London

Rainy Days, St. Paul’s, and Good Timing

Pleasantly overcast turned into a steady rain during our last full day in London, so we broke out our umbrellas and went used book shopping. I can never resist a good used bookshop on Charing Cross Road. (Or anywhere, really. Especially if there’s a basement that smells like old leather and paper with floor-to-ceiling bookcases.)

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Seven Dials in the rain

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Possibly the best free flower crowns I’ve ever seen

 

Then I wanted to show Kate Neil’s Yard, because even though it’s all over Pinterest it still needs to be seen in person. On our way, we passed the Seven Dials area, where a pop-up event was going on. Colorful bunting was strung up, shops were having sales, and there were some freebies floating around, like custom flower crowns, strawberries and creme, and mint juleps.

 

We purposefully avoided the crowds for the Queen’s birthday celebration earlier in the week but decided a rainy afternoon would have dispelled most of the people around St. Paul’s. So we made our way over and had some excellent timing as we stumbled upon the Evensong service.

 

I love Evensong services. They’re so peaceful and calming. (I’ve actually found one back home I’ve gone to a few times now.) So we listened to the choir, I got in line to take communion at the appropriate time, and we emerged from the gorgeous church a little lighter on our feet.

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St. Paul’s after Evensong

 

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A Week in Notting Hill

notting-hillWhen I booked our Notting Hill AirBnB, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had been tempted to spend a little extra to go back to the Pimlico area, which I missed living in. But it turns out that exploring new neighborhoods can pay off. (Who knew?)

Notting Hill – at the risk of being cliche – was picturesque and quirky in the most vintage-hipster of ways. It also didn’t hurt that the weather was perfectly overcast and in the 70’s and 80’s (Fahrenheit!) for most of the week.

Kate and I spent a few hours getting lost, found, and lost again in the neighborhood. As soon as we left the busy main roads, everything was residential and quiet. Of course, we were on the edge of Zone 2 which will usually decrease the noise and activity level of a general area. I decided that the facades in Notting Hill were my favorite when it came to London residences. The side streets were narrow and full of crooked cobblestones, and the main roads were lined with sidewalks wide enough for pram-pushing mothers to pass each other going opposite directions. But even with the tranquility, the buildings were impressive enough to keep reminding you that you were in London.

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Afternoon Tea Splurge

After all our running around for the first few days, Kate and I splurged a little with a posh Fortnum & Mason afternoon tea. Their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is decked out in one of my favorite colors – mint – so of course this is where I got a reservation. As soon as you step into the tea salon on an upper floor of Fortnum & Mason, the atmosphere completely changes. With a tranquil color scheme and music playing, you feel as if you can comfortably linger awhile – and we did.

20160608_124303The staff turn the tea into a bit of a formal affair, as I was helped into my seat by the host and given two weighty, bound menus. One for the meal, and one for tea blends. We both ordered the traditional afternoon tea, although there were savory and vegetarian afternoon teas available. I opted for the Royal Blend tea, and Kate opted for the Jubilee Blend. They were both excellent! We had to try a sip of each other’s tea for comparison’s sake – while we each preferred my own choices by a thin margin, they were each delicious.

Speaking of delicious – the whole afternoon tea was amazing. The little tower of delicate plates may not look intimidating, but by the end we were so full we could only eat half of the sweets and cake – and I always finish dessert.

(We did, however, order extra salmon tea sandwiches. Those things were impossible to put down.)

I started with my scones, clotted cream, and jam before moving on to the tea sandwiches. I think one of the things I missed most about the UK was clotted cream and salmon on everything. (Other sandwich flavors were Coronation chicken, ham, and cucumber. All good.) We hadn’t even eaten breakfast and those two courses alone would have been able to tide me over until a late dinner. But we didn’t want anything to go to waste, so after another round of salmon finger sandwiches, we tasted each of the sweets and an amazingly rich chocolate mousse cake.

It was raining outside pretty heavily after our 1.5 hour lunch was over, so we browsed through the rest of the department store for awhile. I decided that if I ever have the funds, I’m stocking my future kitchen with china sets from Fortnum & Mason. (I also wouldn’t say no to an endorsement deal, if any F&M employees come across this! ha.) Eventually, we had enough space in our stomachs again to hit the tea tasting counters… But not enough to visit the ice cream parlour. All in all… it was a very delicious afternoon.

 

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I won’t even deny that over 50% of the reason I wanted to eat here was the table setting. Look at my teapot! 

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Picnics in Parks

One of my favorite things to do in London is to have a picnic. When the weather is nice, why would you want to eat indoors? It’s always great to see the locals working on their next sunburn during the (slightly) rare sunny and warm weekend afternoon. And I’m (almost) always down for some Pret take away.

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Kensington Palace/Gardens

London parks are the best for people-watching. There are people of all ages, accents, and nationalities riding bikes, walking their dogs, and talking. And there are always so many parks to choose from – you can be in the middle of high rise office buildings and stumble upon a half-acre of grass with a few benches, or you could turn off a busy street and find Regent’s Park.

Since we were based in Notting Hill, Kensington Gardens was our go-to picnic spot this time around. Back in 2014 there was a little green space I loved, right along the Thames near my flat that had a few benches. I would cool off there after a run, or take a book just to enjoy the fresh air. And London weather is very rarely so hot as to make bench-sitting un-enjoyable.

 

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Evening picnics near Kensington

This time around I took my travel journal out, and took the time to have some solid introverted introspection while we people-watched. We must have done a good job of blending in with the locals since I was asked for directions by a few other tourists walking past. And after my Italian studying, I paid more attention to the languages I was hearing… It makes the world feel large and small at the same time. The diversity is one of the things I miss about living in London. But a lunch or evening picnic in a London park with my journal in hand goes a long way towards making me feel at home again.

 

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The Most Magical Place on Earth: WB’s Potter Studio Tour

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Butterbeer mustaches = a must.

Forget Disney. I could visit the WB studio tour over and over and over and over and over…
Along with the theme parks, of course. My second visit to the studio tour was no less magical than my first. We got tickets that included the audio guides and souvenir guide books. I absolutely love the audio guides. Sitting on the overground to Watford Junction, we saw a few other families who were also on their way to the tour. And I was just as ecstatic as the first time around.

The experience itself was also just as brilliant the second time around. They estimate that visitors will spend an average of 2.5 hours inside the tour, but Kate and I were there for 4 whole hours. We didn’t get bored at all. 13522840_10206721511943588_4997574288365891661_o (1)

The newest exhibit I hadn’t seen yet was the Hogwarts Express. They had it set up
perfectly, with smoke billowing around the red train. You get to walk through the carriages, with each compartment set up as they had been in different scenes. This section of the sound stage is why you definitely want to book an early entry time – the earlier you get in, the less people there will be. I wouldn’t want to be standing in a late afternoon line to get through the Hogwarts Express…. or to get on the brooms!

IMG_2864It might just be impossible (for me, anyway) to resist the green screen brooms. As cheesy as they are, I had regretted not getting the mp4 of my broom flight the first time around… so this time I sprung for it, along with two other pictures. Don’t we look happy? Who wouldn’t? We were in a flying Ford Anglia!

Another new addition to the studio tour was BUTTERBEER ICE CREAM. Yes, you saw that correctly: butterbeer ice cream. It may just have been the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, and if I hadn’t already downed so much sugar between that and my glass of butterbeer, I would have gone for a second cone. If you even remotely like ice cream and you are in the studio tour: get it. You won’t regret it. IMG_2866

The actual butterbeer is still great, of course. Even if I prefer the frozen version of the theme parks. (Some pumpkin juice for sale also wouldn’t be amiss. Something to think about, maybe, Leavesden?)

We also happened to get tickets for the last few days of the Privet Drive exhibit. We were able to walk through the entry way of that perfectly normal Number 4 house… And it looked as if the post had just arrived via fireplace. Dudley had his many awards hung on the walls, and it was very Dursley-ish. (But what else would you expect?)

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No post on Sundays! 

And, of course, the behind the scenes info is always fascinating. The detailed paper models, full-scale sets, and costumes all show just how much effort it took to pull off an 8-movie franchise. But my favorite room is still the gigantic Hogwarts model, under dramatic lighting, with a ramp all the way around.

I still say that the studio tour is a must-see for any Harry Potter fan who happens to travel to London. It’s definitely worth the cost of the ticket.

 

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In Which I’m a London Tour Guide Once More

I’m always in favor of taking a free walking tour. But since I figured I was a local for 5 months or so that one time a few years ago… I could handle showing Kate around without the guide. And there’s something about missing your second home for two years that makes you eager to revisit even the tourist spots.

I had scouted out some great looking cafes on Instagram earlier in the month, so we left our little Notting Hill AirBnB for Farm Girl Cafe, which was a 10-minute walk down the road. If you’re ever in Notting Hill, I highly recommend it. We ended up going twice in the week we were here! The lavender lattes are A+.

From there it was time to show Kate some Royal London! The first stop was, obviously, the Mall and Buckingham Palace.

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It’s amazing how little the crowds of tourists get on your nerves after 10 hours of sleep! Yes I know we were tourists too.

With the jet lag gone, my internal London map and sense of direction was back. We managed to catch the tail end of the Changing of the Guard Parade. (Which I really recommend over squishing up against the palace fence with the rest of the tourists to catch the actual changing of the guard… The parade is much more interesting. There are fewer people to make you claustrophobic, and more ponies! Ponies are always a bonus.)

I gave the tour guide spiel I’ve now memorized about why Green Park is green (3 guesses) as we took a detour through it, and re-lived some of my Longines Global Champions Tour excitement as we passed Horse Guards Parade. We took a stroll through the National Gallery, both of us gravitating toward any artwork that contained horses. (Painters used to have a really hard time with the head to body size ratio.) I mentioned how the lions in Trafalgar Square resemble Cocker Spaniels from the mane down.

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Classic London Tourist, in her natural habitat.

Then, naturally, it was time for some fish and chips, because we were starving. And because London is not just about the royal post codes, we took a bus up to Camden for Poppie’s. I think they will always have my favorite fish and chips… Their sticky toffee pudding isn’t bad either. Camden has a completely different vibe, which I was ready for after dodging tourists most of the morning.

And as became habit for Kate and me over the next few weeks… we went back to the flat, took a late afternoon nap, and then ventured back out for a picnic dinner. With Pret, of course! We parked ourselves on a bench in Kensington Gardens to people watch and enjoy the fantastic weather. Really, London weather has always been good to me on the whole.

As it got dark we continued to walk around to get a glimpse of a few landmarks all lit up. The Royal Albert Hall at night really is gorgeous. I think I did a pretty good job as tour guide. Even if I knew there was some history I knew I was forgetting. I got to revisit some places that have some pretty good memories attached to them. Which is almost everywhere I’ve set foot in Central London, really. So if anyone needs a personal tour guide of London in the future… Take me!

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. – Samuel Johnson

 

 

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10 Things I’ll Always Miss About Living in London

I lived in London for a short time and then I was back stateside again, but it still feels like home when I return. Even if your Visa is short-term, London tends to make a big impression – especially once you start to feel like not just a tourist but a resident.

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When I stepped onto the Heathrow tube station platform after two years away, everything I missed came rushing back. I don’t think these ten things are in any particular order, but they are the things I thought about while I was separated for so long from the city that is now my second home. Let’s not stay apart so long next time, okay London?

  1. Public transport. Do I need to say more? London’s public transport system has permanently spoiled me to the point I feel disappointed in every other city’s transportation system. I could live here for years without needing a car at all! Which is good, because there is zero parking.
  2. The diversity. You can walk through Hyde Park, down The Mall, or through a random market and hear 5 different languages spoken in 5 minutes. It reminds me of how small the world really is, and how closely we’re all connected.
  3.  The history. Walk down the street. Almost any street. Look around. Look up. There are historical buildings everywhere. Little “___ person lived here” signs. Memorials. An old medieval church that is still halfway standing after the Blitz. After living in London, the States seem so… young. (Which, comparatively, they are.)
  4. Pubs. Chain pubs, local pubs, pub food, pub TVs with the match on. Pubs are now my favorite place to sit around and write, think, chat with a friend, or simply people watch. There are few people watching opportunities more enjoyable than watching a football match in which you have no loyalty ties, surrounded by fans, from a small little local pub.
    • The fact that half of London goes for after work drinks on every weekday and there are so many people they spill out into the streets for an hour or more of chatting and winding down still delights me. I’ve never been anywhere else that does after work drinks like London.
  5. The Evening Standard. I never really got excited about newspapers… Until that one seat on the rush hour tube opened up and I needed to occupy my hands. Now every time I travel I try to pick up a free local paper. Thanks, Standard.
  6. Food markets. Pretty self-explanatory. Street food anywhere in the general vicinity of Europe is my favorite type of food. And Borough Market? Just leave me there with a wallet full of cash for a few hours and I’ll be happy.
  7. The parks. You can be walking down the most crowded city street, and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by acres and acres of grass and trees and people playing badminton or fetch with their dogs.
  8. Empty tube platforms at night. There’s just something so soothing about them to me. The sound of a train through the tunnel, and the automated voice over the speakers that sounds crisper when you’re surrounded by fewer people. Mind the gap. Not competing with crowds of commuters for a seat. The few hushed conversations half a train car away.
  9. Day trips. Get on a train and in one hour you can be at Hampton Court Palace or on the coast in Brighton. It’s so easy. (And still, no driving required!)
  10. The culture. Museums. West End. Parks. Locally owned cafes and boutiques. London has everything, half of it free, for you to do on any given day of the week. Something is always going on, even if your biggest calendar item for the day is people watching.
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*London is Always a Good Idea

Sure, Audrey Hepburn (in Sabrina!) was talking about Paris… But I think I feel the same way about London. Plus, I’ve never actually been to Paris. London is definitely always a good idea. And after neglecting my poor passport for over two years, I breathed a sigh of relief as we stepped past border control at Heathrow and onto the escalator that took us down to the tube.

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We got quite attached to our little street.

We got quite attached to our little street.I’ve never been in love with big cities, but London is the exception. I felt like I was back home, and my feet still wanted to hit autopilot as we passed Victoria station on my old route to Pimlico.

For the 7 days I got to be back in London, we stayed in Notting Hill. It was an area I had never really explored while living in Pimlico. There’s just too much London to explore all of it in even five years’ time, much less five months! Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Notting Hill!

It’s a posh little neighborhood, full of stereotypical white facades with pillars and tiled stoops. Our host was really lovely, and the room was twice as spacious as the little shoebox I was used to during my internship. It only took until the jetlag wore off for my mental Central London map to start working again, and to get back that instinctual grasp of North, South, East, and West.

It was especially fun showing Kate around central London since she had never been there before. I’m sure I was dragging her from place to place more than was strictly necessary, but I was also eager to see all the sights I had missed in the last two years.

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