London Trip Diary
This is my travel diary for the trip Jan and I took to London in early Spring, 2018. The entire time was spend in London. We stayed at an Airbnb in South Kensington. The location was excellent with several tube stations within 10 minutes walk and many good restaurants. We used the tube almost exclusively. We bought an Oyster card for each of us in advance and put 80 pounds on each card. That lasted throughout the trip and we ended with only a couple pounds on each card. We took the Heathrow Express from the airport to Piccadilly Station where we could get on the tube. That was fast and easy to do with luggage. We bought a number of the tickets to sites such as the Churchill War Rooms in advance. That was very helpful in some cases. On a busy day you could wait in line for several hours to get in. We walked in at our appointed time with no wait.
Day 1 - Travel from Madison to London
We left Madison late afternoon and arrived at Heathrow Airport about seven in the morning. An uneventful flight but still painful sitting for so long. We purchased Heathrow Express tickets ahead of time so we took the express train from Heathrow to Paddington Station. There we switched to the Circle Line tube to Gloucester Road station and then a short walk to our Airbnb. Following standard travel advice, we tried to stay up all day even though we simply wanted to crawl into bed.
First stop was the Victoria and Albert Museum. They have a huge collection of decorative arts for most of England/Britain’s history. We both like the arts and crafts period in the late 1800s and the work of William Morris and Charles Mackintosh. They had less of their work that we were expecting. One of the more interesting exhibits for me was their “cast hall” where they had collected casts of major statues from the rest of Europe. No need to visit Florence — Michelangelo’s and Donatello’s Davids were both here and much more. They had a special exhibit on ocean liners but it was expensive so we skipped it.
Next stop was Harrods. I didn’t expect much but it was impressive. Each department was as big as some stores. A whole large room just devoted to chocolate. It was busy with both tourists but also people actually buying stuff. Staff were very friendly.
We ended the day with a good meal at an Indian restaurant in our neighborhood.
Day 2 - Westminister Abbey, Houses of Parliament, and tea
Started the day with a tube ride to Westminster Abbey. We got the audio tour. I love Gothic churches. They are architectural and engineering wonders. Westminster Abbey was exceptional for me because so much happened there. All English starting in 1066 and William the Conqueror were crowned there. An astonishing number of people are buried there. Some have simple floor plaques, others elaborate tombs. Kings and queens of course: Henry the VIII, Elizabeth I, Edward the Confessor. But others of note: Charles Darwin, Chaucer, Dickens, Kipling, Isaac Newton, and, just recently, Steven Hawking.
It surprised me to see the elaborate tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. She was never Queen of England and Elizabeth had her beheaded as a traitor. It turns out her son, James, became King after Elizabeth, and thought his mom deserved better. He had her reburied in Westminster Abbey.
Next we walked across the street to the Houses of Parliament. Again, I was impressed with all the historical events that took place in the building. Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the complex, is huge considering it’s an 11th century building. Many events took place in the this hall. Thomas Moore and William Wallace (Braveheart) were both tried there and sentenced to death (Moore beheaded; Wallace hung, disemboweled, and quartered). Churchill lay in state there when he died. Nelson Mandela spoke there.
The House of Commons was elaborate and fun to visit. We have seen it so many times on TV and in the movies. It was fun to imagine so many historic figures such as Churchill, Chamberlin, Gladstone, and Disraeli sat on those benches and delivered speeches that changed the world.
We ended the day with a full English tea served in a room overlooking the Thames normally used by House of Commons.
Day 3 - Tower of London and the Mayflower Pub
A long tube ride on the Circle Line got us to the Tower of London well before it opened. As a tourist site since the time of Elizabeth I, you are nearly obligated to visit. There are Roman ruins at the site that date from 200 AD. William the Conqueror built the White Tower which stands in the center of the site soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. So we saw where William was crowned king in Westminster Abbey yesterday and today we saw where he lived.
The Tower has a dark history. We all know that many people whose were imprisoned there and, often, beheaded. Most prisoners were important people and often accused of treason — not your common thief or murderer. Some even had apartments and lived with their families and servants while awaiting trial. I liked seeing the traitors gate entrance to the Tower. How many movies and TV series have shown the prisoner taken to the Tower by boat and entering through this dark gate. It was sobering to see the place where so many tragic historic figures had passed.
We took the Warders tour as recommended by Rick Steves. It was free and fun. The guide had a great sense of humor and a loud voice. Before the tour started we saw the crown jewels. It is much more than just one crown. There are lots of crowns as well as gold and silver. The whole exhibit is in a vault with armed guards. After the tour we visited the White Tower with its impressive armament collection. Then a few other sites such as the room where Richard III’s nephews were kept and ultimately murdered. Their bodies were discovered several hundred years after they disappeared.
Early afternoon was spent eating fish and chips and drinking at the Mayflower Pub. This is an traditional but very old English pub. It is located where the Mayflower docked before it left for the new world. They have a book you can sign if you are related to someone who sailed on the Mayflower. Jan is related to Richard Warren who was on the Mayflower so she signed the book.
Dinner was at a Spanish tapas restaurant a short walk from where were staying.
Day 4 - The Tate Britain Museum and the Churchill War Rooms
We have a good stride now. Pace is important when visiting a place such as London with so much to see. Do too much and it all becomes a blur. You check off everything but you are not sure what you saw. Two major sites a day works for us.
We started today at the Tate Britain art museum. We purchased tickets in advance for their current featured exhibit on Impressionists in London. Many French Impressionist painters went to London during and shortly after the Franco-Prussian War. Monet, Pissarro, Tissot and others came to escape the war and chaos in France. It was a good collection around an interesting theme. I liked the Tissot painting the best because of their detail, especially in clothing. There were many versions of Monet’s painting of Parliament. I believe there are over 20.
The Tate has the largest Turner collection in the world. It is only fitting since he is probably England’s most famous painter. There was room after room after room of his paintings. I like his paintings because they are accessible, I know what they are, and he often painted sea scenes.
We left the Tate after lunch and walked along the Thames to the Churchill War Rooms. We arrived a bit before our reservation so we walked in St James park. This beautiful park with its flower beds and exotic waterfowl collection was originally created as a deer park for Henry the VIII.
Everyone likes the Churchill War Rooms and with good reason. I found it sobering and moving. Several times I fought back tears. The determination to fight in such a desperate situation is inspiring. Churchill, despite his flaws and mistakes, was a great man. Where are such leaders today? To see the tiny underground rooms where he and so many others led the British was effort was humbling. At the end of the museum they have the door from 10 Downing St that Churchill walked through when he became Prime Minister. Next to it is a quote: “I felt as I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. I was certain I should not fail.” I was moved too by the many quotes from the people who worked with him during those difficult years. They saw all sides of him including his rudeness and bad temper. But so many concluded by saying they would do anything for him.
The Churchill War Rooms was moving in part because my father fought in England during WWII. He was there in the 8th Air Force with a fighter squadron. In many ways this was his world for several years.
We ended the day continuing to eat our way through the many excellent restaurants in our South Kensington neighborhood. Tonight it was a mid eastern tapas style restaurant.
Day 5 - The British Library and the British Museum
Spent about an hour in the British Library in the morning viewing their greatest treasurers. The collection was not large but it had books and letters you can’t see elsewhere. The Magna Carta was the highlight. It was such an important political development to bring the king under the rule of law as well as establishing other checks on the king’s power. There was a Guttenberg bible and many other religious manuscripts. On the lighter side there were handwritten lyrics for several Beatles songs, a da Vinci notebook, handwritten drafts of one of Ian Flemings Bond novels, etc.
The museum has an app which, when you hold it over the item, reads the image and brings up supplemental information. Unfortunately, they had not instructed the guards about this. When he saw me hold my cell phone over a priceless manuscript, he ran across the room telling me to stop. He thought I was going to take a flash picture. It took ten minutes and bringing in his supervisor to get it all straightened out. They thanked me in the end for showing them how the app worked. They didn’t know.
The afternoon was spent at the British Museum. A massive collection that could take days to view. We hit the highlights with the help of a recorded audio tour. Saw the Elgin marbles, of course. They still refuse to send them to Greece even though the Greeks now have a beautiful Parthenon Museum to house. The Parthenon Museum has spaces for this Elgin marbles with a note explaining their request to the British Museum to return the items to their rightful owner. The Rosetta stone and the Assyrian lion hunt mural were there. We have so much at our fingertips with the internet. One forgets that when this museum was built there was nothing like it in the world. You had to visit in person if you wanted to understand and appreciate this incredible collection. We spent three hours before our minds and legs started giving out.
Day 6 - Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Selfridges, and Buckingham Palace
Started out the day planning to use the “hop-on, hop-off” bus to view some of the sites we have missed. After waiting for the bus about 20 minutes we scrapped that plan and set out one our own.
First stop was Hyde Park. It was a beautiful spring day. The flowers were in bloom. Trees were starting to leaf out. Sunny and warm. We briefly thought of our friends back in Madison who are expecting another snow storm today. We walked the paths, rented a row boat on the Serpentine, and ate lunch at a café in the park. Saw a Great Crested Grebe on the lake. It looked wild to me so I think I can count in on my life list.
Finished the park at the Marble Arch. Saw the speakers corner (no one there today). Selfridges was next. It was not as impressive as Harrods. But lots of beautiful things with outrageous prices and people willing to pay them. London seems to be doing quite well despite Brexit.
Another tube ride and a long walk got us to the front gate of Buckingham Palace. Something was going on because there were lots of police motorcycles, several motorcades, well armed guards, and crowd barriers. We enjoyed seeing the palace that we have seen so many times in the movies.
Another long walk and a tube ride and we were home. Jan recorded nearly 15,000 steps for the day on her Fitbit — a new record for this trip. I fear we are approaching her limits but she just keeps going.
Day 7 - The National Gallery, Boat Ride on the Thames, and the London Eye
We are starting to run out of energy. It can be a lot of work being a tourist in a city such as London. We take the tube everywhere but there are still miles of walking every day. Misread the map and you can easily add half a mile to your day.Today was hot! It got to the mid eighties. I think it was a record.
Went first to the National Gallery. This is a huge art museum and certainly one of the premier art museums in the world. It is next to Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. Nelson’s column with the statue is nearly 170 feet tall. You almost need binoculars to see it. Once in the gallery we tried to be focused and concentrate on paintings we wanted to see or that we should see because of their significance. Rick Steves and the audio guide helped. Lots of exceptional paintings which are enjoyable just from the aesthetic standpoint. But for me one of the fun parts of viewing art is getting an insight into the people involved. There is, of course, the painter, their life, and the art forces acting on them. Then there are the subjects in the paintings. Portraits that can seem boring at first can become interesting if you can learn a bit about the people in them. So many of the very old paintings were meant to tell stories, many from mythology and religion. With many people at the time unable to read, and with few books to read, pictures were one way of passing on the wisdom and life lessons from myths and religious events. When you view these pictures not as a jaded modern person but as you imagine someone would at the time they were painted its a very different experience. The audio guide helped provide some of that backstory for the paintings.
The afternoon was spent taking a boat ride up and down the Thames and then going up in the large Ferris wheel called the London Eye. Jan is no fan of heights but she did well. She loves boat rides so the package deal we got worked for both of us. We couldn’t have gotten a better day for this with clear skies and warm weather.
Day 8 - St Paul's Cathedral and the National Portrait Gallery
A perfect weather day today. Clear skies, mid 70s. We keep seeing pictures of Madison in the snow and feel sorry for our friends.
St Paul’s Cathedral was our first stop. It was built in the late 1600s by Christopher Wren so it is a more modern structure compared to the traditional Gothic cathedrals such as Westminster Abbey. It has a large dome and the flying buttresses are concealed. We had a wonderful guide and a small group. The tour took two hours. Our guide, learning we were from Wisconsin, said he would point out the Wisconsin badger in the stained glass in the American Memorial Chapel. We explained that the badger was the state animal because of the state’s early mining history and the similarity between badger dens and the early underground lead mines. Many of the early miners were from England. He was interested because he had always wondered “why a badger?”
There are many important tombs — Nelson, Wellington — in the cathedral but also beautiful mosaics. These were added long after the cathedral was built. Wren wanted them but either couldn’t afford them or couldn’t convince others that they should be commissioned.
The National Portrait Gallery was our last stop. Many easily recognized portraits of famous historical English — lots of kings and queens. Many interesting stories behind many of the pictures. There is one of George Washington that was very familiar and I was surprised to see it here. I learned that many copies were made by the artist because Washington was so famous. So this is just one of many.
Day 9 - Travel Home
Another beautiful day in London but today we head back to Madison and the snow.