We have been in London for almost two weeks now, and are still very much in the “we can’t believe we are here and doing this” stage. As we mentioned in an earlier post we purchased the 10-day London Passes and decided we would be tourists for this two week period. Through this post, and the next, we will give you an overview of some of the sights we visited and our own impressions and reactions.
The flight “across the pond” was uneventful but tiring. We left St. John’s, Newfoundland at midnight and 4.5 hours later landed at Gatwick Airport. We had our train route picked out ahead of time and were able to catch a Thameslink train to London Bridge Station, and from there it was an easy bus ride to get us close to our apartment. We arrived around lunch time and immediately knew we were going to be happy in the cozy lower flat of a Victorian terrace home in Stoke Newington.
After an initial day of getting groceries, finding our way around the neighborhood and some relaxation we were ready to start exploring. But where to begin? One of the positive aspects of the London Pass is that it gives you free access to over 60 popular attractions. Of course you then have to decide which ones are right for you and once it is activated the 10 days have to be used consecutively.
We decided to make it easy on ourselves and start with the ones that were easily accessible by bus. Using the essential Oyster Card we could get on any bus, underground or train within the city limits. Of course the farther from the city center you travel the more expensive the fares are. The following are some of the attractions we were able to visit free of charge.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London was completed in 1677 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The 311 steps of the spiral staircase certainly tested our legs first thing in the morning, but the views were very impressive and a great way to see Central London.
Southwark Cathedral is London’s oldest Gothic building, the main structure being built between 1220 and 1420. One of the fascinating aspects of London is the juxtaposition of medieval and modern structures. Just a few blocks away stands The Shard which is the tallest building in Europe. The Borough Market next to Southwark has a good variety of international street food at fairly reasonable prices.
The London Bridge Experience is billed as one of the scariest attractions in the city. While it was well done, and quite informative, we would have been disappointed if we had to pay the full £27 admission fee.
One of our favorites so far was a visit to the HMS Belfast. This World War II warship is an iconic piece of Bankside and should be a part of your visit if you have an interest in naval or nautical history. We found it to be entertaining, educational and very well interpreted.
One of the most famous bridges in the world, the Tower Bridge is a wonderful example of a combined bascule and suspension bridge. The story of the bridge, which was completed in 1894 is told through an interpretive exhibition in one of the towers. A recent addition are glass floors in the walkways between the towers. We couldn’t help ourselves but to join the countless tourists in posing beneath the mirrors or photographing ourselves above the river and street traffic many feet below.
City Cruises is one of several Thames cruise and ferry operators between Central London and Greenwich. A full day pass is included with the London Pass so we opted to visit Greenwich which holds several treasures, especially for nautical enthusiasts. The ensemble of buildings and parks form Maritime Greenwich, a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and the Queen’s House form the Royal Museums Greenwich, and are each fascinating in their own right but it is the feeling of living history you get that captivates you.
The critical role that Greenwich played in British (and world) maritime history can be felt and seen as you wander through Greenwich. The views are exceptional across the museum, Queen’s House and the Old Royal Naval College with the modern skyline of London as a backdrop.
Particularly emotional for us was the Nelson display in the Maritime Museum which includes the uniform he was wearing at the fateful but ultimately victorious Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. You can see the small hole in his uniform in the top left shoulder where the bullet entered piercing his lungs and lodging in his spine.
The voyage between Central London and Greenwich is equally as educational. Narrated by staff you learn some of the fascinating history of the pubs, wharves, docks and other structures along the riverfront. A popular example is the Captain Kidd pub which is named for the notorious pirate who was executed nearby on the gallows of Execution Dock.
We could not come to England and London without doing our utmost to see a proper football match. We are big fans of the Premier League, however tickets for matches are extremely hard to obtain, unless you are a member or buy an expensive travel package. So we were extremely lucky to get tickets to a Championship League fixture between Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers.
As we walked down the street approaching Loftus Road Stadium we were pinching ourselves and asking again “are we really here?” The obvious pride and enthusiasm we observed in the Londoners going to a match was infectious. This may have been a regular event for them, but for us it was huge!
We had excellent seats, just a few rows from the pitch where we could hear the players calling to one another, the calls of encouragement or derision from the supporters around us and see the expression on the referee’s face as he made his calls.
To try and sum up how we are feeling now, over a week into our new life it really still is amazement, excitement and thankfulness. We know already that we do not like the life of tourists and it is not what we have chosen over the long term. We are much more comfortable with taking our time, exploring local neighborhoods, meeting strangers and doing occasional day trips.
We have been enjoying London however and are amazed by the cultural diversity represented here, the ease of access to transportation and believe it or not by the great weather we have had! We’ll summarize our London experience in the next post and thank you for following along with us.