A Wee Update

Hey kiddies,

Sorry for the lack of correspondence over the last couple days.

The abridged version: after a weekend in the Midlands (which began with me trapped on a train), I’m now up in Edinburgh, somewhat alert, and trying not to step in either dog crap or vomit (my friend Cindy’s advice to me!).

Will try and write more soon (including a more thorough explanation of the last few days in chronological order).

High Tea? Check.

Seating for one at Harrod’s Georgian Restaurant for tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, desserts and huge tea pot of green mint tea: 19.95 GBP.

Tip for service: 5.05 GBP.

Taking in the ambience while savouring the gooey, sticky sweet goodness: Priceless.

That’s right. I finally made it to Harrod’s in Knightsbridge. I went. I ate. I bought tea. I have a plastic shopping bag. I am a Harrod’s virgin no more.

(I was going to title this post, “Tea at Harrod’s, Bitches!” but considering there are probably friends and acquaintances who got there long before I did — and probably actually shopped there — they’d probably think I was an immature loser who just happened to do what thousands and thousands of people do all the … Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? I had tea at Harrod’s, bitches!)

I think I was there for about an hour and 20 minutes, but I didn’t care. It was great. I did manage to eventually peel myself off of the chair to look around. I barely got a look at the place in the short time I was there, but what I saw was surreal. The Egyptian Room. A chocolate bar. (No, not like the candy. An actual bar. With big churning vats of chocolate instead of hard liquor along the back counter.)

I didn’t want to get near anything, for fear I’d in some way damage it and have to pay for it. Costly pots … pans … hats … Fendi and Jimmy Choo bags … If I was a shopaholic with a penchant for expensive things, this place would be my Waterloo. It was certainly something else.

Earlier, I’d (finally!) gone to the Tate Modern, which I missed on my last trip to London. Of all the stuff I attempted to digest in the two hours I was there, I must say that this was my favourite (next to Picasso, of course). Don’t ask me why, but I remember spending more time looking at it than most. Oh yeah, this was pretty good, too.

This, however, annoyed the snot out of me. Don’t be fooled by the still picture. I wish I could find a video version of this to properly convey what I mean. Take my word, though – It was almost the audio-visual equivalent of being shot at with a pellet gun.

Of course, me merely mentioning it probably means the artist has achieved what he set out to do. But if you ever go to Tate Modern and stand in front of this thing, leave within two minutes. ‘Cause if you’re not afraid of clowns before you approach this work, I can see the possibility that you just might be when you leave it.

But on a slightly serious note, I can’t believe 10 days have come and gone already! Luckily there’s still more to come. If I’m not held up at the train station by long lineups and luggage searches, that is.

The East London Experience

As circumstance (and laziness) would have it, I ended up spending my entire afternoon and evening in East London.

I originally went down there to retrieve my loaned mobile from a friend of a friend, who was kind enough to drive me home last Saturday after missing the subway back. In my exhausted daze, I’d taken it out and threw it on the backseat, and forgot about it until I’d gotten back to my friend’s place – about 2 minutes after he’d driven off.

He also had promised to show me around when I was in the area this week, but it wasn’t meant to be. He did suggest spending some time at Old Spitalfields Market. I did come through here the last time I was in London, so I wasn’t really in the mood to buy anything. But I figured I’d at least have lunch here for old time’s sake.

(If any of you get to come here, go to Cafe Mediterraneo – it’s where I had probably one of the best chicken salads and hummus ever. I thought I’d be done in 20 minutes. No, ladies and gents. The motto on their bill reads, “SLOW FOOD IS GOOD FOOD”, and they’re not lying. That thing took the better part of an hour to finish. It was like time slowed down when I ate that salad. I was this close to going home and taking a nap.)

After that, it was down to the Museum in Docklands – quite interesting if you’re into the history of London through its ports, docks and mercantile industry. It’s actually bigger than I thought it would be. I spent 2 hours in there and only got as far as the abolition of the slave trade. There’s way more beyond that, and it’s not a bad little place to visit. And for 5 GBP, you can get a ticket that’s good for a year. (If anyone plans on going to London between now and Aug 9, 2007, lemme know I’ll be quite happy to let you have my ticket.)

By the time I caught the Docklands Light Railway (their version of the Scarborough RT, except things smell, well, slightly river-y instead of like sulphur at Midland Station – yeggs!) back to Tower Hill Station, and tried to grab some dinner, it was time for the main event – the Jack the Ripper walking tour I’d been waiting to take for days.

Funnily enough, the tour guide (really informative) took us back through the part of East London where I’d been earlier (dang) and showed approximately where the murders took place. I didn’t know part of that area of town is actually now Banglatown, which is apparently reputed to have the best curry. (Too bad I already ate!) But it was neat.

And here I am, with one full day left before I have to pack up and travel out of the city by train. Sniff. I can’t believe it’s almost over! Well, time to get some shut-eye and make the best of what I’ve got left.

Surrounded by clocks. And STILL tardy.

Today, I took a river boat cruise along the Thames. But, as usual, time wasn’t on my side.

I bought my ticket and, thinking I had plenty of time to make the boat, went wandering off along South Bank, where a lot of the cultural stuff is located.

By the time I figured out it was time to turn around, and hustled over to the pier, the catamaran had taken off. I had to wait until 3:00 p.m. to catch the next one.

I managed to snap a few pictures, and got off at Greenwich, way on the other side of the Thames. Very picturesque. It’s home to the famous Cutty Sark (which brought tea leaves to London), the Maritime Museum, Greenwich University and the Royal Naval College. But I zipped past all of this for what I thought might be the real treasure: the Royal Observatory.

I originally went because of (a) my growing admiration of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural work, and (b) my fleeting interest in astronomy as a child, so I thought, telescopes and great views – sweet. Turns out I was also visiting the symbolic birthplace of modern time and home of the Prime Meridian (a.k.a. The Reason I Have To Do Time Zone Math at Work Every Day).

I also didn’t anticipate the fact it was up on a hill. Pretty when you get up there. Not-so-pretty as you huff and puff up there. As much as I admired Christopher Wren just 30 minutes earlier, I was silently cursing his name as I climbed upwards in my wedges. (I bet 20 bucks he didn’t hike up there in his pointy shoes. Hot air balloon is my educated guess.)

The view of London from here is really impressive, though. There’s also a free tour through the building – the living quarters of the first Astronomer Royal, a Camera Obscura outside, the Octagon Room where they’d peer through their telescopes ….

And all the timekeepers, clocks, and pocketwatches you can shake a stick at. It was definitely something I was taken by. Speaking of time, I was definitely operating on DST (D Slow-ass Time). By the time I got to the section with clocks and watches, I realized I was late for the boat leaving Greenwich for Embankment Pier (where I was supposed to jump off and meet a friend for dinner). Typical.

So I stayed a bit longer, looked around, and then lined up for the famous picture-taking spot where the Eastern and Western Hemispheres are separated by a single, imaginary, dividing line. It took about 20 minutes, but I got my small moment with time snapped (with slightly annoying kids jumping around in the background).

Then I hightailed it out of there (or as much as you can in heeled sandals) back down to the pier. The boat I’d hoped to make it on was full, so I was put on another boat, which turned out to be The Slowest Boat Ever. I was sitting at Greenwich Pier for at least a good half-hour while three other boats docked, picked up other passengers, and zipped away.

I finally had had it and jumped off at Tower Bridge, because I probably could meet my friend faster if I took the tube. I did finally manage to find her, apologize profusely (she was really really good about it) and we had a nice dinner.

But it was definitely a bit of an unpredictable afternoon. And a further reminder of why I need to invest in a wristwatch.

Torture and Jewels at the Tower of London

So after The Day Of Neverending Travel, I slept in and didn’t venture out until well after 2 p.m. My plan: to see the Tower of London.

I took the District Line down to Tower Hill. Unlike the other lines I’ve been on, it’s definitely an older one. The tube cars are old and clunky, and the term “Mind the Gap” definitely applies at each stop – it looked like there were about three to four inches (at least) between the cars and the platform. You could definitely jam a leg down there. Well, it looked that way to me, anyhow.

The Tower is definitely worth it. When you surface from the Underground, you can see a piece of the original wall that fenced in ancient London. And the actual Tower of London (a series of towers) is gigantic.

I can honestly say the best part of the Tower is the tour given by the guards there (called Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters). The one I got was quite lively and very funny. Definitely entertaining if you’re a kid. I think the tour lasts about a half-hour, and then they let you loose to see the other towers. We got a glance at where the prisoners for execution were brought in, heard a few of the stories of folks who were imprisoned, even where a couple of Henry VIII’s wives were (privately) executed. Fascinating stuff.

Most guide books will say you need to give yourself at least a couple hours. I think – if you want to be thorough – you need to give yourself several hours. Because I went so late, I didn’t get to see all of the towers. I spent the most time in the White Tower, but that was because there were so many people. There’s a lot of armour, and a lot of weaponry in there, so if that’s your thing, you would probably appreciate it. (I must say, if you go to the armoury area, check out the suit of armour for Henry VIII. He was pretty, ahem, generous with the codpiece.)

I then had to scoot over to see the Crown Jewels. This is a must. Yeah, the blinged-out crowns and sceptres are sparkly and impressive. But there’s this golden punch bowl … holy crap.

I wanted to get into the Bloody Tower, but only made it in to see the torture implements in the lower levels (nothing says “pain and suffering” like a device named The Scavenger’s Daughter), and then the place closed down.

I definitely would pay to see this again, if only to hit the rest of the towers and Tower Bridge which, even from a distance, is pretty impressive. Alas, another time, another trip.

Birmingham, Scarborough Style

Yesterday, I decided to go visit my cousin Shauna in Birmingham. It was a last-minute decision, as I only found out she was there, the day before I left Toronto. And man, what a voyage that was.

Left the house reasonably early and got myself down to London Euston relatively ahead of time.

After plunking down 35 GBP, along with a few more quid for a cookie, some water and crisps, I waited for an hour and boarded the train (luckily, the right one) on time.

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Birmingham New Street Station. I called my cousin, who I thought would come and meet me. I ended up having to take a cab to her flat (cost: about 10 GBP).

Didn’t do much. Met her boyfriend, caught up with her a bit, ate dinner and watched TV and bootlegged DVDs. (Like the really bad ones where the DVD skips and you could see people’s silhouettes when they left their seats, and where the screen was partly obscured when someone got up in front of the camera or the bootlegger’s jacket got in the way). But it was very nice to see her again, nonetheless.

I stayed a little later than expected, leaving sometime after 8 p.m. Shauna’s boyfriend was more than kind enough to give me a lift back to the station.

I ended up just missing a train back into London and dropped another 35 GBP for a return ticket on the last train to Euston.

That trip itself went well. It was when I finally returned to the station that things got a bit difficult.

I thought – if the train pulled in a couple minutes early – I could dash down to the Underground and try and make my way as far westward as possible. I was doing brilliantly until I skidded to a stop in front of partially closed gates and a whiteboard which read, “UNDERGROUND CLOSED. SERVICE RESUMES AT 5:20 A.M.”

What. The. Fuh.

My friends over in Ealing were probably already asleep, and there was no way I was going to wake them and make them come down for me. I already was staying in their home and pretty much eating their food. How inconsiderate and humiliating would THAT be? It would be like New Year’s Eve 2000, all over again.

That left me with only one alternative, which people back home know I’m notorious for doing after a late night downtown – I was cabbing it home.

I went out to the main street beyond the station and tried flagging down a cab. Lousy luck. And silly me. It seemed everytime I tried walking farther down the street, someone would get a cab near the spot I just stood. After about 10 minutes of this (and panicked visions of spending the night sleeping on a park bench and potentially getting mugged or worse), I strode back into the station, asked the night staff about taxis, and got directed to a taxi park on the other side of the station.

About 40 minutes and almost 30 GBP later, I was back in Ealing. And soon I was out like a light.

Portobello … and uh-oh …

On Saturday, my friend’s fiance John and I went down to Portobello Market. It wasn’t too bad, if a bit crowded. I’ve been told it’s in one of the more expensive parts of town, being in Notting Hill. But we mainly stuck to the long stretch of road with vendors and antique shops.

Of course, with it being a location flooded by tourists on a regular basis, no doubt things were a bit pricey, depending on where you went. I didn’t really see anything that caught my fancy, save for a necklace I ended up purchasing (10 GBP – not the best price, but it was okay).

We then hightailed it out of there, and John took me to this historic old tavern, the Cheshire Cheese. Built after the Great Fire of 1666, it’s pretty much remained standing ever since. I had a pint of cider (not Strongbow, but actually quite nice). Unfortunately, most of the bar had been either closed off or reserved for private functions, so I really didn’t see a whole lot past the front drinking room, which was really small. Come to think of it, most of the bar (and the staircase down to the toilets) was pretty small. People must’ve been tiny back in the 17th century. Like Shetland Pony-tiny.

Later in the evening, I met up with my friend Shenaz (who lives in Canary Wharf) and her friend for a play over in the west end, at Hammersmith. It was a political play about the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906. Interesting stuff.

After, we drove downtown to Covent Garden. I must say – from the back of a car, London at night looks awesome. I tried to take a couple pictures, but they didn’t turn out as well as I thought they would. We went to this place called Pizza Express (where they eat their pizza with a knife and fork – !!!) and chilled and joked around for a bit.

It was a great end to a good day … except for one thing.

Unlike the subway in Toronto, the London Underground – as great as it is – has this annoying habit of shutting down completely after about 12 a.m. So by the time we figured this out, Shenaz’s friend – who’s from East London – had to drive me all the way BACK to West London. And we had to stop a few times along the way to figure out which way we were going. I eventually got dropped off at about 2:15, 2:30 a.m. or so. I offered to pay for gas, but he refused.

I felt awful. I was also vowing to myself not to let that happen again. Famous last words.