Saturday, September 02, 2006

London

Much to my disappointment, the Queen is on holidays at Balmoral, so no cuppa. However, it was quite exciting to walk up the road and find myself outside Buckingham Palace under the watchful eye of several dozen CCTV cameras. I tried to get some photos, but it was quite overcast so they probably won't come out too well.

I figured that, as areas go, this part of London was pretty safe, so I went for a walk inside St James' Park (an ark-free zone, for any G&S buffs) and wandered around Belgrave Square. Nothing like walking past a £23-million house to restore one's sense of perspective. St James' Park is home to a goodly population of very cute grey squirrels and also to a dozen residentially challenged gentlemen, who were setting up their cardboard boxes for the night as I strolled through. They were probably MI5 operatives in disguise. In fact, the squirrels probably had to have security clearance to live there too...

About 8pm I got sick of wandering around envying rich buggers, so I packed it in and went back to the hotel. It was getting cold anyway. I sat up for a while, drinking tea and trying to get London into a one-day sized chunk with the aid of the Lonely Planet.

Seeing even a millifraction of all there is to see in London in one day is impossible. My cunning plan was to catch a bus tour from the bus stop outside Victoria Station, which I duly did at about 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Londoners curse the Congestion Tax, but it works a treat - I experienced worse traffic trying to get from Thornbury to Blackburn today than I did going through Central London on this bus. Three cheers to the City of London and the Congestion Tax, say I!!

The tour started off with all the rich areas I'd walked through under the watchful eye of the police and the CCTV cameras the previous night. The tour guide explains that the police guard is to protect Margaret Thatcher. That would explain why so many police! We also got some anecdotes about various celebrities who lived in the area and the goss on how much they'd paid for their real estate.

My bus ticket includes several free walking tours and a boat cruise. Feeling a little self-conscious, I hop off to join the Royal London Walk. The Royal London Walk leaves from Trafalgar Square - I try for a pit stop before I start my wander. The first thing I noticed in my search (alas! Not a sign pointing to the Ladies) was a group of people in the most spectacular Indian costumes you can imagine, dancing away for all that they were worth. Trafalgar Square is obviously the location for part of a Bollywood spectacular. This kept me entertained for about five minutes because, being a film, they didn't ever get more than a few seconds into a routine before someone would start shouting and waving for them to stop. I've included a link to a webcam so you can see if they are still there ;-)(http://www.camvista.com/england/london/trafsq.php3).

I find the sign I'm looking for and start heading down a flight of stairs. On my trip down, I am disturbed to find traces of exploded pigeon everywhere - mostly feathers, with the odd other bit to add colour and variety. This does my head in - what on earth is going on? Does someone get up every morning and scatter popcorn laced with nitroglycerine all over the square to keep the pigeons in check? The mystery is solved when I look up toward the National Gallery and notice a young man with a falcon on one fist watching the shouting Bollywood director. The City of London is using biological pigeon controls (and an incredibly tame one to cope with all the crowds and the racket!).

Home comforts attended to, I join the walking tour. I am about half the age of the next youngest participant. The Royal London Walk goes past all the old royal and noble households around St James' Park. The tour guide is quite good, he gives quite a neat summary of the history associated with each palace. Then - goldmine!! Tuesday is Changing of the Guard day (they only change every second day - see http://www.changing-the-guard.com/history.htm). The Changing of the Guard is a massive tourist attraction, so every second day several thousand people squish up against the railings at Buckingham Palace to see it happen. However, our bus tour operators have a better option. The tour guide takes us to St James' Palace (built by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn on the site of a leper hospital - an omen of things to come!!). The guard barracks are still at St James' Palace - the British are big on tradition, it doesn't matter that royalty no longer live in the Palace, that's where the guards started out guarding the King and they'll bloody well keep on guarding him there even though he's now a Queen who lives somewhere else. Wonderful thing, tradition. Love it.

Anyway, the guards who are currently on duty turn out for an inspection at St James' Palace, then they march to Buckingham Palace. We (sneaky little so-and-sos that we are) follow them. It's great, we have fantastic views and we get to parade along a main street with a police escort and a full brass band. When we get to Buckingham Palace, instead of joining the scrum at the gates to watch the guards stand to attention out the front, we nick across to the Wellington Barracks where the new guards are being inspected. We then follow them back to Buckingham Palace. All we miss (apparently) is the bit where they all stand to attention for about half an hour while the officers have a little chat and symbolically hand over the keys. Frankly, standing at the railings the odds are good we'd have missed that anyway.

Back to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/). I don't have time to really properly go through it, but what the heck, it's free. I wander through the rooms in a daze with a highlights map in one hand. They have some truly unreal paintings, perhaps a bit of a bias towards religious themes, but I don't care (although I do start tuning out after the 10th Crucifixion or so).

That takes me through until lunchtime. Trafalgar Square is near enough to Picadilly and the West End, so I wander down there as the Lonely Planet says it's hard to go wrong for food in this area. They are right - I get a delicious Japanese meal at quite a reasonable price. Lots of theatres, lots of shows, what a bugger I can't stay for another night. Lots of another type of show, actually maybe a good thing that I'm not wandering around here after dark.

Back to Trafalgar Square and back on the bus. I hope to take in the Millenium Bridge and Dome, the National Museum and St Paul's. I start at St Paul's (http://www.stpauls.co.uk/page.aspx?theLang=001lngdef&pointerid=169345dwprEOVViTRLd8xXbHBDHGbzge). This is a good move, because from the dome walkway I can see the Millenium Bridge and the Dome and they are both rubbish. I much prefer the Cathedral. The crypt is very interesting, they've got all types buried down there - I walk over Sir Arthur Sullivan's resting place, then feel obliged to sing him a few bars of 'I hear the soft note' by way of apology. There's some bugger down there called Wren who obviously was from a non-English speaking background (to judge by his headstone [it's in Latin]), and any number of other famous people. I stand in the Whispering Gallery for a while, but no-one whispers, so that's a bit of a dud.

By the time I finish up there, it's after 3 p.m. - no time for museums! I get back on the bus and head off for the river cruise. The cruise departs from outside the Tower of London. Very nice I'm sure, but I don't have the time and it costs something like £14 to get in. The river cruise was time well spent - one of the crew provides a running commentary which I thought was superior to the bus tour's, but that's just my sense of humour. He points out a giant statue of an eagle, commemorating all the air force members who died in the two world wars. The head of the eagle points towards France, where the majority of them died. The other end of the eagle apparently points towards the Ministry of Defence. These facts are poetry to my soul, I only wish I could remember the whole commentary. We end up outside the Houses of Parliament, more photos.

From the Houses of Parliament, I catch a bus back to Victoria, past Marble Arch and all the flash hotels again - I wave to the guards, but none of the buggers remember me, not even the cute West African one.

Bless Luna and Simone again! The receptionist lets me have a quick shower before I head out to the airport. Of the journey, little to say. There is a direct train line to each of the major airports, which points out to me what a complete disgrace it is that we don't have one to Tullamarine. When I get to the airport, there are massive queues, although they don't seem to be doing very thorough searches.

I make my flight (only just) and spend the next 40 hours awake watching movies. We stop in Dubai for a couple of hours, I am pretty desparate, so I lie down on the terminal floor to try to nap. The airport staff use golf buggies to get around - stupid idea. I get onto another plane and manage to get through the rest of the journey without feeling too bad. That said, by the time I get off the plane, I've started to shake so this is probably not an experience I want to have too often. So what did I learn on my journey?

1. If you have a food allergy in the UK, you are stuffed. I could only find soy milk in three places and I don't recall seeing any other type of allergy-friendly food.

2. Mostly things made sense, but the things that didn't really didn't - for example the process involved in buying and selling property is truly wierd. For a description, find someone British, I still don't understand it or why anyone puts up with it.

3. I can't sleep in aeroplanes or youth-hostel type accommodation.

4. There are lots of really, really nice people in the UK who will majorly put themselves out to help tourists and expect nothing in return except thanks.

5. Only two people identified me as not English. Maybe they were just being kind to a poor Colonial lass by not drawing attention to her shortcomings?

Anyway, that's the end of the story. Hope you've enjoyed it, and that I'll get to show you all my photos soon!

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