Wed 31 Jul - London, England

Another "Free Tour by Foot", tickets for an exhibition, another pub lunch and a little more rain, but mostly good weather.

We awoke to some rain but trusted the Weather Channel that said it would pass by the time our walking tour started at 11am.

Just after 9am we again caught our good ol' number 9 bus into town. While waiting we couldn't help but notice this typical London morning traffic - lots of bikes (we think thanks to Boris), plenty of red buses and only a few private cars. London has a congestion charge of £3 per day plus petrol prices of £1.75 per litre (nearly $3 AUD) so it's no surprise that not many drive cars to work.

The theme for today's "Free Tour by Foot" was "Westminster" and started outside the Ritz near Green Park in Mayfair. We were there about a hour too early so decided to first wander the streets of Mayfair. This is how we walked including the tour:

Mayfair is a truly eye opening experience of real wealth in London. First up at Berkeley Square, Rolls Royce and Bentley showrooms.

Di checked out the prices of second hand Bentleys (low mileage of course). Would be handy for Sunday trips to the Cotswold...

This one struck us dumb...£200,000 for a used car... Well, the price included "veneered picnic tables..." so that's a plus...

Berkeley Square seemed a very expensive address and had this lovely park in the middle. Luckily it was not private, like another gated park that we saw later in the day in Knightsbridge.

Crazy priced commodities were available throughout Mayfair.. Like this caviar specialist, charging £400 for 50grams of Beluga. Give me a kilo...

We did laugh at the typical posh puffy dogs these people were walking, 2 * 2 of them in one single frame...

The Ritz Hotel looked more glamorous from the Main Street but for some reason that entry was closed. This entrance looked less impressive.

We met our guide, Charles at 10.45am and two more American girls joined our group before we headed off at 11am on the dot for our Westminster Tour.

We started by walking to St James Palace and hearing about how it was built at Henry VIII time and about his 6 wives who suffered various fates.

Afterwards we quickly trotted to see the tail end of the changing of the guard parade at Buckingham Palace. Us and many others...

Before wandering into St James Park. A lovely park that we admired during our last visit in 2010 and liked again. It stretches between the Buckingham Palace...

...and the Horses Guard at the other. You can also see the London Eye on the Thames from here.

Hans posed in the park opposite the Horses Guard. The highlight of the story of the Horses Guard is that during the Olympics last year the Beach Volleyball competition was held in the forecourt area (the red gravel section in this photo). We bet that the women's competition was popular with the bearucrats...

The swans were a hit with our group, especially as they seemed to be following Mum's directions on grooming. Too cute.

Our tour then moved on towards Westminster Abbey and Whitehall.

First a quick stop near the War Rooms and the statue of Clive of India, who won India for Britain. Charles gave us a brief run down on Clive and also Churchill, and recommended a War Room visit. Charles is the red haired man in front of Di.

What made this moment funny was that a competitor was also running a free tour behind, BUT using a larger also orange umbrella and had a much larger group of punters...

We moved on to Westminster Abbey (where we again choked at prices - £18 each to get in!)

We really noticed that there are far more tourists in the height of summer in London than when we were last here in April 2010. We don't have many photos of this walk because it was constantly crowded and a bit rushed.

Whilst it looked gloomy over Westminster Palace, now the Houses of Parliament, we did avoid any rain.

The obligatory photo of Big Ben (officially named Queen Elizabeth Tower). OK OK boring, everybody takes one, but at least we didn't "hold it" or squeezed it between our hands etc...

10 Downing Street had its usual mass of tourists outside.

We then passed Whitehall government offices and came through the back of the Horses Guards. We felt sorry for the guards who were constantly photographed and sometimes jostled. His guy looked unimpressed.

Di tried to stay clear because we were warned the horses could kick or bite. Hans was saying go back, go back...hmmm

We finished our tour with Charles at Trafalgar Square. He seemed to know his stuff but like the tour guide yesterday, he lacked showmanship so lots of what he said were lost in poor presentation. Hans had drifted off early but Di persisted. Of course, Di would again be happy to send feedback to the manager...

Post script:

An email from Free Tours by Foot arrived a couple of days later and it containes a Facebook link where there were 2 group photos taken by Charles, our guide. Girl to the left was from Wisconsin and the girl to the right from Nashville.

Back to regular programming...

A break was needed, as it was after 1pm when we finished, so we sat on a bench at Leicester Square and had some fruit while watching these cinema poster guys workings. Lunch waited until later.

We then took an overcrowded train to South Kensington for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Reason; we wanted to get tickets for the extremely popular David Bowie exhibition that runs there for only a few more weeks. We had learnt that ordering tickets online is no longer possible and that you have to rock up there in person. Well, the next available tickets were for Monday pm or Tuesday 10.45am. We settled for the latter and purchased our two tickets.
We then did a futile attempt to find a reasonably priced lunch deal in the Knightsbridge area, but with Harrods just down the road, that was not going to happen.
As an indication, they advertised this absolute "bargain" property rental for a mere £7,750 per week. Yep, £1,100 or around A$1,700 per night. We're gone...
So, we found our "home" bus number 9 up on Kensington Gore and went to Hammersmith instead. There, we found our favorite lunch time pub deal from yesterday, £8 with a pint of beer or shandy or soft drink, at The Swan. It turned out that these pubs and many more are part of a chain called Nicholson's Freehouse. As there is a Nicholson beer as well, we will make a wild stab in the dark here and say that they are related.
Cheers to that, Di.

Hey, bangers and mash and a pint in an English Pub. Can't go wrong there...

After a most satisfactory late pub lunch, we will be back, time now was after 4pm, we decided to wander back to West Kensington and our hotel, but the longer way via Shepherd's Bush.

We pass a bit of "Australiana" along the way...
Awesome tucker? We don't think so. Authentic? Hmmm we don't know anyone who eats Kangaroo Curry (which Di says is too lean for curry). Bring on beef vindaloo and chicken tikka masala.

The food from these guys outside Shepherd's Bush tube station seemed surely both more authentic and fun... You could almost hear Leslie Nielsen's voice...

We liked Shepherd's Bush as it seemed very multicultural and "real".

We finished our day past our local grocery shop picking up some refreshments (beer for Hans, G&T for Di, milk for tomorrow's breakfast). Home around 5.30pm.

A curious point to note - our polish proprietress Anna is now overly concerned with making sure we are happy. A few examples from today;

  • Of course no problem to store our fresh milk in their kitchen fridge; she had heard we did not like their UHT milk so has bought another type for breakfast tomorrow;
  • Could they make us coffee or tea? Are you sure that you don't want anything?
  • Wifi in our room didn't work, so Hans went down to enquiry. Anna promptly rebooted the router and then went up to our room on the 3rd floor to tell us that all was good now

Hans thinks they've worked out Di's Priceline usage and willingness to review both on Priceline and TripAdvisor. Funny thing is we really like the place and think that we are getting a great deal with our room.

A lazy night with a few drinks and planning ahead... Good night.


Tue 30 Jul - London, England

"Free" City of London walking tour... And more rain...

We were delighted to see that our breakfast at London Visitors was truly continental - something for the north Europeans in particular - nice bread rolls and a selection of nice cheeses. Yummy. Together with boiled eggs, cereals and some pastries we are sure to eat our fill each morning.

We knew rain was coming and prepared well for our day out - waterproof boots, hiking pants, umbrellas. Just after 9am we headed to Covent Garden on our local 9 bus, which has a final destination of Aldwych (pronounced Old Witch). We asked about this but no it has nothing to do with witches (aka Salem) and apparently could mean "all ways" in olde English as this is a major crossroads.

The trip took almost an hour with rain and traffic and we enjoyed watching everything from the top deck.

Once we reached Covent Garden we found our bearings and looked for the spot where we were to meet our guide. We walked through the old market area, with some nicer shops and cafes inside. The typical market junk was in Jubilee Hall across the lane way.

Some buskers were performing inside the Covent Garden. They played Vivaldi's Four Seasons and were really good. We found out later from our walking guide that to busk at Covent Garden, they have to audition for a license and only the best would get them. The buskers were also allocated individual time slots for when they were allowed to perform.
Note the Australian flag on the cello case against the glass doors.
With about 30 minutes to spare we found place for coffee called Caffe Nero. What a mistake! Worst coffee we have had this whole trip so far. We left the coffees as you see them below in the photo. We found out that Caffe Nero is a chain which we will avoid from now on.

It took us a few minutes to track down our "free tour by foot" guide, David, as he had no signage and we were looking for the standard orange t-shirts that all the other guides had worn or something else identifiable. It turned out that Free Tours by Foot is brand new in London (just 5 weeks old) so they are still learning and developing. We mentioned our experience and Di said that she would be happy to provide feedback (can't stop her in fact...)

One unexpected thing we learned - in Welsh, Di is what you call someone named David. So as you can expect Hans enjoyed this little tidbit and Di's new nickname is David.

David was expecting 6 but got 3 people in total for the tour, likely due to the predicted rain. The only other customer was a German hippie girl from Berlin. We headed off on the Strand and towards Fleet Street. David talked the whole time! Every few steps we had so much history and buildings of interest that we just kept moving (we think to ensure that the we could finish by 1.30pm).

The key thing we learned today was that the City of London starts here, at Temple Bar (see the photo below) and is only 1 square mile in area. City of London has a population of 25,000 and Boris Johnson is not the mayor. What???

The 7 million people of London are in the Corporation of London, a variety of different cities, like Westminster, that are grouped together and have one Lord Mayor. Everyone calls it London, but it is not "the City of London". This corporation also falls under Crown Land (therefore under Royalty) where the City of London does not. The royal family have to be invited into the City of London and are led from the entry point by the city's current Lord Mayor (we don't know who, nor did David our tour guide).

Our guide seemed to be a fan of the great architect Christopher Wren. He pointed out numerous churches and buildings. This one was a smaller octagonal building on The Strand which is now a Romanian church.

Inside there was a local church guru and he directed our attention to one of the old memorial plaques on the wall, which brought a smile to all of us..."The Honest Solicitor". Is that concept so unique so it had to be pointed out?

The newspapers and the journalists have moved away from Fleet Street to Docklands and the many pubs on the strip must surely have lost a lot of customers in the process.

The Tipperary pub is famous for several reasons. It was the first Irish Pub in London, the first to serve Guinness and is THE Tipperary featured in the wartime song "it's a long way to Tipperary". Yep, it's just down the road from Piccadilly and Leicester Square. The things you find out on these tours...

By the way, you can see in the photo above that the predicted rain had started and continued for most of our tour.
The board outside the Tipperary which explains all this.
The rain meant that we missed a few photo opportunities of things we saw along the way - but we revisited them later.

We did hear quite a bit about the 1666 Great Fire of London, which was in the City of London. It burned much of Fleet Street and the Strand. Anything wooden burned but many stone buildings were saved or later restored. The monument below is in recognition of the Great Fire and if it was laid down the top reaches the exact point where the fire is said to have been started (considered deliberately - possibly to get rid of the rats).

Unusually for a walking tour, we hopped on the Tube twice. As we needed to use our Oyster Cards, this would have added about £7 each to the cost because we needed to get back to where we started once the tour finished.

From Monument we went to Tower Hill to conclude the tour, finishing with Tower Bridge. Great views of the Thames looking westward towards Parliament.

We finished the tour in the middle of Tower Bridge. Odd location and we had to find our own way back St Paul's tube station near where we started.
The time was already approaching 2pm when we returned to St Paul's. This is the cathedral where Charles married Diana. It's huge and deserves more time, and it is free, so we will return another day. You can judge the size - Di is just a "small head and shoulders" in the middle of this photo.


Back on Fleet Street... we looked for a pub that did a lunch deal. We needed something warm and traditional.

We found it at Ye Old Bell. A lunch deal of £8 for a meal and a pint.

Typical pub atmosphere and beer - not cold enough - but went well with the fish and chips for Hans and the Bangers and Mash for Di.

We figured this doorway was once the entry to the pub and where we were sitting was once the street. Good old character.

What didn't come across in the pub pictures above was that just behind us sat two possibly small time crooks. They spoke in the broadest of cockney accents and were bragging about deals. Every fifth or so word was the f-word. The dialogue reminded us of the crim Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie "In Brugge".

It was 3pm by the time we finished lunch and continued our wander of Fleet Street. This Tudor building is one of the oldest to survive the Great Fire, largely because the fire stopped about 300 meters down the road. Lucky!

A sign that made us smile with a very recognizable destination. It worked for Hans...he was serious, but do we need more Pommys in Oz?

We saw this original Twinings Tea Shop earlier in the day and decided to return. The shop was originally called the Gold Lyon, hence the doorway feature.

A plaque outside the Twinings shop explained further. The tea shop has continuously been there in operation for almost 300 years, still run by the family.

This plaque inside the shop was titled "A. Record" but it sounded like a poem or ode to tea to us. Note the line about Twinings tea was not thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party.

Again, another first for us. Tea Tasting. The whole process was similar to wine tasting where different teas were discussed based on origin and process and whether the tea is a morning or an evening tea. Tea colour (white, green or black) is driven by exposure to heat and oxidisation and therefore any tea bush could make any color. Much enjoyable. And free :-)

Di drank to that too. We tea tasted Oolong White Tea, 1st flush Darjeeling and 2nd flush Assam (our favorite).

The Twinings shop obviously sold its tea as well, including 10 tea bags of choice for £1.50. So, we invested £3 for 10 Assam and 10 Darjeeling tea bags which would provide a nice occasional break from our regular cheap tea (which is surprisingly good too).

We passed Australia House earlier in the day and now again. The building commands quite a footprint in what we believe would be prime real estate in the centre of London. Australia House was closed for punters when we were there, but we need to return to understand what we should do for voting in next federal election as we would not be back in Australia before then.

Many many Australian flags lined the street and behind Australia House is Melbourne Place. We could not find a Sydney Square or Canberra Circuit or anything similar...

We started to run out of puff and decided to jump on bus number 9 which would take us back towards Holland Road. The bus route seemed quite useful to us and we are likely to use it more.
Here we are at the front at the top of the double decker bus, as you do as a tourist in London.

Street view from the top. Nelson's Column on Trafalgar Square in the distance.

Arriving back in our neighbourhood we picked up a couple of sandwiches for dinner in our local corner shop. That would be fine for a light dinner given that we had the cooked meals so late in the day.

Showers and an early night in the hotel room were needed as we are both still suffering colds. More cough syrup and tablets are swallowed, together with more tea. These colds are becoming quite annoying now and we wished that they would go away so we can do and see more. Bad karma.

Oh well, we soldier on with lots more planned for tomorrow and beyond. Di made a list... Good night.