Our first start to the European Tour was London. We had only two full days to explore the city. Covering over a thousand square kilometers with almost 8 million people, it’s hard to know where to start exploring a mega-metropolis like London. Taken as a whole, the city seems brash, noisy and impenetrable. But when you break it down, borough by borough, the real character shines through. From East End market traders on Roman Road, the oldest trade route in Britain, to the oh-so-chic (and expensive) fashions of Chelsea, every area – every street, even – has its own story to tell. And it’s a story that’s constantly evolving. With the influx of immigrants from nations around the world – most recently, Eastern Europe – whole areas are taking on new and rapidly changing identities.
Like Brick Lane, for example; once a haven for Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France, the area became home to the Irish, then Ashkenazi Jews, before morphing again under the influence of today’s Bengali population. Each group left its mark through food, music and religion. It’s this delightful mish-mash of normally disparate cultures that makes London neighborhoods so wonderful to explore. London is a city in flux, a city whose population and culture is influenced by and, in turn, influences the world. You can almost feel the creativity humming as people from all over the globe mix to create an atmosphere unlike any other.
After a dumping our luggage we took advantage of a free few hours and some beautiful clear skies to take a walk along southbank of the Thames. We started our walk on the north side of Westminster Bridge. We arrived by tube, and took the exit that leads to the bridge and then looked up. Towering over us was a glorious sight and one of London’s most famous landmarks, Big Ben. Strictly speaking, ‘Big Ben’ is the name of the 16 tonne bell housed inside the clock tower, but the Brits commonly refer to the tower as Big Ben. This magnificent ornate tower is attached to ‘the mother of all parliaments’: the Palace of Westminster. The building is very grand and looks much older than it actually is, built during the reign of Queen Victoria; it was designed to express national greatness by mixing decorative English gothic with Elizabethan style. To get the best view of Westminster, we crossed over to the south side of the river, and headed down the steps to the London Eye.
We Continued east and passed the Millennium Gardens, and quite possibly, a few street performers and human statues that are often excellent entertainment. We walked on, under a railway bridge and the Hungerford pedestrian bridge, before coming across a set of Corbusier-style grey concrete buildings to your right. Often called, ‘the bunker’, the first of these buildings, The Royal Festival Hall, was built in the 1950s to lift spirits after the end of World War II, and to commemorate the centenary of the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851.
We then continued along the walkway and the next big building we came across was the Gabriel’s Wharf; once a power station and then a meatpacking factory, today this is a complex of craft and design shops, studios and restaurants. Continue along another 400 metres or so, passing Blackfriars bridge on our left and you’ll come across and an enormous industrial brick building with a 99 metre high chimney soaring high into the London sky. This is the Tate Modern, once a power station and today, one of the very best places to see 20th century art. What’s more, it’s free to visit.
Next door to the Tate Modern, was a replica of Shakespeare’s own theatre: the Globe. Recreated by the dedicated American actor, Sam Wanamaker, incredibly, there is not one nail or screw in the whole building. Instead, 600 wooden pegs hold it together and it boasts London’s first thatched roof since the city’s great fire of 1661.
From the Globe, we followed the pedestrian traffic that temporarily leaves the river and leads you onto a cobbled street that passes between two very old buildings. One of these, on your right, is London’s old infamous ‘Clink,’ a prison dating back to Dickens’ time. Continue, and on your left, you will pass a replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship that Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world between 1577 and 1580. The street will bring you to the side of Southwark Cathedral, the site of the original church where Shakespeare came to worship. Some parts of the building date back to the 12th century. You will find here many monuments to the many famous historical figures who were connected to the once parish church.
To finish your walk, we took the steps that lead from the market to London Bridge, and here you have another fabulous view of London. To the west, on the north side of the river, is St Paul’s Cathedral, and to the east, the most iconic bridge of them all, Tower Bridge. What a sight.
The light faded as we walked, turning the sky from pale to navy blue, and the city’s lights came to life, illuminating streets and buildings. Commuters rushed by as I dawdled on the path, taking photos until my hands went numb in the cold.
Up early for a great buffet breakfast we hit the road and made our way towards the river bank where the famous Hammersmith Bridge stands resplendent in green and gold. From here we followed the waterfront west along Lower Mall, past the greenery of Furnivall Gardens and the handful of houseboats that permanently reside on the water here. Before long we’ve come to The Dove public house where it’s steeped in history dating back to the 17th century. Many a famous word has been written inside here, including the well-known lyrics to “Rule Britannia”, and as well as that the pub has a Guinness World Record for the smallest bar-room in the world.
Heading along from here, as you approach Chiswick Mall, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped back in time. Old-style lanterns line the street and grand houses look out onto the river. This part of the walk is very tranquil; you will be able to hear many birds in the trees, including flocks of wild parakeets and of course river birds such as ducks and swans. Chiswick Eyot is an uninhabited island which lies just off this stretch of river and when the tide is particularly low there is a part where the bank opens out and you can walk right up to it (although it does get muddy). However, at the other extreme, sometimes the tide is so high that the river floods the street and pavement here; a regular occurrence that the local residents have had to get used to. At this point of the walk, to our right, you’ll see the famous Fuller’s Brewery dating back to 184. Too early for a brew, so we moved on.
We then saw a church directly in front of us, which is the St Nicholas Parish Church. We strolled through its churchyard and along the footpath, and brought us out onto Burlington Lane.
We then jumped in a cab and headed to Kensington to discover the vintage shops that the area has on offer, we got a feel for how Londoners live and where they shop in the smart area of Kensington. Kensington is home to most famous actors and was Diana’s Princess of Wales residence of choice.
Notting Hill is one of the trendiest areas in the borough, Together we browsed through the various Portobello market stalls, which had great vintage clothing and jewelry. We walked along the beautiful streets of Notting Hill and Kim browsed through the nice boutiques.
We then discovered the shops of some of London’s most exclusive streets around the Oxford Street Area and neighboring areas, like Picadilly, Mayfair and Marylebone. Oxford Street was home to most high street brands and a number of major department stores as well as hundreds of smaller shops.
That night we enjoyed a lovely meal on a London Pub Tour. A pint of London Pride each, as well. The glossy wood, bay window seating, brass trim, and view of the park across the street in Smithfield made us feel very welcome. I had the meat pie and Kim had the fish and chips. We then strolled around the square just before we departed to see the historic church and William Wallace plaque.
The next day we took a tour with a panoramic drive around Parliament Square to see the magnificent Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and Kate Middleton were married, then to Kensington Palace, former home of Diana, Princess of Wales. We dropped into the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial. We then headed to St James’ Park and Buckingham Palace to see the colourful ceremony of the Changing of the Guard, accompanied by a military band, a detachment of the Queen’s Foot Guard march to Buckingham Palace to change with the old guard.
Our next stop was a guided tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece with its magnificent dome. The Cathedral was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. In recent years it has seen the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer and, more recently, the thanksgiving services for both the Diamond Jubilee and 80th Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen.
We got a chance to climb 259 steps up the dome were we found The Whispering Gallery, which runs around the interior of the Dome. It gets its name from a charming quirk in its construction, which makes a whisper against its walls audible on the opposite side.
That night we took London by Night tour which revealed the floodlit splendor of London’s landmarks as dusk falls. When twilight descends upon London, the attractions of the city become imbued with certain grandeur. This sweeping, wide–ranging tour encompassed the most distinguished and vibrant areas of this world renowned capital, including Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the financial district of the City. The tour also glided past eminent structures and attractions such as the world renowned London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, inimitable Buckingham Palace, the formidable Tower of London, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Early morning we left London and headed through the lush English countryside to the Channel port, where we embarked on to the P&O ferry for the Continent. There we meet our Tour Director and boarded our luxury coach for the drive to the Amsterdam area.
Check out the little movie here: