Robert Frost

The best way out is always through.

Friday, February 5, 2010

London--1st full day, it's a long one(8-12-09)

First a SHOUT OUT to further enjoy another side of Londontown: A Tale of Two Cities by Debi is a wonderful blog that I only wished I had discovered before our August trip. Debi writes about her London encounters and experiences, and her family, as she and her husband "commute", between the two cities of Houston, TX and London, UK. Delightful!On to the first full London day.....
So guess who was awake first ?.......drum roll please....it's ....moi. It is typical on our trips that I am the first one up and at 'em but surprisingly, this time I was up before our most notable early riser, Lou (my mother in law). Yet this would prove to be the only time I was up before her. She just needed a lie in after our turbo traveling days before. I threw on some clothes and darted downstairs to check out the supposedly "fresh" pastries at the very convenient grocery store on our ground floor! Yes I will say it again, we had a "not bad at all, really kind of great" grocery store in our building. Hurray. I hustled down and found that the pastries were most surely fresh, a great selection, and budget friendly.

Back in June I had sent off a letter to The Tower of London (ooo, so official, yeah the tower and I are tight) and requested tickets for our family to be a part of the nightly lock down at the Tower called the Ceremony of the Keys. It is free of charge but you have to request spots in advance (about 2 months before and only about 60 people attend per night) and then you are only given one date for attendance. I don't know how widely known this ceremony is but our invaluable guide (Rick Steves, guide book) suggested it and we were excited when we received our tickets to be a part of the 700 year old ritual. The time we were to be at the main gate was 9:30pm (no later!) and we would only be allowed with the pass in hand. So after breakfast we set out from the flat at 10AMish and knew we would not return until beddy bye.
The weather was moody and cool. But even in the greyness, it was all so vivid: the river, the people hustling around us tourists, the packed city full of old and new. Sophia would have none of the stroller and so our pace was slow along Lambeth bridge over the swiftly moving Thames to Victoria Tower Gardens behind the Houses of Parliament. Lou was ahead of the gang ready to roll. Once at the park we paused as we glimpsed people actually "frolicking" in the small, tucked away park. A small pre-school class was having a morning picnic.Sophia wandered around a bit but we had to move on to Westminster Abbey for a tour. We paused and took a pic outside the Houses of Parliament with a glimpse of characteristically attired London policeman (bobbies). We had hoped to quickly enjoy a crepe on Westminster bridge (a cute stand we discovered a time before in 2005) and enjoy a bit of nostalgia. But that bridge was crowded, and we ate our crepes being pushed by the crowd by towards the Abbey. Westminster Abbey is wonderfully awe inspiring to me because of our fist encounter with it. Back on our first ever trip across the pond in '05 we spent 3 fast days in London. Westminster Abbey got squeezed to the last minute and all we had time to do was an evensong. Oh, my. It was evening choir lead worship service with a spattering of worshippers and the full choir in their formal red&white robes. Our voices rose up in praise and so did my eyes in amazement of the 100 ft tall vaulted Gothic arches of the 800 year old church of kings.

By the time we ate our crepes, had a potty break and a diaper change, a water bottle shopping stop and then stood in line for tickets (long line), we were too late for the last tour of the morning. This tour would have been extremely informative to my husband and Lou, and possibly the girls, but having missed it they depended on me, and the Rick Steves guide highlights tour. And this was tricky because as I paused to read and point out the dignitaries, artists, writers, and figures of history entombed in the Abbey (most notably Queen Elizabeth I), it was just so gosh darned crowded that standing and gawking was a rushed ordeal. And I wasn't hip to all the interesting tidbits about this centuries old cathedral and yet I made sure we all paused to take in the coronation chair (all wooden and non gilded, surprisingly) that has been used to crown the hundreds of years of monarchs, including the current Queen Elizabeth. Sophia then announced, "We need to go out of dis house!", Me: quietly, "Sophia, shhh, this is a church" Sophia: louder it seemed, "Den (then) we need get out of dis church!" So out we went through the lovely open cloisters towards the back gardens when we heard music.
We followed the music through a somewhat dim enclosed walkway and happened upon this lovely sight. (Westminster lunch concert)

Now here is where I should have put on the travel breaks and spontaneously had us picnic in the laid back and lovely atmosphere. But I had my mind set on a pub lunch en route to Trafalgar Square and so we lingered just to the end of the tune and headed out from the centuries old cathedral to Whitehall Road. Down this main thoroughfare you will find some great landmarks, 10 Downing Street (home of the prime minister) (no pic, yikes, can I say it was "CROWDED" again for emphasis),
Stables of the Royal Horse Guards, a couple of other museums, and some traditional pubs. I had looked up our pub stop online and the interior was the wood and brass image I had in my mind, but the food was only "eh". But for the price, we didn't dare complain. A crew of six, in one of the most expensive cities in the world...you cut corners when you can. We left the warm welcoming pub and found that it was raining softly. Just as it should be in London. Trafalgar Square was very close and even with all the people about the city the rain chased away crowds from the open plaza. None of us minded the damp and enjoyed looking about the wide sweeping square that has the towering Nelsons column, the four stately Lions (photo op), and two large tumbling fountains. We next headed for the shelter of the National Gallery and its awesome art collection and equally elegant interiors. Now this well appointed gallery doesn't need lil' ol' me to advertise for it, but for all the famous painters it houses (daVinci, Rembrandt, Monet, Vermeer, VanGogh ) the fact that it and a handful of other popular British sites are free, makes it a must see. I wanted to slowly take in the paintings and their history but again crowds, loudness, and a tired toddler sped up our tour and I could see that Lou was not "into" lingering. I hate to say that the rushed feeling was getting to her and when I asked if she would simply like to walk through a neighborhood before we found a dinner destination she perked up.
Then, while searching for our guide book/map in my pack I made an awful discovery....I didn't have the tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys! David looked at me disappointed. Should we just forget it? Everyone looked a bit displeased at the prospect. We soon decided that David and Anna would go back to our flat and meet us at a certain shop I'd marked on a map of Covent Garden an hour or so later. OK.
David and Anna departed to fetch the tickets (Lou did not like this one bit), and Lou, Sara, Sophia, and I strolled leisurely down Charing Cross Road towards Covent Garden square. As we passed Henrietta St. I hoped to locate the marker for the home/building that Jane Austen stayed at when in London, but no such luck and Lou was growing worried. 45 minutes and we needed to meet up with Anna and David. We took a snack stop at a Paul's bakery (a French bakery "chain") because one of the curious must dos on my list was to taste a macaron (yes, this is French I know but I had just discovered them) and Paul's was on the way. Lou thought the macarons were curiously colored but was too distracted with concern about our split party to taste one. And that "concern" is contagious my friends.
It started to drizzle heavier as we approached the most congested spot thus far, Covent Garden. Brimming with shops, market stalls of goods and produce, and a street entertainer drawing in a large audience. And even tho' this picture shows a covered part of the large square's market, I had picked a souvenir shop that faced the open air square....supposedly. As I reached the spot where the shop should have been, there was an American clothing shop in it's place. I gulped. Lou noticed (it was raining harder), "Jenny, what's wrong? Something is not right." I tried to explain that what I thought I knew of the shop from online was apparently wrong. I told Lou that I just wanted to double check at the info. center nearby and left them under a cover, keeping an eye on the "meeting spot". The info. desk was apparently a four man job and four boisterous Englishmen looked up from the main desk as I asked directions and then all four looked puzzled. They went through a list of shops they absolutely knew to be in the square and had no idea what I was talking about. I said a quick thank you, and as I left I was sure I heard a "sorry Luv".
I had to be resolute when I faced Lou. David surely would go to the the geographical spot I marked and not just be looking and roaming aimlessly....lost forever. AND, it had only been a little past an hour....no worries. As I got to them I noticed it was raining quite hard and Lou was flustered. My dear, dear Sara was entertaining Sophia and seemed to know it would be alright. I again left them in their dry spot and I told them that I would stand in the rainy meeting corner within eye shot of them. So on the northwest corner I stood, and stood, with my bright red umbrella, praying and noticing as it got nearer to 5pm the mass of people streaming about was growing.

I waited at the corner 45 minutes and just when Lou decided to move on over to me ("oh, dear" I thought), as they were nearing I noticed two of my favorite blond heads walking up behind them. We all seemed to breath a sigh of relief and Lou most definitely brightened. David and Anna shared that they had the tickets and had no problems finding us, it was just the onslaught of people getting out of work and loading on to the tube that put them behind time.

Once reunited we all chomped on my macarons and believe it or not everyone announced they were ready for dinner (it was nearly 7pm). I have to say I liked this tight neighborhood near Covent Garden. There were a number of quaint Dickens-like store fronts of tea shops, stationary and print shops, a cheese shop. But they were all closing. So I enjoyed the store fronts, the girls bought some tea and paper fans as gifts for friends back home and we headed to the restaurant I had chosen for the night: Belgo Centraal.
I highly recommend this tasty Belgian cuisine dining experience for anyone in London. They have a more formal dining area but we opted for the slightly rowdy, full beer hall that has long tables and benches. We were seated quickly and appreciated their "children 11 and under free with an adult" menu. And if we had made it before 6:30pm, between 5pm-6:30 certain (very good) entrees are the price of the time you arrived. Savings indeed. By 8:30pm we were filled and satisfied. I had the yummy! mussels Provencal (a brothy butter garlic sauce)with fries (frites), their signature dish. David and I enjoyed fruity beers and though Sophia's sausage with leek mashed potatoes looked good she only nibbled and played with horseys. Our spirits were sagging a bit from the long day, and yet we had one more major stop.
It was dark and, thankfully, dry by the time we arrived at the Tower of London. We all remarked what a welcome difference the English summer was to our Texas hot, dry, hot, scorching, hot August. The jackets we had toted the whole day were perfect in the chilly August London night. The small crowd outside the gate slowly gathered in as the Beefeater approached from inside at the exact time of 9:30pm. In his impressive uniform and with his booming voice, the Yeoman Warder set the stage for the serious, and respectful tone of the lock down ceremony.

Daytime at the Tower that houses the crown jewels, the Beefeaters, and the guards, has such a royal English aura, yet this nighttime ritual, with only 50 people or so in our crowd, standing in silence, hearing the locks turn, the calls of order, the marching of the guards changing stations...was amazing. The Beefeater emphasized that we were apart of the living history of this great renowned Tower. Sophia caused some interruptions of chuckles form the group, as she kept stepping out of the space we were "ordered" to stay in as the ceremony unfolded. But just as our part in the ceremony was upon us, Sophia stayed by my side. The Warder called out to us and the guards, "God preserve Queen Elizabeth!", we responded with an "Amen!"

The whole rite took only 30 minutes and then we were cordially escorted off the premises. Our long day caught up with us and it took no time to get everyone to bed.


Anne in Oxfordshire said...

I am tired!! I am just reading it...oh my word ,what a really long day. You went to places I have never heard of, not that I have been to London much...

That was a great tip for the Ceremony of the Keys, to be honest I have never heard of it.

I love Covent Garden been there a few times, I am wondering if the shop your thought about had shut down...

Great tour, now I am ready for bed ha ha

Jenny said...

Well Anne you get your rest and I promise that my next few posts will be nowhere near as exhaustive as this one. Thank you for reading, and your kind comment. Good night...hee hee.

A Tale of Two Cities said...

I always look forward to your story telling--you have such a gift, and I'm always in awe of your well thought out plans for each day. I love Rick Steve's suggestions too, but I think he should add some of your stories to make his guide come alive. You taught me something new in this blog. Belgo Centraal--we shall have to try it, because in the 90's we lived in Brussels for a couple of years and grew fond of the food there. Thanks for linking to my blog and for the compliments. Sure would love to meet you someday, either in Texas or in future trips to London.

Frenchy chick said...

I love London!!
Been there many times! Lovely family.

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Hi Jenny what I meant to say was this....I have not been to those areas of London much, not for years and years...I go to London all the time, but North London and not on a sightseeing trip..to stay with my mother-in-law.

Jennifer K said...

Hi Jenny, like Anne, I am also exhausted after reading this and it's only 3 p.m. now! I used to know London really well because I lived there for 3 months, but I haven't been back in ages. I will have to go to the key ceremony at the Tower sometime. Also I'm so glad you discovered you didn't have the tickets in time for someone to go pick them up. Looking forward to your next post!

Jenny said...

Debi...I really appreciate your reading and encouragement. Thank you too for the blog referral. I we do need to meet....London would be wonderful but in Texas more likely--I wish.

Frenchy...thank you for stopping by as I know you have been especially busy these 14 days of Feb. Happy Valentin's day to you and your "loves"!

Jennifer K! Thanks for reading. You lived there for three months. I am sooo curious. Where in London did you live and what did you think? I hope to keep the posts coming, but I have to tell you loading photos is quite a chore for me. Now I am off to keep up with you.

Jennifer K said...

Hi Jenny, I was in college and did a study abroad program in London. I wish it had been for longer than 3 months, but I'm grateful I had that time there. We lived in South Kensington (posh!). Actually, we lived in this old, run-down building that used to be a hotel, so it wasn't that posh. I went back a year or two later and saw that the building had been converted to apartments. I had a great time and didn't want to leave. I know what you mean about loading photos, that seems to take so much time.

Jenny said...

South Kensington...how lovely. At least you got to say you "lived" there.

Mar-Cee-Ah said...

Hi Jenny,
Another marvelous post, mon ami! Lovely 'shabby' trim as well! Your writing helps me escape across the pond - a nice distraction from work this afternoon!

Jenny said...

Mar-cee-ah, I am sooo glad you joined us on our trip. You know what...it is a crazy thing really....because I love trip planning and have adored the places we have been so fortunate to have visited, I actually, crazily, imagine trips for YOU. I mean I would love to travel with you, but I do hope that one day you and one of your best buds traipse into these far off lands and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. That's not too crazy....is it? Luvs, me

Frenchy chick said...

I just tagged you come see my blog!


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