“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson
Ever since I was eleven years old, I’ve wanted to see London. My fascination with the city started when I would come home after school, running from the bus stop to catch the second half of the day’s broadcast of Dangermouse on Nickelodeon. For the uninitiated, Dangermouse is the world’s greatest secret agent, a mouse in a white jumpsuit with an eye patch. His assistant, Penfold, is a hamster in a tiny blue suit. The link above is part of an episode. To date, Dangermouse is still my favorite cartoon.
As I grew older, the UK criss-crossed my personal pop culture landscape. Many movies I loved were filmed, in part, in Pinewood Studios about twenty miles outside of the city. Here’s a very short and in no way complete list: Superman and Superman II, the original Harryhausen Clash of the Titans, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Legend, the James Bond movies, Little Shop of Horrors, Aliens, the first two Hellraiser movies, the 1989 Batman, The Fifth Element, Stardust, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (the single finest movie adaptation of a stage musical ever made), and The Dark Knight. Granted, most of these didn’t showcase London, but they were made there, and in my brain, that counts. Sweeney Todd has an entire song just about London, though.
I read every Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book as it came out. Tom Baker was my Doctor until 2005. I watch Love Actually at least once a year. A hefty portion of my regular television viewing comes out of the BBC. My favorite living author is British.
My point is that I was predisposed to love London even before I ever dreamed of traveling there. And I did, of course- dream of traveling there. When I finally got my passport back in 1996, it was with the intention of making it to London. I was just waiting for money, time off, and someone to travel with.
As I gained more seniority at Mr. Company, the money became less of a constraint, and the time off became easier to come by. I was still waiting for a travel buddy though, but it never quite worked out. Meanwhile, I went to other places. I traveled widely in my own country, visited Canada, and spent two weeks in Hong Kong for work. Then in late 2010, my life reached “Do-Over” status- I found myself single again and temporarily without an apartment of my own. In that time of upheaval, I made a promise to myself that I would reach London before my fortieth birthday.
Fast forward to April of this year. I’d been in Germany for a scant five months, and I saw a link on Facebook to a Neil Gaiman post. The surviving cast members of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio shows were doing a live touring version of the radio shows. Neil himself would be the voice of The Book in the Edinburgh, Scotland show on the 21st of July. Twenty minutes after I read the post, I had already purchased tickets. Thirty minutes after I read the post, I had compared the dates of the Olympics to the date of the show, verified that the week leading up to that event was a full week before the crowded Olympics began, and requested my vacation time. The trip formed from that point forward.
On Saturday, 14 July, I flew into Heathrow Airport, with an Oyster Card, a LondonPass, and a very basic travel framework locked in. I had a ticket for the London production of Wicked on Tuesday. I had a rail ticket to go from King’s Cross Station in London to Waverley Station in Edinburgh by rail on Friday. I had the aforementioned HHG Live ticket, and airfare to go from Edinburgh back to Munich the following Sunday. And finally, I had a list of things I wanted to see, based on a lifetime of absorbing the UK into my soul like so much mercury on the skin. I had a terrific time, and I took nearly a thousand photographs. I’m only going to share about two dozen of them here.
London Just Being London:
I started out my time in London by using one of those hop-on-hop-off tours on a double decker bus. This is a great way to get an overview of a new city, and the tour guides are usually pretty interesting. Right away, I saw London being, well, London. Bowler hat. Tails. If this guy had a monocle and a walking staff, my day would have been complete.
As my hotel was in a slightly residential area near Westminster, I got to see a lot of types of living arrangements, and one of the threads that I noticed was that TARDIS blue (Pantone 2955C) is a very popular color for people’s doors.
The London Eye:
I don’t really know why I love the idea of this thing so much, but one of the things at the top of my “I MUST DO THIS” list was to ride the London Eye. When the Eye went up in 1999, it was often referred to as “the London Eyesore,” but people have warmed to it since then and it’s become a much loved part of the London skyline. The Eye is basically a giant Ferris wheel, except that each of the cars is an oval shaped, sealed, and air conditioned compartment big enough for about 25 people to move around. The compartments are rotated throughout the ride so that the compartment is always completely vertical, and a ride around the entire circumference takes about thirty minutes. During the ascent, you get a pretty spectacular view of Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, and Westminster Bridge just across the River Thames, and once you reach the top, you have an amazing panoramic view of London.
Preparation for the 2012 Olympics Is Everywhere:
The London Bridge has a set of gigantic Olympic rings hanging from the upper level. I wish I’d posted this before the Olympics started, since I took these pictures beforehand. Now, of course, this picture has been done by every news agency in the world. It’s interesting to me that the rings fold up when the bridge has to open. I actually got to see this happen, as they opened the bridge for a passing boat while I was visiting the nearby Tower of London.
Wenlock and Mandeville, the Olympic and Paralympic mascots, are all over the city now, expecially along the Thames. I saw and photographed at least a dozen different variants, with different “outfits” painted on. This one is at one end of the Lambeth bridge, with his back toward Parliament.
The preparation was extending to areas outside of the city as well. I took a boat to Greenwich on one of the days, and we passed an active ship from Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, which was docked for the duration of the games. I never found out the name of the vessel. (Edit after original posting: It was the HMS Ocean.) Lots of military folk were wandering around Greenwich. When one group of them wandered past… What’s the word for a group of British naval officers? A platoon? Division? Flock? I think I’ll pretend they’re like dolphins and say it was a pod of soldiers. Anyway, when this pod of soldiers wandered past, I heard one little boy say to his father, “Daddy, are those space marines?” I had to fight very hard to not laugh.
Unfortunately for me, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was closed because of preparations for the Olympics. I was kind of bummed out by this, because I wanted to straddle the Prime Meridian so I was standing in two time zones at once. Oh well, at least I got to see a helicopter landing on the deck of the Naval ship. That was nifty.
There’s Lots Of Touristy Stuff, Too:
No first-time visit to London would be complete without checking out Westminster Abbey. I was kind of entranced by how many famous graves were there. I stood over the graves of Laurence Olivier and Charles Darwin, and I sat for several minutes in Poet’s Corner, which has graves and memorials for too many literary giants to list here. There are so many graves and memorials in Westminster Abbey that there’s a separate Wikipedia entry to list them all.
Trafalgar Square has Nelson’s Column, and Piccadilly Circus has a lot of electric lights and a ridiculous amount of musicals. They have now made musicals out of a variety of movies that I didn’t think were particularly musical. One of the evenings, I didn’t actually have any plans, so I went to a second musical. I bought tickets about an hour before showtime for “Ghost: The Musical.” It was a week night, and it wasn’t terribly full, so when I picked up my ticket at the box office, my seat had actually been moved forward to about the tenth row. I thought the idea was ridiculous until I saw that the music was from Dave Stewart (most people know him from Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (most people know him from, well everything. The dude has six Grammys.) It wasn’t bad. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the plot. The transition to a musical wasn’t as jarring as I would have expected.
I quite enjoyed the London Film Museum, which had a lot of neat stuff, including Daleks, a TARDIS, the superman suit from Superman Returns, the Batman Begins batsuit, and a large variety of props from other movies. There was an entire room of Harry Potter stuff, and a large exhibit dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, including a full sized original Bubo. This was a highlight for me.
I saw The Monument to the London Fire, but I didn’t climb the 300+ steps to the top. I walked to Cleopatra’s Needle, an actual Egyptian obelisk (a gift from Egypt) on the banks of the Thames.
I visited the British Library and viewed some of the collection in their so-called Treasures room, which included some of the oldest known bibles in many languages, original handwritten lyrics from the Beatles, very old folios of Shakespeare, and much more.
The Yeoman Warder Tour (sometimes called the Beefeater Tour, although Yeoman Warder is the correct name) at the Tower of London was informative and interesting, and also free. Plus they spit a lot when they’re speaking. The front row needed rain slickers, Gallagher style. There’s a separate tour to see the Crown Jewels, but that doesn’t really interest me as much.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has a pretty nifty tour, and if you time it right, you can see a play there as well. I didn’t time it right, but I plan on going back sometime.
I went to the British Museum and checked out things like the Rosetta Stone (amazing) and the Egyptian collection from the tomb of Ramses II. I especially like how everyone observes the ‘Do not sit on the steps’ signs here.
The gift shops had a lot of neat stuff, but I was particularly amused by William Duckspeare.
Another stop that was almost required viewing for a first time visit to London is the Changing Of The Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Or, as I like to refer to it, the daily viewing of the umbrellas in the near constant rain. I did get a few pictures of the guards doing their thing, however. I read somewhere that there are four guards when the Queen is in residence, and two when she isn’t, so I could see that she was out that day. Here’s one of the two guards who was on duty.
I made a point of stopping on Sunday at the Animals In War Memorial. There are many, many statues, memorials, and the like in London, but this one is dedicated to all the animals that served alongside British and allied forces in all the conflicts of the 20th century. The memorial has a bronze sclupture of a horse, a dog, and a pair of pack mules moving through a curved wall. It’s a visually striking memorial, and the site I linked to up above has good pictures of it. What I found most interesting, however, was that people are obviously visiting this memorial on a regular basis. There were candles, wreaths, and even a horseshoe left behind in tribute.
London Has Character:
One of my favorite things about the city was that you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a pub with an interesting name. (Well, you could, but it would have to be a very patient cat, and you’d have to be out in a field somewhere.) One of my lunch choices was based entirely on where I was when I really, really had to pee one afternoon. This is the Minories Pub not far from the Tower of London. The food was amazingly delicious, and the staff was friendly and helpful.
London Also Has Characters:
There’s an area in the corner of Hyde Park nearest Marble Arch called Speaker’s Corner, and there is a tradition of people going there to speak their minds on Sunday afternoons. My first full day in London was a Sunday, so I couldn’t resist stopping by to see the… let’s call them outspoken people. Most of them were religious, most of them were espousing some form of Christianity, several of them were condemning Islam, and all of them were fascinating to listen to for brief spurts. I took a lot of pictures of people speaking. This guy had the most eye-catching outfit of the day.
I walked up and down the Thames while I was there, covering several kilometers on both banks, and I really enjoyed some of the scenery and people on the South bank. One day, while I was walking along the South Bank back toward my hotel, I passed this fabulous fellow who was silently dancing his way in the opposite direction. I’m burning with curiosity as to what it was all about, but he never stopped moving long enough for me to ask.
Mind The Gap:
My friends here in Regensburg have figured out already that I’m kind of a nerd about public transportation. I love the crap out of good public transit, and London has an amazing collection of ways to get around. I especially love the London Underground, often referred to as The Tube. I love the Mind The Gap signs. I love the subway cars. I love the distinctive push of air that you can always feel coming up the tunnel a good fifteen or twenty seconds before the train appears. I love that even when I was going the wrong direction and was basically lost, I could still easily navigate my way back to places I was familiar with on the Tube.
Don’t Forget To Go Outside Of The City:
There are a lot of places I wanted to visit in the UK that I didn’t have time for. I didn’t manage to visit Stratford On Avon, the final resting place of Shakespeare. I didn’t even get to see large swaths of London. I’ll hit Cardiff next year, for some of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who events. I did, however, take some time on Wednesday of my week to hop a train from Waterloo Station in the morning out to Salisbury. From the Salisbury train station, there’s a regular bus that goes every thirty minutes or so out to Stonehenge. It took me roughly two hours each way, but it was totally worth it to see this in person.
Next Stop, Edinburgh:
I checked out a lot of other things, much of which I”ll remember tomorrow or the next day that I wanted to get into this post. For example, I went out of my way to see Fenchurch Street Station because I love the character that Douglas Adams created. I also found Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station and got my picture there. (And as a result, couldn’t get the Pet Shop Boys song out of my head for the rest of the day.) I ate Fish and Chips and Indian Food. I had a drink in a pub off Carnaby Street. I bought some underwear in Marks & Spenser, because everyone says it’s really good stuff. I went on the London Eye twice. I walked more in one week than I usually walk in a month.
And finally, I left. From King’s Cross Station, I took the train up the coast to Edinburgh, Scotland.
But that’s another post.