So I Won’t Expect a Postcard from Trafalgar Square

Between the lingering excitement of Highclere and Harry Potter and the building anticipation for discovering London, I did not get much sleep on Thursday night.  Nevertheless, I was up, dressed and chomping at the bit to pound the pavement all over London on Friday morning.


I had planned out an ambitious route around London on foot, taking me to all the main tourist attractions while ensuring I got to really FEEL the city along my way.  My marathon path was approaching 15 miles, and that was assuming that I never detoured and didn’t count things like, say, the hour and a half I spent walking around the Tower of London once I had arrived there.


I would laugh in your face and tell you to stop doing drugs if you asked me to go on such an exhibition at home, but on vacation, especially in a foreign country, I always want to see everything humanly possible in the limited time that I have.  If “touristing” was a sport, I’d be an Olympic champion.


So, it’s with this general fervor that I walked out of the DoubleTree on Friday morning, bouncing with every step, grinning so hard I nearly pulled a muscle in my face.  Every new building that came into view was a detour-worthy distraction, and flipping through my pictures once I get home always reveals my overzealous moments, because I’ll have 30 pictures in a row that are of places of no note whatsoever except that I’d seen them through my rose-colored glasses of enthusiasm.


I eventually wandered into a park by the river and caught sight of the first place on my list – the Houses of Parliament.  My friend Levi had once told me that he’d never ceased being amazed at the sight of them, and I quickly understood why, as the design is so intricate that it’s almost hard to process even when you’re standing in front of it.  Incidentally, I had learned the day before that the architect, Sir Charles Barry, had redesigned Highclere Castle immediately after he finished building the Houses of Parliament, which is why those structures bear such resemblance to one another.


Westminster Abbey was just a few steps away.


Somehow, I also never knew that Big Ben is actually attached to the Houses of Parliament.  (The mini wire statue I’ve had in my living room for years stands alone!  Ha!)  I guess I can add that to the list of things I learned on this trip.




I walked from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square with my camera in the air and head in the clouds.  I got a kick out of seeing all of the quintessentially British places and things.



I had my trusty walking map of all the places I wanted to see, including an addition from my friend Lana, who said I should stop through to see the Horse Guards.  Since she recommended it, it didn’t occur to me to look into it more, so I marked it on my map and only when I had walked over did I realize that I had no idea what “Horse Guards” were, so how would I know what I was seeing once I saw it?

It’s supposed to be somewhere around here…



Well… here’s a horse statue, so I must be on to something…



Oh!  Of course!  THESE are Horse Guards!



It’s baffling to me how that’s a serious job.  I feel like if it was my job to dress up in that getup and march back and forth in rhythm while tourists with cameras gawked at me, I would not look serious when I was doing it.


From there I walked through St. James Park to head towards Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard.  (In hindsight, since I knew what THAT meant, it should have more quickly occurred to me what a Horse Guard might be.)



I was over an hour early arriving at Buckingham Palace, but the crowds were already arriving to stake a place to watch the ceremony.



People were already lined up three or four people deep all along the fence line, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see from there, so I walked back toward the monument in front of the palace and parked it dead center next to a guy who had a camera on a tripod.  I figured he must have some idea about where to be.


I talked to Tripod Man, who was from Louisiana, and he explained that the police were going to come and make the people in front of the main gate move out of the way, and that while the first 20 minutes of the Changing of the Guard would be behind the fence where we couldn’t really see, we’d have the best view for the guards marching in and out of the main gate, and they’d all come out right in front of us at the end.


It all happened as he had said, and at one point, one of the mounted policemen came by where we were and declared, “You guys right here have the best seat in the house – you’ll see.”



Proof I was there, thanks to Tripod Man:



And then the big gate opened and they came marching out!



When the ceremony was complete, most of the (massive!) crowd was heading back toward Parliament Square, but I was happily headed in the opposite direction through Green Park to follow another of Lana’s recommendations – this time for lunch.


London is of course known for its pubs, and she’d given me a few recommendations including The Grenadier.  Unlike with the horse guards, I actually looked it up ahead of time and saw that it had great reviews, but everyone talked about it being nearly impossible to find.  I therefore printed a more detailed map just for the twists and turns on the way to The Grenadier.  I am glad I had all of this information ahead of time, because I definitely felt like I was getting lost while I was following the map, except luckily, the feeling that I was in the middle of nowhere actually reinforced in this case that I must be on the right track.  It was a pretty neighborhood for wandering, though!



I eventually rounded the bend of what appeared to be a residential driveway, and voila!  The Grenadier!



I didn’t realize when I walked through the door that I still had my camera dangling from my wrist, so I had outed myself as a tourist immediately.  Three servers looked up at me from behind the bar, perplexed, and said, “Are you OK?”  I’m sure they thought I was lost.  I dropped my camera back into my bag, smiled, and said, “Yep!  I’m here for lunch!”


I was shown to a table where I ordered the day’s special – chicken and mushroom pie – and then I took my camera out again to sneak a photo of the ceiling.



There was a group of gentlemen at a table near me, and I could tell that four of them were locals hosting two visiting Americans, one of which was a first time visitor to London, and they were ribbing him good-naturedly about his lack of knowledge of the local cuisine.  Naturally, when his plate was brought out, it was fish and chips, and everyone wanted to know how he liked his “mushy peas.”  It’s impossible not to eavesdrop when dining alone, three feet away from six rabble-rousing gents.  They kept me entertained until my food arrived and stole all of my attention.



I don’t think the picture adequately portrays size, so let me assure you that the puff pastry on top of the pie made the whole thing roughly the size of my head, even not counting the sides.  Everything on the plate was absolute perfection.  The sauce inside the pie was delicious, so I took to scooping some of the vegetables and potatoes from the plate through the sauce, gathering some chicken and pastry in the process, and savoring every heavenly bite.  The food I encountered through four countries (including Paris, mind you) was average at best, but there was a three-way tie for first place, blowing all other meals out of the water, and all three of those meals were consumed in London.  (So, go ahead and toss that stereotype about English food right out of the window, because it’s total bollocks.)  This meal was the first of the three.


Although food is usually just a means to an end while traveling (the “end” being that I don’t pass out in the street while sight-seeing), but The Grenadier was an EXPERIENCE, and I was inclined to linger there for a bit and soak it in.  I contemplated whether I might make my way back there when I got hungry for dinner.  (I did not, but it will absolutely make my list for any and all return visits to London.)


After lunch, I was headed to ride the London Eye, which took me back through the tourist frenzy in and around Parliament Square.  I had walked unimpeded through the entire area around 8:30am, but by 2:00pm, the closer I got to the Thames, the more it looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  People were EVERYWHERE.  People were so thick, in fact, that I couldn’t even dodge around them, so I was forced to do the penguin walk with everyone else.  I seized the opportunity to take some more pictures, though.



I did finally inch my way over to the London Eye, where people were lined up for miles to ride.  Because I lack patience and firmly believe that “time is money,” I paid extra to go through the express line to board sooner.


When it was built in 1999, the London Eye was the world’s tallest ferris wheel.  It has since lost that title, but is still the tallest ferris wheel in Europe at 443 feet.  (There are three taller in the world as of this writing, the tallest of which just opened on March 31, 2014 in Las Vegas.  The “High Roller” stands at 550 feet.  Time to go back to Vegas, I guess!)


Luckily, it was a beautiful day with clear, blue skies, so it was a great day to take in the view!



After disembarking from the London Eye, I was able to shuffle my way out of the worst of the crowds as I made my way along the South Bank.  I crossed on the Millennium Bridge to walk toward the distinctive dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Of course, I also remembered upon sight that it’s the bridge that collapsed at the beginning of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film, as depicted here (or watch the clip):



No Death Eaters attacked while I was walking across, though.




My next stop was to the massive Tower of London, also known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, which has been at times a royal residence, a prison (with a bloody reputation), an armoury, and home of the Royal Mint, to name a few.  It is currently the location where the Crown Jewels are displayed.




I explored the White Tower, built by William the Conquerer in 1078, where The Royal Armoury keeps displays including weaponry and suits of armor that belonged to famous figures such as King Henry VIII.




The Tower is also where two small skeletons were found and presumed to be the two sons of Edward IV, last seen in June 1483, and assumed murdered.  There is no proof the bones belonged to the brothers, but the “Princes in the Tower” theory was so widely held that King Charles II had the bones moved and reinterred within Westminster Abbey.


The Tower of London is certainly brimming with rich history, but I am typically more interested in the aesthetics of a place, so you won’t generally catch me walking around listening to the audio guide, but I will definitely have my camera at the ready.  Walking along a fortress wall, I found a lovely view of the Tower Bridge just waiting to model for me.



To the right, The Shard was making quite an impression as one of the newest members of the London skyline.



While waiting in line to see the Crown Jewels (no photos allowed in there, for sure!), I was behind a woman who was chattering animatedly to a couple in a language I couldn’t identify, but guessed it may have been Dutch.  She gestured to a nearby building, nodded some assurances, and the couple walked away from the line.  Shortly thereafter, her phone rang and she answered it in English and chattered away to the person on the other end with the same ease she had been using with the couple.  Then the name tag she was wearing caught my eye, and it identified her as a tour guide.  I guess if you don’t speak the language of a place, you hire someone like her to show you around and explain everything in a familiar tongue.  When she ended her call, I struck up a conversation with her and asked if London was always this filled with tourists.  She said that Easter weekend was always the busiest of the year, outranking even the weekends in the middle of summer.  She gestured toward the long line ahead of us and said, “Four days ago, there was no one here.”  Whenever I return to London, I will definitely choose an off-peak time, because the crowds were truly overwhelming.



When I was about to leave the Tower of London, I realized a crowd had formed over by the water and they seemed to be watching something.  I glanced over and discovered that the Tower Bridge was being raised.  I didn’t even realize it DID that, but it makes sense.



From there I headed toward the pine cone in the sky – officially named The Gherkin.  I was so absorbed in walking toward it that I forgot to stop for dinner at another pub that Lana had mentioned.  It seemed that most of the businesses and restaurants I passed were closed at that time of day, anyway, so it could be that I wasn’t missing anything.  Nevertheless, I finally arrived at a good vantage point to view the interesting architecture of The Gherkin.



I walked back toward the river, keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat, and ended up at a cute restaurant called The Folly, where I rested my screaming feet and had a rather tasty club sandwich.


Along my way down Gracechurch Street, I passed by this street that was lined with stores and covered.  It was called the Leadenhall Market and nothing was open then, but it looked like a place that would be bustling at other times.  Regardless, it was pretty enough to make me stop for a photo.



I took the London Bridge back across the Thames to get to The Shard, which overtook the London Eye as the highest view in London.  I went up 72 stories above London to see “The View from the Shard.”  I think there may have been a few higher floors that weren’t open, but I wondered with the design of the building if those were enclosed as well.  The view was impressive, but photos are not when they’re taken through glass.  I stayed for a while anyway, but the sun was fading and so was I.   In the picture of me below, you can see the Tower of London behind me to my right, and notice it also in the picture featuring the Tower Bridge.  It gives you some idea of how large it is, which still surprised me even after I’d walked around the whole thing.



My body was expressing its supreme displeasure that I’d spent 12 hours walking on mostly pavement.  I considered catching a cab back to the hotel, but the sun had nearly set and I knew I’d enjoy seeing everything lit up after dark, so I decided to suck it up and trek the last three miles on foot.  Excluding that not-proud moment when I was almost back to the hotel and accidentally walked two blocks out of the way (not wanting to pull out a map on dark, now-deserted streets) and considered crying about it because everything hurt, it was still worthwhile to see everything with fresh eyes against the night sky.



Having pushed myself quite beyond the limit on Friday, I was very slow moving Saturday morning.  Liz knew I was exhausted on every level and let me sleep in a bit later than planned.  She was leaving to drive back to Scotland, so we were both packing up because I was staying in London, but switching hotels.  We went to a Laundromat (excuse me – a “laundrette”) I’d found that was halfway between our hotel and the one I was checking into, and we both did a load of laundry while we ate pastries that we pilfered from the breakfast bar before we checked out.  I had actually packed enough clothes to make it through the whole trip without doing laundry, but came prepared with detergent sheets just in case.  Liz was doing laundry anyway (as she still had another full week ahead in Scotland), and I’d gotten one pair of pants muddy during the Kilchurn Castle excursion, and if I ever have the choice between clean or dirty, I will always choose clean.  I also officially laundered my tennis shoes that had only been “cleaned” by creek water after my feet went mudding.


Despite my sleeping in, we were still good on time when we left the laundrette, so Liz drove me over to my hotel so I could leave my bags before setting out for the day.  I was 4 hours early for check-in, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, and I was actually upgraded and allowed to check in right away, which was nice!  I felt like quite a VIP.


Liz was nice enough to drop me off in Richmond before she left for Scotland, even though it was a bit out of her way.  It did give us a chance to say a proper goodbye before she left, though, as our adventures were heading in different directions from there.


At this point in the story, I can’t help but pause to give a little bit of background information.  This is good stuff, folks, so bear with me.


Some years ago… at least three… it could even be four years ago, I was playing WordFeud (the Android version of Words With Friends) with my friend Levi.  He and I are both overly-competetive people, and usually quite worthy opponents for each other.  That said, I was repeatedly and unapologetically kicking his tail in WordFeud.  OK, OK, probably “usually but barely emerging victorious” would be a more accurate depiction.  So, one day, within the chat feature on the game, Levi said, “You and this one other girl are the only people who consistently beat me in this game.  You should be playing each other.”  He proceeded to give me her username and admit that his plan was to distract us with each other so he could defeat us both.


I sent her an invite right away, and she messaged to ask if I had clicked to start a game with a random opponent, because she didn’t think that she had, and yet we didn’t know each other and had started a game.  I explained how it all came about and we chatted throughout our first game, which I believe we finished within an hour.  (These games usually last about a week, typically.)


We have kept a game going constantly ever since, trading off wins and chatting sporadically, so after about a year of that, we decided to graduate our phone-gaming friendship and become Facebook friends.


Her name is Vicky and she just so happens to live in London, so when I started making plans for my trip, I immediately messaged her to see if she’d like to meet in person.  She agreed, and the following is a faithful account of how fantastic it can be to make new friends in the strangest of fashions.


Vicky and I agreed to meet at the Richmond tube station at noon, and I was there a few minutes early.  I couldn’t help but think that the entrance did not seem very prominent for the only tube station in the area, and I thought perhaps I should go through the station to see if there was another exit, but wasn’t really sure I could get through without a ticket.  Shortly, a nice fellow happened by to catch a train, so I asked him, and he led me through the station to where I could get out of the other side.  As I headed out of the much more prominent station side, I was panning the faces in the crowd until I found the familiar one, smiling back at me.  I think I probably squeaked with joy and hugs ensued.


We walked through Richmond and stopped to pick up some lunch before walking down along the water and choosing a park bench to picnic on.



Vicky grew up in Richmond, so she was an excellent tour guide, and we just wandered along through gorgeous English countryside and talked about all manner of things.



Then, we walked out to Ham House and explored their gardens for a while.



We found a pub on the way toward the Petersham Hotel for our afternoon reservation, so we stopped there and lounged on the porch until it was tea time!



I had several people recommend High Tea to me as a must-do during my London trip.  It didn’t seem like it would be much fun alone, so I had asked Vicky if she’d be interested, and not only was she eager to go, but it was her first high tea as well, and she recommended the Petersham Hotel because she’d had her wedding reception there.


The hotel was quite elegant, but still more laid back (and less expensive) than the famous hotels that serve high tea in the center of London.  I didn’t really know what to expect and feared being underdressed and under-refined for such a proper affair.  Happily, Vicky and I were of like mind about it, so we were in it together.


Luckily, when we checked in for our reservation, we were shown to the best table in the house, with a gorgeous view out of the windows on all sides of us.  Our waiter was kind enough to snap a photo of us.



Ever the bull in a china shop, I got the ball rolling by pouring my tea directly from the pot to my cup without noticing the strainer laying nearby as a hint that I was missing a step.  I figured it out quickly when tea leaves were rushing into my cup, and we got a good laugh out of that.  Vicky saved me by giving me her cup so I could strain my tea properly, and then she used my cup after I emptied it.  Then, I overfilled the cup, forgetting I was supposed to add milk (everybody stare at the newbie!), so I ended up with tea sloshed over into my saucer.  Vicky then very kindly also spilled a bit of coffee, so we could laugh off these snafus together.  You just can’t take us anywhere!


Our tiered platter arrived shortly thereafter and definitely made this the cutest meal I have ever eaten.  Look how pretty!



The bottom layer held four types of sandwiches.  Vicky and I each had a cucumber sandwich, then I passed the smoked salmon to her while I ate the ham and mustard.  The fourth sandwich was cheese and pickle, but not pickle as my American brain understood it, but rather a vinegar-based sweet chutney.  I was not a fan of that one, but I did eat the piece of cheese out of one of them.


The middle tier held a variety of sweet treats, some of which we divvied up according to preference, and some that we cut in half to share.  Vicky let me have the cream puff AND the side of the chocolate cake that came with a raspberry.


But the real star of the show is what was perched there on top – the scones with clotted cream.  First of all, I have had a so-called scone in the U.S. in a moment of desperation at an airport Starbucks, and it was hard as a rock and flat-out disgusting.  These scones (which I am inclined to say are REAL scones) were like soft, sweet biscuits – absolute perfection.  You slice these in half, smear on some strawberry preserves (I suppose other flavors are acceptable, but we had strawberry), and then you add a dollop of the clotted cream to it.  Or, if you’d like to have it the Amanda way, you slice it, smear on some strawberry preserves, and see how much clotted cream you can balance on top of it all while still being able to fit it inside your mouth without getting it all over your face.  In a dainty, lady-like way, obviously.


Between the two of us, all that remained at the end was a cheese and pickle sandwich, some fruitcake, and maybe a few tell-tale crumbs.  Since it’s an afternoon “meal,” everything was very light, so we were full without feeling stuffed, and would be ready to eat again by dinner time.


I loved everything about my high tea experience.  The best view, the best food, the best company, and I even came away with a newfound fondness for hot tea, or as the British have it — tea.


When we left the hotel, we got right to working off those scones and climbed the hill where we were treated to this lovely view for our trouble.



We walked back to Richmond station and I took my first tube ride with Vicky back to her house where I got to meet her husband and daughter before it was her bedtime.  We hung around the house, just relaxing and talking for a while, and Vicky’s husband Paul recommended some places we could go that evening.


We settled on walking into Wimbledon for Indian food, and we stopped at yet another adorable pub called The Swan on our way.  We then had dinner at Wimbledon Tandoori, and since I was just discovering Indian food, Vicky suggested I order a dish I knew I liked, and then she ordered a different one and an appetizer so that I could taste some different things.  The new dishes I tried – both of which were fantastic – were Sag Aloo (a spicy spinach and potato dish) and Chicken Jalfrezi, which was cooked in a thick sauce with chili peppers, tomatoes, and onions.  My goodness, it was amazing.  And I simply live for pilau rice.  (Writing this post is making me very hungry.)


Therefore, as you might have guessed, the afternoon tea and dinner at Tandoori completes the list of the three meals tied for first place in the course of my trip.  All three were perfect.


All of Saturday, in fact, was perfect, until Vicky walked with me back to the tube station and we realized our day together was at an end.  We hugged goodbye and then waved pitifully at each other for another moment, rather sad to part.  The good news is that we’ll definitely make it a point to get together again… maybe in New York, or maybe in Spain!


I got back to the hotel still reflecting on what a wonderful day it had been.  And then I slept like a log.


Easter Sunday was my last full day in London, and it was supposed to rain all day.  The two most famous churches in London – Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral – had been closed to visitors on Good Friday, so I thought what better way to see them than to attend their Easter services.  I decided to attend the 10:00am Choral Matins at St. Paul’s and then go to the 3:00pm Evensong and Procession at Westminster Abbey.


Thinking of the crowds I’d encountered on Friday, I set out early for St. Paul’s, assuming many others would have the same idea I did.  The rain hadn’t started yet when I walked to the tube, and then I only felt a few sprinkles as I walked on to St. Paul’s.  To my surprise, the church was still nearly empty.  I walked around a little bit and admired the general splendor (again, no photos allowed inside) and then found a seat near the front.



A few other people trickled in, and after 15 minutes or so, someone from the church came around and let us all know that the seats weren’t “open” yet and that we’d have to move to the back of the church until 30 minutes before the service.  There was nearly an hour until then, so I inquired about a bathroom and was directed to the Starbucks across the street.  It was just as well, because I hadn’t had any breakfast and was starting to get hungry.  I had an egg salad sandwich, which made me think of my friend Jessica and how appalled she would be if she knew that, in England, it’s called an “egg mayo” sandwich.  Jessica will eat things that she knows contain mayo, but she doesn’t want to talk about it, so I had a bit of a laugh to myself thinking about that.


By the time I returned to the church, a crowd had formed in the back of the church and they had just started to allow folks to sit down.  I walked down the aisle and a gentleman in front said, “just one?” and then pointed me to the sole empty chair on the front row.


A lady sitting beside me struck up conversation.  She was from the north of England, but said she comes into London almost every weekend and had been doing so for years.  It didn’t seem like she had ever been in St. Paul’s before, though, because she kept marveling aloud about all of the notable people who had stood in the church throughout the course of centuries.  She also informed me that Princess Diana was married there.


Naturally, the service was quite a bit different than anything I am used to, but the music was beautiful and the service was poetic, though obviously ceremonial.


It was raining much harder when I left the church, but I wasn’t ready to unpack my poncho just yet, so I pulled my hood up and made a break for the subway.  The rain let up a bit along my way and I noted how deserted the streets seemed to be, in stark contrast to how I’d seen them two days prior.



I took the tube over to Picadilly Circus, which is, I suppose, the London version of Times Square.



I walked in and out of a few shops and then saw a cute café sign advertising the day’s special as Chicken, Asparagus, and Parmesan Risotto.  I thought that sounded good, so I went inside.  I couldn’t help myself and also ordered a tea.



The rain was still falling steadily, so I took it as a good excuse to linger a bit longer and then have a berry tart for dessert.  Everything was quite good.


The rain had lightened up a bit, so I headed back out into the elements and decided to go ahead and walk from there to Westminster Abbey.  That took me back by Trafalgar Square and across in front of St. James Park, where the tree line protected me from the rain for a while.



I got to Westminster early as well, but no more than thirty people were lined up outside.  I joined them and was able to connect to WiFi and send a “Happy Easter” text to my family at home, who were just getting out of Easter service themselves.



Somehow, I wound up on the front row at Westminster Abbey, too, which was situated much differently than St. Paul’s, so that the pastor spoke from a place over my right shoulder, the boys’ choir was in a hallway to my left, and I was looking directly across at others who were attending the service.  The front row on either side was divided by a wide walkway leading up to the altar.


I found it somewhat odd that the Evensong service at Westminster was nearly identical to the Choral Matins at St. Paul’s in content.  The main difference was somewhat of a revolting development for me due to my allergies.  During the service, I noticed a strong incense smell emanating in my direction and looked beyond the pastor to the altar and saw a smoking lantern being swung about at various objects.


Wikipedia tells me that this is called a “thurible,” and it’s swung a particular number of times for a particular set of reasons, but even having glanced through the article, I still fail to grasp the purpose.  I wondered how much of a faux pas it would be to pull my shirt up to cover my nose and mouth, but I knew there was no escaping.  I had already been incensed.


I thought the worst of that was behind me until the procession began.  All of the pastors marched from the altar down the middle aisle, and the “thurifer” led the pack, swinging the thurible (coincidence how similar that is to “terrible”) back and forth as he went.  So, the stinky smoke that had been bothering me from 30 feet away was now 1 foot from my nose.  I felt the affects of that for the next three days.


That aside, the procession was interesting to watch.  The choir filed out behind the pastors, and they continued singing their song until they had walked so far away that I could barely hear it anymore, and the novice congregation had given up trying to sing along.  Once it was silent again, I heard one of the pastors reading off a verse or a prayer in another section of the church, after which, the music recommenced and they all marched back to the front again before concluding the service.  It was certainly a new experience for me, but my headache was very glad to hear the final prayer and get ushered back outside again.


For whatever it’s worth, both Westminster and St. Paul’s are magnificent to behold, but St. Paul’s is by far the prettiest in my opinion, in case you ever need to decide which one to tour.


The rain was heavy again when I left Westminster, and part of me (the so, so tired part) was tempted to just go back to the hotel and crash.  But, it was my last day in London, so I felt I had to press on.  I caught the train and rode up to Notting Hill, where the torrential downpour finally coaxed me into donning my poncho.  I got drenched anyway, of course, but Notting Hill was cute as expected.  Almost everything was white, so I enjoyed it when I’d see a splash of color on some of the townhomes.  (I’m going to bet they’re not called townhomes, but you’ll have to forgive me;  I’m an American.)



I walked from Notting Hill back toward Kensington Palace, and saw this restaurant making quite a statement in unusual décor.



As I walked along further, I heard music coming from a café up ahead, and as I got closer, I could see that people were packed into a narrow room, dancing their hearts out.  One of the gentlemen had stepped outside the door and saw me smiling as I looked on.  He said, “It’s a party.  Do you want to dance?”  I laughed and declined, but as I started to pass by, another guy came running out of the door, grabbed my hand, and before I knew it, I was swirling around this café as well, poncho and all.  I think everyone in the place was Greek except for me, but nevertheless, I danced along with them for a while before continuing on my way.  I guess you never know what will happen when you’re walking down the street in London!


The rain had finally ended as I arrived at Kensington Gardens, so I took off my poncho and held it up, flying like a flag behind me, in the hopes that it would dry so I could pack it away again.  I took a path called the flower walk and then detoured when The Albert Memorial caught my eye.  As I walked around the memorial, I started to see blue skies returning in the distance.



From there, I walked down to the water and found the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.  The weather meant it was fairly deserted, but a sign nearby invited children and adults alike to splash and play in the fountain as much as they liked.



I walked across a mushy lawn and out of the park after that and headed in the general direction of a tube station that would take me back to my hotel.  My feet were once again protesting, and I hoped that following the road at the edge of the park would lead me to a pub for dinner.


I eventually spied the Paxton’s Head and went inside for – what else? – fish and chips with mushy peas.  This was much better than the abysmal fish and chips I’d had at the beach in Wales.  Paxton’s Head seemed to get it right.  I was at a little table by the bar, so the bartender was serving me himself and kept me well stocked in ice water.  I think he found me charming because I was so obviously American and he kept asking me questions about life in the States.  I barely got through half of the fish or the chips before I was stuffed, but I ate every bit of the mushy peas.  That stuff is delicious!


It was still early when I finished dinner.  Darkness had barely fallen, but I was finally ready to surrender and caught the tube back to my hotel to pack up my things and turn in early, so I could be up and at the train station by 7am the next morning.


I took the laziest possible approach to getting to St. Pacras the next morning and hopped in a cab out front.  I had enough cash leftover in pounds, and I was about to go to a country that didn’t take them, so I figured I might as well.  So, my last sight-seeing opportunity in London was another ode to my love of Harry Potter – King’s Cross Station!



There was no Platform 9 and ¾, unfortunately, so I couldn’t go to Hogwarts, but I suppose I did the next best thing and boarded the Eurostar bound for Paris!  (And yes, I got some hot tea from the snack car for the journey.)

The Scenery’s Changing and It Warms My Soul

Jet lag packs a much harder punch (at least for me) traveling east, so it was great to FINALLY get a good night’s sleep on night four of my trip. [Side note: I’m confused as to why the Hampton Inn had more comfortable beds than the Hilton or the DoubleTree. Isn’t that backwards? Anyway, thanks Hampton Inn!] So, with a good night’s sleep, a bit of a lie-in, and another morning of the traditional Scottish… English… Welsh breakfast, I had renewed energy for a day of sight-seeing.

We set out for St. Fagan’s National History Museum in Cardiff, which is a living, open-air museum of Welsh culture. The weather was once again absolutely perfect for strolling around the park. At St. Fagan’s, as with everywhere in Wales, we saw signs in English and in Welsh, which I found fascinating.

I thought this poem was neat, and then you can see the two languages side by side.

Walking around St. Fagan’s had a similar feel to exploring Jamestown as a kid. Tradesman were working here and there and various farm animals were roaming. We were able to walk around the recreated village and explore the different buildings there.

My favorite was the church, which surprises no one. The walls inside featured medieval paintings dating back to the 1300s, which had been discovered in the 1980s as patches of color started to show through the plaster. They were painted to depict various scenes from Scripture, which was a way of teaching Bible stories to also reach those who could not read.

The gardens near the Manor House were also quite lovely.

After exploring St. Fagan’s, we drove out to the beach on Barry Island, situated on Whitmore Bay. In searching for beaches online, Whitmore Bay had crossed my radar as a Blue Flag beach, so likely a good choice. Those who know me know that I’m not that much of a beach person. I like beaches, but I don’t want to spend a week at one. Whitmore Bay was a fine beach (a beach is a beach…), but its true gem was a cliff that jutted out to separate Whitmore Bay from Watch House Bay on the other side. From the beach, we climbed up to the cliff and walked out on the peninsula which had a walking path and lovely views. The way the beach and cliff are situated, it would be possible to watch the sunrise over the water in the morning, sit all day, and turn your chair around the other way to watch the sunset over the water on the other side.

We saw several folks walking their dogs along this path, and very few of those (if any) were on leads. This golden was my favorite.

Sunset was still a few hours off, so we did not stick around, but the sun was still pretty reflecting on the water as it started its descent.

Getting back to the hotel proved much simpler Wednesday night, having done it once already, and I got another night of glorious sleep before we departed Wales on Thursday to make the drive across to London.

The first stop on our journey was at Highclere Castle, better known as…

[Drumroll, please!]

…Downton Abbey!!!

(Also, for my friend Josh, I must add that, in 1987, Highclere was also cast as The Secret Garden’s Mistlethwaite Manor for the Hallmark Hall of Fame production.)

The castle interiors were amazing (no photography was allowed inside) and the rooms featured in Downton Abbey were labeled as such so you knew which room belonged to Lady Grantham, Mary, Edith, etc. It was great fun to walk around and see it all. Ironically, as we exited down the servant’s corridor at the end of the tour, we ran into Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon. Highclere is her home and she was instrumental in getting Downton Abbey to film there. Ensuring her estate’s living through Downton Abbey seems rather apropos, don’t you think?

Following our tour of the house, we had lunch in the tea room (which was delicious!) and proceeded to wander all over the beautiful grounds.

Before we could bring ourselves to depart, we had to stop and take a few more pictures of the castle itself.

I always get a kick out of TV sets and their practical locations, so visiting Downton Abbey was quite a treat.

But when we left Highclere/Downton, we drove to see some more sets…

Sets that turned me into an excited seven-year-old, bounding around in the spirit of “I love this! And this! And this and this and this AND OH MY GOODNESS LOOK AT THISSSSSSSSSS!!!”

Right this way, folks, to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brothers Studios London!!!!

(Buckle up for a lot of exclamation points.)

Ron’s chess pieces at the entrance!

Photos in the lobby – SNAAAAAAAAAAPE!

The tour introduction was given in a room with screens panning through all the movie posters for each of the eight films. We were asked to cheer for our favorite film as our guide went around the room. Half-Blood Prince, baby!!!

We moved into a theater where we watched an introduction video about the making of the eight Harry Potter movies, and when the screen was raised, we found ourselves standing at the entryway doors into the Great Hall

The Great Hall was set up with the house tables, and of course we all know my favorite:

And the professors were on stage, hanging out for Dumbledore’s year-end speech, no doubt.

Once we moved beyond the Great Hall, we no longer had a guide and were left to wander according to our own devices. The tour guide had told us that it takes an average of two hours to tour everything. He said the shortest time anyone had ever used to complete the tour was 30 minutes, and the longest was 13 hours! I won’t keep you in suspense – we were inside for four glorious hours! Let’s hit some highlights, shall we?

The invisibility cloak!

The Yule Ball centerpiece:

The gates of Hogwarts:

The Gryffindor dormitory (Ron’s bed):

The Mirror of Erised! (Where apparently I see myself at Harry Potter! Seems legit.)

Dumbledore’s Office!

The Tri-Wizard Cup and the Golden Egg:

Famed props galore! Hermione’s Time-Turner! Dumbledore’s Deluminator! Neville’s Remembrall! The Philosopher’s Stone! (That’s the Sorcerer’s Stone for you Americans.)


Hagrid’s Hut!

The Burrow! This set was interactive and had displays that you could touch to make Mrs. Weasley’s dishes wash themselves, make the knife chop the carrots, iron the clothes, and knit a scarf. It took forever for the dang children to get out of the way so that I could have a turn!

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his infernal Death Eaters:

The Marauder’s Map, newspapers, etc.

Rita Skeeter’s outfit and quill:

The office of the most evil character to ever grace the Harry Potter page or screen. Seriously. I would have tea with Voldemort before I’d be caught in her company.

I also learned a new bit of information about her evilness. Her wardrobe got progressively pinker as she rose through the evil ranks of the Ministry of Magic.

Speaking of the Ministry of Magic…. Here it is!

The Black Family Tapestry:

There was a display explaining how many of the special effects were achieved for the movie, and those who wanted to could go into the Green Screen room and take a ride in the flying car and ride a broomstick! Liz looked at me like, “Seriously? We’re doing this?” but I think she had as much fun as I did. We bought our photos (… aaaaand our videos).

Hagrid’s bike and the Knight Bus!

Here lies that filthy muggle Tom Riddle:

The Hogwarts bridge:

Harry’s House on Privet Drive!

…with Hedwig!

James and Lily Potter’s house:

More chess pieces:

Yikes! Aragog! Nooo less freaky knowing he’s fake.

Awww. Dobby.


And the rather enormous model of Hogwarts Castle:

Inside Ollivander’s, where all of these wand boxes displayed the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter films, from the actors to the directors, props, lighting, catering, EVERYONE. There was a tour guide here who could tell you the location of any name you wanted to see. I asked to see Alan Rickman, obviously.

I restrained myself fairly well in the gift shop, considering, but did buy my only t-shirt of the trip here as well as some other small items. I may have gone a little crazier, but reminded myself that I still had to re-pack my suitcase three more times before going home.

Liz struck up conversation with one of the guys who worked in the gift shop because he had been to Denver before, so I asked him for a dinner recommendation and he was able to point us to one of his favorite Indian restaurants for a much-overdue dinner. Once we walked back out to the parking lot and all my senses weren’t on overdrive anymore, I immediately knew how hungry I was!

Dinner was quite delicious as advertised and since we were arriving late into London, we didn’t have to deal with too much traffic while we sought out our hotel. Once again, my arrival was anticipated, and I was greeted by this sign in the room:

It took me a rather long time to come down off of my Harry Potter high to even consider going to sleep, so I sat up late writing postcards and grinning to myself about the day, while slowly letting it sink in that I was going to take London by storm the next day!

Your Road Map Eyes Give You Away

I got my first passport in 2013, determined to finally fulfill one of my travel dreams and see London and Paris. I was trying to plan it for the fall of 2013, and the pieces just weren’t coming together. Finally admitting that I needed to postpone took a serious inner dialogue to tell myself that postponing was OK, provided I didn’t let it become a dream that I only talked about and never did.

So, as 2013 ended with no passport stamps, I started making plans for 2014. My friend Liz, who I’ve visited a few times in Denver, makes an annual excursion to Scotland and proposed that I come there and meet up with her and we could spend a week touring Scotland, England, and Wales. I wasn’t sure it would work out to do all of that and still spend the time I wanted in London and Paris, but ultimately, the pieces fell into place and I bought a plane ticket and started planning.

I find travel both exhilarating and intimidating, but the thought of traveling overseas came with a big portion of the latter. It’s ridiculous that if I forget my cell phone at home on an average Thursday, I’m sure that’s the day my car will break down on the way into work. So, I was a little uncertain about how that would feel over two weeks in four countries (including one where I don’t speak the language). I knew I’d have to plan well since I wouldn’t be able to pull the internet out of my pocket to figure things out as I went along.

Luckily, travel planning is my raison d’être, so a little bit at a time over several months, I put together a three-ring, tabbed binder that was a magnificent work of organizational art, if I do say so myself. I dropped off emergency contact info with my Mom and emailed my itinerary to a few friends and then set off with two weeks of the bare necessities crammed into one carry on and a “personal item” (which is to say, the biggest purse you’ve ever seen).

My awesome cousin and her awesome hubby volunteered to take me to the airport in D.C., so I got to spend some time with them in Richmond before I left. My flight out of D.C. was at 6:30pm on Saturday, and since it was going to be 6:40am on Sunday when I landed in London, I was hoping to get a decent night’s sleep on the plane. I knew that was iffy going in; after all, plane seats aren’t particularly conducive to sleep, and I don’t usually go to bed at 6:30pm. As it turned out, those were moot points, because even if I loved going to sleep before dinner while sitting upright between two strangers, the flight from hell would have prevented it in any case. I say “flight from hell” because the temperature in the cabin seemed to suggest we’d narrowly escaped from there. I don’t like to be hot in the first place, but I was so hot that I was actually feeling physically ill. This was not aided by the perpetual turbulence that was tossing me to and fro and back and forth relentlessly. I was so miserable that I actually became THAT passenger who kept ringing for the stewardess to ask for another cup of ice, which was going unabashedly down my shirt as well as in my mouth. I looked around at the other passengers to make sure no one was wrapped up in blankets lest I was actually sick with a fever instead of crossing The Atlantic in a flying clothes dryer. Luckily, it was just a bad flight and not a trip-ruining illness, but I was really thankful to get on the ground and off that plane at Heathrow.

The layover was long enough to get me feeling OK again, and mercifully, my connection from Heathrow to Glasgow was a much cooler, much smoother flight. Liz was there waiting when I arrived and I piled everything in the rental car and we set out. It turns out, they love their Fords in the UK, so our car was a Ford Mondeo, which is basically my Fusion’s UK cousin.

This photo has terrible lighting, but it captures the moment, which was “Weeee! Here we go!”

Liz had mentioned wanting to stock up on a few bottles of her favorite whisky (it doesn’t have an ‘e’ there) that was only available at the distillery where it’s made. I said I was game for touring a distillery in Scotland (hellooo!), so we drove out toward Edinburgh and visited the Glenkinchie Distillery, where they walked us through their process, which was fascinating and pungent. At the end of the tour, there were samples of whisky from every region of Scotland for those who wanted to taste them.

By the time we got back to Glasgow, I’d been awake for roughly 30 exhausting hours and it was drizzling rain on and off (following a week of torrential downpours). We went to a grocery store for supplies (they had Caffeine Free Diet Coke!!!) and then checked into our hotel and had dinner there so I could make it an early night.

Monday, we woke up to blue skies, fluffy clouds, and all-around perfect weather. We spent the day driving through the Scottish countryside on our way to visit two of the Campbell castles in the west of Scotland. Our drive took us by Loch Lomond where we stopped in a picturesque lake town called Luss to walk out on the dock and through the village.

We journeyed on toward Inveraray Castle on the shore of Loch Fyne. Inveraray has been the ancestral home and seat of the Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, for centuries. My great grandmother was a Campbell, and according to our family historians, my ancestors date back to this very line. I know no particulars, but it was enough to feel a certain gravity about walking those grounds. We stopped on the bridge as we wound our way up to the castle to photograph this first view.

I spent a great deal of time walking around the front of the castle and marveling at it.

In my general fervor about the castle and the Campbell history, I had forgotten that Inveraray was also the location of the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special. I recognized the dining room straightaway, and there were photos nearby showing corresponding scenes from the show.

My favorite room was what I’d call the grand foyer – straight inside the entrance and decorated with weaponry. You never know when your castle might be attacked, and then everyone will need to grab something here!

The rest of the castle was lovely, but perhaps with a bit more subtle décor.

We had lunch in the Castle tea room, and I tried the traditional Scotch Broth, because why not? (I wasn’t much of a fan of it, to be honest, but I gave it a chance.)

After lunch, we walked through the gardens in the back of the castle to admire the grandeur from the other side.

Having contented ourselves with Inveraray, we proceeded along to find Kilchurn Castle, also of Clan Campbell, which only remains as a ruin.

We had to park just off the road and walk out to the castle, which was a lovely walk in theory, but given the recently-departed rains, the path was muddy at best. At points where water covered the path entirely, we had to try our best to circumvent it by walking out into the muddy grass. Two mud holes before reaching the castle, both my tennis-shoed feet immersed completely in the mud, and I felt it run in through the netting of my shoes and squish between my toes. There weren’t any options other than to keeping trudging forward.

Luckily, the views along the way and the castle itself were more than worth it.

Heading back to the car, my feet couldn’t possibly get muddier, so there was no use being delicate. When we came to a creek, I told Liz I was going in and took my camera off my wrist and handed it to her. It seemed like something to be documented. The water was freezing, but it felt better in my shoes than the mud!

Back at the hotel (and reunited with my other pair of shoes), Liz and I ended our day with a trip back down to the lounge where we proceeded to chat the night away with a charming and hilariously sarcastic bloke from Yorkshire, England, who was in Glasgow on business. We talked until the entire lobby, restaurant, and bar area was empty of anyone but us, and then said goodnight on the elevator. We ran into him again Tuesday morning at breakfast before we all left Scotland for jolly old England.

Liz and I had a lot of ground to cover, because not only were we driving south through England, but we were going to end the evening at our hotel in Wales. Just driving in the car all day would have been boring, though, so on what I’ve dubbed “Mr. Darcy Day,” we detoured to ride through the Peak District to visit Lyme Park and Chatsworth.

Liz and I have a bit of a difference of opinion on which is the superior production of Pride & Prejudice, but *my* Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley was actually the estate at Lyme Park. We arrived there first, and I was immediately giddy.

Liz wanted to walk up to a folly that she saw as we were driving in, and I wanted to go bound around the grounds like Elizabeth Bennett. My aspirations required a ticket, so I was about to buy one when Liz and I set a time and place to meet back out front. Liz left and I handed my card to the cashier, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t get it to go through. I guess I must’ve looked like I was about to explode with excitement and anticipation, because the cashier took another look at me, smiled, and handed my card back to me with a ticket and said, “Go ahead, honey. Have fun.”

Ohhh, and I did. I may have let out a few stifled squeals when I was far enough away from other people to prevent soliciting sideways looks, but I know I was grinning like a fool the whole time.

Remember this staircase? Darcy (Colin Firth) came bounding down these stairs after “Miss Bennett,” apologetic for not having greeted her properly when he emerged from a dip in his lake and found her there, touring his grounds.

Ah, Pemberley.

By the lake…

And of course Mr. Darcy planted some purple hyacinth just for me.

And I thrust my camera into the hands of so many strangers, if only so I’d have enough photos to prove to myself that I was actually there!

The route from Lyme Park to Chatsworth took us through the Peak District that Elizabeth toured with her aunt and uncle in the book/movies when she happened to end up at Pemberley in the first place. The drive was quite pretty, which is hard to convey in a through-the-windshield-in-motion photo, but it’s what I’ve got.

Chatsworth stood in for Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which has always come with an asterisk in my mind because, in the book, Elizabeth visited Chatsworth on the same trip as when she visited Pemberley, so making them one and the same bothers my brain. Artistic license and whatnot. (Also, since the BBC version come out in 1995, and this one in 2005, does that mean that we’re due for another remake in 2015?)

Nevertheless, while Colin Firth is always going to be the Mr. Darcy for me, the Keira-Knightley-as-Elizabeth version is handy to keep around when I want to watch Pride and Prejudice, but I don’t have 5 hours to spare. Plus, even though it deviates from the book quite a bit more (and takes excessive liberties with the language and propriety of the time period), it’s a fair trade for the image of Matthew Macfadyen striding across that field at dawn or saying “Pardon me, madam, for taking up so much of your time” after she lambasts him under the folly’s shelter in a downpour.

Unlike Lyme Park, Chatsworth was used for both interior and exterior shots during filming. I always loved the image of Elizabeth walking in across the entryway floor, so it was fun to do that myself.

It seemed like an opportune moment for a selfie…

And to look out across the lawn toward the fountain in the lake…

Most of all, I was eager to see the Raffaelle Monti sculpture, “A Veiled Vestal Virgin.”

Elizabeth stops to admire it in the movie, and I was fascinated by it when I watched. Seeing it in person, it is no easier to believe that it is made completely of marble than it was when seeing it on film. I feel like I have to reiterate this point: the entire statue – including the veil over her face – is sculpted from marble. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It’s breathtaking.

I’m not sure whose terrible idea it was to rest all of the statues in Chatsworth’s sculpture room on pepto-bismol-pink stands. The movie fixed this – presumably by CGI. I thought about Photo-shopping it, myself, but figured I’d go with what it actually looked like.

Chatsworth kept the bust of Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy after the movie was finished, and it is currently on display in the gift shop with an amusing sign that reads: “Please do not kiss.” I am sure that happened more than once to incite the notice.

Having completed the house tour and bought too many souvenirs from the gift shop, I went outside to walk around the grounds. I immediately found a flower bed full of purple hyacinth – it’s like they were expecting me!

Over my right shoulder is the staircase Macfadyen’s Darcy ran down in pursuit of Elizabeth and the terrace where they had their subsequent awkward “and your parents are in good health?” chat.

We had yet one more adventure to experience after leaving Chatsworth, which is that when we made it to Wales (three countries in one day!), the navigation system on the car threw us an impossibly long string of directions about where to “leave the roundabout” and “turn immediately” that, had we been given a month to memorize it, we couldn’t have kept it all straight. This led to a lot of circling the roundabout and inevitably going the wrong way. It was dark and we were exhausted, but luckily I’m a big dork who over-prepares for everything, so I pulled out my much-disparaged Google maps and routed us directly to our hotel, where we were both quite happy to tuck in for the night.

[TO BE CONTINUED: Tune in next week to see what kind of shenanigans our heroines get into in Wales and on the drive to London.]