Monday, September 12, 2011

First days in London

We arrived without incident on United 954 (nonstop SFO→LHR), went through immigration (passport control), picked up our bags, and exited via the line marked "Rien à déclarer" (or it should have been -- I don't remember what it actually said in English - "No declarations" maybe).

We exchanged some money -- quite a spread as I recall: I think we paid something like US$ 1.88 to get UK£ 1, but if we have any £s left over, each will get us $1.49.

Anyway, we took our little trolley (that's what they call baggage carts here) down some ramps then up an elevator to the central bus station by 7:40 -- next bus to London was 8:30am and it was £5 per person; great.

With 50 minutes to go, we visited "Caffe Nero" for snacks and a decaf latte. When our bus (501-London) appeared in the window, we went outside to the pick-up location -- stand#8 or something like this. The staff were unloading baggage from the belly of the bus.

Some of you grammarians may complain about my choice of verb in the preceding sentence. You're American, aren't you? Here's the thing: what pronoun would you use for "the staff" -- would you say "they"? Well yes, because two or more people are being discussed. So if I said "The staff appeared very quickly" then "they were unloading baggage..." the verb would be correct there, wouldn't it? Therefore "The staff were unloading" is fine, right? It's like in the advertisement "Pan Am are now offering direct flights to..." which I read in an English paper some decades ago....
Once the Heathrow baggage was off, they checked our tickets and took our bags. The bus went directly from Heathrow's central bus station to London's Victoria coach (in the US we'd normally say "bus") station -- not to be confused with the "Victoria Station" that usually means the rail or Underground or "tube" station. Once off the bus, we retrieved our bags and walked to the Lime Tree Hotel.

The hotel is just a few minutes' walk away. We arrived before 9:30am, and the fellow at the desk greeted us warmly. No, our room wasn't ready; yes, he could prioritise the cleaning staff's work so that the room would most likely be ready by 10:30. (This wasn't necessary, as it turned out.) And yes, he could suggest some interesting things to do. First, he told us how to get to Buckingham (pronounced “bucking’em”) Palace for the changing of the guard at 11:30, but he also told us about a smaller ceremony at the nearby St James's Palace where we wouldn't have 4,000 people blocking the view. What we didn't realize at the time was the ceremony at Bucking'em would take an hour, vs. 15-20 minutes for the smaller ceremony (viewed from maybe 15 yards away).

Then, as we had tickets for the musical Chicago that afternoon, we asked him how to get to the Cambridge Theatre. He took out his pink highlighter and showed us where to catch the #34 bus, what route it would take and where to get off. Very helpful!

We "popped our bags round the corner," and headed off, eventually finding St James's Palace. We also found an astonishing little plaque commemorating a visit of a legation (delegation?) from the Texas Republic! After watching the ceremony (which involved a 1978 Barry Manilow song) we walked to St James's Park and had lunch at the restaurant, just missing a brief but intense rain shower.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel, got settled in briefly, then had a run-in with the bus ticketing system: exact change required! A mad dash followed, but we got on the bus in time to allow for a little confusion at the far end. But we eventually got to the Cambridge Theatre, and we even got to our seats before they lowered the lights. The musical was "Chicago" -- about which I knew nothing. The acting was superb, but the costumes were a little disconcerting. wikipedia told me it was a satirical account (I had thought it rather cynical before reading that).

There was water on the ground when we emerged from the theatre around 5:30, and we got a light supper at "kopapa". There was a large hanging on the wall; I thought the material and colors looked Hawaiian, but our server called it a "tapa" from New Zealand.

We caught a cab back; our driver was a former investment banker. Quite a job change I'd say. He recommended "Boisdale," which has live jazz most evenings and is within a block or two of our hotel.

Sunday 8/28

From our little map we saw that "St Michael's" was a short walk away from the hotel. Their website gave a good impression, so we attended their 10:30am service. We couldn't see how to get in, but the guest organist's mother (who was visiting) led us round to the entrance. We sat down directly, and the lovely Carol said to the young lady in the next chair, "Hi! We're from California." Jennifer Garner (her real name) said, "Well I'm from North Carolina!"

The congregation was very friendly, and one of the folks, Mary-Lois I think, turns out to know the pastor who officiated at our wedding 25 years ago. Small world indeed.

We enjoyed the hymns, the readings from 1 Timothy 5 and Luke 14, and the sermon -- which was about parents (well, really about our priorities). Jennifer joined us for lunch -- she recommended a pub round the corner, probably the Thomas Cubitt -- we ate outside, but moved inside when the raindrops fell.

We met our tour guide, Tom, that afternoon, and he took us on a walk around the neighborhood. We got practice catching the bus and the Underground, and ate together at Grumbles, not too far from Victoria Station.

This tour includes a transit pass (bus and tube; also discounts on some boat rides) for the week. I'm tempted to buy a weekly pass for our time in Paris too, but we'll see....

Monday 8/29

In the morning, we visited Westminster Abbey -- quite impressive. If you're lucky, you'll do this tour in the morning rather than late afternoon (when "people lose their will to live"). A lot of people are buried under there.

We then took a boat ride, and had a very capable narrator describe several sights around the river. He called out the various bridges, the Tate Gallery, the London Eye, and so on. He mentioned the Bloody Tower (the Tower of London actually has several towers), relating the answer to the question "Which one is the Bloody Tower?" -- i.e., "the one behind the bloody trees, which is why you can't bloody see it."

Upon landing, we ran off to get lunch (we went up the hill to "EAT") then back for a Beefeater tour. These fellows have all served at least 22 years in the British Army with (in their words) no misdeeds detected, iirc. It was disconcerting to think of all the killings that happened in the tower complex.

We made our way back to the hotel for a quick freshen-up, then walked to Victoria (tube) station, transferred at Oxford Circus, and emerged above ground at Marylebone (pronounced "Marley Bone") for fish and chips at "Seashell", a short walk away. Very generous portions (a HUGE piece of cod) were provided, though Carrie's piece was seriously undercooked (we shared a table with her and Jim). They corrected this cheerfully and promptly. Good food.

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