- Candace Ahlfinger
London Was Calling Our Names
After all the Covid-induced stress, my husband and I boarded our on-time American Airlines flight to London. We were pleasantly surprised to find we had a row to ourselves. In fact, flight attendants were kindly spreading people into different rows, so no one was crowded. Getting through Customs and Heathrow was the easiest and fastest ever. We were through the airport before our flight was even scheduled to land! We did splurge on a taxi just for ease and speed.
This visit we stayed at The Resident Covent Garden where we were greeted by the friendly, helpful staff. The hotel had a microwave, refrigerator, tea kettle, coffeemaker, and dishes—all the amenities to ensure our comfort for the week since we had decided to use London as our base. They greeted us every time we walked in the door and made us feel at home. They helped with directions and suggestions. We could not have had a better experience! After checking our bags, we had Breakfast of Eggs Royale at Ivy then wandered around Covent Garden Market to visit the small stalls and the numerous boutiques.
We had never visited the National Gallery, so it was a priority this visit. Most museums are free to visit but we did need to scan the QR code outside the museum for a ticket to get in. (This requirement may be only during Covid to limit the number of entries, but it was an easy step.) The museum had 3 easy-to-follow suggested routes to take with the artists labeled for each. At the end of the long corridor was a fabulous painting by Stubbs. I actually thought the magnificent horse, Whistlejacket by Stubbs, was a statue until we got much closer. Another favorite picture of mine was the Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Delaroche. We, along with many others, made the obligatory stop to see Gainsborough’s painting of Blue Boy which is much more impressive in person than the small copy I decoupaged for my parents when I was little.
After our visit, we walked to the Victoria Station area where we had stayed before and got a quick lunch Giraffe Restaurant. Since I was, almost literally, falling asleep in my food, we headed to our hotel for a nap before venturing out again. (I would like to say that we have a perfect way of getting over jet lag, but it seems that every trip is a little bit different.)
Feeling refreshed, we ventured out to explore the bustling Covent Garden area at night. Cafe lights lit up many streets as we enjoyed wandering the area. People spilled out onto sidewalks and streets as they enjoyed drinks from the many pubs in the area. (I would advise making reservations if you want to eat in this area on a weekend.) We found a quiet spot upstairs at The Marquis Pub. While we generally share a plate, we were both ravenous, or so we thought, so we each ordered fish, chips (aka French Fries) and English peas. We walked more after dinner before turning in early to get ready for the week ahead.
We were fortunate to have visited London several times before, so this trip was the opportunity to see a few more places in the city as well as take day trips via train. (I would have different recommendations for first time visitors.)
Our first day trip was via train to Winchester. Tickets are less expensive if you buy online in advance, but we had been so uncertain of plans that we decided to wait until the day of our trip to purchase them. (Train schedules and tickets are available online. Thetrainline.com/en ) Using Rome2rio, an app that I find very helpful in planning transportation, we found London Waterloo Station to be the best place to go. (The Tube, what the subway is called in London, is different from the train system.) A 20-minute walk, which included crossing the Thames River, got us to the station just in time to purchase round trip tickets from a real person who was extremely helpful. We had timed the walk well and immediately got on our well-kept South Western train for the 1 hour and 45-minute ride through scenic farmlands. (Just a note: South Western trains have similar colors to Southwest Airlines!) The trains even have Wi-Fi which makes the trip pass even faster.
The walk from the Winchester train station to the Cathedral is short and interesting. The Main Street and square have lots of shopping and restaurants of all types.
The Winchester Cathedral is a jewel. Admission is free on Sundays when the hours are shorter, but they do ask for a donation. Construction on the cathedral began in 1079 by the Normans and was dedicated in 1093. Many stories surround the cathedral that contains the remains of Jane Austen and various Saxon kings. A small museum provides a great deal of information about the history of the cathedral and of England.
From the cathedral we grabbed lunch at O’Neill’s Pub. (Many places required reservations for Sunday noon.) There is a Pret a Manger, a fast food restaurant that can be found everywhere in England, if you want a quick bite on the road between the cathedral and Winchester Castle.
Winchester Castle was built in 1067. Today, only the Great Hall, built later by Henry III, still stands. It is there that we found King Arthur’s Round Table hanging on one end of the cavernous room. (The table is a replica of the original thought to have been built in the late 1200s and decorated in the early 1500s under the rule of Henry VIII.) We spent a few minutes in the museum attached to the Great Hall, a few climbing down the stairs to see ancient underground passages, and a few walking back to the train station where we took the reverse trip to get back to our hotel.
For dinner we made reservations at The Shell Restaurant where we had excellent seafood. The raw oysters were large and luscious—salty with a strong flavor. We then attempted to eat the Mixed Platter for 2. While we made a good dent in it, we were not able to finish.
The next day saw us on our way to Oxford. We took the Tube at Embankment Station to Paddingtown Station where we boarded a Great Western Train to Oxford for the 1 hour 6 minute trip. It is amazing to me that there are many railroad companies operating out of London, yet you can find all the schedules together.
Even though the guidebook I had stated that the Ashmolean Museum was closed on Monday, we noticed it was open and went inside to investigate. The museum started as a group of antiquities, called a cabinet of curiosities, collected by a father and son, both gardeners and collectors for the Earl of Salisbury. Ashmole bought the collection and later donated it to Oxford University and, combined with other university collections, opened in 1683. The museum contains beautiful examples of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Assyrian works along with many others.
After our visit, we wandered around the town looking for the Visitors Centre, which we never found, but we did encounter the Covered Market and had lunch at All Bar One of an excellent grilled vegetable bowl and fried mushrooms before making our way to the self-guided tour of Christ Church. (Make reservations for tours.) The tour is very interesting and highlights several Harry Potter filming locations such as the Great Hall and the Grand Staircase.
After lunch we followed GPS to the Bodleian Library and the Bridge of Sighs, a replica of the famous bridge of the same name in Venice. Then…back to London.
We had breakfast at Paul Cafe near our hotel before walking to St. Paul’s Cathedral. (The Tube is a relatively inexpensive way to reduce the need to walk, but I enjoy looking around. The Tube will now take a credit card for entry, but two people can’t use the same credit card at the same time.) We walked down Fleet Street, originally the home to newspapers and media, before arriving at St. Paul’s Cathedral which is considered to be Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. The beautiful church is the only domed cathedral in England. In spite of its massive presence, the church was largely undamaged in the massive bombings during WWII. In fact, pictures show the devastation just steps away from the cathedral.
We enjoyed watching a field trip of uniformed 4-year-olds lying in a circle under the center of the dome and looking up as the docent told them stories of the building’s history. We climbed to the top of the dome—all 528 stairs—to walk around outside for a magnificent view of the city below. (I was hoping for the basket that was used to hoist the then 70-year-old Wren up to supervise the work—but it never materialized so we were forced to walk both up and down the narrow, steep stairs.) The self-guided audio tour ended in the crypt that contains remains and/or memorials to such notables as Admiral, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, and Florence Nightingale.
On our walk back, we had lunch at Jamie’s Wine Bar. Again, walking adds transportation time to our trip, but seeing places that I have read about adds interest. For example, we passed the Punch Pub, established in 1839 as a Gin Palace and named for the “regulars” from Punch magazine which was housed nearby.
We had tickets to see Six, the Musical so, after a quick dinner, we walked to the Vaudeville Theater. Six is very entertaining and different from traditional musicals. Dichotomies are everywhere: the dresses are traditional from the waist up, but very modern from the waist down. (Actually, the hips seem to be the dividing point.). The music had bits of What Child Is This, but the majority is pop rock. The topic is very serious and sad, but, overall, the musical is a comedy. There was no question of the enormous energy that the performers demonstrated as they sang and danced their way through the 1 ½- hour performance with no breaks. (Thanks to the first song, I may possible remember how each of Henry VIII’s wives were disposed of! Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Now if I can only remember which Ann and Katherine came where!)
After picking up breakfast at the Tesco Express grocery store around the corner, we decided to wander around for the day and see familiar sites. St. James Park gives a great opportunity for a relaxing stroll along the St. James Park Lake. The feral parakeets have invaded this park now. Even though they are considered a nuisance by some, they still draw visitors in to feed them and watch their antics. (Squirrels also seem to love them since more food is sprinkled on the ground by visitors!)
The stroll led me to Buckingham Palace for my obligatory look and picture before retracing my steps through Trafalgar Square to arrive at our hotel in Covent Garden.
Our lineup for the evening was another new adventure for us—exploring the Whitechapel area in a Jack the Ripper walking tour. We ate at a great Turkish restaurant, Efes, just outside The Aldgate East Tube Station. The halloumi, hummus, falafel, lamb, and baklava were excellent with the service matching. The restaurant was only steps away from the meeting point of our tour with M.K. (Mick) Priestley who was an excellent storyteller. We explored the places where Jack the Ripper struck with gory outcomes. (Mick had pictures of the women that he showed after providing warning of their graphic content.) He shared some of the many theories of Jack the Ripper’s identity, but nothing can ever be proven. From pictures and stories, we learned of the squalid living conditions of the area during that time that may have contributed to the brutal culmination. (Just a note: Whitechapel is now a bustling area with new buildings popping up and restaurants filled to capacity. I would love to go back and explore the neighborhood more.) We finished the tour with a pint in the upstairs room of The Bell Pub, one of several haunted pubs in the area, while we listened to the final known chapters in Jack the Ripper’s life—and of the book that Mick has written.
We took the day easy and started it at The Ivy with brunch where we ordered multiple excellent appetizers. I love appetizers!
Our goal for the afternoon was the Churchill Museum. We had been unable to buy tickets online because of a glitch in their system but visiting off season and on the heels of Covid meant there was no queue to see this underground bunker that housed Churchill and his Cabinet in a relatively safe area during WWII. It was there, under the very heart of the city, that decisions were made that affected the balance of power for the world civilizations. We spent about 2 hours exploring the bunker and the Churchill Museum within it. The audio guides that are provided with the tour do a great job of bringing the harrowing situation to life.
After the museum, we crossed the horse guard parade grounds, did a little souvenir shopping, and headed to our hotel—just in time to change clothes and get directions to our night’s destination, Le Garrick French Restaurant followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cinderella.
One of the biggest surprises of our trip happened at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber came out to welcome everyone and to explain why they had made the decision to close and reopen due to Covid. (We didn’t know when we got our tickets that this night was the reopening of the musical.) His fantastic version of Cinderella has great music, of course, and several surprises. (Enough said so I don’t ruin it for anyone.)
We had never seen Windsor Castle which we had decided to remedy as soon as we decided to make the trip. We took the train from Waterloo Station to Windsor-Eton Station (just a little over 1 hour ride) from which the walk is about five minutes long. (Windsor and Eton are only a bridge over the Thames River apart.) My husband and I enjoyed walking around Windsor and having lunch at Bill’s, one of our favorite British chains. (We were disappointed when we learned that Eaton Mess is a seasonal dessert, and the winter is not the correct season!)
And then…a tour of the massive structures that make up Windsor Castle. We had already been awestruck by the sheer size of Windsor Castle as we left the train station, but we were further impressed as we entered the castle area. (Make certain you buy tickets online before visiting, especially during busy seasons.)
We received our audio guides and began our self-paced tour of the areas open to tourists. We walked through some of the older parts of the castles seeing beautiful furniture, paintings, and decorations. We saw amazing collections of weapons, China, and gifts from foreign countries. I kept wondering how many generations of royals had played hide-and-seek using the many back passages since the castle was completed in 1528. After the tour, we visited St. George’s Chapel to see where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried. Many other royals also share this final resting place—a list too long to go into. The chapel serves as the host of the Order of the Garter, which is the most senior order of knighthood honored by the British monarchy. The flags and arms of each member are displayed at their assigned seats. The 26-member—24 members plus the ruler and the Prince of Wales—elite group, carry on a tradition that was established in 1348. (We were disappointed that none of the Royals came out to greet us, but I am certain they were busy or did not know we were there.)
At the end of our tour, we wandered around the town of Windsor, crossed the bridge to Eton, and then caught the train back to London. As we walked back to the hotel from the Waterloo Train Station, we paused on the Waterloo Bridge to take pictures of the beautiful sunset reflecting on the Thames River.
We had reservations for dinner at Giovanni’s of Covent Garden. We found the door, which is tucked away around the corner from the front of the restaurant and entered into a wonderful evening of excellent Sicilian food served with great care and personal service. (They also used a dumbwaiter which is something that always excites me!)
And on to the Tilbury Docks for our Viking Ocean Cruise In Search of the Northern Lights!