Postcards from London

Hi everyone,

This week I bring you postcards from London, England, that bustling city on the River Thames and the capital of the United Kingdom. With a population of nearly nine million people, the city is as diverse as it is big with folks hailing from all corners of the globe. It’s estimated that about 300 different languages are spoken in the city.

London is one of the world’s major financial centers and has one of the highest concentrations of higher education institutions. Tourists from all over the world flock to London for their holidays. There is a lot to see and do. Today I’ll take you to a few of our favorite places.

We’ve been to London a few times. In 2000, The Eldest was studying abroad for a semester at Westminster University in London. We visited her during her spring break in late March and early April. As expected, the weather was cool and occasionally rainy, we were glad for umbrellas and rain jackets. We traveled all over the city and made a couple-day excursion to the Yorkshire Dales in central England. We enjoyed our time and vowed to return. Our next stop in London was in 2014 followed by another in 2019. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

Getting there and Getting around

London’s Heathrow Airport is the second-busiest airport in the world. If you’ve ever landed there, you know it’s a busy place. In our travels, we’ve heard grumbling about traversing Heathrow but we’ve never had any major issues. We skip the cab rides into the city and head for the London Underground, also known as the Tube. This system takes locals and visitors to most parts of the city even to far-flung suburbs. The Tube maps are excellent but take a bit of study to figure out which lines to catch to reach your destination. Give it a try, I think you will enjoy the ride. Plus it’s much cheaper than a cab ride. 

Things to see

Our last visit was during the first week of June. The weather was in the upper 60s and low 70s, the sun was shining, a pleasant day for a stop at one of the many parks and gardens scattered throughout the city. Near the city center is the Regent’s Park. The 12,000 roses were blooming in Queen Mary’s Garden, it was quite a stunning site. Londoner’s enjoy strolling the eight royal gardens as a way to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

For the Harry Potter fans (there were three in our group, I was the lone hold out), a visit to Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station is a must. The line is long to have your photo taken entering the passage to the wizarding world beyond.

The 72-story skyscraper that dominates the London skyline is nicknamed The Shard, because it looks like a shard of broken glass.  It’s the tallest building in the U.K. During our visit, we were able to cruise past the doormen and take the elevator to the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel on the 34th floor. This gave us a grand view of the city center.

This is one of the many photos I took while in The Shard. The River Thames, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye (or Millennium Wheel), and in the distance the tall statue of Horatio Nelson, Commander of the British Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. Note the train tracks traveling in all directions.

The 800-foot-long Tower Bridge crosses the River Thames near the Tower of London. This easily recognized landmark is a nice way to access the Eastbank where there is a nice path along the riverfront that is much less crowded than on the Westbank. I can testify that restaurants are less crowded too.

The aforementioned St. Paul’s Cathedral was designed by the acclaimed architect, Christopher Wren. St. Paul’s sits on the highest point in the city of London and has one of the highest and largest domes in the world. The lines for tours were long, we had a quick peak inside. Next time, we’ll plan ahead for an early tour.

One of our favorite places in London is the National Gallery situated on one side of Trafalgar Square. It houses over 2300 paintings and admission is free! There are a few special exhibits that require a ticket. See paintings by Cezzane, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, and many other famous artists. In addition, the restrooms are nice, as are the gift shops, and there are a few places to enjoy afternoon tea, a very British thing to do. It’s one of our regular stops when in London.

Here’s a closeup look at the Nelson statue in Trafalgar Square. It’s a gathering place for locals and visitors. If you sit for a minute and listen to the crowd, you can hear many different languages spoken.

Nearby is St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. They often have afternoon music performances that are open to the public. All they ask the audience is to be attentive and drop a couple of pound coins in the collection basket on the way out. St. Martin’s supports the homeless and raises funds by operating the Cafe-in-the-Crypt in the basement of the church. Grab a tray and the dish of the day, then find a table to chow down. Check out the inscriptions of the people buried beneath your feet. It’s not a creepy as you might think. Besides it’s a better, more cost effective meal than you can find in the many nearby restaurants. 

A stop in London isn’t complete until you’ve gazed upon the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster. It’s as beautiful on the inside as is the outside. On our last visit, there was lots of construction hence only showing the top half of the building. Big Ben is across the street was also under renovation.

Below is a side entrance to Westminster Abbey across the street from the Parliament building. On one of our visits, we stood in line to get inside. It was worth the wait. It was easy to recognize some of the names of those entombed there; Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Sir Isaac Newton, Chaucer, Kipling, Sir Laurence Olivier, plus many kings and queens of England. It’s a fascinating place, one not to skip.

The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of London’s popular attractions, Kew Gardens is a delightful place to visit. We spend most of a day walking the gardens and enjoying the more than 50,000 plants and the beautiful surroundings. It houses the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world.

As a bonus, there was an exhibition of glass artistry by Dale Chihuly, a Seattle based glass blower. His whimsical glass works were scattered around the gardens, sometimes popping up in unexpected places. Here are a few examples.

One of the most interesting exhibits was the The Hive. It’s especially popular with kids, they get to hear and feel what it’s like to be a bee. I was quite impressed with the ingenuity of the designers of this sensual exhibit.

This photo was taken from below The Hive. A family of four was standing above us inside The Hive.

The Tower of London

Back in the city center is the well-known Tower of London, the historic castle on the River Thames. The Tower was partly used as a prison from 1100 to 1952. It also served as an armory, a treasury, a public records office as well as a palace for kings and queens.

We visited the Tower of London in 2014, during the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, World War I. During that commemoration, the Brits made and displayed over 1 million ceramic red poppies, one for every British citizen that perished during that war. In the photo below, the poppies are cascading out of the Tower of London to symbolize the blood spilled during the war. Eventually, the moat around the Tower would be filled with red poppies. It was quite a site to see. The usually loud and boisterous crowds stood in silence as they viewed the scene. We did too.

We made a visit to Imperial War Museum. They had an excellent exhibit about the war to end all wars. If only!

As we walked past Number Ten Downing Street, the home and office of the Prime Minister, we saw this group peacefully demonstrating outside the PMs office. 

In Parliament Square there are several statues of prominent British political figures including Winston Churchill. There are also statues of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, India’s Mahatma Ghandi, and American Abraham Lincoln.

The Cenotaph (Greek for empty tomb) was erected in London to honor the war dead in World War I. Most killed in action were buried near where they died. After the war ended in 1918, wives and mothers of the fallen petitioned the government to honor the sons, husbands, and fathers they lost in the war and never return home. They had no local grave to visit so the British government created this memorial. Soon memorials with the names of those lost were built in every small town, village, hamlet, and city in the British Empire. This phenomenon spread to the U.S. so we can thank the women of Britain for beginning this movement. A good and honorable one it was.

Ok, these are but a few of the postcards from London. Think about making your own postcards from this grand place.

By the way, we are at JazzFest today Sunday May 7. JazzFest was the subject of last week’s post. Click here if you missed it.

Watch for new material next week.

Until then, happy travels!