It’s been almost three weeks now, since we returned from what just might have been our best trip to the UK – EVER!
We’re still kinda reliving many of the moments, even as we try to settle back into our regular groove, now that we’re home. It has been a challenge to pull some of our thoughts together to share with you all, but here’s an overall look back on what may have been the most enjoyable vacation we’ve ever had…
Sometimes, when you travel, you just gotta let go and be a total tourist.
After all of our previous trips to the U.K. where we were ‘serious travelers’, that’s what we decided to do this June…
What that means is; that after attending a dear cousin’s wedding in the south of England for the first few days of our trip – we spent the next 10 days sightseeing in and out of London, and just doing as much tourist-stuff as we (and our little friend, Ron Swanson) could handle…
We went to:
THE ISLE OF WIGHT (For the wedding of Bonnie & Christian)
This part of our trip was all about Family! And…Twitter friends bumped into on the Hovercraft!!
Up at 5am for a 7:30am departure out of the usual chaos & squalor that is Victoria Coach Station…
Our tour would include Windsor, Bath, Lacock, and Stonehenge.
Nice double-decker coach with bad wifi.
We snagged the upper-deck front-left seats, for the best views while driving.
It took about an hour to get out to Windsor Castle, whereupon Ken discovered that he’d left his camera’s memory card at the hotel, NOT in the camera, where it would’ve been much more useful!
Ken took some pics with his cellphone, then left & went outside the castle to WH Smith to buy a new card. Took some exterior shots, then waited for Gabby to come out from her tour of the interior areas for the daily 11am Changing Of The Guard parade in front of Windsor Castle. Basically, on the tour we booked, we had less than an hour to check out Windsor Castle – which was definitely not enough. We were curious to explore more of the town and surroundings, but time just did not permit (This time !!).
The history of Bath definitely requires more than the 1.15 hrs we were able to visit for. Bath is known for its actual baths and was a thermal spa which was built by the Romans in the 1st century AD.
We popped into the Roman Bath pump room for a quick taste of the water (Free!!). You can actually get a taste of the Bath water! But, don’t sip too much – its tonic/mineral qualities will affect you more severely with increased consumption.A longer stay, touring the Roman baths would have been well worth the £20 tour fee.
The very impressive Abbey/Cathedral also necessitates an extended visit. There are shops galore, with pieces in every venue.
Also, remember you’re in the Cotswolds – so sample the local goods: Aqua Glass jewelry, Whisky, Ice Cream, many other items, and of course – Gin!
We went from Bath to Lacock for a pub lunch (a 35min ride), before Stonehenge.
Lacock is a village frozen in time. Very old – 13th Century-old, to be precise!!
Very scenic, very charming, & very small. Now managed by the National Trust, in order to preserve the village in its true, living historical state.
A child who lived there asked his mother why our group was walking around, ‘ooh-ing and aah-ing’, and taking so many pictures, and her reply was “because where we live is very pretty”. She wasn’t lying…
From Lacock, we drove on to Stonehenge, where we only had 60 minutes to explore.
Stonehenge is truly impressive, with lots of history to read about in the nearby Visitor Centre.
Gabby sometimes found it hard to keep track of the audio guide.
You really need to remember that you’re out in the open countryside (might even be a cow field!), because you WILL acquire a your own personal ‘fly-following’ as you walk around.
There are obviously many good photo ops to be had at this iconic World Heritage Site.
All of the history is available to read online for free…so you can definitely skip buying the books – unless that’s your thing, of course.
There are also a bazillion pics online as well, so just go ahead and get your selfie-sticks out because those will be the unique/special pictures that nobody else will have!
If, like Ken, you hate to have tourists/passersby/people in the scenic pictures that you take, well – prepare to be frustrated time and time again, as some mope in a bright red or yellow jacket will somehow always mysteriously appear somewhere in your shot, even though you never saw them in the viewfinder, they WILL be there! Only with extreme patience and tight cropping of the scene will you be able to exclude the hundred or so other tourists out visiting the stones. We would’ve loved to have been here for sunrise or sunset and without quite so many people wandering in and out of almost every shot we tried to take!
Many online tourism pundits slam Stonehenge for being “just a big pile of rocks in the middle of a field”. They say it is boring and not really worth the trip.
WE SAY: Bullshit. If you’re the kind of person who was interested enough in the first place to book a tour out to Stonehenge, you will definitely enjoy yourself. Just be sure to learn a little about the site before you go, to better appreciate what exactly you are looking at.
The sense of prehistoric history and massive achievement is palpable and thrilling. Probably, most of those ‘influencers’ out there who downplay things like Stonehenge, or the Eiffel tower, are people just looking to incite debate and get higher like/view counts on their webpages by flaunting a contrary opinion. IGNORE THEM !!
TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY WORTH VISITING. (… and we will probably go again ourselves, on a future trip to the UK)
WE WENT TO SEE GLADYS KNIGHT PERFORM AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL
(this was a fantastic surprise from Gabby for Ken)
The warm-up act – a comedian named Tucker, was really very funny and engaging. Occasionally a little bawdy, but never really offensive, and always very funny. He had a veteran comedian’s gift for delivery, timing, and audience interaction which made even his lesser jokes hilarious. Many, many LOL moments!
And then – Gladys Knight took the stage…
The show was incredible & Ms. Knight was fantastic – performing songs from not only her own catalog of hits, but some by other contemporary artists, like Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Ingram, Sam Smith, and others.
‘Memories’, ‘Save the Overtime for Me’, ‘Heard it through Grapevine’, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘License To Kill’, ‘Natural Woman’, ‘Neither One Of Us’, ‘You’re The Best Thing’, and many other hits had the mostly geriatric crowd rocking in their seats!
The show was over too soon, but that’s only because it was so enjoyable and nobody wanted it to end!
Ms.Knight’s voice was wonderful – untouched by age or illness and unmatched in her distinctive velvety contralto. She engaged with her audience from start to finish and between every number. There were no overly elaborate sets, nor time-consuming breaks for costume changes – just song after song for the whole show.
BUCKINGHAM PALACE/CHANGING OF THE GUARD
On the morning of June 26th, 2019, we got our lazy butts up and went to watch the Changing of The Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. No royals were in attendance, which was slightly disappointing, but the pomp and majesty of the actual ceremony more than made up for that, even though we’ve both seen it a few times before on past visits to London. It’s always a spectacle, and – if you get there early enough – you can score a primo position on the satue of Queen Victoria, to capture great video or photos of the various guard units entering and leaving the Palace. If you prefer to get a spot right up on the gates in front of the Palace, you’ll get good pictures of any Royals who might be in attendance (it DOES happen sometimes – honest!) or the musical band in the forecourt of the palace as they play popular melodies throughout the ceremony. You literally never know whether they’ll play show tunes, classical music, movie themes, pop songs – you just never know!
Changing of the Guard
Wednesday 26 June @ 11:00am
10 Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment
Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas (Full Mount)
Band of the Scots Guards (Full Dismount)
Super-Touristy thing to do, but we aren’t sorry we did it! It’s a nice leisurely ride up above the City of London, offering some nice views and picture opportunities.
DAY TRIP TO OXFORD
Despite growing up in Oxfordshire, Ken didn’t really enjoy this trip back into the past. Oxford was strangely depressing to us, for some reason, and we were actually glad to get back on a bus to London after a day of wandering around the city and universities. The best two things we did were visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum
…and grabbing a fresh-pulled pint of Fuller’s ale in a riverside pub, by the Thames.
No ‘Oxford’ souvenirs were purchased, so let that convey the level of our absolute disinterest.
A ‘not terrible’, yet – slightly wasted day, we felt, in the end.
TOUR OF THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
A definite hit with Gabby especially, as she adds to her collection of government building tours!! This is where the House Of Lords and the House Of Commons meet to decide the fate of the nation. Its proper name is, in fact, the Palace of Westminster. Originally built in the year 1016, it was destroyed by a fire in 1512, and another fire in 1834. It was rebuilt during the period between 1840 – 1876, and incorporated what remained of the original structure into the new building…
Steeped in rich history, there is a surprising amount to take in on this tour, which you an only enter by pre-booking tickets, and then passing through stringent, airport-style security measures.
Picture-taking is limited to only a few areas, but you’ll be too busy absorbing the atmosphere in the House of Lords & House of Commons to care about that.
After the tour, we had a quick afternoon tea in the attached cafe. Gabby be liking her some afternoon tea !!
THE TOP OF THE SHARD (WITH DRINKS!!)
Completed in 2012, The Shard is the tallest building in the UK, at 1,016ft, and including 72 habitable floors. Designed by architect, Renzo Piano, it seems incredible, but it is not even in the top 100 of the worlds tallest buildings!
Ken was at the top of the Shard before in 2017, with our son Derrick, and one thing he did not see in 2017 that we saw on this trip, was the liquor bars installed on both viewing levels. Also new to Ken, was the open-to-the-sky section, where there was no wall, no glass, just the breeze coming straight inside through a section of the structure that was completely open to the elements! Incredible.
But – back to those bars… To say that the drinks we had were amazing is an understatement. ‘Excellent’ falls just short of describing them.
Expertly prepared from premium, fresh ingredients, and not skimping on the alcohol content, either!
Gabby had a cocktail called “The Great Fire”, while Ken enjoyed his “Sir Churchill”. Both drinks were wonderful (and potent!!).
A short walk from The Shard, Borough market is for food. Whether it be fresh foodstuffs from one section, or a myriad range of prepared foods in the other.All cuisines and all cultures are represented. There are beer and wine bars within the market, as well as a couple of decent pubs surrounding it.
We opted for mussels and oysters, which were so fresh, and so delicious. We wanted to try everything in sight, but our waistlines urged us to exert a little self-control, and so we did. Sadly.
The sights, the aromas, tastes are like sensory overload, but in the best way you can imagine.
Be prepared for the dense crowds, be prepared to line up for food from the best vendors, and be prepared to simply enjoy eating. Everything is good here!
BRICK LANE (SHOPPING, FOOD, AND STREET ART)
Brick Lane is a kind of hipster, bohemian, new wave kind of street. Lined with restaurants, chic clothing shops, and adorned with graffiti and street art of all descriptions. Take a look…
FULLER’S/GRIFFIN BREWERY IN CHISWICK
Our guide and bar-mistress on this tour was a lady named Jill. She was very amusing, patient, and incredibly knowledgeable. This tour was a very nice upgrade over all of the other brewery tours we’ve ever taken to-date, for sure.
Since this tour is of an actual working operation, appropriate attire – i.e. closed shoes is expected and high visibility vests (provided) are worn throughout the tour.
Make sure to print your tickets out as directions are included in the email confirmation.
Taking pictures during the tour is cool, but shots of the working staff is frowned upon (except, of course, if it’s of tour guide Jill!).
Go on the tour before noon – the plant should be nearing the end of their production day by this time.
The tour includes samplings of different current stocks of brews.
All beer sampled on tour should be available for purchase in the gift shop (plus some exclusives!!!)
All staff related to tour & brewery, that we interacted with, were very friendly and great conversationalists.
This was definitely very much worth the rather long train ride out of central London to Chiswick.
*NOTE TO LONDON: Simply draping flowers over doorways, or putting carts or huge pots of flowers all over the place does NOT make a shopping mall a ‘garden’!
Ken thought Covent Garden was a place that would be more park-like, when, in reality, it’s just a place where people sell nice & pricey stuff. What it is is a collection of mostly upscale shops (Penhaligon’s, Aspinal, LaCoste, Tom Ford, Barbour, Kate Spade, Tiffany, Godiva Chocolate, Jo Malone, Oakley, Fred Perry, and Apple, to name but a few), with a central food court area, the more reasonably-priced and esoteric Jubilee Market over in the back – along with the London Transport Museum – and street performers making money off the tourists who pass through here.
We did have some really good cookies though, from Ben’s Cookies. Very delicious.
We also had our sole celebrity encounter of the trip, here in Covent Garden, but more on that later…
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS/HARRY POTTER
Gabby’s second visit – Ken’s first.
Gabby, Derrick and Kayla are the Potter fans in our home – Ken could honestly care less.
Yet, despite not being immersed in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Ken DID enjoy this studio tour – perhaps because a) he is fascinated by how films are actually made, and b) this is definitely a premium-level attraction. There is literally nothing here that does not hold your interest. The sets, props, clothes, replicas, designs, special-effects etc. from all the movies are all on display – with many interactive areas, to deeper involve the fans.
Both of us had a great time, and were unhappy when we had to get back to our bus at the appointed time. You could easily spend hours and hours exploring all that is available to see on this tour.
Top Notch & Great Fun.
Just take the train to Baker Street for some super-cheesy, totally escapist, touristy fun!
We never really thought we’d ever go to a Madame Tussauds wax museum, but it turned out to be really fun.
We’ll probably have to go to the one in Times Square, New York, at some future date, just to complete the set!
SUNSET STEAM EXPRESS DINNER TRAIN RIDE
(This was Ken’s surprise for Gabby)
Ken booked this ride back in April after discovering it by accident while online, at work one night. It was the hardest secret to keep, but it was well worth it. We had been frustrated by Gabby not getting to ride the steam train at Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, so it was really good to have this trip out of Waterloo Station into the Surrey countryside waiting in the wings, for our last night in the UK!
We watched the sun go down as the train chugged along at a surprisingly good speed, out of London, through suburbia, into the Surrey countryside, and back.
We had a nice 3 course meal, a couple of decent beers (‘Spitfire’, if memory serves) and fun conversation with other passengers seated adjacent to us.
The almost-constant thrilled look on Gabby’s face was worth the ticket price, and all of the effort it took to keep it a secret right up until the final moment when she saw this lovely old steam train at Platform 19 at Waterloo Station – just waiting there to whisk us off into a bygone era of travel…
So… on this trip to the UK, we did so many fun things – we rode on hovercrafts, saw 5 castles, rode on a steam train, walked around the remains of a real Roman villa, saw so much amazing street art, enjoyed Gladys Knight in concert, went to the top of the London skyline, rode the Underground EVERY day, walked for over 125 miles, bought gin, drank gin(!), had a picnic in Hyde Park, and even tried to chase a fairly well-known British actor around Covent Garden…
“Who?”, you might be saying.
See if you can figure out who the back of this famous head belongs to…
All in all, we did many things we’d never done before, and in so doing enjoyed many new experiences. Being (almost) total tourists was quite liberating and opened our eyes to a whole other side of London, at least.
Maybe, we’ll dive a little deeper into some of these things we did in future posts. We’ll see.
But Truly: Great fun was had on this trip, as we hope comes through in our pictures.
Thanks for Reading !