The Tube wasn't running at our station, so a replacement bus was necessary.
March 24, 2012 – Saturday morning we headed downstairs to breakfast. While they don’t cook to order, all the full breakfast staples were present (and fresh, since the dishes were frequently refilled). Toast and tea were also served fresh, and there were several pitchers of juice. Breakfast was still quite good (and the sausages were great, as usual) and we were quite ready for the few blocks walk to the train station. They were doing rail service this weekend so we got a replacement bus to a station a few stops down the line, and then were able to take a train into the city.
Our first stop of the day was St. Paul's Cathedral.
We got the three day London Pass, so we had a good idea of what we wanted to see. First on today’s list was St. Paul’s Cathedral. We knew both St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey were closed Sunday (the last day our pass was valid), so we were going to both today (note: photography is now allowed inside either building). St. Paul’s dome might seem familiar to those who have seen the US Capitol building – both were designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
The column work at the cathedral is amazing.
We got to St. Paul’s before 10am, and had virtually no wait to get inside. All the upper galleries except the whispering gallery were closed for renovations, though the whispering gallery was quiet enough that we could hear people testing it’s name (it really works). Words can’t really do the inside of St. Paul’s justice. It’s large and surprisingly bright and airy, particularly considering how large the stone support pillars are. Hundreds of shiny tiles, many painted with gold leaf, create mosaics on the curved ceilings. Statues are scattered around the building. A visitor could sit for hours and just soak up the atmosphere. (We were on a time budget so didn’t take that opportunity.)
Be sure to check out the statues around the cathedral during your visit.
St. Paul’s was also a rallying point during the Blitz, particularly after it survived a night of heavy bombing on the 114th night (Dec. 29, 1940). A very determined photographer captured the “St. Paul’s Survives” photo that night, adding to the cathedrals place in history. St. Paul’s also contains an American memorial chapel, located behind the main altar. The roll of honor includes over 28,000 Americans who died defending the United Kingdom during WWII. (And yes, it is striking and moving sthat there is a roll of honor for U.S. troops in the middle of one of the iconic houses of worship in the UK.)
Big Ben is actually the bell housed at the Palace of Westminster's clock tower.
Next up was Westminster Abbey. Along the way we passed Westminster Palace and the clock tower, home of the bell known as Big Ben. This area of the city always seems to be very crowded, and is also a known pick-pocket/con artist area. Beware of overly-aggressive people trying to sell plastic flowers. By overly-aggressive, I mean the ones who tuck the flowers into your husband’s camera strap while your using the other camera to take pictures. Bad move, flower lady, bad move.
Westminster Abbey was quite crowded.
We got to the abbey around 11am, and there was quite a line – we heard some people saying the line usually goes down around noon, so that might be something to keep in mind if you’re on a tight time budget. Overall the wait was less than 30 minutes to get inside. We opted to explore on our own, rather than listen to the audio guide. The self-guided tour is set up so there’s a one-way path through the abbey. Westminster Abbey has a completely different feel from St. Paul’s Cathedral. A little more formal, more solemn, weightier. Perhaps this comes from the dark wood and beautiful stained glass, ornamental everything – from the floors to the chairs to the ceiling, or hundreds of years of history – Westminster Abbey is where monarchs are crowned, and where they lay in state.
We walked past the Eye on the way to Waterloo Station.
About halfway through the tour we took a side detour to the crypt, where they have a small cafeteria. We got a big bowl of potato and leek soup, some crisps (chips for us Americans), a big piece of chocolate cake with ganache, and a large tea. The meal was enjoyed while sitting on one of the stone benches lining the arches looking out into the center courtyard.
Hampton Court was too big to fit into the frame... even from across the river.
After the abbey we walked to the London Waterloo station and got a series of trains to Henry VIII’s palace, Hampton Court. The train station is about a quarter mile from the palace. Of course we got distracted by the river (canal?) and the ducks swimming around. The distraction didn’t last long because Hampton Court is huge. Not tall, but massive nonetheless, particularly once you get into the courtyard. Speaking of massive, make sure you save time for the garden. Elizabeth I grew up here, Henry VIII lived here, and was executed here. Needless to say, the palace has seen some history.
The gardens at Hampton Court are as impressive as the palace.
And all that history requires fortification. Tea and a chocolate chip cookie, enjoyed in the dining room, fit the bill. That fortified us for exploring the rest of the castle – which seems even bigger inside than it does outside. From the wine cellar – lit with candles – to the beautiful chapel, to the seemingly-endless royal apartments, the castle is massive. We were taking our time, meandering through the castle, when we looked outside and realized the royal apartments (our current location) kept going… and going… and going. So we sped up since we still wanted to explore the gardens. The gardens behind the palace are beautiful open expanses of lawn with paths, fountains, and funny little manicured trees. A canal runs through the gardens; a few birds were happily swimming around. And a few grey herons (they look almost identical to great blue herons) were causing a raucous in one of the tall pine trees. If the gardens at the back of the palace are wide open, the side gardens are small, finely landscaped and full of color.
Watch the battle for the gardens... THIS SUNDAY ONLY!
Dinner was fish and chips (and salad for Louisa), and a couple decent but unremarkable pints, at Hole in the Wall. Hole in the Wall is literally a hole in the wall, er, bridge, as it’s built underneath a train bridge. It does fill up, particularly when football’s on, but if you get there before the game you shouldn’t have a problem finding a seat. The fish and chips are fantastic, and the beer is decent but not necessarily as good as drafts we’ve had elsewhere.
Modern art or staircase? You decide.
Next up was a stroll through London. We found a fun little group of about two dozen food vendors. Free samples were plentiful, and we enjoyed trying some well-aged Parmesan cheese. Many of the people were selling dinner options, but we really wanted dessert and settled on a fabulous caramel apple cheesecake. The treat was enjoyed overlooking the Thames, underneath trees lit with tanzanite lights.
Night strolls along the Thames are a requirement when visiting London.
Up next was the Tate Modern; tonight was it’s night to be open late. Along the way we found some older ruins, and a few nice views of the sunset. The museum looks like a converted warehouse, perfect setting for a modern art museum. Admittedly, I don’t “get” most modern art, I find it thoroughly miserable and nihilistic. There was one piece that looked like a blue tortilla chip, that was Tony’s favorite. Louisa was pleasantly surprised to find Monet’s Sea-Roses (part of his Water Lillies series) in the collection; the work is very large (maybe 6′x10′). The work is incredibly peaceful and soothing, a stark contrast to many of the works we saw.
We ended our night walk at St. Paul's Cathedral.
The Millenium Bridge is right next to the museum, so of course we had to walk across it on our way over to the Tower Bridge. Our aim for the evening’s stroll was to get some night photos of the city. We didn’t have a tripod but did a decent job of using the bridges as a substitute. Although we originally wanted to walk back up the Thames, it was getting chilly and we made do with a quick stroll around the Tower of London, pausing to admire the ruins near the outer wall, and on to the Tube.
The lit dome of St. Paul's Cathedral is visible from many spots along the Thames.
We stayed downtown until about 8:30 and then made our way back to the train station, and back to the B&B. Of course, we couldn’t resist the Thai & Co. restaurant at the end of the street, so we stopped in to get lamb Massaman curry and rice. This was seriously good curry, and a perfect night time snack.