UK and Berlin, part 3b

Our second full day in London we had a few things we needed to check off our list – Westminister Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at least a walk-by of the Natural History museum. Since our hotel was so close to the Natural History Museum, we walked by it and admired its architecture and size while keeping an eye out for a possible breakfast place. We soon found Le Pain Quotidien, where Stephen got porridge and I had a soft-boiled egg with bread. I have never had a soft-boiled egg before, and didn’t quite know where to start, but I managed to enjoy it without making too much of a mess or getting bits of shell everywhere. Stephen thinks I’m silly because I have told him I don’t really like eggs, but then I persist in ordering them, or eat them when he fries a couple on Saturday mornings. I would have rather had a scone with berries and cream, but knew that the protein in an egg would stick with me longer than the sugar and carbs of a scone. And really, I just don’t like scrambled eggs. Once again, not super speedy (ie. American) service, but there was really no rush, and it was nice to just sip our coffee and take in the dreary London morning.

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From Le Pain Quotidien we hopped on the Tube at South Kensington station and off again at Westminster. This time we went straight to the Abbey, where there was already a line queue to get in. It was outrageously expensive at £18 each, and you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. Westminster is significant architecturally, but the real draw for some visitors (not us) are all the famous people buried or memorialized there. It is more shrine than sanctuary. Don’t get me wrong, it is pretty neat to be able to say we saw where numerous former monarchs (including my ancestor Mary, Queen of Scots) are buried, and notables such as Charles Darwin (ironic), Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens. But Stephen and I both agreed that the hundreds of memorials and plaques marking burials took away from the sanctity of the place.



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After spending a couple hours at Westminster, we walked along St. James’s Park to Buckingham Palace. On our way, I was stopped by a middle-aged Indian man with a camera. I thought he was going to ask me to take a picture of him and his mother. No, he wanted to take a picture of me with his mother. I have no idea why but now some family in India has a picture of me with their grandmother. Perhaps he thought I was a typical English girl, but I was very much playing the tourist though, with my big fancy camera around my neck, so I didn’t think I looked like a local…

Buckingham Palace was a quick stop, as tours of the Palace were not available. There is only a short time when you can actually go in Buckingham Palace, in August and September, when the Queen is out of town. Snapped a couple pictures, and continued on our way. At this point in time we were on the look-out for a late lunch, which is pretty much how all our lunches went this trip. Popped into the gift shop at the Royal Mews for some royalty-themed paraphernalia, and just past that found Bag O Nails. It had food, which was good enough for us. We aimed for a light lunch as we were planning on dinner with a friend later. I had their fish finger and mayo sandwich, which is exactly what it sounds like, and just ok. The chips that came with it made up for the so-so sandwich.

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After eating we wanted to get on the Tube to make our way back to South Kensington to see the Palace there. Such a simple goal was made difficult by the fact that there was major construction going on around Victoria Station, and we had to take a rather circuitous route to get to an entrance. We made it though, passing Westminster Cathedral on the way. We got off at High Street Kensington, a short walk from Kensington Palace and Gardens. The Gardens were pretty in February, so I can only imagine how lush and beautiful they are in the spring and summer. Kensington Palace itself was a little anti-climatic. Really, it just looks like a huge brick house that lots of history just happened to occur inside. Queen Victoria grew up there, which is the main reason I was interested in it. William, Katherine, and baby George live there now, but we did not see them. After checking out ticket prices (£16) and calculating how much time we had before needed to get ready for dinner, we decided against actually touring the museum portion of Kensington, and settled for just peeking in the few rooms we could without actually paying anything.

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On our way back to the hotel we walked though Kensington Gardens and past the Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria’s tribute to her beloved husband, Prince Albert. I told Stephen when he died I would try to do something similar for him. We also swung into the Victoria and Albert Museum, home to a vast collection of decorative arts from around the world. It is huge, but also free, so we didn’t feel about walking quickly though just a couple exhibits. You could easily spend 2 days seeing everything in the V&A.

 

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Our plans for dinner were to meet up with my college roommate, Molly. She actually lives in Harrogate, which is very close to Leeds. Unfortunately, she was traveling when we were up there, but was back and house sitting for her parents in the south while we were in London. It was close enough that she was willing to come into London to meet us. Sadly, our plans were thwarted by the flooding affecting the south at the time, and she couldn’t make it. I already know we will be visiting England again (there is still so much to see!), so until next time, Molly! Stephen and I decided to continue our tour of London pubs and went to the Princess Louise, another place Rick Steves-approved. It is a Victorian-era pub with a bar downstairs and informal dining room upstairs. It looked much like someone’s living room, with a fireplace, couches and coffee tables, and smaller tables for eating at. Very cozy. The service there was excellent. There was one waitress manning the small bar and room. We told her we wanted to eat dinner, and she encouraged us to grab a seat at a coffee table until an actual table was ready for us. The food was good English comfort food, and we lingered for a bit, enjoying the local atmosphere and our last night in London.

 

UK and Berlin, part 3a

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The Grange Strathmore Hotel. The only indication it is a hotel are those brass plates on the columns with the name. South Kensington is very posh.

We arrived at the Grange Strathmore hotel around 6pm on Saturday, Feb. 15. I picked the hotel because it had a good location (South Kensington) and a neat back story – it used to be the Earl of Strathmore’s London home (maternal grandfather to the present Queen). We checked in and rested a bit before breaking out Rick Steve’s England guidebook to find a place to eat dinner. Did I mention that he became my best friend during this trip? Stephen would often ask me how I knew something and I would reply, “Oh, Rick told me.” It didn’t take long to pick out a Rick-recommended pub (The Angelsea Arms) that we thought was fairly close to where we were staying. However, it was dark when we arrived and we knew the general area where we were, but not exactly how to get to the pub. Since we hadn’t paid for internet yet we couldn’t just look it up online to make sure we knew where we were going. (First world problems). But that is what the hotel concierge is for, right? Well, kinda. We went downstairs and the concierge was not at his desk. We went to ask the front desk lady what the cross streets were, so we could orient ourselves on the map in the guidebook. She looked at us blankly, and indicated we should ask the concierge, who had just walked up. So we asked him what the cross streets were, and he also looked at us like he had no idea what we were talking about. It was fairly obvious that English was not his first language. I was trying to figure out a different way to phrase the question – does the term “cross street” not translate in the Queen’s English? Stephen asked him what the main streets were. Finally the concierge pulled out a map and marked the hotel on it for us, which was perfect and really all we needed.

It was only a 10 minute walk to the Angelsea Arms. It was obvious that is was a very popular neighborhood pub. It was very crowded and it seemed like we would never find a table. Luckily Rick had told me there was a dining room in the back corner, so we headed straight for that and were seated right away! Stephen had their fish and chips and I had some other grilled fish with couscous, I don’t really remember, but it was very good!

After dinner we just headed back to the hotel to relax and figure out our game plan for the next couple days.

As you can see, our hotel was quite close to the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Kensington Gardens.

Sunday morning we walked to the closest Tube station – Gloucester – to get a day travel pass and hopefully spot a place to get breakfast. There were a variety of restaurants across from the Tube station, including a Burger King. We did not eat at Burger King. But because the goal is always to prevent a hangry Tori (that goal was not met that afternoon) we stepped into The Patisserie for coffee and protein to fuel our morning, before navigating the Tube station. Now, in the US we are all about customer service. Speedy service, attentive service, the customer is always right. Not so in the UK. It is important to learn this before dining in the UK, or else you will be sitting around for a very long time waiting for your server to come check on you. Because they won’t. One of Stephen’s colleagues, originally from Liverpool, explained this to us, and it is a good thing he did, or we would have never eaten breakfast. There were a few waiters at The Patisserie, and it seemed that they would stand in the middle of the room, just observing, until you called them over. The only reason our waiter ever approached our table was because I caught his eye and gave him a little smile and nod. Stephen did not realize I had been doing this, and commented on the slow service later. I told him the only reason our waiter came over at all was because I caught his eye.

We bought two day passes and traveled by Tube the entire time we were in London. The rest of that morning and part of the afternoon was spent at the Tower of London, until I was starting to get VERY hangry (sorry Stephen). We practically ran into the first likely restaurant (The Minories) we saw for a late lunch around 2pm. It turned out to be a neat place, made up of brick tunnels tucked under a train bridge. Every so often the whole place would rumble with the sound of a train going overhead. And it wasn’t too expensive either!

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After lunch we made for the Churchill War Rooms, which were very neat. It is so incredible to think that those rooms were just sealed up as-is after the war, until the past decade or so. There was sooo much information, not just in the War Rooms, but in the included museum chronicling what seemed like every single year of Churchill’s life.

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The sun was setting as we emerged from the War Rooms. At 5:45 every Sunday evening there is an organ concert at Westminster Abbey. It was just starting by the time we got there, so we ended up having to sit on the floor. It didn’t matter though, as it was simply awe-inspiring to listen to the organ music soar through the vaults of the church. After the short concert, we were not that hungry yet (remember our very late lunch?) so we found another Rick-recommended pub (The Blackfriar) for a pre-dinner drink. For dinner we tried a Chinese place in Chinatown. I think it was our only disappointing meal the entire trip. It was just average. After eating Chinese food in China (I guess it’s just food there), nothing else can compare.

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We are not real big night-life people, so after dinner we once again headed back to our tiny London hotel room to rest and plan our last full in London.

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UK and Berlin, Part 1

Stephen had the opportunity to travel to Leeds, England, and Berlin, Germany, for work. I wasn’t about to let him have all the fun, and since Siemens would be paying for Stephen’s airfare and most of the hotel nights, it seemed like a good time to squeeze in a little Europe trip. First step, fly our personal house-and-pet-sitter in from Texas. It was cheaper to fly Meredith here to watch the dogs than to pay to board them for 2 weeks. And I’m sure they were much happier being at home with Auntie Meredith than cooped up in a kennel. Thanks Mere!

We flew from Charlotte to Philadelphia, meeting Stephen’s manager there before boarding our flight to Manchester. We left Philadelphia over an hour late (sick passenger had to be removed from flight, along with her luggage which had already been stowed in cargo) but still made it to Manchester right on time, thanks to a very strong tail wind. The flight was scheduled for 8 hours, we made it in 6. Of course, we left Philly at 9pm, and arrived in Manchester at 8:45am the next day, but we did it in 6 hours! I guess that is as close as we will get to time travel.

Stephen’s manager had rented a car, so we rode with him out to Leeds, about an hour and 15. It snowed as we were crossing over the hills (not sure if they can be called mountains…) By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was feeling a little car sick and glad for the chance to lie down. I think it was a combination of driving on the opposite side of the road, the jerky motion of the stick shift, and riding with someone I haven’t driven with before.

We stayed at Hollins Hall for two nights. The first full day we were in country Stephen had to work (that is why he was there, after all) so I ventured north to York. I took a taxi from the hotel to the Shipley train station, bought a ticket to York via Leeds, and off I went!

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After touring the York Minster, I emerged to not just rain, but a howling wind. I knew it was supposed to storm that afternoon, but had forgotten while immersed in the history of the Minster. I darted across the square into a bistro I had noticed earlier (their sign said, “What you could really use now is some homemade soup and crusty bread.” It worked for me.) I had some of that homemade soup and bread, and then walked back to the train station, the wind pushing at my back the entire way.

Our hotel, Hollins Hall, is part of a country club, which has an indoor pool, spa, steam room, and sauna. Since I had about an hour before Stephen got back from work, I decided to partake of the luxury of a heated indoor pool. And when I say heated, I mean heated. It was like bath water, and amazing. The relaxation factor was ruined a bit by the local kids having their swim lessons, but it is hard to beat sitting in an indoor hot tub while the rain and wind outside lash against the windows.

We had dinner at The White Hart with Stephen’s coworkers and the vendors he was there to meet with. I think they were all impressed I went all the way to York by myself. And made it back. One of the local’s commented that I must be rather adventurous. I suppose I could be called that, but I pointed out to him that it is easy to get around when you speak the language!