Pussy-cats, Pussy-cats, where have you been? We’ve been to London to look at the Queen!

Tower Bridge with a bright paint job

Rome, Greece, Madrid, Tanger, Barcelona, Paris. We’ve been ticking off the major cities of Europe we’ve visited while we’ve been living and studying in Grenoble. Oui, bien sûr, je reçois une éducation aussi! (Yes, of course, I, too, am receiving an education!) With our remaining time here dwindling— just a little over a month left now—we finally squeezed in a trip to a place where we assumed that language and customs would be just like being at home. Hah! We heartily agree with George Bernard Shaw who said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” And that’s not all.

Our airline of choice has been easyJet for our intra-European travel. And considering the number of flights we have taken on this airline, I’ve been asking myself why we haven’t bought stock in this company already. We should at least be eligible for the easy boarding status as frequent fliers. easyJet is a Luton, UK-based company and offers convenient discount flights all over Europe and some African and Middle Eastern countries. We travel to Aéroport Lyon Saint-Exupéry, a mere hour ride, by navette (shuttle bus), toting our rolling bags on the 15-minute walk to la gare routière de Grenoble (bus station) in order to catch it. Because we live without a car, this is the simplest, most stress-free way for us to travel.

We boarded the plane in Lyon and landed at London Gatwick Airport a short hour and five minutes later. We bought the tickets that we would need for our London ground transportation on the plane, and these included Gatwick Express train tickets that sped us to Victoria Station in 25 minutes from the airport and Oyster cards, a chip-embedded smart card that you can buy for easy access to the Underground Tube and bus systems. Oyster cards can be reloaded or “topped-up” when extra fare money is needed, and with them, you whisk through the turnstiles to board the subway trains. When we arrived at Victoria, we used our Oyster Cards to get to the South Kensington underground station, which was a 5-minute walk from our hotel.

South Kensington Underground Station

There was still plenty of light left in the day (sunset in London on June 8th was at 9:15 pm; sunrise: 4:45 am!), and after dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked to the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum right in the neighborhood. We tagged along behind a tour that began a few minutes after we arrived and got an introduction to the museum and a minuscule sampling of the 150 rooms and 12 miles of corridors in this mammoth museum.

Museum touring always makes us thirsty, and the local pub, Bunch of Grapes, satisfied the first of a few visits to the London pubs that are as numerous as cafés in France. We quenched our thirsts with some new-to-us British ale and succumbed to our hankering for authentic fish ‘n chips, as well.

Cheers!

Then on to the Fulton Theatre on Russell Street near Drury Lane (remember it from the nursery rhyme “Do you know the Muffin Man?”), where we had booked tickets for the evening performance of the long-running thriller, The Woman in Black.

From the first day in London, we started monitoring the weather. The infamous London weather. The morning equivalent of the Today Show had a weatherman who looked like he had just graduated from high school. He had an eager, freckled face with a shock of red hair. We readied ourselves for the forecast. What would the day’s weather be? Full-faced into the camera, he told us that morning and everyday thereafter, “Sunshine … and Rain.” How could he ever be wrong? We’re in London for heaven’s sake! The home of the “Mac,” the impermeable named after the Scottish inventor Charles Macintosh, and the London Fog raincoat.

Punting on the Cam

Given the predictability, or unpredictability, of the weather, our first full day in England, we still decided to travel by train an hour away out of London to Cambridge. We joined a 2-hour walking tour that traversed the university town and served up the history of the town from medieval times through the 1953 discovery of “the Secret of Life” by Crick and Watson in their laboratory here and ending with present-day Cambridge. We lunched at The Eagle, the pub to which the dynamic DNA duo had retired to celebrate with a pint on the day they made their breakthrough find. We decided to follow their good sense. They must have known something about beer. They were winners of the 1962 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize, weren’t they?

Later, we walked along the River Cam which runs through Cambridge, and with the end of term and exams at the university, we saw university students aplenty in boats punting down the river, wine bottles and pints in hand. During the tour, we had noted that one of the colleges, Clare College, had an evensong scheduled for that evening. It was easy to make our way back there to enjoy the service and singing and still make the train back to London before too late in the evening.

The next day we strolled over to the Tower of London to see where so many of England’s historic figures had spent the final days of their lives. The Beefeaters, excuse me, Yeoman Warders, were easy to spot in their bright red uniforms. We took an entertaining spin around with a guide and stopped in to see the Crown Jewels that reside here behind glass. A moving sidewalk passes you in front of the collection, and I kept side-stepping to prolong the view. The next time I see a picture of Queen Elizabeth with her Imperial State Crown, I will wonder where she keeps the aspirin to alleviate the headache that the 2.23kg (almost 5 lbs.) crown causes. (Maybe that’s what she keeps in The Purse!) Along with the crown jewels, the Tower visit also includes a glimpse at the execution sites and the sites of imprisonment for those unlucky enough to displease King Henry VIII, including our own Sir Walter Raleigh, who “had a rent-free room” there and finally in 1618, couldn’t keep his head about him.

Beefeater ~ Yeoman Warder

Shakespeare’s Globe Player

The real highlight of this trip was the opportunity to attend a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. In college, I had taken just about every Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature course offered. Luckily, both Steve and I are Shakespeare fans. (There’s even a page for that on FaceBook.) Before leaving home, I had arranged to pick up tickets at the box office. We were to be groundlings, the cheapest tickets in the place at ₤5 per ticket. We arrived at the theatre for the 2 pm performance,  a bit early to get a good spot, and we scored a place standing right at the stage edge! Intermittent rain fell, but Gore-Tex is a wonder, and we remained dry. . Photography is forbidden, but I took a picture of a willing cast member before the announcement. The cast kept the audience—old and young, sodden and dry—spellbound with their light-hearted performance. A Mo and Steve must-do activity in London!

Fellow Globe Groundlings

We had planned on visiting the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard that takes place at Horse Guards Parade near Whitehall or Buckingham Palace. Doing research on this before we left, I discovered that we would be in London at a very special time and would have an opportunity to witness  Trooping the Colour. It was Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, so crowds had gathered at St. James Park to see her and the other royals come down the Mall in open carriages for the ceremonies in the park. Steve was able to snap some pictures above the heads of the crowd that formed in front of us. He scored a great picture of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and oh, Queen Elizabeth, Charles, and Camilla were there too. Have a listen and a look: Her Majesty-The Beatles

Kate @ The Trooping

Queen Liz

After all the royal excitement, we stopped for lunch at a festive place: St. Martin in the Fields’ Café in the Crypt. Appetizing, hmm? This is actually an ancient crypt with  still-intact gravestones, and the church sponsors a program that serves delicious meals cafeteria-style under the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. I enjoyed the much-appreciated bowl of warming spinach soup after braving the pelting rain above ground. An extra—all profits go to the church’s work in the community.

St.Martin in the Fields Café in the Crypt

Then we were on to the Churchill War Rooms, the underground headquarters for the WWII fight in England. This nerve center for the British war effort is a well-done preservation of the real details of what it took to launch and sustain the war effort for the victory against the Third Reich. You might actually expect Winston Churchill to come around the corner and smirk at you. Was that a whiff of cigar smoke that I smelled?

The way back to our hotel took us past places you have may have heard of—Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the famous London Eye. The London Eye has a carnival atmosphere to it, and as I don’t do roller coasters or ferris wheels, we noted its presence and hefty ride price and moved on. We encountered some Hari Krishna followers dancing in the street around Covent Garden and appreciated the diversity that makes London, London.

Abbey Road

As children of the 1960s, we felt obliged to make the pilgrimage to the oft-photographed famous road crossing of Abbey Road. The rain poured down, but we took the tube to St. John’s Wood station, toting Wolfgang along for the photo-op! Needless to say, we were not alone on that Sunday morning. Although, I don’t think the kids we saw there were even alive when that picture of the Beatles was made, which spurred the urban legend of Paul McCartney’s death based on the album cover.(See slideshow below.)

Westminster Abbey

London Museums are free and incredible. We hit the National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery, and the British Museum in the next few days, and we also checked out the Rosetta Stone, the mummies, and beaucoup de guys in wigs. To satisfy Steve’s lust for the pipe organ, we managed to squeeze in an organ recital at Westminster Abbey and take in the names of all the noteworthy people buried or memorialized there.

As you might imagine, we had covered a lot of London ground over a one-week period and were ready to head back to Grenoble, where the weather tends to be more hospitable. We missed our baguettes and needed a respite from the full English breakfasts before we started to resemble Henry the VIII in his later years.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ali
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 22:37:14

    Ho ho ho! Marc has been in London all week! Too bad we did not know you two were there as well! Glad you had fun…..

    Reply

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