“Ten days in London,” I anticipated and began to compile a list of everything that needs to be seen. Gradually, the list grew longer and longer and was infiltrated by some sights that are beyond London. Our journey to England was conceived before our fall trip. As a warm-up, we visited most British city of America – Victoria, British Columbia and I ordered few dresses in Marks and Spencer in London. Also, a lot of British sitcoms and history series were watched at home. Finally, when Labor Day holiday was approaching we made a move.
Table of Content:
Downton Abbey – visiting Lord and Lady Carnarvon
Highclere Castle was number one on my list of must-see sights in England. When the castle website showed me that all tickets were sold until the end of the year, I was rather disappointed. But somewhere dip down I knew I will be waking on its grounds one way or another. As TripAdvisor recommended, we got to Highclere earlier in the morning to beat the crowds.
The narrow country road ran through wast green rolling hills with white sheep dots. After a few turns, graceful openwork castle turrets appeared behind a hill. Finally, my dream came through – I’m at Downton Abbey! “Look”, I cried to Alex, “Lady Mary liked to walk here”. “And over there they had County Fair”.
The ticket booth was open and had plenty passes for walk-in visitors. What a relief! Inside the castle, everything looks and feels pretty much like in the movie. It felt like visiting good friends, I “walked” there so many times in 7 seasons and know every room by a heart. “Oh, it is the library, there is Lord Grantham desk, Lady Mary’s bedroom, and the arched gallery where they carried unfortunate Mr. Pamuk”.
I found out that there was no downstairs – no Mrs. Patmore kitchen or staff dining room, no Carson or Mrs. Hughes rooms. These were filmed in the studio in London. Instead, I discovered a real treasure – Egyptian exhibition, full of artifacts and antiquities – the remains of the collection of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. How is Egypt connected to the owner of the estate I will tell some other time, do not forget to follow us.
After a walk in the beautiful park and delicious lunch, it was a time to say goodbye. Alex almost dragged me out, I did not want to leave but we had one more place to see.
Birthplace of Modern Computing. Bletchley Park
All fans of Benedict Cumberbatch probably know who Allan Turing is and what he was working on at Bletchley Park. Some of them even heard about Turing machine. For those who not – it’s a theoretical machine that can simulate any computer algorithm. Alex and I as IT people knew about the birthplace of modern computing before “The Imitation Game” movie was shot.
To the top-secret home of the World War Two Codebreakers, we arrived one hour before closing. We checked out Hut 8 where the real Office of Alan Turing was.
In the museum in Block B, we saw fully operational Bombe – the electro-mechanical device used to mechanize the process of breaking Enigma code. Enigma looks like a typewriter and had from 3 to 5 decrypting wheels in front of the keyboard. If you press letter ‘A’, for example, depending on wheel settings, any random letter of the alphabet will be light up on indicator above and wheel #1 will turn. Pressing on letter ‘A’ again will display another letter. So, typing the same word several times will produce different word each time because of the wheel turn. To decipher 3-wheels Enigma’s message one has to try more than one million wheel settings.
Turing and the team were working on decoding messages from German Navy. They were looking for common words that can be present in coded messages such as “weather” or “storm” etc. After some group of letters looked promising, they were trying to find correct wheels’ settings. What is interesting – the Bombe machine was looking not for the right settings but eliminating the wrong ones. If messages were not deciphered in 24 hours, the team had to start again – Germans changed the settings every day. Bombe did what mere humans could not.
Down the London’s Memory Lane, The City Walk
After the intense first day, packed with impressions and a lot of driving on the right side of the road that is left in Britain, few next days we spent walking London streets and looking for buildings from Tudor, Victorian, Edwardian eras, and beautiful Sir Christopher Wren churches. We started from Charing Cross Station and walked down the Strand Boulevard. There are still quite a few buildings that survived the big fire of 1666.
Then we entered narrow streets of 1700s London – a maze of little lanes and courts. Even though medieval city disappeared in the Great Fire, new brick buildings were built in the place of old ones. Eventually, we came to the heart of the City and to the greatest of When creations – Sent Paul Cathedral.
We did not step inside, planning to check the cathedral later. So, we passed it and continued the walk on Cheapside street – Shakespeare’s London. The street brought us to the heart of the City – Bank Junction – the center of financial London.
After looking at the forest of the modern skyscrapers we resumed walk, few more blocks and we at the London Bridge. This is the end of our walk and beginning point of the City. Around 50 AD Romans built the settlement there and called it Londinium. It grew to become a thriving town bustling with people from every corner of the world.
Afternoon tea at the Parliament
Look closer on beautiful turrets, do they remain you of something? Check the first picture in the post… looks similar, right? Sir Charles Barry who built Parliament building later was the architect of Highclere Castle too.
We continue our tradition to get afternoon tea in some interesting places. This time we checked English parliamentarian kitchen. They got fine tea selection and yummy pastries of which Alex had a second serving thanks to the nice waitress.
Before tea, we passed through the tight security, got special visitor tag, and spend few hours on the guided tour. The Parliament is a richly decorated building, with beautifully carved wooden panels, bright frescos, and a lot of statues. We stood next to the Queen’s throne at the House of Lords where she delivers a speech at the State Opening. Alex was trying to sit in the House of Commons chamber but the guide stopped him, explaining that only members can to do that.
Dungeons of Westminster, Churchill’s Bunker
Churchill’s Bunker is underground headquarters of the British government during WWII. It is located near Downing street 10, official residence the Prime Minister. From that dungeon, all important war decisions were made. People worked and lived in the maze of narrow aisles and tiny rooms, including Churchill and his wife.
I thought that I would have quiet time in the cafeteria, tasting afternoon tea, while Alex would have explored the museum. How wrong I was… Audio guide narrative was so interesting, full of the amazing details about brave people who won the war, so I followed it for 3 hours without any thoughts of food or rest.
The Enchanted Villages of Cotswold
After several days enjoying a “quiet” life in the city, it was time for a jaunt to the British countryside. The plan was to get on a train to Moreton-on-Marsh in Gloucestershire and hop on the tour bus to enjoy the quaint beauty of Cotswold villages. Everything went awry in the morning when our train was canceled due to a missing crew member. The rest were canceled too because one railroad workers team dismantled the tracks when another was looking for the absent guy…
Alex looked at me and feeling doomed started calling to car rental places with the hope that they would be closed on Sunday. Unfortunately for him, the one at Heathrow airport was open and very soon we hit the wrong side of the road again in the attempt to catch our tour. We did it in the middle of nowhere that was called Snowshill. The account how we found and get there deserves a separate tale. By the way, snowy Christmas scene from “Bridget Jones’s Diary” movie was filmed in that village.
Rumor has it that 11-th century church door, flanked by ancient Yew trees was the inspiration of J.R. R. Tolkien’s door of Durin in The Lords of the Rings.
The names of Cotswold villages sound like from old fairy tale and it is easy to imagine leprechauns, elves or gnomes living there. Just listen – Stow-on-the-Wold, Wooton-under-Edge, Milton-under-Wychwood or Chipping Campden. Honey-colored buildings covered with vines with tiny blooming gardens takes your breath away. For me, they represent unspoiled, quintessential English charm.
After the tour ended, our guide brought us back to our car that was left in Snowshill and gave us the maps of 2 villages that we missed. We just got time for one – Chipping Campden. But we are definitely will come back.
Treasures of the Tower of London
In Tower in London, we took free Beefeater’s tour. Just looking at these guys was a real fun, just imagine walking and listening to scary stories about lost princes, executions and daring escapes. To become a Beefeater or Yeomen Warder any candidate must serve at least 22 years in the armed forces. As a benefit – free bottles of Beefeater jin and an apartment in a 13-century building inside Tower of London.
Besides giving walking tours, Yeomen Warders safeguard The Royal Crown Jewels that are historically stored in the Tower. Inside the exhibition, you are not only forbidden from taking pictures but at some displays, you cannot even stop and marvel at the shining treasure. The moving floor carries you along glass cases with enormous diamonds, crowns, and other regalia. Can you imagine 500-karat stone? Now I can, it’s magnificent.
In Greenwich by the Thames
Probably the most scenic way to travel to Greenwich from London is on a boat along the Thames. Of course, if it’s not raining. We got lucky – the weather was perfect with bright sun and blue sky. Once arrived, we went directly to the Old Royal Naval College to find out that famous Thornhill’ Painted Hall was closed for restoration.
The next stop was – Queen’s House and enjoyable collection of Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Turner paintings. The famous Tulip staircase where once the ghost was seen appeared completely empty for us.
The rest of the day we were exploring the home of time or place where Eastern and Western hemispheres meet. There on prime meridian on the top of Greenwich Hill stays the Roal Observatory, the point from which all time is measured.
Several hours later with heads packed with the knowledge, we emerged from the observatory and enjoyed a view from the hill of the distant London skyline.
Traveling around the world – the British Museum
I don’t know where to start describing the British Museum. One can easily spend several months there and still only touch a surface of the enormous collection of artifacts. We got only one day and had to choose what to see. Alex voted for Egyptian collection and I always wanted to visit the Assyrian kingdom sites. So first, we immersed in the forest of pharaohs statues, halls of mummies, sarcophagi, and tomb paintings, then passed through Balawat Gates into the city of Nineveh, admired lion hunt scenes of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal.
After lunch and short rest, we continued our adventure and moved to the ancient Greece where we found a few Parthenon statues. How did they come to the British Museum? Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Ottoman Empire removed them from fallen ruins in Athens and put on display in the museum.
At last, we just jumped from one hall to another, climbing stairs, crossing bridges – got completely lost in a maze of rooms – to see 10 highlights of the British Museum. The display of Lewis Chessmen made me stop and wonder where did I see them before. The question returned to me several times while we were in London. Only in California, I remembered – it was in Harry Potter movie -“Sorcerer’s Stone”…
London from the 72nd floor, The Shard
One of the last days in London we spent high above the ground, checking the birds-eye view of the city. I reserved “Day & Night Experience” tickets from California that allowed us to enter 2 times a day. So, if there were nothing to see at night, I hoped I would take pictures during the day. In the morning of our visit rain, fog, and wind greeted us at the hotel doors. Streams of water were running on visitors on the open air Skydeck on Level 72, completely drenched bartenders were pouring cocktails mixed with rain to several trembling individuals. “Let hope that London weather would change 100 times before sunset”, I thought and we left The Shard skyscraper.
The best place to be when it is raining is a museum, and we had one on our list. Actually, we had several but chose The National Gallery. The rain stopped when we reached Trafalgar square where the gallery is located. Since the Middle Ages, this area has been a meeting place. The square is always full of people – tourists enjoying short minutes of the rest, street musicians and magicians, protesters, children climbing on lions of the Nelson memorial.
Close to sunset, we broke away from the contemplation of paintings of the most famous painters such as Rubens, Vermeer, van Gogh, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo. It was time for second attempt to see London from above.
When night enveloped the city in the dark blue blanket, I stopped taking pictures and just sat with the fancy cocktail in hand enjoying the beautiful view sparkling with millions of lights.