Friday, 22 April 2011

April 22, 2011 - It's the name of the bell, you know

Well, having said "beannacht" to the wonderful country of Ireland, it was time to return to England.  I flew from Dublin to London's Heathrow airport where I obtained an Oyster card (multi-use city transit pass) and then took the Tube into the city.  This weary traveller was greeted by a smiling Carolyn Jarman, a longtime friend from camp and youth group days.  I have been staying with Carolyn and Brad at their place in the borough of Islington for the past few nights... a welcome change from hostel dorms!

My first day in London was naturally laundry day!  Oh, and of course an opportunity to wander around the neighbourhood where Carolyn and Brad reside.  I picked out a park on a map and decided that it would be an ideal place to go and sit with my guidebooks and work out a plan for the next little while.  As I was making my way toward said park, I began to think it was odd that maps of London are printed upside down (with south going up).  Then I noticed that the sun was rising in west that morning.  I happened to glance down at the Princess Auto compass/thermometer that hangs on my day pack zipper, and wouldn't you know that it too wasn't working properly, but was off by a full 180 degrees!  So either being so close to the Prime Meridian was throwing my compass off, or, the slightly less likely scenario was that I was walking in the wrong direction.

After eventually finding a park with trees under which to sit and plan to coming week, carried on with a walking tour from one of Carolyn's "50 City Walks of London" kit, which took me down and around the Arsenal Football Stadium.  I tried to stalk some players for you, Cait, but being the day before game day, the place was deserted.

The next day was my attempt at being a super-tourist in England's capital.  Me, and every other tourist in Europe apparently.  My plan was to join a walking tour around the city, but since I don't care about Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy!), I settled for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour instead.  I was able to experience the commentary of about half a dozen different tour guides this way - some are very good at what they do (funny, charming, and kept rambling even while we were stuck in traffic), but then there were the other who just recited the necessary facts from rote, and one guy who whined about the heat and took every opportunity to point out how many more stops until his shift was over.  I actually stayed on his bus for a while, just to see how long he could complain - turns out, until the much sought after crew change finally arrived.

I stopped at the Westminster Bridge to see the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben.  An important point to note here:  "Big Ben" is actually the name of the bell which chimes inside the clock tower, not the name of the clock itself.  This will be pointed out to you many, many times throughout your visit to the city.  I saw the London Eye, but on advice from other travellers did not actually ride said ferris wheel.  Then I headed over to Buckingham Palace to elbow my way through a crowd, look at some guards and then flee the scene as quickly as possible.  

I spent most of the afternoon at the Tower of London, following a guided tour by one of the Tower's Yeomen - the lady beefeater no less!  She was hilarious!  She talked about the various towers and buildings within the Tower of London, the prisoners kept there and some of the most infamous executions.  While there, I also toured the Royal Jewels.  It amazes me that people will stand for what seems like forever outside in the hot sun in a queue, spend significant money on admission, only to push and elbow and rush their way through the actual exhibit.  Bloody tourists!  (Oh, hold on, Kettle is calling me...)

I jumped back on the bus to make my way back to an appropriate Tube station, and in doing so, saw the round-a-bout that Chevy Chase drove around in European Vacation, and also saw the MI-6 and MI-5 buildings.  Someone at the front of the bus asked what the difference is between MI-6 and MI-5, and I said, "one" (I thought this was under my breath...) The tour guide started to chuckle and didn't stop until in a panic he blurted out the trivia about the next building we passed, so he never did answer the question.  Now, if Hollywood is at all accurate (and I refuse to live in a world where it's not), that would suggest that one is for covert operations and the other is for overt operations.  But clearly Wikipedia will need to be consulted here.

Having had my fill of overcrowded, overheated metropolises, yesterday I took the train to Bath for a day trip.  I toured the Bath Abbey, which has a rich history of being destroyed or deteriorating and then rebuilt over and over again.  The most recent renovations took place from 1991-2000.  I then toured the Roman Baths and Pump House.  The audio tour was complete with bonus commentary from Bill Bryson... I was very excited about this, and may have squealed in delight (but naturally blamed it on the 5 year old conveniently standing behind me).  The architecture around the Roman Baths is quite interesting, as is the history behind it, but the pool itself is fed by water from the only hot spring in Britain, and has been left stagnant, untreated and fully exposed to the elements for decades upon decades.  The only creatures who enjoy this water now are thousands of species of algae.  

While in Bath, I also took in the Botanical Gardens and the downtown square.  Although Bath is a tourist destination, the crowds were much more manageable and generally well behaved compared to the day before.  The train ride back to London was also quite lovely, looking out over the fields of canola in bloom, and happy sheep and cattle on pasture.

Today is my final day in London, and then I head northward this evening.

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