London Stories and Tips

Starting the Tour in London

Near the altar, St. Paul's Cathedral Photo, London, England

This travelogue details experiences that I had on my very first trip to the U.K. in 1993. I took a Cosmos bus tour around England, Wales and Scotland, beginning in London which took almost two weeks in total, including the extra night or two in London at either end.

England was somewhere I had always wanted to visit. British history held me in thrall for years and I always knew that when I was finally able to afford to travel, it would be my first destination. Thus, late in August 1993, I was off! I went with a coworker but unfortunately, she had to fly back the day after we arrived due to some personal problems that cropped up so I was unexpectedly on my own. On arrival in London, the hotel was the Barbican, which is now the Thistle City Barbican, I believe. It was a standard tourist hotel then and from what I've seen on the net, it's not much better now though it touts itself as a "luxury" hotel. I think there are better out there for your money.

The first thing on the agenda was to find the Applause centre to exchange theatre vouchers for tickets, though it turned out we were exchanging vouchers for vouchers. We had booked to see Miss Saigon through a travel agent tour brochure and this was how it worked. We wandered around Covent Garden for an hour, stopping for a sandwich and a cup of tea at a cafe but by the time we returned to the hotel, my traveling companion realized she was going to have to go back to Canada and booked herself on the flight home for the next morning. It was a bit daunting but I knew that I would be ok. I was in an English speaking country and booked on a bus tour, not completely on my own so it would just be an adventure!

She left the next morning after breakfast. I wrote in my travel journal and then decided to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I was in London! A city i had always wanted to see and there was no way i was going to sit in a hotel room all morning! I had an afternoon tour to the Tower of London booked but that was hours away. I still felt under the weather but damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. I found out that St. Paul's Cathedral was about a half hour's walk away. Right! Point me in the right direction and off i go! It's about 9 a.m. and the sun is shining. I almost got lost but asked directions in a shop. I turned the last corner and there it was, looming large and surprising me with it's immense dimensions! I do live in a city but the tallest building only has about 30 floors. Still, though St. Paul's wasn't that tall (not like the skyscrapers in the nearby City), it was still a shock to see how big it was since it isn't, of course, your standard office building.

I was still a bit shaky on and off so found a little vendor where i bought some water and a banana and sat on the steps of the cathedral while i had that. I know now that aside from the obvious, I was dehydrated from the jet lag. I made my way into the Cathedral after taking a few pictures from the outside and proceeded to be totally awestruck! It's very ornate and everything is in such huge proportions! Inside i found it humid and warm and didn't really spend as much time looking around as i might normally have. I checked out the crypt and bought a booklet from the gift tables (no shop at that time though there is a gift shop and cafe in the crypt area now).

As i said, i didn't feel so great so i left around 11. I had planned to take a bus west to go to Harrods but now i thought maybe i wouldn't have time to get back to the hotel for the tour at 1:30 p.m. so i started walking north again. I'm glad i did because i came upon ruins of the old London Wall and came upon the Barbican Center where the Museum of London is. Well, it was there, I was there and I still had an hour or so to kill, so why not? In i went! The museum
tracks the history of the city of London and i really liked all the exhibitions. There were dioramas, photos, artifacts, video presentations and many interesting exhibits including a little garden in a courtyard. Watching the time, i left and hailed a cab for the last mile to the hotel and got a quick sandwich in the hotel bar.

The afternoon tour i booked drove through the City of London with a Bluebird guide narrating and pointing out historical buildings and sites. We saw the Monument which is 202 feet tall and is located 202 feet from where the great Fire of London (1666) began in Pudding Lane in a bakery. Most of the road access in and out of the City was blocked off, and traffic can only get in one way and out another. That's a bit scary since it's that way because of terrorism. The City has it's own governor and police force and Greater London has 38 boroughs! Most of the narrow streets in the City are named for what that area used to produce, i.e. Glove Lane where gloves were made.

The Tower was very large and well preserved. The guide told us lots of facts and interesting stories as we walked around the grounds. I don't know why or how i missed it but i did miss the area where the scaffold used to be. It was pointed out from farther away but there was so many places to look that i guess i didn't get that far. We were given two choices. Stand in a long line to see the crown jewels or wander on my own for about an hour or so before the bus was due to leave. I made the wrong choice by standing in line for the jewels. They were pretty amazing but the wait was abotu 45 minutes long although the line moved steadily. I would rather have poked my nose in some of the buildings where the jails were and in the chapel where Anne Boleyn is buried. In retrospect I suppose I could have forgone the bus altogether and made my own way back to the hotel. I did have time to pick up a couple of souvenirs including a nice china mug with Henry VIII and his six wives. I still use that mug!

A few first impressions of London: Driving in from Heathrow it looked like any other city at first - office buildings, warehouses. Then the side streets got narrower and the buildings got older. One section of a street had one antique shop after the other (Kensington High Street) and there seemed to be a lot of streets like that, with one type of business dominating a block or two along the way. One street may change names several times along it's course. I heard a bell chiming the hour one night and got all excited, thinking it was Big Ben until i later realized the hotel was in Islington and thus too far from Westminster so it must have been a local church or maybe St. Paul's (?). I didn't take too long to get used to the traffic flowing in the opposite direction from what i was used to but the drivers are a lot more aggressive than i'm used to in little old Halifax! They pay no attention to pedestrians who seem to cross when they get the chance rather than wait for the signal which is mostly ignored by traffic.

Tour starts tomorrow. First day we go to Hampton Court, Salisbury and Stonehenge and end up overnighting near Exeter. I'm a little nervous but i think it's more of an excited-nervous feeling like you get when you start a new job or new school. Who will be my co-travelers? What will the guide be like? Will there be others on the tour traveling alone? Stay tuned...

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