Randolph and I weren’t planning on taking any personal trips until the end of July. With all the endless work trips he’s been going on he’s been super burnt-out on traveling. This was supposed to be a relaxing 4-day weekend at home. But then the Brexit vote happened and the Pound took a nosedive. We already knew that London is pricey (which is why we hadn’t gone yet) so we said, “Well, let’s go while the exchange rate is a bit better for us.” It was a last-minute trip (I only had a week to plan!) and I decided not to make a specific daily schedule like I usually do. We made our list of sights and restaurants and fit in as much as we could while just enjoying being in London. This was a trip Randolph had been dreaming about since long before we ever knew we were moving to Europe!
We took an evening flight, just like for our Barcelona trip. And, like Barcelona, we stayed at an airport hotel and then took the bus into the city the next morning. That’s one thing about Ryanair – they fly in/out of weird airports, so you have to carefully research how to access to the city you want to visit. But it’s cheap enough that even with the added cost of the bus it’s still better than anything else. In my Barcelona post I mentioned that Frankfurt Hahn Airport is like the Albany Bus Station of airports. We flew out of the same airport, but it didn’t feel quite as seedy this time. For flying to the UK, we had to go though passport control (yes, even though they’re still in the EU…they’re very picky). Since we don’t have EU passports (and didn’t know that Americans can pre-register for a fast-track option) we were stuck for a while in the “all other passports” line. I saw a TON of people with Turkish passports, which really broke my heart after the recent bombing at the Istanbul airport. I wonder how many were trying to avoid an increasingly scary atmosphere in their own country…or trying to visit relatives in Britain before the Brexit takes effect. I also noticed that they were all being electronically fingerprinted (like criminals…) while we breezed through easily with our American passports. What a sad situation all around, and how lucky we are to have the Golden Ticket of passports.
After taking the bus into London and checking in at our Airbnb, we started out the morning with a walk though the Brick Lane Market, as suggested by our Airbnb hosts. Randolph was skeptical about spending some of our limited time at a market, but it wound up being a highlight of the trip! It was hands-down the absolute best food market we’ve ever been to, and it would be tough to top. In addition to the food stands lining the streets there were also numerous old warehouse spaces filled with stands selling not just food, but clothes and other goods, and all along that street were shops selling awesome handmade things and vintage things and local food. There were so many great things that it was overwhelming! We bought some rib meat poutine, but wished we could try more foods. There were so many different foods from literally every corner of the world!
After we got to the end of the long stretch of market, it was only a little bit farther down to the London Tower Bridge. We were lucky to have sunny weather the whole time in London, but the lovely sun made it take a while to get a good picture of us at the bridge – I couldn’t keep my eyes open against the sun!
Since we had such limited time, we opted not to do any of the museums, so even though I would’ve like to see things like the Crown Jewels (at the Tower of London), we’ll have to do that next time (when we feel more like spending a gazillion dollars on outrageously high London entrance fees and wading through crowds of tourists).
We did, however, go to a pretty little oasis in the middle of bustling London. St. Dunstan in the East was a church, but was severely damaged by WWII bombing. It was never rebuilt, but decades later it was turned into a lush little public park. Destruction into beauty.
Next, we hopped onto the subway to see Big Ben (aka the Elizabeth Tower) and the Palace of Westminster (aka Houses of Parliament). It was far more ornate-looking in person than I had expected. I don’t think you can really get a sense of that until you’re standing next to it. There was so much detail not only on the building, but also on the fences surrounding it and even on the beautiful street lights. And, yes – it was just as tall as you’d expect. I really liked the green color of the street lamps. Hilariously, there was a guy standing right next to this street light who was wearing a sweater that was the exact same shade of green, plus khaki pants; he 100% matched the light and the building and seemed to be totally oblivious to it. Sadly, he walked off while I was still trying to figure out if I could discreetly take a picture of the color-matching.
Westminster Abbey was just down the street so we headed over there next. It was closed to the public because it was a Sunday, but we wouldn’t have gone in, anyway, because (like some of the museums) it was crazy expensive – 20£ per person! I really don’t understand why some of the biggest historic London attractions are so expensive, and especially a church! Churches are normally free to walk through – even the really famous ones. Even the Sagrada Família in Barcelona – which collects entrance fees because it’s still being built – doesn’t cost that much! I don’t think I’ll ever go into Westminster Abbey, purely on the principal of it costing such a ridiculous sum.
As we were standing next to Westminster Abbey we saw one of the ubiquitous red telephone booths, so we made our way over so Randolph could take the cliché picture of me. Of all the telephone booths we saw, this was the most secluded (and had a cool background, of course), so it was definitely a good find for photo-taking.
We wanted to swing by Buckingham Palace and we chose to take the route that went through St. James’s Park. It was a beautiful, peaceful little park. It reminded me of walking through the Boston Public Garden, except much quieter. The view from the little bridge in the park looked like it belonged in a painting and, unsurprisingly, there was a lady there painting the landscape.
After making our way through the park, we walked down the empty, wide road to Buckingham Palace. To be honest, I found it a bit boring and underwhelming. I guess a large part of its appeal is due to peoples’ obsession with the royal family and the romanticism of princes and princesses, which I’ve never really bought into. Sure, there’s lots of carved stone, and gold doodads, and a couple guards (they weren’t the guys wearing the red coats and tall, fuzzy hats, though)… but it wasn’t really anything that screamed “wow.”
After that we were ready for lunch (or lunch #2, I guess, since we had the poutine). We went to one of the places on Randolph’s list – The Windmill. We took the subway and after we left the station we were walking though a very touristy shopping area. That made both of us a little worried that the restaurant would be some tourist trap. But then we turned off the main street and it suddenly got more peaceful and quaint. The Windmill was not at all touristy and there were definitely some locals there. The reason this restaurant made our list is because they are famous for their meat pies. Randolph got the Steak and Kidney Pie, and I got an “open-faced” pie with veggies – it was basically a savory tart. It was all very delicious – I particularly liked the gravy that came with Randolph’s food to go on his mashed potatoes.
We then spent a while going into stores. Randolph wanted to find a nice suit while we were there, so we were going around to the various British menswear stores. One of the first places we found was a nice British store called Austin Reed, which was going out of business. As you might expect, it was a bit of a madhouse. Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find anything there for either of us. Before we went to London Randolph had told me that he thought I’d look good in “one of those British hats” (ie a fascinator). I told him I didn’t particularly like them (even though I do like hats). While we were in Austin Reed, Randolph convinced me to try on a fascinator. I was shocked to find I loved it! It was a gorgeous style and a gorgeous color and I would have bought it in a heartbeat…except it was the last one and it was very damaged. Bummer. Thus began my quest for a cute fascinator! Good call, Randolph.
We eventually made our way over to the area where we were having dinner. Punjab is the UK’s oldest north Indian restaurant, open since 1946. We weren’t quite ready for dinner yet, but in the same little neighborhood as the restaurant was a little “hidden” spot that I’d wanted to check out. Neal’s Yard is a little alley, surrounded by buildings on all sides and only accessible through a couple narrow walkways. From the streets, you would never be able to tell it’s there, but once you’ve found it it’s a beautiful little square filled with healthy restaurants and local businesses. My kind of place! If we didn’t already have a place planned for dinner, we could have happily eaten at one of these places. After killing a little time we were ready to eat, so we went back down the street to Punjab. It didn’t disappoint! Randolph ordered the classic – Chicken Tikka Masala. The sauce was really good. I ordered Saag Paneer (spinach and cheese) and garlic Naan. Mine was very good, but I though that the Tikka Masala sauce was the highlight. We also shared a dessert that was a cake soaked in spiced milk (saffron, cardamom, and others). I liked the texture of the cake, and the spices in the milk were a really great combination.
We made a very quick stop for breakfast at a coffee place we’d seen near where we were staying, Shoreditch Grind. I wish we weren’t in such a rush, because it seemed like it would be a great place to sit and order an actual breakfast (they had a full breakfast menu). But, we just got coffee and an almond croissant. The croissant was great, so I can only imagine how good the rest of their food is. I got a nitro cold brew coffee, which I’ve heard of and I’ve been wanting to try it. I knew that it was “carbonated” coffee, but I apparently had the wrong idea of it. I was thinking of soda-like carbonation, but it’s the smooth, creamy carbonation of beer. I’m still not sure if I liked it, although to be fair I wasn’t exactly leisurely sipping at it. I think I’ll have to try it again somewhere else before I fully form an opinion on nitro coffee. I like cold brew, I like creamy beer. I should like it. I want to like it. I just don’t know yet. I’m sure I can find it when we’re in LA next month, since they’re the purveyors of all things trendy, so I’ll give it a second chance.
Our first official stop of the day was Howarth of London, a big music shop. They pretty much have everything – accessories, music, used instruments, new instruments (including their own line), repairmen. Randolph wanted to try out Légère synthetic reeds and a couple other things, so he had brought along just his mouthpiece/ligature. He wound up buying one of the reeds. It’ll be good to play around with and also good to have on-hand for playing outdoors or in drastically different climates. Since they had testers of the Légère reeds, I wound up trying out their synthetic bassoon reeds. They are definitely a far cry from the awful synthetic reeds marketed to middle schoolers. I was pretty impressed. I would definitely consider it a very viable option if I found myself in a situation where I was playing a lot outdoors or in places that would do weird things to my reeds (like high altitude). But at $135 per bassoon reed, I was definitely not walking away with one. Yikes!
We did a little more wandering in stores (looking at suits) until it was time for the big highlight of our trip… afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason! It was actually a total coincidence that our reservation was on July 4th, but once I realized that I found the irony hilarious. We celebrated the anniversary of our country’s independence from England by having a super fancy afternoon tea in London. Ha!
The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon (named in honor of the Queen’s 60th anniversary of rule) is all the way on the top of the Fortnum & Mason building. We were surprised to find that there are four floors of shopping in the building (including fashion). The stairs are very fancily decorated. As soon as you enter the Tea Salon everything is mint, white, and gold – chairs, walls, china…everything. It was super classy looking, but in a very light, airy way. There was a pianist playing jazz standards, they pull out your chair for you; they know the details.
You might think that an afternoon tea with its dainty little sandwiches would leave you still hungry. That would be incorrect. Fortnum & Mason will refill your plates of food, and Randolph and I have already learned in the past not to underestimate tiny-looking food. Randolph ordered the regular Afternoon Tea with the Jubilee tea blend and I ordered the Savory Afternoon Tea with the Countess Grey tea blend, plus we ordered champagne. The food comes in a tower of three plates. We both had the same assortment of tea sandwiches on the bottom plate – coronation chicken, egg salad, ham, cucumber, and salmon. The difference was in the upper two plates. The middle plate was for scones. Randolph’s were a plain sweet scone and a raisin sweet scone. Mine were a crab scone (with a crab spread) and caramelized onion (with grape jelly/cream cheese). The top plate was the fancy little foods. Randolph had an assortment of delicious little desserts – including a peanut butter puff, chocolate cake, and something mango. Mine was little savory bites – including asparagus wrapped with prosciutto, lobster, quail egg, and a truffle pastry. The last part of the food was the dessert cart. They had several different types of cake that you could choose from. I tried the almond peach tart (so good!) and Randolph got the strawberries and cream layer cake.
In my pre-trip research I found reviews on Trip Advisor that said to make sure to say “yes” when they ask if you want more food because they’ll box up any you can’t eat. Sadly, that plan backfired because they wouldn’t box up anything with seafood or mayo, which left us with only one lonely scone in our doggy bag. Boo. At least we left very full of good food!
After eating, we worked our way back down to the ground floor, checking out each floor along the way. But the ground floor (teas and foods) was what we were really interested in. We bought two different teas to take home: Smoky Earl Grey and Chai (in a pretty tin). I’m looking forward to trying both!
After lunch: more suit and fascinator shopping! We went back to Austin Reed because they’d had signs saying they were getting fresh stock daily (I think they consolidated their going out of business sale into just that one location). I was very hopeful that they’d have more fascinators. They did…just not the one I liked. Randolph found a jacket he liked, but everything was separate for the suits and we couldn’t find the other matching pieces in his size. I only wish we’d gotten to experience Austin Reed while they were still in their prime and not so picked-over.
We decided to try some of the British department stores for fascinators which were, conveniently, all in a row: John Lewis, House of Fraser, and Debenhams. Debenhams was the winner! I found a really cute fascinator. I’m going to wear it to Randolph’s sister’s wedding next month, so I’ll wait til then to reveal it.
To take a break from walking around we stopped by Graphic Bar, a trendy but cozy bar filled with leather Chesterfield-style sofas and serving over 300 types of gin. I wanted to get a gin & tonic while we were in London, but I didn’t know what to order since they offered so many types of gin! Our server sent me up to the bar for advice and the lovely bartender kindly made many suggestions. He pulled out six different types of gin for me to try, which were all distinct but all tasty. I eventually decided and he made a suggestion of other flavors that would go well with it in the G&T, so I ended up with a beautifully prepared G&T garnished with grapefruit, lavender, and pink peppercorns. I should have taken a picture of the gin bottle because I can’t even remember now what kind it was. At any rate, everyone working there was very nice and it was a shame that we didn’t have the time to hang out there longer.
Once we were good and hungry, we ventured off toward our last meal in London: fish and chips. Randolph’s research had turned up several highly rated places, but some were a bit too out-of-the way for our limited time. There was one, though, that was in an easy area (very close to Howarth, actually). We went to one of the old classics, The Golden Hind. It was pretty much exactly what you would expect from a bare-bones fish and chips place. And it was delicious! Randolph got cod, I got haddock. It was basically exactly like the fish fries of my childhood (always a happy memory!), right down to the big bowl of tartar sauce.
We didn’t really get much time to sleep that night – only about three hours – since we had to get up essentially in the middle of the night to catch our bus back to the airport for our early-morning flight.
The Norcrosses will be here in a week! Woohoo!