After two and bit weeks in the campervan we were happy to ditch the wheels and head into the Big Smoke. Hello London! However, our first impressions of the famous city were not great.
Firstly, we were in a mild state of shock as we left the tranquillity of the van and campsites (when it wasn't raining at least) and entered the busy streets of London. We were so used to pointing to a town on the map and being there within 30 minutes. But London was so humongous that everything took an hour plus to get to. Even if it was only 2 train stops away. Returning the van to the depot involved navigating our way through 5 lane roundabouts that were poorly signed and, if you didn't guess the correct lane, would put you back on the freeway heading 15km in the wrong direction before you could exit and return to your desired location. Both Jess and I had our fair share of meltdowns and tantrums in those finals hours in the van.
Adding to the shock factor was the bus and train ride to our apartment. You see, our apartment was located on the border of London and Afghanistan. Well at least it looked like Afghanistan from the bus window. I think we were the only people in the neighbourhood who spoke English. It was a bit of a jarring experience after meeting so many typical Poms in the countryside. Poor Jess was on the receiving end of a fair few of my rants in those first few hours in London. Nevertheless it was a welcome change and there was something energising about being back amongst the hustle and bustle of a global city!
We kicked off our first full day in London with a walking tour as we had found these tours to be so helpful in our visits to other cities such as Barcelona, Edinburgh and Copenhagen. Unfortunately our London tour was conducted by a snotty little ex-pat Aussie who couldn't help himself when the opportunity arose to slip in his little pinko lefty, pro-socialsim anecdotes when retelling London's history. The "Gary Rant-o-Meter" was well and truly redlining by this point. We should've spent the morning in the apartment reading about London's history on Wikipedia!
But there were brighter skies ahead and we had many memorable moments to come in England's most famous city. The first of which involved dinner with Jess' cousins Georgia (who had been living abroad for several years) and Kate (who had recently joined her sister in London). Georgia and Kate (and Kate's partner Dewy) were the first family members we had seen since getting engaged. It was nice to finally celebrate our engagement with familiar faces and tuck into a delicious home cooked meal.
Things continued on an upward trajectory the following day as we were greeted with perfect weather for a day of sightseeing. We boarded a hop on, hop off bus to take in all of London's landmarks. Highlights included: Tower Bridge, the Borough Markets (where we hoed into some scotch eggs made with black pudding - maybe there's a god after all), Big Ben (or rather the Elizabeth Tower, which houses the Big Ben bell inside), St Paul's Cathedral and Trafalgar Square.
Our hop on, hop off tour also included a river cruise along the Thames with a rather entertaining tour guide. Whilst pointing out the Millennium Bridge, our guide explained that the bridge was closed down just two days after its grand opening due to pedestrians complaining of excessive wobbling on the bridge. Responding to the criticism on national television, the bridge's lead architect explained (with a straight face) that the wobbling was caused not by poor design and construction of the bridge but by people not walking correctly!
During our stay in London, we also managed to cram in a visit to Harrods. Whilst the £95 iPhone cases and £400 men's wallets were a little beyond our £60 per day spending budget, we did manage to afford some delicious Harrods cakes and some Cuban cigars from the cigar lounge located in the basement. Yes, Harrods has a cigar lounge - who said shopping is not fun for men? We also managed to see the puzzling tribute to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed (son of former Harrods owner, Mohammed Al-Fayed). Located at the base of something called the Egyptian escalator, the memorial features a glass case that holds a lipstick-stained wine glass from Diana's last dinner and an alleged engagement ring purchased by Dodi the day before he died. If that's not creepy enough, there's also a giant bronze statue of Dodi and Diana on a sandy beach releasing a dove into the sky with the words "Innocent Victims" chiselled at the base of the statue. Alllllrighty then….
A personal highlight of the stay in London was my visit to the Churchill War Rooms - an underground bunker complex that housed the British government command centre throughout World War II. The war rooms had been primarily left untouched since the day the war ended. Briefing rooms were littered with half open folders, scribbled notes on maps and some of Churchill's half smoked cigars and unwashed coffee cups. I know that doesn't sound amazing in theory but it was like stepping back in time to the day the war ended and everybody downed tools to exit the bunkers for good. As a bit of a WWII buff and an avid admirer of Sir Winston Churchill (the very opposite of our pinko lefty tour guide from the other day), it was one of the best experiences of my trip thus far and something that I will always reminisce over with a smile from ear to ear.
Next stop: Dublin, Ireland