Trip Journal – England (London, Liverpool)

categories: europe travel

View from the London Eye

England – to London – May 16 & 17

As were getting ready to head out the door for a two and a half week journey we got a call from my son Mike that his car had a flat tire along the busy highway 101 near Santa Barbara. We had cell phone connectivity long enough to hear that he would not try and get home tonight as planned but would crash at a friends house.

Joan and I boarded a night flight from San Francisco to JFK to London. Liz had been visiting a friend on the East Coast so she would meet us in London. The flight was delayed for an hour for want of an actual airplane. Just after we boarded I was still checking my twitter feeds on my iPhone in preparation for losing me near constant connection to the internet. I learned that @RevTim had been boarding a plane at the very next gate. I slept as much as possible as did Joan, except that with her that was no sleep at all. The movie was Bucket List.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat in JFK before boarding our plane for London. Our London bound plane was conveniently located at the very next gate. We checked email one last time at the airport. The plane was only half full which gave us wonderful space to lie down or at least spread out. The plane’s in-seat video system was not working so there was little distraction from resting. They did try to reboot it a number of times (apparently that takes 20 minutes).

We grabbed a cab at Heathrow to the hotel where we found Liz. She had sweet talked her way into the hotel room at 10 AM (instead of the 3 PM check in time) and had already slept for 8 hours. We went down to the pub in the hotel for some pub grub for dinner.

London to Liverpool – May 18

We woke up often during the night and sometimes for long periods of time as we struggled to adjust to the new time zone. We did apparently get back to sleep as the alarm at 8 AM came as a rude awakening. We were moving slower than planned and the hotel restaurant was backed up so we grabbed a snack from our supplies and grabbed a cab for the underground. After an hour on the tube we arrived at Euston station. We had pre-purchased tickets for the train but were unclear where to pick them up. A ticket agent redirected us to a ticket machine and it appeared that we won the jackpot as it printed our sixteen different pieces of paper for us. Each of us had a ticket and two seat reservations for our journey to Liverpool on a combination of two trains and a bus. The return trip will be direct and will take half the time but they sometimes work on the track on Sundays we were told by fellow podcaster and Liverpudlian Don McAllister.

We grabbed some pasties from the pasty stand (corned beef, chicken and asparagus) and an apple turn over and boarded the train. We had a seat at a table for four and our forth person turned out to be a woman from China (Guo Qin) who was traveling to visit a friend. We were able to communicate some but were hampered by her limited English and my even more limited Mandarin. I did not realize I would be using Mandarin on this trip so I had not brushed up on my skills.

After a train to Birmingham, a bus to North Hampton and a train to Liverpool we arrive in Liverpool and hailed a cab to the Aster apartments where we would be staying. The sign on the door said to call one of 3 numbers to have someone let you in. This is a little more of a challenge since we did not pick up a UK cell phone but I was finally able to get through to the owner of the apartment from a nearby pay phone booth that was last cleaned when Margaret Thatcher was PM. The owner rung up Yvonne the caretaker who can and let us in. It is a lovely modern apartment on the 3rd floor of the building with 2 bedrooms and a full kitchen. Liz and I grabbed a quick nap and then walked into downtown which Yvonne told us was just 5 minutes away… it hindsight it is apparent she meant 5 minutes away by cab. As it was Sunday night much of the city was closed. We walked to the Albert Docks area and had dinner at Ha! Ha! which proved to be as humorous as the name would suggest, but such may have been the case with any restaurant for 3 jet lagged yanks. We pestered our waiter with unrelated questions like did he have a phone book, did he know where an Internet cafe was and did he have a raw egg. We had a decent meal and have already noted how much more variety there is in English cuisine since Liz’s first trip to England which was in utero. The evening had cooled off by the time we finished dinner around 9 PM so we hailed a cab back to the apartment to enjoy a few American movies on English TV.

Liverpool – May 19

I slept well and fell well adjusted to this time zone but Joan woke up at first light which was 4 AM. By the time the girls were ready to go it was after noon. At about 11 AM I got some cereal and milk for breakfast and directions for an Internet cafe. I walked until I found the area in Toxteth where the cafe was. On the way I noted at least one of the houses had their back wall topped with barbed wire and broken glass and a few other yards had rather intentionally looking sharpened metal spikes so this area has seen property crime in the not so distant past. Many of the locals appeared of northern or sub-saharan african extraction. But where you find an immigrant community you find a good deal on Internet (and long distance calls) and such was the shop I found with a dozen computers setup, each with a headset and microphone as well as a half dozen phone booths. I was able to log on and check my gmail account and get an update that my son had gotten home safe. I got a hold of Don McAllister and we arranged that I would call him at 3 PM to say if we would be available around 4 PM.

We walked back down to the Albert Docks to find out that the Beatles Magic Mystery Tour was booked up (2:10 PM) but that they had added an extra tour at 5:30 PM. They could not book us as they seemed to have barely more internet connectivity than we did. We shopped in the Beatles store stopped at a Starbucks for fuel. We walked up to the main tourist office to get tickets for the 5:30 PM tour and then called Don and arranged to meet at 4:15 PM. The ladies used the Internet cafe in the ground floor of Lewis department store while I went and bought an unlocked phone at phones4u. The phone was about 10£ with a minimum top up of another 10£. I had intended to buy 2 as it occurred to me that I would have seen more in Liverpool if the ladies could have just called me when they got up and arranged to meet someplace. I tried to use my credit card but they rejected it because it does not have a smart chip. I had heard of people having that problem at automated machines but had not expected it at a store.

We met up with Don ad found a Starbucks to catch up for a hour an hour before he needed to go pick up his 15 year old daughter who had a work experience week at the local TV station. We also had to run for the Beatles tour. On the way though we were able to call the apartment we would be staying at in London to make sure we were confirmed and Joy and her daughter Melody who we would be meeting in London. Joan in particular was relieved to know we would not be sleeping on the London streets.

I had not been as excited about doing a Beatles tour as Joan and Liz had been, but I very quickly found it to be quite enjoyable. Besides hearing a lot of Beatles music and seeing the places where they lived the tour guide also gave us a background in the Liverpool music scene that created the Beatles. John had founded a “skiffle” band when in high school which was a music style we were unfamiliar with. We saw the church where John and Paul met when John’s band was playing a festival (not so much because they were good as they were local boys). In the graveyard of that church is a grave for Eleanor Rigby. We learned that the first single they recorded in Berlin was as backup singers for another artist on a Rock version “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean”. When people kept coming into the record store run by Brian Epstein to find a copy of this single, which he did not have, he had to find out more about this band. The tour guide said that Liverpool had been doing these tours for 25 years. The demand came after the murder of John.

Most of the busy pedestrian shopping district seemed to shut down by 6 PM which came as a surprise to us. We grabbed dinner in a local pub. There was some confusion over why they were not coming to our table to take our order (you order and pre-pay at the bar), but I did have a fine Chicken Tika Masala. We walked back to Toxteh and the apartment with slight detour through Liverpool’s one block long Chinatown.

Liverpool/London – May 20

It was only 3:30 AM when I got up and went to sleep on the couch. A bed with squeaky box springs was keeping us both awake. I went back to sleep for a couple of hours before I got up and finished the book I have been reading “3 cups of tea” about Greg Mortenson who has been building schools, predominantly for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I went back to sleep then but woke up a little confused about what country I was in and whether it was ok to drink the water.

We called a local hired car (cheaper than the cabs) on our new cell phone and went to Liverpool’s Lime Street station to board a train to London. I bought a tasty cheese and onion sandwich at a local Marks and Spensers to eat on the train. Other than a man who was either crazy, drunk or simply Scottish (definitely the later) the train ride was uneventful.

We hopped on the tube from Euston station out to West Kensington and found our landlady who took us to the apartment we have for three nights. The apartment is wonderful. It is a 3 story row house and we have the bottom story. It has been renovated recently and boasts a modern kitchen, a flat screen TV and iPod compatible alarm clocks in each of the two bedrooms. It also has an Internet router although we have not figured out which of the locked signals it is nor what the password would be. Shortly after our arrival Joy and Melody returned from an outing. They had just flown in that morning so Joy went to bed early while Melody her daughter accompanied us to the London Eye.

We took the tube to the Westminster station and soon found ourselves standing between the Parliamentary Clock Tower (also known as Big Ben although I am told Big Ben is the bell that strikes the hour) and the statue of Bodica (the Celtic queen whose rebellion was the last challenge to Roman rule of Britain). We had eaten cheese and crackers in the apartment but Joan was famished so we purchased a couple Nutella crepes from a local stand and walked to the London Eye.

The British Airways London Eye is surprisingly large and does offer a great view of the city. The ride is 15.50£ but does last almost a half an hour on the slow moving ride. We took lots of pictures and video on the “flight” but did NOT take a picture of the video screens with the picture of us that they had taken. They seemed very emphatic that we NOT do that.

We walked along the South Themes walk in the direction of the Globe and stumbled upon a film crew apparently filming “Last Chance Harvey” with Dustin Hoffman. Ema Thompson may have been there as well but she did not come up right next to us to look at the dailies. They had gather quite a crowd, although a generally well behaved one.

We continued to walk along the south bank until we found a pub right on the water across from St Paul’s where we ate dinner. This time we knew to order from the bar. After dinner we walked to the underground and then came home. We spent sometime catching up on the Internet before we retired.

London – May 21

I woke around 8 AM and checked email, empties pictures from the camera and struggled with how I would store video from my new HD video camera on the available hard drive space. After the rest of the group started waking up a few hours later we made plans that while the ladies shopped at Harrods at 4 PM I would meet up with Craig and Linda from the Indie Travel podcast. I was able to both email and chat with them to make sure it was confirmed. Our Internet is a bit spotty so I was relieved to have connected.

When everyone was ready (sometime after 11 AM) we headed out to St Paul’s Cathedral. Our plans to visit the cathedral were vexed by a dedication ceremony that was taking place there. The cathedral would not be made available for tourists until 2 PM. The Duke of Edinburgh was in attendance (who we did not immediately identify as the queen’s husband) so security was tight.

As we left St Paul’s and headed to the Globe we ran into a couple of free lance videographers working for Discovery channel on a series on the human body. They asked us a few quiz questions on what we thought was the most powerful muscle pound for pound (the muscle that closes your jaw), what is your largest organ (skin), etc. We faired pretty well. It would be very ironic if this visit to St Paul’s led to us being on television because our last visit to the cathedral 9 years ago put me on Rick Steve’s travel show.

We took the millennium bridge across the Themes to the Globe where we took the tour of the theatre. We waited for the tour in the exposition where we learned about the Globe and Elizabethan England. The largest surprise to me is that one of the reason that Shakespeare, unlike many of the playwrights, did not go to college is that because he had married at 18 he was disqualified for attending. That really was a bachelor’s degree. I would have preferred a longer tour that also included backstage but was glad to support the work there.

We only had 3 tickets to the performance that evening of Midsummer Night’s Dream but were able to by 4 better seats by getting 2 pairs of tickets (Joy opting out as they had tickets to the Shakespeare birthday celebration later in the weekend). We could not trade in our obstructed view seats so we had to hope they would resell them instead (they did as the show sold out) for face value minus 2£ commission.

We found a pizza place for lunch across from St. Paul’s. The ladies went in to visit although there were so many tourists they could not really try out the whispering gallery. Only Melody climbed all the way to the top. As it was after 3 PM by this point I was out of time and headed to Harrods with the ladies following later. I caught up with Craig and Linda and we chatted for a few hours over tea and coffee about travel, podcasting, how to try and make a living podcasting so you can travel, etc. It was great to catch up with friends who I had never met before. It was interesting to compare a lifestyle of not enough time for travel but enough money with enough time to travel but little money. Somewhere in between seems like a happy medium.

By the time we had finished talking I needed to dash for the theatre for the 7:30 PM show. I had tried unsuccessfully to contact the ladies on the walkie-talkie they had given me (although they were apparently across the street trying to contact me). I grabbed a ham and cheese pastry from the small shop in the St Paul’s underground station and got to the theatre by 7:00 PM. Joan, Liz and Melody showed up just in time for the show. The production was wonderful. I was reluctant to go to the show as I have seen the play performed so many times but I cannot think of when I have enjoyed it more. I did note that Shakespeare probably did not have to contend with jets flying overhead. It was a relatively simple production as there were few props or scenery. It probably would have been considered an elaborate production by Elizabethan standards and the women were more convincing than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. Apparently, as we learned on the tour, although (as we knew) it was considered immoral for woman to perform on stage the Westminster Doves (prostitutes) were allowed to perform during the show in the 3rd gallery for any man who might become bored with the show. We were advised that the ladies, should they sit in that gallery, should not wave white handkerchieves less they be misconstrued.

After the show we returned to the apartment with little incident save the men who misconstrued Joan’s travel journal for a suicide note after Chelsey lost the big game to Manchester. There is always next year they encouraged her. Apparently not all the Chelsea fans took the loss with that sense of perspective as we saw 3 vans of riot police heading south right by our apartment. We presume they went to fight what is being called the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

London – May 22

I woke around 7 AM but expected the rest to rise later again (they did) so we had arranged that I would meet them after the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace at 11:30 AM. I rode the tube to Victoria station and then got out and walked to Buckingham Palace, Wellington’s Arch, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, the Crimea memorial (with a statue of Florence Nightingale), the Duke of York’s Column, the Horse Guard’s grounds, St James Park, St James Palace and then still arrived back at Buckingham Palace before the ladies. We watched the guards troop and listened to the bands play. We were surprised that some of the songs were not regal or marshall. Liz swears she heard them playing “Hey Big Spender”. Since the flag was above the palace the queen was in residence. We are not sure what they were trying to imply about her majesty. The changing of the guards is fun to watch but gets a bit tedious if you wait until the end as we did.

We took a break for coffees and various other treats in St James park. I should mention that we have been having fabulous weather. It was perfect weather for sitting in a park.

London has been expensive as we expected, but sometimes quite surprisingly so. Many of the prices seem the same in pounds as we pay in dollars. When you combine this with a more than 2 to 1 exchange rate (for sanity sake we just use 200% as close enough) this means that a paperback book is about $16, a movie on Leicester Square (a very upscale theatre) is about $27. A one way single pass on the underground is $8 off peak, a daily pass more like $11. A diet coke is around $4-5 in a restaurant (no refills) although $1.20 – 1.40 at a street vendor. On the other hand a pasty in the train station was only about $3. Things are more expensive in tourist areas as you would expect.

We went from the park to Greenwich via the underground and DLR (Docklands Light Rail). They had only started to develop the docklands when I was last in that area 19 years ago. It was very interesting to see what they have done with the area. It is a maze of modern buildings with many waterways, canals, sail boats and canal boats woven in between. I would love to come back and explore it more.

Greenwich is a lovely village. We shopped at the Greenwich market and then headed up the hill to the Royal Observatory. We learned that the British have used Summer Time for a 101 years and saw some exhibits on the time keeping devices that enabled British sailors to calculate longitude (Longitude is a great book, by the way). We took goofy pictures at the prime meridian like the rest of the tourists and then grabbed a late lunch at the Tea House (although I opted for a “Park Porker” from the sausage vendor instead).

We headed back into town to Leicester Square to look at half price tickets at the TKTS booth, but did not find a show we wanted to see. $27 seemed a bit much for a movie. We shopped a bit, bought an ice cream and meandered down to the very busy Piccadilly circus. Joan expressed some interest in the Hard Rock Cafe so we strolled down Piccadilly past the expensive shops to the Hard Rock near Wellington’s Arch and Green Park. The wait was 90 minutes and the prices were again the same as at home but in pounds. $18 seems a bit much for a burger. We walked towards Hyde Park and Marble Arch so that Joy could check out a building that is available to her through her timeshare (Shell) program. There was some confusion as to whether we had the right building as the doorman had never heard of the program. By this point we were foot sore and starved again as it was approaching 8 PM. We found an italian restaurant near Marble Arch called Fino’s which was worth the wait. Joan and I split an authentic (big as your head) Italian calzone while the 3 of us also shared a four cheese pizza.

After that it was all we could to to drag ourselves back to West Kensington and bed (well bed for me but Internet and TV for the night owls).

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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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