Date of Trip: October 2005
My husband had been dying to see England, home of his ancestors, so we were able to plan a trip for October 2005. We had eight days in London and we were balancing attractions to fit the taste of me, my husband, and our 13 year old son.
We flew from LAX to London Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic Air. The horror stories we heard about airport security were completely unfounded and we were quickly through check-in. We were told to be at the airport 3 hrs prior to flight and this gave us 2 and 1/2 hours at the gate.
The flight itself was uneventful. Most people went to sleep right after a delicious dinner. The individual seat back movies were great and I played interactive trivia with someone in the back of the plane until I was ready to sleep. We had a direct flight to London so the lights in the plain did not come back on until breakfast service was ready.
Customs/immigration at Heathrow was a breeze and we were soon headed for the tube station in the airport. I had purchased our tube passes through the mail prior to leaving home so we did not have to make purchases at the airport. I had also converted money at Wells Fargo at home. While the rate may not have been the best, I landed with the correct money in my wallet.
The tube is great. It took us directly to our exit – Earl’s Court. I had made hotel reservations on the internet for the Ibis Hotel in Earl’s Court. It was very inexpensive by London standards and only two blocks from a tube station. The room was much larger than we expected, though smaller than American hotels, and there was a full size bathroom which is unusual by London standards. Check in was easy and we were soon in our room where we had a view of the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the London skyline. The room was clean, well equipped with hair dryer and coffee maker, and there was closet space to store all of the luggage. The hotel has pub, restaurant, coffee bar, and is within easy walking to grocery stores, and little shops and cafes. There is a wonderful Italian restaurant within walking distance. This hotel is across from the Earl’s Court Exhibition Center.
The first full day of our trip we did the Official London Bus Tour. This is a great way of getting your bearings the first day in town. You are able to exit and reboard at a number of stops. Our plan was to do a complete loop and see all the sights from the top of the double decker bus but this changed when we saw no lines at the London Eye. This observation wheel is fantastic, but I don’t think I would do it more than once. Afterwards we headed over to the Monument to the great fire. This is an often overlooked attraction. You can climb the 312 pie shaped steps to the top of the tower for a view of London. When it was first built it was a tall tower but now it is dwarfed by the buildings around it. Still, we made it to the top and received certificates of accomplishment for our efforts. They watch on closed circuit tv to make sure you really make it to the top.
Afterwards we completed the bus tour. The bus is available on certain lines with recorded commentary that you can listen to in a variety of languages. Other lines have live, and very funny, tour guides. On this bus we were able to see the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Parliament, London Eye, Monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and all other major sites in the city. We got off and reboarded many times when there was something we wanted to take a closer look at.
The highlight of the second day was the Tower of London. We arrived at opening and had it mostly to ourselves for the first few hours. We were able to see everything and it was one of the most memorable aspects of our trip. We left the tower and took the tube and then the dockland light rail and headed to Greenwich. Here we toured the Cutty Sark clipper ship (waste of time) and climbed to the Greenwich Observatory. We were able to straddle the prime meridian to be on both sides of the world at the same time. You are able to purchase (1 pound) a certificate from here. From Greenwich we took a lovely Thames Cruise back to the heart of London.
That same night we did something very special. Every night the Tower of London has the Ceremony of the Keys. This is the official locking of the tower for the night. Advance tickets are required but they are free. Up to a few months in advance you can write and request tickets. You must supply a self addressed envelope and international reply coupons from the post office along with a few choices of dates. We received our response very quickly with our first choice date. That night about 9:30 they let you in and go over what you are going to see and all the rules. There is no photography or video taping allowed. At precisely 10 p.m. the ceremony begins and it is exactly the same every night as it has been through history.
My favorite day of the trip was a visit to Hampton Court Palace. This is the former home of King Henry VIII. We took a train from Waterloo Station out to Hampton Court. It took around 30 minutes. The Palace is a 10 minute walk from the train station. We did not take any of the organized tours of the palace which we should have done. Instead we wandered through the rooms trying to take in the magnificence. My husband had hurt his back the day before so they were nice enough to let us use the handicapped entrances and not make us climb up and down the stairs between each section of the tour. It’s hard to believe that people live with this opulence. The best parts of the palace are the gardens. The beauty is beyond words. Of course, this was the only day of our week in London that there was any rain so we were not able to see all of the gardens. We did enjoy the hedge maze but I had cheated and looked up the directions before the trip. It would have been more fun if I did not know all the twists and turns in advance.
Other highlights of our trip included:
The British Museum – This is worth a trip just to see the Rosetta stone. I was surprised that this was at the very front of the museum. The other main attraction are the Elgin Marbles. They were spectacular and if Greece has their way, they will not be in England forever. A favorite exhibit of ours were the mummies and other Egyptian artifacts.
Hyde Park – What a beautiful place! We walked around and enjoyed the scenery. My guys took a paddle boat on the lake while I walked around and took pictures. We met wonderful people here, many who heard us talking and wanted to talk to Americans. It would be great to bring a picnic and spend more time here. From the park we walked (longer than led to believe to the Natural History Museum – great dinosaur display).
The Victoria and Albert Museum has something for everyone. I loved the clothing, my husband and son loved the samurai armor and weapons.
The Imperial War Museum – My husband loved all the military memorabilia. My son is impressed that this is where the band Green Day got the inspiration for the title of their album ‘Bullet in a Bible’. There is a great pub on the corner behind this museum where we had a terrific and inexpensive lunch before seeing the museum.
Kings Cross Station – We traveled here just to see platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter books. They have hung a sign for that platform and they have a luggage cart coming through the wall.
One of the things we still talk about is the London Underground. It is the best. We never took cabs and only took buses once. The Underground will get you anywhere. Yes, we were comparing ourselves to Mole Rats that never see daylights as you are sometimes underground for quite a long time, but you can not beat the public transportation.
As far as prices, this is all we heard about before we left. We were pleasantly surprised at food prices and came home with about $500 that we didn’t plan on having left. We had many lunches at Pret-a-Manger where the prepared sandwiches were good and very reasonable. Our favorite dinner was at Wagamama for Ramen. Food in pubs was very good. Having Sunday Roast at a pub is a great bargain and a great way of meeting very friendly people. Everyone we met in London was friendly and helpful and we just loved the people there.
The flight from Heathrow to LAX was fine. They kept running out of food choices and they serve four times (lunch, snack, tea, ice cream) so it made it very difficult to nap. Still, it was very easy going through security at Heathrow and through customs once we were home.
Overall, a fantastic trip and we can’t wait to go back.