U.K. Vacay post number 3! This one is a little more meaty…highlighting the aspects of the trip that we were willing to pay for. However, before I get started, I’ll share one more snippet of the fun we enjoyed that was FREE. The beauty of London is that it is such an epicenter for culture. I loved this about living in Nashville before- so many aspiring artists in one location means that there are literally performers performing EVERYWHERE. So, in multiple Tube stations throughout London, we heard incredibly talented artists performing for whoever happened by. The videos I took on my phone are absolutely horrible, so please forgive me for sharing a video of a saxophonist in Piccadilly from YouTube vs the actual Eric Clapton-playing Irish violist who was playing for us in Bakerloo.
Okay. Hopefully now you’re in the mood for the fun stuff! This was such an exciting trip. And since we did it on a budget, we were EXTREMELY picky about where we were willing to spend money. We didn’t take chances on attractions being lackluster, so we did a pretty fair amount of research on places we wanted to visit. Here’s what we decided could make the cut:
- Hampton Court Palace
- The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden
- The Tower of London
- Westminster Abbey
- Oxford University’s Bodleian Library
- Alnwick Castle in Northumberland
Before I give you photos and details of each site, I should add that the money we spent on these attractions was almost entirely on tickets. We did not buy guide books or souvenirs at any of these sites, with the exception of the transport museum, where we bought a map of the London Underground for James, who loves trains and has a transportation-themed room at home. In looking, I found that nearly every book sold in the gift shop for each of these sites (and I’m sure everywhere else on earth) was available in Kindle version on Amazon. So for books to guide my Harry Potter pilgrimage, and a few other sites we visited, I went the $5.99 Kindle route vs the $19.99 gift shop route. I know. I’m patting myself on the back right now just remembering it.
Rather than go in chronological order, I’ll dish these up in the order of most fave to least- and yes, you can laugh at how incredibly lame I am based on these choices 🙂
#1 Favorite: The London Transport Museum
Yes, yes I know. Trains again. My fella has a thing for logistics, and this museum was actually incredibly fascinating in both the history it shared and its artistic concept. We rode an elevator that displayed years in time vs actual floors, and we went back to 19th century London, where underground rail was born. On display were original and scale model train cars, steam engines, carriages, trams, trolleybuses, omnibuses, and simulators for the rail of the future. It was absolutely amazing. Pictured above is a mini-depot for kids, which will serve as inspiration for the eventual playroom of my sons’ dreams. Which may or may not be completed before they go off to college.
I will add that leading up to this little trip was an exciting climb up 193 steps from the Covent Garden Tube Station. When you see a sign that says “please wait for the lifts, this station is the equivalent of 15 stories below ground,” and you see droves of Londoners (who are not patient by nature) waiting patiently for 3 elevators to go between the tube level and the ground level, it’s a good idea to do what the Londoners do. Since we are super counter-culture and alternative-like, we opted for the stairs. All 193 of them. And I walked with a limp the next day. Like a boss.
Favorite #2: Alnwick Castle
Alnwick is actually not in London, but in Northumberland, legitimately in the middle of nowhere. It was the second-to-last stop on the train to Scotland (and we had to catch a 5:20 am train, which came to a station a mile’s walk from where we were staying), and we had to pay $2 each for bus passes to get within walking distance of the castle itself, but it was worth the trip and the super-early morning. This castle is not only home to the Duke of Northumberland and his family, who have a LONG history in the UK (and lots of juicy stories in virtually every era), it’s also host to Madam Hooch’s flying lessons in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Christmas Special to Downton Abbey, and is home to gobs and gobs of historic art. I’m also gaga for its Norman architecture and near-perfect preservation of the original motte and bailey design. Sigh. That makes me sound really really lame. Which is probably accurate.
We couldn’t take pictures inside, for the sake of art preservation. Just imagine priceless works of art, double-stacked on every wall of a ginormous fortified stone castle. Oh, and a chapel with battle flags dating back to the 1700s. And displays of costumes worn originally by the cast of Downton Abbey. And a flat-screen TV. Because people actually still live there. Imagine all that and you’ve got it.
Favorite #3: Hampton Court Palace
How can you not love Hampton Court Palace? The gardens, the architecture, the history; it’s amazing. There is so much I could say about Hampton Court. After reading every Philippa Gregory novel, reading all of Shakespeare’s plays covering the War of the Roses and Henry the VIII, and watching every season of the Tudors, this was the pinnacle of my love for everything Tudor. I won’t bore you with all the details here, just suffice it to say that I read everything in every room and counted it as a top fangirl moment for myself. Again, I am embracing my lame love of history and owning it. Don’t hate.
Favorite #4: Oxford’s Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library at Oxford University is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. No books are permitted to be removed from the Bod- it’s strictly a reading library only. We paid for a tour of the Divinity School and Duke Humphrey’s Library, which holds original manuscripts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and others (since Tolkien studied at Oxford and was a professor there), and also served as the Hogwarts Library in Harry Potter. There was something really awesome about being in a library whose books were, almost entirely, older than the United States as a nation. Think about that.
We also visited the Eagle and Child Pub, frequented by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien’s literary group- the Inklings. It’s a well-known spot in town, and we popped in for a quick pint and then hit the road again. Walking where so many world leaders and artistic legends cultivated their interests and perspectives was an unparalleled experience. Totally loved it.
Favorite #5: The Tower of London
These next two are a bit of a let-down for me. While both were phenomenal examples of preservation of history (especially given the bombing of London in WWII and the general nature of decay and exposure to the elements over time), I wanted to see so much more than what I saw. These tickets were pretty pricy, and the tourist atmosphere was at peak level, in spite of being there in the off-season. Totally what you’d expect at something as iconic as the Tower, but still, detracted from the experience.
I’m sad that I didn’t get photos of the armory exhibit at the Tower. This was actually truly fascinating to me. That legendary suit of armor belonging to Henry VIII, the one with the 51-inch waist? It’s on display here. Along with armor of every major king, duke, and military leader since the Norman conquest, plus coronation robes and gowns of most monarchs in the last century. I must admit that I enjoyed the reality that historically the Kings of England are short men, and that the Queens tend to be both short and stocky. It’s a little fun to chuckle that even the Queen of England is working with a little pudginess or that a former King had to stand on an extra-tall stool to mount his horse. Having said that, I’m sure they find their consolation in the crown jewels, which were featured in all their splendor encased in shatterproof glass in rooms barricaded behind 3-foot thick steel doors. Those were definitely fancy.
Other thoughts on the tower- I expected to see more than one itty bitty plaque marking the potential resting place of the Princes in the Tower, but there was nothing else. Kind of a let-down for such an intriguing story. I also expected more in terms of showcasing those who died at the tower. There’s one memorial to those who were executed on tower green, and a walk-through highlighting the “minimal use of torture” in the tower, compared to what “history would lead us to believe.” Given the Tower’s reputation, it’s fair to say I was hoping for something pretty spectacular when I entered “The Bloody Tower.” Not so much. Eh. Moving on…
Favorite #5, in last place: Westminster Abbey
Okay okay, I know. For a lunatic lover of English history, this place should be my ultimate fave. I saw the burial place of Edward the Confessor, and all the historic English monarchs (or at least, the vast majority) who I have read about for ages. If you’ve met me, you know I am always the absolute foremost expert on everything. Until I realize that I have gotten it completely wrong, and then have to go back and eat a tremendous amount of crow, much to my own bemusement. This happened at Westminster Abbey. So before I get into why I am sure I missed out on what could have been an amazing experience, some background:
- These tickets were the most expensive we purchased. I figured that at roughly $35 each, we would be getting quite the show. Seriously, we could have seen The Lion King for $40. I expected spectacular. The Lion King is spectacular.
- I’ve seen it a zillion times on TV. It’s always beautiful, there are always these fabulous Baroque-era musings going on in the background, and someone is always getting married. Maybe I’ve actually just watched the royal wedding a zillion times. Regardless, I felt pretty familiar with what was inside.
- At the time we visited, we had already been to Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, and I’d had my fill with all the tourists with selfie-sticks asking stupid questions about whether or not they could take drinks inside an ancient structure and then running into me as they walked backwards. Manners- it’s a thing.
The key point there is my furor at the stereotypical tourist. Because of this, I decided not to be tourist-y, in spite of being a tourist myself. So I refused to get an audio guide (which was FREE) as we entered the Abbey. Why would I want to join the droves of people holding this giant Comcast-remote lookalike to their ears? Well, maybe because there are no plaques explaining what you are seeing in the abbey. And also because every commemorative carving, etching, or display is written in Latin. So I basically wandered around with nothing but my pride to keep me company, wondering what the heck I was looking at and feeling quietly even more irate that these tourists (clearly, not on the same tourist level as me) had bested me at my own game and were actually enjoying history around me while I watched them. Ugh. Note to self: the audio guide is good. Get the audio guide. Also note to self: it’s okay to admit you’re wrong and go get the audio guide, vs. continuing to walk around stewing about the annoyingness of the people carrying the audio guide.
So, because I did not recover from my little hissy fit, Westminster stayed at the bottom of my list. I missed out what I am assuming was some pretty extraordinary stuff. Eventually my ego will recover and I’ll go back and read what I walked past that day. But for now, Westminster Abbey and I are just not going to be on good terms. Hopefully you get that a girl needs to hold a grudge from time to time.
See? A short list. As I said earlier, we really didn’t set out on this trip to spend a bunch of money enjoying the finer things in life. We set out to experience history that we’ve (or at least I’ve) only known through books and articles and movies. There really aren’t words to describe seeing art that was created when people had to craft their own ink and work with only daylight and candlelight. To visit places that were constructed as fortresses but eventually became homes for families, only to lose those homes to the winning political faction of the day. I’m so glad we took the approach we did. I probably would have been really happy with a five-star spa massage and waffles in bed (I know I’d be happy with that today), but I think it’s safe to say that this trip left me feeling totally satisfied, without missing out on much at all. Except for the audio guide. I did miss out on that damn audio guide.
Until next time~