Exploring London

I’m in Reading to present one of the UC Metro events, and I have to start setting up the lab first thing Monday morning. That means I had to fly in on Sunday, but my flight arrived in the morning and I didn’t want to just hang around Reading. Solution: make a side trip into London, where I’d never been before, and see some sights. I only had about eight hours, and I didn’t want to do anything too expensive; in fact, in the spirit of it being the Sabbath I wanted to focus on low- or no-cost activities; I definitely wanted to see Westminster Abbey and attend Sacrament meeting at a ward somewhere in the Metro area. Here’s how it all turned out.

I started the day by arriving, thankfully uneventfully, at London Gatwick on DL 58 from Atlanta. Nice flight, decent sleep, decent food. No one at Delta, ATL, or LGW mentioned it, but it turns out that the Sofitel Gatwick is an arrivals lounge for Delta. Translated, that means I got a free shower and free Internet access, both of which I took advantage of before dropping my luggage at the Excess Baggage shop in the North Terminal, then taking the tram to the South Terminal to catch the Gatwick Express. This was partly a good move. The Gatwick Express part, that is; I should have left my bags in the South Terminal version of the Excess Baggage shop, but more on that later.

The Express, as its name implies, whisks one from LGW to London’s Victoria Station in about half an hour. There’s not much to see along the route, although I was somewhat surprised to see a trailer park, looking very much like its American equivalents, somewhere along the way. I didn’t have any concrete plans of exactly where I wanted to go, except to church, so when I got to Victoria Station I grabbed a Tube map, bought an all-day Tube pass, and started trying to figure out how to find a nearby ward.

This would have been trivial with the iPhone, which actually has a real web browser. However, it also has a well-known habit of making spontaneous data connections, and I didn’t want a jillion-dollar bill. I also needed my Treo’s ability to keep my calendar and contacts up to date over the air, so the iPhone stayed home. This meant that I couldn’t (despite my concentrated attempts) use Pocket Internet Explorer to find a ward; instead, I had to find an Internet cafe near Victoria and look there. I quickly found the Wandsworth Common ward, and arrived there via cab about 5 minutes after Sacrament meeting had started. It was wonderful to be able to attend and take the Sacrament, and the whole experience was quite familiar (even given the unusual accents). However, the demographics of the ward are quite different to what I’m used to in Ohio: the Wandham Common ward had about a third the overall attendance, with relatively few men. Lots of women, many with small children, and a good proportion of different ethnicities (there’s a Spanish-speaking ward too, which I didn’t really expect).

London Bridge Big Ben, baby!

On the way back towards the City, I decided to walk to the Clapham Common Tube station. This was made more complicated by my inability to read a map; I walked the long way around. In this case, taking the long way around a 220-acre parcel of land ended up costing me an extra mile or two of walking, but it was OK because I was able to enjoy seeing all the people using the Commons as a park. I saw people playing Frisbee, soccer, rugby, cricket, and softball, along with lots of (mostly pale) people lounging on the grass and enjoying the sun. I was a bit surprised by how many people were in the park– it was packed– and by how much trash there was along the outer boundaries of the park. No doubt it takes the sanitation crews all week to deal with the excess of garbage produced on the weekends.

I eventually made it to the Tube station and started meandering around trying to figure out where to go next. Did I mention my map-reading problem? It was made worse by the fact that I bought a “London A-Z” atlas. This was very useful for finding a particular street, but fairly useless for finding landmarks (e.g. the American embassy) if I didn’t already know their general location. I decided to skip the Tower of London, as the promo brochure I picked up said it took 3-4 hours for a full tour. Instead, I made my way to the London Bridge area, where I saw the bridge itself (see proof below) and had a delicious Cornwall pasty for lunch. From there, I went to see the Royal Exchange, wandered around the Bank Street area for a while, and took the Circular Line to Westminster.

Naturally, the first thing I saw was Big Ben. A short walk took me past the Parliament complex and to Westminster Abbey. It’s hard for me to imagine exactly how old London is. In the US we tend to think of anything dating back more than 100 years or so as historic, but the Abbey has been there for much, much longer. Unfortunately, the church itself is closed to visitors on Sunday except during services, and there were none scheduled during the time I was there. I made do instead with a walk around the grounds, which were (as you might expect) both lovely and crowded. (Check out this overhead view, which clearly shows the cross-shaped structure of the Abbey in a way that ground-level photos don’t.) The Westminster grounds have the fattest pigeons I’ve ever seen, as sleek-looking as dolphins and iridescent as WD-40 on water. They are also utterly unafraid of humans.

Big Ben, baby! Westminster, light and shadow

I walked through the Victoria Tower Garden and along the river until I got to the Vauxhall Bridge, then crossed over and walked back along the other side. Because it was late in the afternoon, the setting sun was backlighting the things I wanted to take pictures of, so no joy there. I did have a lovely walk, though. The Thames has a much faster current than I expected. For some reason (I blame Jane Austen) I’ve always thought of it as a slow-moving, somewhat lazy river, but not so (at least not near the bridges!) I crossed back over at the Lambeth Bridge, near the London Eye, which I briefly considered riding. However, because the lighting would have made it impossible to get a good picture, I decided against it. Instead, I bought an ice cream cone. At least, that’s what the sign said, but perhaps the nice lady who sold it to me made a mistake, because it tasted like it was a semi-frozen Cool Whip cone– not exactly what I expected, but still welcome due to the warmth of the day (there were announcements on the PA in several of the Tube stations cautioning people to drink plenty of water because it was a hot day).

As I was eating my ice cream and walking past Big Ben, it started chiming the hour! This was one of the coolest serendipitous things I’ve ever experienced.

Next, I walked up Birdcage Walk and past the lovely St. James Park. No surprise, it was full of people too. Birdcage Walk has a splendid set of shade trees, so it was a delightful walk to Buckingham Palace. By that time, unfortunately, my camera battery was deader than a doornail because I forgot to charge it after letting Tom take wedding pictures. Sadly, I didn’t get to take any pictures of the Victoria Monument or the gate guards.

St James Park, London

After my walk, I was too tired to bother going by the American Embassy, especially given that I couldn’t take any pictures of the Marines there; instead, I walked back to Victoria Station and took the Express back to Gatwick. The North and South terminals are separated by a tram, and I had foolishly left my bags in the North Terminal, so I had to take the tram from South to North, retrieve my luggage, take the tram again, and then catch the train to Reading. I tried to buy a Gatwick-Reading ticket a few weeks ago online, but the web site wouldn’t sell me one without a UK billing address. The train wasn’t an express, so it took about an hour and a half to make 30 miles or so between the two stations. Then it was into a cab, to the hotel (more on which later), a quick dinner, and reading in bed (yay Kindle!)

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