European Detour

London

With a good portion of Sunday to utilise before we had to get out to Minneapolis Airport we took a good walk down town into the heart of Minneapolis – I think we walked 26 blocks up the main street till we crossed over the Mississippi and then re-trekked back up the road taking in the local library and some other sights for a look. Despite the cold, the day warmed up and sun came out so not too bad at all. We headed back to the hostel to collect our bags and then got a bus downtown to the light rail that takes you out to the airport – I think it only cost us something like $2 each to do both legs so very reasonable. We boarded out Aer Lingus flight early and in what has become unexpected for us, we actually left the gate probably 15 mins early as well – that said we did then get held up on the runway waiting for clearance. Our Aer Lingus flight was okay – the flight to Dublin was around 7.5 hours and arrived a little early. The crew on the flight really gave the impression they didn’t really want to be there which was unfortunate, but hey, we had movies and were given a bite to eat so not all bad. We arrived into Dublin just after 7.30am to heavy rain. To my surprise, Dublin Airport was quite a bit bigger than I’d imagined – looks like they have a significant regional and separate international set up in place. We had to transfer here and seemed to have the biggest walk possible in the terminal, which after the flight wasn’t the worst thing to happen – good to get moving, albeit was cool. We had a layover of around 3 hours which then got pushed out before British Airways finally boarded us in the pouring rain – no covered gate and so we got quite damp waiting on the stairs trying to get inside the plane for cover.

Our flight to London City Airport – down in the Docklands area took a bit over an hour and thankfully we arrived in London to drier conditions. Once we got our bearings, we purchased Oyster Cards for regional transport and got the train into Banks Station and managed to transfer ourselves onto the Central Line up to the Notting Hill Station. We were staying in a Hotel in Notting Hill and as we walked up the street it was quite reminiscent of the movie of the same name – minus Hugh and Julia. We got ourselves checked in and headed back out to the Metro – Metro, Underground, Tube – you know what I mean. We took a train up to Trafalgar Square so we could get to the Tourist Centre to arrange a couple of excursions booked. I think we hit the square at around 4pm and we just managed to get the last light for the day for a couple of pics – by the time we came out of the Tourist Office evening was closing in on us. We got the train back up to Notting Hill and headed up Portobello Road which was supposed to have a load of good eateries but we seemed to walk and walk before we found a corner pub for some English Fish and Chip – mushy peas included as a side. We headed back to the hotel – pretty sure we passed the book store from the Notting Hill movie along the way.

On Tuesday we got the train down to Victoria Station and then walked up to the Victoria Coach terminal so we could book some options for getting to Paris – we looked online at options and had wanted to do a train through the Channel but was pretty expensive, so a coach trip would be in order for us. We picked up tickets for a better price that expected and then got a couple of trains out to Colindale in the north of the city to visit the Royal Air Force Museum. A short walk up the road and a Spitfire and Hurricane from WW2 stand proudly on plinths to welcome you to the museum. The museum was spread over 6 hangars (3 of which were combined) – each hangar represented / presented a different theatre of Royal Airforce machinery and action. The museum was very good – got to see a number of planes I hadn’t seen before (British fighters and bombers), and as we were leaving we got talking to one of the guides and turned out he had moved from Christchurch to London post the quakes around 7 years ago – what a cool place he had to work. With a load of photos on my tablet and phone, we headed back up to the station and got ourselves back via a couple of trains to Notting Hill.

One of the bonuses around London that I was quite taken with was the free morning and evening newspapers that give out at the underground stations – a good read albeit a little commercial, but not complaining. Tuesday was Guy Fawkes Day and whilst we could hear displays going on around us (from as early as 6pm as it really is dark by 4.30pm), we only heard and didn’t see any. We had some hotel room dramas with the window that derailed our evening a little and required the manager to come out and repair the window. The hotel owner appeared to blame a lot on health and safety requirements – you can’t open the windows, you mustn’t tamper with this and that etc – his insurance premiums were his greatest concern I think.  Window fixed we were able to get back to the room and relax again. On Wednesday we were up and away early – 6.45am train round to Victoria and then the walk up to the Coach Terminal for us to connect with our one-day excursion to Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. One bonus of the early start was picking up some hot sausage rolls and a cuppa tea at the station to start our day.

We took a guided tour with Evan Evans for the day – leaving at 8am we had to battle the morning traffic to get onto the motorway to get us out past Heathrow and into the area where Windsor Castle is. Winter hours were in place so the castle doesn’t open until 9.45am so the idea was to get to the que early so we had a bit of a walk from the coach through the area around Windsor and then a wait of around 30 mins before the gates opened. We had 1.5 hours of free time to guide our way through the castle but this really wasn’t enough and we ended up rushing some areas just to get through. There was loads to take in – there’s the castle itself – the architecture etc, the furnishings inside the castle, the history of the area and then the grounds as well. Alas the Queen and her corgis were not to be seen today (they have a flag system – depending on what flag is flying on what castle denotes where the Queen is). Took a bit of a run to get back to the bus in time and we were off again – heading next to Stonehenge. As we arrived the weather packed up – it was cold out in the open and rain threatened. You get transported by buses up to the paddock area where the formations are and then the bus runs you back down to the Info Centre and museum. The formations themselves were very good – really makes you stop and think about the area and what life must have been like back at the time of the erection of the rock formation. Again, how they were able to erect the stones – not just the uprights but the top lintel rocks beggar’s belief.

From Stonehenge we drove through the Cotswolds to the city of Bath – was really nice to see some farm land and pasture along the way after what had felt like total urbanisation in and around London. At Bath, you had the option to tour the historic baths or have free time around the city – we opted for the free time option and had a bit of a look around before making a beeline for the fish n chip shop – we were cold and hungry so we filled up on fish n chips with a side of curry sauce – hit the spot and then some. To ease our full belly’s, we took a good walk up and round the river – some really nice bridges in the city and great historic buildings so was really nice. It was nearly 5pm when the bus left Bath and was getting on for 8pm before we got back into London and were dropped at near the underground. We got ourselves back to Notting Hill and collapsed after what had been a long but enjoyable day. On Thursday we set aside the day to do the local Hop On Off Bus. There are a couple of routes available as well as a ferry ride up the Thames so we crammed it all in taking in loads of sights. It’s not a criticism but there is so much history to take in, in and around London – you need to have time to take it all in and appreciate it all. We walked London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, and all that the landscape has to offer locally.

We know we weren’t able to take it all in – as noted, more time is needed to appreciate what is on offer, but you’d want the weather to be good (it was cold getting around London), and you need to understand you will always be around tourist it seems – there are loads of us out there trying to take in the same things. We ended out day by finding our way over to Harrods – despite riding the bus off and on all day, we still managed to get our step count up for the day. Harrods was an experience – lovely store, amazing products available, but it all comes at a cost. Besides the expected fashion and cosmetics, there is a large fresh food court where you can get meats, fish, veges and fruit. They have a big cheese area and then you have the baked goods and decorated cakes and sweets – all very impressive. On Friday we got ourselves down the road early so we could join the free walking tour that the Hop On team provide. Our guide got us down to St James Palace to see the guard getting ready to march up to Buckingham Palace for the ‘changing of the guard’ – we timed it well as this happens every 2nd day at around 10.30am for guard change over at 11am (Henry the 8th had St James built for Ann Berlin, but he’d had her put to death before the Palace was completed – such was the way back then). We walked with the guards (who had a mounted Police escort) up to the Palace barracks to see the other guards coming out. We didn’t spend a load of time around Buckingham Palace – we were told that the crowds start to form from around 7.30am to get vantage spots for the event. We were very happy with what we had seen / experienced. I didn’t pick up on too many facts but I think I heard right that the Palace has 775 rooms, something over 150 bathrooms I believe, and 2 people are employed full time to wind all the clocks in the Palace and keep them running.

From the Palace we got a bus over to the South Bank area and had a wander up through this area – taking in the Borough Markets and getting a good close up of the Shard Building – biggest in London I believe. We carried on up the bank with the weather getting cooler and headed into the Tate Modern Art Museum. This is a big complex and I have to admit that a lot of the art, installations etc were lost on me. I need to get a better appreciation for what some artist call art – not too much of what was on display made sense to me. From the Tate we got ourselves over to the Natural History Museum and had a good look around there – another place that more time is needed to be able to truly take in all that is on offer. Outside the museum they have set up a skating rink and by the time we came out it was dark and the rink was full of people enjoying themselves. We hiked to an underground and got a train back to Notting Hill for a quick bite to eat. Our time in London was drawing to a close but we have to both say we really enjoyed our experience – I had been a little daunted by what I perceived the scale of London to be, but although it was busy, it was never crazy or unmanageable. Appreciate we are supposedly in the tourism off season but there are still loads of people about. People for the most part were helpful and friendly. Everyone seems pretty active – walking the underground to get trains seems to be the norm. I spotted more nice cars in 5 days than I had in 3 months in the US – Lambo’s, Rolls Royce, Ferrari and more. The Underground was / is a good way of getting around – easy to navigate, so yep, a good experience and somewhere we know we could come back to and spend some more time.

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