London calling: a weekend trip to the British capital blows my mind
As an Australian, it is hard to comprehend the tyranny of distance. In all honesty, we are so far away from the world!
In Limerick, it is a completely different world – a number of countries are only a couple of hours away by air.
I took advantage of this last weekend.
This will probably be one of the blog posts I enjoy writing most, for it covers the trip I took to London last week!
When I was about 12 years old, there were five cities in the world I desperately wanted to see – Melbourne (incredibly, given I was there seven or eight times in 2011, I didn’t go to Melbourne until I was about 15 or so), New York, Los Angeles, Paris and, of course, London. For someone like me – a lover of history, a monarchist (although that’s shifted slightly), a sporting and music fan and a traveller – London has probably been at the top of the list for many years now. So it still feels so surreal that I was in London the weekend just past.
I was keen to make the trip early in my exchange adventure because I knew it was the easiest place to get to from Limerick. I also wanted to see Alyssa, a good friend from Sydney who had spent the last five months studying on exchange in Manchester.
Originally, I was planning to fly in Saturday morning, fly home Sunday night. However, Alyssa was flying out of Heathrow on Friday night, so I changed my flights to be able to see her. A warning for anyone who is flying Ryanair: be sure which flight you want to take before you book! It ended up costing me a substantial amount to change my flight, but it was marginally cheaper than booking another one. It was all worth it, though, as Friday was one of the best days of my life (and I’m not using hyperbole for the sake of it).
As I said before, I flew Ryanair last Friday from Shannon into London-Gatwick, their second biggest airport. Everything I’d heard prior suggested that flying Ryanair would be an experience. They weren’t wrong. I was running slightly late so I had to sprint through customs to make it to the flight on time. Luckily, I’d purchased a reserved seat for an extra €10 so I didn’t have to push through. For almost everyone else, there was no reserved seating – they had to find an available seat once aboard the plane.
The level of customer service with Ryanair is minimal, to say the least. The occasional smile was negated by the fact they were effectively saleswomen, pushing you to buy anything and everything. They even had scratchies for sale! It was definitely something different to what I had experienced elsewhere. However, it got me from point A to point B and nothing else mattered. In fact, after we landed ahead of schedule, the call to the post (that little tune they play as horses head to the barriers before the start of every race) played, announcing it was another on-time arrival. The call to the post instantly made me feel at home.
From Gatwick, I caught the train into London Victoria before making my way on the London Underground (the Tube) to King’s Cross-St Pancras. Although Alyssa and I had planned to meet up at King’s Cross, it was still a shock to run into her in the middle of the station. We were meeting up in the heart of London!!! Her friend Maddie, also from Sydney, was there too. It was great to spend time with Aussies, and such friendly ones too, after a couple of weeks out of the loop.
As any Harry Potter fan knows, King’s Cross is where the Hogwarts Express leaves from every September 1. The famed Platform 9 3/4 is one of many “Holy Grail” sights for Harry Potter fans. As we were already at King’s Cross, it was decided we had to get a picture going through to the platform. If only I’d had my Slytherin scarf on at the time…
From King’s Cross, we went to the one place in London I was dying to see. I’d always been a Beatles fan, but two years ago in Singapore I played Beatles: Rock Band for the first time. It hooked me even further, and after playing that game a few times I began to listen to more and more of their music. It grew to the point where it could be said I had a Beatles obsession. I’d listen to them day and night, to archival clips, to the Anthology albums, to their solo work.
For me, my favourite Beatles album is Abbey Road. While it was their last collaboration, I believe the music on the album is incredible. Of course, Abbey Road has one of the most famous album covers in history. Everyone knows the picture of the Beatles walking across the pedestrian crossing. For those that don’t, here it is here:
So I was holding my breath as we approached Abbey Road. Luckily it was easy to find the crossing, as there were a lot of tourists around and “tribute graffiti” covered the walls outside the Abbey Road Studios. What I couldn’t get over was how busy Abbey Road actually was – I’d heard it was a main road, but until I saw it for myself I couldn’t imagine it. But there was a lot of traffic on the road. I actually wonder why drivers would choose to go down Abbey Road. I mean, seriously, you know that tourists are going to be on the crossing – surely there’s another way you could go?
We were lucky, as a professional photographer offered to take our photo for only £3. It was the best transaction I made in London. Alyssa, Maddie and I got our photos on the crossing, and it looks like there are no other people there! There were plenty of tourists around, but we got on the crossing at just the right time. The end result was stunning. It has instantly become a favourite picture of mine (even though the quality of this isn’t the best as it is a photo of the photo):
I just saw another photo, taken from Alyssa’s camera, which is just as good!
And so I’d seen Abbey Road. My London trip was complete!!! Well, sort of. You almost forget how many things there are to do in London. But I’ll come back to that later.
We walked to the nearest Tube station, St John’s Wood, to discover that Lord’s Cricket Ground – the home of cricket – was only 400 yards away. Maddie, in particular, was keen to see Lord’s and I was only too happy to oblige! As someone who has grown up on the gentlemen’s game, it was a dream to be able to get to Lord’s. My dream is to one day get to the ground for a match – there is an Australia v England one day match at Lord’s, scheduled for the day after I’m supposed to go home! I might have to push my departure back a day or two…
From Lord’s, we went to a local pub – I love the atmosphere of the British pubs – before walking to Baker Street. This was another place I wanted to visit just once, because of the song Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. Even if you don’t know the song, you’d definitely have heard the saxophone riff (click here if you want to know which saxophone riff it is, it starts about 25 seconds in).
On the Tube from Baker Street down to Lambeth North, I made the split second decision to get off at Piccadilly Circus, famous for its neon signs. I got there just after the sun had g0ne down, so I’m happy with some of the photos I took! I looked down one end and I could see a lot of the West End theatres. Definitely made me excited for a return.
I then made it to Lambeth North – but I struggled tremendously to find the place where I was staying – the Novotel London Waterloo. After numerous wrong turns I ended up near London Bridge – completely away from where I wanted to be. After retracing my steps, I found the place where I was staying, right near the Lambeth Bridge. After a couple of hours of down time, I decided to go for a short walk. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but I ended up on Southbank right opposite the Houses of Parliament! I walked down to Westminster Bridge and had my first good look at Big Ben. To the right, just opposite the bridge, was the London Eye. I think it first hit me then that I was in London.
After a good night’s sleep, I set off early on Saturday morning. Saturday involved a lot of walking. Firstly, I walked across the Thames before walking around behind the Houses of Parliament. This allowed me to see the Houses of Parliament on the right hand side and Westminster Abbey on the left hand side.
I couldn’t believe how intricate the buildings were. It is incredible. I guess I should have known, but I don’t think any photograph can capture the beauty of the architecture. I was even gobsmacked by Big Ben! The design is incredible.
I want to do the Westminster Abbey tour in the future, but I saved it for when my family would join me – which will be in June. But from the outside Westminster Abbey had an aura about it. I went around to the northern entrance – probably what comes to mind when most people think of the entrance to Westminster Abbey. It is from there that Kate Middleton entered the Abbey when she married Prince William, it is also where the gun carriage bearing Princess Diana’s coffin ended its two hour journey.
From Westminster Abbey, I walked up to Horse Guards (completely missing Downing Street by mistake). The two things I wanted to see at Horse Guards were Horse Guards Parade, where the Trooping the Colour is held every June, and Horse Guards Arch. I mentioned Will and Kate’s wedding and Princess Diana’s funeral before. On both those occasions, they had the most amazing camera angle when vehicles/people passed through Horse Guards Arch. For that pure reason, I wanted to see Horse Guards Arch.
A little further down the road was Trafalgar Square. In the middle was the famed Nelson’s Column, while the fountains around the column added beauty. Sadly, I didn’t see one pigeon in Trafalgar Square! I must have been there at a bad time…
At Trafalgar Square was the Original London Visitor’s Centre. Just as I arrived, a walking tour was preparing to leave. I was invited on the tour, which was off to see the Changing of the Guard. I’d wanted to see that historic ceremony, so I was only too eager.
Our first stop was back at Horse Guards Parade.
The guards on horseback changed at 11am, and there was a large crowd gathered in a circle watching this tradition.
From Horse Guards Parade, we walked up that famous thoroughfare, The Mall, to a spot just up from St James’s Palace and Clarence House. From there, a marching band and the old guards paraded up The Mall to Buckingham Palace – yes, they actually closed off The Mall!
Unlike most viewers of this ceremony, though, we didn’t head straight up to Buckingham Palace. We walked through St James’s Park to the Wellington Barracks, where the new guards emerged. Unfortunately, neither the old or the new guards were the renowned Grenadier guards (the ones that wear the red colours), and so I didn’t get a photo with a guard. That will be saved for the next time I am there.
The Changing of the Guard amazed me – despite all the modern hallmarks, London (or that part of Westminster, anyway) still came to a stop for this ceremony straight out of the 1700′s. It is definitely something to be witnessed.
I took this panoramic shot of Buckingham Palace – probably the best shot I took in London! Click on it to get the full picture.
After walking back to Trafalgar Square with the walking tour, I hopped on an open deck bus in an attempt to get to Westminster Bridge. I’d realised by this point that I’d missed Downing Street, so I was hoping to go back there before I crossed the Thames to go on the London Eye.
An open deck bus in near freezing conditions (it was 1 degree Celsius) is never a good idea, and although it was an interesting loop around (up Park Lane to Marble Arch, down past Mayfair and Hyde Park) I quickly decided I needed to get off. I still got some nice photos though – for example, Admiralty Arch, below.
So after a quick stop at London Victoria, I caught the Tube to Westminster.
I finally found Downing Street, but I was disappointed as you really can’t see anything. I guess that is to be expected, but I still thought I’d get a better view than what I saw.
On Westminster Bridge, I had my only negative experience. There were people there collecting for “charity” – I was happy to give £5 if it was for charity, but a woman (vulture is probably a more appropriate term) came over and took a £20 note out of my wallet! I was accosted by another of the women on the bridge, but after screaming at her I walked off. I guess it could have been worse, but I still can’t believe they can be so zealous…I did get a photo with someone dressed with the Queen though! I thought I deserved it after losing £25 to the idiots.
However, it was quickly forgotten as I walked towards the London Eye. The view down the Thames was brilliant!
To be honest, London is probably not the best city for such an observation wheel as the city is so expansive that key landmarks aren’t easily seen from the top of the London Eye. But, the view of Westminster was pretty special, and worth it alone.
As part of the hop on hop off trip, a free river cruise was included. The sun had finally come out again, so it was a very nice trip up the Thames as we went past landmarks like Cleopatra’s Needle, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, London Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This is the Millennium Bridge leading up to St Paul’s Cathedral (which is where the “wedding of the century” – that of Charles and Diana – took place)
I got off at Tower Pier, right near the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. My hotel for the night was the Novotel Tower Bridge, so it was very handy. Here’s the Tower of London:
I decided to leave the Tower of London for when my family comes over here, but I took some good pictures outside the place where the likes of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and Sir Thomas More were executed. I also had dinner overlooking both landmarks – quite spectacular! The Tower Bridge was especially “grand” by night.
On a side note, I’d recommend the Novotel Tower Bridge for anyone staying in London. While it is a distance to a lot of the landmarks in Westminster, the staff couldn’t have been nicer and I was upgraded to an executive room! Quite something for a student…
I must say, I enjoyed my trips on the London Underground. The system is so easy to use. It looked difficult before I arrived, and despite my weird obsession with transport systems, I was nervous about navigating the “big mama.” But I was surprised by how easy it was to use! I took a couple of photos around the system:
And of course, no visit to London is complete without a photo of one of their black cabs (on The Mall, no less)…
..or a photo of a red telephone booth!
While I had an afternoon flight on Sunday, I decided to get out to Heathrow Airport early to see what has been called the most expansive, difficult airport to navigate in the world. I found the terminal alright after catching a fast train from Paddington to Heathrow (only 15 minutes!!), but the walk from the airside shops to the place where “domestic” (UK, Channel Islands and Ireland) flights departed was quite extensive. Surprising, really! And we were stuck on the tarmac for 45 minutes because there was such a backlog of flights!
But it wasn’t until my return to Limerick that my taxi driver Derek put it all into perspective – bizarrely, returning to Limerick felt like a return to reality. Reality? I’m still on holiday, really!!!! That’s the best part about exchange – it’s all one big holiday, even though there is the small matter of classes. And I’m loving the fact that everything in Europe is so close to everything else – it really isn’t difficult to travel over here. Already, I have a trip planned to Belfast this weekend, while we’ll be going to Galway next weekend. And it may only be two or three weeks before I make my next international trip – possibly Spain! Exciting times lie ahead!
For now, that’s all. My next blog post (I’m hoping) will be about campus life here in Limerick, which is vastly different to what I’m used to in Australia!