A couple of days in London

A few weeks ago, I got to spend a couple of days in London prior to travelling to Spain for a team meetup for work. Having never been to Europe or the UK, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to check out London, especially since flights from Melbourne have to go through Heathrow, and it seemed like a nice way to break up the trip and have some much needed rest from the 17 hour flight from Perth. What I wasn’t expecting was to fall completely head-over-heels in love with the place.

Spending time in the UK is something of a rite of passage for many Australians, but I never wound up travelling during my twenties, and didn’t get a passport until the age of 32. All my overseas trips so far have been for work, with a couple of little side-trips tacked on from time to time, like this one. It’s a nice way to see a little bit more of the world than hotel rooms and conference centres, while also jotting down some interesting places to come back to one day.

Day one

What struck me first is how familiar London feels to me. I felt at once immediately at home, while also so very far away from my real home. But in contrast to other trips, that feeling of being at a home-away-from-home just kind of persisted in a warm way for the couple of days I was there.

The familiarity was definitely grounded in seeing Victorian architecture, and heck, all of the references to Queen Victoria. Coming from the state of Victoria in Australia, I felt a little bombarded by the name Victoria!

I stayed near London Victoria station so that I’d be nice and close to the train for my onward journey, as the Southern Railway runs early trains on Sundays between London and Gatwick airport. It turned out to be a great location for sightseeing as it’s a short walk up to Buckingham Palace.

I got in pretty early on a Friday, and after bleary-eyed navigating of the Piccadilly and District lines, dropped my bags off at the hotel, grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed off to go see as much of London on foot as I could, jet lag permitting.

My first stop was Buckingham Palace. I’d never really taken much interest in the royals — the royal family always felt so completely removed from everyday life on the other end of the earth in Melbourne. I wasn’t quite prepared for how it’d feel walking past the palace, though. Standing in front of both that building and the enormous monument to Queen Victoria, it hit me that of course if you lived here, you’d likely take a bit more notice.

The other thing that struck me was the mythological imagery that decorated both the memorial and a lot of other public buildings (so many mermaids). And everything seemed to be incredibly clean and well maintained. Is that just normal in London, or maybe because of the coronation this year? At any rate, I found all the public sculptures fascinating to look at, and the scale felt pretty immense. It turns out the whole memorial weighs 2,300 tonnes.

Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial in the foreground.

By this point, I was already starting to feel like I’d been transported somewhere larger than life. Was it just the jet lag? It’s hard to describe, especially given that photos capture what might look like a dreary overcast day, but the feeling was somewhat magical. The day wasn’t particularly cold. The air was fairly still, the weather slow and gentle, and the greys of London felt like elegant framing for the pops of colour of buildings, phone booths, and the vivid greens of the lawns and gardens.

Across the road from Buckingham Palace is St. James’s Park. After crossing the road and looking over the park toward the Horse Guards, I felt like I’d entered a fairytale. A place of castles, and palaces, and gardens, and old buildings, museums, and squirrels.

Oh, the squirrels! By the time I’d wandered down to the lake and found the squirrels, I felt like the whole trip had been worth it. They’re super cute, but they really want to come up to you! While I was watching them one of the squirrels jumped on someone’s shoulder (not pictured).

Next up, I wandered over in the direction of Big Ben. My goal was to see the most London-ey things I could with the little time I had before the museums opened for the day.

A first glimpse of Big Ben.

One of my favourite things about travel is when you see things in real life that you’ve only ever seen on screen or in photos. How big is the thing in real life? Well, for me, Big Ben seemed really big. And for the rest of the day I had quite a bit of fun catching glimpses of it from different vantage points.

From here, I walked south in the direction of Tate Britain, the first stop on my little museum crawl. But along the way, I saw a beautiful old building, Millbank House, just down from The Houses of Parliament. It’s apparently owned by the House of Lords, but to me it looked like it likely houses about a dozen ghosts. I love all the details of the exterior, but especially the offset heights of those tall windows.

By the time I reached the Tate Britain, I already felt like I’d had quite the adventure! I had a few minutes to kill before opening, and texted home before then seeing a small motorcade of two police before a horse and carriage. Not something I’m used to seeing!

Into the museum and it was such a delight. Very warm inside, too — for a coolish day, I found everywhere in London way warmer than in Melbourne.

When a little pressed for time, I like to go quickly through museums, stopping occasionally for things that take my interest, but with some focused time on a small handful of works. It gives a nice sense of overview of what a museum is like, with some detailed time with one or two things, without getting so overwhelmed with trying to see everything. It’s also a nice way to figure out if you’d like to come back another time. The big highlight for me here was seeing John Everett Millais’ Ophelia painting. I can’t remember when I first saw prints of that painting, maybe sometime around when I was studying theatre at university. In any case, seeing it in person was breathtaking. It simultaneously felt richer and more colourful than I could have imagined, while also seeming much more fragile.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Elsewhere in that same room was an embroidery by the Morris family, and the galleries just had too much stuff to mention. But here are some more photos!

After a quick drink and an apple, it was time to buy a guidebook from the shop and then continue on my way, heading back up north vaguely in the direction of Trafalgar Square and to visit the National Gallery.

The queue for the National Gallery was pretty long, but moved speedily enough getting in. The gallery itself was amazing, but I have to admit I found this one pretty overwhelming in terms of its size and scale — it’s so big it’s very easy to get lost! Lots of familiar artists, but highlights for me included Monet’s The Thames below Westminster, since I’d just been there an hour prior, and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, a print of which we’d always had in our lounge room while I was growing up.

Once I’d finally found my way out, I continued on my way up toward the British Museum, stopping at Monmouth Coffee for a coffee and a cookie.

By the time I made it up to the British Museum, I was well and truly ready for a rest! Not to be deterred, though, I bought a cheap umbrella (not from the nice old place pictured) and joined the line.

There’s far too much to see in one day in the British Museum, let alone one hour at the end of a long day of museum of hopping, but it was so much fun wandering the vast halls and checking out all the display cases. There were heaps of people crowded around the Rosetta Stone of course, but I found myself gravitating toward an Ancient Greek wine bowl. The art style felt so contemporary to me, it looked like it could’ve been from a comic book about Dionysus.

Feeling somewhat full-up for culture for one day, I left the museum full and yet hungry, and stopped for an early dinner before retracing my steps back down to the hotel. By the time I stepped outside, the weather had cleared, and it was a fine and golden autumn afternoon.

Since I was going past it anyway, I couldn’t resist one more museum visit and popped into the National Portrait Gallery to check out the Shakespeare portrait. My feet were killing me by this point!

From there I popped into Trafalgar Square again, since the weather had cleared, and took a few more London-ey pics.

And from there, I found my way back down to St. James’s Park, stopping countless times along the way, as the light was just too dang nice.

I clearly wasn’t alone in enjoying the weather, nearly every park bench was taken. There were lots of beautiful birds (pelicans, even, first introduced to the park in 1664), but the white swans seemed to be the favourite. Probably to people living in London, they’re just “swans”.

And with that, I headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. It turned out to be the perfect way to spend the first day, I was well and truly ready for rest after walking 31k steps!

Day two

My feet were feeling pretty tired after day one, so I resolved to spend a little more time catching the tube to the day’s sights rather than to walk everywhere. I was more or less successful.

After a big breakfast at the hotel, it was time for the big visit of the trip — the Tower of London. I knew next to nothing about the place prior to visiting. I had a vague awareness of Tower Bridge, but I didn’t realise that the Tower of London dates all the way back to 1066. There’s something quite incredible about getting off a train at Tower Hill station and walking down to see a great big castle slap bang in the middle of a modern city. It was a first for me!

I’d read online that it’s good to book in advance for the Tower of London and to get there as soon as it opens and go straight to the Crown Jewels. Turns out it was good advice! I was there around 15 minutes before opening and there was already a decent sized queue. I was also glad to have bought an umbrella the previous day as it was 10–15 minutes of standing in the rain. Oddly enough, at least on the days I was there, the rain felt quite pleasant and there was little wind. To me it all very much added to the atmosphere.

It was a pretty great experience crossing the threshold and going in. From the cobblestones to the towering walls, I found it an overwhelmingly joyful experience, “OMG, I’m in a castle!” The first view of the White Tower (the central and oldest building in the Tower of London) was incredible. The way you cross through to the courtyard around it and it just appears there, towering over you.

Knowing that I’d have all the time to explore the White Tower later, I made a beeline to the Crown Jewels exhibit. It’s very dark inside (and you’re not allowed to take photos), but it’s an impressive exhibit. The first parts have crown frames (just the frames with no jewels) and other objects that sort of whet your appetite for the main attraction, along with some videos on the history of the jewels. As you wind your way through the corridors and go deeper into the exhibit, you turn a corner and there they are — a whole bunch of diamond studded crowns in display cases, with two travelators, one on either side of the cases. There’s a small walkway a little further back with didactic panels giving a bit more context about each of the crowns, along with photos of where they were used.

What I found hilarious about the travelators is that it’s a really efficient way of ensuring no-one stays planted in front of any one display by applying a slow yet constant amount of motion to everyone looking at the objects. There’s no hogging a place in line! Once you’re through, you can cross back to the beginning via the walkway and then hop on the travelators again. I did this about a half dozen times, it was pretty fun.

Leaving the exhibit, I saw that the doors to the exhibit are actually gigantic bank vault doors. Between those doors, the fact of being inside a literal castle, and the presence of guards outside holding rifles, I very much came away with the impression that no-one’s about to steal those Crown Jewels.

After that it was time to take a free tour with one of the Yeoman Warders. Dating back to 1485, they’re formally responsible for safeguarding the crown jewels, but in practice they mostly run tours and perform ceremonial duties. Before they explained that, I had just been thinking, “wow, this is an excellent tour guide“. They live on-site, and to be eligible to become a Yeoman Warder, you need to be retired from the British Armed Forces with at least 22 years of service. Now that’s an experienced tour guide.

After that, it was time to go see the resident ravens who seemed very well-fed (the legend goes that if they ever leave, the crown will fall and Britain with it), and finally go check out the inside of the White Tower.

Inside was a series of exhibits and history of the tower, but my favourite room was the chapel, though the toilets that opened out onto the walls of the castle were a close second (yikes!).

I could have happily spent the whole day there, but I still had one more trip to make before the day was out. So I did another quick lap of the place before heading off to grab some lunch.

Next up, I walked up to Leadenhall Market to have lunch. It was a little quiet, with most of the shops closed. I get the feeling it’s probably more active during the week since it seems to be in the more business-ey part of London, but it was fun to check out briefly, particularly the tentacles crawling out of windows in one of the laneways.

After filling up on pizza, I headed down to Monument station and caught a train to South Kensington for the final stop on my little trip — to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum (The V&A).

What I didn’t know was that the V&A is located in a precinct filled with arts institutions informally known as Albertopolis. I have no idea if anyone living in London actually refers to the area as such, but the nickname dates back to the 1850s where after the Great Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert (consort of Queen Victoria) advised the royal commission for the exhibition to purchase the area south of Kensington Gardens as a centre for educational and cultural institutions, using the profits from the exhibition. The area includes the Natural History Museum, the V&A, the Science Museum, Imperial College, and at the northern end, the Royal Albert Hall. It’s pretty big.

According to Wikipedia, the V&A is the world’s largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts and design. Wandering its many halls and levels, it sure feels it. Like all the other museums I visited, I felt like I could have spent all day there, but I really fell in love with this one. It was hard to pry myself away before closing time!

One of the things I found fascinating about the place was the emphasis on the museum as a place of art education. The Cast Courts, which feature copies and replicas of architecture and art from around the world, opened in 1873. I liked the note on some of the wall text explaining that to Victorians, visiting the museum was in some ways akin to the experience we have today using the internet — “the Courts brought art and architecture from around the globe together under one roof, making the world feel smaller and more connected”.

There was so much to see, but just as with my other museum visits, I had a few particular things in mind to focus on. Namely, to check out some of their pieces from William Morris on display. It turns out that he used to visit the V&A himself and was inspired by their collection of medieval tapestries.

It was here where I felt like I could have stayed forever, but time was running out! With daylight dwindling, it was time for a quick tour through a few more of their galleries before heading out into the evening.

Outside, I decided there was one more thing I wanted to do before finishing for the day — wander up to see the Royal Albert Hall. All the buildings around South Kensington seem to be impeccably designed and there’s a consistency to the precinct that’s incredibly striking. The nearby apartment buildings appear to be built with curves that match the round structure of the hall.

The hall itself is much bigger than I’d imagined, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it was built all that time ago. As a feat of engineering and design it seems mindboggling to me.

Opposite the hall is the enormous Albert memorial. What I didn’t realise is that Prince Albert died in 1861, well before being able to see any of the plans for the precinct take shape. Queen Victoria had the memorial built in his honour (at great expense) and his statue sits overlooking the hall. When they built the Queen Victoria memorial outside Buckingham Palace, they did so in a similar style to this memorial.

With my trip bookended by royal memorials, it was time to head back to the hotel, grab some dinner and pack for my onward journey. Back down toward South Kensington station it turned out that everyone else had the same idea. The station was packed with the gates closed between each train’s arrival to manage the enormous crowds.

Given the choice between a crowded train journey or one more stroll through the streets of London, I picked the latter, excitedly checking the route on Google Maps. It’d be another 45 minutes until I reached the hotel, my feet could take it.

Not long into my walk, it started bucketing down, my little umbrella not up to the task of keeping me dry anymore. I became thoroughly drenched, but had a wonderful time wandering back toward the hotel as it became steadily darker. The streets around there are so beautiful with all the old buildings and small parks, it was very much worth it.

Thank you for reading! In case the excessive photos didn’t give it away, I had the most wonderful time visiting London. Even with two days crammed full of museum visits, I felt like I only just scratched the surface. Must get back there one day.