Arriving in London, again, for the first time.

15 03 2011

I’d been advised by a few online friends to not venture into London earlier than 9 unless I wanted to deal with London rush hour, which they assured me I did not.  So this morning we slept in til 7 am!  We took our time getting ready and decided to give the breakfast buffet at the hotel a whirl.

It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great – but for the price it was okay.  It was 7.95 a person, but the kids eat free (which is something I’ve noticed here that is a stark contrast to the US – kids are still kids at 15 here in the UK, whereas back home they cease to be kids in restaurants between ages 10 and 12).  The buffet offered scrambled eggs, Cornish sausages, baked beans, tomato slices, bacon (which looked more like ham) and toast.  Plus unlimited coffee.  And if the latter wasn’t a bonus enough – it wasn’t instant coffee!!  I bellied up within arms reach of the coffee pot and then picked at my eggs.  The sausage was odd.  I can’t put my finger on it, it had a wonderful flavour, but the texture was akin to gnawing on a chunk of chapstick.

Initially I had plugged in we would park at the North Ealing car park then take the train into London, an online friend had recommended another stop, but the hotel receptionist said the best was Richmond and she was able to give concise directions on how to get there – so we chose the latter.

(As an aside, the hotel quality improved dramatically as the days progressed.  I found as long as we arrived before 8 at night and were asleep by 10, the drunkards never were even noticed or heard.)

We’d run through half of the money we had brought for spending so I needed to find a bank to change over more.  Or a post office.  There were three banks visible from the doorway of our hotel and I tried RBS first.  I’d have to open an account, which the overeager beaver of a man at the door was more than happy to get set up for me, but I explained I would be in the country only two days more and it really wasn’t necessary.  He pointed be towards NatBank.  They too wanted me to open an account and could not/would not refer me to anywhere else to go.  And no one knew where the closest post office was, unless I wanted to drive out to Fleet.

Back to the hotel and Kaim, the hotel receptionist, made a few calls and told me to go to a place called Thoms – something and gave me directions that could have confused even Einstein.  We drove in loops and roundabouts and wrong ways until finally I told Glenn to just drop me off and I’d hoof it.  Surely if I waved $600 USD around long enough someone would make me a deal.  I found the Thoms-something place in a little alley way and they very happily exchanged my money over, seeming surprised that I didn’t want my money in coins.

I don’t honestly know how anyone here can avoid having holes in their pockets or carrying twenty pound purses for all the coinage one is given as change.  You break a twenty pound note on a two pound purchase and you’ll get 17 one pound coins back.  There’s a very obvious reason why these are called pounds.

We finally set out towards Richmond car park and I was excited.  On our flight in over London I had purposefully avoided looking out the window, because I didn’t want to spoil my first view of London.  And now, here I was about to set foot in the very places Boudicea had burnt to the ground, the places where Elizabeth Tudor brought peace, and so many artists had found inspiration!

Richmond’s car park was not very accommodating unless you drove a Smart car or a moped.  I still have no idea how we managed to get our Vauxhall Insignia estate car into the space we did without a touch of Merlin’s magic.  Glenn had to let us all out first and then he somehow squeezed himself out of the small space between him and the next car over – it was that or crawl over the seats and out the “boot”.  Luckily, the train depot was directly next to the car park and we made it there in no time.  I had my Fodor’s guide book to the “tube” and London, as well as my spiral bound book I’d printed up of where to go.  Today would be Westminster Abbey and anything left over to do in that vicinity.

The clerk sold us our travel passes and we studied the directions and other travelers with awe as we tried to figure out the system.  You’re given a paper card ticket which has to be pushed into a metal gate, retrieve the ticket from the top and the gates will allow you passage through.  For safe keeping I held all of the tickets afterwards, just in case.

We were directed to trains 7 or 8 and I explained what little I knew of the whole “Mind The Gap” mess and the speed with which the doors would likely close.  I explained that if for any reason we were separated, everyone should meet at Westminster Station.  And that Alannah would stay with Glenn and Kayla with me, never leave your adult.

And with that we quickly hustled aboard a train.  It was amazingly an empty car and we settled into our seats while I patted myself on the back for getting us on the correct train all together before the doors closed.  My ego wouldn’t get stroked for too long though, as a conductor came by and told us that train was out of service, go get on train 7.

Train 7 was packed, oddly.  There were four seats but all split up and none of the single passengers seemed to want to sit near one another to keep a family together.  So I sat in one seat, the girls found one together a few seats down, Glenn across the car and down next to a woman who looked remarkably like a 1970’s Ziggy Stardust.  With an overdose of QT.

The lady next to me offered to move so I could sit next to the girls, to which I thanked her profusely and I exhaled for the first time all morning.  An automated woman’s voice reminded us of the gap and then advised everyone that the doors were closing, and as she said these words the doors closed and the train rumbled out of the station.  I studied the people, who studied their books and papers.  They were mostly all relaxed and in their own world, completely at ease with the jerking of the train or the lights flashing on and off.  When the train would pull in to a station, they somehow knew whether it was theirs or not, without so much as looking up.  Me, I counted and recounted how many more stops each time the train made a new one.

We pulled into Westminster station about 30 minutes later and I knew what we would be walking into once we went up the steps and I prepared the girls – Big Ben is just up these stairs.  It was the sight they’d talked about most and they were as eager as could be to see it face to face.  And so we emerged from the darkness of the underworld like tourists, cameras in hand and craning our necks back to take in the full regal beauty of this massive clock.  It really wasn’t that massive, or tall.  Impressive, oh yes, beyond compare.  But I’d imagined it to be much more staggering against the sky line, greater in size.  And there it stood, ornate and simple.  A contrast of definitions, I know.  Simplicity though in it’s physical size.

Then I locked eyes on the abbey, oh dear lord there it was.  The place I’d been panting over for so long.  We hurriedly crossed the street with others and avoided the money beggars as best as able, my vision obstructed by staring through the display on my camera as I walked.  But it was Westminster Abbey!

Let me state this, before I begin, that to truly appreciate the abbey one would need years, and even then…  And the way in which they shuffle the sheep – er tourists – through, allows for very little time to truly appreciate the spectacular grandeur of the abbey.  But I expected this and had brought my voice recorder with me and made a digital journal of the abbey as I knew I would never remember it all…

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