Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dear Old London - Day 3

Next day was the tour of London, a city that is estimated to be at least two thousand years old. No wonder the locals call it "the City". Our first stop was St Paul's Cathedral.

Visit St Paul's
The church was originally built in the early part of 7th century, and then rebuilt in the late 17th century after it was destroyed in the the great fire of London. This was my first time stepping in to a christian church, and I was appalled to find that it is a burial ground for eighty people, almost all of them English aristocrats, including its own architect Christopher Wren. This is in complete contrast to our Hindu culture, where places of worship are considered divine and holy. I was looking down at the names and dates engraved on the stone beneath my feet worried that trampling on the dead bodies might be considered a mark of disrespect, but the rest of the visitors appeared blissfully unaware; they were looking up and admiring the massive arches and the multicolored tinted glass windows. I realized, we are also colored by our perspectives! Anyone who needs some exercise can climb the stairs all the way to the top of the dome, and will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. The stairs open only at 9:30 AM, hence time your visit appropriately.

The bus took us through a winding route showing us the Somerset House, and London School of Economics, then dropped us in front of The Mall, the street leading to the Buckingham Palace.

The Mall, with the Buckingham Palace visible at the far end
Visit Buckingham Palace 
We saw the palace only from the outside, since we had other stops on the tour. The State Rooms have to wait. The weather was fantastic (as you can see in the blue sky above), which brought out thousands of visitors, who packed all the prime spots to view the Changing the Guard ceremony. Fortunately our tour guide directed us to a location on the right side of the palace (on Spur Road), which provided us an unbridled view of the guards marching in to take over the duty.

The more pompous and more popular Changing the Guard ceremony
After taking umpteen unsatisfactory snaps, we boarded the bus. Off we went to the Tower of London.

Tower of London, home to Kohinoor and the crown jewels
The tower is a 11th century castle that served as a prison until 1952. Today it is a heavily guarded fortress, home to the monarchy's crown jewels. Though there was a long line, it was moving fast. Once inside, we saw a dazzling array of ornaments, jewels, swords, and other regalia. Except for the 105 carat diamond, the Kohinoor, which was stolen from India, the other items didn't capture much of our attention. One can spend a lifetime studying the history of the objects on display. Since we were not that desperate to know the English history, we moved along in a brisk pace.

Right outside the tower is the Tower Bridge (hence the name) across the river Thames. It is a museum by itself, hosting the Engine Rooms, that showcase the machinery used to lift hundreds of tonnes of materials during the construction of the bridge. Again, we didn't have time to visit the museum.

Tower Bridge
I used to be a fan of digital photography review site DP Review, founded by Londoner Phil Askey. He reviewed all of the digital cameras of the day. I stopped visiting the site soon after the shopping behemoth Amazon acquired it in 2007. His most frequent test subject was the tower bridge. I must have looked at hundreds of beautiful tower bridge photos in his site. Weather god decided not to cooperate, hence my click above looks a little gloomy.

We boarded the Thames Clipper for a forty-five minute boat ride to Greenwich Village.

University of Greenwich
We saw the Cutty Sark, University of Greenwich and the Greenwich market, but the biggest regret of the trip is not visiting the Prime Meridian. Ours was a guided tour that didn't provide much time for self exploration. If we had visited the meridian line, we could have claimed that we straddled the globe. Oh well, there is always a next time!

We hopped on the boat again for our trip back, but this time we crossed the Tower Bridge and went all the way to Coca-Cola London Eye, the giant observation wheel, which has become one of the modern landmarks of London. The tickets were included as part of the tour, but it was raining heavily; more importantly we were tired. Since we had the tickets, we decided to come back the next day. The nearest tube station was Waterloo, which was only a 10-minute walk from the wheel.

Waterloo Station, the busiest terminal in London
I'm a great fan of Bourne trilogy, in the third film a nerve-wracking scene takes place at this station. I was so glad that I was at the same location. Both inner city trains and long distance trains leave from Waterloo. We took a train back to the hotel, ordered room service and crashed in to the bed.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Dear Old London - Day 2

We woke up, had dinner at the hotel restaurant. They had a surprise waiting for us, brought out a cake with dessert, to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary! Apparently our travel agent had mentioned it to them. Very sweet!

Day 2 was our first pre-booked tour, and stop uno was Windsor Castle, the residence of the British Monarch!  It was about an hour's ride from London. We arrived at the castle 30 minutes early (they open only at 10:00 AM), only to find a long line snaking thru' the outside roads already. It was cloudy, and a slight drizzle had started. We joined the line a little disappointed. In one of the street corners we saw another well-known symbol of England, the red telephone box.

The red telephone box (K6 model)
We were admiring the outsides of the castle, and before long, it was ten o' clock.

A partial view of the castle from outside, with Union Jack fluttering high atop!

The same tower, viewed from inside!
We went through the State apartments, Semi-State rooms, moat room, and Queen Mary's doll house. The doll house was designed by one Edwin Lutyens, who, incidentally, was also the architect of India's capital city of New Delhi (aka Lutyens Delhi).

Windsor Castle hosts a Changing the Guard ceremony on certain days of the month, conducted by the British Army. (a more popular one is hosted by the Buckingham Palace). One was happening that day. We stayed and took a few snaps.
Changing the Guard
As soon as the ceremony ended, it was time to board the bus. We crossed St George's Chapel on our way out, which is also situated in the lower ward of the castle. It has been the location of many royal weddings, most recently of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in 2018.
St George's Chapel

Have you seen the movie Ice Age? Below is one of my favorite scenes, in which Manfred exclaims "Modern architecture. It will never last!" I have always wanted to see Stonehenge since I heard this line. And that was our next destination, about ninety minutes away from the Windsor castle. We spent the time productively, eating our lunch; a veggie sandwich, chips and cookies. Fortunately, the tour operator also supplied a water bottle.

"Modern architecture. It will never last!"

We reached the visitor center, and then a shuttle bus took us to the actual site. It was about half-a-kilometre away. Situated in the Salisbury plains, it is dated to be more than four thousand years old, belonging to Neolithic or Bronze age. There were many debates about the purpose of Stonehenge. Today, it is widely accepted to be a prehistoric temple.
Stonehenge - prehistoric temple, aligned with movements of the Sun
If you are an avid photographer, you can request special access to the stone circle. You can click the photos up close. Visiting hours are either earlier in the morning around 7:00 AM or later in the evening after 7:00 PM.

Next stop was The Roman Baths. As the name indicates, it is a Roman site used for public bathing. On the way, we crossed the Bath Abbey. We had time to marvel at it's gothic architecture only from the outside. (If we go inside, we may have to spend a few more hours, which we didn't have)

Bath Abbey
Then we reached the actual baths. We saw a main pool, surrounded by several smaller pools and a maze of rooms constructed below the street level. Natural hot springs supply water to these baths.

Roman Baths
A trip to Roman Baths is not complete, without visiting the Grand Pump Room, a 19th century building that serves refreshments. We ordered the famous English scones and clotted cream, and finished it up with a hot cup of tea.

On the way back to London, we got down at the Baker street station. We had one more stop to make. Since we had watched all the Harry Potter movies, we were determined to find that entry way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We took the Circle line from Baker street to Kings Cross station. At Platform 9 3/4, our day was complete.

Entrance to Hogwarts
While we were spending an excessive amount of money on small pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia, our bellies grumbled to remind us that we haven't had the dinner yet. One of our friends had recommended the Dishoom Restaurant which was, fortunately, only a 10 minute walk from the station. It was a Friday night, and even at that late hour, we had to wait more than 30 minutes to get seated. Carbohydrate filled naan-breads and creamy indian curry was what our bodies needed. We devoured the food like hungry wolves, and caught the next tube back to our hotel.