A Weekend in London

London is one of those cities that just steals your heart; the blend of history, culture, food, art and the modern life. James and I are fortunate to have visited this city once before, however this time around we got to spend more time(four days) in the beautiful city, and be tour guides to his parents while there. It was a fantastic long weekend in London.

Mr. and Mrs. DiCroce, or G and Papa as we call them, decided to do a stint abroad, including a visit to Exeter – to visit us and see where we live and go to school, Swindon – to reconnect with family, Spain – to fulfill one of their goals and London – to top of the trip!

 

Day 1 – The Harry Potter day

James and I boarded a train from Exeter to London Paddington early Thursday afternoon and planned to check into our hotel(thanks G and Papa) and see some London sites before his parents flew back from Spain later that night. Note to self: do NOT forget your Kindle, as a three hour train ride can get quite boring. On our arrival to Paddington I made sure to find the Paddington bear bench to take a photo.

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Next we had to figure out how to get from London to our hotel the Sheraton Skyline, located just outside of Heathrow airport. If you are unfamiliar with London, Heathrow it is QUITE far away. Fortunately G and Papa had James and I to blunder through it all and make the mistakes beforehand, so they could avoid them and not get lost once they finally arrived. We hopped on a tube directly to Heathrow airport, which was fairly simple. (Using our railcard, we purchased an off-peak zone 1-6 day pass on the tube and paid £8 ea. as opposed to £18 ea.). The difficulty came in figuring out how to get out of Heathrow airport and to the hotel, without paying for a cab (because we’re cheap and broke). Silly us thought we could just walk out, WRONG do not attempt to do this. There is literally no way to walk out of Heathrow airport, your butt must be planted on some mode of transportation. I decided to do what all women do when lost, and I asked for help (sorry guys but you have a bad reputation of refusing to ask for directions/help when needed). A kind gentleman who worked for the bus system informed me that there is a local bus that operates at Heathrow airport for FREE and our hotel was located in the free zone. Thank goodness. A short ten minutes later and we were at our hotel, checked in, and shoving peanut butter sandwiches down our throats. James of course saw complimentary tea and made himself a cup.

Refreshed, and not weighed down by massive backpacks and luggage, we took a free bus(285, 423, or 555) to the nearest tube station (Hatton Cross)  to take the hour tube ride back into London. First stop, Kings Cross, AKA location of Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter (I’m still secretly waiting for my letter to Hogwarts, that I’m convinced got lost in the mail, no shame whatsoever). Kings Cross, has actually created a little area between Platforms 9 and 10, specifically about 3/4 of the way, dedicated to Harry Potter. There is a trolley stuck halfway through the wall, where all us muggles can grab a photo living out our dreams of being a witch/wizard off to Hogwarts. They even have staff that give you props i.e. scarves and wands, and help fluff your scarves for your photos, and take professional photos that you can purchase. Though you can still take photos for free on your own mobile device or camera so unless you really want the souvenir this whole experience cost us nothing but a tube ride there. I took all my photos in the cliche, cute ways whereas James decided to be unique and took his photo to look like he was struggling to get his cart through the barrier.

After our journey to the Magical World of Harry Potter, we took a pitstop at Leicester Square and walked over to Picadilly Circus. Essentially these areas are the equivalent of Time Square, NYC. Bright lights, street performers, overpriced food at every corner. Nonetheless it was still nice to walk around and see the nightlife of London. We managed to see a very interesting street magic show while walking around. Kudos to that guy from the Philippines, who has been traveling around the world for five years doing his show. Definitely one way to live life. Having finished our quick tour of the London night life we popped onto a tube and took it back to Hatton Cross station, where we got another free bus back to our hotel. Pro Tip #2: You need to press the buttons on the bus, otherwise the bus won’t stop and you’ll miss your stop. Thinking ahead we made sure to send his parents a text to get on the 140 bus at station 19 at the bus station at Heathrow Terminal to the hotel, so they knew what to do and had no issues. Turns out the bus station we had taken earlier from the airport to the hotel was located at terminals 2,3 NOT 5 where they flew in. Oddly the Terminal 5 bus station had stations all the way until 18, then skipped to 21. I can only imagine the confusion that ensued when they tried to find a bus at a station that didn’t exist. An hour later, they arrived..in a cab, starving, and exhausted. Two showers later, and a much fresher smelling set of parents we went down to the American Sports Bar of the hotel where we grabbed a late, but necessary dinner. The entire time James was sweating the bill because his card was put on the hotel bill for incidentals and meals. He made sure once we were done with our meal, the card was updated with his parent’s card.

 

Day 2 – The fifteen mile day

By 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning and we are all sitting on the top deck of the double decker bus heading to the tube station. Four tube passes later, and we’re off to London. Our first stop, Kensington Palace. If you want to see a Palace while in London and not deal with crowds, Kensington is the way to go. Located in a massive park, you can encounter tons of friendly, playful dogs and maybe even pet a few as we were lucky enough to do. James and his mom thoroughly enjoyed this bit. The Palace itself was a bit underwhelming from the outside, but the gates around it were ornate and beautiful. I made a comment at how cool it was that you could see the ceiling. James, his dad and I quickly walked away after that comment and pretended that we didn’t the know lady yapping at a guy in the window to to scoot over so she could see the ceiling…take a guess who that lady was (yep it was Mrs. DiCroce). By the way if you REALLY want to see the inside of Kensington Palace, you can for a fee. Again we’re cheap so we stick to the outside views. While the outside of Kensington Palace is a bit underwhelming, the Gardens are in a different league. Mazes, arches, statues and ponds all leading up to one massive pond filled with swans and ducks. The pictures I have can’t even do it justice.

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Just twenty minutes from Kensington Palace is Notting Hill. No I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t get any of the references, and we did not find the bookstore (mainly because I did not know there was a bookstore to begin with). With that said, the area is beautiful, and the houses and suburbs are perfect for a stroll. Fortunately for us we did venture across the Portobello Market on Portobello road. It was filled with local independent stores, selling artisanal, handmade products. From the latest fashion trends (P.S. Nicole we got your present here..and if you don’t want it I’ll gladly take it), to cashmere, to antique souvenirs – head to Alice’s, or even ornate doorknobs, you can find almost anything here.

 

Following Notting Hill, we decided to head over to see the Tower of London. The tower is more castle, than it is tower, and is actually quite historic. From what I gathered from brochures it was once a Royal Residence, a prison for many including Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, a controlling point of power for London, and home of the Crown Jewels. You can pay to take a tour inside of the tower, or you can enter it for free by reserving a spot (well in advance) to view the Ceremony of the Keys, which is the traditional locking up of the tower that has been done without fail for the past 700 years. Right next to the Tower of London is the famed Tower Bridge, most often mistaken by foreigners as London Bridge. We walked across the Tower Bridge, along with tons of other tourists, to the South Bank so we could walk over to the London Bridge.

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Before crossing London Bridge, we took a pit stop at Borough Market, which is situated below rail tracks, and smells absolutely delicious the minute you walk into the busy market. Foods from all walks of the world can be found here, New Orleans style, to Ethiopian, to drunken cheeses, and French Meringue. We opted for tasty cookies. If you’re looking for a market style meal in London, I highly recommend doing the Borough Market. After the market we proceeded to cross the London Bridge, which has magnificent views of Tower Bridge, and as you cross it you come across the Monument of Fire, which commemorates the Great Fire of London that burned for three days. At this point, Mr. DiCroce’s bad knee and left foot literally fell apart. Cue James blaming Eric for hurting their dad while playing football and throwing such a bad pass that his dad stepped in a hole dug by Tugger(their dog). He was limping at this point. Thankfully we were at the Walkie Talkie building (a building literally shaped like a walkie talkie) where we had reservations to the Sky Garden to view the London skyline. For FREE. Reservations must be made in advance as it is very popular. Half an hour later in queue, and 35 floors higher we had made it to the Sky Garden where thankfully Mr. DiCroce was able to sit and relax for a bit and ease the pain in his leg. It’s not a bad way to relax, the views are impressive. To the left you can see the Tower of London, and the Tower Bridge. Directly in the middle you can see the Shard, I believe it is the tallest building in London, and just off to the right of the Shard is the London Bridge, with the London Eye far off to the right in the distance.

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After we had finished our viewing from the Sky Garden we took off to see St. Paul’s Cathedral. By this point we were approaching 5 pm and the Cathedral was closed for viewing, nonetheless it was still a great view from the outside. The Cathedral is massive, and really needs to be appreciated a bit further back so you can take it all in. A popular spot is the Millennium Bridge which has views of the Cathedral in one direction, and views of Tate Modern in the other direction. Also it is another location that was filmed for the Harry Potter movies(cue fangirl moment). While we were walking down the bridge we saw a gentleman hard at work painting little people and faces into the groves of the bridge. It seems it is something he does often because there were tons of them in random spots all over the bridge. We crossed the bridge and went back to the South Bank, so that James and I can could go down to the shore of the river and collect a rock before the high tide came in. I have to say it’s really cool to know that I’ve stepped on the shoreline of the River Thames. How many people can say that?

 

At this point we were all starving and decided we needed food, so we went directly into the middle of everything, the SOHO area, and quickly realized we had way to many options to decide what to eat. Thank you random Italian guy for drawing us into the restaurant and helping us pick something. The food was delicious and we really needed to sit down for a bit. As James put it, his dogs were barking. After a delicious dinner we decided the best way to top of the night was, to have a pint, I mean I was traveling with “The Drinker” (Mrs. DiCroce). “How many people can say they’ve drank a pint, in front of Big Ben?” The wise words of Mr. DiCroce. If you don’t know Mrs. DiCroce, she is an extrovert 100%. A talker. Give her a second and she will chat you up. I kid you not I went to the bathroom for all of one minute and came back to find she had a made a friend, who ironically was her doppelgänger. It was a battle of words between the two, and who could talk more about their kids. My son went to Germany, my daughter has a 4.0 blahblahblah. This lady’s husband AND Mr. DiCroce both had the face of “good lord here we go again”. It was absolutely hysterical to watch. Anyway Papa was right, hanging out outside with Big Ben directly in front of us, and hearing the clock bong at the stroke of 10 while having some pints is definitely a moment I will not forget. After our pints we crossed Westminster Bridge to get a view of House of Parliament from the South Bank and the London Eye. If you want an uninterrupted, tourist free view, you must go at night. After this we decided to call it a night and attempted to find Waterloo Station, but got lost, then we tried to take Lambert North but turned out it was closed for reparations, and the next nearest station was Elephant and Castle. At this point my bladder and Mr. DiCroce’s were about to pop. We speed walked to the nearest station but literally could not make it and decided to turn the 1 pint in a pub to a pub crawl, all so we could use the lou. Thank goodness for Flowers in the Forest, the random pub we found in our need to pee. £17 later, a few pints in a beergarden, and very much relieved we enjoyed the night.

 

We finally decided to take the tube back to the hotel but low and behold about 10 stops in Papa’s bladder kicked in again. Unfortunately there aren’t any toilets on the tubes, nor do many stations have them. And the tubes close at midnight so we were battling both time and bladder issues at this point. A gentleman sitting next to G and I overhead us saying we needed a restroom and offered to take us to a restroom just outside one of the stations(Turnham Green) where he was getting off. The catch was we needed to wait a few more stops to get there. Our only other alternative was to get off at the very next station, and bumble around trying to find the nearest pub and ask to use the lou or buy another drink…G declared he would be fine and we said we would wait and follow the gentleman. Poor Papa, I’ve never pitied someone more than I did in that moment. The train got delayed five or six times, and crawled due to “signaling” problems for quite some time and when we told him Turnham Green was the next stop, it turns out the train still had to pass 3 other stations, it just wasn’t calling at them. What should’ve been a 5 minute journey to the Turnham Green turned into 20 minutes. Once we finally reached Turnham Green you could see the relief on Mr. DiCroce’s face as he was escorted to a restaurant and allowed to pee. We quickly got on the tube, and then bus back to the hotel. 30,000 steps, 15 miles, and many catastrophic pee incidents later we had (somehow) made it through Day 2 of our trip and James jokingly accusing me of trying to kill his parents. I’m pretty sure they’re sore in places they didn’t even know they had. I promise I didn’t try to kill you both, it was just an unfortunate side effect of traveling with me.

 

Day 3 – The exhuasted day

This day started out much later, not surprisingly given the milage we recorded the previous day. At about noon we made it to London, where our first stop was the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, with a quick walk across Westminster Bridge so we could see the views of last night but in daylight. I really do not recommend going to tourist sites in the smack middle of a day, it was swarmed. Though there was a really cool Scottish guy in a kilt playing the bagpipes while we crossed the bridge, so it did add to the atmosphere. Immediately behind Big Ben is Westminster Abbey. It’s pretty cool to think that I was now standing in the same spot that I watched on television during the Royal Wedding(Will and Kate).

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We were starving because we skipped breakfast and we were on the hunt for a Pasty. James remembered that there were cafes in St. James Park on the walk to Buckingham Palace the last time were in London so we decided to head there next so we could grab a pasty for a late breakfast. St. James Park is very interesting because it is a sanctuary to a variety of birds, and the walk to the Palace is dubbed “Birdcage Walk.” It is without a doubt a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re a nature lover. Anyway as it turns out, none of the cafes in the park sold pasties, so we decided to trek on and just do lunch instead later on. Buckingham Palace is swarmed with tourists, and to get to the actual Palace you need to walk around a massive roundabout, however once you get to the Palace you can peer at it through the gates and see the guards. If you’re there at 11:00 you can see the changing of the guards ceremony, though in winter it’s done every other day. Today was not the day. Next stop: Stroll down The Mall (the red road leading to Buckingham Palace) down to Trafalgar Square and find lunch. We found a tapa-esque restaurant that consisted of small plates, and meals meant to share. It was delicious. Though almost everything I eat I find delicious so I may be biased.

 

After lunch, we all felt quite tired from the previous day and decided we would do one more site then head to the hotel to relax and grab dinner. We opted for Abbey Road as it was his parents last night and it was one of the few things they wanted to see. There wasn’t that many people there at the road, however it is still a functioning road and its a bit difficult to take a photo in an active roadway. Also in England drivers must stop and allow pedestrians to cross the crosswalk when they’re standing by it. I could tell how infuriating it was for drivers to stop, expecting pedestrians to cross, and ultimately they didn’t cross because they were waiting to get a photo in the middle of the busy road. We tried our best to get a photo without impeding traffic and then once we crossed we signed our names on the wall of signatures in front of Abbey Studios.

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After we had gotten back to the hotel and recovered we opted to do Indian food for dinner. James insisted on dressing up, while the rest of us were dressed down, and then made me take a photo of him and his parents because “it looks like my parents are tourists and just met Bennedict Cummberbatch.” Okay James, okay. Given my affinity and love for Indian food I was placed with the task of ordering for the table, no pressure right. Mr. DiCroce has zero tolerance for spice, so I opted for Butter Chicken, Channa Massala, and Lamb Tikka Massala. Only the Lamb was supposed to be spicy. He started sweating during dinner…and chugging water. It was all spicy to him, though he did enjoy the flavors he could not handle the heat. Regardless it was a delicious dinner, filled with great conversation. After our dinner, as we were walking back to the hotel, and a random house across the way was setting off fireworks. At first, we thought people were celebrating Halloween wrong, and setting off fireworks thinking it was the norm – turned out unbeknownst to us, that night was Divali (a Hindu festival). We were completely mistaken, but it was really cool to see fireworks across the street as we were walking by. We finished off their weekend in London, by going to the pool and soaking our stinky feet in the chlorine (yes stinky, 10 miles of walking all day does that), but don’t it’s fine the pool was about to close and there wasn’t anyone swimming in it. I’m pretty sure we all slept like babies that night, especially since we got an extra hour due to the time change.

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Day 4 – The Final Day

At 6:30 am bright and early, we got up to take G and Papa to the bus stop and make sure they got on the right bus this time so they wouldn’t get lost again. 30 minutes later we got them on the bus, and as James put it, “It’s like putting kids on the bus to school, awww.” We waved goodbye as they drove off and then went back to the hotel to grab some more sleep.

Two hours later after a cat nap, and clearing our hotel room out of all the toiletries that was provided (always good to have travel soaps trust me), James and I were off to spend our last day in London before heading to Exeter. First on the agenda was Harrods because I am my mother’s daughter. Sadly Harrods didn’t open till 11 and we were there at half past ten. I took it as a sign that my suitcase couldn’t afford to have one more item in it, so we were off to our next destination, Hyde Park. We were lucky enough that just as we got to Hyde Park the Queen’s men rode by on their horses.

The parks are all the same, in one very important way, you can always count on their being dogs to pet. If you can’t tell James and I love dogs, and we admired them all as we strolled down “Lover’s Walk” to the Marble Arch (modeled after the Arc de Triomphe). Unfortunately the Marble Arch was swarmed with tourists like us so it was really hard to get a photo of it without anyone in front of it.

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The next stop on our destination was back to Big Ben so we could take more photos. Sadly it was a bit foggy today and everything just looked gray and dreary. We then trekked to Trafalgar Square in hopes to enter St. Martin-in-the-fields, but it was closed to visitors as it was in service. It became clear that about now was a good time for breakfast/lunch. What do two broke college students eat for breakfast/lunch? McDonalds. You can always count on it being around. Three pounds later, and one and a half sandwiches each we were filled and onto our next stop. Neal’s Yard. I think this is a London secret, tucked away in the middle of Covent Garden, filled with vibrant colored shops and locals. Or so it seemed at least.

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We then visited Leadenhall Market, famous for the film location of Diagon Alley. It is no surprise that I am a Potterhead so I was thrilled to stand in the actual location of Diagon Alley. Unfortunately the market was closed on Sundays, but I think I prefer it this way because there really wasn’t that many people there.

 

Our next stop, was way out in Greenwich, to see the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian line. It is pretty cool to say you’ve stood at 0 degrees Longitude. Pro Tip #3: Bring a walking stick to hike up to the Royal Observatory. Maybe it was because we walked almost 50 miles, or that I was carrying a heavy backpack all day, but to get to the Royal Observatory from the Greenwich park involves a massive and steep hill. On the flip side, the view of the Queen’s house (she has houses all over this country it seems), from the top of the hill is impressive.

 

For our last and final stop of London, we opted to go to Little Venice. I have to say I think it’s more of a Little Amsterdam than a Venice, as far as the canals go, nevertheless it was quite scenic. After our stroll through Little Venice, we walked over to Paddington Station, and sat for two hours and waited for our train because we were too exhausted to do any more exploring. By the way, our lunch menu made a comeback, and we had McDonald’s for dinner. A whopping £5 later got us three sandwiches and a large order of fries. All in all, it was a quite lovely yet tiring weekend in London.

Total Cost by us: £136

Breakdown

  • Rail Tickets: £40 ea return Exeter St. Davids to London Paddington = £80
  • Tube Tickets: £8 ea. zone 1-6 off-peak, we bought 6 tickets = £48
  • Food: £8 (of our own money, the rest Mr. and Mrs. DiCroce treated us too – thanks again!)
  • Hotel:  This one goes to G and Papa again…thanks!!

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