Saturday, May 13, 2017

London Vacacay Outing 8: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park!

Our final outing of the holiday was a three-parter: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park. TL;DR: Borough Market is GREAT, Sky Garden is worth visiting, and Hyde park is neither great nor worth visiting.

Borough Market

The walk to Borough Market took us down by the Thames again, and introduced us to some interesting graffiti. This one wasn't even all that close to The Globe Theatre, but was pretty great all the same.

The original dude!
The market itself is perplexing and wonderful, and has been so for about 1,000 years. We wandered up and down the rows, looking at all the wares. And there were SO MANY WARES to see! There were several different chocolates, cheeses, and almost otherworldly delectables that we were sorely tempted to try, but we were saving our appetites for a delicious lunch at a restaurant along the Thames. The only things we actually purchased were fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, and we regretted that restraint later.

Tasty, tasty smoothie!

After leaving the market behind and making our way to the Thames, we were extremely surprised to find that every restaurant we went to had at least an hour wait. By that time, we were pretty hungry, so we wound up eating at a nice place, but not on the banks of the river. We should've gone back to the market. Oh well... On to Sky Garden!

Sky Garden

Sky Garden is located at 20 Fenchurch Street, and is worth visiting for several reasons. First and foremost, the views. I've already mentioned that we're fans of getting up high and seeing the London layout from above. Sky Garden is great for that.

"I think I see my Dad!" - Cameron, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Secondly, you have to make a reservation or at least buy a ticket to get in. A lot of people complain about this. I, on the other hand, was all too happy to comply, as it limited the number of people up there at any one time.

Third, the venue itself is very pleasant. Situated on the 34th through 37th stories, it's surrounded by glass, letting in lots of natural lighting. There's a small garden in the middle, set up in such a way that it looks like it's cascading down a hillside. There is plenty of seating and lots of refreshment as well.

Could this be the FINAL SELFIE?!

Hyde Park

Hyde Park, on the other hand, was nothing short of dreadful, for a lot of terrible reasons. It was so dreadful, in fact, that we didn't bother to take any pictures (shocking, I know). As such, I can offer no proof of what I'm about to say (write) other than your faith in the veracity of my word.

The weather was simply gorgeous, the culmination of a week where Mother Nature seemed to be encouraging everyone in London to get outside. Seeing as how it was Saturday, they ALL OBEYED AND WENT TO HYDE PARK. Alright, I'll admit that was an exaggeration. However, the sentiment is true -- it was VERY crowded, which was astounding since Hyde Park is large, consisting of about 350 acres. For scale, you can fit about 266 football fields in that area.

The first problem was that several of the greens were cordoned off for... reasons. They looked fine to me, but I'm sure the park officials were justified in forcing everyone to wander the same small number of paths and lounge on the same small number of greens.

The second problem was that every type of non-motorized transportation imaginable was also competing for space and passage on the larger paths. We had to dodge bicyclists, skateboarders, roller bladers, even a unicyclist. Add to that the park officials in various forms of motorized transport, not all of which were small, and pedestrians had to be alert at all times.

Third, and by far the worst, was the bathroom situation. To begin with, there are only a handful that are open and operational. Because so many of the paths were closed off, these few were all difficult to locate and get to. As you can imagine, they all had persistent lines. All of that would have been bearable, had we not been denied entry because we didn't have EXACT CHANGE FOR THE USAGE FEE. That's right, friends: if you wanna pee or poo in Hyde Park, be sure and bring 20 pence per usage per person. The first one at which we stopped claimed there was a free public bathroom "down that path" (indicated by the vaguest of hand waves). We managed to find three bathrooms, none of which were of the "free" sort.

Strangely, our quest for the accessible bathroom actually did take us through most of the park, so we got to see quite a bit of it. However, since we've traveled to Minsk, which has ridiculously fantastic parks in the middle of the city, and have enjoyed lots of trips to other scenic and picturesque places (including Kew Gardens on this trip), we were left thoroughly unimpressed. Tack on to this a busride back to the flat that was slower than if we'd walked (again, because people were flooding into the theatre district and bringing traffic to a standstill), and the last stop on Outing 8 was a complete bust.

Dinner that night, on the other hand, was lovely! (Finally, more pictures!)

The Pig And Goose

Of course, our last fine meal of the trip would be taken at a place whose name matches the pattern "The [foo] And [bar]." It's hard NOT to go to a place in London that matches that pattern.

The George pub, with The Pig And Goose restaurant upstairs
Before we go inside, I want to show you one last remarkable gothic building. This one was directly across the street from The George. Feast your eyes upon The Royal Courts of Justice!

The Royal Courts of Justice
We didn't loiter around the entrance, just in case someone got the wrong idea about me wanting to be a barrister or something.

Our dinner at The Pig and Goose was a fitting finale to the trip. We had a good dark red wine, enjoyed traditional English fare, and topped it off with delicious dessert!

So full, we had to split it!
It was an amazing eight days. It felt like we did SO much and yet only scratched the surface of what London had to offer, much less the country, and Scotland, and Ireland. Our hope is to return again someday to do a more far-ranging tour. In the meantime, I hope that these entries have entertained you at least, and perhaps even encouraged you to make a trip to London for yourself. You won't be sorry! :-D

Saturday, May 6, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 7: Afternoon Tea and the British Museum!

The theme of the day was to be as British as possible. To that end, we had a home-cooked breakfast that included tea and crumpets.

Strawberry jam on toasted crumpets with Irish butter and tea (and scrambled eggs, if you must know)
I'll tell you more about the place we stayed in another post, I promise. Suffice to say we felt British going out the door, and knew that the day would provide more opportunities to enhance that feeling.

We only had two touristy things on our agenda today: Afternoon Tea, and the British Museum. Before we got to either, however, I have to mention that we stopped in a local bookshop. I had planned to look for a travel bookshop in Notting Hill, but settled for an English Literature bookshop near the British Museum instead. This was, indeed, a proper book shop, as most of the books were in the $500 US range. In fact, the door was closed and locked. We wouldn't have made it inside at all if we hadn't been loitering there when another couple actually knocked, pointed at a book in the window, and managed to convince the cashier that they wanted to buy it, which forced him to open the door.

No, I didn't find a book that I felt was worth the price. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of the books looked like ratty old college textbooks from the early 20th century that universities were trying to get rid of. Now, somehow, they're rare and collectible. I'll stick with the Internet for now, thank you.

Afternoon Tea

A block past the bookshop was our Afternoon Tea appointment at Tea and Tattle. Yes, you have to make reservations for Afternoon Tea. At least, that was the case at our venue. Typically, Afternoon Tea starts around 4:00 p.m. We decided to have it earlier, serving as a light lunch.

The tea consisted of several components. First was the setting itself, which wasn't as cheery as I'd hoped, and was in the room leading directly to the kitchen. The other room was connected to the bathrooms, so there was no ideal seating. We were hoping for a garden seating, but this venue doesn't have a garden at all. I didn't let it bother me.

The second was the tea set, which was made of a lovely bone china.

When in doubt, pinky out!
Third is the tea. I had a nice Earl Grey, and Tanya enjoyed a Jasmine Green. I assure you they were proper English leaves (or at least British... or at least former British Empire...).

Fourth is the food, traditionally including a sandwich and scones. Optionally, a pudding is included, and those of you that know me can guess whether or not I opted in. ;) My sandwich was a banana/walnut/honey affair, while Tanya had a slightly more traditional salmon and cucumber. Scones and clotted cream and jam were had, and a flakey dessert finished the experience.

Despite the picture above, my upper lip was SO STIFF by the time we left that I felt like I needed to prefix everything I said with "Oh, I say..."

British Museum

We entered the British Museum with great anticipation and some slight trepidation. Remember how I said the weather was good? Well, it was even better on this day.

Don't let that hoodie fool you. It was 80F.
You don't see the crowds, do you? Well, look over Tanya's shoulder here.

Time for a selfie!
That is the barest hint of the crowds we saw that day. Westminster was smaller, so it probably seemed more crowded, but I suspect there were FAR more people here than there.

The British Museum is vast, like the Tate Modern, except filled to overflowing with interesting exhibits from all over the world. We signed up for the guided tour (of course) and, after waiting for a few minutes, were underway.

As with the other guided tours, this one was quite long (more than 90 minutes), and yet only covered a relatively small fraction of everything at the museum. I'll show a few highlights, with links to more information.

The Lewis Chessmen
I've always liked chess, even though I'm not very good at it. I've also been intrigued about its origin and migration from the far east to western Europe. Our guide told us the story, but I'll let you look it up for yourself. :-)

The David Vases
No one knew how to make porcelain like the Chinese. Theirs was durable and beautiful. For example, the ones pictured here are approximately 750 years old, and the only bits that have broken off them are the handles (which were re-attached). These vases are some of the most famous blue and whites in the world.

Younger Memnon
There's a large collection of Egyptian relics in the museum. By the way, don't let the perspective of this picture fool you.

It's actually COLOSSAL!
In the most remote section of the museum, a fine collection of Japanese artifacts is on display. I couldn't not look at them, even though they weren't on the tour.

"Instructions on how to become a Samurai: 1) be born a bad-ass..." I stopped reading after that.
The most famous relic in the museum is probably the Rosetta Stone, of which we weren't able to get a good picture. There was a constant crowd of people around it. The tour took us by an exact replica that they've made so that people can touch it and get close-up looks at it. It's really interesting to consider that so much of what we know today about our past is pure luck, that if things had gone differently here or there we might never be able to understand about Uruk or the Pharaohs...

This was the last of our adventures for the day, and I must say that I felt like we'd accomplished the British Feeling goal in spades. Tomorrow's plan was pretty laid back, but included three (potentially) cool stops: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park. Stay tuned to see if the good times continued to roll!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 6: Westminster Abbey!

Outing 6 was all about Westminster Abbey. We had been waiting for this all week. Remember that we originally wanted to go see it on Outing 4, but it was closed. It was also closed the following day, so this was the first chance we actually had to get in.

A couple of quick notes about our visit:

  1. Outing 6 took place on Thursday. The weather had been doing nothing but becoming more and more pleasant all week, so Thursday was a really nice day to be out and about.
  2. As noted above, Westminster Abbey had been closed for two days. We had planned to go earlier, but couldn't. We weren't the only people in that situation.
We arrived early (of course), and were bewildered by the lines stretching away from the entrance in both directions. There were at least 500 people in line ahead of us. At first, we thought perhaps this was the line for purchasing admission tickets, which we didn't need to do thanks to the London Pass (more on that in a future post). Nope, it was the line to get in. We took our place in the queue and waited.

Our situation, but not our picture (this one owned by "Messages from Martha Sue",
We finally gained entrance and, as we were using our London Pass to get the ticket, asked about the Verger Tour. The first tour had already left, and the next was already full, so we asked about the third tour of the day. The policy is that tickets for the tour are only really available 15 minute prior to the tour, and it's sold on a first-come-first-served basis. We were slightly distraught, as we adore informative guided tours (in case you hadn't figured that out by now), and knew it would be a struggle to get into two of the ten slots with so many people in attendance that day. The kind lady behind the counter took pity on us and allowed us to pre-pay for the next tour. WHEW!

That gave us about 30 minutes to toodle around. Normally, this would have been pretty great. Today, however, it was a stressful experience, as the church was already crowded and getting moreso by the minute. You couldn't really get close to anything or linger anywhere without bumping into someone or impeding someone else's progress. This was the first time this kind of thing had happened to us on our trip, but it wouldn't be the last (note the foreshadowing... imagine ominous music played right after you read that).

We didn't wander very far from where the tour started, since it wasn't going to be worth it to fight through everyone else there. Luckily, there was a small, reserved waiting area for the Verger Tours, so about 20 minutes before our tour, we procured our tour wristband and hung out there. Our guide showed up about 5 minutes early and looked more stressed out than any tour guide we'd encountered, by far. Westminster Abbey, as it turns out, is often crowded, but today was especially so due to the closing earlier in the week and the current nice weather.

The tour started, and the first thing the guide told us was... can you guess? If you said "NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED" or something similar, treat yourself to a cookie. You earned that prize! Luckily for us, Westminster Abbey realizes this is an issue, so they've created a public photo gallery. I've linked a few of the images below.

Westminster Abbey, in some form or fashion, has stood on these grounds for almost 1,000 years. In fact, it was built on the ruins of an even older church, one that was constructed in the 7th century.

One of the first stops on our tour is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

The original.
The above grave was the first of its kind, dating back to the end of the first World War. Other churches and nations throughout the world have taken to doing similar things, but this was the first.

Westminster Abbey is full of monuments, memorials, and graves. Everyone who was anyone throughout the history of England is either there or memorialized there. There are different sections for people of different vocation. For example, several scientists are buried together. These two guys are right next to each other:

Sir Isaac Newton
Charles Darwin
More than a few people you wouldn't expect to see memorialized in the Abbey are there. Have a look at Poets' Corner, for example.

Poets' Corner memorials, from above
The upper left memorial there is Lord Byron, who most definitely did not desire to be memorialized in Westminster Abbey (or any other abbey, for that matter).

There are a few that had ALWAYS planned to be there. Take, for example, Handel.

Staring down at the other artists in Poets' Corner
The story goes that he had always planned to be buried here, had detailed out how the memorial was to be constructed and placed, and had financed it himself. He even specified that the face of the statue be taken from his death mask. Meaning, this statue looks like Handel actually looked, at least in the face.

Everyone who was anyone includes monarchs, and there is no shortage of monarchical memorials either.

Henry VII
Elizabeth I

Mary, Queen of Scots
One of the highlights of the tour was a few minutes spent in the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor.

The only empty place in the church!
The public is not allowed to visit this chapel -- only the folks on the tour get to see it. As such, it was the only place in the church that felt... well, like a church. Edward's tomb is actually atop the shrine (the structure with the three alcoves), and the chapel is surrounded by the tombs of other royalty. Regardless of your belief system, this is a place in which it is worth spending a few moments in contemplation.

Once the tour ended, we immediately felt like we needed to get outside for a bit. Luckily, the Abbey has a very nice garden attached, in front of some offices and apartments of the employees/residents.

A door leading to a place with no other tourists! Heaven?
The garden and day were so pleasant that we decided to have a proper preprandial turn about the garden before leaving for a late lunch.

Tanya walking. And some other folks discovering the garden.

Me walking, narrowly avoiding the other tourists. Are they rushing the garden?!
We left the garden after a while and enjoyed a late lunch of healthy foods. Seriously, it's possible to find healthy foods in London if you look for them. We like beet-based salads, and were able to find some without too much trouble. We did, however, get the picture you've all been waiting for before we left.

Gotta have the Westminster Abbey selfie!

The walk and lunch left us in the right frame of mind for our evening activity: Evensong


On the strong recommendation of one of my coworkers, we decided to attend the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey at 5. For those of you that aren't familiar with an Evensong service, the choir sings the bulk of the service, both hymns and responses on behalf of the congregation. Your job is to sit, stand, sit, stand, and sit again as the service dictates, and otherwise remain silent. Honestly, it's a pretty glorious way to do church. :-)

Consider that Westminster Abbey's acoustics were built specifically for this purpose, with lots of stone, high and vaulted ceilings, and a massive pipe organ. Combine these with the knowledge that as you sit, silently listening to the music roll over you from all directions, you are participating in a ritual that has continued for almost 1,000 years in this very spot. For someone sensitive to all of those things, it can be slightly overwhelming.

I strongly encourage you to set some time aside at some point and listen to a bit of the above video. Or listen to all of it. It might do you some good, even if you don't believe in all the words the singers are singing.

After the service, we went on another fine-dining excursion, this time to Kitchen W8.

Kitchen W8

Kitchen W8 is a one-Michelin-star restaurant that is actually affordable (well, not ridiculously expensive, anyway). In fact, it's advertised as a neighbourhood restaurant, and it certainly has that feel to it.

To get there, we walked through Kensington. Of all the parts of London we walked through, this might've been my favorite. It's the kind of place in which I could imagine myself living -- slightly suburban, without the feeling of being a block away from one of the busiest cities in Europe.

Happy trees!!!
The restaurant's facing gives you a sense that it's a fairly casual place.

No sidewalk seating? How can this have a Michelin star?!
The inside is just as nicely done as the outside -- modestly elegant, contemporary without being overwhelmingly modern.

That's a mirror, not a porthole.
Everything about this place was delightful. The portions were rightly sized and delicious. The service was neither rushed nor neglectful.

Pork on the far plate, mullet(?) on the near
I wish I could gripe about the dessert (since I've yet to find a serving size that was too large), but I really can't. As with everything else about this place, the desserts were *just right*.

Would you have guess "parfait" for this dessert?
We lingered a little over dinner, savoring the last bites of the dessert and sips of port. Another perfect end to what turned out to be a fantastic day.

The next day, however, I became properly British (hint: you have to have High Tea). Coming soon!