One of my hobbies is travel and writing about it – some of the next few posts will cover this. Starting with London. (originally written in 2005).
A is for ART: Of which London offers plenty. We did the Tate Modern in half an hour – most unfortunate as I quite like the Warhol, Kandinsky and Mondriaan pieces they have there. There was an excellent exhibition of Soviet-era poster art which I quite like. Two ‘must visits’ are the National Gallery which has a superb collection of many genres ranging from the 13 – 14th century to the 20th (of which the Italians (including Titian) and Impressionists were a highlight) and the Courtauld Institute Gallery (Somerset House) which made up for no trip to Paris (their collection of Monets is fantastic as is their collection of Rubens). A is also for AMERICANS: Of which we encountered too many. You couldn’t miss them – they were the ones that turned up to Afternoon Tea in jeans and t-shirts and always asked questions as to how you acquired those fancy titles. Hateful !
B is for BIG BUS TOUR: Do it. Its competitor (The Original London Sightseeing Tour) is pretty similar but the Big Bus has more coverage – three routes, Red (City), Blue (out to Kensington and Knightsbridge) and Green (British Museum and surrounds) are an excellent and reasonable way of seeing the city. Commentary is provided on some buses which is live or recorded. Also included in the price of the ticket is a one way river cruise – the best route (I think) is from the Tower of London to Parliament. Travel tip: Buy your tickets online and save £2.00 on each ticket.
B is also for BBC TOUR: You can tour the BBC Television Centre in White City which was interesting. Unfortunately, it is not a good way of trying to catch a glimpse of any celebs but it is a useful enough insight into the workings of one of the world’s largest and best broadcasters.
C is for COSTWOLDS: Well, yes and no. We drove through (actually driven through) this area on our way from a morning at Warwick Castle (aka Warwickshire Tussauds-land). If this is representative of the rolling English countryside, then I’ll take the Waikato and Canterbury plains any day. Mention should be made of the sheep population which are not as abundant as here. Lamb was in season however and generally speaking quite good.
D is DAMAGE: Apart from damage to the wallet and the credit card (see ‘E’ below), I suffered some damage to my suitcase which necessitated acquiring a replacement (kindly provided by the airline). First time this has happened to me !
E is for EXPENSES: No doubt about it – London is a very expensive place to visit (stop press: 2005 Mercer Cost of Living Survey – London is the world’s third most expensive city) and live well in if you insist on converting everything back to Kiwi Dollars. However, at this time, the exchange rate is at a real high and if you do your homework, there are discounts to be had. Tip: Allow yourself some luxury. For example, if you can’t afford a swanky dinner, then try lunching somewhere fancy. We lunched at ‘Foliage’ at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in Knightsbridge which was outstanding. Three magnificent courses with an amuse bouche to start thrown in for good measure.
F is for FAMOUS BUILDINGS: It is tempting to say ‘you name it, we saw it’ although I know that’s not quite true. But let me rattle off a list anyway – the Tower(s) of London (including the White Tower and the Jewel Tower), St. Paul’s Cathedral (and its just cleaned ceilings and other parts), Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, Windsor Castle (but as the Queen was in, excluding the State Apartments), Buckingham Palace (not the interior but including the Mews – see below), No. 10 Downing Street (as close as they let you – we had a good excuse, the President of Nigeria and the Prime Minister of Denmark and their motorcades impeded our view), the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower, the Wellington Monument, Apsley House and not forgetting the other buildings mentioned herein, of course.
G is for (MILLENNIUM) GLOUCESTER HOTEL: Anyone going to London soon ? Besides company loyalty, I can thoroughly recommend staying here and if you can get a Millennium Club room, so much the better. It’s convenient to Waitrose and Sainsburys supermarkets (plus a Tesco Express 24/7), a decent pub (the Stanhope Arms), the Gloucester Rd Tube station is literally around the corner from the hotel (and services the Piccadilly, Circle / District lines) and is also the pickup point for major tour operators if you wish to see sights around and outside of London. I know many people would agree with me.
H is for HARRODS and HARVEY NICHOLS: Attendance at both is compulsory although I think I know which one I prefer. Harrods certainly lives up to its reputation as purveyors of nearly everything and their food halls are a highlight. However, having three areas solely devoted to Harrods-branded goods is overkill and so is the Diana- Dodi monument. No wonder those who crave style frequent Harvey Nichs. Selfridges might well have a wider selection of items but Harvey Nichs is arguably more discerning. It manages to be both minimalist in some respects and yet fulsome in others. Their window displays also could rival some things at Tate Modern as well. Afternoon tea at the Georgian (Harrods) is pricey but a good option (if you must as we did). Dinner at 5th Floor Harvey Nichols is highly recommended as well. We had three excellent courses there as well as some very good house-label wines.
H is also for HEATHROW EXPRESS: The best way to get in to the city from LHR. Better than being stuck in traffic for a hour or getting crushed in the Tube. Bookings can be made online or you can buy tickets on arrival. Express Class will do fine.
I is for INFLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT: Singapore Airlines spoils you for choice. Caught up on about half a dozen movies and that doesn’t include seeing ‘The Incredibles’ in English, German, Japanese and French. Listened to about a dozen different CDs. Leave your book at home.
J is for BUSINESS CLASS (something that you won’t understand unless you look at an airline ticket): Although the costs exceeded the value of my present car a few times over, Singapore Airlines Raffles Class is truly excellent, particularly its Spacebed product which is fantastic. Where else can you enjoy vintage champagne with a delicate crayfish salad at 30,000ft ? Worth every penny.
K is for KEW GARDENS: We missed the Chelsea Flower Show by a week (and we didn’t stay for Wimbledon for that matter – mind you, it is difficult to get accommodation at that time) and this is the next best thing in many respects. You can’t exactly come here for the peace and quiet as planes departing Heathrow overfly the Gardens but it is a nice place to come in visit if the weather is fine and you like strolling about. One particular highlight – their collection of giant water lillies is something to see.
L is for LONDON EYE: A must-do. Period. The views are unrivalled. Book in advance (or pick a tour that includes a flight) and try to pick a good day. They say that they views are spectacular by night.
L is also for LONDON PASS: Get one (but ensure that you can make the most of it – if you plan your trip right. Check out http://www.londonpass.com). You can do most of the must-see sights in three days (if you plan things correctly and use the Big Bus as well) but I would recommend you get the six-day pass if it is your first visit. And get it with the 7-day travel pass as well.
M is for MUSEUMS: Of which two should be mentioned in particular. The British Museum is a must-see (of which the Elgin Marbles, the Egyptian collection and the Rosetta Stone are absolute highlights). Best done in ‘bites’ as there is little point trying to see the whole collection and absorb it all – in other words, you can try and see the whole collection but you will never appreciate the extent of it. I blame the terminally depressed and didactic guide that we had when we went there the first time which meant that we had to revisit and try and see as much as we could. More interesting is the Victoria and Albert Museum which is dedicated to design and the creative arts. Of particular interest is the Cast Court – plaster of paris replicas of many of the most famous statues and some monuments
N is for NEWSPAPERS: Of which there are arguably too many – best seem to be the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. The best headline goes (strangely enough) to The Sun. ‘Prattus Maximus’ was a brilliant headline for when Russell Crowe got arrested in New York. Their reporting of mysterious crop circles in the shape of Olympic rings appearing in a field somewhere as well as the security breach at Sandhurst military college (which they caused) also deserves mention.
O is for OXFORD: Street and University. Street: Apart from everything else (which seems to be there !) Selfridges is chocolate heaven – where else can you enjoy the two marques of Belgian chocolate, Leonidas and Godiva in the same store ? Without boring you to tears with endless details, you should be able to get through Regent Street, Oxford Street and Old and New Bond Street (including lunch and tea) within a day comfortably. There are shopping guides (available online which you should refer to before embarking on your trek). University: We went to Christ Church College – famous for two things. Firstly, the college at which Lewis Carroll (aka Thomas Dodson) was a tutor and where the trees, gardens and other things that inspired him still remain. Secondly, the main dining hall of the college was used in the Harry Potter movies. Yes, it is as grand as you would imagine. We even had a glass of champagne there !
P is for PICCADILLY CIRCUS: An iconic London area, the mind boggles when you consider that those signs have been around where they are since the late 1920s. Two compulsory stops around here are Fortnum & Mason (teas, marmalades and other comestibles) and Lillywhites (sporting gear – the value of a replica England soccer jersey [away kit] was GBP 9.99 when we were there).
Q is for QUEEN ELIZABETH: We saw Her Majesty and the family – as did several thousand others did after Trooping of the Colour (see below) on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth I is buried at Westminster Abbey and her tomb is appropriately grand. Although why Mary Queen of Scots got a similarly sized tomb might surprise some people (maybe – that’s just my opinion).
R is for ROYAL: Although Buckingham Palace was not open for viewing (the Queen was in), we did go and see it (as most tourists do when in London) and took the opportunity to see the Royal Mews (including THAT carriage which is real, and does back to the reign of George III). Kensington Palace is also definitely worth a look – since the death of Princess Margaret (who was actually living there) whose apartments are presently open for viewing. Windsor Castle should also get a mention under this letter – again, we were a bit unlucky as the Queen had been there for the Garter Ceremony so we couldn’t get to see the State Apartments but given the recent Royal Wedding, it was fascinating to see St. Georges Chapel and surrounds. By the way, it was explained to us (by more than one guide) that the reason that Buckingham Palace is fenced is not to keep the people out but to keep Prince Philip in.
S is for SHAKESPEARE: One can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid the Bard on one’s travels. The Globe Theatre and Exhibition is a must for those who have studied Shakespeare and enjoyed it. Do the guided tour which is free and takes place before noon. We didn’t attend a performance there but these are highly recommended. We also went to Stratford-Upon-Avon which reminds me of Bruges in that it is more or less a glorified tourist town making the most of its attractions – in this case attraction, being the house where Will Shakespeare was born. They’ve preserved it to look like what it was and it is interesting but it is a commercial enterprise.
S is also for SLOANE STREET: At the risk of overstating it, the London equivalent to Rodeo Drive. Names include Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo, Fendi, etc etc etc. For the record, I think Graff (the jewellers) has the best looking shop front.
T is for TROOPING THE COLOUR: Otherwise known as the Queen’s Birthday Parade, this is one of those events you see on TV and photos of and think you’ll never see in the flesh. Well, we did and it was English pageantry at its best. The ceremony itself only takes an hour but there is a lot happening. You stand when the Royals enter and pass you and when the Colour approaches you. It might seem trite to say that essentially what it consists of are lines of guards dressed up in the red tunics and bearskin hats doing a slow march and then a quick march, the cavalry doing two laps of Horse Guards Parade and the Queen reviewing the troops but it is much more than that. The ceremony goes back centuries. This year, the Colour was that of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. Tip: Tickets are only available two ways – apply in writing through the UK Ministry of Defence by the end of February to go into the general ballot. Check their webpage (www.mod.govt.uk) on ‘Ceremonial Events’) for further details. Alternatively apply to the New Zealand High Commission in March for the special ballot for the tickets reserved for Kiwis. You cannot secure tickets any other way.
U is for UNDERGROUND: Otherwise known as the Tube of course. Although the extensive nature of the network might frighten some people, all that is required is some thorough planning as to which lines take you where and which exit to use. Once mastered, the Tube is your friend and an excellent way of getting from place to place. However, it is also dirty and unpleasant as well and this does take a bit of getting used to. Travel tip: Buy the three-day Travelpass which also allows you unlimited travel on buses and the light rail.
V is the ROMAN NUMERAL FOR FIVE (I couldn’t think of much else) THINGS NOT COVERED AND WHICH WILL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL NEXT TIME: 1. Abbey Road walk; 2. Buckingham Palace Tour; 3. MCC / Lords tour; 4. Sherlock Holmes (Pub / Museum); 5. Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris for a day. W is for WEATHER: Anticipating a typical British summer (i.e. cold and wet) we had packed half a winter wardrobe. This wasn’t required as we only had one day of rain, one cloudy day and 10 days of glorious sunshine. Believe it or not, the UK can get quite warm in the summertime.
W is also for WOMEN: Which fell in to four categories – ‘Passable’, ‘Hag’ and ‘Gollum’. British women are not pleasing to the eye in general in my view. You can tell European women very easily – they look good. The difference is stark but I cannot explain why this might be. Then again, unlike here, the upper crust don’t use public transport and don’t generally work in the city. This might have something to do with it. W is also for WINE: One of the best wine merchants in London (if not the world) is Berry Bros. & Rudd. A must stop at Heathrow prior to going anywhere.
X is the ROMAN NUMERAL FOR 10 so here are my top 10 sights / sounds / things etc from this trip: 1. Seeing Trooping the Colour; 2. Travelling Singapore Airlines Raffles Class; 3. Catching up with friends resident in London; 4. Going on the London Eye; 5. Courtauld Institute Gallery; 6. Not getting lost on the Tube; 7. Globe Theatre Tour and Exhibition; 8. Dining at 5th Floor Harvey Nichols; 9. Strolling Kew Gardens; 10. Afternoon tea at Harrods.
Y is for YO ! SUSHI: Actually, this place should be renamed to something like ‘Inedible’. Their product was not at all impressive. Alternative: You can get much better ready-to-go food from Marks & Spencer (particularly the one near Covent Garden tube station – just brilliant). For GBP 15, there’s an excellent ready-to-eat seafood selection to be had (if you enjoy that sort of thing as I do) which includes langoustine (scampi to you and me), Orkney crab claws, Scottish mussels, Honduran King prawns and large shrimp. Feeds four moderately hungry (or two very hungry) people
Z is for Zzzzzzz: Hard to come by to be sure when you travel half way around the world and back. Kept waking up at very odd hours, 0357, 0428, 0239. This continues except it is now an hour earlier.