Thursday, July 6, 2017

UK Adventures Begin with Historical London!

Goal: To get all of this blogged by William's birthday so that I don't blog about his birthday late and it's all in chronological order.  Considering I have 18 days to catch up on, I better type fast!!  

We just took the biggest vacation of our lives.

When we first came to Germany we decided that although we want to see EVERYTHING, our first major trip would be to England.  There's a lot there that we both wanted to see and we decided that if something happened and we needed to go back to the states, outside of Germany we wanted to have the United Kingdom under our belts as well.  Eighteen days is a long time too but we kept adding things we wanted to see.  And there's so much we missed!!  But I don't regret a single thing that we did.

Some overview:
We traveled by train.  Chopper did not want to drive and I was ok with that (I certainly wasn't going to).  I did some research that allowed us to purchase all of our tickets for around $500.  Compared to the $1500 we would've spent with the British Rail Pass, I'm happy with that.  It did limit us in some respects -- I tried to find hotels close to rail stations and we didn't go into the gorgeous rural areas, but the trains ended up being a fantastic way to go and for the most part easy to figure out.  I would recommend it to anyone - even with kids.

I packed enough for all of us for 5 days in 3 carry on bags.  This was with the intention of doing luggage, in a hotel sink if I had to (only once when William had an accident).  We bought a 4th bag while we were there and came home with all of them stuff with souvenirs.  And we really really tried to limit ourselves.  But some of our souvenirs ended up being jackets -- it was COLD in Edinburgh!  Chopper and I each carried one bag backpack style and pulled one on rollers.  Because they were carryon, we didn't worry about checked baggage (or fees).  Both girls carried a small backpack and I had my purse.  The end.  It worked really really well.

We stayed in everything from hostels to apartments.  Some bare bare bones and others pretty fancy.  Some I would go back to and some I wouldn't.  Hostels really aren't bad when you have the whole room to yourself (except with the Spanish teenagers won't be quiet in the halls at night).  Our hostel in Bath was actually really cool.  And our apartment in York that we thought would be great had issues.  You never know.  We did stay in some places that we thought were in kind've sketchy areas but because of the kids we were never out late anyway and we felt safe.

Great Britain has the best grocery stores EVER!  One simple reason: take away.  They ALL have sections of premade sandwiches that you can buy with chips and a drink for about 4 pounds.  And also fruit and cut veggies in individual servings.  It was fantastic.  We had picnics in parks, lunch on the train, too cranky for restaurant meals.  It was cheap, reliable, and good and the kids would eat it.  Tesco and Sainsbury's are now my favorite places ever.  

Great Britain is a stickler on passports.  We stood in line for passport control for probably an hour and a half.  Of course flying into London means it was a million people anyway but they look very carefully and question your reason for being there, how long you'll stay, etc.  The kids did fantastically through this whole loooooong process.  They did fantastically everywhere really.  We all had our moments but overall it was incredibly successful.

I still love an English accent.

Ok details day by day.  Our travel day was on a Saturday so our first day in London was Sunday and the main thing on the list was the Tower of London so that's where we went first thing in the morning.  We figured out how to use the Underground (even when parts were shut down) and became whack-a-moles, traveling on the Underground and popping up at our destinations.
Several Subway station stops had identifying decoration -- a lot did not.  But we did catch Baker Street!

The Tower of London is kind've fake looking -- isn't that terrible?  I don't mean the fortress itself, it's hundreds of years old and there's nothing fake about it but it's so funny that it's right in the middle of modern London.  In fact, Megan knew all the names of the buildings around it -- she read them in a book and kept pointing out the cheese grater, the pickle, and I can't remember the other.  But it's a little surreal.

It's funny too that it's called "the tower" because it's a fortress with many towers.  

There is so much history here and we didn't take any guided tours because the kids get bored quickly.  There's a series about British castles on Netflix that I'd like to watch the series again about the Tower.  I think the favorite thing about the Tower of London for the kids was the animals.  There were live ravens of course (there's a legend that says when the ravens leave, England will fall -- or something like that), but for a long time the Tower of London was also a zoo of sorts.  It was fashionable to gift royalty with exotic animals.  In reality it's sad - most animals were out of their native habitats and died because they didn't know how to take care of them.  Today they have these interesting statues that look like they're made out of mesh that show a lot of the animals.  The lions are right out front.

So many things that we saw were kid friendly too.  There were audioguides for kids or kids discovery packs.  This ended up being a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it was fun for them, on another I have a child who has to DO IT ALL and CORRECTLY and sometimes we were ready to move on when she wasn't.  We found some explorer packs that were perfect -- easy to do but also very interesting.  The Tower didn't have a pack but their exhibits were great.  This one was on the making of money and just hands on examples.

The insides are pretty stark.  Some furnishings but not a lot and little decoration.

The kings chambers though were furnished but not as opulent as you expect.  I wonder how much our expectations are not accurate though.

The White Tower has exhibitions on armor and such inside.  It's about in the center of the compound.

This is a modern art piece but really cool -- it's a dragon made from period armor -- I can't remember if the armor and weapons are real or recreations but it was very clever.

There are some great views of Tower Bridge.  We didn't walk onto it.

Some of the views of London.  The tall one on the right might be "the shard".  I'll have to ask Megan.
Abby in the cage of the animal exhibit.

The Tower itself really takes you on a self-guided tour and it was fun to go in and out of all the individual towers and learn about the kings and their treachery and the poor missing boy princes.  Megan didn't like that story and they had a cartoon dramatization that was good but a little ominous.

And yes we did get to see the guards with their hats!  It was 90 degrees probably every day in London that we were there (we survived the heat wave of 2017!!) which is unusual especially for June so I imagine that these guys were just baking!  The beefeaters were also fun to see but they were specifically for tours.

This is the building where the crown jewels are kept.  No pictures of course and there was quite the line but they were fun to see.  Also fun are all the crowns that they have from past monarchs but they're empty.  If a monarch had the crown redone (not everyone does), they would use the stones from the previous crown.  They don't look so impressive when they're just a bunch of holey metal!

The Tower used to be right on the Thames.  It's not now but it had a water access with portcullis and you can pull the ropes to feel how heavy it is.  The girls gave it a good pull!!  So did William but he was not in a picture taking mood.

There are people who actually LIVE in the Tower of London!  They're military pensioners or something and I think the Beefeaters live there too.  It might be really cool but I think it would be annoying to live right in the middle of the tourists.  But it's roped off and guarded.

The real polar bear lived pretty much like this -- they would chain him so that he could swim in the Thames and dive for fish.

The gift shops had screens where it would put a knight's helmet or crown on your head.  Abby must have been the perfect size because she's the only one of the kids we could really get it to work for.

And then she met a real knight as well and got to wear HIS helmet!  We managed to just catch them after a "show" and before their next one so we had a few minutes for a picture.

There were some ravens hanging about.  Apparently they're a cousin to the American crow and they are HUGE!  We did not get close to them.

We left the Tower and ate at Subway (woohoo) and then hopped back Underground to pop up at the British Museum.  We never would have found it without asking for directions.  It's in the middle of a regular street of shops and buildings and you don't see it until you're practically in front of it.

It was free but there was a line.  Everything had a line because everything had a bag check.  There's been too much going on in London and even just England and security was definitely a big deal.

So the British Museum is something else.  They have STUFF that I couldn't believe we were seeing.  It's a shame on the one hand that it isn't in it's home nation but also incredibly cool to see it.  But I don't think it was air-conditioned.  The book room was.  Nothing else.  And it was hot and crowded and airless.  And the kids were tired anyway from walking around the Tower.  We tried to do a kids search tour but we lost steam and William lost patience and we ended up walking directly to the Rosetta Stone and saying "oooh look at that" as we went.  Fastest museum tour ever but still worth it.

We thought King Tut's gold mask was there but they've moved it to another museum.  The Egyptian wing is amazing though.

Quilted cats hehe

Incredible Greek pottery (we tried to avoid the ones that were too naked).
And then Chopper shows me this picture that he's taken.  He enjoys making fun of the statues.

This one looks like an American actor -- he played the boss guy in The Closer and I can't remember what else or what his name is.  If I was really good I'd look it up.  He does car insurance commercials too -- Allstate I think.  Regardless, I love it when sculpture and paintings look like real people and not the posed nice face.  Although maybe this was his posed nice face . . . 

I love stuff like this (carved shell as drinking goblet) that shows the incredible artistry and talent of people.  So much of Europe is this -- the buildings and the stuff just is amazing to think that people made that with their own two hands!  I think that's something I kind've go on about a lot but I am in awe of such talent.

We finally got there!  The Rosetta Stone!!  It's so cool to see stuff that you read about in books!

After stifling at the museum we went back out and stifled on the Underground again to go down to St. Paul's Cathedral.  St. Paul's and Westminster are both the big tourist places in London and both cost a lot to get in (I think Westminster was like 50 pounds for our family).  But on Sundays they are closed to tourists because they have services and music.  Often the churches do Evensong or choral concerts other days too.  Anyway so we got into St. Paul's for free but couldn't wander and take pictures.  It was nice to sit inside (it was fairly cool) and listen to a professional organist and relax and rest.  She was very good although she played more modern pieces and nothing we recognized.  St. Paul's is GORGEOUS on the inside.  Very spacious and open and ornate but not overdone.  Chopper snuck some pictures from where we were sitting apparently.  I was good and did not.

You can't see all the way up into the dome but I believe those are mosaic.  Certainly a cathedral well worth looking into.

The outside was impressive as well.

Lots of Queen statues everywhere and they're not all Elizabeth.  

After that we wandered a little bit and found a Sainsbury's on a square with some modern art so we bought some salad and sandwiches and had a little picnic that the kids shared with the pigeons (everywhere we went they wanted to share with the pigeons!) and Mary Poppins started playing in my head because that what happens is I think of everything British I have seen or read!!!

And then we realized it was Father's Day!!  So as his present (because hello we're already in England having the vacation of our lives!), he found a Dr. Pepper.  I had encouraged him before leaving to get off of soda because there would be no Dr. Pepper (there isn't in Germany except that American commissary).  Wouldn't you know that whoever owns Dr. Pepper has a bottling plant in England and it's everywhere.  Made his trip!

Just an interesting building down the street from our hostel.  We stayed at a YHA which is a hostel chain in Britain that does take small kids (some are restricted to 18-40 year olds).  It was just beds in a room with a small attached bathroom but it was just our family, it was clean, and thankfully it was air-conditioned!  It was down the street from the British Library and Kings Cross Station/St. Pancras.  Yes, we went over and found Platform 9 3/4 and the ridiculously long line of people waiting to have their picture taken wearing a house scarf.  We did not stand in line but it was fun to see.

This is the St. Pancras portion and I believe the top parts are a hotel (not ours!).  The King's Cross section is really modern and not great looking.  I love the light in that picture but put in one where the building is lighter so that you get a better look too.

That's just day one!  Overall we averaged about 5 miles a day but even with the Underground we were probably around 7 the days we were in London.  The kids slept well at night.  Well we all did!!!

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