Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

I’ve been struggling with the most efficient way to organize our trip into easily digestible blog posts. I think I need to mostly stick with a chronological recount. Normally I would like to arrange by topic, with one post dedicated to the hotels and another post about museums and another post about food, but because our trip wasn’t all in one place, that sorting isn’t quite as traffic-friendly as I would like. Instead I’m going to break up the posts into a handful of little chunks based on where we were at the time. So the most basic itinerary was this: we arrived in London early on a Wednesday morning and we did a few things in London. Friday morning, we got up early and went to Paris for a couple days. We returned to London on Sunday evening. Monday we had a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath, and then we spent the remaining week exploring more of London. That’s at least four separate posts (including this one), and because the beginning is always a fine place to start, here are our the first couple days in London.

For the first two days in London, we had a few things planned, but tried to keep our schedule as flexible as possible in case we had a hard time adjusting to a six hour time change. We had traveled in luxury, but even so, we were fairly tired and jet lagged when we arrived. We had a plan to try and overcome that as quickly as possible because, obviously, jet lag sucks and we wanted to comfortably enjoy our trip, but even more so because one thing that was very much on a schedule was a photo shoot and we didn’t want to look sleep deprived.

Our arrival into London went very smoothly, and I could actually remember the journey, so I was reasonably confident that I wasn’t going to say, “We finally made it!” and then wake up at home after yet another all-too-literal dream vacation. After the Heathrow Express delivered us to Paddington Station, we purchased Oyster Cards to pay for our fare on London’s amazing public transportation and made our way to the platform that would take us to the tube stop nearest to our hotel. Oyster Cards, the pay-as-you-go transit cards, aren’t strictly necessary anymore with the advent of contactless payment on smartphones or watches. Those weren’t options 14 years ago and we had already purchased our Oyster Cards by the time we figured that out. Because the Oyster Card is prepaid, using Apple Pay or Google Pay with your phone is probably the most economical way to make sure that you don’t have money left on your account at the end of your trip, but in much of Missouri, public transportation only barely exists, and I’m happy to think of my leftover Oyster Card money as a donation to TFL (Transport for London) because it’s such a great system. Also, the card itself is like a souvenir.

For this first portion of our trip, we stayed at the Conrad St. James, which was a beautiful hotel and certainly the fanciest place we stayed on this trip. Kalen’s aunt and uncle had stayed there a few years previously and recommended it, and Kalen had enough hotel reward points to book us two nights. Even though it was only about ten in the morning when we arrived, we went to drop off our bags until check-in time. To our great surprise, the room was already ready and we were given complementary early check-in. Had we been able to foresee this, we probably would have skipped the showers at the Arrivals Lounge at the airport and just showered at the hotel (a magnificent deluge, a plumbing triumph), but there was no way to know that we would get so lucky.

The room was gorgeous and much bigger than my research of European hotels had led me to expect. The bathroom was especially spacious, with a tub and shower and the toilet in its own little sub-room. The only complaint we had the entire time was about the frosted glass door to the toilet which made a horrifying “crack!” sound as it closed. It seemed to be an issue with the hinges, but to give our anxiety a break we agreed that the toilet door would remain open and we would instead close the door to the whole bathroom when we needed it. We settled into the room, admiring its many features before heading out for a touristy hop-on hop-off bus tour to get started with some low-exertion sightseeing. We had also been informed by both my mother and Kalen’s that Kalen needed to trim his mustache, and as neither he nor I are skilled at that, we needed to find a barber.

The Conrad was conveniently located in Westminster, just a few minutes walk from Westminster Abbey, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace, which also meant that there were plenty of options for getting around. We walked toward Big Ben and across Westminster Bridge to board a Big Bus tour. To really get your money’s worth on these tours, the top is the way to go. Unfortunately, we faced a bit of drizzle after not much time at all and between the rain, our quickly deteriorating energy levels, and our growling stomachs, we hopped off at Marylebone, just south of Regent’s Park, because I knew where we were and what was around. We ducked through the rain into a Wetherspoon’s pub, The Metropolitan, to get some lunch.

The Metropolitan rests over the Baker Street tube station (and is in fact named for the Metropolitan line on the Underground system immediately below it) and as a student, I used to visit it with classmates now and then for a drink, so this was also the first stop on Nostalgia Lane.

We were wearing down quickly, but a warm meal, Chicken Tikka Masala for Kalen and Veggie Ramen for me, gave us the energy we needed to power through a couple more hours before we allowed ourselves to crash at the hotel. Not wanting to risk our necks over on Fleet Street, Kalen found a barber in Soho near Piccadilly that had availability and once our tummies were full, we made our way there to see if they could squeeze him in as a walk in to trim up his wild west mustache. I’m not sure which barber actually trimmed Kalen up, but they did a great job, and we were both grateful for their kindness and hospitality as we were both so weary, and we would gladly recommend Murdock London Soho to anyone needing a barber.

And then we crashed. That sounds like a stupid thing to include in a travel blog, but it was an important part of the process. We took the tube back to the hotel (another point for the Conrad: the St. James’ Park station was literally right across the street; so convenient) and collapsed into the luxurious bed. We napped for a few hours, woke up briefly to drink all the water and watch about an hour of television (they had more channels than we knew what to do with) and then went back to sleep around 9 until we got up in the morning to prepare for the next day. But you know what? We didn’t have any issues with jet lag for the rest of the trip, and that’s why I made a point of mentioning it.

In planning our trip, Kalen found that AirBnB has begun offering not just accommodations but also “experiences.” Most of these were various guided tours, but we were intrigued by a couple listings for photographers. Some listings looked more professional and legitimate than others, and I made sure to check out reviews and photographers’ Instagrams to get a feel for their style. We were most impressed with the Private Photography Tour hosted by Pris (her Instagram and website have more examples of her gorgeous work and information on how to book a tour of your own). Such research is, of course, due diligence in booking anything online, especially so far from home, but I wanted to take extra care in booking a photographer. The official photographer we had hired for our wedding ended up being a bit of a disappointment, but we later had some stunning pictures reshot by a close family friend who blew the “official” pictures out of the water. Picking a photographer for anything can be tricky, but you want to find someone who not only has photography skills and a style that you like, but who puts you at ease. If you’re not comfortable around your photographer, your discomfort will show up in the pictures (as will sleep deprivation). Lucky for us, Pris had all those qualities. With clearer minds and refreshed faces from a very solid sleep, we met for our photoshoot at the designated meeting spot. Pris had several locations in mind and over the course of our hour together, she took hundreds of photos of us with London’s classic red telephone booths, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, and the London Eye, gently directing how we should pose (because we are both awkward and really needed guidance). The photo shoot also began early to give us time in front of iconic locations before the swarms of tourists descended like locusts. She sent us the digital photos within a couple days of our shoot, all for us to download and keep, and with the option to choose up to 40 for her to lightly edit. Even though this was something a little outside my comfort zone, we had so much fun with this, and we have some really beautiful souvenirs to remember our time in London.

Photo by Prisographs-Pris Photography

Once the photo shoot was over it was time to eat, both in the immediate sense that we had decided to have breakfast after the shoot and in the broader, “I’m on vacation and I’m going to eat like it,” sense. We checked with our pocket concierge (a.k.a. Google) for breakfast recommendations and found several options that looked promising. We chose the Black Penny, which was only a few blocks from where we had concluded our photo shoot. It was not a large place, and we did have to wait a few minutes to be seated but it was absolutely worth it. We ate a lot of phenomenal things over the course of our trip, but this might have been my very favorite breakfast.

Of course, there was tea. I frequently have tea at home, and I fluctuate in how meticulously I prepare it. Sometimes I do pretty well; other times it gets away from me and I leave the bag in too long and it goes bitter. But tea in London is somehow always better than what I can make myself. And the meal itself was unbelievable.

I ordered The Gatherer, which was their vegetarian spin on a Full English. It came with two eggs any style (I went with poached and they were some of the most expertly poached eggs I’ve ever seen), a truly stunning slice of sourdough toast, grilled halloumi cheese, sautéed spinach, roasted tomatoes, a slice of grilled portobello mushroom and, of course, beans. Black Penny’s beans aren’t quite like the “standard” beans I’ve encountered in other British breakfast situations. I love the regular beans and wish I could find them at home. Black Penny’s beans were next level. Firstly, they used several different kinds of beans (I think at least pinto, kidney, and butterbeans), and the sauce was like a thick, robust pasta sauce, packed with tomatoes and herbs. They were exquisite.

Kalen ordered the Green Eggs which were two eggs scrambled with some fresh green herbs, served on top of that same magnificent sourdough toast, and some smoked salmon. Kalen also ordered a side of beans, which I would recommend for anyone ordering anything that doesn’t already come with the beans. Every part of both our breakfasts was amazing, and I’m sure the same would hold true for anything else on the menu.

Once we were sufficiently full of beans, we headed north to visit Regent’s Park and my old school. I had been given a letter by the alumni association that would get me access to campus, so we checked in and I did my best to give Kalen an abbreviated tour. The thing is, I have inherited my father’s sense of direction (which is to say, I can get lost inside a well-lit cardboard box), and I hadn’t been on campus in fourteen years. Added to that, the landmarks I relied on as a student were either gone due to renovations or were currently undergoing renovation and inaccessible. We walked through a few empty-ish hallways while I told Kalen, “I had a class upstairs from here, but I don’t know how many floors up it was. It was a fairly nondescript room,” and hoped that no one official would ask me to prove I had been a student, because aside from my letter, I was going to fail at that. We found a window where I could point out my old dorm room (at least the balcony hadn’t been renovated, though I know the interior had been).

We had two other things planned for the day: The British Museum and a show at Shakespeare’s Globe, and we had tickets for both.

There is almost too much to say about the British Museum. It has an astounding collection of artifacts from all over the globe, and being able to see them in one place is mind-boggling, but there’s a very real and strong argument that significant portions of the collection were illegally or immorally acquired and should be returned to their country of origin. Other arguments say that the British Museum has kept those artifacts safe and preserved when they otherwise might not have been, especially during times of unrest (which may or may not have been related to the reach of the British Empire). It’s complicated and kind of sticky, like a Rubik’s cube covered in molasses (did you read that i bit in Ted Lasso’s voice too, or was it just me?). Even with its moral ambiguity, the British Museum is awe-inspiring and vast. It’s also free to visit, though they do ask for a donation and, since the pandemic, for visitors to book tickets in advance, so they can better regulate crowds. Although you have the option to pay a donation when you book your tickets, I opted to book our tickets without a donation just in case we ended up not being able to go at our chosen time or date, had to book again, and just dropped some cash into a donation box once we arrived (there are also contactless donation points if you’re feeling digitally generous).

We arrived to find a pretty substantial line, but having our tickets already booked got us around a good portion of it. The line for visitors who already had tickets was shorter and moved quickly and while we did arrive pretty close to the time we had reserved, I don’t think they were scrutinizing the tickets (or else they were being lenient with the time).

We spent several hours in the museum in awe of the magnificent artifacts that are just right there. Seriously, so may of them aren’t even behind glass, and the detail, craftsmanship, and artistry is undeniable and almost overwhelming. The dog sculpture above is from the second century A.D. We often have a tendency to think of ancient peoples as being primitive and simplistic, incapable of even fathoming today’s modern advances, but those ideas evaporate when you see the things they created and how they’ve endured.

Those same feelings of recognizing that people have been people, essentially the same, for hundreds of years, extended into our evening when we went to see The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe. The production had been slightly modified for younger audiences, which mostly meant that the show was shortened to about 90 minutes and the costumes were bright and fun. The shorter runtime was good news for us because we were cheap and only paid for the “groundling” tickets, £5 apiece to stand on the ground in front of the stage and our feet and backs were very tired from walking 20,000 steps that day. It was also good because we had to get up early in the morning to catch the train to Paris.

The show was spectacular, and even if you think, “I don’t really get Shakespeare,” I suggest you try to catch a show at the Globe. We had purchased tickets for our doomed trip in 2020, and when the world entered lockdown, the Globe generously offered a year’s membership to any ticket holders who didn’t seek a refund, but rather donated the cost of the tickets they had purchased. It ended up being one of the best donations I’ve ever made because the membership included access to the Globe’s online media player, and over the course of lockdown, they shared several past performances that had been recorded. I was flabbergasted by those recordings and this production of The Tempest and how brilliantly performed they all were. Even when the dialogue doesn’t quite make sense to modern ears, the actors are so tremendously talented that the show holds your attention and makes perfect sense. In addition, the Globe is continually working to keep these shows feeling modern, fresh, and relevant, even though they’re nearly 400 years old.

That’s something that London (and Europe as a whole, really) does with remarkable grace: honor history while still embracing the future. I think it must be harder to forget history when you’re surrounded by buildings and monuments that are hundreds of years old. This may have been my first taste of London after a fourteen year fast, but I was in awe of how much was the same and how much had changed. But what else could I expect from a city whose history goes back nearly 2,000 years? We had seen a lot in just two days, but there was so much more in store.

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