There are welcome signs everywhere, but the most inviting one is the square-chested man standing next to his wide-hipped woman – the loo, at 7am. Are we part of the EU – not that we’re European, but the American flag is shown in the fast lane; along with Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – as long as you have an e-passport. We get in the ‘all others’ line and I’ve got a new stamp 20 minutes later. It takes us another ten minutes to queue for an underground train ticket to get to the station that has our pass.
We’ll be on the Piccadilly Line that goes from Heathrow to Cockfosters, haha. I will laugh every time. I’m the driver in the car, so even when not in one I leave the navigating up to Caleb. We’re finally on the tube together – another country, and a very large city awaits us while we ride in the dark tunnel surrounded by ads and strangers who are covered in layers of clothes and carrying lots of bags. I have my phone and camera ready to capture every moment – the birds, trees, and rooftops flying by and the passengers – who are reading books, listening to music, finishing presentations, playing digital games, catching a nap, and the rest staring at something.
Meanwhile, Caleb is busy keeping up with the transit changes taking place frequently. We’re getting closer to somewhere and have to get off one train to get picked up by another. We have to make sure we’re on the right platform to go the correct direction. There are steps and escalators, and we quickly learn that you stand to the right as people run by on the left, or you will get a man’s face on you – and then he was gone. It’s just like the movies as some can hear their train coming and make it as the doors close. One couple is separated and the girl left with a panic-stricken face.
There are other couples just as lost as us, with way more baggage, and parents teaching their kids the routes. In the U.S., they teach nine year olds the state capitals and leave out the other details, but in London it’s all about the neighborhoods of a city that doesn’t even make the top 20 list for population or area size. The train has priority seating for those that are pregnant, old, or find it difficult to stand – which could be children. And if someone knows they’re getting off at the next stop they won’t bother to sit – saving the seats for those that are on for eight or more stations.
Singles will move to make room for couples or so that a woman can sit next to another instead of a guy. There are handles, but some people just lean on available space. And while some clutch their tiny bag ever so tightly, others leave their luggage in the area provided by the door. I don’t know if this shows trust in people, ignorance in statistics, or security in a higher power but the reason for this behavior could be because of the signs posted all over the city – not the ones for a better body, prettier bag, tonight’s show, the sperm bank, or the Union Jack; but the Beware Pickpockets – in the mall, museum, restaurant, loo. Wherever you are, be prepared to be robbed.
Our first stop is Leicester (pronounced Lester – and they said there wouldn’t be a language barrier) Square on Charing Cross Road where we’ll pick up our London Pass and Oyster Card downstairs of the ticket booth, but not before we stop at Simit Sarayi – a taste of Turkey (the country, not the bird) in London. I must admit though, it was the Cinnabon that drew my attention and it’s closed doors that sent us elsewhere. There’s history to be seen and trinkets to be bought.
There’s lots of safety features in London – tube doors won’t close with a person in them, the streets tell the pedestrian which way to look for traffic, and toddlers are in carseats. I wonder how many days it will take to get used to the driver on the opposite side of the car. It makes me panic to see a kid I assume is texting and driving, but without a steering wheel, and then I remember they’re the passenger. London has also taken advantage of its tall buildings in close proximity together and some streets have lights and art dangling over the buses and vans below.
I’m impressed with the different shapes and designs of the buildings, and their windows and decorations; the word choice on signs; the store selling bongs; and all the colors of brick, metal, wood, glass, and fabric that the city has on display. The more we walk around, the more I realize the effect the British had on little Bahrain – restaurant layout, store sales, winding roads; but with the bonus that one island has easy-to-find toilets that are always free regardless of location or customer status.
With cards in hand at 12:30 pm we can begin the journey to Ibis Hotel, at the Custom House at ExCel station, where I can drop off my 8 kg bag and only carry 1 kg of camera, phone, and wallet. It’s back on the tube where some escalators have at least 50 steps and couples that wear matching outfits – which I’m glad to see isn’t only a fashion in the States and China. The further we get from downtown, the more I begin to worry that I’ll regret my choice, but we pass the Emirates Air Line cable car, the O2 Arena, and the Sunborn Yacht Hotel – average $165 a night and us paying $70.
We check-in at 11:20 am. My back is relieved and my tummy hungry. Luckily for us, there is a nice man at the till of Fox Bars & Restaurants, and the items we want – eggs on toast and a Full Monty – are brunch items that are served all day. We get an espresso each, Caleb’s a double, and a Bulmer’s blood orange for the taste, not the booze. Menu’s on the table, order at the register and pay, and they deliver food. I notice cheap salmon and lots of veggie options on the menu – something I’m grateful to see.
The cider cost five pounds aka quid (which is 2.7BD and $7) and makes it reasonable to believe that after transport and accommodation, alcohol would be the third priciest expenditure on travel that you can add to a food bill – ours totalling £25. Caleb notices their difference in customer service – no tipping, no waiting on refills, and no waiting to pay when you’re ready to leave – and we do.
We get off at the London Bridge station and Caleb’s ready for another coffee. We pass a man, and his sign must’ve said hungry, because when I saw the basket of bananas I went and asked if he liked them. His positive response got him two. Caleb had wondered why I looked for the biggest ones and knew where they went when we walked away – me with no fruit on our way to London Bridge.
We walk through a mix of old and new – the only evidence of a McDonald’s is the hanging sign and the golden arches in the window – and perhaps the taxi that u-turned to get his two passengers as close to the door as possible. We pass painted utility boxes, markets, closed pubs, and the Southwark Cathedral. We go down some stairs, cross the street, and have somehow missed our destination – even knowing we’re not looking for the more attractive Tower Bridge.
Caleb reassures me that we were only mere feet from it. Magically from this approach all the signs, pigeons, and tourists are easily seen. The structure itself might not have much to offer, but the moving river, dark architecture, and gray clouds demand photos. Without being asked, I offer my services to a couple and a group of four. In a world of selfie sticks and bad photographers I wouldn’t bother to ask either. Caleb sees the boats on the water and, though we’re supposed to be on vacation, he can’t wait to get aboard and get near an engine – running, historical, fictional.
The closest one, about a half mile via the Queen’s Walk – a three mile path along the River Thames between Tower and Lambeth Bridges, is the HMS Belfast, part of the Imperial War Museums. It’s a steamship that was launched on St. Patrick’s Day in 1938 and became a museum in 1971 after extensive fighting in WWII and the Korean War. There are stalls selling hotdogs, mulled wine, and brownies – and though I sample the raspberry one I somehow end up with the walnut-coconut one half gone and wrapped in its paper bag and placed in my pocket.
The wooden deck is wide enough to need handrails on the wall, where usually just the safety rail will do on the edge. Some items are quaint – old small boat, surgical room, but others all too familiar – the loo, the IT equipment – and this ship was updated in 1956 to help keep costs down. If this was the States intentions they got some things right (using really old equipment), but there’s still room for improvement how many supplies and hours are wasted.
We climb down into the engine room and I’m more focused on all the stairs, tight passage ways (with the weight of crew members now), and can imagine it sounded like a mix between the Titanic and the USS Whidbey Island (where Caleb and I met). There’s shiny metal, insulated pipes, and dials everywhere – which are quickly becoming flat screens. I appreciate their stairs that curve making it easier to climb, but the rails aren’t as slick for sliding down – as I used to do while I was in, even if the captain told me it was dangerous.
Past the asbestos and buy some pricy water, skip the fried food and bins of candy, and we’re on our way to Tower Bridge. We can’t help but stop and watch this girl try to take a selfie of her doing a double butt kick – if only we could’ve gotten a decent photo or video for her and given her the YouTube link. We get the FastTrack in line, and then make the decision to take the spiral steps up, and enjoy the view along the way, instead of waiting in line for the lift of 140 feet.
The bridge was opened in 1894 and used more than 6,000 times a year – hydraulic power moving the bascules, giving it the nickname Wonder Bridge – and now electricity lifts it about 850 times annually. The glass floor was added in November 2014, after 32 years as an active walkway, and one layer shattered just two weeks later when a glass bottle fell on it. It was a marvel then, and too scary to cross the open-air walkway in 1910, and remains to this day an architectural feat that draws nearly 600,000 visitors.
Some people are scared of heights and others not wanting to tempt fate on glass with strangers can try to stick to the two-plank thick passage on either side of the view, but many succumb to the pressure of selfies and family photos. As I look down it’s as if I’m the human version of Frogger, but crushing buses and crowds as they pass below, while others lay on the glass for another angle. The view is nice outside and the 40 Great Bridges of the World display eye-catching from the inside – what’s left of arches in France, walking through a moat in the Netherlands, and a local one – the Wobbly Bridge. It’s official name is the Millennium bridge that was built £2.2M over budget, opened two months late, closed two days later, and took another £5M to open two years later.
We skipped the engine rooms, which would’ve required us to cross the bridge a couple more times, and opted for the Tower of London, a World Heritage Site, instead. Not that this wouldn’t require its own maze to reach, but really it’s: cross the street, walk all the way around and down to the entrance. I notice the tall, multi-colored walls outside which seem take blocks of walking and staring – as you wonder how much of this is still the original. England is great at taking out an old brick and putting half of it back in, with a fixed half, to help preserve the look and feel of the ages – and it’s amazing.
We pass the tiny information shack that tells people tickets are available at the building up the ramp, through the 12-foot high metal gate, to the large-to-us but tiny-to-scale entrance of this version of It’s a Small World village. Most forts I’ve been in seem large enough to defend 40 people, maybe 100 if they’re anorexic or midgets, but this place could easily fit over 100,000. This castle has done well to withstand over 900 years of war and weather to preserve royalty, records, and riches – and there’s a long queue to see over 23,500 Crown Jewels in a vault designed for 20,000 people daily with the average around 8,000 – about 7,975 too many.
There’s plenty more to see here – awards, portraits, gifts, guns, and bedchambers. There’s stained glass, burnt bricks, wooden stairs, night lights, and metal art to keep us learning and out of line. We wander around looking at copper and carved bones, the guards gear and walk upon a scene from Game of Thrones, and past the animal room where lions and monkeys were kept till 1832 when they were moved to the zoo. Now, a cage is available for posing, because who doesn’t like to pretend to be behind bars as beast and prisoner.
The Tower is closing at 4:30pm and we’re being herded towards the exit and the city at night (by 4pm this evening) in a slow, mannerly, way. We head to Trafalgar Square via the tube, which now has staff on duty to help direct rush hour traffic – so many stairs, trains, and doors to watch out for. We stumble upon the National Portrait Gallery, open till 6pm tonight, and entry is free. It was the first of its kind in 1856 and houses the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare – the first to enter their collection that now has over 195,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs.
We stop in Chinatown, in the restaurant with the meat hanging in the window, for alcoholic boba that’s only on the menu. We walk out sipping coffee and taro and walk by The Shard when I need to use the loo. We were going to debate the $45 each to be 309 meters in the air with the possibility of a 40-mile view, but their closing times made the decision for us. If only it had been Valentine’s Day weekend when they’re open the latest. We make our way to the underground where a woman is helping her kids with their homework – spelling and chess.
We return to Fox Bars & Restaurants for some typical English fare – fish & chips and bangers & mash, with an Amigos draught and Three Hop lager for dinner. It’s a nice finishing touch to our first day in a new country, and our hotel only a block away. We’re getting the hang of scanning our room key to enter the lift and down to the left to 315 where we scatter our clothes about, plug our phones in, and climb under the blanket.