Spring Break: London and Rochester

30 March 2010 | 1 Comment

All Packed and Ready to Go… Again

The entirety of my possession for 3 weeks--a backpack with essentials, camera, travel pouch, jacket

The entirety of my possessions for 3 weeks–a backpack with essentials, camera, travel pouch, jacket

Believe it or not, but I managed to pack everything I would need (plus a few things I’d like to have) in just my backpack. This is no hiking backpack either, just an ordinary school bag. Besides for the clothes I wore (a shirt, my jacket, and a pair of jeans), I packed 4 shirts, 5 pairs of socks and underwear (including one woolen pair of socks for hiking); 1 pair of shorts; 3 oz. of shampoo, 3 oz. of body wash, 1 bar of soap, a toothbrush, floss, and toothpaste; 2 (small) towels, 3 washcloths; an electric shaver, an international multi-adapter, camera cord and charger; a lock; a water bottle; shower flip-flops; 3 books to read for class and a guidebook to Europe, a Scrabble Slam card game; a green folder stuff with tickets, reservation emails, and confirmation numbers; a reporter’s notebook with my entire itinerary with all the money I owed yet, addresses, phone numbers, directions, lists of things to do, et cetera. All in one bag. On my person I wore a pair of jeans, a shirt, a jacket, my wallet and money, passport, and railcards and tickets, and my UK cellphone. All this stuff may not seem that interesting to you, but this is all I had for 3 weeks. It is quite amazing to me that I was already living off less than I was used to in York (I only brought one suitcase to England), but that I could condense it even further. You can imagine why by now I have that list of stuff memorized. Let’s just say I got to know each item more intimately over these past 3 weeks. My bag was my 10-kilogram friend always by my side or on my back. …

London Day 1

And this is the bag that I that I stepped onto a crowed train from York to London with, with the rest of the Calvin group and my professor and his wife around 2:30 PM on Friday, March 26. … We were supposed to have seats 9-38 (except 35) reserved in Coach C for our group, but many of the seats were already occupied. Some seats weren’t even occupied by people. I remember the seats where Andrew and Liz sat were occupied by a large cardboard platter of danishes and other pastries left over from a Hen Party (that’s an English bachelorette party) with some phallic-shaped straws in empty cups! Perhaps needless to say, that made it bit awkward, on top of having to kick people out of our reserved seats, forcing them to stand. At least it was not a very long journey–only 2 hours–and soon enough we were at London King’s Cross station. The crowds did not thin, though–they got thicker! What didn’t help is that we arrived in London rush hour, and the sidewalks were packed with people like blood cells in a clogged artery.

The five-storey illuminated bookshelf in the heart of the British Library with thousands of very old books

The five-storey illuminated bookshelf in the heart of the British Library with thousands of very old books

The first thing we did as a group was visit the British Library, just down the road from King’s Cross, for the last hour it was open. Since there was nowhere for us to put our bags, we took turns watching our luggage and quickly perusing the modern halls of the library. Personally, I never found the rooms where a copy of the Magna Carta or where the manuscript of Beowulf were, but I got a taste of the amazing architecture of the building. A 5-storey bookshelf covered in glass was cozily illuminated in the heart of the building with thousands of antiquated tomes. It was amazing to me that so much history and literature in one place.

In the meanwhile, Mrs. Ward bought us all Oyster cards, our electronic chip card passes to the London Underground (the Tube). Dean gave us brief instructions on how to use the Tube to get to our hostel, Palmer’s Lodge, near Swiss Cottage station. I was a bit nervous to use the Tube, since I had never used the Underground or anything like it before, but several members of our group had either already been to London or taken similar public transport before. The Tube was crammed, and it didn’t help that we had lots of luggage to carry on, but I still found it to be an enjoyable experience. (The Tube isn’t always crammed, and not every line is as busy as all the others, just to clarify.) Once you know how to decipher the famous Tube Map with all its colored lines (incidentally designed by Harry Beck, whom I learned about in my Communication Design classes back at Calvin), the Tube is actually quite intuitive and easy to use. From King’s Cross, we ‘tubed’ (if I may make it a verb) on the Victoria Line to Green Park station. At Green Park, we switched to the Jubilee Line and ‘tubed’ to Swiss Cottage station. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it’s simply a crazy though that these giant metal snakes go at breakneck speeds through dark tunnels under a huge sprawling city, stopping at every station about every 2 to 5 minutes. … One thing about the Tube Map, though, that you must always remember, is that is bears little relation to reality. You can never really know how close a station is unless you cross-check the Tube Map with a real London city map, otherwise you may end up only one block over, when you could have just walked–or halfway across town, when you did not intend to do so!

There was not much time to explore more of London the first night after we all arrived at the hostel. For dinner I shared a pizza with Geri in the hostel’s pub and had a Stella Artois. (I ended up really liking Stella Artois, by the way. Belgian beer is good.) I might’ve tried to meet up with someone I know from Calvin (hi Deborah!) who is on a semester in the Netherlands and was visiting London that particular weekend, but unfortunately we never met up. Although, some of my fellow Britain semester friends did find them. It was getting too late for me to trek out into an unfamiliar, very large city by myself before I had gotten by bearings. So instead I went out to a local pub called the Walkabout with Sam, Teresa, and Geri. The pub had a distinct Australian theme. Here I had a pint of Magner’s cider. It was the first pint in England that came with ice! It was nice to have a cold drink after a long day. But by no means would it be the longest travel day. Longer days were coming. … Like on all other group excursions, I was in a room with the rest of the Calvin guys (plus Megan’s fiancee, who was visiting). We had cool bunk beds with privacy curtains to keep out the light and a personal light–my favorite kind of hostel bed. Even though I liked our hostel rooms, the showers were basically closets that soaked everything within–including dry clothes–but thanks to Andrew being the guinea pig, the rest of us were well-warned, and I protected my dry clothes with a plastic bag. I wondered how many of my next hostels over break would have horrible showers like the London one. …

London Day 2

The second day in London was our attempt to get almost 30 people to follow each other around the city. Our first stop was Westminster Abbey. Since we already knew it was impossible to keep a group of 30 people together on the streets of London, much less in the Tube, we were simply told to take the Jubilee Line south to the Westminster station. We popped out of the Underground at Westminster and immediately saw all the signs of London: a red telephone booth, a red double-decker bus, and the clock tower affectionately called Big Ben! And Westerminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, of course!

Westminster Abbey - one really cool church

Westminster Abbey – one really cool church

Westminster Abbey housed the most monuments, tombs, and memorial plaques I think I’ve ever seen in a single church. Because of some miscommunication, we did not get a special group tour, but had to wait in line like everybody else. Instead, we got an audio tour (with a very similar device to the one I had in Bath and Stonehenge), which was very informative, letting me know exactly where certain tombs and memorials were. My favorites (if you can have a favorite grave or memorial) were Elizabeth I’s and Isaac Newton.

After an hour or so at Westminster, those of us who wanted to go on a walking tour through central London with Dean began our walk through the clogged streets of London under drizzling rain (that turned into a downpour for a few minutes). It was supposed to be the Mrs Dalloway tour, a book we’ll be reading in May. But having not read the book yet or before, it was a bit difficult for me to relate to some of the places with walked through and to, but I’m sure I’ll say “aha!” when I get to those parts in the book later.

St James's Park at the beginng of blooming season

St James’s Park at the beginng of blooming season

We made a quick photostop at Buckingham Palace - I'm not sure if the queen was home

We made a quick photostop at Buckingham Palace – I’m not sure if the queen was home

The stunning ceiling of the British Museum

The stunning ceiling of the British Museum

We squeezed our way through Bond Street, a street with all the fancy, high-end shops with stuff for people with incomes many times greater than my annual tuition bill for Calvin College. We made a stroll through St James’s Park and Green Park as a shortcut to Buckingham Palace. These are beautiful parks with great green expanses pocked with lots of yellow daffodils and other springtime flowers and delicate trees–and funny-looking ducks and geese on the ponds! We continued trekking northward to the British Museum, and it began raining harder with each step. I was a bit reluctant to pop up my umbrella because I feared poking someone in the eye because there were so many people on the streets. Plus patches of construction narrowed the walkways at points and brought us dangerously close to double-decker buses barreling through the puddled streets. Yet I took my umbrella out just as we approached the British Museum. I was very hungry at this point and developing a bad headache from all the pavement-pounding, so, with Mary, I delayed my viewing of such items as the Rosetta Stone and friezes from the Parthenon (the Elgin Marbles) and Assyrian winged lions to have lunch at the Forum Cafe across the road. … That left Mary and me with just a half hour or so to quickly see the most famous items in the museum. Although I would have really like to spend more time in the British Museum (it’s free admission, by the way)–for one can spend all day there–our group needed to keep moving in order to make it to Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square before dusk.

Me in Trafalgar Square (it's impossible to get a photo without other people in it in London)

Me in Trafalgar Square (it’s impossible to get a photo without other people in it in London)

In Leicester Square we checked out the discount theatre ticket stands. There wasn’t much of a discount on any plays except Waiting for Godot, unfortunately. I’m not sure if I felt like going to a play if it was so expensive, although it would’ve been cool. … Another free museum we entered (and quickly walked through) was the National Portrait Gallery. The NPG houses many, if not all, the portraits of the most famous Brits. We saw original portraits of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Bronte sisters. To my professor’s dismay, the portrait of George Eliot, his favorite author, was not currently being displayed.

Just around the corner from the NPG was Trafalgar Square and St Martain-in-the-Fields church. I got my photos of the fountains and by the well-known Trafalgar lions, beneath the pillar with Lord Nelson perched on top. And here ended our exhausting walk through London. There were so many thing to see on the way and so many people and vehicles to watch out for, but my day wasn’t done yet… But first I must observe that, in London, it’s actually quite surprising just how many languages you hear other than English. It truly is an international city. So many tourists, so many visitors, so many immigrants, perhaps–it’s a wonderful place for cultures to mix!

After a brief rest-up back at our hostel, I joined several other people to go to Camden Market for dinner. We had a little trouble getting there because some Tube lines were closed. I recall now that just a few days prior to our arrival in London, there had been a stabbing at Victoria Station or on the Victoria Line–something awful like that. Plus, lines simply close for maintenance or have truncated hours on weekends. … But the late trip to Camden Market was worth it. Camden Town was lit up with strings of Christmas-like lights, alive with late-night take-away places and pubs. I found cheap Chinese take-way–£4 for a tray heaped with meat, rice, noodles, and stir-fried veggies. The server wouldn’t stop piling it on, either. For dessert I tried a sugar-lemon-cinnamon crepe, which was somewhat messy, but not as messy as the one John got: banana oozing with melted chocolate. … We checked out a pub, but I didn’t get anything since I had already spent as much as I wanted to spend that day. (It’s easy to spend a lot in London!) We took the Tube back. We later discovered that Camden Market wasn’t actually all that far from Swiss Cottage. We could’ve walked. It didn’t really matter, however, because we had already reached the limit that Transport for London can charge you for one day on the Tube. (They have a system of zone for figuring rates.)

London Day 3

Palm Sunday. It’s always strange being on vacation at the same time as a Christian holiday. I always feel compelled to go to church (maybe it’s the CRC in me). So what better church to go to than St Paul’s Cathedral?! … But pardon the interlude (I feel like I have to do this a lot). First a little bit of Beatles before the Triumphal Entry. … It turns out that Abbey Road is not too far from Palmer’s Lodge (our hostel). Thus a group of us walked to the famous zebra crossing at Abbey Road early in the morning before church and took a photo of our own version of the famous album cover. We had to be quick. Although traffic was not too bad on this side of London, it was just as fast as any other part. (I don’t have the photo on my camera, because Melissa L and Teresa took the photos, but it was epic.)

The majestic St Paul's Cathedral is a dominating feature along the Thames

The majestic St Paul’s Cathedral is a dominating feature along the Thames

We took the Tube out to St Paul’s Cathedral, which has its own Underground station. The only time one can gain free entry into the cathedral is for a service, but no photos are allowed inside anytime. Believe me, it is gorgeous. … The Palm Sunday procession began outside in the square, with the priests and clergy, followed by a band of children with palm branches shouting “HOSANNA!” Everyone in the crowd was given a palm cross and instructed to shout “HOSANNA!” as well. To be a bit punny, it was a moving procession. After the procession moved into the cathedral, we stood for the entire service till the communion starting beginning. We had to leave to get to Victoria Station, but even if we could stay, we probably would’ve had to wait a long time anyway since there were hundreds (maybe thousands) of people in the church. … We ‘tubed’ to Green Park, got out by Buckingham Palace, and walked to Victoria Station to hop on the 13:05 train to Rochester, home of Charles Dickens. …

Rochester

Since we had such a short time in London as it was (for me at least), I was a bit disgruntled at first that we had to go out to Rochester for the afternoon. But the place that inspired the setting of Great Expectations (and other Dickens novels) turned my expectations around, and I actually enjoyed the peaceful interlude in Rochester. Rochester was small, but we saw the Bull Hostel (what Dickens calls the “Blue Boar” in GE), Uncle Pumblechook’s house, the Guildhall Museum, and the house that inspired Mrs Havisham’s house. It was cool to look over the marshy Medway region and imagine the convict Magwitch and Pip as fugitives going down the river. It was also illuminating to see exactly where Dickens grew up, and suddenly his books became even more real to me, since so many are inspired by the Rochester and London area. There was also a nice park, a castle, and supposedly the largest second-hand bookstore in the U.K. (or world?) called Baggin’s! (Yeah LOTR!)

House that inspired Mrs Havisham's house in Charles Dicken's 'Great Expectations'

Rochester home that inspired Mrs Havisham’s house in Charles Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations’

Back to London

We were allowed to return to London anytime that afternoon with our open-return tickets. I returned to London around 5 PM. Since it was Daylight Saving Time day, we had moved an hour ahead over night to British Summer Time (BST), as opposed to Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT). I knew I would at least have till 7:30ish to explore more of London before sunset. I first went back to Big Ben and Parliament and the London Eye for a better view (I hadn’t had the greatest from Westminster the day before). Believe it or not, I had not seen the River Thames up until this point (except if you count crossing the Thames on the train to Rochester, if I’m being technical)–but I had not had a chance to walk down the River yet. … I ate a margherita pizza for dinner at an Italian restaurant called Strada. (The irony is that I’d be in Italy the next day.) Service was slow, but it was good to sit down for a while, especially before what I did next.

Big Ben and me (I'm thinking they should rename it Big William)

Big Ben and me (I’m thinking they should rename it Big William)

The London Eye and the South Bank walk

The London Eye and the South Bank walk

I broke off on my own (a bit scary in London), but I ended up having a lot of fun exploring by myself. It felt good not to be a follower for a while. I took the Tube to Tower Hill and saw the Tower of London. (I’ll have to go back sometime and actually view the crown jewels.) It was getting dusk, and the Tower Bridge (which many mistakenly call the London Bridge) was lit up spectacularly. I crossed over it to the colorfully lit HMS Belfast, a retired warship parked permanently in the Thames as a museum. Here I could also see the splendid skyline of London’s downtown–and the iconic bullet-shaped building … At this point I was not sure if I should go back to the Tube station or keep going since it was getting dark, but I felt very adventuresome and kept walking down the broad walkways along the south bank of the Thames. It was not crowded, making for a pleasant stroll. The air was brisk, but refreshing. It was a long walk to the Millennium Bridge, but I made it and cross back over to the north side to St Paul’s Cathedral, where I had been that morning. I tried capturing the beauty of its nighttime illumination with my camera, but no matter how many photos I took, just seeing it with my own eyes was better. That seems to be true with most things on this trip.

The Tower of London, site of many a execution

The Tower of London, site of many a execution

London skyline at night (my favorite is the bullet-shaped building)

London skyline at night (my favorite is the bullet-shaped building)

Tower Bridge at night (NOT London Bridge!)

Tower Bridge at night (NOT London Bridge!)

Since I still had quite a distance to get back to the Westminster Underground station, I hopped on the Tube at Mansion House and got out again to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben again, this time, illuminated in the night. The London Eye was lit with violet lights, and Big Ben had  touch of green light near the top–my favorite color! It began to drizzle, and at that moment, I felt so English. It felt so good to be standing on the bridge near Westminster, in the dark, with the spectacular lights of London all around me.

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in their glorious illumination

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in their glorious illumination

Despite all of London’s crazy bigness and busyness, jut when I started really falling in love with the capital city, I had to leave it. I took the Tube back to Swiss Cottage and set my alarm for 2 AM: we had a 3:04 AM coach to Stansted Airport to catch for a 6 AM flight to Pisa, Italy. And that will be the topic of my next spring break stories post: ITALY!


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