There was not much that could have seen us up with the dawn, blearily admiring the architecture of the inside of Paddington rail station first thing in the morning after our busy day at Windsor aside from a day trip to Bath. Both my mother and I had selected Bath as our little city break of choice while she was visiting the UK – she for the architecture and fond memories of a little trip while she had lived here before and me for its literary and historical heritage and ties to Jane Austen. It was less than two hours on the train but we were off to a grim start as the clear skies from the day before had darkened and as we pulled out of Paddington rain began to join us for the journey.
While my mother dozed and I worried about the weather, we escaped London (and the London Marathon which was also on that day) and travelled into the gorgeous English countryside. By the time we arrived in Bath, we were both feeling a little better – her with a rest and me with the clearer skies and both with the 2-for-1 coupons that came along with our Great Western Rail tickets. We were quick to take advantage of those by signing up for the open-top bus tour, a great option in Bath as there were two different routes, both of which included with our ticket – one that took us around the outskirts of the city and one that took us through the city itself.
We began with the city outskirts and our bus driver escorted us up into the high hills around Bath which sits in a low valley. At the top of Claverton Down we had an absolutely stunning view of the city stretched out below. What was most impressive was the city sprawl compared to the historic city centre of the Roman era – but despite the urban modern growth, all of the buildings still used a facade of Bath stone, giving the entire city a uniform look and feel. Our bus tour continued around past Prior Park, a massive mansion nearly a mile long and built near the original Bath stone quarries. Unfortunately we couldn’t get too close to the house as it’s now a boarding school, but our glimpses through the trees were impressive enough.
We next opted for the city open top bus tour which gave us a bit more of the local history. We passed the Roman Baths, the Jane Austen museum, the Royal Crescent and learned about the Roman, Regency and modern history of the area. While it was all very interesting, the story of the city took second place in the queue for our attention when compared to the amazing architecture of the city.
After our two bus tours, we had a quick break for a delicious lunch at authentic Nepalese restaurant Yak Yeti Yak before visiting the first attraction – the Roman Baths. The Baths are some of the best preserved Roman architecture and historical sites in the UK and built on top of the hot springs that bubble up from below the earth’s surface. The Romans believed the space was sacred and offered a portal to a deity however this did not stop them from taking advantage of the leisure activities that a hot spring provided. While one pool remained untouched, a sacred place of worship, metres away the Romans had built a massive leisure centre, amazingly advanced for the first century AD, which featured hot and cold pools, a sauna and steam room, and communal areas for relaxation and wellbeing.
The Romans, and later the English during the Regency period, believed that ‘taking the waters,’ that is, drinking directly from the hot springs, could cure any illness and although it’s not recommended to drink directly from the springs today, the restaurant at the Roman Baths offered a filtered version for visitors to taste. While my mother refused, I gulped down the whole, slightly sulphuric-tasting, glass – that should cover doctor’s visits for the next year or so!
After the Baths, we headed north to the Fashion Museum, a place where we were hoping to find Regency era costumes but what turned out to be more of a local homage to modern fashion. It was a small museum and actually quite enjoyable despite not being quite what we expected. There were a few historic fashion touches, however, and I got to indulge my desire for whalebone corsets and hoop skirts to make a comeback with a dress up area for adults.
It was getting quite late in the day and it didn’t look like we would have time to properly appreciate the Jane Austen museum (and I was slightly loathe to bring my mother inside, horrified after she repeatedly referred to it as the Emily Dickinson Museum) but couldn’t bring myself to bypass the monument to the authoress completely. Instead of the museum (and let’s be honest, there probably wasn’t much I didn’t already know), we headed to the top floor of the building to the Jane Austen Regency Tea Rooms where some Bath Buns, tea and the late afternoon sunlight were the perfect break in our afternoon.
It was a Sunday so the shops were already closed but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise – we walked down to the Pulteney Bridge, an amazing bit of architecture where the bridge was built to include shops on either side of the road, and south along the river. In the sun (the rain now long forgotten) and with the stunning buildings, flowers and local beauty, we really couldn’t have been happier.
A calm dinner featuring French flavours and a bottle of wine at the Brasserie Gerard wrapped up the day before the short walk back to the train station and the ride back to London. While we had a busy day of London history ahead of us, our day trip to Bath was the perfect Sunday activity and we both enjoyed the day immensely.
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Day two of our England exploration saw us hopping the green 401 bus west to Windsor where we planned to visit the Windsor Castle. Additionally, my mother had fond memories of shopping in Windsor from when we lived in the UK years ago so she was looking forward to getting a chance to acclimate to the UK shopping climate.
As it turned out, we weren’t the only, nor the most important, people to have the same idea – the Queen herself was also in town staying at Windsor for the weekend and we arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard at Windsor Castle. Although we didn’t see her majesty we did see a lot of red coats and furry black hats.
After the guard had passed, we made our way into the Castle grounds and aimed straight for the royal apartments. Fortunately we’d arrived early enough to beat most of the crowd and enjoyed a morning of touring some of the inner chambers of the palace which have been either recreated or restored to give an idea of how the royal family used the space hundreds of years ago. Of course, the palace is still in use today and some of the rooms, including the dining and reception rooms, are used regularly for royal functions.
After our tour through the castle, which included a detour to the gorgeous St. George Chapel on the castle grounds, we made our way into the little town of Windsor for lunch and, most important of all, shopping.
The rest of the day passed quickly enough, with numerous shop stops, before we boarded the bus back to London. We were making our way back to the Top Floor Flat to meet Top Floor Flatmate Ann for dinner at our favourite local pub and a big plate of fish and chips for mom. The fish and chips were a huge hit – and she was immensely impressed (significantly moreso than I was) that I found bones in my plate of fish. Apparently fish and chips in the US bears a strong resemblance to processed fish fingers than anything that ever came from the sea.
It was another early night as the next morning was going to be an early one… we had a train to catch.
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April 23rd marked an incredibly momentous occasion – namely the arrival of my mother to the (surprisingly) sunny shores of the UK to visit me here at the Top Floor Flat. While she had been to England before, it had been nearly twenty years and I was going to waste no time in showing off my favourite parts of the city, my office, the flat, and some of the nearby attractions just outside London. With little regard for her poor, jet-lagged self, we set from the airport for a whirlwind week of tourism. I’ll give a day by day account of our travels but here is a sneak preview of all of the places we visited during her six and a half days in the UK. Not bad, eh?
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Before we launch into the trip, here’s a list of the most important things to have as a tourist in London:
- Oyster card: these travel cards allow cheaper and easier travel on all London transport. For my mom’s trip, I got her an Oyster card with a one week, zones 1 and 2 travel card and £5 extra. This would allow her unlimited travel through the centre of London on the underground, unlimited bus travel anywhere in London, and some extra to cover out of zone underground travel (such as to the airport or to Wimbledon, in zone 3).
- Raincoat and small umbrella: although the weather cooperated with us while she was here, this is essential kit for any London traveler. Not only does it protect against the frequent rain, but London can be quite windy even when it’s not cold or raining so the coat can alternatively be a windbreaker.
- Good shoes: London is an immensely walkable city. No reason not to take advantage of this but make sure you have comfy shoes! Good shoes are also useful when a task-master daughter insists on 8+ hours of walking per day on a crazy itinerary.
- Water bottle: If you’re going to be walking all day, especially if you’re planning to partake in any aspect of Britain’s pub culture in the evening, better make sure you’re well-hydrated.
On Friday after her arrival in Heathrow, my mother was all for going straight to sleep however having had someone to do the same for me when I first arrived in London, I insisted that she drop her bags and come outside for a walk around Knightsbridge and Kensington. Not only would this help her overcome her jetlag by forcing her to stay awake through the afternoon, but it was gloriously sunny and I had no idea how long that weather would last!
We started by catching the number 10 bus which took us east down High Street Kensington. Public buses are probably the best kept secret in London tourism – for £1 with an Oyster card, you can see huge amounts of the most famous parts of the city and while you might not have a tour guide telling you about the surroundings, you do have a chance to get the upper front seat on the double-decker buses.
We got off the number 10 just outside the Royal Albert Hall, having passed by the Kensington Palace at the westernmost end of Hyde Park. My mother was immediately impressed by the Albert Memorial, a gigantic golden monument to Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, which may be a bit gaudy by today’s tastes but is certainly a sight to behold. Just across the street was the Royal Albert Hall, where in the past I’ve attended the BBC Proms musical events. Nearby, a classic red phone box proved the perfect location for a cliché but absolutely necessary series of phone box photos. Check one tourist box and my mom hadn’t even been off the plane three hours!
We made our way south, through Imperial College and the many music and science buildings in the area, down Exhibition Road, and detoured west to admire the architecture of the Natural History Museum. The building is as impressive as its contents and we weren’t the only ones using the space as a photo stop. Although we took a quick look inside, the darkness and quiet of the museum we not going to be any help in keeping my mother awake so we headed back out into the sun and east into Knightsbridge.
Our next stop was Harrods and despite the dim lighting, I decided to risk a stint indoors to show of Harrod’s food halls. It was worth the lack of sunlight – the layout of the food halls is more of a feast for the eyes than the mouth (which is fortunate at £5 a strawberry) and each stall, especially in the desserts hall, proved a photo stop in its own right.
Emerging once again into the late afternoon sun, we paused for a bit of window shopping along the Harrods, then Harvey Nichols displays before catching the number 10 bus back west for a home cooked dinner and a good night’s sleep before the next day’s events. It was time to see if working at Spoonfed, Bullseye and events and local knowledge of London had turned me into the ultimate tour guide.
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Today marked the first sunny AND warm day of the year and it seemed that all of London was taking advantage. The number of people outside in frankly overly optimistic clothing (sundresses, flip flops, mini shorts) was indicative of how long we’ve been waiting for the weather to turn.
Eager to join them, I donned a tank top and made my way south west towards Fulham Palace, a former residence of the Bishop of London from the eighteenth century up through the 1970s. It’s a fairly unknown landmark and hidden within Bishops Park alongside the Thames in Hammersmith and Fulham, just across from Putney. It was a lovely walk but I was completely surprised by the Palace when I arrived. Apparently it was better know, at least by locals, than I thought! The cafe was absolutely packed and dozens of families were enjoying picnics all around the grounds. I had clearly been missing out.
The Fulham Palace is a gorgeous manor house, like you might expect to find in rural Kent or Essex (not surprising as, when it was built, Fulham was far enough outside London to be considered a bit of a hike and definitely a different, rural town). Initially it just served as the summer home of the Bishop of London but later became their year-round residence.
There is a small museum in the Palace that outlines its history and the role of the Bishop of London in the Catholic or Protestant churches (depending on who was in charge at the time) and a lovely little gallery that is currently displaying a series of botanical watercolours of local plants. There’s also a – apparently incredibly popular – cafe and small restaurant and an expansive lawn and set of gardens. The lawn was taken over by picnickers but the gardens, some of which were pleasantly overgrown and hidden behind crumbling walls from the original buildings, hid locals who had turned up with books to enjoy the sun and outdoors in a more secluded area.
Fulham Palace doesn’t seem to be so much a royal (or in this case clerical) tourist destination but a local secret enjoyed by the residents of Hammersmith and Fulham. I think the Palace gardens may join Holland Park as my summer destination of choice for an afternoon in the sun. A wonderful afternoon and lovely bit of local history.
On my last day in Cornwall, I found myself with a seemingly endless stretch of sunny day before my evening train back to London and no plans with which to fill it. At a bit of a loss for what to do – there being little useful public transport, having checked out of my hotel and not being familiar with the area – I decided to walk the half mile or so to Charlestown, just next to St. Austell where I had been staying.
The first evening in Cornwall I had walked to Charlestown so had seen the one street, few shops and, most impressively, the gorgeous bay and working docks where a couple of full pirate-like sailboats were still docked. This, however, was not a brisk walk along the ocean, this was a full seven hours to fill so I busied myself with finding something to do.
Being drawn to museums, I decided to investigate the wonderfully named Shipwreck, Rescue and Heritage Centre, a small museum built into the clay mines and loading tunnels from Charlestown’s still existing china clay trade. Let’s see, how can I possibly describe the Shipwreck, Rescue and Heritage Centre?
The museum was a kitschy cross between a middle school poster project, an antique shop and Disneyland in the 70s. In fact, nothing in the museum (artifacts aside as of course they were expected to be old) could be more recent than 1989 including the quarter of an hour welcome video that described the clay mining history of Charlestown; and the importance of the dock to the few families that populated Charlestown’s handful of streets. Featuring 80s swimwear, hairdos and turns of phrase, it was a perfect segue into the winding corridors of animatronic rooms depicting olden day Charlestown life, a vast amount of history on the numerous shipwrecks that took place off the Charlestown and Cornwall coast, artifacts from these wrecks and – the most modern part of the museum – a 2009 Royal Navy recruitment video.
I have to say, I was completely entranced and ended up spending almost two hours reading the history of local shipping trade and rescue teams. I’m not sure what it was that captured my imagination about this local attraction (perhaps I it was the wooden pirate statue out front holding a sign “fun for dads, mums AND kids!”) but I think the Centre will live on in popularity accompanied by those American roadside attractions such as “World’s Biggest Plastic Dinosaur,” “Amazing Stream that Runs Uphill” and “Mystical Rock Garden” where parents know, at the very least, after hours of listening to a child beg to visit the overbilled attraction there will be a shop selling ice cream bars at the end.
The rest of my day in Charlestown was spent enjoying the local delicacy, a Cornish pasty, at the Atishoo Gallery Cafe; a long wander down the short dock and stretch of beach; and a delicious Easter chocolate cake at Charlie’s Coffee Shop. Amazingly I had filled my day quite happily and Charlestown is not only gorgeous but full of some of the most friendly people I’ve encountered in the UK. Maybe it’s local pride at their lovely Heritage Centre.