We flew out of Oakland, non stop, for 10.5 hours!! We arrived in Gatwick airport, went through customs, exchanged our $ for £, then had to figure out how to get to our hotel. We hopped on a train, then negotiated a confusing array of underground stations and transfers, with 3 large pieces of luggage and being super tired from not sleeping on the plane. It was surreal.
When we finally got there, we were tired and hungry and more than a bit overwhelmed and lost. We settled our luggage, and headed out on foot in search of food. We ended up eating gnocchi at an Italian restaurant, and stopping at Tesco for incidentals, which ended up including a Kinder egg.
Even totally exhausted, Annie was happy to find a kinder egg. Ridiculous that they aren't allowed in the US!
We stayed at the Pax Lodge, one of the World Centers of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. While there, we participated in a flag ceremony. Annie is now the proud owner of the Pax Lodge pin, which cannot be bought or traded, and can only be worn by those who have visited Pax Lodge.
She didn't wear her vest aside from during the ceremony, because it wasn't an official Girl Scout trip. And because well, it's tan.
We spent our first real day in England trying to figure out the underground transportation. We had Oyster cards, which got us basically unlimited travel within our specified area. We wanted to go to the Portobello Road Market. But, all the lines that our front desk person showed us were closed for maintenance for the weekend. It took us over an hour of riding back and forth and making mistakes to figure it out, but we did it!
We ate from street vendors, bought fake items, bought souvenirs for 1£ each, saw the dude riding his bike shirtless far too many times, watched performers, and tried to go with the flow. We did draw the line at using the pay toilet kiosk. We ended the day with a nighttime Jack the Ripper tour through Whitechapel. It was quite informative and entertaining. The tour guide earned her pay with her dramatic re telling of the events, and trekking us all over. At one point she was talking over another tour group. It was a good thing we spent so much time in the morning figuring out the tube stops, as the tour just abruptly ended nowhere near where it began. We followed other people in our group to the nearest stop and navigated our way back.
The next day we had a London Pass, which got us into exhibits. We picked it up at Leicester Square, then wandered over to find all of this in one place, Trafalgar Square. It was awesome. And no, we don't know those people.
We went to St. James park, saw Buckingham Palace (no changing of the guards, they had some work being done), toured Wellington Arch, and then meandered over to the Tower Bridge. We took the tour, walked the top level, Annie jumped on the plexiglass floor like a crazy lady, and then we went to the Tower of London. It was a busy day. By the end, Annie was unimpressed by the Crown Jewels. Yeah, yeah, we get it, you are rich.
Most of the pictures were taken with the actual camera, so I can't remember what we did on which day. But above was Hyde Park station. What you don't see is the shopping bag of vomit shoved under a bench. Good times.
We decided that even though it wasn't included with the pass, we wanted to go on the London Eye. Neither of us like heights, but we can say we did it. It was an impressive view. And also very sunny.
One of the days, we went on a hop on hop off bus tour. We went to the "new" Globe Theater and took a tour. It was very informative. No pictures though. A Theater troupe was rehearsing while we were touring the stage and seating, and apparently it's not ok to take pics while people rehearse. Which is dumb because we wanted pics of the stage, not the people, dang it!
Anywho, after that, we hopped on the bus, which was supposed to take us to Kensington Palace, except the bus was having issues. We had to switch buses, and the replacement had its narrative all messed up, and missed the stop. We had to walk very fast about a kilometre to get back to the bus stop, and from there to Kensington, before it closed. Of course, we made it or the story would be rather pointless.
We enjoyed strolling through the open parts of the building. The speakers were going out in one of the halls, so all we experienced was creepy disembodied giggling, and fancy life sized paper replicas of ball gowns. Lovely.
We got to see beds where monarchs died, painted masterpieces, lots of gold everywhere (we get it, you are rich!). The whole place had kind of a weird vibe going on. We were able to see Diana: Her Fashion Story. Annie didn't know much about Diana, so it was informative, but really just sad.
Afterward, our feet hurt so we hung out by the Albert Memorial for a bit, looking at the Royal Albert Hall. We decided to walk to Harrod's. It was a lot longer than it seemed on the bus, just for general info.
Harrod's was huge. It was intimidating. We bought an elephant. A stuffed one, for Howard. He's always wanted to go to Harrod's. Then, we were really tired, and hangry, and still faced the underground trip back to Hampstead, where we were staying. We ended up eating in Hampstead, grabbing a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Express. It's not American pizza, even though that's what we ordered. We ate it anyway, and then played games in the common room.
The next day, we found our way to Paddington Station, to catch our train to Wales. We made it with about 4 minutes to spare. It was long, but we passed the time by working in a sudoku book from the Oakland airport. We had figured out the underground in our zones of London, but Wales was something else. The signs were in Welsh and English, but we had no frame of reference for which platform or which direction the connections headed. Thankfully, a rail worker took pity on us and explained which trains to take.
We got turned around a bit in Cardiff. Thankfully, all the bus stops have decent maps, so we walked until we found one. Then once we found the entrance to Torchwood, an American girl gave us more directions, and some tips, and we finally found our way to the Doctor Who Experience.
We had a bit to wait until our tour, so we killed time measuring our handprints against the actors'.
The actual experience was fun. We were in a little simulation and had to solve it and find clues. Then we went and played in the museum.
Annie got to climb in a Dalek.
Most people just strolled through, but we spent as much time there as we could. How often are we going to go back to Wales, really?
We saw many versions of the Tardis.
It was fun and I would do it again.
Doctor Who and Torchwood is/were filmed in Cardiff. In Torchwood, one of the characters is killed near the bay. The crazy and amazing fandom has set up a shrine to the character, who died in 2009. It's still going strong. The people of Cardiff keep it up. It's quite amazing, actually. And no, the actor didn't die or anything.
Back in England, we went to King's Cross Station to go to Platform 9 3/4. After we did that bit, we found some "Mexican food." It was pretty good, especially after all the bacon sandwiches we had been eating.
We went to Windsor Castle one day, but apparently I took no pictures. We rode another overground train. And yes, they really do come by with a trolley of snacks and drinks to purchase, just like in Harry Potter. We did not buy the lot.
At Windsor Castle, we stopped for a bit in the chapel, and stood where Henry VIII was buried, along with Jane Seymore and Charles I. It was kind of morbid, having all the dead monarchs buried there. It made me think about my own mortality while I looked at all the tombs. But then I needed to go and hustled to find a toilet. Crisis averted. I then tried to get Annie to take a picture of armour, but she got yelled at by a guard. Oops. There was a big display of a huge dollhouse, but at that point we knew better than to try and take a picture.
On our last day of our pass, we did something called the London Bridge Experience. It never said what it was, so we figured it would be educational. Hah! It turned out to be a horror/fright walk, complete with creepy dudes who follow you around breathing on you, and claustrophobia walks through narrow spaces. Totally not my thing or Annie's. We lived, and were quite glad that it was still light when we got out.
On our actual last day, we walked around some of our favourite places. We went and looked at 221b Baker Street. We went and saw Beauty and the Beast at the Everyman cinema. We sat in the second row.
We were able to hear Big Ben chime 11am. It was unplanned, and so much better because of it.
We stopped at Costa Coffee and people watched for about an hour. They had the best coffee and lemon pastries. We ended up trying all of the lemon pastries over the course of our trip.
Finally, we headed back to Trafalgar Square. We stood in front of the National Gallery and watched people come and go. We also saw two guys get into a fight, so that was free entertainment right there.
We eventually made our way back home to our hotel and made peace with going home the next day.
We didn't use any travel agency. Annie said she wanted to experience the trip independently. We (she) did all our own research and booking. It was an amazing trip. If it weren't for the money spent, and the knowledge of the heinous 12 hour flight back home and the terrible jet lag. We'd do it again in a heartbeat.