London: Rough Start!
There was a sizeable line at the London Gatwick airport to get through immigration. I didn’t think to print out proof of my flight to Chicago, so the guy wouldn’t let me go through. I was having trouble with the free wifi, so I had to sit off to the side and sign up for the Boingo wifi hotspot with my credit card to bring up my flight confirmation email, which was annoying obviously. And I know I’m gonna get billed once a month for it and I’m gonna keep forgetting to cancel it. Book it! Once through I bought my train ticket to the city (for $20!!), Victoria Station. I went through the gates to the Gatwick Express and hopped on the train that read “London-Victoria” on it’s electronic display. As soon as we left the conductor got on the microphone and alerted new passengers that the electronic display was wrong and this train is actually going the opposite direction, to Brighton. Great!
I got off at the next stop and waited 20 minutes for the next train towards London. Ok, now I’m good to go! We went back through the airport and on towards London but soon stopped. We heard through the speakers “We have encountered a MASSIVE points failure up ahead, this train will be stopped indeterminably. I liked the emphasis on “massive” to really let us know that we’re screwed. I guess a points failure is some sort of problem with track’s signalling. Well apparently this track was a dead end so we went back to the airport where were then able to switch tracks and then finally get into the city. Get your act together London railways! The conductor guy did apologize like seven times for the inconvenience though. So there’s that!
The hostel was a 15 minute walk, but I got distracted by a homely looking British pub and stopped in for a pint. This was definitely a locals bar, I think I was the youngest person there by about 20 years. I finished that up, but then got saw a crusty looking fish and chip shop. I was going for the most British start as possible! The hostel was in a row of all white, older buildings. I was all the way up on the 5th floor, no stairs. Curse these old buildings! No AC either. There was nobody in my room so I plopped my stuff down and headed out. I still had a few hours of sunlight to get a feel for the city. To the riverfront!
Not gonna lie, London’s waterfront was not all that impressive! I guess I’m so used to looking a big looming skylines in the US and in Asia that I just kind of expected it from a huge international city like London. But alas, London really doesn’t have that many towering buildings. There quite a few modern looking, big glass windowed type high rises though. But it’s the ferris wheel aka ‘the eye’ that dominates the skyline; whereas in Chicago the Navy Pier ferris wheel is just like a small blip.
The riverfront walkway was also kind of annoying as well, at least in my section of town. First, it’s walls were too high! If you’re not standing next to the wall you can’t actually see the river. Why even have a wall at all? Do they think people are just going to be running or bike so fast that they can’t slow down around a curve and hurtle themselves into the river?! Yea yea I know it’s old and historic or whatever, but I don’t like it. Also, the path occasionally diverts inland around certain buildings, including Big Ben. Surely there can be a way for the city to build a path that runs entirely on the waterfront! Is that really too much to ask?!
I had slightly poor timing because Big Ben was under renovation, so two of the towers were covered in sheeting, so that was a bit disappointing. Okay now I’m done whinging (British word!). The walk was still very nice! I did finding walking around London to be more interesting once I got away from the river. I hung out in Trafalgar square watching the double decker buses for a bit, then found then found my way back through the neighborhoods, enjoying all the very British sounding names. Williamsby Manor, Asherton Glen, Devonshire flats … and the like. This neighbourhood was filled with older, very regal looking apartments. In my neighbor hood of Chicago if a unit is older they just knock it down and turn it into a sleek looking glassy rectangle. Here the oldness is a positive thing.
I also appreciated how these homes were decorated too, from what I saw in the few that had their blinds open. Big gold framed victorian paintings on the walls, detailed wood furnishings, large crystal chandeliers, ornate tea sets, etc. Very vintage! And lots of care in the garden work as well. The cobblestone streets also lend to the overall feeling of the neighbourhood. Everybody on the sidewalk dressed impeccably and every car on the street was an Audi or Beamer. Being rich is nice.
Next place on the list was the Hippodrome, London’s biggest casino (I think) and home to some live poker action. I try not to play too much poker when I’m traveling but at least like to see what other poker venues around the world are like. I hopped in a low stakes 1/2 game where people usually buy in for around 200 pounds ($260). Some guy from Kuwait sat down and literally had no idea how to play, so he dropped about $700, and fortunately I got about $300 of it. 2 days in London paid for, excellent! After I cashed out I wandered around Soho, which is the main touristy bar/restaurant district in London, but it was after 2am so the only places open were some clubs, which I had no interest in, so that was all for the first night.
The next morning I took a little stroll around Hyde Park, which was relaxing. The weather was very British like, cloudy and cool. I realized how much I missed the cool weather like this – it’d been nothing but hot and humid for me in the last 7 months! I didn’t pack a jacket, but I certainly could have used one!
After I while I headed over towards Buckingham Palace and noticed that people were just streaming in. Something is going on apparently. I guess they were celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Royal Air Force; there would be a flyover AND a visit from the Queen herself. The whole place was absolutely jammed. Plus it’s completely flat so you can hardly see anything. Naturally half of Britain came out to catch a glimpse of the back of the Queen’s head. After standing there for half and hour waiting, I decided I honestly don’t care if I see the Queen (and even if I did it would be some fleeting glimpse), so I headed out. I walked along the Pall Mall, which would also be on the Queen’s route, so it’s completely packed, and then to Trafalgar square, which was also a zoo. That’s when the planes started flying overhead, first single planes, and then ones in formation, and then finally a group that formed the number ‘100’. This was pretty neat. Much more interesting than seeing some 80 year old woman waving in a carriage.
Next I headed into the National Gallery, which is free, and then into Soho and London’s main shopping districts, Bond St. etc. It feels similar to when I walk around Michigan Avenue, being on the outside looking in, watching as people shop for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on some nice looking cotton textiles made in Bangladesh. But it was fun walking some of the famous streets that I’d only seen in movies or wherever. The sun came out and it ended up being a gorgeous day. I got back to Soho and stopped in a café with street seating and live music. Feeling fancy I ordered some charcuterie and red wine and observed the Londoners walk by. On average they certainly do dress better than Chicagoans!
I didn’t want to hang out too long though, because people at the hostel were getting together to watch the world cup game that evening and I wanted to join in. France – Belgium was the game. Probably a dozen of us headed out to one of the neighbourhood pubs, which was already pretty crowded. But the nice thing you can chill outside the pub on the sidewalk with your beer, and the bar has huge open windows, so you can just watch easy from outside. Fortunately Britain isn’t so strict on public drinking. I was routing for Belgium, because they were the underdogs, and to hell with the French, but they prevailed anyway. I kind of blew it because I was flying out the next day, and that was the day England was playing Croatia, and it would have been really cool to see that in London. Oh well.
After the crowd died down me and another American went out to Soho, and then finished the night in the Hippodrome. I won enough to pay for this entire Europe mini tour, ha. Poker is fun this year! It was a good day in London! But only enough time to scratch the surface. London really is one of those cities you need a lot of time to explore, because it’s so spread out. It’s more like a collection of neighborhoods than a big city, so I do have a lot more to see. Until next time…
Some more photos