Sunday, May 31, 2009

London - various views

London beckons and even after another pretty full day there is still more to see - gee, I guess you could live here all your life and still not see it all. We still haven't managed to get to a show this trip even though we had hoped to go tonight. But no, none of them are showing on Sundays! Not ONE. Oh well, guess they all want at least one full day off too. Pity though.

We contemplated going in by public transport, but then again, it is a Sunday and they run far less frequently. It also means a walk of three quarters of a kilometre before we even begin (pooh pooh if you must, but the hip is variable at the moment!) Anyway, thanks to Kate and the London public transport map, I have found a parking station only one block from the ferry terminus at Tower Bridge. So, we bravely tackle the Sunday London traffic.

And do you know - it really wasn't all that bad - I mean there was gridlock around Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly for a while but it gave us the opportunity to get some great photos! And that magical little parking fairy is alive and well. We get to the Tower Place car park in Lower Tower Street and find it maybe 10% full and for a miserly £2.50 for the day!!! So there, all you Londoners - if you are prepared to brave the traffic, this has to be the cheapest park in town on a Sunday. Other days it is £2.50 per hour - still relatively cheap but even I wouldn't want to take on weekday traffic in the city, and of course there is a £8 congestion tax during the week as well.

We looked at the various cruise on offer on the Thames and decided on the City Cruises one from Tower Bridge to Westminster. Once we had our tickets in hand we join a long line of people waiting for the next boat. We are underway when the skipper announces the safety talk and adds that although their primary purpose is to get us from one point safely to the next, and that while they are not tour guides, that they will try to point out some of the buildings and other points of interest along the river. Now that commentary was great - all the major and many of the minor points of note are identified as well as all the bridges under which we pass (or see) in a wonderfully witty way. My favourite comment was about this building which was described thus: "we are not sure who owns or inhabits this building but we are sure that it must be the National Window cleaners training school!"

There is polite laughter at the explanation given for the common name for the newest bridge across the Thames - the Millenium Bridge, a suspension footbridge, was tagged “the blade of light”. Locally it is known as the Wibbly Wobbly Bridge as it was closed just three days after being opened in 2000 when it began to shake with the sheer volume of people walking across it! Hmmm, so it was designed not(?) as a footbridge?? Strengthening took another 2 years and as extra £5 million, but seems to have worked as there are no more reports of wobbles!

We reach Westminster Pier in the shadows - literally and figuratively, of the Houses of Parliament (correct name is the Palace of Westminster) with the clock tower that encloses that most famous of all bells - Big Ben). It doesn't matter that I had seen these before, and I doubt whether it would really matter if you saw it every day, this iconic London view is breath-taking. The gilded spires and vanes, the intricate and beautiful stonework and the leadlight windows that throw back splinters of reflections at you are things that I could easily look at day after day, year after year. We were lucky enough to be within view for two of Ben's tolling - only on the hour, at 3 pm and 5 pm. And as we are walking back to the boat just after 5 o'clock, just have a look at the beautiful sunny day! I suspect that back at home 5 pm is much much darker coming into winter. We see Westminster Abbey in the background but having seen many great cathedrals, have no desire to venture over.

One of Michael's keen interests lies in the two world wars and today we head down to the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum at the Clive Steps on King Charles Street. As my interest is not so great (and I had seen the hidden bunker near St Andrews which is the other end of the story) I opted to wait in the shop and watch the video they were playing (and save $25).

The Cabinet War Rooms were an underground complex used by the British Government as an operational command centre during the Second World War. After the capitulation by Japan in 1945 the complex was abandoned and later re-opened to the general public in 1984. In 2003 the complex was again closed for expansion works, and re-opened in 2005 with the additional space converted into a museum documenting the life of Winston Churchill.

One would not require an interest in military history to appreciate the desperate years Britain had to face from an attempted invasion in 1940 to the constant threats at severing its life lines. The complex has been restored with its original features and equipment, including a wax figure of Churchill in the pose of talking to President Truman on the transatlantic link. Unlike like the element of paranoia experienced in the Cold War Bunker we visited in Scotland, the Cabinet War Rooms had a distinctive air of 'business as usual'. However, I developed a distinct impression, one would have had to enjoyed the confined space of a submarine to have lived in the complex.

As the various attractions are now closing, we returned on the ferry from Westminster to Tower Bridge and back to those commentaries. There is a nice little chunk of London now owned by the Kuwaiti Royal Family - an area now known as New London City in the area of Chambers Wharf - complete with the means to meet all their needs physical and spiritual and including a private hospital. What gets up the nose of the Brits is that these people are exempt from paying tax in the UK!

So, back on the other bank I went into Starbucks while Michael took a walk across Tower Bridge to the HMS Belfast. Unfortunately as it was after 5 pm, it was closed. And we could not get into the London Tower either because it too was closed. But he got some pretty darn good pics.

Time to move on and find something for dinner - we key in a restaurant address from Fliss' 10 year old London guide. It was no longer there, but we came across an area filled with pubs and eateries near the Great Ormond Children's Hospital and looking at the menus on display opted for The Swan pub that has existed on this site since 1757!!! Did not look at all tired and the young kids behind the bar made sure things kept moving. Our meal?:
Hot Cheese platter (boxed Camembert served with toaster baguette fingers and a balsamic onion confit.
We both had the Traditional Sunday Roast (Roast of the Day - beef - with roasted and new potatoes, seasonal vegetables - carrots, beans - Yorkshire Puddings and gravy)

We arrive back at our accommodation after 10 pm, tired but satisfied with our day and with the 592 photos taken today! And we are now planning on how we can cram as much as possible into our last 10-12 days in the UK.

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