August 24th – Brussels to London
Our train to London didn’t leave until around 5pm, so thankfully our host let us stay in the room as long as we wanted. It was Saturday, so the construction crew that woke us up early before had the day off. We got up later and spent the rainy morning drinking coffee and watching stupid cat videos on youtube. Our street was full of Asian restaurants – Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, so we settled on a Thai place for lunch. We ate a couple Belgian chocolates afterward, just to ease the guilt of not eating any traditional food the entire time we were in the country.
Clean. Pack. Leave the keys on the table. Metro to train station.
The last train ride of our trip was to be an underwater English Channel crossing the same as the first. We printed our tickets, spent our last five euros, and went through security. The only times our passports were stamped on the trip was going in and out of Morocco and London. Our final train ride (number 29, for those of you counting) took us out of Brussels to the coast, through the blackness of the chunnel, and up into the familiar gray skies of England.
For our first stop in London we stayed in a shared room in Lambeth, just across the river from Parliament. This time around we splurged on an entire apartment in Covent Garden, a short walk from trendier areas, Trafalgar Square, and a more direct line to the Tower of London. The place we rented was normally occupied by a young oenophile that had wine everywhere – on shelves lining the ceiling, cupboards, cabinets in the bedroom, as bookends on the dresser. Apart from being really difficult to book and arrange check in/checkout, it wasn’t a bad spot. After we got in, we got nutritious groceries such as pizza, Strongbow, and a little cake. We spent a rainy evening enjoying our comfort food and cider before going to bed.
August 25 – The Tower of London
We got a reasonable start on Sunday, but still late enough that our first meal should be called lunch instead of breakfast. The plan was to head east to visit the Tower of London. We made our way to the underground and paid the 4.50 pounds each for a one way ticket that saved us about two miles of walking. We got off and passed the Monument to the great fire of 1666. Following the Thames, we eventually ran right into the complex of brick and stone walls and towers that make up the Tower of London.
Getting into the Tower is not cheap. Between the two of us, it was over $60. But, unlike some other tourist draws we’d been on, you can actually get your money’s worth here.
We started by walking through the gate down into the green grassy area that was once the moat. Now they had tents with weapons and period players set up. Information boards told of how badly the moats would have smelled when filled with water, and pictures showed how the open space was used to grow food during the last world wars. We waited there for the next Yeoman Warder guided tour.
The Yeoman Warders are the guardians of the Tower and are famously known as “Beefeaters”. Now the largely ceremonial role is granted to 37 Sergeant Majors who live with their families on the tower grounds, giving tours and being loud, intimidating old men. (Steve neglected to take a picture of one of these guys…fail). The Yeoman leading our tour did a fantastic job of taking a large group of tourists around to various locations on the grounds. He used humor and plenty of shouting to tell us that the Tower is actually a complex consisting of the original, White Tower, in the center, surrounded by a six towered inner wall, which was surrounded by an outer wall of 13 towers. The entire place is dense with history, owed to its long use as a prison, palace, execution site, setting for treasonous plots and daring escapes, defensive bunker, and now home to the crown jewels.
After the tour, we got in line to go take a look at the crown jewels. We weren’t aware of the quantity of crown jewels, but first walking into the building where they’re housed, the presentation gives a build up to seeing all the glittering gold and jewels. To put it mildly, it’s an impressive collection of crowns, swords, orbs, scepters, rings, and plates, serving trays, flagons, punch bowls, and other ridiculously carved and gilded banquet settings. If the diamonds and sapphires have names, you know they’re big. No pictures were allowed around the crown jewels. Maybe it was a security thing, but it seems doubtful that preventing photos would do anything to protect the collection that the two foot metal doors couldn’t.
The next stop was inside the white tower itself. The first visitable level of the interior has been converted into a showcase for weapons and armor of various kings.
Upper levels go into more weapon related history, showing examples of the standard, the odd, and the rare, as well as collected gifts from the colonies around the world.
Leaving the tower, we walked around the grounds until just before closing. We snacked on fish and chips before making the two mile walk back to our place.
August 26th – National Portrait Gallery
Being thoroughly impressed by the British Museum on our first London visit, we decided to check out another one of the national museums. The National Portrait Gallery is just what its title suggests – a collection of portraits focusing on the people of England. From the twisting branches of royal lines, to the endless accounts of affairs and plots against (and often by) the government, the descriptions of the paintings told true stories more entertaining than most fiction.
(sigh… no pictures allowed here either)
We left the gallery and got snacks from Pret a Manger. This would end up being the last place where we bought food for the trip, an unintentional but fitting way of coming full circle, as Pret was the very first place we stopped almost 11 weeks before. We walked around for a while, went to a bookstore, bought beers with names like Fursty Ferret and Hobgoblin, and otherwise enjoyed our final evening in London.
August 27th – Homeward
For the last time, we woke up in a strange bed and made breakfast in a strange kitchen. For the last time, we packed our backpacks, taking great joy in throwing out old clothes that we’d been wearing all summer and never wanted to see again. The grocery bag that we bought in Paris and had been filled with coffee, peanut butter, sugar, bread, and snacks remained folded in a corner. For the last time, we left keys on a table and made a (now much lighter) walk to a metro station. We plopped down on the train and quietly made the 40 minute ride to Heathrow airport.
The nearly nine hour flight to Chicago passed painlessly thanks to some seatback entertainment and a summer of practice on long train rides. Jenny got caught trying to smuggle an apple through U.S. customs (i.e. she forgot she had it in her purse). We had a five hour layover in O’Hare, which began as a frustrating game where we’d go up to the desk for one of the earlier flights to Columbus, get told it was full, watch as they called names and had no shows, and then sent the plane out with empty seats. The third early flight already had four people on the standby list so we gave up and got Chinese food. Our flight time slowly approached and the quick flight through the dark into twinkling Columbus finally happened.
After 11 weeks spent traveling to 28 cities in 14 countries on 4 continents via 6 flights, 29 trains, 11 metro systems, 6 taxis, 10 buses, 1 ferry, 3 water taxis, 2 ship tenders, 1 cruise ship, 2 cable cars, 1 horse drawn carriage, 1 gondola, 1 replica pirate ship and countless miles on foot… we were back.