August 27-29, September 8
London was exactly like I imagined it would be — red buses, black cabs, grey clouds, gold E II R monograms. I spent the first three days of my trip doing hardcore touring around London before heading off to Dublin and Paris, and I returned to London for a long layover on the last night of my trip. It was a good transitional city; similar enough to the U.S. that I didn’t feel completely out of my depth, but different enough that it still felt European and a little bit adventurous.
London was a great place for me to test out solo travel; everyone (obviously) spoke English so it was easy to ask for directions or to order a cup of coffee. Before the trip, I had decided that I wasn’t nervous about being on my own – in fact, I felt pretty confident about my ability to handle most situations that might arise. I fully expected there to be some disaster – a missed flight, a lost bag, a stolen wallet – that I would have to deal with, but I was pleasantly surprised by the end of the trip when nothing had spooled out of control. The thing that most concerned me about traveling alone, however, was meals. I was anxious about walking in to a restaurant by myself, about sitting at a table and staring at people, about drinking a lonely beer and having no one to tell about my day.
On my first evening in London, I found a pub that was hosting a Monday night pub quiz. I play trivia every Tuesday night at home, but I decided against using my regular team’s name (The Irish Car Bombers). Probably not appropriate. The team names at the pub had to be Olympic-themed, so my team name was “I’m Playing This On Tape Delay.” The waitstaff decided that I had the best name of the night (of the four teams playing), so I won a Jane McDonald CD — roughly equivalent to winning a Ruben Studdard CD. I also won a DVD of a program called “DaVinci’s Secrets,” which probably wouldn’t even play in an American DVD player if I ever felt the urge to watch it. I brought my prizes home anyhow.
Some other highlights from my time in London:
Platform 9 ¾
Picture me standing sheepishly at the information desk at Kings Cross Station.
“This is a super silly question but I’m sure it gets asked a million times a day…could you tell me where—“ “Yes, love, Platform 9 ¾? It’s just to the right, just there.”
One of the best parts of traveling alone is being able to buzz through museums really quickly if they are boring. You don’t feel bad for hurrying a companion along, and in London, you really don’t feel bad for only hitting the highlights of museums because most of them are free. On one of my days in London, I managed to visit five different museums.
The British Library was one of my favorites, and for a book nerd like me, it was especially cool. I loved seeing handwritten Beatles lyrics on the back of birthday cards, a surprisingly large Gutenberg Bible, and Magna Carta. The British Museum was huge, but thanks to my Rick Steves book I was able to move through the highlights of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria relatively painlessly. I’m always startled by how close you can get to some of the most ancient stuff museums have, and the British Museum was no different. Tourists dangle arms and cameras over the ledges of Egyptian burial cases and lean against pillars that are literally thousands of years old, but I guess curators figure that people can’t possibly do much damage to some hunks of rock that sat out in the desert for a few millennia.
Sir John Soane’s Museum was an odd, fun stop in the home of one of London’s great architects. Soane had a penchant for collecting antiquities, so he purchased three adjacent townhomes which he used as his house, his office, and a museum of his collections (and his 7,000 book library!) during his lifetime. The Victoria & Albert Museum had all sorts of stuff – everything from a DaVinci Codex to Thomas Beckett’s casket to Raphael “cartoons” to 20th century British fashions. I also stopped by the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs and gemstones) and I met an old club swimming teammate for an afternoon Tate Modern.
Tower of London & Westminster Abbey
The crown jewels were the best part of the Tower of London. I got there right when it opened, so there was no line at all to get in to see the jewels, but I’ve heard that that queue can be one of the worst tourist time-sucks in London. The Queen is a really big deal in London. Pretty much everything cool is hers, or is on loan from her. A lot of the public services are royal somethings, like the Royal Mail, and her monogram is on EVERYTHING. She’s on the money and just about every official threshold you’ll cross over. Maybe it was just all the tour guides and museum workers that I was encountering, but it seemed like people really knew their British history, too. There’s just so much to know! So many kings and queens (with the same names) and so many wars and religious shifts and colonies. I can’t even name all the presidents, and these folks are rattling off a thousand years of royalty (including parents, children, multiple marriages, and mistresses). Exhausting, but impressive.
This was most apparent at Westminster Abbey, where they have essentially run out of room for all of the famous dead people. Royalty aren’t buried there anymore – the most recent person to be interred there was Sir Laurence Olivier, and that was just his ashes. I went on a verger’s tour of Westminster, and it was the best three pounds I spent in London. We got to go behind the main altar, up a special off-limits staircase, and into the St. Edward the Confessor chapel where Will & Kate signed their wedding certificate surrounded by the tombs of English royalty. I think I may have read every single article published about the royal wedding, so I was pretty psyched to get behind-the-scenes access. Westminster had a surprisingly good gift shop, too, where I purchased an embarassingly large number of Prince Harry postcards.
On my last night in London, I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” in London’s famous West End. The show was excellent. My seat was all the way up at the back of the second balcony, and I was a little worried about the view because it was so steep and so far down to the stage, but I was able to see just fine. The best part of the show was that it actually rained. Not misty theater rain, but actual, real, firehose rain. The middley main part of the stage was sunk down about eight inches and they poured the rain down in there. It filled up and was really splashy and perfect for the big “Singin’ in the Rain” number and for the finale. The first few rows of people got ponchos on their seats because the dancers would kick and send big waves onto them. I can’t imagine how wet they must have gotten! The screenplay and the stage play were nearly identical, so it was really fun to hear something so familiar but also to see it performed live.