It was about two and a half years coming, but we finally got back a little of what COVID stole from us in 2020. Not nearly what we originally planned over the nine weeks of May and June that year, this is the London leg of three weeks in the UK and Ireland, in late July 2022.
Getting to the UK and Ireland had been on my bucket list for probably 40 or more years. As a guy with Irish and Scottish heritage, it seemed almost criminal to have hit my mid-50s and have never visited. At least I have now rectified that. Since I booked most things two to three months ahead of the trip, by the time I was down to the last couple weeks prior, I was pretty much vibrating with anticipation. And, in all honesty, the trip was everything I’d hoped for. Given the travel nightmare some people are encountering this summer, on the London leg everything from the flight to the Underground to our train ride to York went very well, with zero delays or cancellations. We flew to London on the evening of July 22nd.
Anticipating potential bedlam at both YVR and LHR, we heeded airport/airline advice and got to the airport four hours ahead of our flight. We flew through security in Vancouver, arrived to an empty gate and ended up killing a good 3.5 hours in the airport before we actually went anywhere. However, arrive much closer to flight time and who knows whether security would have still been quiet. Better safe than sorry.
Six Nights in London
Arriving in London was an absolute breeze. Canada is on a list with a handful of countries that get extremely fast airport border processing. We waited in a line for maybe ten minutes, scanned our passports with digital face verification and were in. No chatter with a customs agent and zero human interaction at all. From what I could see walking above departures from the plane to customs, leaving Heathrow was another matter entirely.
We stayed at the Hub Westminster for six nights. We found the AC a little lacking, but given that all we did was sleep there, a room consisting of a very good bed, small shower and crappy TV was all we needed. Compared to booking a standard hotel room in central London, staying at the Hub was at least $100-200 a night cheaper.
For first time tourists, the location couldn’t have been better. A block or two from parliament/Big Ben, the Thames, Westminster Abbey, easy walks to Covent Garden, Soho, palaces, Trafalgar Square and an easy tube ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and more, allowed us to cover a lot of the city in five days. I say five, because one of our London days took us on a day trip to Cambridge.
London is Spectacle
I’m going to try to come up with a single word that describes each place we stayed on our trip. In London’s case that word would be spectacle. Overwhelming at times, there is simply so much to do in this city of 32 Burroughs and 9 million people, that even in six days you feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface. I could see how it might be a bit much to live it on a daily basis, but as a first time visitor, I loved every minute we were there.
I’m not going to try to cover everything we did chronologically, since we were pretty random and many of our lengthy walks took us past the same things every day to get places. We must have seen Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and London Eye fifty times. So, below I’m going to focus on the key things we did or saw, a few photos and a bit of introductory copy. Many of the photos in the sets below would have also been taken at different times on our many daily walks, as that’s primarily how we vacation – walking a city to see it at street level.
Distance on foot in London: 72.1km over 9 walks and 1 run
I’m putting Westminster Abbey first because it was a block from our hotel and we walked past it constantly. It was also one of the things we chose to pay to tour, and we were really glad we did. We saw several cathedrals inside and out on our trip, but this one is something special. It was one of our favourite things in London, if not the whole trip, with a scale and historical significance that makes it a must-see. Every monarch since William the Conqueror (except two Edwards) has had a coronation ceremony there, and 3300 people are either buried or commemorated there. It’s one of those places that’s impressive on the outside and gob-smacking from the moment you enter.
Above, views from the front and then the Abbey and school along the NW side. Below, ten of probably 75 pics I took.
Big Ben & Palace of Westminster (parliament)
Another iconic landmark we saw every day, as it’s nearly across the street from the Abbey, with the Thames on the other side. Big Ben is temporarily closed and we weren’t really interested in a parliamentary tour, so it’s just a couple external photos below. It had a lot of scaffolding covering the street side for maintenance and repair, so no full lighting nighttime pics were possible from the river. Still, an impressive and imposing piece of architecture that’s photogenic as hell.
The Tower of London
If, like me, you love to know where people were beheaded and/or held prisoner, then the Tower of London should be on your list. For years, it was also the gate to the city and a major military stronghold, and I know at least one monarch, Henry VIII, lived there for a period. The place is dripping in history. I particularly like that you just pay a fee and can wander around in whatever order you like and see as much or as little as you want. We enjoyed just heading up into the walls and walking through various towers surrounding the main structure and courtyard, but skipped the two-hour snaking lineup to see the Crown Jewels. The views in all directions were great.
As for the bridge just to the east of it, a lovely iconic landmark we walked over and cruised under, but didn’t pay to climb to the top of. It’s pretty stunning, no matter which angle you view it from.
The East End & Jack the Ripper
The east end of London is comprised of areas like Whitechapel just to the east of the Tower of London and the bridge. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the area, but one night we did do a London Walks tour of Jack the Ripper’s territory and murder scenes. A lot of that history was lost to bombing in WWII, but you can still hit some alleyways that are much like they were in 1888, when the Ripper went on his spree. London Walks are free/pay what you can and of exceedingly high quality. I can’t recommend them enough. The photos below are really just for flavour.
The London Wall
A little more subtle in nature, the London Wall was first erected by the Romans 2000 years ago and is mostly gone now, but I managed a pic or two from our London Walk Ripper tour. There are markers on the ground in places where it used to stand, and remnants remain on the Tower of London grounds, via excavation for a building erected in the past few years, and in random places if you know where to look.
The Thames wasn’t so much a feature of our trip as an ever-present backdrop or foreground to many things London. As such, it shows up in many photos where it isn’t the focus. However, we also took a Thames cruise over to Greenwich one day, so the middle row below are from that cruise. In particular, I really enjoyed the one run I did while in London, a 10k loop of the Thames (+ Whitehall) crossing Millennium Bridge in the north and Vauxhall Bridge in the south.
After the Strava run image, a few pics of various things from the Thames vantage point. MI6 HQ from the Craig Bond flicks, plus London Eye and London Bridge (which is nothing special from above).
Greenwich & Isle of Dogs
Greenwich was almost a full day trip on its own. It was one of the lengthier Underground trips we took (back from Isle of Dogs), but still not long when compared with commuting to a suburb or something. We toured the Queen’s residence (it’s free), had lunch at a pub in Greenwich and then ended up strolling through the tunnel under the Thames and up through Isle of Dogs and the docklands (neither was terribly photogenic) before catching the tube back to Westminster. We didn’t go into the Greenwich Observatory, but did climb up the hill to straddle the meridian and catch the views of London and the O2, among other things.
Covent Garden, Soho & The West End
In truth, these are all different areas but feel like they basically flow into each other, and we walked around various all of them on a few occasions. The small low-traffic streets, throngs of people, endless shops and eateries and Broadway-level theatre shows, makes the whole area a very enjoyable place to hang out. Piccadilly Circus is also in this area and, while it is effectively a big street corner, it’s the nexus of five roads where people all come together in one of the liveliest areas of London. Some random shots below.
Buckingham Palace, St. James & Hyde Parks
These landmarks are hard to miss for obvious reason. However, not really being into the current monarchy, we didn’t want a tour of the public part of Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace was closed off from the public when we were there. Hyde Park is a beautiful large urban space in central London, but it was hard to believe how brown the usually emerald green grass was from a summer of drought. I didn’t take many photos of any of this, but we had enjoyable strolls through the parks (St. James, Hyde and Kensington Gardens) that connect the two palaces via Wellington Arch. I probably enjoyed strolling the swanky streets of Kensington just as much as the palaces, to be honest.
A few thoughts, in no particular order, which don’t fit cleanly into the sets above:
Streets. I simply couldn’t get enough of how walkable and lovely so many of the streets were.
And, finally a few other notables from our visit. In particular, Churchill War Rooms and museum was excellent. The bunker where he ran his military operation is perfectly preserved, along with a new museum covering his entire life.
Masks. Once we arrived in London, you’d think there had never been a pandemic. I mean they’re completely done with it. We still masked on all public transportation and anywhere things felt close with other people, but we were usually the only ones. Even on the cramped, sweaty Underground, rarely did we see anyone masking.
The Underground. I’m going to be honest. I absolutely fell in love with the tube. If I lived anywhere with that kind of transit, I’d ditch cars forever. While we didn’t ride bikes on our trip at all, in London particularly, cycling was also on fire and you saw it and the ever-improving bike network everywhere. There’s even a national bike network in the UK.
Little streets, few cars. While London still has a lot of busy roads, when you get into many areas like Soho, Covent Gardens, the West End and others, they’re pretty devoid of cars, and others are calmed with limited traffic. It leaves room for restaurants in the middle of outdoor malls and allows human beings to bike and stroll with no fear of being mowed down while shopping, eating and drinking.
London Eye looked like a great way to get some wonderful bird’s eye view photos of the city. Sadly not at $80CAD a pop for effectively a large ferris wheel ride. We also tried to get up to Sky Garden, as it’s free, but the two times we went there, the lineups were far too long.
While all the foregoing is in no kind of chronological order, I think that brings my London pics and commentary to a close, in part because this post is large enough already and I have so much more to cover in my next posts.
Next up, our day trip to Cambridge and a couple nights in York.