Welcome to the 201st post on travelingwithtom.com! This week we travel from Kyiv, Ukraine to London for a few days before heading back to the US. We had a great time in Ukraine so it was hard to leave the sites, the food and most of all the wonderful, warm people. Never fear, we’ll be back to see you again!
We made the three hour direct flight on British Airways from Kyiv Boryspil International Airport to London Heathrow without incident and on time. After arriving at Heathrow the four of us (The Eldest, The Son-in-law, my traveling partner and myself) took a cab to the nearby hotel we booked for our stay. You see, The Eldest and The Son-in-law were only going to be in London for two nights and one full day before heading home at zero dark thirty on Sunday morning! Thus necessitating a stay near the airport. My traveling partner and I were staying on for a few extra days to see and experience more of what London has to offer.
After a fun evening at a local pub so The Son-in-law could have the London pub experience (it was his first trip to the UK and London) we hit the hay early for tomorrow promised to be a full day. The Eldest arranged for an eight hour walking tour of central London so the Son-in-law could see some of the main sites and determine which ones to focus on for a future trip. Our day began with a good, hearty breakfast followed by making a walk to the nearby Hatton Cross tube (underground) station where we purchased the daily unlimited transport pass.
As we made the approximately 45 minute ride into London, we made sure to “mind the gap” and enjoy the people watching.
We met Ana Marie under the statue at Piccadilly Circus. The statue is the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain but is more commonly called “Eros” and was erected in the late 1800’s to honor the philanthropic and political work of Anthony Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
While waiting for Ana Marie, we watched the traffic make it’s way around the “circle” at this famous junction of several key streets in London’s West End.
Meet Ana Marie, an experienced guide from City Unscripted. She is a US citizen from Miami but has been in London full time for several years where her daughter lives. While City Unscripted asks patrons to indicate interests, Ana Marie asked us if we had any special things and places that we wanted to see or visit. My traveling partner said gardens, The Son-in-law wanted to try out a few pubs, and The Eldest asked about Harry Potter sites! I was game for anything, so with that we began what was to be 30,000 steps as measured by our Fitbit devices.
Since The Regent’s Parks was nearby, Ana Marie suggested we hop on a bus that would drop us near one of the entrances to the park.
On this bus ride, we passed by the University of Westminster where The Eldest studied for a semester in 2000. It was nice to see where we sent the tuition money!
The Regent’s Park is one of the Royal Parks in London and also contains the London Zoo. This 410 acre park was established in the early 1800’s and was the idea of the future King George IV while he was Prince Regent during his father’s illness, mental in nature, a bipolar disorder. His father was King George III, the King during the American Revolutionary War and the King that also lost to Napoleon. It’s a beautiful park and many of the flower species were in full bloom. We easily could have spent hours looking around but there’s a lots more to see in London.
Ana Marie took a photo of us at the park, notice that I’m taking a photo of her at the same time!
After this fun detour on our walk, we were back on the tourist trail with a tube ride that took us to the King’s Cross/St. Pancras station. The only objective, as far as I can tell, was to see platform 9 3/4 made famous in the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling. I have not read them but my three traveling companions were well versed in all things Harry Potter. I was more intrigued by all the people watching the electronic scheduling board. There was a long line of people cueing up to have their photos taken and the gift shop was jammed but hey they got to see the platform.
Inside the station I was impressed with “The Meeting Place” sculpture by Paul Day, with the man and woman embracing titled “The St. Pancras Lovers” that was designed to evoke the romance of travel. IMHO, must have been from another era, the romance of travel that is! Around the base is a frieze with images from the history of the London Underground. Early critics panned this artwork but over time it grew on people, I thought it was stunning, guess that’s the way art is supposed to work!
Ana Marie took us through the station to see the beautiful architecture of the station. She even got us inside the connected St. Pancras Hotel to see the interesting design of the staircase. This wouldn’t be the last time she got us into some place that the general public doesn’t ordinarily see.
Next up was the Tower Hill tube station that took us near the edge of the Thames River, the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. I thought the crowds were huge and they were, but Ana Marie informed us that in the coming weeks it would get more crowded when schools got out in Europe and the US. That made me happy that we were just a bit ahead of the crowds, I don’t mind large groups of people but this was bordering on too much.
From across the Thames, we could see “The Shard,” the 95 story building that looks like, well, a shard of glass! It’s the tallest building in the UK, opening in 2012 after three years of construction. The first 33 stories are occupied by businesses of various types but floors 34-52 are the Shangri-La Hotel. Above that are private residences, I’m guessing filled with sheiks and oligarchs!
Little did I know that Ana Marie had a pleasant surprise for us. Since she’s an experienced London guide, she knows how to get into buildings and areas that are not ordinarily open to the public. That held true with The Shard where we went through building security and took the elevator to the hotel lobby! The view from here was outstanding, reportedly even better than the Observatory on the 68th floor. Here are a few photos from our brief visit to The Shard.
Before we left, we had time for a relaxing sit down and a few photos with the city in the background.
As we left, we saw this Rolls Royce wrapped for the Gumball 3000 rally that raises funds to give underprivileged kids greater opportunities. Ok, but a pretentious, elegant and expensive vehicle like a Rolls, we were stunned!
After our Shard visit, we stopped at an excellent Asian restaurant for lunch, not an English pub but The Son-in-law had a taste of the some of fine beers London has to offer.
After a relaxing lunch, we stopped by the Southwark Cathedral, a place of Christian worship for over 1000 years. It was quite stunning as churches go, here’s a few photos that don’t do justice to the beautiful interior.
Fortunately, while we were inside, an organist was doing a recital on the pipe organ. Here’s a bit of what it sounded like.
As we were increasing our step count, we passed through a tunnel where this guy was busking with his horn that spewed balls of fire as he played. It was worth a British pound to take his photos!
We made our way back to the north and west side of the Thames River, past a famous Twinning’s Tea store, the Australian embassy (I’m headed there in a couple of months), the Royal Courts of Justice buildings (similar to our Supreme Court), to Trafalgar Square, past 10 Downing Street (offices of the Prime Minister), to the area around Westminster Abbey, Parliament and Big Ben.
Along this route we also made a stop at the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral designed by the famous Christoper Wren. There was a very long cue at both security and the ticket line but never fear, Ana Marie was here! She talked us through security so we could see just the spiral staircase made famous in one of the Harry Potter movies. It didn’t mean much to me but it was stunning to see. Ana Marie informed us that photos are forbidden inside the Cathedral so here are a couple from the exterior. Next time we are going on the full tour of this site.
After we exited the building, we saw this couple having photos taken. Either they were just married or posing for an advertisement of some type. I couldn’t resist make a couple of photos of my own.
After walking those 30,000 steps with Ana Marie we were tuckered out and famished. So as her last act as our guide for the day, she dropped us off at an old English pub near Big Ben where we had, what else, fish and chips! The fish and the chips were mediocre but the beer was cold and refreshing.
It was a great day with Ana Marie showing us some of the common and not so common sites of central London plus our fitbit’s had a good workout too registering greater than 30,000 steps! If you are ever in need of a guide when in town, ask for Ana Marie, you won’t regret it!
Up next week, some more from London.
Until then, happy travels!