Before I begin posting any of our 6,500+ pictures from this trip…
PHOTO DISCLAIMER: Since my last trip report, we finally upgraded to a DSLR camera—not a fancy one, just the bottom-of-the-line Canon Rebel. But we’ve basically left it in Auto mode for five years, so, like, what’s the point? For Christmas, I gave Patrick a private camera lesson with Lindsay from INLIGHT Photo Workshops so we could finally learn all that super-basic stuff like aperture and ISO and how to outsmart the camera in situations where manual mode is the only way to get the shot you want. The class was fantastic, and Patrick took to it like a duck to water. BUT he didn’t have any time to practice before our trip. So a lot of practicing was done on the fly, and this may be apparent in the photos. I will try to edit out the test shots, but please forgive us if some of the focus is soft or the exposure is wrong. What matters is that Patrick seemed to be having a ton of fun experimenting and learning new ways to capture images on this trip!
Every other time I’ve flown to Europe, I always ended up wrecked by jetlag for at least the first day of my trip. But this time, we did it right! I booked a flight that departed around 8pm our time and arrived around 3pm London time, so all we had to do was eat dinner, go to sleep, wake up, have breakfast and get off the plane. And because there’s no way you can get eight quality hours of sleep on a plane, we were plenty tired at an appropriate bedtime once we arrived in London.
As I gushed in the Intro post, Virgin Atlantic’s Premium Economy was a revelation. I loved how roomy the seats were, how much space there was between seats and, most importantly, that there were only two seats in our row, saving some poor schmuck from accidentally being kneed in the groin every time one of us needed to get out to stretch our legs!
The seatback TVs were a lot bigger than the ones on Virgin America (R.I.P.), with a better interface for seeing where we were on our trip.
They even have a virtual “porthole” feature, just like the Disney Cruise Line!
I was so excited about getting a real meal on real china that I took some horrible photos for you:
OK, sure, we were basically getting a choice between Tiny Toons‘ “brown lumps in gray sauce or gray lumps in brown sauce,” but they were actually pretty good lumps and sauce! And the chocolate tart was as good as or better than anything you’d find at Disney.
In the morning/noon/whenever, they woke us up with breakfast:
I have no photos of the Wonder Wall, but it’s just a shelf at the front of the cabin where they put out snacks you can grab throughout the flight. On Virgin Atlantic you get sensible British snacks like crisps and shortbread cookies, nothing like Japan Airline’s wacky snacks of, like, fruity air puffs and dried squid eyeballs.
The only sour note was the ridiculous WiFi offering via T-Mobile. Your only choices are 150 MB for $22 or [snort] 40 MB for I-don’t-know-how-much-cuz-that-would-be-like-one-cat-video… And this is on a 9- to 11-hour flight! Even old-skool legacy carriers in the US sell length-of-flight passes, and those are only about $10 or $15 more.
The first time I logged on, I used up all 150 MB in 15 minutes, apparently because I had a tab open with Apartment Therapy and their stoopid auto-play videos! On the return flight, which was 11+ hours and none of it during sleeping time, I “treated” myself to three data sessions, but … yeeesh! That’s more than half what I pay for an entire month of home Internet!
When we got off the plane we were herded over to passport control, which only took about 30 minutes to get through. We are those squares who get completely nervous around authorities for absolutely no reason, which meant we were rapidly and excitedly overexplaining all our vacation plans to the bored-looking border agent (“…And then, we’re going to Scotland! We’re going on a tour of movie sites! Do you like movies? We love movies! Have you seen Hell or High Water? You would love Hell or High Water! OK, it’s not about Scotland, but the director is FROM Scotland! And he’s making another movie, and this time it IS about Scotland…!!!”)
Our baggage was already off the carousel by the time we got to the baggage claim, so we just shuffled through customs and stumbled out into the arrivals area. Maybe I was a little jet-lagged after all… I dunno why else I thought these random photos would be helpful to you….
If you are meeting a private car at Heathrow Terminal 3, the driver will probably tell you to meet him at the WH Smith shop you can barely see at the back of this shot. Be sure to bring this photo with you and hold it up to the guy holding the “ANONY JUSTIN-MILL” sign to confirm you are in the right place.
As mentioned in my Intro/Trip Planning post, our ride into Central London with Blackberry Cars went really smoothly. The driver was friendly, professional and conscientious. Check-in at St. Martin’s Lane Hotel was also very easy. Our room was just as advertised, with a rooftop view of the buildings on the lane, including the English National Opera. One of my fondest memories of living in London is hearing a soprano practicing the “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute as I brushed my teeth in the little apartment I used to stay in next door.
The only bummer about our room was that it had those awful mini blinds sandwiched between the panes of glass. Which means that the broken ones in the window on the far right will never open again.
Again, this place was super-boring but super-convenient to anything you’d want to do in Central London, with a nice King-sized bed, strong water pressure and huge fluffy towels. What more could you want?
We had some time to kill before our evening tour, so we popped around the corner to Covent Garden. Except for the absence of my beloved LUSH store, it was exactly as I remembered it!
We probably should’ve eaten at the Punch & Judy pub, on account of Patrick’s a puppeteer and his business is named after the noisemaker used in Punch & Judy shows, but… it was a dark, stuffy, crowded cave of a place! So we ended up in a light, stuffy cave of a French restaurant on the subterranean level you can almost see in this shot…
I promise, this was one of only two meals we didn’t photograph. You aren’t missing much, though.
After dinner we spent an inordinate amount of time in an Apple Store, of all places, because it was full of things for Patrick to practice photographing…
Back out on New Row, the lane leading to our hotel, we spotted the first of about a bazillion gelaterias in the UK. No ice cream shops, just gelaterias…
Patrick got this:
I got an affogato in an ice cream cone made with hot chocolate instead of coffee and it was GOOD! Usually I’m kind of indifferent to gelato, mostly because “inclusions” like peanut butter cups or cookie dough are my favorite part, and gelato never seems to have those. But dumping hot chocolate on gelato makes it a million times more interesting! And a million times hotter! (I may have permanently singed the roof of my mouth—I blame the straw, a.k.a., “The Devil’s Rapid Delivery System.”)
When we got back to our room, they had delivered the anniversary dessert I’d requested.
You can either pay to order a custom cake starting at £50 or you can have this thing for free. They said it was going to be a chocolate cake, but what we actually got was scientifically engineered to repell me: Coffee-flavored cake with hazelnuts, white chocolate AND raspberries. Four awful tastes that taste awful together! But, hey… at least it was FREE awful cake!
Our evening tour was a last-minute addition to the trip. I realized I’d planned all these forays to interesting London sites without any kind of overview of the town to acclimate Patrick on his first trip. I thought about doing one of the open-top bus tours that depart from Green Park, but then I started getting stressed out about how best to get there, whether we’d make the scheduled departure time, and whether we’d be too cold. I fell back on “It’s our 10th anniversary!” as an excuse to book a private tour guide who would meet us at our hotel.
I chose London Tours By Taxi for its hundreds of great reviews on TripAdvisor, and we were not disappointed. Initially I was a bit worried about being jet-lagged from the flight and not being able to see much in the dark, but this proved to be the ideal introduction to the city. The owner, Adrian, is a licensed Black Cab driver who shares the perfect mix of historical info, anecdotes and personal opinion to make the city come alive for visitors. For the rest of the trip, we kept saying we wished we’d had Adrian to give us an overview of the other cities we visited too.
We were able to get the lay of the land, covering a lot of ground in just three hours, including stops to explore certain sites on foot. Knowing we were movie buffs, Adrian shared stories of the filming he’d seen around town and pointed out movie locations that might interest us—like the façade they use for the entrance to Carleton House on The Crown and the place where Tom Cruise sprained his ankle making Mission Impossible XVIII: The ‘Splosioning.
He also set us up with a good understanding of London’s past and present, as well as its people. Many times during the rest of our stay we’d find ourselves referring to something Adrian told us that allowed us to appreciate what we were seeing even more.
One of the first places Adrian took us was this cool community garden in the remains of Christchurch Greyfriars Church. There’s been a church here since 1225, but the one you see was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1687 to replace the church that burned during the Great Fire of London. This church also burned, but not until 1940, during World War II.
Apparently there is one apartment in the tower, and it just sold for a couple million pounds!
Patrick fell in love with the Staple Inn in Holborn, one of the only Elizabethan buildings to survive the Great Fire of London (although it was bombed by the Nazis in 1944 and had to be extensively restored). If you like it too, don’t worry—you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in a later installment!
Adrian pointed out one of the shops where judges and barristers get their robes and wigs.
Adrian pulled over near the Tower Hill tube stop so we could check out a unique three-fer: The new, almost novelty-shaped towers rising in London’s skyline, the Tower of London, and a portion of the Roman wall that originally surrounded the city.
We had to skirt numerous other tour groups at this portion of the wall that night. It’s such a fascinating juxtaposition between old and new, right in the bustling heart of a modern city!
Adrian pointed out where the oldest level of the wall stopped and the newer one started atop it.
Then it was off to….
Which is NOT this bridge!
Apparently tourists (stupid, stupid tourists…) think that the attractive and old timey Tower Bridge (above) is the London Bridge. The current London Bridge is a dowdy structure built in 1973 to replace the 1831 London Bridge, which every American will proudly tell you now resides in Lake Havasu, Arizona! (Apparently it is not true that the millionaire oilman who bought it thought he was getting the far more impressive Tower Bridge). But London Bridge is a great place from which to photograph Tower Bridge and the Thames.
One kind of big bummer on our trip was that Big Ben was completely covered by scaffolding and almost totally out of focus!
The Houses of Parliament were also a bit under construction and out of focus…
One of our last stops was Westminster Abbey, the exterior of which you will see in 89,945 photos in the next installment.
This could have been us…
Patrick, who is an avowed lover of Brutalist architecture, was captivated by the blight-y Queen Elizabeth II Center, across the street from Westminster Abbey. Adrian said that everybody in London hates the building because it replaced a nice-looking older building, and they were thrilled to hear it was going to be demolished. But then the renovation of the Houses of Parliament could be postponed no longer, and suddenly they needed a place to stick a bunch of the parliamentarians, so now they’re all holed up in the QE2 Building and the demolition has been pushed back indefinitely.
It’s actually not so bad looking when it’s all lit up at night, though!
Our last stop was a quick buzz by Buckingham Palace, which will also be thoroughly photographed in the next installment.
The absence of the Royal Standard on the flagpole means The Queen (and, more importantly, her corgis) is not in residence.