-38 Lightning. About a quarter of the aircraft were hung from the ceilings, with the rest on the floors. There was a B-52, an SR-71 and a Concorde - three huge planes - all inside! My favorite was the B-17. A docent told me that if there weren’t so many people there, they might have let me climb inside. But I felt the history, and the fear, and the triumph of the young men who fought and died in these while bombing Europe three quarters of a century ago.
For lunch I decided to try “fish and chips.” This consists of a piece of cod, breaded and deep fried and a side of french fries and peas. That’s right, peas. The Brits love their peas and include them as a side automatically. I ate all the peas, a few fries, and removed the cod from it’s deep-fried jacket and just ate the fish.
Several school trips were there. Just like on Intrepid, about 10% of the kids seemed genuinely interested in what there was to see. The rest thought it was just a big social lark - a day away from the classroom. I find that irritating when the subject was the people and machines that fought so they could be free. Oh, Tommy, don’t be so judgmental!
On the bus back to Whittlesford, I rode with a lovely couple from northern England, Lynn & Norman Peters, who were driving around the country on vacation in their RV. They inspired me to want to visit the other end of England plus Scotland and Wales. It must be beautiful up there (although the weather is even worse).
The return train to London Euston was uneventful. The overgrounds are generally very nice. Clear announcements, nice stations and platforms, toilets on all the trains, comfortable seats, and everything runs on time (based on my experience of six overground journeys on three different lines). You can buy tickets in advance on-line as I did each time. You keep the etickets on your phone. Apple Wallet I learned keeps them nicely without needing an Internet connection. I also always took screen shots just in case. It’s all honor system like the SBS service in NYC. Often you’ll never see a conductor asking to see your ticket. But if you’re asked and don’t have one, there’s a big fine (or penalty as they call it).
When I arrived back at Euston station, the sun was finally out. So I decided to walk back to my room and zig zag through the streets of London, including the Covent Garden area. I went into St. Paul’s Cathedral this time. It’s very special to Londoners. I thought it was OK. Certainly no Sagrada Familia. In my lifetime, I will never see a church or cathedral that will take my breath away like that one. And all Cathedrals give me an uncomfortable reaction to the extreme, ostentatious displays of immense wealth. How do they reconcile all that with what they teach?
It was getting late, so I stopped at one of those Asian bowl type of places. I got a delicious meal and ate it at a high top table in the window and watched the Londoners go by. They were advertising a special deal of a bowl and a beer. I tried to get the server to let me substitute a water for the more expensive beer. But she was Russian (lots in London) and I wasn’t getting the idea across. So I had a Japanese beer with my bowl, and that was nice! Returned to my room, took a shower and collapsed for the night. I loved opening the window each night, lulled to sleep by the conversation from the outdoor tables at the pub below my window, and the cool nighttime London air.
Wednesday June 12th (6 miles)
Time for the portion of the trip that started it all: The Triumph Motorcycle Factory. This year, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the iconic Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. One of the commemorative items they’ve produced in limited edition is a beautiful pair of leather motorcycle gloves. Now I’ve only retained two things from my original riding days of decades ago: my key fob and my gloves. I’m keeping that fob until the end, but the gloves are stained, cracked and worn through in several places. So I had to have a pair of these commemorative gloves, but what size should I get. There is only one place to try them on: the Triumph Factory in Hinckley, England. Thus, the idea of this trip began to form.
This day’s journey began as always at Victoria station (after stopping on the way for my train breakfast). This time I was going west of the city on a different line, so Underground to Kings Cross station this morning. Today’s Overground trip went perfectly, including a change of train lines. An hour and a half later I was in Hinckley. There I walked to the outdoor bus depot and went to the clearly marked platform for my bus. The driver had no idea where the stop I wanted was until I told him it was the nearest stop to the Triumph Factory. Then he got very enthusiastic and told me he’d be sure to signal me when he got to that stop. You know, just like the bus driver’s at home do. He left me on the side of the road in a quaint country residential neighborhood, and gave me walking instructions for the last leg of my journey. It was pretty cool turning a corner a few minutes later and seeing the factory in the distance.
I arrived in plenty of time for my scheduled 10:30 tour, so I went straight to the store. I went straight to the glove display where I dismayed to find they only had one pair of the commemorative gloves I had come so far to get. And it was too small. This was not good news as they had already discontinued them for a different style. Matt Ottey, who was helping me was very sympathetic when he heard my long story. He said he knew where there was still inventory of the gloves. He would arrange for Triumph to ship a pair to me in NJ at no additional cost!
I still had plenty of time so I spent a half hour going through the Museum. Fantastic old bikes in mint condition including, of course, several original Bonnevilles, and the bike that Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape.
WARNING: The next, lengthy paragraph is for nerds!
The tour was nothing less than amazing. Here are some of the things that stuck in my mind the most. Six thousand completed and cased motorcycles on enormous floor to ceiling racks ready to be shipped to 57 different countries. Yes, that’s what I said: six thousand! The manufacture on-site of the complex crankshaft from a single piece of solid steel, twisted while the steel is still hot enough, machined on many different devices for all the different surfaces and angles, gear teeth cut into it, milling and polishing, all to incredibly small blue-print tolerances, and then individually tested. I had no idea how critical the crankshaft specs are to the efficient operation of an internal combustion engine. Next, the tool they used to check the tolerances was mind-blowing: the crankshaft is mounted in a sealed chamber on top of a seven ton slab of marble. The reason for that is the tool that will measure it using a laser beam passing through a ruby, measures tolerances down to one micron. A human hair has a diameter of 100 microns. Yes, one micron! So the seven ton marble slab under all of this (totally visible, by the way) insures that not the slightest trace of vibration from anywhere in the factory can impact the measurement process. Another absolutely astounding process was the point in the line where the major engine assemblies were put together. All this is taking place by many workers going at a pace to keep up with the movement of the engine blocks down the assembly line at a fixed speed. Here’s the most amazing part: All the workstations have three main components: a continuously updated supply of component parts to be added at that station; a computer screen with an image of the engine and all the parts to be assembled there, including the torque for each one; a WiFi torque wrench (yes, I said WiFi) that sets the right torque automatically for each bolt the worker wants to tighten, and updates the screen with the worker’s progress as he proceeds! My jaw was literally dropping. I could go on for pages describing everything else I saw: the paint shop, front end and swing arm assembling, handlebars, lights, instruments, on and on. I won’t. I loved it. Our tour guide Roy spoke to us over Bluetooth headsets we all wore so I could follow clearly even when I lagged behind to study something.
The one and a half hour tour went two hours (in no small part due to all my questions). The good part is that it went two hours! The bad part is that I had only left a half hour leeway after the scheduled end to make my return bus, So I had to run out after shaking Roy’s hand, and I would have loved to stay a little longer, especially considering how far I’d come.
I made it to the bus stop a few minutes early. There were two lovely old English ladies there, so I engaged them in conversation. They were old friends who had lived in this quiet town for 30 years. They had done their morning chores, and now they were taking the bus into town to go to the pub. That’s what they do every day! We chatted all the way into town. When we parted ways one of them said to me, “I just luv the way you talk!”
When I arrived back in London it was raining once again. But like the day before, I was more interested in walking to my next destination instead of taking the Tube since it was again in a part of London I hadn’t explored yet. My destination was one of London’s new buildings which Londoners call “the Walkie-Talkie.” It’s kind of shaped like an old phone handset. On it’s top is an observatory with a 360 degree view containing a botanical garden, and of course some pubs and restaurants. An Intrepid guest a few weeks before had tipped me off to this one. Like the Vessel in NYC, admission is by free timed entry. But you have to book it online in advance. Each day’s tickets become available three weeks before and are snatched up pretty quickly. So I had gotten one three weeks ago for 4:15.
This one was a little disappointing in the bad weather. It was a little higher than The Eye, but the rain wasn’t doing much for the view and it was pretty crowded and noisy. The Eye had been very serene. My original intention was to stay and have dinner up there, but it wasn’t worth the high prices. I took some pics, rested a little on a cool window ledge, and went back down. By the way, Londoners are agog at the 36 story height. <supercilious snicker>.
I took the Underground back to Victoria. All the Tube lines are different. The unique feature about this, the District line, is that there are no doors between the cars. The train is one long tube. When it’s going in a straight line, you can see down all of the cars from inside! Also it has real straps to hang onto.
WARNING: Next 3 paragraphs are my nerdy thoughts on the Underground
All the lines have modern, new cars. None of the cars or stations are air conditioned. Every line also has padded fabric seats that are actually in good shape. They ring pleasant chimes for a few seconds before the doors close. The station announcements are excellent. They are audible and visible and tell you what you’re on, where you’re headed and what the next station is. Clear as a bell too. I never said, “what did that say?” Both the interior of the train cars and the station platformsy are much quieter than in NYC. The wheels don’t screech on the tracks (maybe they’re rubber with seamless rails?) and sound proofing in the cars is very good. Sometimes the announcement will be that people in the first or last few cars will have to move forward or back at the next station because the platform is too short for the whole train. Same thing on the Overground trains. They always tell you which car number you are in so there’s no ambiguity about what you have to do. One Overground train I took actually split up at one station into two trains. So the announcement said if you’re going to the following stations, you must be in cars 5-8, and if you’re going to these others, then you have to move to cars 1-4. The separation took place quickly and quietly. I wasn’t even aware it was happening. Since all train cars are interchangeable, the car numbering is via the announcement system only. It’s all very well done.
It’s called the Tube because it really is one. The cars have curved sides and they travel in steel tubes that aren’t much bigger than the cars. I think that’s part of the reason the Underground rains travel so much faster than ours. There’s nothing to hit in those tubes because there’s no room for anything. Another result if this that I really liked is that you can tell when a train is approaching with your eyes closed. I mean the station announcement systems are great. But about 15 seconds before a train arrives you can feel a rush of air coming out of the train’s tunnel as the oncoming cars actually push the air in the tunnel ahead, out into the station. I like that.
And I’ve saved the best for last: the Oyster Card and the signage. The Oyster Card is their equivalent of our MetroCard. No swiping a magnetic strip - you just touch it to a big yellow pad. It’s much faster to load and “top-off.” You have to put in a 5 pound deposit when you buy one. But when you turn in your card, as I did on my last ride to Heathrow, you get any unused amount back plus your 5 pounds. Also - you have to register in and out of every trip you take, because you are charged different amounts depending on the length of the trip. Last, I have to mention the signage in all the stations. As the Brits say, it’s brilliant! It’s so easy to figure out where you are, where you want to go, which direction to take your train in, what the stops along the way are, where you connect to other lines, etc. You have to experience it to understand how well it is done.
I got off the train at Victoria, a building I am starting to love as much as Grand Central Terminal, and walked toward my Airbnb. I stopped at a restaurant called Giraffe for dinner, again getting a nice seat looking out the window that made up one whole side of the place. I love watching the people hustle by while I eat, although I did read my book for awhile because sometimes it feels odd eating alone in a restaurant. After dinner I stopped and bought an ice cream and ate it while I walked around my neighborhood of Pimlico.
Thursday June 13th (6 miles)
Time for another train ride, this time to the southwest and the English coast. I took the Overground on a 90 minute ride, no switching this time, to the town of Angmering. There, Sylvia & Colin Saunders, old friends who I met many years ago in Central Park in Manhattan, were waiting to pick me up. I got a really warm greeting - they are great people. I gave Sylvia the 30 assorted roses I had purchased that morning (yes thirty for only 15 pounds, and guaranteed to last a week), and Colin a 4 pack of what I hoped was still his favorite beer, Stella Artois. As we prearranged, they drove me a short distance to the village of Arundel and dropped me off at about 10:30 am a few blocks from the Arundel Castle. Although I’d been on a few buses by now, this was my first time in the front passenger seat of a right-hand drive car. Zipping down these tiny twisty roads on the left side is absolutely terrifying. We made arrangements for them to pick me up again at 2 pm.
It was a short walk to the main entrance of the castle grounds. I had purchased a ticket in advance. Then I walked along the curving castle drive until I turned a curve and there was Arundel Castle, towering high above me, massive impregnable walls on top of the highest hill. It was breath-taking. Oh, and did I mention that it wasn’t raining? A gorgeous blue sky with puffy white clouds was the perfect back drop for one of my favorite pictures of the trip.
The interior of the main castle doesn’t open until noon, so I spent the next hour touring the spectacular grounds including the Castle Keep. The keep is a separate, fortified tower within the castle walls. It’s kind of a last resort place to fight from in a siege. This keep also surrounded the castle’s well - it’s main water supply. I raise that important point because 1,000 years ago, during the English Civil War between the Royals and the Parliamentarians, the castle was under siege for a long time. Finally the P’s drained the Arundel lake, which caused the castle’s well to dry up. Completely dehydrated the Royals had to surrender the impregnable castle. But they got it back three weeks later.
Here’s one more cool keep-fact. The tiny narrow winding circular staircases which lead into the keep were purposely built to rise clockwise. That was so enemy soldiers fighting their way up the stairs would be forced to fight with their left hands, putting them at a disadvantage to the defenders!
The castle gardens were also amazing. There was an abundance of flowering plants there that I had never seen before. I skipped the massive cathedral that was also on the grounds for the reasons I stated earlier.
I spent the next hour touring the castle rooms, which were spectacular. This was not a cold, drafty place at all. I learned a great new word: garderobe. That is a toilet built into an exterior castle wall. It hangs out over the moat and is open at the bottom so the “waste” just drops into the moat! But rooms are rooms after all, and I was anxious to see more of Arundel and have a snack. So I left the castle after a quick trip to the gift shop to buy swords for the boys, and walked into town with the hilts of the swords sticking out of my backpack. Imagine doing that in NY.
Arundel is a beautiful little, obviously-upscale town that reminded me of New Hope, PA. I picked a pub, The Norfolk Tap and went in prepared to take my usual solitary place at a window seat. But there was a chap having a dark beer at the bar with his dog sitting at his feet. So instead I sat down at the bar a couple of seats away from him, and we got to talking. His name was Andrew and his dog was Juno. Juno was named, not for the Roman god, but for the D-Day beachhead where the Canadians landed 75 years ago. I ended up having a huge delicious cappuccino and a pastry instead of a beer, but had a great time. Finally it was time to meet Colin and Sylvia at the rendezvous point.
We drove to Sylvia and Colin’s beautiful cozy home which they have named The Folly. We sat in their sun room and had warm home-made scones that Sylvia had just baked, with clotted cream and jam, plus tea with milk. It was the first time I had relaxed in days and it was absolutely wonderful. Their sun room looks out on their garden which is loaded with gorgeous plants and flowers along with dozens, maybe hundreds of miscellaneous objects which have washed up on the shore which is only a five minute walk from their house. The “Wall of Flotsam & Jetsam” separates their garden from their neighbor’s. Inside and out, it’s an incredibly warm and picturesque home.
We talked for a little while about Brexit. I wanted to understand why these wonderful people who share a lot of my values, including a loathing of our current president, were so in favor of leaving the European Union. They told me that England pays 350 million Pounds into the EU every week to support countries that aren’t doing well. I’m sure there’s an economic offset to these payments that is helping England, but the cash outflow is a sore point to them. Colin also told me how English fishing boats are no longer fishing off their shores. The EU has decided that their part of the Channel is only to be fished by Spanish fishing vessels. I could see how that would chafe.
Next we drove into their town of East Preston. I met a shopkeeper there from the US. He came to the UK to marry his husband. He hadn’t earned his citizenship yet, but hoped to before Brexit. Both he and his husband were heavy, balding guys with thick long beards. Sylvia showed me a stone home in town that was 400 years old. That home and lot of the other old construction in town were crafted from flint stones (Ohhh, that’s where the cartoon name comes from!) that are common in the area. The flint is beautiful, and when broken, retains it’s sharp edge for decades.
We drove back to The Folly, parked the car and walked down to the beach, er… shore. It was the first time in my life that I have seen the English Channel. Very moving on this 75th anniversary of the D-Day crossing. Colin told me that the Normandy beaches were directly across from where we were standing. How lucky we all are that those boys did what they did for all of us. Standing there, as far as the eye could see, the beach was made of millions of flint stones! I walked down to the water, put the toes of my shoes in, and then collected a few of the nicest stones I could find. After that we had an excellent dinner at a local pub. The highlight of the meal was a game of Bar Billiards with Colin, a pool-type game popular in Southern England and the Channel Islands. The table looks like a pool table, but there are obstacles and the holes are in the middle of the table instead of along the edges. I felt so English. Alas this, maybe my best day in England had to end since I had still had a two hour journey in front of me. Sylvia & Colin drove me back to Angmering and I had a peaceful, quiet and punctual trip back to Pimlico.
Friday June 14th (8 miles)
My plan for my last two days was to stay in London and more closely examine some major sights. My first stop was the Tower of London. There are a lot of misconceptions about what the TofL is. The iconic two-spired bridge is called The Tower Bridge and is not the TofL. The TofL is not even a tower. It's a castle composed of 21 towers, surrounded and connected by a fortified wall. Built on the north bank of the Thames, a U-shaped moat was dug around it, with both ends of the U connected to the river so that it was surrounded by water on all sides. It should be called the Towers of London.
I took a brief introductory tour led by a Beefeater. These are ceremonial guards and guides who are all ex-military. Then I got on the short line to view the Crown Jewels. While I found the modern fortifications to protect them pretty interesting, I thought the Jewels themselves boring. A lot (and I do mean a lot) of gold and jewel-encrusted crowns, swords, etc. I breezed through the last part and exited. In the short time I was inside, I was astounded to see that the line had grown to at least a 90 minute wait. The sun had come out so I walked the perimeter atop the battlements next. I explored many of the towers, watched some period actors performing, and spent some time with the famous Tower ravens. Another popular exhibit which I did not enjoy and went through quickly was about TofL torture and beheading. A lot of people were really into that. Oh, Tommy - don't be so judgmental.
I left the TofL via the gate that emptied out onto the Thames river walk. The sun was out and the sky was blue so I decided to walk for an hour or two. First I crossed over to the south bank via the beautiful Tower Bridge. I followed the river walk for awhile taking everything in and thinking that I would cross the Thames a few more times to experience more bridges. But I soon realized that I was in the neighborhood where I discovered Borough Market on Monday's walking tour. Thoughts of that chocolate Tiffin completely overpowered me. All I had eaten today was one of Ellen's bars and a 1 Pound (as in Shilling) banana I was ripped off for in the TofL. I found the Market and that big heavy slab of chocolate something was the perfect lunch. It was mid-afternoon by that time and I was pretty tired so I caught the Tube back to my room and took a short nap.
It was Friday night and I wanted to experience Soho. I took the Tube to Westminster and started walking. The streets, pubs and restaurants were already packed with young people relaxing at the end of their workweek. Apparently drinking alcohol outside is permitted in London, because the patrons at the drinking establishments were overflowing. I picked a restaurant that had some outdoor tables free and was on a busy pedestrian street. I ordered a hot green curry dish I’d never had before, and a Mojito. I just sat there for a long time watching the people go by, picking up snatches of conversations and nursing my drink. When it was all gone, I paid my tab and zig-zagged through the streets for a while watching everyone unwind.
For some reason I kept thinking of all the terrorists who have targeted London. All these open displays of young, somewhat affluent people, openly drinking, listening to music, laughing and flirting are such a target to many groups. Combine this with the open borders of the European Union and the lack of visible police presence compared to New York, it’s a bad combination. I guess that’s another reason people voted for Brexit.
Saturday June 15th (7 miles)
Sadly, my last full day in this great city. Last night I had gone on line to purchase tickets to tour inside the Houses of Parliament. I was very disappointed to see that they were sold out. Stupid to have waited so long. But the website said there are a few walk-in tickets available early at the box office. So I resolved to be the first one in line. I bought a breakfast to go and arrived at the box office half an hour before opening. I was the first one there, so I sat down in the sun and ate my breakfast. At 8:45 they opened and I was the first one in. They told me they were sold out for the day. I told them what I had read about walk-in tickets and they told me that the walk-in tickets were also sold out. But, I explained, I am the first one to walk in! How can that be? Well, there was no convincing them, so I left frustrated and angry. As it happens, however, this was all for the best.
Since I couldn’t get into Parliament, I headed over to the nearby Churchill War Rooms (another part of the IWM). I had intended to bypass this popular London attraction, but it was only a short walk from Parliament. It wasn’t open yet and only a few people were on line so I queued up. A half hour later when the doors opened, I’d estimate there were at least 200 people on line behind me. So not only did I arrive at the perfect time, but I can’t imagine that Parliament could have been any better than this great exhibit.
This maze of underground bunkers in the heart of London is where Churchill and a staff of 400 lived and ran the country and the war for almost five years. It’s been preserved and/or restored to its exact condition as of the last day of the war. Plus they’ve added the Churchill Museum which is an incredibly interesting tribute to the great man. So many stories, videos and memorabilia to examine.
I exited, as with most museums, through the gift shop. There, I met an author named David Hough who was autographing copies of his new book about Churchill. Since he was an expert on the man, I asked him a question that I’ve always wondered about. How much of the blame for the Gallipoli disaster in WWI belongs to Churchill? He told me that Churchill’s plan was actually a good one, but that the Army and the Admiralty had not provided what they were supposed to for various reasons. So Winston was not to blame. I was happy to hear that.
Now I walked through the city to the British Museum. On the way I passed through Trafalgar Square which I had only seen briefly on the rainy Monday tour. It was packed with tourists, and maybe some Londoners. The weather was nice and I really enjoyed hanging out there for a while to rest.
Then I continued on foot to the British Museum. Tight security there, so I was lucky again that the lines were short. This place seems to be the London equivalent of New York’s Met. Quite beautiful, and an impressive collection. But I thought it didn’t match the grandeur and beauty of the Met. So I spent almost all my time there in the clock room, a very unique collection that had been recommended to me. It was great and I now really understand how a clock works - a mechanism that’s been fundamentally unchanged in over 500 years!
And now it was time for my last event in England before heading home tomorrow morning. Emily and Dan had recommended that I enjoy a High (Afternoon) Tea and had suggested the Wolsely Hotel in the Mayfair section of London. As I approached it on foot, I noticed that the Ritz, where I had sat my first morning, was right next door. So first I entered the Ritz and asked if I could have an Afternoon Tea there. By that time in my trip, I had seven days growth of beard and I guess I wasn’t up to Ritz standards. A regally uniformed employee informed me that I would have to make a reservation in advance and then return with both a jacket and tie.
So I had my Afternoon Tea solo at the Wolsely. It was very nice, but frankly something that needs to be done in someone’s company, not alone. By the way, across from me was an interesting couple: a heavy set, balding American man in a polo shirt, and a tall, beautiful English woman in an incredibly tight and short and low cut dress and tall spiked heels. They were right out of Pretty Woman. So they delivered a pot of tea with a side of milk and a beautiful tray of scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. I tried to make everything last, but like I said - that’s hard to do alone. When I was nearly finished I asked the waiter if I could get another round of everything (I mean this is not an inexpensive meal, and I wanted it to be lunch and dinner). He replied that that could not be done, which took me aback. A few minutes later a lower wait person asked me if I would like more of anything. When I replied that I would actually like more of everything, that’s what she cheerfully brought me! Happy ending and I walked out stuffed.
On the way back to my Airbnb, I went through Green Park and took one more look at Buckingham Palace. I got to the gate just as the current guard, the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment was changing shifts. It was nice to see a sort-of changing of the guard up close before I left England.
Sunday June 16th (3 miles; total walked: 51 miles)
I set my alarm for 4:30 am and walked the empty streets to Victoria Station for the last time. How civilized that you can just get on a subway from anywhere in the city and take it directly to the airport. I sat in the hot train station almost alone at 5 am waiting for my train. Then I was cooled by a rush of compressed air blowing out of the tunnel, followed by my train to Heathrow. I hope I’ll be back!
Tom Fisher, June 27, 2019.
All images and text contained herein copyright Tom Fisher