Saturday, May 24, 2008

[Europe Trip] On visiting London

Wednesday, 30 April 2008 evening, I dashed out from office on the dot, ran to catch the bus home. Took shower and did last minute packing, and then rushed to Changi. Boarding time was at 10.05pm. The Qantas flight that we took was so full we didn't even get to choose window or aisle seats, and we were squashed in the middle seats of the middle row. It was troublesome for a long flight as we need to disturb our neighbours in order to visit the lavatory. What I did was, I followed my neighbour's lavatory schedule, when she went, I went with her so I only needed to disturb her once when going in to my seat (haha.. not an important point to post, I know).

For dinner, we were served Thai salad, bread and butter, fish with black bean sauce and fruit cocktail. Soon afterwards, snacks were distributed in a goodie bag, so everyone got the same share: a bottle of evian water, an apple, a packet of oreo biscuits, small toblerone and 3
mentos sweets.

We didn't get a good sleep, with the cramped seats and strong aircon and the regular public announcements. The regular reset of the entertainment system didn't help, either. I managed to watch The Mist, and The Bucket List. Woke up at 2.30am GMT for hot breakfast: omelette, ham, croissant and butter, fruit, tea and orange juice.

Finally landed in London Heathrow Terminal 4 at 5.25am GMT. Heathrow airport surprisingly didn't look good. It's small and basic. We took Heathrow Connect train to King's Cross station (super expensive). Upon arrival we took quite some time to find the street where our hotel was at. Surprisingly none of the passers-by whom we asked knew of its existence. I guess that's what happened when staying at a budget hotel.. :)

Left our luggages at the hotel and then we went to Madame Tussauds. It was still early so we visited Regent Park first which was nearby. Pretty garden with colorful flowers (mostly tulips), lake, benches, ducks, willow trees along the river, greedy squirels and doves. Some people were there just to feed them.

Came back to Madame Tussauds entrance 10 minutes before it opened and the queue was already long. Every group spoke in different languages. It was really crowded once we got inside, especially in Blush, the first display room just after the entrance, where the celebrity waxworks were displayed: Leonardo di Caprio, Nicole Kidman, Orlando Bloom, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and the likes. There's a section called Premiere Night, displaying Marilyn Monroe, Shrek, John Wayne, Nicholas Cage, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey, Terminator, etc. They have Royal Zone as well (the Queen, Prince Charles and wife, Lady Diana); Culture Zone (Einstein, Newton, Darwin); Sports Zone (Tiger Woods, Pele, Mohammed Ali); Music Zone (Freddie Mercury, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears); World Leaders zone.

In Chamber of Horror, visitors were divided into groups and went into dark tunnels filled with scary sound effect and staff dressed in scary costumes. We were always the first to get into the tunnels, not because we're kiasu, but because the rest didn't want to go ahead although we'd asked them too. But it's good, as the staff waited for the whole group to assemble before they started to scare us off. haha..

In Spirit of London ride, visitors were seated in a taxi-like mini trains for a journey through the history of London. It started in Tudor times, with Sir Francis Drake and Shakespeare, and then rushed through a London haunted by plague and fire, then saw the city being built, the Victorian era, industrial revolution, and war times.

Overall, I was not that impressed with the museum. It's as good as what I've expected, but nothing more.

On second day in London, we had our own city tour. After breakfast at hotel (buffet of toast, cereal, sausages, ham, tomatoes, eggs and baked beans), we took the tube to Marble Arch. Then we walked to Hyde Park. I'd wanted to see this park that's often referred to in UK-based novels. This park was huge! Lake, various ducks, mesmerizing flowers, green grass, statues. We walked further to Buckingham Palace to just take a peek from the fence. The guards were wearing the red-colored shirt, black pants and big tall rounded black hats - their uniform reminded me of a tin of biscuits.. ;)

Outside the Buckingham Palace there's the Victoria Memorial, then further down was The Mall, then we crossed over to cut through St.James Park, before reaching Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey was magnificent with lots of tombs of the 'immortal'. Too bad phototaking wasn't allowed, and entrance was expensive. For that price, audio guide wasn't even included, additional fee had to be paid, ridiculous.

Strolled along Westminster bridge, eyes feasting on the sights of London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliaments, River Thames. Finally our feet complained and so we took the tube from Embankment to Temple Hill station, followed by lunch of spaghetti bolognese at a cafe beside
the tube station.

It was drizzling on our way to Temple Church so I had to put on my plastic poncho. Temple Church was distinguishable from other churches by the 3D tombs of the knight carved on the floor. This was one of the churches referred to in the famous The Da Vinci Code book by Dan Brown. Entrance was free and phototaking was allowed.

Then we walked to St.Paul's Cathedral. It's magnificent with awesome dome, paintings, relief, mosaics, and carvings. We climbed all the way up from the cathedral floor to whispering gallery - it's 30.2 metres high and it's 259 steps up from the ground level. The name was given as whispers against its walls were audible on the opposite side. Then climbed up some more to Stone Gallery - it encircled the outside of the cathedral's dome, 53.4 metres from ground level and could be reached in 378 steps. This gallery was big enough to accomodate the crowd.

The climb to the upper most gallery, Golden Gallery, was not that smooth, though. This was due to the large number of visitors and the small space of the gallery. We started queueing while climbing the stairs. Golden Gallery was the smallest, stood at 85.4 metres, 530 steps from ground level. The view of the city from this gallery was stunning, despite the cramped space.

Next landmark we visited was the Tower of London. We had limited time there but we still managed to visit the White Tower (army stuff, weaponry, etc) and Jewel House which showcased the kingdom's stunning jewellery collection like gold and diamond crown, gold dining set, corronation accessories.

Walked along the Tower Bridge, and took the tube to Queen's Theatre in Piccadilly Circus area. It's time to watch the longest-running West End musical Les Miserables. Queen's Theatre was a small, old theatre, the seats were cramped with little leg room, people had to stand up to let others pass. During intermission, staff went around selling haagen-dazs ice cream in small tubes and bottled water!

Act 1 was wrapped up at 9pm plus and the whole musical ended at 10.30pm. It was beautiful, much better than the one I watched in dvd some time back. All casts acted and sang perfectly, but especially strong was the lady acting as Eponine. In London, where price of food is about £5 in average, we can't say watching a musical in front row for £50 as expensive. Compare that with Singapore, where average price of food is S$3 and front row seats of such world-class musicals costs about S$120!

Piccadilly Circus area was so happening at night, with people strolling by, bars and cafes opened until late, all bustling with activities. Too bad we were too tired to explore the area. We took cab back to the hotel, as there was no more tube service at that time. The cab driver had never heard of the street where our hotel was located. He couldn't believe it himself as he has been driving the cab for 20 years and thanked us for directing him there. To think that it was situated just opposite the ever-so-crowded king's cross - st.pancras station.. haha..
Had a chance to visit British Museum and London Eye too. British Museum was huge and entrance was free. We visited the Ancient Egypt, Middle East, Greek, and South East Asian collections. I found London Eye is a bit overrated, but I didn't regret doing it, at least I'd done it :) The 25 minutes ride was not boring at all as we got a great view of the city below. Inside the capsule, we're busy looking for the perfect spots to snap pictures and to spot some famous landmarks through our binoculars. In fact I felt the ride was too fast.

On our last day in London, we walked to Trafalgar square, went to National Gallery for a quick browsing of their paintings, and took the tube to National History Museum just to find out that they're closed.

Celebrated mass at Westminster Cathedral. Seated at the 6th pew from the altar, we had a good, unobstructed view. The church looked grand with domes, but too bad they're blank, no paintings at all. They had hanging chandeliers. The altar had a gazebo-like structure with 4 pillars on its left and right side. A huge cross was hung just before the altar. The church was really big, so big that visitors could just visit the surrounding chapels without disturbing the mass conducted at the nave.

When we were at King's Cross station, we purposely looked for the fictional platform 9 3/4, in which the Hogwarts Express train was located to carry students between London and Hogwarts (in Harry Potter books). Based on the story, the platform was invisible to Muggle (i.e. lay people) eyes and can be reached by walking through the barrier between platform 9 and 10. To our surprise, it was really there! There's a blank wall just beside platform 9, with a sign board 'Platform 9 3/4' and a trolley pushed halfway through the wall. What a nice touch! Of course we didn't miss the photo opportunity and some other people quickly followed our steps to put some luggage onto the trolley and acted as if we're pushing it into the wall.. :)

The behaviour of Londoners were so typical of people in busy cities. Everyone looked busy, rushing and minding their own business. I guess it won't be that difficult for Singaporeans to adapt to their lifestyle.

London is a gloomy city, because of its cloudy sky and intermittent drizzle. And it's also cold. Most people wore dark-colored jackets, adding to that gloomy look. A friend gave me the advice that a poncho would come in handy in London as rain was a permanent feature. I did bring my poncho, and it was sufficient to handle the drizzle. But using an umberella would be faster, although it's more bulky for the handbag. Better still, use a water-resistant jacket that comes with head cover.

Three words for London: bustling, gloomy, expensive

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