Temporary Brit

My three months of adventures in London!

York October 20, 2011


I spent today up in York, which was the last of my side trips outside of London.  I had originally planned to spend the night there, but decided that it wasn’t necessary and the money would be better used for other things. 🙂    York is about two hours north of London by train, and today was actually my second time there; it was my ONLY day trip when I was here in 2009.  Actually, “day trip” might be a bit of an overstatement.  I didn’t want to be coming home late at night, so I only gave myself four or five hours in town back.  That wasn’t nearly enough, and I felt rushed the whole time.  I had nearly double the amount of time in York today….and I still ended up feeling rushed. 😛


The walk from the train station into town is the prettiest one I’ve seen anywhere (Canterbury was the ugliest).  It’s not a long walk, by any means, and you get to walk right along the city walls.  My favorite part of the walk is crossing the Lendal Bridge over the River Ouse (rhymes with “loose,” not “house” like I originally thought).  All these half timbered and stone buildings are right in front of you, with the Minster looming over it all.  It’s a little bit like stepping back in time.  The rest of the city center feels that way, too; the streets are narrow, and some of the buildings date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.  The Shambles is the most medieval of all of York’s cobbled streets.  It used to be home to the city’s butchers, and there are still channels in the pavement that they used to wash away all the yucky stuff.  Nowadays, you’ll just find shops and restaurants there. 🙂


My first sightseeing stop was the Yorkshire Museum.  It recently won an award for being one of the best tourist attractions in York, and I think that was well deserved.  If you’re at all interested in the history of the city, this is a must-see.  You’ll learn about the Romans, the Vikings, the prehistoric creatures that inhabited the area, and get and idea of what medieval York was like.  The museum is set in the middle of a nice park, near the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey:


When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, he abolished abbeys and monasteries.  This one was converted into a palace and then allowed to deteriorate to the condition you see now.


The Yorkshire Museum offers a “Museum Trust Ticket” which gets you admission to both this museum and the York Castle Museum.  It saves money, and you know how I like to find ways to do that! 🙂  What’s better, the museum cashier gave me the student discount, even after I told her I didn’t have a student ID and couldn’t prove I was in school. More money saved! As an added bonus, the ticket is actually good for a full year as long as you’re willing to give them your full name and tell them where you’re from, so they can “personalize” your ticket (they’re non-transferrable).  I love getting good deals. 😀


After the museum, I walked along the river for awhile.  It was very nice and peaceful,but  it was also why I ended up really rushed at the end of the day. I wandered around the town center for awhile, peeking into some shops, and eventually headed here:



That’s York Minster.  You can see it from almost anywhere in the center of town (and many places just outside the center), and you can actually hear the bells from pretty far away as well.  It also happens to be one of the only big churches over here that doesn’t fuss about photography. 🙂  I got in at about 2:30pm.  I decided on the spur of the moment that I was not only going to take the guided tour, but that I was also going to climb the tower again.  The tour was great; the guides are volunteers of retirement age, and they really know their stuff.  They also really love the Minster, and enjoy sharing it with visitors.  This is the kind of tour I actually LIKE to take!  That’s why I don’t regret taking it….in spite of the fact that it was a quarter to four by the time it was finished.  That presented a problem: I hadn’t been to the York Castle Museum yet, and I definitely needed to do that since I paid for it.  It closed at 5pm, so I was definitely running out of time.  I also wanted to walk along the old city walls, and THEY closed at dusk.  Finally, I had wanted to get back to the Minster in time for the 5:15 evensong service.  There was no way that all of that was going to happen, so I had to abandon the idea of climbing the tower.  I wasn’t all that sad about it; I did the climb in 2009, and it was pretty brutal .  It’s 200 + steps that are very steep, narrow, and spiraled.  Going up wasn’t so bad, but coming down was  actually kind of terrifying.  The steps are SO small in some places that about half my foot was hanging off.  Combine that with the fact that I could see down the spiral staircase for a lot further than I care to think about, and I was practially kissing the ground after I was safely back in the church.  Sooo…while I was a little sad to miss the views from the top, and a little sad that I paid to climb and didn’t go, I was mostly okay with it.  Even the money thing wasn’t so bad, since I ALSO got the student discount at the Minster. 🙂


I raced down the Castle Museum and did the world’s quickest walk-through.  I THINK I liked it, but I was under such a time crunch that I’m not really sure.  There were some outfits from bygone eras that I liked, and a complete Victorian street as well.  There was also an exhibit on housecleaning through the years.  It was more interesting than it sounds. 🙂


Next, I walked along the city walls.  There are three big, intact sections, with breaks between each one.  I tried to do the walk last time I was in York, but got lost between sections and only did one.  It turns out that I just didn’t walk far enough to find the next section.  🙂  At any rate, the views over the town are fantastic, and the whole “loop” is 1.9 miles.  At least, that’s what the signs said.  It sure as heck felt like more to me!  The sun was setting by this time, and I had a good portion of the walls to myself.  I also got to see this:


I could have used a day and half in York.  I didn’t end up making it to evensong, and I would have liked to take a little bit of a rest in the middle of the day.  If you’re thinking of coming to York and you want to do all the stuff I did plus some of the things I wasn’t interested in this time around (river tour, Jorvik Viking Center, Railway Museum, ghost walk, dinner out, the York Dungeon, etc), you could easily spend two full days and one night here.  All in all, York DEFINITELY wins the prize for my favorite day trip city.  Judging by my word count, I’d also say it wins the prize for longest blog entry! 😛



Changing of the Guard October 18, 2011

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I swore I’d never do it.  It was too touristy, too cheesy, and too crowded.  I’m thinking of writing a book about my time in London, though, and I know that it would make a good chapter.  So today…. I went and saw the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.  This isn’t the first time it’s happened; as I mentioned before, I accidentally ended up in the middle of it once near the beginning of my trip.  Today was totally on purpose.


I got to the Buckingham Palace area at about 10:30am, which is a full hour before the guard is supposed to change.  The crowd in front of the Buckingham Palace gates was a full six people deep already.  That was okay with me, though; I wasn’t planning to watch from there.   I was going to set up shop in front of Wellington Barracks, which is where the guards come from on their way to the palace, and where the band warms up as well.  There was plenty of room, so I had my choice of spots.  The guards were already getting into formation by the time I found a good place for pictures.  Basically, “getting ready” consisted of a lot of indistinct yelling, stomping, and occasional shuffling to get into formation.  The commanders inspected the troops at one point, and it looked to me like everyone passed. 🙂


The band arrived on the scene to warm up after the rest of the guards did.  They circled up and kicked off with “Summer Nights” and “Greased Lightning” from the musical, Grease, before moving on to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  I’m not kidding.    It…definitely wasn’t what I would have expected from a military band.  Not to worry; they played proper marching music as the guards actually left the barracks and proceeded to the palace.  What happened after that?  I wish I could tell you, but like I said…I wasn’t over there, and there was no way I was going to get close enough to see at that point.  Overall, though, it was interesting to see the beginning of the ceremony.  It did seem like a bit much to go through to protect the Queen….in a palace that no one can get into anyway….WHEN SHE’S NOT EVEN HOME.  Even so, I’m planning to go back twice for photographic purposes: once to watch from the middle of the route, and once to watch from Buckingham Palace.  If you’re ever in London and you really want to see the Changing of the Guard but only have a chance to do it once, wait outside Wellington Barracks.  You’ll get just as many photo ops, and the crowds will be smaller. 🙂  Just remember to clean your camera lenses often; I’m  TERRIBLE about doing that, which explains the weird haze that appears on some of my shots from today.  Shooting into the sun didn’t help, either, but that was easier than I thought it would be to work around.


Speaking of photo ops, I went out last night to try my hand at some nighttime photography.  The good news is that London is fantastic at night.  The bad news? Although my Canon had great nighttime settings, it was really tough for me to get anything decent without my tripod.  I had to use a fairly slow shutter speed, and when you add that with the fact that my hands are NOT steady (plus the fact that it was windy)…let’s just say there were a lot of indistinct blurs.  I got a few that I like, though, and I’m not giving up.  It’s just a matter of finding creative substitute tripods. 😛


Diwali October 16, 2011

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One of my favorite things about London is its diversity.  Seattle is a pretty diverse place, too, but it’s different in London.  People from other countries and cultures seem to hold onto their traditions better than they do in the states, and London really welcomes that.  I’ve seen signs advertising specials on food for holidays I’ve never even heard of, and you can find greeting cards for almost every cultural celebration imaginable in the shops.  Many cultural special occasions are also celebrated publicly.  Today, for instance, was London’s huge Diwali festival in Trafalgar Square.  Diwali is a Hindu Festival that represents light, new beginnings, and hope, and is celebrated over a period of five days (one of those days is the Hindu New Year).  There ARE obvious religious elements to the festival for various Hindu groups, but celebrations like the one in Trafalgar Square are for anyone who wants to be there.  I thought it sounded interesting, so I decided to check it out.


The afternoon started with a garba.  That’s a form of Indian dance that’s done in a circle.  Normally, I THINK it’s supposed to be somewhat choreographed, but since today’s garba was open to everyone, that would have been kind of hard to accomplish.  Mostly, people just danced in a circle, with lots of clapping and turning involved.  It was fun to watch the crowd in the circle get bigger and bigger as people got braver and braver (even the cops were garba-ing, if that’s a word).  No, I did not join in.  I may  be fearless enough to take off for a foreign country for three months, but I’m NOT fearless enough to dance in public (especially when there are cameras around). 😛  If anyone would like an idea of what a garba looks like, check out this clip from Bride and Prejudice.  The first minute of the video, and from 2:45 until the end show the dancing:


Colorful, isn’t it?  Today’s wasn’t quite that pretty to look at, but then again, today’s wasn’t staged for a movie. 🙂  They WERE giving out free saris, but supplies were pretty limited, so I won’t be rocking a Bollywood look anytime soon (darn).  The festival also included some food (all vegetarian), and lots of performances by Indian music and dance stars.  I think some of them were supposed to be famous, but I know next to nothing about the Bollywood universe.  I didn’t stay for the whole festival, but what I did see was lively and energetic…Indian people really know how to party!


(Just as the band was kicking into high gear with the garba music, I heard a busker playing Hava Nagila…..on the bagpipes.  Talk about culture clash!!!)


Do You Hear the People Sing? October 13, 2011

So…tonight was my one big theater splurge; I finally got to see Les Miserables.  When I say “splurge,” I actually mean the second cheapest ticket I could possibly have gotten since I’m on a budget and didn’t really want to spend the equivalent of $100.  Even if I HAD done that, though…it would totally have been worth it. 🙂


I first got interested in Les Mis after getting the soundtrack for my 16th birthday.  It came and went in Seattle a handful of times over the years, but I just never got around to seeing it.  I saw the 10th anniversary concert on PBS at one point and liked it, and (much more recently) the 25th anniversary concert as well.  At some point, I decided that I wanted to see it in London, if I ever made it there.  When I did finally go in 2009….I didn’t see it.  I ended up not wanting to spend hours in a theater when I had so little time to enjoy the city.  Earlier this year (or was it late last year???) I found out that the show would be coming through Seattle again this past August, and I thought that I’d finally get to see the show.  Then the whole London thing happened, and it was back to my original plan: Les Mis in the West End!


There have been very few times that I’ve gone into something with high expectations and had those expectations exceeded.  Tonight was one of those times.  The show was absolutely, positively, the BEST thing I’ve ever seen on stage.  I was enthralled the whole time.  The sheer caliber of talent contained in this cast was staggering.  In most of the traveling Broadway shows I’ve seen in Seattle, there always seems to be one major character who’s a bit of a weak link,  and doesn’t hold up well with the rest of the cast.  Not true for this show; EVERYONE was great!  Even the chorus members who had a line or two of solos were fantastic.


Those of you who saw the recent 25th anniversary Les Mis concert on PBS will probably recognize Alfie Boe from his performance as Jean Valjean.  He signed on awhile back to play Valjean in the West End until the latter half of November.  When I first saw the concert on tv, I thought he had a good voice, but……I’ll be honest…. I was pretty indifferent otherwise.  I just didn’t see as much acting or expression as I did in some of the other performers.  Once I figured out that he would be in the show while I was in London, though, I thought it might be nice if I got to see him in it.  Boy, am I ever glad I did!  Alfie was fantastic…really, really brilliant in the role.  His voice is even better live than on tv, and he didn’t just play Valjean; he WAS Valjean.  Every gesture, emotion, action, etc was perfect.  The way he aged as Valjean was amazing, too.  Quite a bit of time passes from the beginning to the end of the musical, and the way that Alfie took Valjean from adulthood to old age was nothing short of fantastic.  It wasn’t even just the makeup or the clothes; he walked older,  sung older, WAS older.  That kind of thing is hard to get right, but boy, did he ever.  I also thought that Alfie had great chemistry with the actor playing Javert.  Seriously…it was electric every time they were onstage together.  I was also surprised and impressed with how athletic the role of Valjean actually is.  Alfie was always running around, punching people, getting punched, lifting wagons, shooting things, and I think he carried the injured Marius around the stage for about five minutes straight.  The actor playing Marius wasn’t a big guy by any means, but still….that can’t have been easy!


Like I said….everyone in the show was great, and I don’t have any major critcisms; just a few tiny ones. 🙂 There was this woman sitting two rows in front of me who thought she was Fantine, and sang along with ALL OF HER SOLOS.  I really don’t want to hear “I Dreamed A Dream” from anyone other than the person singing it onstage, thank you very much.  There were also a few moments when Eponine was a bit shrill, but those were few and far between.  The actress more than made up for it by giving the character a lot of spirit, and by just killing “A Little Fall of Rain.”  Seriously…she was AMAZING during that song.  Unfortunately, Marius kind of ruined the moment with some slightly overdramatic sobbing over Eponine’s dead body.  It was almost as bad as Harry Potter crying over Cedric Diggory’s body in Goblet of Fire.  “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” was good, though…not as good as Michael Ball’s version (he was the original Marius), but I don’t think anyone could beat that one.


Speaking of Eponine and Marius, I had a bit of a change of heart about them tonight.  Before seeing the show, I was firmly on Team Eponine.  I never liked Cosette much, and I thought it was lame (and so typical of a guy) that Marius liked her better and was totally clueless that Eponine was into him.  After tonight, though….I like Marius and Cosette together.  He and Eponine just wouldn’t be a good fit, ultimately.


Just a quick note about safety: people kept telling me to be careful, watch out, stay safe, etc. before I left for London.  It was a little annoying, even though I know they meant well.  I’m not stupid, I don’t take stupid risks, and there isn’t anything bad that could happen to me here that couldn’t happen to me in Seattle.  Even so, I hadn’t spent much time in the city at night, and I wasn’t sure what it would be like.  It was….just like it is during the day, but darker.  There were so many people still around, and lots of places in and around the theaters were still open when the show ended.  I walked back to the Tube alone, and I didn’t feel unsafe for a second.  So, if you ever find yourself in London and you want to experience at night, do it!  I’m not saying you should take dumb risks (I purposely went to a Tube stop that was  a bit further away from the theater so I could stick to busy streets and not scary dark alleys), but the chances of something bad happening to you with so many people around are pretty slim.


Even if I HAD planned to see another show while I was here, I’d be cancelling my plans for that right about now.  I don’t think anything could possibly match tonight.  Great show, great evening, and I’m excited to see the movie version next year!


(One final note: it was nice to look up ticket prices for Les Mis and actually pay that price rather than having tons of fees, taxes and surcharges added on.  I hate that they do that in the States; the most I ever had added on in extra fees was 1/3 the original price of the ticket, which is ridiculous.)



Harrod’s October 10, 2011

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I’ve been very neglectful of my blog this past week…bad me!  It’s midterm time for me at school, and (since I want to get rid of as many of my heavy books as I can) I’m scrambling to finish up one or two of my classes before I head back home.  Hard to believe that out of my three months here, I only have three weeks left! 😦  I’m still trying to cram in as many more adventures as possible, though, so continue to watch this space!


Today, I did something that I didn’t think I would ever want to do in London: I went to Harrod’s.  I was never really into the idea for a few reasons.  First, they have a dress code.  I don’t really like shopping in places where I have to worry about what I’m wearing.  Harrod’s isn’t actually all that bad; nothing too revealing, nothing offensive, and proper shoes at all times.  I was still a little afraid of being turned away at the door; not only was I wearing jeans, but my shoes are pretty much in pieces at this point from walking around London in them for two months.  I was also hesitant to go to Harrod’s because it just seemed like such a cheesy, touristy thing to do.  After all, I really WAS just going as a tourist; no way could I afford to buy anything.


I entered the store and found myself right in the middle of the luxury handbag department.  Right away, I felt pretty uncomfortable.   I was so out of my league with all the posh brand names I saw around me, and I’ve never understood why people feel they need to spend thousands of dollars (or pounds) on a freaking purse.  Plus, I always feel bad when I go into a place to look around, knowing I can’t afford to buy anything.  At any rate, even though I was totally out of my element, I was really impressed with how beautiful Harrod’s actually is.  The rooms are almost museum-like, and each one is distinct and different.  There’s an Egyptian theme to parts of it; the family of Dodi al-Fayed owns the store now, and there’s a memorial to him and Princess Diana that seems to get a lot of attention from visitors. It’s a bit hard to find your way around once you’re inside, though.  There are very few helpful “you are here” maps, and nothing telling you exactly what departments are on what floor.


Once I got to the food halls, I felt a bit less out of place.  The clerks were friendly, and I was pleasantly surprised to see lots of treats and gift packages that were within a normal person’s price range.  Something that wasn’t in a normal person’s price range?  The huge picnic basket filled with 1000 pounds worth (pounds as in money, not weight) of Jelly Belly products.  That’s about $1500.  FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS OF JELLY BELLY, PEOPLE!!!


The only other departmens I spent much time in were the toy department and the pet department.  I avoided the clothes like the plague; the price tags were too scary, and I’m just not into designer labels.  Even the kids’ departments were super fancy, and had things from Burberry, Gucci, and Prada.  Seriously, parents?  You’re going to spend THAT money on something that your kid is either going to outgrow or get dirty in about two seconds after putting it on?  I don’t get it.


We tend to get a lot of flack in the US for starting Christmas way too early.  Well, London has us beat.  Not only have I been seeing Christmas candy in the grocery stores since early last month, but Harrod’s already has a separate Christmas department set up….complete with Christmas songs playing over the loudspeakers.  I don’t think I’m quite ready for Christmas yet…..


I didn’t stay much longer, and I tried to avoid all the fancy departments on my way out.  I know it was just paranoia on my part, but every time I accidentally wandered into designer land and a sales person glanced at me, I kept thinking that they could smell the poor on me or something and were wondering what I was doing in there.  I definitely felt a sense of relief when I was back outside!  Overall, I really liked Harrod’s itself.  The architecture, inside and out, is fantastic, and I was pleasantly surprised at how many reasonably priced items they had for sale.  I just don’t fit in with the fancy designer stuff.  🙂


Back to the Tower October 4, 2011

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Well, folks, it looks like London’s heat wave is over.  It’s been cloudy and sprinkly all day, and I actually had to put a sweatshirt on before leaving the house this morning.  What’s more, I actually NEEDED the sweatshirt!  I can’t say I’m unhappy about the change in the weather; as I said in my last post, I hate hot weather. 🙂


I spent a good part of the morning doing something that I’ve wanted to do since I was in London last time: take a Yeoman Warder tour at the Tower of London.  I tried back in 2009, but it started to rain about 15 minutes into it.  They don’t do the tours in bad weather (at least, not in their entirety), so I missed out.  It actually started to rain a little today…about 15 minutes into the tour. 🙂  I kept my fingers crossed, though, and the weather held out.  I’m glad it did, because the tour was very interesting!  The guide for my group was this guy:


He was a lot of fun. 🙂  I’ve always been impressed by the Beefeaters, every time I’ve gone to the Tower.  They’re super friendly, always willing to answer questions or take pictures with tourists, and they really seem to like what they do.  They present the history of place with a lot of enthusiasm, as if the Tower is a place they really love and not just where they live and work.  You’d have to really WANT to be a Yeoman Warder, considering all they have to go through to get to that point (more than 20 years in the military, to start with).


So, what did I learn today?  The Traitors’ Gate was originally called the “Water Gate,” leading to lots of jokes at the expense of the Americans in the group. 😛  The nursery rhyme that starts “Mary Mary quite contrary” was about Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary:”  the garden mentioned in the poem is a graveyard.  Also, only 6 people were actually executed inside the tower during its history, beginning with Anne Boleyn; most of of the executions happened outside of the Tower, at Trinity Green on Tower Hill.  That’s just a sampling of the facts and stories we learned today; if you want more, you’ll have to come to London and take a tour for yourself. 🙂


I was really, really surprised at how many people were in the tour groups today.  I got to the Tower at about 10am, just as one was starting.  There were easily 100 people in that group; probably more.  I decided to wait until the next one, in the hopes that it would be smaller.  I wandered around the Tower, and discovered that almost every single tourist there was in the group I had passed by.  The rest of the place was really empty and peaceful, which was nice.  The next tour group wasn’t much smaller, in case you’re wondering.  I stand by what I said after I was in London in 2009: get to the Tower as early as possible, go on a weekday, and expect to share your Yeoman Warder tour with LOTS of people.  The tours really are as good as people say!


“It’s like a heat wave….” September 30, 2011

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From Google Images


London is in the middle of a major heat wave right now.  For days, it’s been over 80 degrees (I believe at least one record has been broken with others to follow before this is over), and I’ve seen more sun and blue skies since the middle of this week than I’ve seen in the past two months put together.  The sun part is fine, but here’s the thing about me: I HAAAAATE hot weather!  Hot weather makes me cranky and sweaty and it sucks the energy right out of me.  The Central Line of the Tube (which is roasting on most days) is like an oven.  People have actually fainted while riding the Tube in weather like this.  I’m just grateful that most of the tourist crowds have gone home; dealing with all those extra people would have made things even worse.


Londoners in general seem to cope a lot better with weird weather like this than I do.  I haven’t heard much complaining; people just put their sweaters away, bring out the shorts and t-shirts, and head out to the parks to make the most of this mini-summer.  I can understand that last part; days that are completely sunny are about as rare here as they are in Seattle, if not more so.


The hot weather isn’t all bad; the blue skies make for some fantastic photography.  I’ve been heading out later in the afternoon for the last few days and taking advantage of the pretty light.  Another note for you photographers out there: first thing in the morning and right before sunset tend to offer excellent lighting conditions.  Since I hate early mornings even more than heat waves, it’s all about the afternoons for me. 🙂


I’m just about to start my final month here, which is hard to believe.  That means it’s almost time for some of the stuff I’ve been putting off until the end of the trip: touring St. Paul’s, seeing Les Mis, taking a Beefeater tour at the Tower of London,spending the day in York and riding the London Eye at night are a few of the things I have planned.  That won’t take a full month, of course, but one thing I’ve learned on this trip is to expect the unexpected.  Who knows what other things I might still discover? 😀