We return to the tale of my 1993-1994 Great Adventure, which sees me arrive in London, England, for the first time. There I am, wide-eyed and breathless, early 20s and fresh-faced, let loose in one of the grandest old cities in the world…
(The Travelling in the 90s series of posts features extracts from my original travel journal with minimal editing. Click here for the story so far. And please excuse the really dodgy photos!)
[Saturday 18 December, 1993] Arriving in England was like a dream. Whereas my desire to go to Greece was of a fairly recent nature, my longing to go to England has been plaguing me for years. I waltzed through the passport check and collected our luggage, while poor H was put through the third-degree by British passport control of Australian backpackers.
It was a rather overcast day, and at 3:00 the sun was already setting — but to finally be in London was unbelievable!
On Friday, we went into central London for the first time. [ED NOTE: We were staying with family friends in greater London.] We got off the train at Victoria Station and visited the tourist bureau to pick up maps and brochures. Then, because it was very close, we went to check out BUCKINGHAM PALACE — I think we just missed the changing of the guard. We then wandered to HYDE PARK, past Wellington’s Arch and a War memorial.
We had lunch in Hyde Park and saw our first squirrels. It was so nice to have hot coffee from my thermos, along with ham sandwiches and a chocolate biscuit, while seated gingerly on a damp park bench. Hyde Park is wonderful. It consists of wide grass lawns and bare trees, divided by a lake called the Serpentine. I could just imagine all the ladies strolling demurely, waiting to be taken up in the phaeton/barouche/curricle etc of some eligible gentleman!
We wandered down through the park and gazed upon the Royal Albert Hall and his statue covered in scaffolding, before strolling past the Science and History museums. London has so many galleries and museums and it will be impossible to see them all. We wandered around Harrods for a while, checked out the books etc, before catching the tube to LEICESTER SQUARE. We then walked to Charing Cross station and reached “home” around 5:30.
[Sunday 19 December, 1993] Yesterday saw us indulging in a moderate sleep-in before going via the Thames Barrier to Greenwich. The THAMES BARRIER was immensely interesting. Apparently England (or Britain) is tilting so that the Southern regions are sinking and the north is rising. This means that the surge tide which sometimes affects the Thames has more effect on London, and thus the barrier is protection from potentially disastrous flooding. From an engineering point of view the whole thing was fascinating.
We then went to GREENWICH, where it was rather cold and windy. The definite place to be was the old Royal Observatory, which monitors Greenwich mean time via a huge digital clock, and where we could jump over the zero degrees longitude line (flashing lights on the pavement).
But even more interesting were the displays of various telescopes, star-monitoring devices, and clocks. The man who invented the first non-pendulum clock — to be used at sea — invented the bimetallic strip, which he used to alter the working length of the spring which expanded and contracted with change in temperature. Ingenious!!
After the Royal Observatory we visited the Cutty Sark, a restored tea clipper, now transformed into a museum of sorts. On the top deck the various cabins had been done up, and below was a collection of old wooden figure-heads and a general history of the ship.
Today we went into central London again. Unfortunately, there had been a security alert somewhere on the London-Sevenoaks line (ours) so we were obliged to take a Brit-rail bus into the city instead. A 30 min train ride became two hours of rather tedious bus journey. When we finally got to Charing Cross station we walked up CHARING CROSS ROAD (past all the wonderful second hand bookshops) and then down Oxford Street on the way to Mme Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
MME TUSSAUD’S was immensely enjoyable, although not, I think, worth all the money required. However, the wax figures were all extremely well done, and it was fun scrutinising them to see how accurate they really were. Figures that stood out for me include Wellington, Henry VIII and his six wives, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, and Gerard Depardieu.
Upon exiting the wax museum we were ushered into the planetarium which turned out to be equally touristy — touch screens and models etc. The show was interesting, mainly involved with explaining Earth, its position in the solar system, and the essence of the greenhouse effect and ozone problem. But not enough STARS!
[Monday 20 December, 1993] Today began with good intentions which degenerated. To begin with, the weather was abominable — heavy drizzle and cold. We had just dragged ourselves out of bed, finished breakfast, and prepared lunch, when we decided not to go anywhere, and have a peaceful day instead.
[Tuesday 21 December, 1993] We are currently both feeling really… irritated that the trains are still not running on the Sevenoaks line. We had such great plans for today: Westminster Abbey and looking upon Big Ben, before doing a serious bookshop crawl down Charing Cross Road. Instead, we were obliged to wander up and down the local High Street because we were not prepared to catch the horrible bus into London. The worst thing is that the sky is blue, and although it’s still freezing, the sun is beaming down on us. The first nice day and we’re forced to do nothing.
[Thursday 23 December] Yesterday was huge and I spent lots of money! We were up and out early, and started off by photographing BIG BEN. (We were very relieved that the trains were on.) It’s funny how many more photos you take when it’s not raining — the rain prevented us from taking one of Westminster.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY is an amazing place. It has multitudes of famous dead people buried there, and so many decorative statues, plaques and ornaments. It’s so elaborate! I had no idea it would be so vast and decorative. At 11:00 one of the ministers asked for a minute of silence (via loud speaker) so that we would all remember that this was a place of worship and prayer, then led us in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I’m glad too, because Westminster is so ornamental that one is in danger of forgetting that it is a church.
We lunched in TRAFALGAR SQUARE during a brief lull in the rain, and eyed off all those nasty pigeons who seem to enjoy jumping on people’s heads and begging for food. It was once again a bit dark and miserable for a photo — not doing too well today!
Oops — I’ve got out of order… We actually went book shop crawling before lunch in Trafalgar Square. Anyway, our second hand book shop crawl was not too successful — too many hard covers. We did, however, have more luck in new book shops. (Books etc. was a fabulous shop!) We bought a few Christmas presents, and finally some star charts for ourselves. I also bought a new fantasy book for myself to read.
We spent quite a while looking for the theatre where Miss Saigon is playing — it being finally found near COVENT GARDEN. We obtained tickets in row K for half price because we’re students for 15 pounds! We filled in the three hours before the show started by checking out Covent Garden, which now consists of markets and shops.
Miss Saigon was fantastic! It was much better than I had expected, especially since I knew all the music. We successfully caught the train home, and felt quite satisfied that we had completed a good day of sightseeing.
This morning we unfortunately slept in. Both of us ignored the alarm, and I woke with a jolt at 9:30. Since we were planning to see the “changing of the guard” at 11:30 this was not great news. We decided instead to see the TOWER OF LONDON, which was brilliant. We began with a guided tour by one of the Yeomen of the Guards — or Beefeaters. He told us some of the more gruesome tales of the Tower, and mentioned Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley a number of times.
Jane was one of the six “privileged” nobles to be executed on the private block. Others included Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. We also saw Guildford’s carving of “Jane” on the wall of his cell in Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham) Tower.
Inside the White Tower — the original fort built by William the Conqueror — there is a large armoury collection, which had so many swords and suits of armour that I was in heaven. I bought the guide book to the collection. The Crown Jewels took about ten minutes, and were rather impressive, although not a vast collection as I was expecting. But we did see the two largest diamonds in the world.
Other sights in the Tower included the famous Royal Ravens, the private block, and various other towers, including the renowned Bloody Tower. It’s amazing how things all fall into place when you see them. For instance, the location of Tower Hill, just outside the Keep, where all public executions took place. The Keep is a real hotch-potch of different eras, as all the various Kings and Queens added on their little bit. But I really like it like that!
I have since been to London several times, and every time is a new experience. London is like that. But nothing will ever compare to those first few days trekking around all those famous and ICONIC attractions. We marked our walking route in pink pen. And, to this day, tramping on foot around a new city is my favourite way of getting acquainted.
If you’ve been to London, what’s your first memory? If not, what’s the first sight you’d want to visit?