Robert and Christina Go to London—March 2008

Thursday March 13th

I forced Robert to get up when the alarm actually went off this morning, instead of begging for a snooze bar or two (or three. . . ), because his final meeting was in a suburb an absurd 36 miles west of London. He had to take a cab to Waterloo Station in time to make an every-half-hour train which would then take him an hour into the countryside. From the train station he then had to get another cab to take him the final 5-10 minutes to the company he was going to visit. I sent him off with some sliced mangoes, Japanese crackers, and apple-berry-lychee juice mixed with that Sprite-stuff in lieu of some sort of breakfast.

After I showered and dressed and eaten my own fruit/cracker/juice breakfast, I bought an unlimited tube pass for the day, took the tube south to London Bridge, and walked over the Globe Theatre. This reconstruction, which opened just a little over ten years ago, had been high on my list of things to see in London this time, and I wasn’t going to keep missing it (as we had on the three previous days) just because Robert’s afternoon meetings didn’t get him back in time for anything fun before dinner. I actually could have gone Wednesday afternoon, but I’d remembered that the website said that there was a matinee performance for schoolchildren every day this week, and (rather obviously) there are no theatre tours when the theatre is being used for a performance. So this morning I arrived at the theatre at 9:05, if all of that, only to be told at the desk that they were having an all-staff meeting and would not be offering tours until 10:30 today. I didn’t want to sit outside for an hour and a half (it was another brisk, grey day, though not actually raining so far), so I turned around disappointedly, walked back along the Thames walk to the tube, and got back to the hotel at a quarter to ten.

Robert came back from his meeting a little before 1:00, with the interesting news that the appointment was actually supposed to be in the London office (logically enough), an hour and a half closer to our hotel. The guy who was available in the suburban office was happy to see him, if a little surprised, though. As soon as Robert changed and was ready to go out again, we stopped at a fast bento/sushi place a block from our hotel and picked up two packages of sushi (salmon and chicken katsu) and a pork bao on our way to the subway (er, sorry—I mean the underground, or the tube. As those of you with good English vocabularies know, the “subway” here just means an underground walkway across a street. I kept getting thrown by the “Subway!” signs). At a quarter to two we came up at the Tower Hill tube stop. We took some pictures of the Tower of London, sat on a bench to finish our lunch, and tried in vain to tell time with the giant sundial. Surprisingly, on our nicest day of weather yet, it was still far too cloudy and grey to see anything.

At 2:00 we were inside the Tower gates and on a Warder-led tour, which lasted for a good forty-five minutes. At first, Robert had trouble understanding more then 30% or so of what the guide said, but I think his ear acclimated itself to the accent. By the middle of the tour, he was only asking me occasional vocabulary questions (“What’s a garderobe?”). When the tour ended, we went through the rest of the Tower of London on our own, finishing at 5:20. This made me feel pretty vindicated, because all week I’d been saying, “I want to go to the Tower of London. We have to go to the Tower of London,” and Robert had been saying that I was silly not to want to go at, say, 4:00 and see it quickly before closing (5:30). I insisted that we wanted to spend three hours there, and he was supremely skeptical. So when, with absolutely no boredom on his part and not even a momentary stop for a rest, we finished seeing everything in just under three and a half hours, he finally said, “Wow, you were right. I guess I thought it was just a simple tower or something.”

Above left, Robert with a big cannon, in front of scaffolding on the White Tower; above right, Robert next to the world's largest suit of armor, a German suit made (as the sign clearly says) for a six-foot-five “giant.” Below left, Henry VIII's famous suit of armor (Robert was rather fascinated by it); below right, us in front of the side of the White Tower (notice how every picture I've had this week prominently features this red raincoat. I am so sick of it!).

We saw the Crown Jewels (which my mother reminded me were on loan somewhere else when we were here in 1983); we saw an exhibit on the making of the Crown Jewels; we saw the White (main) Tower, with its armories and meta-levels of museums (interestingly, the Tower functioned as a museum of some sort back to the times of Charles II, and so much of what you can see are the actual exhibits from back then, with both the historical notes that accompanied those exhibits as well as modern notes that explain the exhibit of those exhibits); we saw the Bloody Tower, where supposedly the two little princes were imprisoned; we saw the Medieval Tower, part of the first Norman part of the tower; and we walked along all of the walls and through all of the possible grounds. It was great—both Robert and I were fascinated with castles as little kids, and this was the only castle we’d ever seen together.

By the end of the day it had started raining lightly but steadily; we just put our hoods up and walked up onto Tower Bridge and then over it into Southwark (above, Robert on the bridge, and me on a Southwark street with a fun name). I thought it would be fun to eat at an English chain tonight, so we went to a Southwark branch of Dim T, a British noodle and dim sum chain, just behind the London city hall, across from the Tower. We had the spicy prawn steamed dumplings and the duck steamed bean-curd rolls, a gado-gado salad that Robert at first ridiculed me for ordering (“Vegetables! Can we have an all-tofu meal, too?”) and then loved, and a crispy duck dish with Peking duck pancakes. Robert asked the waitress what the crispiest entree was, and she said it was definitely the duck. He was disappointed, though, and claimed to have expected something crispier. Whatever. Everything was good, including a nice ginger tea with honey and a passionfruit lemonade, and it was funny to think that we were essentially in a British version of P.F. Chang’s or Chili’s (clearly places we’d never go eat in the states!). For dessert we shared the chocolate sukiyaki (fondue), with banana, pineapple, lychee, and marshmallows. I’m starting to realize that the English really love their marshmallows. We had both white and pink marshmallows on the plate, and the pink marshmallows definitely tasted different, not obviously strawberry, but clearly pink, in the way pink cotton candy tastes different from other colors (yes, I mean the artificial way).

After dinner we stopped at an ATM to get a little bit more cash to finish out the week, stopped into a Marks and Spencer again for more milk and fruit (also impulse-buying two different kinds of prawn crackers, a bag of pink and white marshmallows, and a British version of a Cadbury cream egg—here called a “gooey-centred chocolate egg”—along the way). We got back to the hotel around 8:15 and called it a night, since we wanted to be up bright and early for our final full day in London on Friday.

Friday March 14th

By 8:15 we were out of the hotel, having already eaten a mango and a banana, and buying breakfast from some of the little shops around the hotel. I had orange juice and a whole meal currant scone with butter from one place and Robert had a sausage and egg baguette from another place. He was then baffled when the woman asked him, “Butter, sir?” He stared at her and said, “What?” several times, not understanding her glottal stop and her r-lessness, until eventually she held up a container of butter to show him. “Oh!” he said. “Butter. Uh, just a little.” The two women behind the counter laughed at him, one saying, “American!” in a knowing voice.

We bought full-day underground passes and took the tube to Waterloo, changing trains twice along the way. Once there, we bought tickets for Hampton Court, and we took the 9:06 train (they run every half an hour). The train was very slightly delayed, so we finished our breakfast while we waited for it to leave. On the train we read the free London newspapers (the equivalent of the Metro and the Now) and marveled at the number of words we didn’t know (ASBOs, yobs, etc.). We got to Hampton Court just a little before 10:00 and walked the block or so from the station to the palace. They opened the ticket booth a few minutes early, so Robert and I were able to be the first people in to buy our tickets at about 9:58. “Thank you for opening so promptly,” Robert said, enunciating carefully so people would understand him on the first try (something that doesn’t always happen here to us). The ticket clerk stared at him. He sounded deliberate and odd and sarcastic. “Anytime,” she finally said, not completely happily.

We went straight to the hedge maze (above right, me in the center of the maze), where we were again the first people through. The maze is really the only thing I remember of Hampton Court from when I was here as a little girl, and Robert and I still love mazes, so we had a good time in it. Then, since tours run every half hour from 10:30 to 2:30 by costumed guides, highlighting different aspects of the palace, we went back to the first courtyard of the palace for the opening tour designed to “orientate” us. Our tour guide was fabulous, giving us and four other people a half-hour introduction to the history and architecture of the palace and walking us through the two inner courtyards along the way. At 11:00 we joined the Henry VIII apartments tour, which though more crowded (maybe 25 people) was also quite good, but which ran fifteen minutes over. We hurried back to the meeting spot and asked if it was still possible to catch up with the 11:30 William III apartments tour, only to be told that the tour hadn’t run because no one had shown up for it. One of the guides offered to take me and Robert through the rooms privately, though, so she led us through in twenty minutes, giving us the highlights of the rooms as well as of her character (a banker’s daughter, ca. 1700). Then, having seen the three major tours offered, we saw the rest of the palace on our own—Wolsey’s quarters, the Tudor kitchens, the downstairs part of William III’s quarters, and an exhibit on the history of the court and the gardens. We stopped for a lemonade and egg-and-cress sandwich (on whole meal bread) in the tea room before going out into the gardens and walking through many of them.

Shockingly, we actually had some sun in the middle of the day (though, never fear, it was back to grey and drizzly by the time we got back to London). Hampton Court was generally fairly empty, with few tourists about, especially in the morning and especially in the non-Henry-VIII parts of the palace (he’s clearly a big draw—the guides explained that the whole palace would actually be “going Tudor” next year for a big Henry celebration, but that it would be back to highlighting all periods of its history the year after that), but many, many groups of school children (interestingly all of the guides seemed to hate the children, and talked unpromptedly about how nice it is to intimidate them with their costumes). At a little after 2:00 we walked back around to the front of the gardens and then out and across the street to the train station, getting the 2:24 train (again, they run every half hour) train back to London.

Since we’d just split one sandwich for the first part of our lunch, we shared a Southeast Asian vegetable roll with beef and duck and a strawberry trifle from Marks and Spencer on the underground ride from Waterloo back to our hotel, where we took a couple hours to relax before going out to meet one of Robert’s former clients for dinner.

We met at the Butler Wharf Chop House, just over Tower Bridge, and had a really nice traditional English (and Irish, since the restaurant had a special menu in honor of St. Patrick’s Day) meal, including blood pudding with champ, duck terrine, roast beef with jacket potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, Irish fisherman’s pie with potatoes and garlic sauce, sticky toffee pudding, Guinness chocolate mousse, and Guinness apple fritters. Around 11:30 we headed back home on the tube and packed up everything (sadly, our last night here) before bed.

Robert observed, on the walk from the restaurant to the subway, that he was past giggling at London street signs. There were just too many good ones—pelican crossings, humps, and all the signs in buildings and windows that at a quick glance (once he had acclimated himself to the British saying “toilet” for the Americanized and more euphemistic “bathroom”) seemed to be offering more and more bathrooms: “To let,” everywhere he looked.

Saturday March 15th

I hustled Robert out the door at 8:20 this morning, which meant we were able to arrive at the Borough Market in Southwark around ten to nine—perfect, because things were just starting to open and it wasn’t very crowded. We had hot spiced pear cider, a lovely porridge (made with organic oats) topped with raisins and brown sugar, and a bacon-cheese-and-bubble bap for breakfast, from several different stalls. “What am I ordering?” Robert asked. “Is a ‘bap’ a plate? What’s a ‘bubble’?” We walked around and sampled the juices, fruits, cheeses, pestos, jams, sausages, etc., and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Along the way we bought provisions for a nice lunch at the airport or on the plane—yogurt-dipped nuts and dried fruits, a beautiful slice of tasty cheese (Le Marechal), a chicken-and-bacon pie, a whole meal and mixed nut artisan loaf of bread, some grapes, and a juicy yellow plum—and a small bottle of apple-rhubarb juice on our way out. Back at the hotel, we read a little bit in the lobby about the history of the hotel (the buildings date to 1764) and the area, and we got one of the front desk guys to take us down to the basement to see the eighteenth-century baker ovens that still exist, randomly sitting in a hallway. Then we washed up, checked out, and made our way to the airport—taking the tube to Paddington Station and the Heathrow Express train direct to Heathrow for our flight back to Boston.

With a delay on the train to Heathrow (terrorist alerts temporarily closed all transportation into the airport) and then a mechanical failure delaying our flight for two hours, we had a lot of time in the airport to eat lunch at Yo! Sushi (one of those conveyor-belt sushi places). On the plane, in our relatively comfortable seats, we ate our snacks and watched two and a half movies in order to stay awake and get back to Boston on a normal time schedule. Home and almost completely unpacked by 9:00 in the evening, we were able to look back on a great, fun-filled vacation/babymoon.


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Created: 03/15/08. Last Modified: 03/16/08.