When one thinks of London, they think of red, double-decker busses, Big Ben and friendly Bobbies going “pip pip” and “cheerio”. But these caricatures pale in comparison to actually experiencing this vibrant city first hand. To arrive at King’s Cross station at 9 pm after a 6 hour train ride, navigating the streets at night to find a hostel with only a cell phone for a map, climbing the top of St. Pauls Cathedral and having an order of rice with chicken and fish at a Chinese restaurant is to truly understand London in all of her complexity, spectacle and diversity. My adventure in London will stay with me not just for the rest of this trip, but for the rest of my life.
A large amount of time and planning went into scheduling our trip to London; starting with our “travel meeting” our first week in Scotland. A proper date had to be picked, a hostel booked and train tickets bought. The fall semester at University of Dundee does not have a designated vacation break like the spring term; but it does have a “Reading Week” that allows students a chance to catch up on readings and assignments. This break is not the same for everyone and falls on separate dates depending on what school you belong to (for instance School of Humanities Reading Week falls on the week of 19th October). We decided during our travel meeting that this would be the best date for those who wished to go for the trip and to ensure that the trip would not interfere with our studies, we decided to leave Wednesday the 21st, October and return Sunday the 25th; giving us enough time to hand in assignments at the start of the week and returning before class on Monday. We were going to be travelling in a small group which made planning and travel easy to coordinate. Julie, Jen, Laura and bought our train tickets together as well as a four bed hostel; ensuring safety and security.
When looking up hostels (especially in London), you want to ensure that the one you plan on booking is: safe, close to transportation and attractions. We used hostelworld.com to aid us in our search for the right hostel. This database provides a listing of hostels around the world with customer reviews, prices and booking schedules. First off, do not pick a hostel based on their website photos; which can be misleading and inaccurate. Instead give yourself the time to read the customer reviews with an objective eye. I stress objectivity because many of the negative reviews were written by people who had clearly never lived in a hostel before; complaining the beds were too hard and the showers were too small. Do not expect a hostel to be a hotel, a hostel is meant purely as a place to come back to at the end of a day’s travelling and nothing more. Concern yourself with questions such as “how clean is it?”, “Does it have indoor plumbing and heating?”, “is there a safe place to put my belongings?”, “how far to the nearest bus, train and underground depot?” and “is the price worth it?”. The hostel we booked was “Smart Russell Square” at 71 Guilford Street near Kings Cross Train Station and the Russell Square Underground. Our four night stay would cost about £100.00 which included a room for four with two bunk beds and a sink, showers with separate stalls, laundry facilities (paid for separately) and lockers (for an extra £1.50 a night). The hostel had everything we needed: Bed, plumbing, heating and location. In fact we were not too far away from the Charles Dickens House and British Museum; we now felt comfortable with our choice in hostel, but now that accommodations had been settled, the question of what attractions to see came up.
London has a wide variety of museums, landmarks and attractions, but with only 4 days to spend and limited funds we had to choose wisely. After doing some research, Julie came across a website advertising a “London Pass”; a card that lets you into over 55 attractions free and discounts at up to 64 stores and restaurants. The pass can be pre-ordered to be used for a day to up to a week for a nominal fee. As we were arriving Wednesday night and leaving Sunday afternoon, we chose the 3 day London Pass; which cost £56.00. For those who also wish to not pay full price on travel in and around the city, there is an upgraded pass that includes discounts for busses and tube trains; albeit at a steeper price. After ordering the passes, we set about creating an itinerary for places we wished to see. We decided on 10-12 destinations (which included the Tower of London, The Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Benjamin Franklin’s House; all free with the London Pass). After creating the list, I looked up opening/closing times, special events and seasonal hours of the main places we wished to see; giving us the chance to plan out our days when before our arrival. With the Hostel booked, the train tickets in our pockets and London Passes only needing to be picked up at the nearest London tourist office, we were ready to head south of the border into England!
It was a cold and drizzly day Wednesday 21st October; certainly not perfect travelling weather. I had spent most of the morning putting my room in order, getting the last of my packing done and even getting a haircut. Several weeks prior I had bought a backpack from Mountain Warehouse near Wellgate in Dundee. The volume measured 50 liters and only cost £45.00; a good price considering it was marked down from £70. Mountain Warehouse also gives discounts after the first purchase of up to 10% so not only is there a wide variety of camping and backpacking equipment, but they come at a price cheaper than some of the other stores in Dundee. I figured 50 liters would be enough to get me through 4 days travelling; but to make sure, I only packed the bare minimum of essentials so as to make room for any souvenirs I was to pick up on our trip. These essentials included 4 t-shirts, 4 pairs of socks and boxers, a bath towel, a washcloth, 1 pair of pajamas, and a cosmetics bag that included a travel bottle of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant and comb. I also brought band-aids, ant-acid and cold medicine just in case of myself or someone taking ill. As an extra security measure; because as the cliché goes it is better to be safe than sorry, I placed luggage padlocks on the zippers that could only be opened by key. I would be wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt for the next several days and was willing to put up with it so much as it saved space in my backpack and thus be less cumbersome moving to and from the train.
Our tickets said we would be leaving on the 2:17 out of Dundee for Edinburgh; switching to another train bound for London. The trip would take about 6 hours, with us arriving at our destination by 8 or 9pm. ScotRail is very reliable and our transport arrived on time and with our seats reserved, calmly sat down and awaited the slight jerk of the train moving underway. The ride to Edinburgh was pretty fast; we arrived in an hour and a half and had 10-15 minutes to have a quick break before getting on the next train; which arrived on time at 4-4:15. Again we sat down and waited for the next long leg of our journey.
After almost two hours on the rails, we were getting pretty hungry; luckily the train came equipped with a café-bar that served sandwiches, coffee, tea and alcohol (paid separately). The food was decent; I had a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, water and a muffin (costing a little over £6.00) and was enough to fill me up for the rest of the night. It was at this point I really felt like the rail cards and train tickets had paid off. It was a real improvement from the bus rides we took in the past; not only was the journey smooth and fast, we also got luxuries that a bus could not accommodate for (aside from the odd restroom).Our friend Andy (who decided to join us last minute) was at that very moment in the middle of an epic 14 hour bus ride from Dundee to London (seeing it as a cheaper option), and the trip soon became an ad-hoc “Consumer’s Report” experiment in transportation. As we let our food settle I took a last glimpse at Scotland as we crossed the border into England.
Suddenly a voice on the intercom “Attention, café-bah now open in cah K”. The strange accent amused all of us; in the time we’ve spent in Dundee we had come across few English people, and those we met sounded nothing like the nasally “posh”; snobbish, accent talking to us at that moment. It was clear to us now that we had to deal with another culture; completely different from the one we’ve been living with for the past month and a half and welcomed the challenge with enthusiasm as we comically joked about walking up to someone and saying “ ‘Ello Guvna!”. We had officially made it across into England at Berwick-Upon-Tweed in northernmost England/southernmost Scotland and soon made it through Newcastle, Doncaster, York and made it into King’s Cross shortly after 9 pm; shortly after Andy’s bus pulled into the terminal. We jumped off the train, backpacks in hand and no clue where to go next. It was nighttime, we were in a crowded train station and no map whatsoever, it was time to collect our thoughts and strategize where to go next.
My first thoughts went to money. Although Scotland accepts English pounds, England (with the exception of certain stores) does not accept Scottish money; ergo the necessity to find a cash point (or “hole in the wall”) was vital; especially if we were to pay for the hostel that night with enough left over for travel expenses. After grabbing cash, we next needed to figure out how to get to the hostel. Jen and Julie both had the street addresses written down and; luckily for me, my phone had Google Maps.
After typing in the start and end points, we began our journey out into the streets of London.
We wandered around confused and frustrated for a good half hour. The map clearly showed an almost straight line from the station to the hostel; with the exception of one curve. But this turn was unknown to us because Google only bothers to mention major street names. I decided it be best to ask for directions to our destination. People in London are very friendly and if you have a problem with directions, they will be more than willing to help. We found a couple whilst walking around Russell Square (which was near the hostel to begin with). They took us from there and walked with us all the way to Guilford Street, talking to us all the while about America. We finally made it to our hostel; which was in a converted flat of apartments, and subsequently checked in shortly after we met Andy in the downstairs lounge. Our room was decent size and the matched the description and pictures on the website. The mattresses felt like rocks and the pillows I likened to plastic bags stuffed with newspaper; but what do you expect, it is a hostel and you won’t be spending your entire day indoors. I then took a shower in one of the public stalls. To save water and heating bills, the owners decided to use push buttons that you have to press and hold for the duration of time you needed to shower; at first I found this frustrating, but by the last day I had become accustomed to the awkward set-up. After getting our things in order, we tucked ourselves in for what would be a trial of our mental stamina.
The next morning we woke up at 8am; groggy, tired but excited to get our first daylight glimpse of London. After a quick breakfast we made our way to the Russell Square Tube Station that would take us to the nearest tourist office at Piccadilly Circus. Unlike New York City, the subway (or Tube) in London is very easy to navigate and after a day of travelling on it even someone as directionless as me was able to figure out how to navigate the London Underground. It is also extremely cheap to use; in fact if you arrive at the station around 9:30 am, you can purchase an “All Day Pass” for £5.60 which allows unlimited access to the Tube without paying for tickets! One of the strange things about the London Underground is that compared to New York City, it is very clean and doesn’t have the litter and graffiti you would find else ware. Instead you see beautifully tiled walls; and in some stations, flat screen projections. The one thing we universally disliked about the tube was that there was A LOT of stairs; most of them spiral, which gave us quite a workout jumping from one train to another. By the end of our trip we all assumed that we had burned off all of the calories we’ve consumed since arriving in the UK! When we exited Piccadilly station and entered London in a bask of light! All around us we saw the famed double-decker red buses, the small black livery cabs and grand Victorian buildings that look just as magnificent as they did when first built. We all looked at each other and just said “I can’t believe we’re here!”
After we grabbed our passes we decided to make The Tower of London our first stop of the day. We used the Tube for our transportation for the entire trip not only because it was cheap, but also because the stations were located near the sites we wanted to see; Tower Hill for example is located directly across from the Tower of London. We got in with ease using our London Passes and were happy to find out that we also gained access to a new exibet on the arms and armor of King Henry VIII. As we came closer to this imposing fortress, we were entering the hub of London’s history; this being one of the oldest structures in this historic city. It is unclear when the first structure was first built; excavations suggest the earliest was around the time of Roman Occupation. The River Thames offered the perfect location to transport goods from east to west and the fish that thrived there a ready source of food. The White Tower was the first permanent fortification; built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. The structure was intended to keep the populace of London at bay as William the Conqueror ascended the throne previously occupied by the Saxon King Harold. As time passed, additional towers, walls and buildings were added around the perimeter of the White Tower; turning the area into a fortified city within a city. Throughout the centuries, the tower has been used to fulfill many vital roles; such as mint, armory, barracks, royal palace and even a zoo, but none has been so celebrated as its role as prison and place of torture.
The first prisoner at the tower was Ranulf Flambard; Bishop of Durham, who was held captive in the tower in 1100 for extortion, however he later escaped and lived out the rest of his life in France. Other more famous prisoners included Sir Walter Raleigh (who established the failed English colony of Roanoke in present day North Carolina), Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Guy Fawkes among others. We were able to tour one of the buildings used to house prisoners and one does not need to look far inside to come up close with history. Many of the prisoners spent months, years; and in some cases their life, locked away in cells such as the one near the Beauchamp Tower. To pass the time away as well as leave a lasting memorial to themselves, prisoners carved their names, messages, coats of arms and decorative designs on the interior wall. These carvings still survive today and it is amazing that after centuries many of the carvings are still legible and clear as they were written. The tower has also been a place of execution for a select few; the majority occurring at Tower Hill just outside the walls. Private executions were reserved for nobility and those who were close to the King or Queen. For example, the execution of Anne Boleyn was ordered by Henry VIII to be carried out within the walls of the castle; showing her respect as well as preventing her from becoming a martyr via public execution. There is a memorial outside the chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincular dedicated to those who died within the walls of the tower that is near the spot where private executions were held. However the tower served as more than a prison and the Royal Jewel House is proof of this.
I cannot begin to describe to you how awe inspiring it was to see the crowned jewels of England. With each reigning monarch, a new crown or scepter has been designed and crafted by skilled artisans. Many of the crowns, scepters and orbs featured one-of-a kind objects such as the Culinan Diamond that adorns St. Edwards Scepter. The diamond is a hefty 503 carats and weighs 106 grams and until 1985 was considered the largest cut diamond. That year the golden jubilee diamond was discovered and weighed in at 545 carats and 109 grams. Both are housed in the jewel house today. Other items include a gold coronation spoon dating back to the 12th century (making it one of the earliest pieces on display) and the crown and coronation robes (woven with gold thread) of Queen Elizabeth II. The golden light of the room left all of us speechless; I still could not imagine how much time and effort went into the creation of each piece of jewelry, they were true works of art. But the before being a prison or a jewel house, the tower was first and foremost, a fortress.
This year marks a significant event in the history of Britain; for 500 years ago, King Henry VIII ascended the throne to become one of the most powerful and forward thinking monarchs England ever produced. To celebrate this historic event, the Tower housed a collection of arms and armor belonging to this larger than life king. Not only does the exhibit show every piece of armor owned by Henry VIII, but also sets it up in chronological order; whereby one can see the evolution of arms and armor as Henry’s physical health changed. One of the most impressive pieces of armor was not even complete! Towards the end of his life, Henry commissioned a German armorer to create a fanciful suit that demonstrated his status and money. However the only piece that survived was a magnificent helmet shaped like a grotesque head, with horns, glasses and grinning smile. It was so lifelike, I felt as though it was human. The arms and weapons on display at the Tower of London are true works of art. Even if you don’t find military history fascinating, a stroll through the White Tower is a must!
After spending three hours at the Tower, we strolled to the nearby Tower Bridge with its trademark drawbridge as well as the battleship HMS Belfast. The area surrounding the Tower is filled with history and one does not necessarily need to pay an admittance fee to visit all of the sites. Across the river in Southwark we found the ruins of a 12-16th century manor house as well as Saint Mary’s church (dating to the 13th century). We also saw a replica of the Golden Hinde (the flagship of Sir Francis Drake; who in the late 1500’s was the first man to successfully circumnavigate the globe as well as help defeat the Spanish Armada which threatened England in 1588). However for all of our travels it was getting late and we wanted to visit one more site before calling it a night. That’s when we saw the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the south end of the Millennium Bridge.
The year 1666 was not a particularly good year for London; as the previous year plague had killed off a large amount of the population and one year later a fire started in a bakery swept many of London’s old timber built buildings away. One structure that was hit particularly bad was St. Paul’s Cathedral; which burned to the ground. With the once tallest steeple in England turned to dust, a new church was to be built that would overshadow anything that existed their previous. Sir Christopher Wren was a scientist, architect and Renaissance man. His forward thinking concept for the new St. Paul’s was radical in that where as previous churches were constructed in the form of the cross with the steeple either fore or aft of the structure, Wren’s design would be rectangular with a dome at its center and the steeple to the western wing of the church. What Wren had hoped was to use the dome to transmit natural white light and transmit it throughout the structure; his inspiration taken from the workings of a microscope. Although his idea was controversial, the end result was magnificent!
The cathedral can be seen from quite a ways away and walking up to it inspires you with the ingenuity of those who built such a grand structure. This was the building that had survived four centuries and two world wars (the second war resulting in a famous picture of the cathedral surviving the flames of the Blitz). When you walk in, you are surrounded by sculptures and memorials of some of England’s greatest heroes and figures; including Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in the early 19th century. The dome is intricately painted and decorated with gold leaf and naturally we were tempted to climb all the way to the top.
This feat was daunting in and of itself because not only were there a lot of stairs but (like the tube stations), they were circular staircases. We first climbed to the Stone Gallery; which gives you a better view of the ceiling decoration. Note, this is not for the faint of heart or those fearful of heights. I was getting dizzy just by looking across the gallery to the other side, but on a personal note, although I was scared, I never felt so close to God. We continued up to the top of the cathedral which required more steps and this time they were narrow and appeared rickety in places. I (with my heavy backpack) had the scenario of me falling to my death every five seconds, but by the time we reached the top and went outside, I knew it was worth it. From the top of St. Pauls you get the most magnificent view of London in all of its glory. It boggles the mind that people living in an age without the high-powered cranes ; that now rise out of the streets of London to build ultra modern skyscrapers and knowledge of high strength steel could build such a structure that so modern and sophisticated. However after 10 minutes of wind beating our faces and with the sky getting darker, we decided it was time to ascend from heaven back down to earth and the subterranean world of the crypt.
The Crypt at St. Pauls contains many of England’s greatest figures of note; however the highlight of this trip was seeing the tombs of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; who rose from humble backgrounds to become two of the greatest military heroes of their time. Nelson had defeated the larger navies of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France; once in 1798 in Egypt (known as the Battle of the Nile) and again at Trafalgar in 1805; where Nelson lost his life. Nelson is best remembered for his undaunted bravery in the face of combat and patriotic zeal for his country. Having lost an eye and an arm in battle, Nelson had proven himself to be an able and intrepid young officer that raised the Royal Navy from the ignamony of the American Revolution to success and glory in the Napoleonic Wars.
Whereas Nelson was a victor on the seas, Wellington weakened Napoleon’s forces on land. After successfully leading the allied forces of Britain, Portugal and Spain in the Penninsula of Spain from 1807-1813, Wellington earned the title of “the Spanish Ulcer” by Napoleon himself; as Wellington’s successes drew more troops away from Napoleon fighting in eastern Europe. When Napoleon returned from exile in 1815, the leaders of Europe turned to Wellington (Tzar Alexander of Russia stating “it is now up to you to save the world”). With that Wellington fought and won one final battle against Napoleon at Waterloo (a battle which has been known as one of the most important battles ever fought as it changed the map of Europe for over 100 years). After the Napoleonic Wars, Wellington became a governor of the Tower of London and made significant improvements to its defences and established military men in the position of Yeoman Wardens (the famous “Beefeaters”). Later in life he became an advisor to Queen Victoria and held various posts until his death in the mid 19th century. I have studied as much as I could on these two men and their remarkable lives fascinated me when I was in middle and high school. To be so close to them, to see their tombs, brought everything full circle for me as a scholar and historian.
We ended our day by going to “Ye Olde London” a pub down the road from St. Pauls. I had a Welsh Rarebit on Toast with bacon and a Pint of Fuller’s London’s Pride; as London as pub food can get. It was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had, mainly because of the amount of activity we packed into one day and; in a way, was a celebration of us making it this far. The next day would certainly not disappoint!