A 5 hour train ride brought me to the epicenter of the United Kingdom: London. Compared to Edinburgh and the cities of Ireland, London was massive. It was honestly a bit overwhelming at first. There were people everywhere! From Euston train station, it was a 3 mile walk down to my hostel on the south bank of the Thames. En route, I passed many iconic landmarks including Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben.
The hostel I would be staying at the next 3 days was a 2 minute walk from the London Eye and about 5 minutes to Westminster Palace. Talk about a good location! After settling in, I headed to the West End. I was side tracked for a bit in Trafalgar Square by an incredible break dancing group who were doing some amazing acrobatics. After the free show, I grabbed some dinner in nearby Chinatown before heading to the New London Theatre to see War Horse. It was one of the best performances I have ever seen. The horses were operated by 3 people each and their movements were incredibly realistic. Even the horse’s ears moved! It was a great way to start off my visit.
I started the next morning off with a run along the Thames (pronounced TEMZ) River. Both sides have embankments lined with shops, restaurants, and pubs. While very busy later in the day, the morning was mostly just other fellow runners. I refueled with a wonderful breakfast at the hostel and then headed to Westminster Abbey, mostly beating the crowds. Founded in 960 as a monastery, the construction of the present church was started in 1245 by Henry III. Over the centuries, it has been the site for coronations and royal weddings, as well as the burial place for monarchs and other nobles.
While the outside of the Abbey is rather unremarkable, the inside is spectacular. Even for a non-religious like me, it was a fantastic visit. From there, I went to a more recent important site- the Churchill War Rooms. This was a fantastic museum with many great exhibitions about Winston Churchhill and the men and women who helped Britain win the second World War. After this visit, I had a bomb ass Lebanese sandwich for lunch and attempted to get into the Natural History Museum.The line, however, was out the door so I went on to Kensington Palace. This was not that impressive though, so I chose to take a stroll through Hyde Park instead. For being such a large and populated city, London really does have some great green spaces.
That night, I spent some time wandering through Covent Garden and watching some more street performers. Then I attended another play:The Woman in Black. It was just as creepy as the Daniel Radcliffe movie and had some really intense scenes.
My third day in London was dedicated to “the city”. Considered to be its own city and county, the City of London was where the original Roman City, Londinium, was first founded. I started my day off with a visit to the Tower of London. A historic castle in every sense, it has served as a prison, a royal residence, and is now home to the country’s most famous jewelry, the Crown Jewels. I was whisked along the famous sceptre, necklace, and crowns on a slow moving belt; briefly glimpsing each behind thick panes of glass. I then walked the grounds and the walls of the castle, popping into various exhibits. The largest tower held a vast collection of armor and weapons, a dungeon displayed torture devices such as the rack and the scavenger´s daughter, and a third talked about the animals that kings and queens had kept there. Among the lions and monkeys, there was once a polar bear who was chained to a long iron chain that allowed him to dive into the river and feed on the fish!
A short walk from the Tower of London was Tower Bridge. Dubbed the most famous bridge in the world, it took 8 years and 30,000 tons of stone to build. Its unique drawbridge style was needed to allow cargo ships to access the docks just up river. My experience included a walk across the upper tower, a section of which is simply panes of glass, giving you a neat view of the cars and pedestrians below.
From one bridge to another, I moved on to the London Bridge Experience. It was a weird mix of historical information and haunted house. In between corny scenes of gore, actors taught us much about the oldest bridge in London. London bridge was first built by the Romans and has been in existence for over 2,000 years. For a long time, it was the only way to cross the Thames in the city. The children´s song “The London Bridge is falling down” originates from when Vikings raided the city and literally dragged the bridge down with ropes. While the haunted house left me pretty disappointed, it was a decent experience overall.
From there, I climbed 311 steps to the top of The Monument. At 202 feet, the monument commemorates the Great Fire of 1666 by being the exact distance between it and the bakery on Pudding Lane where the fire originated. After a long day running around, I was treated to a few free beers in a pub along the South Bank of the Thames. Then it was time for a performance of Measure for Measure at Shakespeare´s Globe Theatre. My “peasant” ticket got me a standing place near the stage and in the open air of the thatched roof theatre. When the performance started, I was pleasantly surprised with how the actors interacted with the crowd. When two actors were pretending to go at it in a nearby shack, I was asked by a drunken actor if I was next in line. Playing along, I nodded approval and was nearly shoved in with them! The performance was rowdy, dramatic, and hysterical; everything a Shakespeare comedy should be. While it was tough to stand for 3 hours, at only $5- totally worth it!
I took it a bit easy the next day, enjoying a long cruise down the Thames to Greenwich. It was wonderfully informative with plenty of great views. In Greenwich, I visited the National Maritime Museum and watched the ball drop, announcing 1 o´clock Mean Time. Apparently, this is where the term “on the ball” comes from. I ate some great Spanish street food before returning back to Westminster pier. On the way back, the commentator explained how Romans actually first dictated that people drive on the left. Back in the day, Roman generals commanded their soldiers to march on the left so it was easier to fend off an attack with their right hand. Surprisingly, 35% of countries now-a-days drive on the left, though it is mostly island nations who were once colonized by Great Britain. That night, I met Nichole and Alex, an awesome Australian couple. We drank at the hostel bar and another place down the street, having a great night along the way!
Stonehenge and Bath
On my final full day, I left the sprawling metropolis of London and took a bus into the countryside. Our first stop was Bath, site of the famous Roman Baths. While I chose not to enter the baths, I spent my time in Bath Abbey and wandering around the ancient town. The river Avon cut a beautiful path through the city and both banks were lined with trees and green spaces. I had an official Cornish pasty for lunch, probably the best of my life. I enjoyed it on an outdoor patio while chatting with a friendly Brit.
Back on the bus, we headed to the main attraction:
Around 5,000 years ago- long before the pyramids- a Neolithic people began raising a “henge” of grass on this site. In the center, they shaped and stacked huge stones into the unique formation that still stands today. These 30+ ton blocks of stone were hauled in from a site in Wales around 280 km away, via boats and makeshift barges. This whole process likely took hundreds of years and thousands of workers. Pretty incredible! On the way back, I found myself jealous of a family who described their day at the Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio! Next time!
A nice run along the Thames and a walk to King´s Cross Station completed my UK experience. Instead of standing in line at platform 9 & 3/4s, I devoured another pasty and watched some wonderful juggling performances. Then it was time for my Eurostar train on the Chunnel to Paris. The next day I would be meeting my girlfriend in the city of love. Pretty fitting hey?