We had the lovely opportunity last week to visit England. Since we get so little time off, Thanksgiving seemed the best opportunity to go. A large part of our motivation was to visit our friends Matt & Hollie, whom we'd met on the Contiki tour this past August. In addition to visiting friends, we also did some sightseeing and celebrated Thanksgiving and my 32nd birthday. Trip pics are available here.
The trip started Wednesday evening (21st) with an overnight direct flight from IAD to Heathrow. Aside from an obnoxious woman in front of me who tried several times to ram her seat back into my knees - and then complained about it! (resulting in her receiving a duty free voucher) - the flight was uneventful and on time. We tried to get some sleep on the flight, but didn't have much success given the time zone our bodies were used to.
Upon arrival, we made our way through customs, retrieved our bags, and caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, where we then checked our bags at the left luggage office (lockers have been removed due to terrorists, and the office X-rayed our bags before accepting them). After making comfort stops (at 20 pence each), we made our way outside to a nearby restaurant for some breakfast and to plan our day (it was around 7:30am by this time).
After breakfast, we descended into the Underground, where we picked up the Circle Line to Tower Hill. It was peak commuter time, so we were crammed in very tightly and both struggled to stay upright.
Our plan for the day was to play tourist around London and then catch a mid-afternoon train to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit our friends. We started our tour at the Tower of London and then attempted to walk to Big Ben (big mistake!). The weather was light rain, clearing to partly sunny, but mild temps.
The Tower of London was interesting and much smaller than I'd imagined. We didn't want to spend too much time there, so we breezed through, heading quickly to the Crown Jewels display. The Crown Jewels were nice, though I found the decorative swords to be even better. We don't have any pictures as photography was prohibited in this part of the Tower of London.
From the Tower we should have hopped the tube or a bus, but instead tried to walk to Big Ben. About halfway there we concluded that we were too tired and sore to go any further, so we hailed a taxi to go the rest of the way. Our very amusing driver provided great commentary all the way to Big Ben and Parliament, and it only cost 6 pounds.
We wandered around taking pictures for a while, completely disoriented, seeing Westminster Abbey and the surrounding chapels, then headed out toward Buckingham Palace to try to catch the changing of the guard. This turned out to be another longer-than-expected walk, though it took us along the very nice St James Park. When we got to the disappointing palace (it's a rather boring building from the outside), we learned that there was not to be a changing of the guard that day. *sigh* We then decided to head back towards Paddington Station to fetch our bags and head for Stratford. This turned into quite the hassle as I misinterpreted a foot path in our guide book as being a street, so ended up walking around the long way to the Green Park station, seeing armed guards along the way (such as near St James Palace). We finally made it there, though, and quickly hopped a train for Baker Street, where we needed to change lines to return to Paddington.
At Baker Street Station we decided to get out and find food. We wandered for a while until we found a pub, ate, then continued on a couple more blocks to Marylebone station. If we had been smart (and not so exhausted), we would have checked the train schedule for Stratford, but alas were not, so headed to Paddington first to retrieve our bags. When we returned to Marylebone, exhausted and cold, we bought tickets, only to learn that we had a 90+ minute wait for the next train. The station was unheated, so we retreated into the Underground for warmth and to snooze a bit.
The train ride to Stratford was uneventful until just outside of Leamington Spa, when the train apparently hit a dog. The train stopped and the conductor hopped out to investigate. After crawling the last short distance into the station, the engineer announced that service was cancelled and that we were to report to the station master for alternative transport. This turned out to be a cab to Stratford, with a crazy old Scot driving, and 8 of us crammed in. It was, of course, peak evening commute, so the 15-20 miles took 45 minutes to drive. Once at the Stratford-upon-Avon station, I called Matt and he came to pick us up.
That night being Thanksgiving and all, Matt cooked his first official Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and apple pie with lovely ice cream (oh, and veggies!). This was a wonderful meal, and a great way to end a long, but good, day.
Friday morning we all headed down to Stonehenge, Matt having borrowed his mum's larger car to hold the 4 of us. It was anticipated to be about a 2-hour drive through the scenic and pastoral countryside of England, and it did not disappoint! We drove through several quaint towns, eventually arriving on the wind-swept plain that hosted the stacked rocks of the ancient Druid site. The weather was partly cloudy and brilliant, if not for the biting wind that forced us to bundle up a bit.
From Stonehenge, we made our way to Avebury, where we stopped for lunch at The Red Lion - an old pub in the town. We all had very nice lunches (steak pie for me and Hanna), I sampled a true English ale (my first), and tried both English and French mustard with the pie (the English was the best, and complemented the ale quite well). Afterwards, we had hot drinks - fancy hot chocolates for three of us and a gingerbread latté for Matt. Everything was just lovely.
After lunch, we wandered around looking at the stone ring for which Avebury is famous, and then headed back toward Stratford. The original plan had been to visit Warwick Castle, but time ran short and we were beginning to wear down from the day's travels. Thus, we headed back to their flat and crashed for a couple hours (well, all did but me - I read the whole time). In the evening, we headed out on the town to get dinner and to properly celebrate somebody's birthday (some old geezer in the group turned 32 or something:). The celebrations lasted well into the morning with much silliness ("cut the cheese" - funniest phrase ever?:). Definitely the best birthday I've celebrated in recent times; possibly since my birthday party in Morris, MN, when I got to invite Nikki and Jeremy to go to Papa Johns (the original - not affiliated with the chain) for peanut butter & jelly pizza! :)
Here's a small video from Warwick Castle:
Anyway... Saturday morning was a bit rough... we were all a wee bit peakish from the evening's activities, and so were a bit slow getting around. The weather was back to cloudy, cold, and rainy as we made our way to Warwick Castle. We spent a cold hour or two there exploring the grounds - including walking through the "Ghosts Alive" exhibit, which reminded me of a Halloween haunted house/castle (I giggled through the whole thing - it just seemed too funny!).
From Warwick, we made a quick jaunt down to London, spacing out along the way and missing our planned turns, but ending up ok in the end (though I think poor Matt was a bit stressed). Fortunately, one of our London guidebooks had maps that extended out far enough to be useful (thank you AAA!). We checked into our hotel and then wandered around for a while, heading up to Trafalgar Square and then Covent Garden. Cold and hungry, we stopped at several pubs hoping to find a hot drink, but finally settled on one that had tea and refreshed ourselves a bit (mainly to regroup). We decided to head back to the hotel for a quick recovery break, then reconvene to go for dinner and then find a pub to experience for a while.
By this time, I think we were all rather exhausted. Dinner was decent - particularly the introduction of a European delicacy: camembert melted in its case in the oven and then treated like a fondu. The pub we found was nice with a lot of character, including aged, massive wooden joists in the ceiling. Hollie made sure I could experience my first true English gin and tonic (first gin ever, for that matter), and it wasn't too bad. Kind of reminded me of a Sprite, really. Our energies waned quickly, so we made our way back to the hotel after only a drink or two, which was probably fine.
All told, this was an awesome vacation that I'd do again in a heartbeat. It's really a shame that we didn't have more time to visit so that we could have paced ourselves a bit (like sleeping most of Saturday instead of having to get down to London), but otherwise, it was a lot of fun. Our flight was early enough Sunday morning that we had to take a taxi, which we ended up riding all the way to Heathrow as it was cheaper than going to Paddington and taking the Heathrow Express. We did have a small mishap in that our first leg of the return was on British Midlands (BMI), which was out of Terminal 1, not Terminal 3 where United was located.
One major annoyance was the Amsterdam airport. They've placed security checkpoints at all of the gates, which means that if one checkpoint fails, it does not require a full evacuation of the airport. However, it's overkill and it turned out not to be any more efficient than a less distributed model. Somewhere between their approach and the American all-up-front approach would make more sense. Specifically, there were 2 main problems. First, you're not allowed to bring beverages through the checkpoint, and there were no vending or restaurant facilities at the gate. As such, we were not able to purchase water for our 7+ hour flight back, leaving me extremely parched mid-flight. Second, they did not appear to staff the checkpoint until about an hour before the flight. There was very little, if any, seating outside the gate area, and the small time window required the entire flight of hundreds to clear security at the same time, thus creating a micro-bottleneck at the gate.
What I did find very interesting, and a very intelligent notion, was the interrogation methods used. The checkpoint process was as follows: 1) Approach the head of the line, providing your boarding pass and passport, and be directed to an interrogator. 2) Go through a fairly lengthy interrogation about who you are, where you've been, what you were doing, what you brought with you, where you packed, what you packed, if any of your electronics devices had been repaired recently, etc. 3) If cleared, proceed to the scanning point. If flagged, you apparently got pulled to the "special" screening lane where they completely emptied your bags and pockets. I saw one fellow given this special treatment (looked like a Rasta DJ - had to wonder about racial profiling - he acted like this happened to him a lot - though they did seem to confiscate something of value that angered him greatly). Also, a teenage girl traveling with her family went to pieces in the screening, suggesting that she may have also had something confiscated, or perhaps she found the experience stressful.
At any rate, I have to applaud this approach, even if it did make me feel very uncomfortable. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than just relying on sensors and the stock "did you pack your bags?" and "have the bags been in your control?" and "did anyone ask you to carry anything for them?" questions. A more extensive interrogation will oftentimes reveal discrepancies or odd behavior that can trigger a better targeting of additional screening.
In the end, we made it home just fine by mid-afternoon Sunday, leaving enough time even to watch some afternoon football. We've been limping through the week so far, slowly trying to catch up on sleep, putting off laundry and dishes and finishing unpacking until the weekend. Only two more days to go on that, which is good!
And that means - crikey! Exactly 1 week ago right now, we were out at Dulles waiting at the gate for our flight! My, oh my, how time, it is a-fleeting!!! :)