London

September 17/18, 2014

Our Air Transat flight to Gatwick went by fairly quickly. Since we were transporting a lot of Caroline’s stuff, including seven bottles of wine, we had paid extra for “Option Plus” which allowed us two checked bags each, along with carry-on bags. It also allowed us to board the aircraft first, which was nice, and allowed us free wine with our dinner. This sounded nice but actually wasn’t because it wasn’t very good wine.

The real problem didn’t arise until we arrived in Gatwick. Our bags were first off the plane (Option Plus again) and so we were quickly on our way and through immigration. Each of us had one very large rolling suitcase, a large backpack, and a smaller backpack. We managed to squeeze into the train, but with all the bags we were taking up five seats. By the time we got close to Victoria Station the train was quite full of commuters, but we ignored the evil glares.

We waited about 10 minutes for Caroline to meet us, and then the fun began. We took the escalator down to the train level and then got onto the Tube to ride to Euston Station. We then had to change trains, which involved wrestling the huge suitcases up an elevator and then down a very long spiral stairway. All of this in the middle of a crowd of hurried commuters. But soon enough we were at Old Street station, from where we walked to Caroline’s flat in about 10 minutes.

The elevator in her building was very small, so we couldn’t all get into it at once with all of the bags. Rocky was very happy to see us, especially when we brought out his sheepskin and his Cookie Monster mat. We met Lindsay, who was Caroline’s current dog-minder, and got settled in, unloading Caroline’s stuff from the huge bags. After a while Caroline went off to work and we relaxed a bit. After having lunch we went out to explore the area.

Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall

A few years ago we had bought a box of cards describing short walks in London, and some of the walks were in our neighbourhood. Using card number 2 we retraced our steps to Old Street station and then started out on the walk. We walked along noisy Old Street for a while, looking for Rufus Street, which we managed to miss. Instead we walked along another street to get to Hoxton Square. This was a nice tree-lined green space where lots of people were enjoying lunch. For most of the walk we were on very noisy streets, so it was not all that pleasant. Some of the architecture was interesting and we did look around the grounds of the Geffrye Museum, which is a set of 18th-century almshouses. On the way back the card took us along streets with hip and cool galleries and restaurants, but since the cards were several years old, they had mostly been replaced by other galleries and restaurants.

Geffrye Museum

Geffrye Museum

Back at Old Street station we continued with card number 3, which first took us to the Wesley Chapel and Museum. This was where John Wesley started the Methodist movement in 1738, and now it’s like the spiritual headquarters of the Methodist church. It was clear to us that there were far too many volunteers on duty because everybody wanted to show us around. We took the brochure, watched the short video on Wesley’s life, and then looked around a bit before heading back out onto our route.

John Wesley

John Wesley

Next was Bunhill Fields, an old cemetery where a lot of non-conformists (people who weren’t Anglicans) were buried in the 18th century. Writers Daniel Defoe and William Blake were buried there and had their own special monuments. Most of the headstones were worn and almost illegible, and one of them belonged to the Rev. Thomas Bayes. His theorem on conditional probabilities didn’t attract much attention in his lifetime but these days you find the word “Bayesian” in a lot of scientific papers.

After some more walking through city streets we arrived at Finsbury Circus, a small green oasis. The buildings around it reminded us of the “crescents” in Bath. But unfortunately half of the park was under scaffolding because of railway construction! We passed by the church of St. Botolph’s, which had been there since at least the 12th century, on the way to Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street Station.

Rather than carry on with card number 4, we walked back to Caroline’s flat to have some tea. Her flat is a very nice two-bedroom with a large living room, and her co-workers refer to it as the “Shoreditch Palace”. The main drawback is the traffic noise from the main street outside, but she seems to be used to that now. For the rest of the afternoon we lounged around until Caroline got home for dinner.

September 19, 2014

Despite the noisy location we slept quite well. Except that we were sleeping in Caroline’s bed, and Rocky was coughing quite badly before he decided to sleep on the bed by our feet. Luckily for us he slept through the rest of the night, though.

Caroline made pancakes for breakfast, to use up the bananas which were turning brown, so we filled up on them before heading out on our walk. Our plan was to go along the Regent’s Canal, so we first went north through Hoxton until we came to the canal. From there we went down the steps and onto the tow path, where the only thing we needed to watch out for was the cyclists. It was very calm compared to the city streets.

Regent’s Canal lock

Regent’s Canal lock

The canal was lined with narrow boats which for the most part appeared to be people’s homes. In some places they were moored two or three deep along the bank. Quite a few of them had firewood piled on top, so we could guess how they were heated in winter. We did see one canal boat motoring along, and we watched it going through one of the locks. It looked like hard work—there was no automation at all, so the helpers had to push the lock gates open and shut using only their own muscle power. Eventually the two middle-aged ladies from the canal boat got it done and we carried on.

Our map showed a gap in the canal, and soon we found that was because it went through a tunnel under Islington. The tow path didn’t go through the tunnel, so we went up and over through the streets, picking up the tow path where the canal emerged from the other end of the tunnel. At Camden Lock there was an open-air food court which smelled and looked really good. But we had already decided to have lunch at the British Museum, and it wasn’t noon yet, so we continued on to Regent’s Park.

London Zoo giraffe

London Zoo giraffe

When we reached the park we left the canal and walked along the road through the London Zoo. From the road we could see reindeer, giraffes, and zebras—three of the hundreds of species kept in the zoo. Regent’s park was very large and consisted of numerous playing fields, an off-leash dog area, and several gardens. But there were only a few people there, mostly walking their dogs. After consulting the map we made our way out of the park and through the streets with high-priced houses and embassies towards the British Museum.

BBC headquarters

BBC headquarters

By now it was 12:30 pm so we headed to one of the cafés for lunch. We both chose toasted New Yorker sandwiches. Once we were filled up it was time to tackle the daunting task of looking round the museum. We started in the Egyptian area, which contained numerous very large statues. The most important artifact here was the Rosetta Stone, which was easily found because of the number of people gathered around it. In one way it was sort of an anticlimax because it was just one of hundreds of artifacts.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

From here we walked through another long room which contained more carvings from an Assyrian palace in Nimrud. Most of them had been collected in the early 20th century. Then there were Greek statues and temples, and more. Pretty soon we were tired of antiquities, so we decided to go upstairs to look at the exhibits of clocks and money before leaving. The clocks were quite impressive, especially the one made as a sailing ship complete with carved figurines of church-people, including the Pope. We were there at 2 pm so there was a small epidemic of hour-striking. It isn’t often that you go to a museum and find yourself carrying a duplicate of one of their exhibits, but in the money section they had a Canadian $20 bill and so did Paul!

Greek temple

Greek temple

Before leaving the museum we bought a muffin to share and then looked through the gift shop. By the time we left the museum it had clouded over and there were a few raindrops in the courtyard, but we headed out and along Great Russell Street anyway. That was a bad idea because in a few minutes the sky opened up in a torrential downpour. We huddled in a doorway for several minutes to wait it out, but Caroline had told us that London rainstorms last for about 15 minutes and that turned out to be right. Getting back to Caroline’s place was much faster because we took the most direct route, which took us about 40 minutes to walk.

We made some tea and wrote up our journals while waiting for Caroline to come home, which was at about 5:30 pm. We had another good dinner made by Caroline. After dinner Rosemary spent some time working on organizing our December trip.

September 20, 2014

We got up early this morning because there was an event named “Open House London”, where you could tour buildings which are normally closed to the public. First on Caroline’s wish list was the Gherkin, one of London’s most distinctive buildings. It was scheduled to open at 8 am, so we ate our breakfast and then headed out.

Unfortunately just after we started, the rain started to come down torrentially. We cut through Liverpool Street Station to keep dry, but that didn’t help much. Arriving at the Gherkin we said “Oh, the queue isn’t that long” but we had underestimated the Londoners, finding that the queue actually stretched along the block, around the corner, and ¾ of the way along the next block. By the time we finally got to the front door we had waited an hour and a half.

The Gherkin

The Gherkin

We went through basic airport-style screening, including photo-ID check, and then the elevator whisked us up to the 34th floor so quickly that we could feel the pressure change in our ears. Another elevator took us up to the 39th floor, from where we walked up a flight of stairs to the top. The views were very good, although clouds were still covering the top of the Shard. It was surprising to see how few skyscrapers there actually were in London. Apart from the financial district, most of the buildings in the City were mid-rise, six to ten stories.

Windsor Castle from the Gherkin

Windsor Castle from the Gherkin

Back outside we tried for Caroline’s next choice, the Bank of England. But when we saw the queue for the nearby Leadenhall Building, which was too long for our liking, we realized that the Bank of England would be very popular and we would be in for another long wait. So we headed back towards Caroline’s place. But as we passed Throgmorton Street we noticed a short queue. This was the Drapers’ Hall. From the outside the building looked small but once inside the sumptuous entrance hall there were beautiful chandeliers and wall hangings, painted ceilings, and more. The Drapers were originally a guild who controlled the manufacturing of cloth in London, but nowadays they are a philanthropic organization which manages trust funds. The building dated from the 16th century and consisted of four large and lavish rooms surrounding a central courtyard. One of the rooms had been used to represent Buckingham Palace in The King’s Speech, but generally they were rented out for posh functions.

Drapers’ Hall

Drapers’ Hall

Back at Caroline’s we collected Rocky and went for a walk over to Broadway Market. The walk took about 20 minutes and went through a variety of neighbourhoods. At the market we checked out all of the different stalls before finally buying just a loaf of bread. We headed back so we could have a quick lunch before leaving to take the train to Cornwall for several days of walking the coastal trails there.

Next: Penzance, part 1