Europe 2010 Travel Log — London: Day Two
Our second day in London was entirely “in-country”. We woke up in Britain, we went to bed in Britain, and through out the day did thoroughly British things. Today’s main objective was to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Greenwich Observatory, and enjoy a nice romantic dinner in Parson’s Green. Our journey threw more than its fair share of curve balls along the way, but we managed to hit all of the major destinations and scored a major piece of swag.
Morning in London
Luna Simone Hotel boasts a complementary home cooked meal every morning for its guests, so we woke up much earlier than the activity of the night before suggested was wise, and headed down to the breakfast room. The menu involved picking one item out of three food/drink groups. You can have coffee or tea (I always had the tea, complete with milk!); two boiled eggs; tomato and cold ham; or bacon and fried eggs; but the real head scratcher was deciding between orange juice or cornflakes. How, exactly, are those mutually exclusive items? It was also fun to pick out the Americans by seeing who was demanding to order “off menu”… in particular the demand for bananas.
During breakfast we planned out the day’s schedule which, at my insistence, was to begin with a ride on the double-decker bus out to Ludgate Circus. Best as I can tell, there are two sorts of double-decker buses in London. The first are the tour buses, which are often open-air on the top level and look very similar to the tour buses seen around San Francisco. The second type of double-decker bus is an entirely unique experience for me: the metro bus. Almost every public transit bus was double-decker, so in that regard it wasn’t anything all that special… but I still insisted we sit on the top level and as near the front we could manage every time we road one. The view is quite cool, but it’s not really ideal for taking decent photos, what with the moving and the plane of glass between the camera and the subject.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Arriving at Ludgate Circus we walked a stretch of Fleet Street up to the cathedral. Apparently, it was along this stretch that an old college friend of mine who recently moved to London thought he saw someone like me, but wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until later that the encounter was confirmed over Facebook that either of us knew. But seriously, what are the chances?!
Arriving at the cathedral we confirmed our suspicion that entrance was limited to worshipers, which I was not prepared to masquerade as just to get into the church. We were able to take a gander at the space underneath the cathedral–where the gift shop has been setup–and the choir singing above filtered down through slats in the main chamber floor. Sounded quite nice. I also confirmed a long held belief that it is trivially easy to take good photographs of cathedrals. You just stand underneath an impressive tower or arch, point the camera up at a bit of an angle, and snap you’ve got yourself a magnificent cathedral photo.
Just down from St. Paul’s is the Millennium Bridge, built at the same time as the London Eye to celebrate the start of the 21st century. It is unique as a Thames span in that it is pedestrian only. The big upside is you can stand in the dead center — usually reserved for stupid cars — and take amazing pictures of St. Paul’s dome on the far end. Just across the river is the Tate Modern, one of the big fancy art museums in London (with free admittance) and the reconstructed Globe Theatre.
Sarah and I had wanted to attend some sort of theatre event while in London, and one of the Shakespeare performances at the Globe was at the top of our list, but in the end we bagged the plan because there was simply too much to do already. That didn’t stop us from poking around the outside of the Globe to see how modern day builders were able to recreate construction techniques from 1599.
Leaving the Globe we began our long trek towards the Tower Bridge along the Queen’s Walk. This took us past a museum dedicated to “The Clink,” from which the nickname for prisons originates. We also stumbled upon the Vinopolis, a wine “tunnel” tourist location build on the grounds of an ancient Roman wine store. Seemed to have several nice looking places to try and buy wine, but as this was a trip for beer, we didn’t linger long.
Eventually we wound our way back to the river side and stopped for lunch at a pub. This time I avoided the temptation for fish and chips and convinced Sarah to share a platter filled with assorted pies… beef, chicken, as well as a Cornish pasty and a couple of other miniature pies. While the stuffing was always good, what I really fell in love with is the crust of these little treats served with generous helpings of gravy. Delicious! We tossed back a couple of beers and walked the last little bit to Tower Bridge.
The London Corporation
Coming from the south side of the Thames, before one even arrives at the Tower Bridge you pass by a massive structure of steel and glass. The whole thing struck me as quite different, even for English modern architectural design. Indeed, later we would research and discover the site was the home of the London City Hall. Now, I’m still not 100% clear on the administrative structure of London, but best as I can figure out, London is comprised of many many smaller “city” units, each with their own city hall, mayor, and distinctive street signs. Overseeing this broad assortment of polities is the omni-present London Corporation. If you bother to read the plaques that adorn most monuments in the city, you will see the London Corporation’s name.
Recently, the London Corporation was granted its own sort of city-hood, complete with a mayor, and this massive glass structure is its home. I’m still not clear if the “City of London” is co-terminus with the London Corporation, or if it’s another distinctive agency. What I can say is that we watched a bit of BBC news recently and everyone, yes everyone, was concerned about the “Economy of the Capitol”, even if they were interviewing folks way up in northern UK. I guess that’s what happens when you have one really big city.
The Tower Bridge + Tower of London
Finally we arrived at our location, the famous Tower Bridge. If you’ve seen the new Sherlock Holmes movie, I’m inclined to believe the bridge that features prominently in that movie is either the same, or modeled after, the Tower Bridge. As a result, every time I spotted it on the skyline I would remark to Sarah, “What an industrious empire.” (At which she would roll her eyes). The bridge itself is quite impressive from an engineering history perspective…but if you’re not really into that sort of stuff, it’s just a bridge and serves as a good means to cross the Thames.
But once you do cross the Thames, you arrive at the infamous Tower of London. Sarah had told me it was famous for being a prison, so it didn’t initially hold my interest as a place I wanted to spend a ton of time. However, it turns out that the Tower of London is in fact “Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress” as well as the site of a number of historically significant prisoners, and served as the stronghold for the throne for centuries. In addition to the prison, the Tower has moats and drawbridges, and big buildings and everything. It would have been super cool to go in… but, alas, we did not schedule for it, so we just snapped a few shots and read a bunch of outside informational guides. My next trip back to London, I will be sure to take a proper tour.
Getting to Greenwich
Early on in the planning process for this trip I expressed a desire to see the Greenwich Observatory, which much to my surprise, Sarah had never gone to see during her years as a denizen of London. Which meant she wasn’t entirely sure how to get to Greenwich, but thanks to the handy London transit authority map, we were able to chart a path using the light rail which services the areas out of the city core. Unfortunately, the map failed to tell us that a substantial section of the line we were planning to ride was closed for repairs that weekend and that we would need to take a bus to the first functional station on the line.
After spending far too long finding that bus, we boarded and drove through sections of London quite unlike what I’d seen up until now. This was very much where the other half lived… run down or vacant buildings and sketchy looking shops dotted the road. Guess London is like every city in that respect.
Then, we made a near fatal mistake….
We were supposed to get off the bus at Canary Wharf, but had miscounted and got off a station too early. Further complicating matters, the map we had didn’t extend into this neighborhood. So, we either had to wait for the next special replacement bus to show up, or figure out how to walk to the proper station. And it turned out surprisingly okay. You never know what you’re going to see or experience when you walk through non-tourist sections of a city, and in this particular case we found a traffic light tree.
Once we made it onto the light rail it was just a quick ride to our final destination.
For those wondering why I might be so driven to get out to the Greenwich Observatory, you should know that Greenwich is the home of UTC+0, which means that it is the one place where timezones don’t exist. As a software developer, I have lost countless hours struggling with the intricacies of timezones, which are really far more complex than you might think. But here, at the Observatory, all of that fades away… UTC is UTC, forever and always. Thus, I felt a need to pilgrimage to this honored location and be at peace with timezones, if only for a moment.
But first we toured the Old Naval College, now the University of Greenwich, and the adjacent Maritime Museum. I must say that the Old Navel College is quite the collection of spectacular buildings, and put King’s College to absolute shame in terms of collegiate campuses. It even put the University of Washington — perhaps one of the most picturesque campuses in the world — to shame. The Maritime Museum was also pretty cool, with lots of boats and navigational instruments for those who enjoy nautical stuff.
On our way out I stopped at the gift shop in hopes to find an appropriate souvenir for the observatory (the museum and the observatory are part of the same complex). There were your usual shot glasses and key chains and even beer bottled for a recent anniversary of the observatory’s opening, but none of it really grabbed my attention. But, then, just as I was getting read to give up, I spotted a collection of pocket watches. Seriously, can one imagine a better souvenir than a pocket watch from the origin point of time?! I ended up with the least expensive model — because I knew I wasn’t going to actually wear the thing, I’m not quite that guy — but it still looks amazing and you can see all the gears spinning and whirling inside.
Ironically, as a result of my shopping delay, we were running short on time if we were going to make our dinner reservation, so we quickly walked up to the observatory and took a bunch of photos. Turns out the observatory also had a museum component, now closed due to the late hour. If I had known, I wouldn’t have bothered with the Maritime Museum, but such is the way of things and I was still very excited to finally be at the center of time.
We now began a rather twisty trip from the Observatory to our dinner location by way of our hotel. Since the light rail was still only semi-functional, we used the underground to make it most of the way home and beyond. But the underground is efficient and affordable, so we got back to our hotel sooner than we had expected and were able to change into our semi-nice clothing and still make it to the restaurant well ahead of our reservation. To eat up some time we toured around the neighborhood, which had been built around a central green space called, you guessed it, Parson’s Green.
The neighborhood really drove home just how very different each section of London is, not just in terms of restaurants and activities, but the whole aesthetic of the location. Where the downtown core could have been any major city, Greenwich had been like it’s own distinct town with a big church and shopping center, while Parson’s Green was much more a sleepy bedroom community with small apartment buildings and single dwelling houses. Again, I imagine every city is like this once you get to know it.
The White Horse
Sarah had selected the White Horse as a famous gastropub, who aimed to bring quality beer together with quality food. For the most part, they succeeded, but only after a bumpy ride. For those who read my review of White Horse on Yelp, feel free to skip this section because it is essentially verbatim.
Sarah did a lot of research before choosing the White Horse as our final dinner location in London. Seems it was one of the first “high end” gastropubs in the area and said to have amazing food and drink. And it’s true, it did have amazing food… but something seemed very wrong that fateful Sunday which makes me wonder if after their great success, the White Horse has begun to rest on their laurels a bit.
We had made reservations online, as is quite customary in the States, but seemed very much out of the ordinary for the waitstaff. Took us a good five minutes to find someone who could tell us how to claim our reservation and then find our own table which had my name written on it. But before we even got to our table, we met our waiter who — while seeming as if he was about to suffer from a nervous breakdown — informed us that most of the menu was no longer available.
Undaunted, we took our seats and set out to learn exactly what they did still have on menu. Turns out many restaurants in London specialize in a Sunday Roast, and the White Horse is no exception. This particular Sunday, at the fairly early dining hour of 7:30pm, they were 100% out of the roast making materials… as well as a few other dishes that shared common materials. Worse yet, because it was Sunday, a number of their specialty items were not on the menu at all, having been displaced by the Sunday Roast. In particular this meant no “Toad in the Hole”, which Sarah and I had decided to get ahead of time as it is a distinctive British dish, and at this restaurant made for two people.After much discussion, and being won over by the extensive beer selection, we decided to stick it out, and I’m glad we did. For appetizer we enjoyed the mushroom and chestnut soufflé, which was light and airy while still being incredibly flavorful. For mains, I ended up with the crayfish and rabbit pie, which came presented with a whole crayfish bursting out of the top of the pie. A+ on presentation and taste! Sarah got a Scottish salmon and spinach dish that she reported really hit the spot. Dessert, apple fritters for the lady and a treacle sponge for me, were not really worth eating. The sponge, in particular, was still partially frozen.
To make up for the uneven desserts, absentee menu choices, and somewhat manic service, the White Horse does sport an amazing bottled beer selection. Over the course of the evening we enjoyed a lemon grass beer, a Scotch ale, a traditional British ale, a Somerset cider, and a vintage barley wine. Each served in the appropriate glass for the given beer style or brew house.
I do wish I could go back and try the evening again without the Sunday menu disappointment, but even with the bumpy start to the evening, once we got into the groove it proved to be a lovely night out… and only a block walk back to the tube station.
Thus ended our second day in London. Tomorrow we would only have a half day before needing to jump on the train back to Gatwick, but I think you’ll be surprised just how much we managed to squeeze in.