London Calling…

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but Jim had a conference outside of London a few weeks ago, so I tagged along to do some exploring in/around London.  Initially, I had been planning little day trips during the week from St. Albans to places like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford, and Cambridge (I did make it to Bath and Stonehenge) and spending the weekend in London with Jim (and meeting up with our friend, Andie), but a few days before we were set to arrive I received a text from a lifelong friend (Kari) checking to see if I might be able to meet up with her in Paris, as she’d be there for a day with her boyfriend and spending the rest of the time in London.  I think we were both in for quite the surprise, as I responded that I’d be in London the same time as her!  Needless to say, my day trips to Oxford and Cambridge took a backseat to being a tourist in London with one of my favorite people and her boyfriend.

Interestingly, Jim and I did not arrive in London together on our first day.  I took the early morning flight and decided I’d spend the day shopping (in English) in/around Oxford Street, which I knew was something Jim would NOT want to do and is easily achieved solo.  Then the plan was for the two of us to meet up that night in St. Albans.

My day was off to a great start, as I arrived in Heathrow (sans bags), boarded the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station (15 minutes, can’t be beat) then purchased an oyster card and made my way to Oxford Street via the underground.  This is where I’ll start by saying I love the London Underground.  I wish ALL large cities had such an extensive line.  In many ways it makes me miss NYC and Washington DC, as those are the only places in the US where it’s even remotely as easy to get around (though NYC is especially tricky for getting east to west or visa-versa).  By the end, I’d traveled on every line aside from Waterloo & City and East London.  Andie gave me bonus points for having also taken the Hammersmith & City Line (the pink line), as she said that one is typically a tricky one for people to manage.

I started my shopping at Oxford Street, which oddly was one of the only streets I’d been on before in London.  I decided I was going to enjoy my language vacation and look for some boots.  It’s amazing how much you forget you engage in conversation when shopping once you’re back in your native tongue.  I didn’t go into every store on the street, but I did go in every department store, as I’d heard of Debenhams and John Lewis before through work and vendors, and House of Fraser was the spot where I bought my wedding shoes.  But, really, the most interesting/impressive store of all was Selfridges (if you’re not familiar, there was a whole PBS/BBC series about this place…where an old coworker said I look like/remind him of Agnes).  I also can’t think of a time where I was surrounded by more designer everything than in there.  I’m now wishing I’d taken pictures, as it was the largest and most impressive department store I think I’ve ever been inside.

After I walked up and down Oxford Street, I decided to head down another large high street – Regent Street.  Here I was looking for an Anthropologie (which I found), and surprisingly saw an old coworker (who I think still works there) exiting as I entered (small world, really small world).  Upon Sarita’s recommendation I also checked out the Kate Spade store before I decided it was time for lunch.  I meandered off of Regent Street toward Soho and decided I’d eat at Chipotle (I know, I know, but they don’t have them in Toulouse and it’s hard to turn down a burrito when you’re eating alone).  Oddly, another woman who was shopping at Kate Spade showed up about 10 minutes after me.  The Soho area was very cute, peppered with boutiques and shops.  I’ve heard it’s lively at night, and I believe it.

After lunch I wandered through Chinatown then onward toward Piccadilly Circus (seemed super touristy).  I was surprised to see SO many of the telephone booths.  They are everywhere vs. in the US I think you might struggle to find a pay phone on most city blocks.

From there I continued onward toward Westminster with a stop by St. James’ Park, first.  This is a really pretty area, and it was clear fall was on its way.  I love everything about the ivy covered buildings.

Then I arrived at Westminster with views of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and all of Parliament.  For whatever reason, I thought the layout of this area would be different.  I had hoped to tour Westminster Abbey, but the last tour was at 3pm (it was almost 4), so I figured I’d save that for later.

Instead, I decided I’d check out the London Eye (or the Coca Cola London Eye, as it’s more formally referred).  If you’re interested in doing this, late afternoon might be a good time to go.  I bet I waited in line for 15 minutes and then spent about 45 minutes on the ride.  What was surprising to me was you’re in the gondola with about 14 other people.  It’s a little expensive (something like £26), but if you’re looking for a great view of Westminster, I think it’s the only way to get it.  For the rest of London, I’d recommend some of the free views (like at the top of the Tate Modern).

At this point my phone was down to maybe 20% power (and I needed it to get back to St Albans/coordinate with Jim), so pictures were scarce for the last portion of my afternoon where I walked along the Thames, up to Trafalgar Square then up to Leicester Square and Covent Garden then back to Oxford Street with an ultimate journey to St. Pancras/King’s Cross for my trip up to St. Albans where I met up with Jim (after my phone died and I wandered around near the train station).

The next day I took the train from St. Albans down to London and met up with Kari and Kevin near their place in Vauxhall (they’re champs as they rallied to go out as soon as they landed, no naps at all!).  We decided we’d head to Westminster and then take a cruise down the Thames in the afternoon.  As such, we decided on a little pub (The Red Lion) not too far from the Westminster Underground station.  This is where I had my first meat pie (well, it was vegetarian, but you get the idea).  I have to admit, it was quite delicious.  It was also great to catch up over some beer and get to know Kevin.  They were coming to London for the Ravens/Jacksonville NFL game on Sunday (and Kari’s birthday), and in an interesting turn of events (remember, it’s a small world) our waiter’s uncle owns the Jacksonville Panthers.  How neat is that?

After lunch we made our way to Westminster Abbey and purchased our tickets for the tour.  This is an incredible church and the spot where all coronations have taken place since 1066 as well as the setting for 16 royal weddings, not to mention the final resting place of numerous members of royalty as well as other famous English folks.  Photography is not permitted inside, so no photos.  But, it’s pretty outstanding.  There’s a plaque on the floor for Darwin and a large tomb for Isaac Newton, but my favorite part was (easily) Poet’s corner.  There was something so cool/neat about being surrounded by the remains (and in some cases just memorials) of so many authors I’ve read and/or actors I’ve seen on the screen:  Chaucer, Austen, Shakespeare, O Henry, Dickens, Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Handel (composer), Kipling, Olivier, Blake, Bronte Sisters, Keats, TS Eliot, George Eliot, etc.  There were more memorials, but I loved seeing all that history together.  My second favorite was probably Henry VII’s Lady Chapel (built by the same guy as the Bath Abbey), where you can also see the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

After our Westminster tour, we made our way to the boats to pick up our tour on the Thames.  I’d say if you’re interested in seeing a lot (and getting some information along the way), I’d recommend buying this ferry ticket.  It goes along to Greenwich (which I didn’t realize was involved in the time until later), but we stopped at the Tower of London.  My favorite site was definitely the Tower Bridge, which is easily the coolest bridge I’ve ever seen.  The following day I was able to capture it in use!

After our boat dropped us off, I hopped on another underground line and made my way back up to St Albans to have dinner with Jim.

Day three started with me meeting Kari and Kevin in Notting Hill for brunch at Granger & Co, upon the recommendation of Andie.  There are three or so locations around London, but I picked this one as I thought it might be interesting to take in a new neighborhood and also because of Notting Hill.  It took me a little longer than I anticipated to make it there, but luckily Kari and Kevin nabbed a spot in line (it was crazy busy, even on a Wednesday at 10am) and we were seated about 10-15 minutes after I arrived.  This, my friends, is an incredibly tasty breakfast/lunch spot.  I’d eat breakfast there every day if I could.

I didn’t take too many photos in Notting Hill aside from the above.  Just know it was very posh and there were lots of women pushing strollers and prams.  More than anywhere else in the city.

I should’ve dubbed Day three as walking day, as we walked A LOT.  I looked at a map (and taking into account Kari’s list of things to see), I figured we could walk from Notting Hill to Buckingham Palace and see Kensington Palace (where Princess Diana lived) and Gardens, Hyde Park, and Green Park along the way.  I didn’t realize that trek would end up being around 4-5 miles.  I wouldn’t take back the walk as all the gardens/parks were gorgeous, but my feet were definitely tired by the time we made it to Buckingham Palace.

Below are photos of Kensington Palace as well as us exploring Kensington Gardens.  This was and unbelievable garden (so pretty), and I think I could get used to waking up and walking through there or even a moonlight stroll.

From Kensington we crossed over into Hyde Park.  I didn’t take as many photos there, but it was HUGE.  Before we crossed the Serpentine, we came to a gorgeous Memorial (The Albert Memorial) and passed by Royal Albert Hall.  From there we walked along the north side of the Serpentine.  There are tons of signs that mention the water fowl, and man there are so many birds in these parks.  You can sort of see it in the below photo, but those pigeons were ruthless and super low flying.  At one point there was a huge flock flying toward us, and I felt like I was an extra in The Birds while praying none pooped on my head.

From there we continued on to Green Park and Buckingham Palace (one of the only other places I’d been in London).  Kari had been told the walk down Piccadilly street to Piccadilly Circus was a great one to take, and we stopped along the way at the Piccadilly Market.  At this point we decided we needed to take a break and started to think about how we’d spend the rest of our afternoon and ended up heading over toward the Tower of London, where we could get photos with the Beefeaters and tour the Tower.

We hopped on the Underground and made our way to the Tower of London and accidentally stumbled into a lovely basement wine bar called – The Wine Library.  Should you find yourself in this neighborhood, it’s a real gem.  They have a few wines you can drink by the glass, but mostly it’s a spot where you purchase the bottle and drink it there.  We started with a glass, met some locals, left to get our photos with the Beefeaters (which were not around or outside by the Tower), then returned to finish off a bottle.  I think this was one of my favorite parts of the day, as I really got to catch up with Kari and get to know Kevin.  Following our relaxing with the wine, I made my way back up to St Albans for the evening and made plans to see them again for dinner on Friday night (after their return from Paris and my excursion to Stonehenge/Bath).

The evening of Day five marked Jim’s first time in London proper.  We took the train down from St. Albans and got settled in our hotel in Shoreditch and quickly met up with Andie for drinks at the Shoreditch Grind (coffeehouse by day, drinks by night).  Andie had a gin & tonic (how British) while Jim had an espresso old-fashioned and I had a standard old-fashioned.  These were top-notch.  Meeting up with Andie was a real treat as we hadn’t seen her since we were in Berlin back in December.  Not surprisingly, it felt just like old times (aside from Jim getting a little saucy and teasing her about her phone!).

We’d decided on dinner at 40 Maltby Street, upon the highest of recommendations from Andie, and it did not disappoint.  The location is a bit tricky to get to (glad we had Andie to help navigate), but the spot is delicious.  We met Kari and Kevin there and enjoyed loads of wine and shared small plates over stories and laughs.  Andie also introduced us to orange wine (wine made in terra cotta), which might be a new favorite (try it if you see it anywhere).  It was so nice to catch up and laugh with old friends.  This was easily one of my favorite nights in a long time.

Our sixth day in London took us to see our first English Premier League soccer game – West Ham United vs. Tottenham at London Stadium (more on that to come).  We decided to take a double decker bus to the game, and Jim was more excited than a kid in a candy store as we sat in the front row on the second level (I admit, it was pretty cool).

After the game, we decided to do a little sight-seeing and walk along the Thames (one thing Jim really wanted to do).  I suggested we take the Underground to the London Bridge station and walk along the river toward the London Eye.  Again, I didn’t really think about how much ground we’d be covering, and we only walked to the Millennium Bridge before we had to take a break/decided to head back to Shoreditch.

A few days earlier I had wondered out loud which bridge Bridget Jones walks across in Bridget Jones (fyi – it’s Tower Bridge).  Neither Kari nor Kevin knew (or cared).  I’d forgotten about it until later I’d asked Jim and discovered we’d spent the greater portion of that afternoon exploring the area where her apartment is located as well as the restaurant that was the site of the Daniel/Mark brawl.  Where is this, you ask?  All around the Borough Market area (though I didn’t take photos, as I didn’t know it at the time).  Andie had recommended we check out a market on Saturday, and we happened into Borough Market, which was AMAZING.  If you were looking for food of any kind, you’d find it there.  I would DEFINITELY make this a lunch destination for anyone visiting.

We continued along the Thames toward Shakespeare’s Globe and went into the Tate Modern, which has an amazing (and FREE) view.  Modern museums aren’t always my favorite, but I did find a few exhibits that really interested me (below), plus the building itself was pretty outstanding.

At that point in the day my feet were two large blisters, so we crossed the Millennium bridge and got a great view of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Then took a bus back to our hotel in Shoreditch, where we had dinner at Dishoom, at the advice of both Andie and our friend, Jacqueline.  It was amazing.  A modern Bombay Cafe with stellar cocktails and some of the tastiest lamb I’ve ever eaten.  There are a number of locations around London (they don’t take reservations unless you’re a party of six or more….which makes me think EVERY group get together should start there), and we cannot recommend this place enough.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

I had an amazing week in London/the UK, but haven’t even scratched the surface on what to see/do in London.  Luckily, we’re returning in November where we’re going to get the local treatment (Andie is the best) and explore even more!

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