TF Goes to England
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