Monday, 20 February 2012


After nearly a year here we finally made it in to London.  We had been a few years back when visiting friends in Windsor but this was our first time since living here.

Why now, you ask?  This past week was the February half-term.  The schools in the UK are more or less on the same schedules.  There are 3 terms throughout the year.  Big breaks are between the terms (Christmas and Easter) and one-week breaks are at the "half term" (October, February, June).  Summers are just 6-7 weeks.  It makes for some mass holidays and we usually head out of the UK.  But, since it is February we didn't feel like using a whole week so we made a nice long weekend (Thursday - Sunday) in London.  The weather was pretty decent for the time of year (high 40's, maybe 50) with only one day of light rain.

We figure to be back, so we didn't try to do it all (not that we could).  Here were the top wishes for the group:

Steve:  Westminster Abbey and British Museum
Kuk:  good theater and good food
Nicole:  London Eye, Covent Gardens and a fun museum
Alex:  Hamley's (absolutely enormous toy store)

[We saw the Tower of London and Windsor Castle on our previous trip.]

We didn't hit 100% but we did pretty well.  As usual, I'll talk around the photos.  Enjoy.

Thursday (Day 1)

Here's the excited (?) crew waiting for the train in Derby.  By booking ahead (and with our rail card), we can get pretty reasonable deals.  The trip down has few stops and only takes about 90 minutes.  More stops on the way back and it is closer to 2.5 hrs.   Our train left at the very respectable hour of 9 a.m. giving us most of the day in London.

Arrival in St Pancras train station.  Five months until the Summer Olympics.

We purchased our Tube ("subway", but don't call it that) Oyster Cards and passes and dropped our bags at the hotel.  I've been saving Holiday Inn points for the optimal time and this was it.  Three nights for free at the Holiday Inn Mayfair saving over $600 (great location too).  (This nice sunny picture was on our last day unfortunately).

I've heard horror stories about how small some of these big city hotel rooms could be, but this was fine.  Perhaps just a little smaller than standard but not by much.

Breakfast was across the street at Starbucks and there was also an M&S grocery close by for snacks and sandwiches.  Now, off to the sites . . .

First stop was to Leicester Square at the official theater ticket discounter TKTS (link).  There is all sorts of construction in the square making it a little challenging to find but you can get up to half off the ticket price by walking up on the same day and seeing what's been returned or unsold.  Works well if you are flexible, and we were.  We chose Billy Elliot.  At £45pp, still not cheap but we did save a total of £80 ($125 or so).  More on Billy later.

After grabbing lunch at Subway, we took the Tube to the Natural History Museum.  Side view shown here.  I thought this would be a good family attraction to ease into and not as dry/historical as the others on my list.

Many others had the same idea (again, with this being half term there were simply loads of people).  You can't quite see the entrance from here.  Not too bad though; about 30 minutes to get in.

The museum is huge.  I'm not sure if it is possible to see most of it in a day or not, but certainly not with these crowds.  We chose to do the Earth side and then the animal side.  Bugs and plants will have to wait until another day.  Old one-eye here was interesting.

Neat escalator "to the world"

Alex and his Atlas impersonation

Alas, the waits weren't limited to exterior.  The dinosaurs are popular here so we decided to give it a go.  It took about 30 minutes from this sign, but there was quite a bit of shuffling through the exhibit.  The standing is what is so hard on the feet.  After this exhibit Nicole said "Vacations are hard work."  I'll say.

 cool part of the building to wait in, at least

all of these folks are queuing with us amongst this big plant-eating dinosaur (you could pay £3 to light it up -- no one did)

and now some of the dinosaurs . . . 

I always liked the stegosaurus.  I still remember the plastic, multicolored set I had as a kid.  I think they've changed half the names since then.  We've kicked out a planet too for that matter.  Feeling old.

This guy was a very large (life size?) robot (and the bottleneck for the queue).  Impressive though.

Cute nest.  There was another next to this showing that they have found both the stay-in-the-nest type (like a bird's nest) and the kick them out as soon as they are born nest (like a turtle).


 moving to the mammal area ... one very large blue whale (took up the whole room)

Alex and the whale

they had some rather unique animals -- I liked the platypus

After the museum, we had some shopping to do and saw this on the way to Harrods.  You don't see a Ferrari every day (or maybe you do in London).  We actually walked past a Ferrari store as well.

. . . and Harrods.  We actually didn't stay too long.  Kuk wanted to get some tea since she really liked what she had purchased there previously.

The Jay Seppanen photo of the week.  Beer with matching glass. We had a early dinner / late snack at Cafe Rouge near Harrods before hoofing it to our show.  There was a problem with the Tube line we needed so we had to walk a little more than we had planned, but still manageable.

And we made it with time to spare.  As you can see, Billy Elliot was at the Victoria Palace which is near Victorian Station (and not near the majority of the theaters in the "West End").

Here's the crew before the show.  Alex had already made himself comfortable and kicked off his shoes.  The show was entertaining though I must say it didn't quite live up to my very high expectations.  Kuk and I saw Les Miserables a few years ago and that was much better, I thought.  Perhaps I like the livelier music over the dance.  It was still a good night out though.   Quite a first day!

Friday (Day 2)

Green Park was the station near our hotel.  It was also the meeting point for our walk/tour on Friday.  We've determined that we like a good tour and enjoy having things explained to us (so much more exciting than an audio guide and easier than reading!).  It can be a little much for the kids, but they manage.  They still prefer me as the tour guide, so we mix it up a bit (though not as much on this trip).  There's an excellent company in London called London Walks.  They offer a zillion 2-hr walks with different themes across the city for the very reasonable price of £8 per adult (typically).  For Friday, I chose the Royal London and Westminster Abbey walk.

Interesting statue (Diana of the Treetops)  outside the Green Park Tube station (while waiting for the tour to start)

Here's our fearless leader, Brian.  The group started at 26 and grew to 30.  There was only 1 other child.  I thought there would be more given the half-term break but I guess the other parents aren't as cruel as we are (history and learning during break, yuck!).

We walked through Green Park and down to Buckingham Palace.  All of those people are waiting for the Changing of the Guard.

We got to see it (sort of).  We saw the on-duty guard coming down the street and the new guard coming to meet them (but not the actual meeting).  Nice compromise.

Here's a quick pic of the guard coming down The Mall.  After that photo we high-tailed it over to the adjacent street (Birdcage Walk) to see the new guard.  I wasn't sure how much time I'd have before our group took off, so I didn't wait for the perfect pose.

Here are the new guards coming out to meet the old guard.

there they go

as we walked from there to the abbey, we caught a few nuggets.  I really liked this relic of a time gone by.  It's a torch snuffer from when the streets weren't lit.

Here's a photo above a pub.  Dates back to when folks couldn't read and pictures were used more frequently.  Back in the pre-car days, the streets were filled with horses and, um, horse by-product.  The upper class didn't want to traipse around in that so they would hire a chair after dinner.  Chair Ho was the call and that eventually led to cheerio for a saying upon departure (or so I was told . . .)
next up -- Westminster Abbey

Now, the Abbey doesn't allow photos inside (boo) so I had to pilfer these off the web.  A man's gotta blog by photos, you know.

 another pilfered internal shot

Westminster is famous for its tombs and memorials.  Here is the one for the Unknown Warrior (WW I).

 Queen Elizabeth I (cast was made immediately upon her death).  Alex enjoyed hearing about her hideous black teeth (live a long time and had a sweet tooth).

Sir Isaac Newton

I found it amusing that Darwin, the poster child (man?) for Richard Dawkins and the atheist community, is buried in this famous church.

Tour's over and we are back outside and off to the London Eye.  Big Ben and Parliament are ahead.  Note:  here's the "famous" clip in European Vacation of Chevy Chase stuck on the roundabout (Look kids, there's Big Ben and Parliament).

Took this while on the Westminster Bridge.  The Eye goes so slowly, it hardly looks like it is moving.  We got our tickets with minimal wait and had about 20-30 minutes or so before getting on (not bad).  As you can see, it wasn't a sunny day, but at least it wasn't raining.  Note for folks visiting, you can get a 2-for-1 voucher for the Eye with a valid train ticket.

Nicole in the pod.  There were probably 20 of us or so in there at the same time.  The trip around was about 30 minutes.

Golden Jubilee Bridge and the Charing Cross Rail Station (I think the stations all look pretty cool).

St. Paul's Cathedral through the haze.

Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

Buckingham Palace

County Hall along the river.  People, people, everywhere.

Next up:  shopping.  We took the Tube to Oxford Circus and walked down Regent Street.  People everywhere there.

This one always gets a double take from the dyslexic crowd (French Connection UK).  They play off of that as well.

Destination:  Hamley's.  Alex's dream.  Six floors of toy heaven.  He got a remote control "car" and Nicole got some art supplies and a puzzle.

Large Darth Vader Lego reminiscent of the Lego Store in Chicago.  I didn't see this one in a kit for sale though.

Anyone with some serious time to kill can hunker down with this little puzzle. (Yes, that's 32,000 pieces).  I'm not even sure I could lift the box.  Marked down to only £200 too!

My purchase was this classic 80's icon Pac-Man stress ball.  £3.  :-)

We were somewhat close to Chinatown and Kuk was hoping to find the restaurant we tried a few years ago.  We thought we remembered the general area and two key facts.  One, it was green (check) . . .

. . .  two, it had hanging birds in the window (check).  The Golden Dragon fit the bill so in we went.  I checked when I got home (given my anal retentive nature of logging all my receipts in Quicken) and confirmed that it was the same place.  Alas, it didn't live up to the memories unfortunately (that, and we couldn't remember what we ordered so it could have been on us).

Saturday (Day 3)

We started the day off by going back to TKTS to see what show tickets we could get.  I was expecting a long line but there wasn't one so we could fit something in in the morning.  St. Paul's Cathedral was at the top of the backup list but unfortunately that meant cutting out Covent Garden (sorry Nicole -- next time).

We made it to St. Paul's right at 10 and were able to catch the regent-led tour.

 Okay, I didn't run up the adjacent building to get this one. Took it off the web instead.

Occupy London's Tent City has been parked outside of St. Paul's since October.   Occupy London is an ongoing peaceful protest and demonstration against economic inequality, the lack of affordability of housing in the United Kingdom, social injustice, corporate greed and the influence of companies and lobbyists on government taking place in London, United Kingdom.  (wiki)

Our tour took us to a few places where the general public could not go.  This stairwell off to one side was one such place.  The "hanging" stairs were impressive.

Special thinking seat for the Dean of the Cathedral . . . or Alex.

Dome shot (from the web).  The top was closed for maintenance but we did make it up to the mezzanine level called the Whisper's Gallery.  We tried whispering across with some limited success.

The cathedral dates back many years, but most of what you see is Christopher Wren's design from the late 1600's.  More info at the wiki page.  We enjoyed our tour (free, though admission was not--another 2for1 option though).

Another funny photo for me.  Reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live skit (highly inappropriate clip -- I couldn't find the full version on YouTube but I did find the transcript).  Now, I saw that on a best-of DVD . . .  I'm not that old.

I love the reminders at the street crossings.  Helpful too.  It's much harder to train yourself to look the right way than it is to drive on the correct side!

As we rambled from St. Paul's to our meeting place at the Holburn Tube Station, we had a detour to The Temple (closed on Saturday's unfortunately).  Still neat to walk around though.

From the wiki pageThe Temple Church is a late-12th-century church in London located between Fleet Street and the River Thames, built for and by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters. In modern times, two Inns of Court (Inner Temple and Middle Temple) both use the church. It is famous for its effigy tombs and for being a round church. It was heavily damaged during the Second World War but has been largely restored. The area around the Temple Church is known as the Temple and nearby is Temple Bar and Temple tube station.

  neat dragon along Fleet Street (I think)

interesting corner

We had a little time for lunch, so Cheapskate Steve sprung for a proper meal.  We decided to practice for our Belgium trip by eating at Belgo (a chain, but not bad).  Beer, mussels, and frites (fries).  We've had enough pubs and we aren't big fish-n-chips fans so this worked well.  I will say that the Belgian restaurant in Indy (Brugge Brasserie) is our favorite though (even better than what I tried in Belgium!).  We'll see if we can beat that on our next trip though.

At 2 pm, we partook in another London Walk tour (at the British Museum).  Not much a of a walk, but a good tour.  The place was absolutely mobbed and it was good to have someone show us the highlights. Lots of additional information on the wiki page.

Interesting edifice.  The crocodile is meant to represent the swamps of ignorance and the enlightened are crawling out.

The interior courtyard was open until 2000 (I think) but now has this very interesting covering.

The most famous article in the museum is the Rosetta Stone.  This one here is a replica and our guide, Karen, was very enthusiastic about explaining it.  Alex got in up close (as did Kuk).  Alex asked her why each of the 3 languages had differing number of lines of text (stumped her for a minute!).

large Ramesses II statue

This Assyrian 5-legged horse/god was interesting

some interesting lion hunt carvings (pre-Greek) -- forced (enclosed) hunt to make the leader feel powerful

famous lioness carving -- very emotive

We've graduated to the Greeks.  These actually came from the Parthenon after it was blown up in 1687.  There's some debate about whether the museum collectors saved it for the greater good or they exercised a nice five-finger discount (though it probably took quite a few more fingers).  In truth, it was removed with permission but the permission came from the controlling Turks (not Greeks) in the early 1800's.

Christian vandalism.  Have to make way for the new god.

Our guide said that there are more mummies at the British Museum than anywhere outside of Egypt.  This is Ginger, the accidental mummy (buried in sandy, shallow grave and well preserved).  Looking good for 5000 years old.

This guy's family failed the mummy class (wicker for one).  His afterlife probably isn't going so well (according to custom).

Many other mummies, including this clearly female one.

 the actual Rosetta Stone (encased) -- fascinating

Well, it wasn't all perfection.  We needed a bit of a blow after the museum so we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest.  I was a little naive thinking we could turn up near our theater and find something decent to eat around 6-6:30 for an 8 pm show.  The area was mobbed.  Everything decent was full and we finally ended up at McDonalds.  The kids clearly liked it, but the adults weren't not happy.  Though not really my fault, I still took the fall.  Kuk was not happy as we clearly missed on her "good food" goal for the trip.  Lesson learned -- allow more time before a show!

Our show for the night was Stomp.  Kuk and I actually saw them sans kids in Indy.  They updated the show so it was different enough plus the fact that we got to take the kids this time.  We scored 5th row seats at a discount at TKTS and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.  It's a really good family show -- lively and funny.  Highly recommended for the families out there (but I'm sure there are many good options).  I think it was around £32pp (again, not cheap, but at least cheaper).

waiting for the show to begin -- important to note that these theaters aren't exactly new (character, I guess)

Day 4 (Sunday) -- time to return home

Well, we slept in, said goodbye to Starbucks and caught the Tube back to King's Cross.  Since we where there, I thought we would track down Platform 9 3/4 of Harry Potter Hogwart's Express fame.  From the website:

Interestingly, platforms 9 and 10 at Kings Cross Station are not adjacent to one another, so they don't have an adjoining wall separating them, instead it’s the railway line separating them. When J K Rowling was quizzed about why she choose platform 9 and 10 in Kings Cross Station, she said that she was thinking of Euston Station instead and mixed them up. However, Euston Station has the same problem, and railway track between the two platforms.

To overcome the numbering problem, platforms 4 & 5 were renumbered in Kings Cross Station during shooting of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

They've had to move it around the station a few times now and it seemed a little silly where it was, but oh well.  Neat to see.

Thanks for reading -- probably a little too much info.  Even so, we barely scratched the surface and we look forward to heading back sometime.


  1. I should have previously recommended my favorite place for a quick and fairly inexpensive meal in London. It is an Asian type noodle shop called Wagamamas- a small chain.
    Ray B

  2. Nice post! It brings back good memories and makes me want to return. Were those Holiday Inn points you redeemed earned in Tullahoma? :) We also found Darwin's burial location interesting and the LOOK RIGHT reminders funny (and helpful). Hamley's looks very cool! 6 stories? I thought the toy store in Geneva was large at 4 stories! Gotta check out the Belgian restaurant in indy! Glad the kids got to see Stomp.

    I notice British phrases creeping into your vocabulary ... yet you still said temperatures in deg. F. Do they use deg C or F in the UK?

    And for Ray B - I knew we should have tried Wagamans when we were in Dublin. Shoot.

  3. @Ray -- Wagamamas would have been great for Saturday night but a) we couldn't find one and b) it would have been too full! We have eaten there before (at Heathrow I think). Perhaps I need to do a little more advance scouting but it really matters what is close to where you want to be.

    @Mrs -- I think the Tullahoma points are long gone but maybe a few are left! That's what got me started though.

    They use degC here. I still think in degF and know most of my audience does as well.

  4. Great pics again Steve. Love the one with Alex and the whale giving you the stink eye. Also loved the classics - Pacman and "Big Ben, Parliament". The ducks in the window reminded me of Chinatown in SF. We'll have to catch up soon, we are considering going to London soon and there were a few questions I had on your trip. Two thumbs up on my photo, the matching beer glasses over here are awesome. As for the McD's, yes everything is your fault and you should now that by now. To quote some of the football announcers over here when one of the players kicks an errant shot on goal, "he should have done better". ;) Loved the post.

  5. Your dragon in Fleet Street marks the boundary of the City of London (the old mediaeval city - you'll see less flamboyant dragon markers at the side of the road in various other places along the boundaries. This particular one marks the site of the old Temple Bar, which was a real (and narrow) gate, removed during widening of Fleet Street in the nineteenth century and reinstalled a few years ago in the new development to the north of St Paul's. When the monarch arrives at Temple Bar "in state" (i.e., only on special occasions), she has to stop and wait while the Lord Mayor and various dignitaries come out in all their robes to present various symbols of the City for her to acknowledge them, so as to confirm the City's rights and privileges (it was very important in mediaeval times, one of the important components of Magna Carta, that the City and its trades guilds could regulate their own affairs independently). It was done as part of her Golden Jubilee procession, so it might well happen as part of the Diamond Jubilee this summer.

  6. Thanks for the inside info, Autolycus!

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