To begin the London part of my trip: My sister flew home on the day that I took the Eurostar to London. I got to Gare du Nord 3 hours early but there were no check-in lines and I was able to check in for my train 1 hour before departure. The tunnel portion was cool and despite what Rick Steves says in the book, your ears do pop. My friend met me at St. Pancras and we dropped off my luggage at my hotel. I stayed at Vancouver Studios in Bayswater. The area must have been Little Russia at some point, with street names like Moscow Road and St. Petersburg Mews. It's a very ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood with people from Russia, India, China, etc. I like the hotel and the area, but my room faced the street which was VERY noisy, even at night. I wore earplugs and didn't hear anything. The room had a kitchenette so I went to the grocery store and ate 2 out of 3 meals in my room every day to save money. I'm not a foodie so I didn't feel like I was depriving myself. My hotel was a five-minute walk from the Bayswater station, served by the Circle and District lines, and a 10-minute walk from the Queensway stop on the Central line.
The London Eye is AMAZING, for anyone who likes heights and likes to look down on a city. It's pricey (£18) but I didn't mind. The rest of my trip was pretty cheap except for St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey. The wheel doesn't stop for people to get on and off, which my friend and I didn't know. It slows down but not that much. The Eye's employees yell at you when to get on ("Go! Go!"). I bought 2 one-day Travelcards from National Rail because I thought I could get a 2-for-1 discount with them on the Eye, but apparently that's no longer possible. You need to buy some kind of carbon-offset voucher in order to get the 2-for-1 discount, because the Eye is all about promoting green energy. My friend gave me her spare Oyster card to use for the rest of my trip.
I have to say, I'm not real happy with the design of the Tube system. After using the Mètro, the Tube seems confusing and unnecessarily complicated. It took me a couple days to get the hang of it. You have to pay attention to whether you want to go northbound / southbound or eastbound / westbound on a certain line. When the automated voice in the train gives a destination, sometimes it isn't the actual end of the line but a stop before the end of the line. Check the TFL website every morning for closures. On Sunday when I was going to meet my friend at the Tower of London, I forgot to check the site. When I got to the Bayswater station, I saw that both the Circle and District lines were down due to "planned engineering." I walked down the street to the Queensway stop and happily took the Central Line stop towards Bank, planning to transfer to the Monument station and walk from there. I was pleased with myself for so quickly figuring out how to navigate a strange city by myself. But when I got to the Monument stop, the gates were closed. You couldn't get out to the street from that stop. I went back to Bank, frustrated, and walked from there.
That said, the Tube gets you where you want to go and one nice thing is that the automated voice tells you to exit at certain stops for certain museums or the Tower or whatever. It rained all day Sunday and the first half of the day Monday, the first two full days I was there. We went to the Tower on Sunday despite the rain and were there for several hours. It's a big complex with a lot of buildings and exhibitions about medieval life, armor, and of course the Crown Jewels. Here the National Rail Travelcard 2-for-1 discount was accepted, so we paid 10 pounds each instead of 20 each. I liked the museums in London a lot. The Victoria and Albert has wonderful collections (check out the Japanese art). The British Museum is beautiful, with the Elgin Marbles and so much ancient Near Eastern art, which I love. The book shop is to die for. The National Gallery has wonderful medieval altarpieces and Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding Portrait." The Tate Modern is weird. I liked the building but most of the art was hard to get into. The museums are a deal – admission is between £3 and £5 for each one I visited, and those are suggested donations. I gave the full amount each time because I thought it was completely reasonable.
St. Paul's is lovely – there's a plaque on the floor which thanks those who fought to save the church from burning during the Blitz, which I found very moving. I took the audiotour and climbed up to the dome and then to the lantern (five hundred something steps in all) for gorgeous sweeping views of the city. From St. Paul's I walked to Whitechapel just to see the area. I don't like true crime and I'm not interested in Jack the Ripper (I don't want to know any of the gory details of the murders) but my mom is interested in that stuff and I told her I'd walk down there and take pictures of the streets. She worried that it isn't a safe neighborhood, as if Jack is still active there! One thing I loved about London was the street names. Cheapside, Bread Street, Poultry Street (named for the market and goods sold there, I guess starting in the Middle Ages). And Old Jewry Street, which was the location of the Jewish Quarter until 1290 when Edward I expelled the Jews from England. From then on it became Old Jewry, site of the former Jewish Quarter.
Westminster Abbey is prettier inside than out. Though it's a Gothic church, the exterior doesn't have the grace of Notre Dame or Chartres. You aren't allowed to take pictures but the admission fee covers the whole church, including Poets' Corner, the chapel outside the main church, and the gardens. There are a lot of really ornate burial chapels within the church, which you can go into. London took a while to grow on me. The weather was lousy at first but got better, and I didn't know the city was windy. The architecture isn't really what you'd expect in a storied European city, not like Rome or Amsterdam. London felt surprisingly like New York, all hustle and bustle, a cluster of neighborhoods, except people have English accents and drive on the wrong side of the road. But most people are nice and helpful.
These are wonderful reports. I see that you were intrigued by street names in London. There is a very good book (don't know if it is still in print, mine is absolutely falling apart) called The Streets of London, A dictionary of the names and their origins by Sheila Fairfield. Published by Macmillan, London, 1983. It is really well researched and tells excellent short histories of hundreds of street names. So many London streets have a real story to tell. You mentioned with street names like Moscow Road and St. Petersburg Mews. "This and other streets in Edward Orme's development around Orme Square were designed in 1816 and commemorated the recent visit to London of Czar Alexander I, who had defeated Napoleon in the Moscow campaign."
Cheapside, Bread Street, Poultry (just Poultry, no "Street") and Old Jewry Street all have neat histories to tell. Just for starters, "Cheap" or "Chipping" - like in the Cotswolds - is from the Old English for market.
Thanks, Nigel. I bought a book about London street names at the British Library - I can't remember the title or author but I'll post it here as soon as I can get home and look at it. I read about Cheapside and Old Jewry, and I was fascinated to learn that a lot of these names, like Cheapside, come from Old or Middle English words that got corrupted through the centuries. Needless to say, I had to buy the book!
Thanks for that Sarah; I'll look for it when my one gives up the ghost. At the moment 2 large post office rubber bands are doing for a binding ;-)
The London street names book I bought is called The Book of London Place Names by Caroline Taggart.
I really enjoyed your report. Did you end up going to York? I thought it was interesting that you thought the London underground system was more challenging to master than Paris. I've always had the opposite problem. I find it much easier to remember the name rather than a number (e.g. Piccadilly vs #4) and directions rather than station name of the end-of-line (e.g. Eastbound rather than Porte d'Orleans). I seem to be incapable of remembering more than 2 French station names at a time, so when a connection is involved, I have to write my route down on a small piece of paper. I guess the London systems has its own quirks though.
Thanks, Laura! I knew I forgot to write about something - my day trip! I wanted to go to York but northern England was getting an abnormal amount of rain and I heard about train delays to and from York and other cities, so I decided to skip it. That was exactly why I didn't buy a train ticket in advance, because I was worried about bad weather. Instead I went to Canterbury to see the cathedral, which was really nice. I did some research on Canterbury before I went and read that there's a Norman castle in town, as well as a medieval gate. After the gate and cathedral, I left the touristy main drag and walked to the castle. Only the keep is left and it's in pretty bad shape. There's wall that runs around the grounds which I think was originally Roman, and then was added onto in the Middle Ages. The castle was closed when I arrived but I walked around the grounds. That was my favorite part about Canterbury. There are modern houses next to the castle and a traffic circle on the other side and I can't imagine how cool it must be to live next to an 11th-century building. I was the only person there for a little while, until 2 photographers came. The sky was cloudy and the rain held off until I returned to London.
If all lines serving a station are closed, stations along that line will also be closed. That explains why you could not exit through Monument station, as that is District/Circle only. I guess the underground pedestrian connection from Bank was what was the confusing thing. The London Underground system covers a much wider geographical area than the Paris Metro does (compare on maps to the same scale rather than a network diagram). It goes way out into the suburbs, in the same way as the Paris RER does - and that has plenty of lines with multiple branches, different termination points etc which need decoding through an obscure four letter code.
Laura and Marco (thanks for your post, Marco) - I think what also confused me about the Tube was that some lines split into several directions. I avoided taking the District line from Bayswater to Westminster, for example, because the Earls Court stop intimidated me. I worried I wouldn't be able to figure out which direction to go, since the line runs north, south, east, and west at that point. The Tube may cover more ground than the Metro, but as a tourist I stayed in Zones 1 and 2.
Some people go to Earls Court just to see the old-style train indicator ... http://150greatthingsabouttheunderground.com/2012/03/17/6-the-train-indicators-at-earls-court/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/allhails/2807620677 The District and Metropolitan are in many ways railways rather than 'Metros' in the modern city sense, even though the name originates from the latter which is 150 years old next year. In my opinion the London Underground is signed so much better than the Paris Metro although this has improved (albeit slowly) over the last 40 years. At one time there were no line numbers or colours on the latter. However, Bayswater to Westminster is a Circle route - and hardly ever better to go via Earls Court.
When I use the Tube, I am constantly checking the Tube maps so I know which train to take. There are small pocket maps you can carry, and large maps posted around the Tube stations. Often, if you aren't going far, it doesn't matter where the line goes after it splits. The London Underground is good training for the RER in Paris. It took me a while to understand how that worked. The information is on monitors, but I stayed confused thru several aborted attempts to catch the correct train.
I cut my teeth on the RER. :) We were confused at first too - the monitors weren't clear. We were waiting on the platform to go to Versailles when a couple of RER employees announced that everyone going to Versailles should move down to the middle of the platform. We walked down to wait for the train, and when it arrived we knew it was the right one because of the nameplate. But Swan is right - the RER system directions could be improved.