Tara and I were in London from August 9, through August 23 in part to attend Loncon 3, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon).
We actually left on August 8th. Having found that the least expensive option when we booked our flights was the British Airways flight non-stop from San Diego to Heathrow, we had an evening red-eye departure.
Since I needed to work on Friday, the day started with me getting up to finish packing, and then with Tara dropping me off at the bus to work. After a regular day at work – including an aborted attempt to buy a compromise camera at Staples during lunch, aborted because they didn’t have it in stock – I was picked up by an airport shuttle directly from work while Tara was picked up from home with both of our suitcases plus her carry-on.
Since she was picked up nearly half an hour before I was, she ended up waiting at the airport outside of security for me. Once I got there, we got checked in and through security with only minor issues relating to the backscatter x-ray. We had a couple of hours before the flight. Normally, I would have eaten then, but I was wasn’t feeling well and was mostly very thirsty. So after drinking a large bottle of water, and letting it help, I grabbed something for Tara and I near the gate.
The flight to London was fairly uneventful. I’d managed to get us seats in one of the only two places where there were only two seats together in regular coach – at the very back of the cabin – so we didn’t have to contend with anyone else if we needed to get out. However, that led to one of the only two things that were very eventful about the flight: my breaking off the plug on the cable for my noise-canceling headphones. (Fortunately, these headphones are designed to support multiple cables, but this is the only one that they come with and I’ve not been able to get Sony to show me a replacement). This kept me from being able to listen to much music (of my own) or watch any TV or movies after that. Fortunately, I’d watched the entire Lego Movie before that.
The other event of memory was that Tara took the Indian chicken option for dinner (I had the veg lasagna option since I’d had chicken tikka masala for lunch), and found it had too many spices.
Once we got to London, we were able to bypass the long queue for immigration since Tara cannot stand for long times these days. So we got our bags (which I put on a trolley, even though both bags had good wheels at that point), and we made our way out to the arrivals level where we found the Costa coffee for needed drinks and a rest. After noting that our phones connected first to Vodophone and seeing a place selling prepaid SIMs, I picked up a pre-paid SIMs for both of our phones – confirming that our Verizon iPhones are indeed unlocked.
After that, we found our way down to the Tube station. Before leaving, I’d discovered that on the day we were flying out both Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect would not be running due to “Crossrail Improvements” – only later discovering that Crossrail is a new service being constructed, not a maintenance term I was unfamiliar with. I had figured out our best route to our hotel – or more correctly the Lambeth North Tube station across the street from our hotel.
However, I hadn’t looked for (or found) a step-free route, so our route was simply to take the Piccadilly line from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Piccadilly Circus and then take the Bakerloo line to Lambeth North. Not only was this route not step free, it required us – read “me” – to carry both of our suitcases (which had in at just under the 20 Kg limit) up two flights of stairs at Piccadilly Circus, and one at Lambeth North. The later continues to baffle me considering that once we got up the stairs, we encountered two very large lifts (which were, apparently part of the original 1906 design – see the Wikipedia entry - but are clearly more modern).
After leaving Lambeth North, we found our hotel just across the street, Bayliss, to the north. We got checked into our hotel, The Tune Hotel Westminster. We knew that our room would be small and windowless (the later illegal in the US), but I think I was startled at just how small. While we could get in OK, there was no way to arrange our suitcases so that Tara’s didn’t slightly get in the way of the door. I got stuck with the side of the bed that was about 8 inches from the wall, and had to plug my CPAP in on the other side of the bed (I always travel with an extension cord for this purpose, and it is sufficiently heavy-duty I don’t worry too much about using it on a 240v circuit, which all of my electronics – CPAP, and the chargers for the iPhone and iPad – can deal with without issue). Given our red-eye flight, and the trip from the airport, we were pretty much wiped, so we sat in the hotel room recovering. Looking for something to watch while we got up the energy to go grab dinner, I found that BBC3 was rerunning “The Day of the Doctor” (the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special), and we ended up watching almost all of it. We ended up eating at The Chicken and Pizza Palace across the street where we were both overwhelmed by the Chicken Mountain Sandwich – which has a fried chicken breast and a hash brown patty on it. The other two times we ate there, we got the regular chicken sandwich without the hash brown patty.
Sunday, we were both still tired from the flight, so didn’t get out at all until about 10:30 – and only then for brunch at the Costa’s Coffee that occupies most of the ground floor of the building containing our hotel. I then suggested (foolishly, considering that it was a rainy Sunday) that we could do some shopping since we were too late to want to spend time at any of the Museums or attractions. However, after taking the Tube (Bakerloo line) to Oxford Circus and a couple of miscues, we found our way to Hamley’s. The problem was that Hamley’s was crowded and hot – probably due to the crowds. This made it less fun that it might have been to work our way through.
After we left, we found a nearby Pret A Manger for some drinks and snacks, then returned to our hotel.
I went out and took a walk exploring the local area – first to the south (which I was thinking was north due to being turned around) where I located the Imperial War Museum and found my way back to the station and then went in search of a Boots to see if they had a replacement for the broken headphone cable. When looking for Boots, I discovered that Waterloo station was in the direction I thought of as “south” – and when I got back I noticed something that should have made me realize the mistake: I could see the top of the London Eye above some of the elevated tracks coming out of Waterloo station. After I got back, we grabbed dinner at an Asian restaurant across different streets from the Lambeth North station.
On Monday, we decided to go to the exhibition at the British Library on comics and politics (I don’t recall the exact name). I determined that the British Library was closer to Kings Cross/St. Pancras than it was to Euston. So after breakfast at Costa (assume this for the rest of our trip except during Loncon), we headed to the Kings Cross/St. Pancras station. However, I had misread the map and thought that the library was on the Kings Cross side, so we popped up into Kings Cross station, and ended up grabbing a snack at the Pret there before deciding that the lines to get anywhere near the Platform 9 3/4 photo op were too long. We then headed out to find the library.
After a misdirect due to there being TWO libraries (one belonging to the local borough), we finally found the British Library, got our tickets and toured the exhibition. The exhibition was pretty good, and we both enjoyed it – although we both spent some time sitting, as I was starting to discover that I’d hurt my back and partially re-triggered my sciatica.
When we were done, Tara determined that she needed to go back to the hotel and rest. I wasn’t interested in this, so I took her suggestion (and hoped for plan) and headed out to the Westfield mall at Stratford – adjacent as I found out to my enjoyment Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. After checking out the fairly crowded mall – briefly looking at cameras as well as looking for a replacement cable – I headed over to the park. I spent some time in the aquatic center and then headed over for the Orbit, only to find it closed (and it starting to rain). So, I headed back, taking a swing by The ExCeL (without getting officially off the DLR, or even leaving the station) and then over to Canary Wharf where I discovered that the DLR and the Underground do not actually share a station, thus requiring an extra set of tapping in and out, as well as some walking and crossing one street. From there, I took the Jubilee line back to Waterloo and walked back to our hotel. We got dinner that night back over at The Chicken and Pizza Palace.
On Tuesday, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our trip there suffered from the length of the walk from the Tube station – long enough that Tara had to rest part way. We did enjoy the museum, but ended up skipping many of the galleries that we were less interested in. When it got to time to head back to our hotel, I realized that we could probably catch a bus closer to the museum that would take us to some station. After consulting with a couple of people there specifically to help tourists with public transportation, we ended up on a bus that took us all the way to the Elephant & Castle stop – the last stop on the Bakerloo line, and one stop south of Lambeth North.
(I’m sure we, or at least I, did something else, but I don’t recall what).
On Wednesday, we started out by taking our clothes to a laundry for a service wash. This was accomplished on the bus, since there was a bus that runs from near our hotel to very near the laundry. After that, we took the bus to the Victoria station and caught a combination of underground and the DLR to Greenwich. After a lunch of fish and chips at a pub we walked to the observatory. We enjoyed the tour – even if Tara had to skip much of the “Longitude Punked” exhibit. She was bothered even more by the walk down the hill and was quite sore when we got back to the DLR station. However, I had noticed that there was a parking lot by the observatory. So, if we’d known we probably could have caught a Taxi from our pub to the observatory, and back.
After Greenwich, we headed over to the ExCeL to get our badges. However, by the time we got there, we discovered that we’d be too late to pick up our cleaned laundry, making Thursday morning a bit more interesting.
On Thursday, I ran out as early as I could to pick up our laundry, while Tara did most of the packing. Once packed and checked out, we caught a minicab to the Southwark station (since I was unsure at that point how close the taxi drop off was to the Jubilee line lifts) and took the Jubilee line and the DLR over to the ExCeL. Once there, we learned quickly that it was a good thing that we had picked up our badges on Wednesday. Before doing anything with the con, we got checked into the Aloft hotel, where our room was probably 3 or 4 times the size of the room at the Tune.
The con was a good con. I managed to get to The Retro Hugo Awards, the concert from The Worldcon Philharmonic, and The Hugo Awards – as was as Seanan McGuire’s concert. I also got to a couple of panels, the business meeting and at least one other concert.
I also picked up a second job at Sasquan. I’m now on the hook to do the web interface and database for the Hugo Award voting. I guess instead of having a whole year to clean it up a bit and make it easier to set up, I just have a few months.
Tara had a scooter for the con, which helped her get around during the con, but didn’t do as much to help with her legs recovering as she’d have liked.
On the Monday of the con, we checked out early and left our bags with the hotel before the last day of the con. After closing, and the “Sasquan Listens” panel, we headed back to the Tune. This time we got a room on lower ground floor (a.k.a. basement) that was even smaller. The bed was against the wall, and the bathroom was a tiny raised-floor cubicle.
Tuesday, I found out quickly that there was a real problem with our bathroom – the shower drain couldn’t keep up with the shower itself.
Since we’d slept in to recover from the con, we decided Tuesday wasn’t the day to get tickets on a “Hop-on/Hop-off” tour bus. After some debating and research, we decided to go to the Old Spitalfields Market. We made our way to the Liverpool Street station, and then caught a cab to the market. After a light snack (we split a sandwich), some browsing, we grabbed a mid-afternoon meal at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
I wasn’t all that impressed with the service at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, since they messed up our order, and things came out somewhat randomly. But since this was between normal meal times, they may not have really been ready for service. On the other hand, the food was good.
Tuesday evening, I managed to poke correctly at the Golden Tours website and got it to cough up a package that included 48 hours of hop-on hop-off bus tour, a bonus 24 hours of bus tour, and entry to both the London Eye and the Tower of London.
On Wednesday, we headed up to the Waterloo station and then walked over to the London Eye. We enjoyed the trip and the view – even if Tara took most of the pictures due to the lack of a working camera other than my phone (which I don’t think I take good pictures with my phone. I’d originally planned on bringing my film camera – but I got the wrong format of 400 speed film, and then grabbed our ten-year-old digital only to discover on the London Eye that the batteries were dead. (Tara claims I don’t take pictures much – I claim it is because of the lack of a camera I can use comfortable, but the fact that it took a week and a half to discover the dead camera batteries and I never replaced them does give some credence to her argument).
After riding the Eye, we found the Golden Tours stop. The representative there recommended that we catch the next bus – on their Blue Route – and change near Buckingham Palace to get to the Tower of London the quickest. But we ended up staying on the Blue Route due to the crowds at Buckingham Palace and the need to cross a street. As a result we spent nearly 3 hours on the bus (traffic) it was after 2:30 when we got to the Tower, and we were both hungry. We ended up eating at the KFC and spent some time glancing at the shops before we headed to the Tower entry. There we learned our ticket was good for 7 days, and that they were closing soon enough that it wasn’t worth going. So, we took the next bus back to our hotel.
On Thursday, we headed out in time to catch the first busses at the nearest stop – which turned out to be the same stop for the London Eye. The representative suggested that we take the boat, and again we ignored her advice. We caught the bus and ended up taking 2 hours to get to the Tower. We had an enjoyable tour, taking in mostly the White Tower. By the time we were done with that, the lines for the Jewel Tower were too long for us to want to stand in them, and the steps in the Bloody Tower were beyond Tara after the White Tower (and may have been beyond me). So, we returned to the hotel.
I decided to set out on my own that evening for some shopping. First, I hit up Harrods, skipping most of the floors of clothing – finding most of what I’d want to look at located on a single floor: furniture (browsing only), electronics, and toys (or big boy toys and little boy toys). I then found the food halls on the ground floor, not the lower ground floor as I had thought. After some browsing, I ended up on the candy area. I started out debating about a boxed collection of dark chocolates, but then spotted hand-made dark chocolate dipped candied oranges and lemons – and chocolate dipped candied oranges are one of Tara’s favorites. I purchased 100 grams of each.
After leaving Harrods, I worked my way on the tube over to Oxford Circus to locate Marks and Spencers and/or Selfridges with a goal of looking for socks. I managed to end up at M&S, but only after having a dinner at McDonald’s due to not finding any of the places on Argyle street worth eating at. After acquiring socks, I returned to the hotel and gave Tara my purchases from Harrods, which she appreciated – and promptly offered me one of the lemons.
On Friday, Tara woke to a sore throat and earache – the result of too much cigarette smoke on the streets and the position of the air conditioner in our hotel room; it ended up blowing on her head most of the night in an attempt to keep us from combusting, especially given the nice, heavy duvet we had. After some discussion and a carry-out order from Costa’s, I headed out on my own.
At some point on Thursday, I scouted out my planned route for Friday – albeit in reverse. My plan had been to have us take the Bakerloo line to Waterloo station, then change for the Waterloo and City line. At its far end (one stop and about 2.5 Km away), we’d then change for the Central line to the St. Paul’s stop and visit St. Paul’s cathedral. Much of this was to see if the walking distances from The Central Line to the Waterloo and City, and from The Waterloo and City to the Bakerloo were fairly short so that Tara would be able to do them easily.
However, on Friday industrial action (a.k.a. a strike) had shut down both The Waterloo and City line, and The Central Line through central London. So, I instead took the combination of the Bakerloo and the Jubilee line (requiring a change that I still wonder if it isn’t about as long as just walking from our hotel to the Jubilee line at Waterloo station) to Westminster and toured Westminster Abbey first. As I was leaving Westminster Abbey to head back to the Westminster station, I noticed a police box prop had been set up on Parliament Square. So I worked my way over (accidently crossing one street just as the light changed) and discovered that not only was the prop there providing publicity for Saturday’s season premier, but so were stars: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in costume. After taking a few pictures – some a bit grainy due to having to use the digital zoom to get close enough due to the crowds, aggravated by overcast skies and fake fog.
After my close encounter with The Doctor, I headed back to the station. At the station, I asked a ticket and assistance agent for her recommendation on how best to get to St. Paul’s given the industrial action. Her recommendation was to take either the District or Circle lines – interchangeable along the Thames through most of Westminster and The City of London – to Mansion House. She also told me that would be her normal directions since Mansion House is nearly as close to St. Paul’s Cathedral as the St. Paul’s station.
I followed her directions, and then followed the signs in the station towards St. Pauls, emerging on the surface on Bow Lane near St. Mary Aldermary church. I consulted Google Maps, and soon found my way down Watling towards St. Paul’s.
At St. Paul’s, I got some lunch from their café, and then headed upstairs. I paid for my tour, but before it started, I took a seat under the dome for the 12:30 Eucharist service. The service was both novel and comfortably familiar – novel in that it was much more liturgical than I’m used to having grown up in The Presbyterian Church, and spent the last 15 years in either non-denominational Evangelical churches or Evangelical Free churches, and comfortably familiar since they used bible verses to institute the communion (something my current church doesn’t do). I am glad that I saw others dipping the wafer into the wine, since even doing that I found the (oddly white) wine a bit too dry and strong for my taste.
I really enjoyed both churches. The architecture is somewhat familiar since the church I grew up in is built along similar lines – shaped like a cross with an inverted boat-shaped nave. However the altar and quire at Westminster Abbey are below the cross – which isn’t fully balanced – and at St. Paul’s, there is a second altar beyond the quire. Most intriguing to me is the presence of chapels at the top of each cross, the one at St. Paul’s was rebuilt after World War II and now honors those Americans who gave their lives defending the UK.
Also, when I was touring St. Paul’s, I was struck with the thought that had my brother-in-law led a youth/boy choir group on a trip to London (or if he leads a youth/boy choir trip to London in the future) I could see him organize the choir at either Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral into giving a short, impromptu, acapella concert from a more-or-less appropriate place.
After St. Paul’s, I thought through my options, and decided to take the river cruise that was included with our bus tour. The ticket was good from either Embankment or the London Eye down to North Greenwich, or visa versa. Since Embankment was closer, this was where I headed. However, due – probably – to the platform work that is keeping the deep lines (Bakerloo and Northern, IIRC) from stopping there this summer, I couldn’t take the exit that leads to the dock. Instead, I ended up going the wrong way around and had to walk a fair ways through a public garden (a.k.a park) before I found my way out to the street.
My thoughts were to take the boat all the way to North Greenwich and then use the Emirates Air Line cable car over to the Royal Victoria DLR station and then head back in time to go to Evensong at Westminster Abbey. What I hadn’t counted on was how long the Thames is or how far down river North Greenwich is. It took an hour (rather than the half-hour I’d been led to understand), and it was clearly too late to go to Evensong when I started heading back. Oh well – I’m hoping for a next time.
After I got back to the hotel, Tara wanted to go out for dinner and shopping. So, we headed out to Oxford Circus. We found an Italian place on Argyle street at Little Argyle street for dinner. After that, we worked our way to Hamley’s - which was a bit less crowded on the Friday of a holiday weekend than it had been the first time we were there nearly two weeks earlier. We picked up a couple of things that we’d looked on our first visit.
I then suggested that we see if we can catch a bus that would take us through Piccadilly Circus, which we were fairly successful at – except it ended up a bit crowded so we didn’t have ideal seats for enjoying the lights (which are ads, I knew, but still fun). The chosen bus dropped us off quite close to our hotel. We turned in for the night.
Saturday, after breakfast, was spent finishing our packing and checking out of the hotel. Alas, in the process of packing, there was a communication glitch between Tara and I and we each thought that the other had a bag that had two Coke Zeros and a bottle of ginger ale Tara had about half-consumed. We only noticed this much later on the Tube between Waterloo and Green Park.
We caught a cab from our hotel to Waterloo – having to convince the cab driver that we really wanted him to take us there given that it was just a fairly short walk. From there we used the Jubilee line and the Piccadilly line to get us to Heathrow. The change at Green Park still had a bit of a walk in the underground interchange level. Near the end of this, I took a peak up into the ticketing level to see if there was a news agent I could get to without touching out and back in – not that I was so short of Oyster pay-as-you-go money that it would have been a problem. Alas, there wasn’t a news agent at all.
We got to Heathrow about half-an-hour before we could drop off our bags. So I grabbed some Coke Zero at the Boots there, and then we waited. At 12:30 we were able to drop off our bags. I had us walk to one of the further drop points since overhead signs were showing South Security wasn’t as busy. Both the bag drop and security were easy – even if a bit disconcerting due to the different policies.
One thing I noticed and like about Heathrow Terminal 5, the bag drop locations (they assume that you’ll either check in at home, or at one of the many self-service kiosks) have the agent seated, which seems like a better way to do it.
Our flight home was similarly uneventful. I had to use an odd combination of cheap (and clearly much higher impedance than most) earbuds that I’d gotten on the tour bus under my cableless noise canceling headphones. But this let me listen to music and later watch some of the entertainment. For some reason, instead of the on-demand system we’d had on the outbound flight, we just had a selection of channels. I think all I really ended up watching was part of an episode of Top Gear, most of an episode of Horrible Histories, one part of A Very British Airline about BA itself, and perhaps most oddly, Postman Pat: The Movie. The last featured the voices of David Tennant and Rupert Grint (who actually sang, and pretty well). I’m somewhat suspecting that one or both were fans of one or more of the earlier incarnations of Postman Pat and thought it would be fun to be in the movie. I also caught quite a few jokes clearly aimed at the parents, including one at the fact that the movie was CGI where the original show had been stop-motion animation.
The worst part of the trip was once we got to San Diego. Clearly, the customs station at the San Diego airport was designed with the expectation of small flights from Mexico (like on 737s or DC-9/MD-80/717s) rather than overseas widebodies. By the time we got off the plane, the line for immigration was quite long. Finally, I flagged down a skycap with a wheelchair for Tara. Once she was in the chair, we were able to get the attention of officials who got us to the handicap priority line.
I also have to question the main delay getting past there. Once we had our bags, we had to have them all – including our carry-on bags – x-rayed. I don’t totally understand that, and can confirm that this is a new practice: I didn’t have to do it in 2006 or 2007 when I’d flown back from Delhi, but I think I did when crossing the land border from Canada at Buffalo last December.
One last part of the trip – and perhaps the most distressing – wasn’t discovered until Sunday. Somehow I apparently left my bag of cables, which had my iPod in it, on the plane. In addition to the iPod, it had both of our UK to US power adaptors, my phone and iPad chargers, two back-up power supplies, other assorted cables, and a device I had help fund through KickStarter that allows one to plug into a USB port without risking data being transferred.
Overall, I enjoyed the trip – enough that I was partially hoping that the volcano in Iceland would trap us in England for a few more days. But, I am glad to be home – even if the cats decided to snub us for a few hours, and Appa is now convinced that I’m trying to hurt him when I offer the cats canned food.
Depending on both our budget and the outcome of the site selection vote next year, our next overseas trip will probably be either to Dublin or to New Zealand – hopefully both if we can put enough aside. On the other hand, London is quickly becoming another favorite city to visit (along with Seattle and my hometown of Albuquerque), even after only two visits – one for only a few days.