London & Surrounds: the Eye, the Tower, an enigma machine, and more than one henge!

November 29, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Christina~

Once seated on the Eurostar I fell dead asleep and woke up on the other side of the channel at international arrivals in St. Pancras. From there we made our way to the Piccadilly line and to Uxbridge to visit with my friend Chamini. Chamini is a friend and neighbor from my Japan days, and we got to see her briefly earlier in the trip when we had a long layover in Heathrow.

 

When Chamini got home from work we headed out to The Fig Tree pub for dinner and drinks. I got a pie! Christmas decorations were also in full swing.

 

The next day while Chamini was at work we knocked about the house, then I made my way to Southampton to give a talk to a local chapter of my professional organization.

 

I spent the night in Southampton, and in the morning before going to the university to give my talk, I got to eat a full English Breakfast at my accommodation! There were the usual (for an American) things, like sausage, bacon, and yogurt, but there was also deep fried toast (!), baked beans, fresh tomatoes, and sauteed mushrooms. Asking some Brits later, it sounds like this is more of a special weekend type affair, not a typical daily meal.

 

After giving my talk I returned to Uxbridge in the afternoon. That evening Dan, Chamini and I went to try out a local Asian fusion restaurant Javitri, and tried the famous butter chicken aka Chicken Tikka Masala, which is now considered one of the national dishes of England? It was only okay in my estimation, but later another restaurant would change my mind…

 

The next day the three of us went into town where we paid a visit to Paddington Station and the Paddington Bear statue, got a pint, then saw the Sherlock Holmes house gift shop at 221B Baker St. a formerly fictional address, but no longer!

 

From there we had a nice walk, taking in all the Christmas lights, and made our way to meet my friend Keri! Keri and I were lab mates many moons ago back in college, and we probably had not seen each other since she graduated (she was a year ahead of me) over 10 years ago. Keri’s boyfriend Paul (who was also wearing Feiyue shoes) joined us as well, and we chatted over drinks and got some fish and chips.

 

And here I present to you a photograph of three PhD scientists. Isn’t that nice! So good to see you again Keri, and so nice to meet you Paul! I hope we see each other again soon.

 

After that our little trio returned to Uxbridge to turn in for the night. The next day we paid a visit to a boot sale. The Brits don’t have garage sales, they have boot sales, where traditionally stuff is sold out of the boots (trunks) of vehicles. It’s not a place to buy boots. This was a mix of tables in doors and proper boots out in the parking lot.

 

Next up, we paid a visit to the London Science Museum, where we saw some cool exhibits including historic calculating machines, an enigma machine, and various communication system exhibits, just to name a few. It’s a high caliber museum and free, and I highly recommend it.

 

From there we went to Camden Market to see the sights and get a bite to eat. We enjoyed the food stalls, walked around, had a coffee, the finished up with a pint at a cool indie pub called Black Heart.

 

After that we returned home for our last night in Uxbridge. Chamini, it was lovely to see you and catch up! Thank you so much for having us to stay!

 

 

~Dan~

It was raining the next morning when we departed from Uxbridge. Christina went to the airport to pick up our visitors: my parents and little sister! I headed off with our bags to check into our Airbnb (referral sign up link if you want to score both of us some $$) in the Shoreditch neighborhood.

I preparation for their arrival I made a ploughman’s lunch, which is simple yet delicious. I bought it exactly one at a pub before realizing that it’s the easiest pub food to make for yourself. It’s some bread, a huge slice of butter, an even huger slice of cheese, some raw onions, maybe some ham, and pickles.

The pickles are the tricky bit if you’re outside of the UK. There are two types of uniquely British pickles that I’ve come across. The first is Branston’s, which are diced root vegetables in a kind of BBQ type sauce. The second is piccalilli, my personal favorite, which is a mix of veggies, including cauliflower, in a spiced mustard sauce. It’s all just snack food, but it feels good when an entire country supports me in calling it a meal.

When Christina and the family arrived we settled in and had a nice chat over the food.

 

To keep everyone awake and stimulated so they wouldn’t fall asleep too early, that night we headed back to Camden market. It was a big hit with the family because of all the great souvenir shopping. They had some good deals on souvenirs and the Brits have wonderfully calm markets. The bargaining was easy and no pressure from any of the vendors. We arrived a bit late in the day so some of the shops were “shutting”, but it was still a great outing.

 

The next day we started some whirlwind touristing. In general I think it was pretty manageable for the family, but it was definitely a higher tempo than Christina and I were used to. The first day we went out to see the Tower of London. First off, it’s not a tower so much as a castle, but you say flat, I say apartment, so whatever. On the way we stopped by some ruins of the old Roman wall from the days of Londinium.

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I was a bit nervous about the ticket line at the Tower, but we were in low season and there was exactly zero line for tickets or to enter. We joined one of the free tours lead by a Yeoman (beefeater). While the tour wasn’t super dense with information, our guide was quite entertaining. It was definitely worth the wait, though if it had been actively raining it would have been a bit miserable.

 

The tower of London has some notable features, and one in particular that I would like to mention. They keep a number of ravens with clipped wings at the tower to satisfy some superstitions. One of them decided to glide into the chapel as our tour group was entering. For myself, who am ever so slightly scared to death of birds, it was not entirely a welcome experience. There was also a bit of a kerfuffle when one of the ravens swooped down to snag some school kid’s lunch.

After the tour we wandered on our own. We saw the crown jewels of England. Again there was no line, but apparently there is often a lengthy wait. You get shuffled through rather quickly, but presumably I saw the Kohinoor which England stole from India (or some of their neighbors, depending on who you ask, but I know that India is particularly sour about the situation). Man-made diamonds are far superior so I don’t really care for these things, but I do have a bit of a beef with England for holding on to precious items stolen from its colonies, especially when they are kept in places with entry fees.

From there we visited the area dedicated to torture. I was quite pleased that this exhibit didn’t go into too much detail and was kept small. Finally, we made it to the white tower. Again, not a tower so much as what I would call just a building. But it was one of my favorite exhibits, full of armor and swords and generally cool castle stuff. It was easily my favorite part.

 

When we left the Tower we took a Thames river ferry from the London tower down to the London Eye Ferris wheel. The ferries are part of the public transportation system, incredibly slow, and pretty expensive, but it’s a great tourist thing to do. They are also super posh with a cafe on board and everything. I’m not really sure if they are used in a practical sense for anything but tourists.

At the London eye, I took a break and the rest of everyone went on the ride. I was a bit glad to have the family around for this part. I’m not a huge fan of Ferris wheels, but Christina is. They got on at probably a perfect time. The first half of the ride was during the sunset and the last bit got them some views of the city being lit up for night. They also got a great view of Big Ben covered in scaffolding for repair. JK.

 

For the next activity we broke up into boys and girls. The girls headed off to afternoon tea which consisted of massive pillars of cakes and sweets. Christina had been very excited about having a proper English tea, and my mom treated her for her birthday (thanks Mom!). They went to the Wolseley, which Christina selected based on this London afternoon tea review article. It was everything she had hoped for, including a fancy multi-tier tray.

 

Meanwhile, my dad and I headed off to a pub for a few pints, and we all reconvened at the Lego Store near Piccadilly Circus which has some pretty pretty cool displays.

 

The next morning we woke up early to catch the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. I personally found this to be a miserable experience, but everyone else found it amusing to various degrees. My view was more or less restricted to a sea of tiny mobile phone screens in front of my face. There is lots of pushing and shoving and mounted police shouting at the crowd during the ordeal [Note from Christina: Listening to the mounted officer offering loud verbal beat downs to transgressors was actually very satisfying for whatever reason]. Even during low tourist season in the rain, it was packed. I highly recommend that you never go. But if you do, this guide was pretty useful.

 

From there we got lunch and then we went to visit the Churchill War Rooms. I have mixed feelings about the museum. On one hand, it’s cool to get to go through the actual bunkers were much of the Allied war was directed from. It’s nearly perfectly preserved, since the bunkers were abruptly abandoned at the end of the war. My favorite part was a room full of graphs tracking estimates of various war time supplies of the Nazis.

So that part was pretty cool, but the main museum section was dedicated to Churchill. I find the guy pretty interesting, but I felt like the museum was a bit incoherent. On my own I would have probably prioritized going to the Imperial War Museum because it’s free, but also would have covered more aspects of WWII.

 

That concluded our London visitation, as we had another big destination outside of the city: Stonehenge. This was one of the more logistically challenging aspects of the trip, but I am really glad we did it. While there are some tour companies that take you from London on a day trip and they aren’t too expensive, but we aren’t generally big fans of organized tours. And with 5 people it became economical just rent a car, since there’s no direct public transit available.

To rent the car we went through Enterprise at St. Pancras station. They were really great to deal with. There is one office with like 5 different companies all set up there so it’s probably all about equal. One thing to note about car rentals in London is that the city center is a congestion zone and if you enter it, you’ll be charged about 12 pounds for the day. St Pancras is right at the edge of this zone. Luckily it’s a straight shot out of the city to get to Stonehenge, but you want to be careful not to accidentally make a detour into city center.

We could only include two drivers on the rental and since my mother made the reservation, I was the second driver. Christina and I had gotten used to driving on the left in New Zealand, and I had some additional practice biking in Japan. The catch was now we had a manual transmission. I can drive a manual, our dear Harvey was manual, but with the driver on the right hand side of the car and operating the stick with my left hand, I was uncertain how difficult that switch would be.

As it turns out, it was pretty easy. If I wasn’t already used to driving on the left side of the road, it would have been a lot more stressful. But I had that part down. The shifter and pedals are all in the same orientation, i.e. not mirrored. So it’s still a little backwards and shifting with my left hand was a little awkward, but I just tried to shift without thinking about it and let instincts take over. It worked out just fine.

So we had the car for one day. We got up bright and early and headed off to the small town of Avebury. We were recommended by two people to go here, one of them an archaeologist, because it’s home to an enormous (but less famous) henge and you’re able to walk right up next to the stones.

 

To visit the Avebury henge it’s necessary to pay for parking at the Red Lion pub. It was super cheap, probably because it was off-season. The inn itself has a really epic thatched roof and we had a quick lunch there after our visit to the henge. They had great fish and chips and everyone was super friendly to us yanks.

 

We rushed off from Avebury and did some drive by touristing of the Silbury Hill. I dunno, it was a big mound. It’s not possible to climb and we were tight on time, hence the drive by on the way to the West Kennet Long Barrow, which is an ancient burial tomb that you can go inside. It was most notable to me because it reminded me of the scene in Conan the Barbarian where he finds his sword. CROM!!!

 

 

Then we hustled off to Stonehenge. It was not very crowded this time of year and so there was no waiting and hardly any crowds. Apparently they’ve changed the access recently. There used to be a road going very close to the stones, but now you have to take a shuttle bus from the visitor center. There’s no hot dog stands or tchotchke shops adjacent to it, as we had heard. It was crazy cold and windy when we visited, but we were super lucky that it had stopped raining and we even got some really beautiful lighting before sunset.

 

 

After sunset we headed off to Stonehenge Inn nearby, where we got a crazy good deal for a large 5 person family room. It was a classic inn sort of experience. We checked in and went downstairs to the pub for some dinner and drinks. In the morning we got a classic British breakfast (beans on toast and all that, see Christina’s discussion above).

 

We took off early the next morning to return the car before we headed off to Paris on the Eurostar. We actually got there early enough that we had a few hours to kill. Christina and my sister went off for some conveyor belt sushi and across the street to King’s Cross station to see Platform 9 3/4. It was a total mess with huge crowds of people to look at a wall with a shopping cart buried in it that is no where near any of the actual platforms.

 

[Note from Christina: Just for fun I am throwing in a vintage photo. This is me, at King’s Cross, aged 15, in early 2000.]

That concluded our travels in England! Next up, the family goes to Paris!

 

 

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