Days: 449-456 (17 September 2015-24 September 2015)
Total distance travelled: 120,372.5 kilometres (74,765.5 miles)
We’d done well we’d thought in scoring cheap flights from Iceland to the UK, London to be precise, although our short flight from Keflavik to Gatwick suddenly found itself behind schedule…
Asked to circle due to high traffic (I’m not sure what made the traffic heavier than scheduled), we suddenly found ourselves above southern England, Brighton and the coast below us, and several other aircraft circling the skies as company.
England was basically a transit stop for us between Iceland and our further adventures in Morocco, a week to relax a little after our hectic schedule and for us (having done a lot of the tourist sights in our last visit), also a chance to catch up with friends.
We had free beds arranged through a relative of Sarah’s, however those beds were not to be available for our first couple of nights in town.
A Facebook message out to anybody we knew who may be living in or around London got us sorted for that handful of days, whilst Julie (Sarah’s mum) arranged for herself a room in a small B&B.
So after our brief delay in the skies above, we touched down at Gatwick, made our way through the usual airport business (where we watched a Spanish speaker get turned back at immigration) before grabbing ourselves tube tickets into town.
We were armed with directions, but it was fairly late by the time we’d made it into central London, then out to Chiswick.
Fortunately the street we were headed was only a few minutes from the station, so we’d soon be indoors and finally relaxing. Or so we thought…
Strolling along the street, it all seemed so easy, all we now need do was find number six, knock on the door (or press the doorbell) and wait to see our friends James and Lou.
Only for some reason, there was no number six… we retraced our steps. Number two, number four, number eight.
Definitely no number six!
We could hardly check the other side of the street, as it was a supermarket, so we did a loop around the whole block, just on the off chance there was an entrance on a different aspect.
I should point out that Sarah’s phone was already dead before this misadventure, so we had no way of contacting our friends for directions.
We were tired, it was half ten at night and who knows where we were going to go.
Thank fuck it wasn’t raining.
With little else to do, we consulted a random figure on the street, but he was no wiser than us, which left us with a final roll of the dice.
We’d knock on the door of one of the nearby houses, and hope they perhaps knew the location of their mysterious neighbours with a missing street address.
That’s how we found ourselves knocking on a random London door (it happened we’d decided on number eight), or more accurately, pressing their doorbell.
Maybe half a minute later, the door opens, and there stands our friend Lou.
Turns out, she’d given us the wrong address!
With the prospect of us roughing it in the London streets now averted, we briefly caught up with Lou (James was incredibly, still at work) before letting her get to bed whilst we did the same.
It had been a long day!
So with both James and Lou at work the following day as well (we’re pretty sure James may have snuck in a couple of hours sleep in somewhere, somehow), we let ourselves rise late, before grabbing ourselves a couple of Oyster Cards (fare cards used on London’s public transit network) to see us through the week.
And despite my earlier claims to the contrary, our first stop, was a tourist site!
Somehow, despite seeing it, and being right beside it, last time we’d visited, I’d not set foot on Tower Bridge!
To get there, we’d had to take shelter from a heavy downpour in the relative tranquility of an old church, and even during our approach there was some light drizzle, but we couldn’t let that deter us.
With no further destination in mind, we savoured the chance to simply wander the area on either side of the riverbank, exploring old cobbled streets, marveling at the gentrification of these former warehouse districts.
We eventually crossed back across the river, where we continued our wanderings along the north side of the Thames River.
It also allowed us to stumble on a little London gem we’d never seen before, St Katharine Docks.
The drizzly skies soon parted, treating us to patches of blue that only made this beautiful, historic area look even more wonderful.
Of course the opportunity to indulge in a delicious chocolate chip cookie as we meandered didn’t hurt either!
Not so far away, we also stumbled upon a roughly eighteen hundred year old piece of the city’s history we’d missed years earlier, surprising given how close we’d already been (ridiculously close to the Tower of London).
Apparently built around 200 AD, right in the heart of Tower Hill sits one of the best preserved sections of the original Roman wall that once protected their city of Londinium.
We moved along quickly, settling on a destination we had in fact visited two and a bit years ago, however this was all for a good cause.
Since our time in Peru (that’s pushing five months ago now), we’d been on the chase for Paddington (that lovable bear from deepest, darkest Peru) for the daughter of a couple of good friends of ours.
Back in London, we had a pretty good hunch that we knew where we could find him, although just to keep us on our toes, thanks to station renovations, he most certainly wasn’t in the same place we’d seen him last!
Our day was rounded out with an evening of beer and burgers, finally catching up with James and Lou properly, in their local Chiswick surrounds.
Absent mindedly, I managed to not take a single photo to commemorate the occasion…
Thankfully the night wasn’t too big, meaning no sore heads were found when we roused ourselves on what was a beautifully sunny morning.
We’d read (courtesy of the free newspapers we’d pick up whilst riding the tube) that this particular weekend coincided with Open House London, something that sounded remarkably similar to our own Melbourne Open House back home, where the public gets rare access to many public and private buildings.
In the end it all seemed a bit too hard to try and lock in destinations, so we instead opted to head towards the Camden Markets and see what all the fuss (it tends to be well regarded) is about.
As it happened, not long after strolling out of St Pancras Station, we stumbled on an Open House London location without even meaning to!
This was the wonderfully leafy St Pancras Church, and although it was a lovely place to visit, it was the random bit of history I learned whilst there that stuck with me most.
Are you familiar with William Franklin? The illegitimate son of that famous American founding father Benjamin (yes, the guy on the US $100.00 bill)?
Well I’m sure many of you, like I, had little knowledge of him.
Things didn’t end so well between Benjamin and his son from another woman, as both found themselves in opposing camps during the revolutionary war (William was the last governer of New Jersey, and a staunch loyalist).
Williams days ended in exile in England, and what has this to do with our visit to St Pancras Church? Why this is where his body rests!
Where exactly, remains a mystery, as the grave location and headstone has been long lost.
Intrigued by the story, we carried on our merry way.
In truth, the Camden Market was pretty average (well we thought), primarily knock off brand name clothes and slogan laden T-Shirts (although I did enjoy one with the caption ‘Too stupid to understand Science? Try Religion!’) so it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted our already low levels of interest.
Thankfully the Camden Lock was not surprisingly, pretty close as well, and here at least, the Saturday looked a whole lot more interesting.
Unfortunately we’d only recently eaten, however it would be a flat out lie if I said we hadn’t almost been tempted by the smorgasbord of delectable offerings available in what was a most impressive food market.
The array of international cuisines was impressive.
German, Thai, Colombian, Mexican, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Vegan… they also catered for those trendy fads such as Paleo as well and the smells, they had us salivating.
But we held out (with the benefit of hindsight we wondered why), and finished our explorations around Camden by watching a vessel actually use the lock.
From here we made our way back towards Shoreditch, that pretty trendy area of London popular with all the young and beautiful people.
I was keen to do some train spotting, however we were looking solely above ground.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a tube train we sought… confused much?
I was eager to track down a place known as Village Underground (although I didn’t know that then), a community space whose showpiece is a collection of old tube trains (and shipping containers, but they’re not as cool) atop an old railway viaduct.
Eventually it was found, and to our surprise, it too was a part of Open House London!
So having discovered this, there was no way we weren’t going in to take a look!
As you might expect, the place had a very grungy, hipster kind of thing going on, but that didn’t bother me at all.
After all, we’re talking about people working in trains on a roof! How totally cool!
The biggest downside I could see would be the heat in summer and the cold in the winter, but when you’ve got views for inspiration, I’m sure the artists and other folk that use this space, aren’t complaining all that much!
Across the road sat another hip place, an old lot turned foodies haven (again think hipster hangout), Dinerama.
Behind its brick walls sat an assortment of food trucks and pop up bars/restaurants, again utilising that industrial chic look of old shipping containers, bare wood and polished (or even rough) concrete.
Again the smells were good, but looking (or eating and drinking) this cool came with a price tag we weren’t prepared to pay… so on we went!
The Old Spitalfields Market was our final port of call for the day, and given that the early afternoon had now passed us by, the place wasn’t really in full swing.
My excitement to snap a photo of a Union Jack dog kerchief (for Sarah’s mum who was looking for a gift for her dog) saw me run afoul of the stallholder, until she got caught up in my excitement and instead offered me her business card.
We took notes on a meat pie franchise that was running a parallel meat pie competition for the duration of the Rugby World Cup (they had a specific pie to represent each nation) which was on in England and Wales at the time, and then it was time to rest our weary legs… only we couldn’t, being forced to stand in our crowded tube train for the ride back to Chiswick.
It was in fact our last night in Chiswick, with us bidding farewell to our friends James and Lou before moving on to our new pad in the swanky suburb of Parsons Green.
From there, back to back day excursions out of the capital followed, first to visit Saint Albans with its Roman ruins and to lunch with the MacKenzie’s, the family of Sarah’s brother’s wife (who is also named Sara, as well as being English).
The following day was a wet affair which saw us venture down to Winchester to both visit the famous cathedral of the same name, as well as to lunch at the River Cottage Cafe.
Back in London, it was all about catch ups with friends new and old.
The evening of our Saint Albans visit saw Sarah and I return a little early, eager as I was to catch up with Saya, a friend from home I’d not seen in probably six or seven years (as she’d spent a lot of that time living in New Zealand)!
It was the same again the following night, as the evening (or was it late afternoon, hard to tell when the Sun starts setting early) found us near Marble Arch catching up with three lovely English ladies met during our travels.
Nicky and Lizzie we’d rubbed shoulders with in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador, and although the third, Georgia we’d spent time with only in Mexico, it was a treat to be able to see them all!
Around these catch ups were visits to the IWM (Imperial War Museum) which had been closed for refurbishment on our last visit, which after initially showing reluctance towards, Sarah joined me in patronising (or it is completely possible she was just being patronising to me).
I won’t bore you with the particulars, lest your eyes glaze over as Sarah’s likely would, however the impressive area was most certainly the Great War (World War I) exhibits, whilst in truth, the rest was a little small for my liking, and also the floor plan was really odd…
We paid homage to one of London’s forgotten heroes in the form of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, whose engineering of the London sewers helped save London from its crippling cholera outbreaks, a small bust facing the River Thames hardly a grand monument, but perhaps fitting as his sewers helped cleanse an at the time, putrid river.
A brief flirtation with the idea of visiting the houses of parliament was quickly abandoned due to the outrageous price-tag, before afternoon showers saw us seek refuge in the National Portrait Gallery.
As far as art galleries go, this is the sort of place that I do like. The opportunity to look upon figures both of fame and unknown throughout history is a like a window into the past, especially from the time before film and photography.
In no hurry to rouse ourselves the following day, our second last full day in England, we’d decided to visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Greenwich, a place we’d inexplicably never before been.
When we’d explained our plans to Georgia the previous night, she was keen to join, so we arranged a place to meet and a loose time, promptly got confused where the meeting place actually was, before finally meeting near the Cutty Sark.
I’m sure we’re not the only three friends left in the world, but the Cutty Sark is indeed one of only three nineteenth century clippers left, so after gazing for a bit, we got wandering.
We wandered around, our path taking us through a maritime museum that was nice enough, but we were all a bit too tired to really get into the spirit of it (possibly one too many drinks last night), so we soon moved on, slowly making our way towards the Royal Observatory.
When we got to the gate and discovered the entrance price, we decided we were happy enough to look through the fence, immediately abandoning any plans to straddle the Prime Meridian!
We made our way back downhill, after of course taking in the views over London, instead entering the grounds of the old Royal Naval College.
The price was right (entrance was free), and the building beautiful.
We enjoyed the lovely painted halls and ceilings (where we goofed around with a few mirrors), before figuring we were done and making our way back down to the river.
It really wasn’t all that far.
The afternoon shadows were by now long, but we decided to walk a little further after spotting signs to a statue of… Peter the Great!
History may remember him as a great Tsar of Russia who modernised Russia… but here on the banks of the Thames, he’s been immortalised as a pin head!
Oddly accompanied by what appeared to be a baby wielding a rattle, Peter the Great has been cast in bronze, with a tiny head!
Having not met her Kiwi (that would be someone from New Zealand) husband when we’d earlier caught up, that night saw us back in London for dinner with Saya and Greg.
The previous occasion had also been post an All-Blacks Rugby match, so there was a posse of friends as well, so with just the four of us, it made conversation a lot easier as well!
We were spoilt as well, as they insisted on paying for dinner as well, pointing out that we were the pauper backpackers this time round!
Hopefully we can reciprocate when they’re next in Melbourne… assuming we are as well!
There was daylight enough still in our London window to squeeze in a little more, and it was back to sightseeing at some of the city’s wonderful institutions.
First up was the V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum), which is apparently home to the world’s largest collection of decorative arts and design (so said Wikipedia).
It was not only a beautiful building, but also a wonderful collection that kept us interested until we felt it time to pop next door and see its neighbour, the Natural History Museum.
Another just as impressive structure, but wow, what a welcome you receive.
Immediately, one of the stars of the museum makes itself known, a huge cast (yes, it’s not an original dinosaur one can see) of a Diplodocus!
Their collection of dinosaurs is a huge drawcard, but we spent time wandering precious and not so precious minerals, gemstones and jewellery displays as well.
Sadly for us, a large whale display we’d been intent on was closed for refurbishment, but after several hours between the two, we felt all out of gas!
A farewell dinner with our new hosts was to follow, generously paid for by Julie (Sarah’s mum) and at the wonderful Spring inside the stately Somerset House.
The wine flowed, a beautiful meal was had in good company, and seemingly, just like that, we bid our farewells to London and England until next time…
* We managed to get a good deal on our WOWAir flights from Reykjavik to London Gatwick, with fares for $116.92 US (including $38.00 US each for checked baggage) per person.
* An Oyster railway card costs a £5.00 deposit, whilst our weekly Zones 1-3 transport pass cost us £42.00 each.