If I write this trip up at my typical plodding pace, I may still be writing at Easter. And yet it is worth writing about. So I’m going to try a change; I’m going to try to write only as much as I have stories to tell. This means that I’m going to aggressively gloss over the mediocre and undistinguished places and not describe the nondescript dishes. We’ll see if that makes this go any faster.
If this trip were the sort of literature to have themes, there are a couple of themes that stand out to me:
- One theme was a very self-conscious adolescent sampling of different roles and travel styles, as we try to figure out what we like in international travel.
This came out even more in our pre-trip planning. We considered taking a bus tour, and we considered hiring a private guide, and we considered various combinations of those options. But we were dissuaded from a bus tour, and a private guide turned out to be too expensive for comfort. So we ended up a tour much like we would have had in the USA, with the two of us traveling by ourselves by walking, public transit, or car as the occasion warranted.
- The other theme was a perennial musing about whether we were seeing things meant for tourists or for locals. My first impulse would be to say that I prefer things meant for locals, but there are reasons to prefer tourist things as well - tourist-focused experiences are often better curated and better explained. But wherever we went, I found myself conscious of the question of who the audience was.
Friday, September 20
Our trip to London started with a connecting flight to Toronto on a small prop plane, followed by an extremely long walk through the Toronto airport to our next gate.
We ate dinner at Casey’s Grill and Bar in the Toronto airport, and it was delicious - one of the best airport meals I’ve ever had.
Lori got a club sandwich with poutine - this poutine was much better than the poutine I’ve had in the US.
I had the Singapore Street Noodles - not particularly Canadian, but very tasty.
On the flight to London, an Indian gentleman asked us to exchange seats to let his wife sit with him. We agreed, although it split us apart. I managed to sleep on the plane, but Lori did not; she reported that the Indian gentleman stood for the whole duration of the flight to let his wife sleep across both their seats.
After a long wait through customs and baggage claim, we stopped in a coffee shop in Heathrow to regroup. We had our first English tea and scone - not distinguished, but it establishes a baseline that yes, tea and scones are something that real people do. (And the individual jar of preserves is much more classy than I usually find in the USA.
I thought that we could get to our hotel by mass transit, but things did not go as well as I had hoped. Google Maps gave us a route involving three trains, but neglected to mention that the the last leg was on the Docklands Light Rail, and the DLR was not running this weekend because of maintenance. There was supposedly a bus covering that route, but we failed to find it. And our attempts to hail a taxi didn’t work. And the SiM I had bought in the airport wasn’t giving me cellular data for some reason. So we started wandering in search of a taxi stand and some food.
This is one of the first pictures we took in London. I don’t recall what square it was, but it actually captures London pretty well with the juxtaposition of Victorian monuments with sleek glass skyscrapers.
A loriner is a person who makes hardware for harnesses and riding habits, as bits and spurs. (We did not know that when we saw this sign.)
We followed the sound of church bells out of idle curiosity, and discovered that the bells were those of St. Mary-le-Bow, whose particular fame is that to be a Cockney, one must be born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. In fact, a wedding had just concluded, and we got to see an example of British wedding fashion, including several fancy hats.
We stopped in Costa (a chain of coffeeshops - fairly similar to Starbucks) in hopes of getting some lunch and some use of their advertised free WiFi. Unfortunately, the WiFi required a UK postal code to register, and I did not know any UK postcodes offhand. So we were thwarted. But we got to eat a couple of sandwiches. And we got to eat something new to us: a sticky toffee pudding muffin. In addition to the toffee on top, the muffin had a thick vein of caramel running through the center.
Lori had managed to pick up a blister already, so we got a cab to our London lodgings, the Cable Street Inn in the East End. This was a very nice boutique hotel above a former pub. We stayed there for six nights, and found it very pleasant. The proprietor, Julian, had a day job as a documentary filmmaker, but he was very helpful and we had several very pleasant conversations with him. He told us that the building itself dated to about 1750, but the windows were newer work, done in the 1850s. (It makes us blink - in the US, buildings that old are few and far between.)
From the inn’s terrace, he showed us a couple of sites that we would not have identified on our own:
This mural commemorates the Battle of Cable Street. When the British Fascists wanted to march through this predominantly Jewish neighborhood, tens of thousands of people came out in force to resist their march and the police who were enabling their march.
Julian also pointed out St. George in the East Church, whose roof was destroyed by a bomb in World War II. He said that the roof had never been rebuilt, and while that is technically true, it led me to a wrong conclusion that the church was no longer used. According to Wikipedia, a new modern church was built within the old church walls, and it is still in active use.
It was now early evening; getting to the Inn had taken most of the afternoon. We didn’t feel that we had done anything really touristy yet. we aimed for a walking tour of pubs, but though we could figure out (with Julian’s advice) how to get there through the Underground even with the DLR not running, we made enough wrong turns that it wasn’t clear we would be in time. So we decided on an evening bus tour, See London by Night.
We asked the tour operator for a recommendation for a restaurant where we could get a bite in time for the tour. He recommended a pub called Henry’s across the street. We weren’t sure that Henry’s was right for us, because there was a crowd of very flashily dressed people in front; we thought there would be a wait to get in and we would be underdressed if we did make it in. But the crowd was only outside; there were plenty of tables and most inside were casually dressed. I don’t know what the fancy crowd outside was doing.
Lori ordered a hard cider, and we got a bit of a culture mismatch: the waitress asked us (in a Scandinavian accent) “What is ‘hard’?” We had to explain that the American default for “cider” was non-alcoholic.
My steak and ale pie was delicious. Most pies that we encountered in England and Ireland looked like this, with a crust thick enough to maintain its shape even when soaked by gravy.
Lori’s sausages and mash was also very good - among the better sausages we had on this trip.
The See London by Night tour was pretty good, and did give us at least a cursory introduction to the city. My notes say that the tour guide’s jokes were "worn smooth like river stones” from long repetition.
Houses of Parliament
The London Eye (the spire in front has some very high swings)
The Thames, with lights on the river
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Tower of London