ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 122


OUR FINAL DAY IN THE U.K.

So today is our last day in London; indeed, it’s our final day in the UK! We’ve had a pretty busy week sightseeing in and around London and so decided to take it easy today, taking the time to visit some of art galleries and museums we passed during the last few days. There are so many weird and wonderful museums and galleries in London (e.g. Sherlock Holmes Museum, The Beatles Museum, Museum of 17th Century Dolls), that it can be a little mind boggling. Our pick for the day however were: the British Natural History Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British National Art Gallery. Pretty mainstream really, but all very cool.

 

 

After a coffee and croissant at our (newly discovered) favourite Notting Hill café we set off on the Tube (like the pros we are now) to Kensington to the “museum district” near Kensington Palace. First stop: the Natural History Museum, where a vast array of specimens from the natural world are all gathered under one enormous roof.

 

 

 

 

Watched over by Charles Darwin himself (or a likeness thereof at least), the Natural History Museum is home to 80 million different life and earth science specimens. Categorised into 5 main areas: botany (i.e. plants and greens), entomology (i.e. creepy crawlies), mineralogy (i.e. rocks and stuff), palaeontology (i.e. DINOSAURS – YEAH!), and zoology (i.e. other animals). In case you haven’t worked it out, our favourite part of the museum was indubitably the dinosaurs. So cool!

 

 

 

 

After a few hours selectively* strolling through the halls of the Natural History Museum we crossed the road to the Victoria and Albert Museum, better known simply as the V&A.

*Who’s got the stamina to see 80 million specimens?!

 

 

Founded in 1852, the V&A is named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. It’s the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects spread across 145 galleries. There were art pieces and sculptures dating from ancient times to the present day; from the cultures of Europe, North America, North Africa, and every part of Asia; and from artistic disciplines as varied as ceramics, glass, textiles, silver-work, iron-work, furniture, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and photography.

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to describe how captivating a museum like the V&A can be – even the photos cannot do it justice. It’s just one of those things…if you enjoy museums, you’ll understand how we could lose ourselves for hours in amongst the galleries.

 

 

 

 

Our last, but certainly not least, stop of the day was the National Art Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Founded in 1824, this gallery houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the 13th century to today. Unfortunately we couldn’t get in to see a number of the paintings as the gallery’s curators are on strike at the moment, and those rooms were locked shut (seriously?!).

 

 

 

 

What we COULD get in to see was pretty impressive, however, with the most famous piece we saw being Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Virgin on the Rocks”.

 

 

 

 

After a couple of hours peering at paintings we called it a day and made our way westwards one last time, back to our little studio apartment for one final evening in London. We’re sad to see our last sunset in England, but REALLY excited about moving on to mainland Europe tomorrow! We’ve booked ourselves on a Eurostar train for tomorrow morning, bound first for Brussels then Amsterdam. No more bangers and mash, steak and ale pies, or fish and chips; no more of the Queen’s English or funky British accents; and no more unfailing British politeness. Still, we’ve got 3 months in Western Europe to look forward to now which is awesome (see how excited Shane is)!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 121


WEST END STORY

What would you call a district that’s just west of the main city centre, and is jam-packed full of restaurants, pubs, cafés, bars, clubs, and theatres? How about: The West End. That’s where we focussed our attentions today, exploring areas like Soho, Fitzrovia, and Marylebone in our bid to see more of this great city.

 

 

Stretching from Covent Garden to Buckingham Palace, the West End is the entertainment heart of London City. There are a handful of museums and galleries, an opera house, 48 theatres, hundreds of drinking and dining venues, and thousands of shops in the area; this is also where many of London’s fashion houses and media companies have their studios and head offices. It’s a very cosmopolitan part of the city with a real Bohemian, artsy vibe to it. No doubt it’s chaos at midnight on a Saturday night, but by the light of a Monday morning, it was pretty calm and orderly.

 

 

 

 

Parts of the West End have a pretty sordid history: long established as an entertainment district, for much of the 20th century this was a base for the sex industry. Since the 1980s, however, the area has undergone considerable transformation and is now VERY fashionable and trendy.

 

 

 

 

We began our foray into the West End at Piccadilly Circus*, one of London’s better known road junctions. This busy cross-roads is a gateway into the West End and is surrounded by some wonderful old buildings, including the London Pavilion, Criterion Restaurant and Criterion Theatre. There’s a whole lot of neon signs as well, a la Times Square (though on a much smaller scale).

*A circus in the London context has nothing to do with clowns (though there were a few weirdos hanging around); the term is used to refer a round, open street junction.

 

 

Walking south we soon entered one of London’s most iconic public spaces: Trafalgar Square. Named after the Battle of Trafalgar (a naval battle fought in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars where Britain kicked both France and Spain’s sea-faring butts), the square is the focal point for London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, and for political demonstrations and community gatherings. With the grand monument to Lord Nelson in the centre, and views all the way to Big Ben, Trafalgar Square made for a wonderful photo stop.

 

 

 

 

Further on we found Covent Garden, and its famous undercover markets. Once the garden that fed Westminster Abbey and its sister convent, the district has been a famed market area since the 17th century. The modern market has stalls that sell everything from bespoke fashion, arts, and crafts, to mountains of plastic paraphernalia emblazoned with the Union Jack (all made in China no doubt). It was all a bit touristy for our liking, so we moved on.

 

 

 

 

Our next (and last) stop for the day was the British Museum. We had intended to see a few more sites today, but ended up being so captivated by the museum and its incredible array of displays that we found ourselves happily stuck there for the rest of the day!

 

 

The British Museum is housed in a beautiful, purpose-built neoclassical building and includes 8 million* artefacts and displays from around the world. Covering an area of over 92,000 square metres the museum’s collection is supposedly the largest and most comprehensive in existence, with displays that originate from all continents, many of them gathered by intrepid British explorers during the hey day of the colonial British Empire.

*Not all 8 million are on show at once – just 1% of the museum’s entire collection is ever on public display. Thank goodness too – we were lost in there for hours as it was!

 

 

The Egyptian antiquities section was hugely popular, with hundreds joining us to peer at the mummies, sarcophagi, and hieroglyphics. There were objects from every period of Egyptian history, including Nubian artefacts from what is modern-day Sudan. Arranged so much better than the artefacts at the museum in Cairo, this was a definite highlight of our visit. We even got to see the original Rosetta Stone*!

*There’s some controversy about whether some of the artefacts, including the Rosetta Stone, should be returned to their country of origin. It’s a difficult question because, whilst we can appreciate the ethical issues involved in these items being taken out of their home countries, having seen how haphazardly the The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is arranged and maintained, we can’t help but feel the Rosetta Stone is in better care where it is at the moment.

 

 

 

Other collections we really enjoyed were those from the Middle East, covering Mesopotamia, Persia, Jordan, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula, and India (many of the Indian objects were collected by colonial officers and explorers when the subcontinent was part of the British Empire).

 

 

 

 

Asia, Africa, the Americas, and, of course, Europe, were all represented in the museum’s various collections, and kept us happy as…. Well, happy as a couple of nerds in a museum!

 

 

 

 

After 5 days here we have come to the conclusion that this city is definitely one of our favourite places in the world (at least in summer – maybe not so much in in the midst on winter!). There are so many beautiful buildings, free museums, and art galleries to enjoy, as well as 2,000 years of history to go with them. There’s always something going on and it’s also one of the most international cities in the world – it’s been just as easy to find shawarma and korma as it is to get fish and chips, or a steak and ale pie, for dinner. London really is fantastic!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 120


WANDERING THROUGH WESTMINSTER

We spent our day exploring Westminster and all its historic landmarks, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Situated on the north bank of the River Thames, just across from Southbank and the London Eye, Westminster is London’s “official” heart, where the UK government meets, the British Prime Minister resides, and the Royal Family lives. It’s also a part of the city that’s VERY popular with tourists, as we discovered today; the queues for Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey in particular were quite extraordinary! We persevered through the long lines however and got to see some of London’s bets known sights up close.

 

 

Our first stop of the day was the Palace of Westminster, better known as the meeting place of the British Parliament. This beautiful building was originally built as a royal residence but has been home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, since the 13th century.

 

 

The first royal palace was built on the site in the 11th century, and Westminster was the primary residence of the Kings of England until a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served exclusively as the home of the Parliament of England and the Royal Courts of Justice. In 1834, an even greater fire ravaged the building, and the only medieval structures to survive were Westminster Hall, the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, and the Jewel Tower (which you can see in the photo below).

 

 

In the subsequent reconstruction the Palace was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style, inspired by the Gothic style of the 14th to 16th centuries. With its ornate trimmings, and many spires and towers, the building is far prettier up close than we had expected. It’s also HUGE (apparently there are more than 1,000 rooms inside – not that we were allowed in to see them).

 

 

The building’s best known feature is, of course, the Elizabeth Tower, better known as the Tower of Big Ben*. With a clock face on each of its four side, this iconic London landmark (how many of those can one city have?!) is visible from miles around and the ringing of its bells can be heard all over the city. That sound has become inextricably tied to our memories of London and is as iconic in many ways as the tower itself. You can do tours through the tower and find out all about the clock and its bells and how they are kept on time; with so much more to see however, we decided to keep moving and made our way across the road to another of London’s world famous landmarks: Westminster Abbey.

*Big Ben is technically just the nickname of the biggest bell within the clock tower. The bell was named after Benjamin Hall, the 19th century engineer who oversaw the rebuilding of the palace of Parliament after the 1834 fire.

 

 

Westminster Abbey is the church where British monarchs are crowned, get married, baptise their babies, and have their funerals. In that sense, just about everyone in the world has seen Westminster Abbey, even if just in passing on TV; most recently it was the focus of the world’s media when Prince William and Kate got married there. We’re not much for royal weddings (*yawn*), but the architecture of the building is pretty cool. There has been a church on the site since the 7th century, and the present church was built in 1265. As is typical of many churches and cathedrals in the UK, you can’t take photos of the interior, but trust us: in keeping with the other Gothic churches we’ve seen around England (e.g. York Minster, Cathedral of Durham), Westminster Abbey is quite spectacular (the queues to get INTO the abbey are less than spectacular however – a tip for anyone visiting London: pre-buy your tickets online to save literally HOURS of waiting and queuing, and save a few pounds too).

 

 

Having seen 2 of the big 3 sights (the third being Buckingham Palace), we needed a break from the crowds (sweet Jesus – THE PEOPLE!*), and so pulled into a quiet café for a bite to eat and some respite.

*We keep carrying on about crowds and how many people there are here (and in China, and in the big cities of Japan, etc), but you have to understand it’s because we come from a country where there’s LOTS of space and not a whole lot of people. This means we’re just not used to sharing our air and personal space with thousands of other people!

 

 

 

 

Continuing on through Westminster we passed a number of government ministry buildings and beautiful architecture.

 

 

 

 

One of the buildings we passed, known colloquially as “Number 10”, is the British Prime Minister’s abode. For over 300 years British Prime Ministers have resided at Number 10 Downing Street and conducted business there. Not that we got even close to seeing the actual house as virtually the entire street is blocked off with big security fences, patrolled by armed gaurds*.

*As a result of current affairs in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, key sites in London are currently at a Level 4 (out of 5) for terrorism threats. The most obvious sign of this we’ve seen whilst here is the level of security in certain places.

 

 

Further on we entered St James’s Park, one of the many parks in this part of London. Once part of the grounds of St James’ Palace, this 57 acre green space is now a leafy retreat from the hustle and bustle of Westminster and made for a pleasant stop along our wanderings.

 

 

 

 

We crossed St James Park on our way to our final site for the day: Buckingham Palace. This huge palace is the official London residence and principal workplace of the monarchy of the United Kingdom. Like Kensington Palace, which we visited the other day, parts of Buckingham Palace are open to the public over summer when the royals are off on their holidays. Once again the queue to get in was RIDICULOUS, and once again, no photos allowed inside. Using your imagination you can no doubt picture the opulence of the staterooms however…

 

 

Originally known as Buckingham House, the building which forms the core of today’s palace was once a townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703. It was subsequently acquired by King George III in 1761 as a private residence for Queen Charlotte and was known as “The Queen’s House”. During the 19th century it was enlarged, and became the official royal palace of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. A monument to Queen Victoria now stands out the front of the palace.

 

 

After trawling through the halls of Buckingham Palace with a million other tourists we decided we’d had enough of being good little sheepeople* and headed back to our little studio apartment for some peace and quiet. London really is an awesome city, and there is so much to see and do here, but the crowds of tourists we encountered today make us think that maybe high summer is NOT the time to come here!

*Sheep + People = Sheepeople (used to describe people who exhibit unthinking, herd-like behaviour).

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 119


LONDON’S SUNNY SOUTH BANK

We focussed our touristing attentions on the South Bank of the Thames today, joining hordes of Londoners and visitors strolling along the Queen’s Walk. This 3 mile promenade runs from the London Eye to the Tower Bridge, taking in some great views of the River Thames, the City of London, and London’s Southbank along the way. With blue skies above us and the warmth of summer in the air, we had a wonderful day exploring the sights of Southbank and soaking in a bit more of London’s cosmopolitan vibe.

 

 

After a leisurely start and a coffee with a view, we decided to begin our sightseeing with a short cruise along the Thames, from Westminster to the Tower Bridge.

 

 

The River Thames is the longest river in England and has been central to the evolution of London city. The river is deep enough for big ships and for centuries London’s Southbank was one of Europe’s most important river ports. Today few tall ships sail up the Thames; most of the water traffic is made up of ferries that take tourists like us up and down the river. It’s a great way to see some of the city of London, and on a day like today, also a great way to soak in some rays in style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We passed under a number of bridges along the way from Westminster Pier to the Tower Bridge Pier, including THE original London Bridge, the newly built Millennium Bridge, and, of course, the Tower Bridge.

 

 

 

 

We hopped off after about half an hour of cruising the river and strolled across the Tower Bridge. Part suspension bridge and part drawbridge, the current structure was built in the 1890s and is both beautiful and impressive.

 

 

 

 

Reaching the southern bank of the Thames we set out to walk all the way back to the London Eye and the Westminster Bridge. Once a swampy marsh, Southbank developed into London’s entertainment district in the Middle Ages. Positioned as it was outside the formal regulation of the City of London on the north bank the area evolved into a rather shady district that included theatres, brothels, and animal fighting pits. Today the nature of the entertainment venues has changed somewhat, with the Queen’s Way promenade giving access to more family friendly options like the London Aquarium, the London Eye, the National Theatre, and the Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

 

 

Along the way we passed London City Hall, the headquarters of the London City Assembly. Opened in 2002 the building has an unusual shape, intended to reduce its surface area and thus improve energy efficiency.

 

 

The Shard was visible in the background too. Standing at 310m high it is currently the tallest building in Western Europe.

 

 

We didn’t stop in but did pause to admire the sleek lines of the HMS Belfast. Originally a Royal Navy light cruiser that served in both World Wars, the ship is now permanently moored on the River Thames and functions as a war museum.

 

 

Continuing on we passed Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the original Elizabethan Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were once performed. The Globe was originally built in 1599, but was destroyed by fire in the late 1600s. The current theatre opened to the public in 1997 and once again plays host to Shakespearian dramas for appreciative audiences. Macbeth is playing at the moment but we weren’t really in the mood for theatre today so we continued on.

 

 

Next on the list of Southbank attractions was the Tate Modern, London’s famous modern art gallery. We DID stop in for a look there, partly just to see the building itself, which was once a power station and now boasts some great airy spaces.

 

 

 

 

Modern art is often a little too abstract for us, and certainly some of the exhibitions we saw today had us scratching our heads in consternation wondering what on Earth the point of it all was (even when we read the explanation accompanying some of the pieces we still couldn’t work out what it all meant – hardly surprising though given we’re both more on the geek/nerd end of the spectrum, rather than the artsy/creative end). Still, some of the displays were really cool; the Russian propaganda posters being our favourite of the day (they also made the most sense!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another favourite spot that had us stopping to watch was The Undercroft, an area used by skateboarders since the early 1970s. There were a few guys practicing their tricks whilst we were there which was pretty cool.

 

 

 

 

Finally we reached the London Eye, the city’s iconic giant ferris wheel. We had planned to ride the Eye but when we saw the queue (SO MANY PEOPLE!), decided we didn’t really need to see the city from 135m up in the air!

 

 

 

 

Crossing the Westminster Bridge we stopped to admire the Palace of Westminster and its very famous clock before catching the Tube back to our neighbourhood.

 

 

We thought about exploring some of Westminster but decided to leave all that for tomorrow. For now there’s a patch of grass in Hyde Park calling out to us and we must answer its summons….

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 118


OLD & NEW LONDON

The city of London has been around for 2 millennia (at least); there is oodles and oodles of history soaked into the streets and the brickwork here, and today we went out to explore just a little bit of it. This is also a modern, global city; a leading financial, artistic, entertainment, fashion, and educational centre. Part of London’s appeal for us lies in this blend of old and new, and today we got to see a little of both sides of the city.

 

 

We caught the Tube into the CBD of London, with a plan to see the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the London Museum, as well as just stroll the streets and soak in the big city vibe.

 

 

London’s CBD roughly corresponds to the original city limits delineated by the Romans in 50AD when they founded Londinium. The entire city once fit into these 3 square kilometres; today, however, it’s just the main business district. It’s in this square mile that London’s big banks, insurance companies, legal firms, and other multi-national businesses have their offices and headquarters. Some of the buildings in the city are iconic and instantly recognisable, others just plain impressive. Our favourite from today include:

• The Royal Exchange, founded in the 16th century by the merchant Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the City of London.

• The Lloyd’s building, home of the insurance institution Lloyd’s of London and sometimes known as the Inside-Out Building because the services for the building, such as ducts and lifts, are located on the outside.

• 20 Fenchurch Street, a commercial skyscraper nicknamed “The Walkie-Talkie” because of its distinctive shape.

• 30 St Mary Axe (known as “The Gherkin”), built on the former site of the Baltic Exchange, which was extensively damaged in 1992 by the explosion of an IRA bomb.

• The Shard, an 87 storey sky scraper on the South bank of the Thames.

 

 

 

 

Our first “touristy” stop for the day was the London Museum, where the story of London itself is told through exhibits and AV displays.

 

 

Here we learnt about the Roman settlement of Londinium, built at a strategic point along the River Thames where crossings could be made and where the river was deep enough to allow ships to sail in.

 

 

After the Romans came the Saxons, who ruled London as part of the Kingdom of Wessex and converted the city to Christianity.

 

 

The Danish Vikings raided London a few times in the 9th century, but never gained a foothold this far south. In fact, London remained a Saxon city until the Norman invasion of the 11th century. It was the Normans who built the first stone castle in London (which still stands and forms the core of the Tower of London), and the first stone bridge across the River Thames (precursor to the current London Bridge or Tower Bridge). This bridge would last for 600 years, and remained the only structure across the River Thames until 1739.

 

 

The museum showed us how London grew during the Middle Ages, and how Medieval London was a maze of over-crowded, unsanitary, narrow and twisting streets, with buildings made from wood and straw (which made fire a constant threat). Sounds like a recipe for disaster right? How about a recipe for multiple disasters, in the shape of numerous outbreaks of the plague (including the “Great Plague” in 1665 which killed around 60,000 people, which was one fifth of the city’s population), and one very big fire. The Great Fire of London destroyed the entire city in 1666 and paved the way for it to be redesigned, rebuilt, and expanded.

 

 

The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of rapid growth for London, reflecting increased prosperity due to the Industrial Revolution, and London’s role at the centre of the evolving British Empire. During this period, London became a global political, financial, and trading capital.

 

 

While the city grew wealthy, 19th-century London was also a city of poverty, where millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums (conditions immortalised by Charles Dickens in such novels as “Oliver Twist”).

 

 

Modern London was also brought to life for us at the museum, with photos of the damage done to the city during World Wars I and II by German bombing raids. London’s rebuilding was slow to begin, however, in 1951 the Festival of Britain was held, which marked the city’s return to form.

 

 

Starting in the mid-1960s, partly as a result of the success of such UK musicians as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, London became a centre for pop culture and a trend-setting city (which is still is today).

 

 

We also learnt that more than 300 languages are spoken in London’s streets. This multicultural city is home to more migrant groups than any other in the world. From the 1950s onwards London became home to a large number of immigrants, forever changing the face of the city. It’s something we can’t help but notice walking the streets of the city – this town is a melting pot of cultures, creeds, races, and peoples like nothing we’ve ever seen. It’s really cool and makes for some fascinating people watching!

 

 

The Museum of London gave us a great overview of the city’s history and helped put some of the other sights we saw into context. It really is a great stop for anyone who’s visiting the city and wants to understand a bit more about the city’s history.

 

 

From the museum we walked across to London’s iconic cathedral: St Paul’s. Perched on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, the church is magnificent. We couldn’t take photos of the interior, but trust us, this Baroque masterpiece if beautiful.

 

 

The current church was built in the 17th century, after the Great Fire of London destroyed the Gothic cathedral* that stop on the hill. Many important events in British history have been celebrated at St Paul’s (which is part of the reason it’s so iconic), including the funerals of Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill; Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria; peace services marking the end of the First and Second World Wars; the wedding of Charles and Diana; and the thanksgiving services for the Golden Jubilee, the 80th Birthday and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

*The Gothic cathedral itself replaced an earlier wooden structure – there has been a church on that spot since 604.

 

 

One of the best things about visiting St Paul’s is that you can climb all the way to the very top and enjoy some epic views across the city. It’s quite a climb, and a little nerve wracking if you don’t love heights, but the 360 degree views of London’s CBD make it all worth while. Didn’t hurt that we had a great summer’s day today!

 

 

 

 

After a quick lunch at a nearby café we continued on to one of London’s most visited sites: the Tower of London (or as we think it should be called: Ye Olde Castle of London).

 

 

The central part of the castle, known as the White Tower, was built in 1078 by William the Conquerer and still stands at the heart of the castle complex. Today it houses a wicked museum on war and weapons, which includes King Henry VII’s suit of armour and the swords of numerous British Kings. Very cool!

 

 

 

 

 

The castle was expanded a number of times, mainly under Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries. The end result is a castle made up of two concentric rings of buildings, defensive walls, and a moat. A grand palace early in its history, the Tower of London served as a royal residence for almost 400 years (until Henry VII moved the royal residence out of the castle and turned it into a prison).

 

 

The Tower of London’s reputation as a place of torture and death evolved during its centuries of use as a prison. The peak period of the castle’s use as a prison was the 16th and 17th centuries, when many figures who had fallen into disgrace were held within its walls and executed there. A few ghosts are said to haunt the Tower too, many of them people executed within its walls. Most famously the ghost of Anne Boleyn, beheaded in 1536 on orders of Henry VIII, allegedly haunts the grounds and walks around the White Tower carrying her head under her arm. We didn’t see any such ghostly figures roaming the halls, though we did get to see a parade of people dressed up on period costumes and a jousting demonstration, which was very cool.

 

 

The Tower’s gruesome history is part of the reason people have flocked to visit the site since the 18th century. The other reason is that this is where the English Crown Jewels are kept and displayed. They’re housed in the Waterloo Barracks and are REALLY popular. We stopped by to take a look (so many diamonds!), and had to shuffle past with 1,000 of our new friends pushing and shoving around us. Kind of detracts from the the moment a little bit, but we still got to appreciate the sheer BLING of all those sparkly crowns, sceptres, etc.

 

 

The Crown Jewels are guarded by some of the Queen’s Guards. Dressed in their formal red and black suits and fluffy hats, they looked pretty cool (actually they looked very HOT and sweaty under the warm summer sun).

 

 

In the courtyard of the keep we could see a few ravens hopping around. They all had clipped wings so we had to ask what that was all about. Turns out there’s a legend/superstition that says that at least 6 ravens must be kept at the Tower at all times, otherwise the British kingdom will fall. Errr… sure.

 

 

The guy we asked about the ravens was a Yeomen Warders. The Yeomen Warders, popularly known as the Beefeaters, are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. In principle they are responsible for looking after any prisoners in the Tower and safeguarding the British crown jewels, but in practice they act as tour guides.

 

 

Having finished our explorations of London’s ancient castle we decided to call it a day. There was just one more photo stop that we HAD to do before catching the Tube back to our neighbourhood: Tower Bridge (better known as London Bridge).

 

 

Blue skies above, the buzz of people EVERYWHERE, buckets of history, art and culture… ahhhh London! Does it get much better than this?!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 117


WE’VE LANDED IN LONDON!

We’ve got a week left in the UK and we’ve decided to save the best (or the worst, depending on your perspective) ‘til last! We’re spending this last week in London, seeing and experiencing as much as we can of this busy, bustling, amazing city. We arrived into town by train from Moreton-in-Marsh and spent our afternoon exploring some of the sights closest to our accommodation, including the ‘burbs of Bayswater, Kensington and Notting Hill. We’ve only been here half a day and already we’re feeling a little overwhelmed, mesmerised, and just a little enchanted by this metropolis. There’s just so much to see and do, and so much going on all the time… One week just doesn’t seem like it’ll be enough!

 

 

After the last few days roaming around the Cotswolds, it was a bit of a shock getting off the train at London’s Paddington station (one of half a dozen large train stations in London). The people! So many people*! We made it out of the train station and to our accommodation in one piece, however, and were soon settled into our little studio apartment and ready to explore.

*Being peak summer, not only are we sharing the city with the usual 8.6 million residents of London, but with a few million other tourists as well. About 10 million people visit this city every year – most of them during the months of July and August. Hence THE PEOPLE!

 

 

We’re staying in Bayswater, one of Western London’s most multicultural and cosmopolitan areas, packed full of hotels and serviced apartments. We chose this area as our home base as it’s close to lots of public transport links and there are heaps of restaurants and shops nearby. It’s also quite a pretty neighbourhood, with lots of Victorian stucco terraces (mostly now subdivided into apartments or turned into hotels).

 

 

Not far from Bayswater is Notting Hill, one of London’s leafier suburbs made famous by the 1999 film of the same name, its annual Caribbean flavoured street festival, and the weekly Portobello street markets.

 

 

Since it was first developed in the 1820s, Notting Hill has had an association with artists and “alternative” culture. During the second half of the 20th century, however, it became quite a run-down neighbourhood, with many of the large Victorian townhouses subdivided into cheap multi-occupancy rentals. Attracted by the cheap rents, a large number of Caribbean immigrants were drawn to the area (which is how the Notting Hill Festival got started).

 

 

As has happened all over the world, however, population growth and escalating house prices meant that Notting Hill gradually became more popular with working professionals and young families. The area underwent gentrification in the 1990s and is now has a reputation as an affluent and fashionable area; known for attractive terraces of large Victorian townhouses, and high-end shopping and restaurants. Strolling its streets today, we certainly got the impression that Notting Hill is a trendy, funky, multicultural, and pretty place.

 

 

One of Notting Hill’s main attractions (and one of the main reasons we wanted to take a look), is the Portobello Markets. These one of London’s notable street markets, known for its second-hand clothes and antiques. The busiest day at the market is Saturday, but there are stalls there on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as well. We spent an hour or so walking the length of Portobello Road and back down again, checking out the various stalls. There were all sorts of things on sale, from home made organic bread, to fresh fruits and vegetables, bespoke fashions, jewellery, and a whole variety of antiques and second-hand goods. The vibe all along the street was great; it was busy but not chaotic, and lots of people were stopping to chat while they shopped and browsed. It was all so nice that we just had to stop for a coffee along the way to sit and soak it all in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Notting Hill our wanderings took us into Kensington, one of London’s most exclusive districts. The area is home to many of London’s embassies, a palace, some public green space, and quite a few theatres and museums. With its wide, tree-lined streets, and beautiful old buildings, Kensington was quite obviously a tad more affluent than Notting Hill and Bayswater (the number of Rolls Royces, Mercedes, Porsches, Jags, and Ferraris driving around kind of gave it away as well; as did the number of women with just a bit too much Botox, silicon, and collagen going on).

 

 

Our main reason for stopping in to Kensington was to visit Kensington palace, one of London’s 3 royal residences (the others being Buckingham Palace and St James Palace). Set in the midst of some lovely gardens, the palace is actually quite a plain looking building. It was originally built in 1605 in the small village of Kensington (which was, at the time, OUTSIDE the city of London!) by a member of the local gentry. In 1689, however, it was bought by the then King and Queen, William and Mary, and has been a royal residence ever since. Kensington Palace is currently the official London residence of the Prince Harry, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their family (i.e. William, Kate and their l’il uns). Part of the palace is open to the public and showcases how the royals would have lived over the centuries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best known “face” of Kensington Palace, however, are its golden gates which, in 1997, became the focus of public mourning after Princess Diana’s untimely death. It was here that people left a million bouquets of flowers because this was where Diana and Charles lived after their marriage in 1981. Kensington Palace remained the official residence of Princess Di after their divorce and it there that Princes William and Harry were raised.

 

 

Surrounding the palace are Kensington Gardens, once the private gardens of Kensington Palace and now public green space*. These 270 acre gardens were lovely, especially given the sunny weather.

*Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park together form an almost continuous “green lung” in the heart of London.

 

 

We strolled through the gardens until we got to Kensington Rd and the “museum and arts district” of Kensington. Here museums like the British Museum of Natural History sit alongside arts centres like the Royal College of Music and Royal Albert Hall. Here too we came across the Frieze of Parnassus, a large sculpture constructed in the 1860s in memory of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s beloved husband). So much history and culture!

 

 

 

 

As much as we wanted to visit some of these museums, we were pretty tired by this stage and decided to save those visits for another day. Instead we bought a couple of Oyster Cards (London’s public transport electronic travel cards) and braved the London Tube for the first time. Opened in 1863, the London underground railway is the oldest in the world and one of the busiest too – not as busy as Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow, or Hong Kong (all of which we’ve managed to successfully navigate), but still a bit daunting!

 

 

As it turns out we survived our first Tube ride and our first day in London and are quite excited about venturing a little further abroad tomorrow to see some of the city’s big sights. The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum, the National Gallery, British Museum of Natural History, the Tate Museum of Modern Art…. Where to start?!

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 116


OXFORD’S HALLOWED HALLS

We took ourselves to Oxford today, to explore some of the city’s Medieval streets, beautiful architecture, and hallowed halls. Renowned throughout the world as a centre of learning, Oxford is so much more than just a university; we found a city buzzing with life, steeped in history, and oozing with character and charm. It really is a wonderful city, and one we’d love to spend a bit more time in one day.

 

 

One of the world’s most famous university cities, there’s no doubt that Oxford is a privileged place. The elegant honey-coloured buildings of all the university colleges are scattered throughout the town, making it a joy to just stroll through the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world* and one of the most famous and prestigious higher education institutions in the world. There have been students attending Oxford since 1096. Today the student population numbers more than 22,000, spread across the city and its 38 colleges (to be a member of the university, all students must also be a member of a college). Most of these colleges were founded hundreds of years ago and are housed in spectacular buildings that resemble small palaces. Some of the college buildings are open to the public for visits, some, like Oriel College below, can only be viewed from the gates (leaving us feeling like some kind of deprived underclass, wishing we too could be privy to whatever mysterious learnings go on in there).

*The word “university” is derived from the Latin phrase “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, roughly meaning “a community of teachers and scholars”. The term was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which, with a founding date of 1088, is considered the first university. There are a few much older educational establishments still in operation around the world (such as the al-Karaouine madrasa in Fes that we visited in 2013), but these aren’t technically defined as “universities” and so don’t count apparently.

 

 

One of the colleges that DOES open its doors to visitors is Christ Church College. Established in 1524, Christ Church is one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic colleges at Oxford. It has produced 13 British prime ministers (more than all the other Oxford colleges put together), and is set in beautiful grounds which we toured through (for a fee, of course).

 

 

 

 

Thanks to its unique architecture, Christ Church College has been used as a setting for a few movies. Most recently its Great Hall was used in the Harry Potter films – you may recognise it from the photos below. It was a pretty imposing room, with its dark timbered ceiling, long dining tables, and rows of portraits staring down from the walls.

 

 

 

 

Within the college grounds sits Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford’s central cathedral and the college’s chapel. Built in 1546 the church replaced an older chapel that was once a major pilgrimage site. Oxford’s patron saint, Frideswide, was buried there the 8th century; her shrine is still housed within the cathedral. We also found out that Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand (which unfortunately was damaged in the big earthquake they had there in 2012), after which the City of Christchurch is named, is itself named after Christ Church in Oxford.

 

 

 

 

Just outside the grounds of Christ Church College we came across the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. Unfortunately it wasn’t open for visitors (too many people in there learning and stuff), but at least we got to admire the building from the outside.

 

 

 

 

We also got to see the Radcliffe Camera* which houses science texts. Named after John Radcliffe, a doctor, who left £40,000 to Oxford University upon his death in 1714 for the building of a scientific library.

*It’s effectively a small library or reading room, “camera”meaning “room” in Latin.

 

 

 

Other favourite bits from the day were the Sheldonian Theatre and the Hertford Bridge, which joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane. The bridge is often referred to as the Bridge of Sighs because of its similarity to the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice (to us it looked more like the Rialto Bridge, but hey, who are we to argue with that much history and tradition?!).

 

 

 

 

We had lunch at the Covered Market, Oxford’s 18th century marketplace. Apparently it was built in response to a general wish to clear “untidy, messy and unsavoury stalls” from the main streets of central Oxford. Today it’s a mix of cafes, fruit & veggie vendors, butchers, bakers, florists, and a few small cafés, making it a good place for a quiet break, away from the crowds in the main shopping streets.

 

 

 

 

After lunch we passed by Oxford Castle, or at least what’s left of it. The original Normal castle, built in the 11th century, was heavily damaged during the English Civil War of the 17th century and then used as a prison from 1785 to 1996. Today it’s open for guided tours, though we didn’t stop in, just poked around the outside of the ruins for a look.

 

 

 

 

We DID stop in for a look at the Oxford Museum, however, to learn a bit more about the city’s history. Some interesting tidbits we picked up there:
• Oxford was first settled in Saxon times and was initially known as “Oxenaforda” – i.e. “place where the oxen cross the river” or “ford of the oxen”.
• In the 10th century, Oxford became an important military frontier town between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex.
• After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled northeast to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge.
• Buildings in Oxford demonstrate examples of every English architectural period since the arrival of the Saxons.
• With a population of 150,200 Oxford is the 52nd largest city in the United Kingdom, and one of the most ethnically diverse.
• Oxford University has educated many notable alumni, including 27 Nobel laureates, 26 British prime ministers and many foreign heads of state.

 

Having filled our heads with Oxford-related information and our our eyes with Oxonian sights we decided it was time to head back to our little Cotswolds village for the evening. We’ve got one last night in Moreton-in-Marsh because tomorrow we head to London! We’re pretty excited about seeing London and intentionally left the capital as our last stop in the UK. Hopefully the transition from staying in small country towns to being in The Big City won’t be too much of a shock though. Tune in tomorrow to find out how we go, finding our feet in London….