A London Adventure, With Visits to Westminster, Stonehenge, Oxford, Warwick Castle and More

Posted By Mike Padgett

July 19, 2011

LONDON – When you step off the Eurostar in London’s St. Pancras International Station, one of the first things you’ll see is the colorful Olympics symbol for the 2012 games hanging overhead.

Personally, I plan to watch the Olympics on television and avoid the crowds and heavy traffic. London’s veteran taxi and bus drivers make driving in London look easy, especially the drivers of the behemoth tour buses on this city’s already-crowded streets.

The giant 2012 Olympics symbol greets visitors at St. Pancras International Station in London. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Anyway, our ride on the Eurostar from Paris to London, under the English Channel, was memorable. The train’s smooth and quiet ride gave us a chance to rest after a busy week wandering the streets of Paris and visiting Versailles. It was our dreamed adventure come true.

When the Eurostar stopped at St. Pancras, we headed down the aisle of our car. I stopped to grab our luggage stowed at the end of our car. Behind me was a young man struggling with more than his share of luggage. He paused to let me grab our two bags. My hands were full, as were his. I nodded “thank you” to him and turned for the door.

The young man had sat across the aisle from us on the ride from Paris. With him were a young woman, an older woman (his mother or mother-in-law?) and a young boy and a young girl. My Best Friend and I could see theirs was a comfortable family relationship. At one point, the young woman got up to buy sandwiches for their lunch. We heard the adults slip back and forth between English and another language. Oh, to be bilingual.

We were a little sad to see the end of our ride from Paris to London. The fast train carried us across fertile countryside painted a kaleidoscope of greens by different crops. The countryside in June was mesmerizing. It reminded me of our summertime wanderings across the rolling terrain in the U.S. Midwest.

The French farmhouses were surrounded by crops and livestock. Many of the small communities were dominated by a towering Gothic church spire. I wondered how the farm families’ lifestyles compared to the crowded streets and mass transit systems we left behind in Paris.

And our departure from Paris on time almost didn’t happen. But that’s another story.

At a queue outside St. Pancras in London, after we exchanged our euros for pounds, a taxi ignored the couple in front of us to pick up someone else farther down the curb. Odd. Eventually, a taxi took us to our hotel, where we spent the first day planning our week and doing laundry. Then dinner. The hotel lounge menu included comfort food. We connected with burgers and fries and Coke.

In London, as in Paris, we felt and saw energy and excitement. France and Great Britain have much to offer, but I favor Britain. Maybe it’s my distant roots, and the nearness of another favorite, the Land of Eire with its leprechauns and Cliffs of Mohr.

Our stay in London was at a hotel in Kensington. A bus stop outside the front door made travel in the city easy. We stayed a week, which is too little time to see London, much less other parts of England.

We stopped first at Westminster Cathedral, where the lines were long. Next door is St. Margaret’s Church, where members of Parliament pause before they get down to business. We paid our respects at St. Margaret’s, studying the church’s history. Then we walked across the bridge over the River Thames to lunch.

Over the next two days, we booked bus tours that included Stonehenge, University of Oxford, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon, Salisbury Cathedral and Warwick Castle. Wandering through centuries of history in one week is a challenge. I’m not big on group tours, but the bus drivers know the highways and roads, especially when driving is on the left side of the pavement. Plus, as a passenger, I can absorb more of the scenery.

Words are insufficient in describing the visual impact of Stonehenge. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Visiting Stonehenge was a special treat, after reading about the prehistoric site so many times. One thing that’s always puzzled me is this – in a country where the sun shines rarely during winter months, it must have been a stroke of extraordinary luck to see the sun shine on the winter solstice, Dec. 21.

University of Oxford. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We wish we’d had more time to wander the Oxford campus. In the short time we had, we thought about the collective brainpower and political influence rooted in this institution.

An annual flower show adds more color and fragrance to Salisbury Cathedral. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Cranky driver

After his insult, the English taxi driver asks if I’m an actor. His thick accent made it difficult for me to understand him. Thousands of taxis in London, and we get a cranky driver.

The dour encounter began as we stepped into the back of his black cab in London’s Kensington neighborhood.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, I said.

Where? he said.

Trafalgar Square, I said.

Don’t you speak English, he snapped.

Startled, I didn’t know how to respond. Trafalgar Square, echoes my Best Friend as I close the taxi door behind us.

She and I glance at each other. Are we imagining this rudeness?

The driver negotiates his way into London’s heavy traffic. He remains silent for several minutes.

I see him glancing at me in his mirror. Are you an actor, he asks over his shoulder.

Actor? No, I say.

That’s the actor’s church, he says.

I was beginning to focus through his accent. Or maybe he has a bipolar personality, alternating between civil and rude. Anyway, he was becoming understandable.

Our taxi driver’s smartphone rings. He slips in an earplug and talks with the caller.

When he wasn’t on his phone during the ride to Trafalgar Square, the driver volunteered details about historical buildings we passed.

Eventually, he pulls into a bus parking lane at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. I give him one pound more than the fare.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square in London was consecrated in 1726. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The church is popular among the theater crowd. Plus, it offers many concerts each year. We enjoyed a wholesome lunch (with ample servings) offered in the church’s popular Café in the Crypt. It was lunchtime, and the cafe was packed. Our takeaway from the church was a rubbing we made of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Except for this social hiccup, we were impressed with the courtesy we saw in hotels, restaurants and most stores during our London adventure.

Last day

On our last day in London, we treated a couple we know to lunch. They chose a private club that dates to the early 1900s. When we tried to pay with our credit card, it wouldn’t work. That’s because England is switching to a system that uses credit cards imbedded with computer chips. Our cards worked elsewhere in London, but not this time. So we paid with cash.

But that one situation reminded us of the difficulties Americans could  face when they visit London during next year’s Olympics. Imbedded credit cards in America are years away. If you go to the 2012 Olympics, it would be best to have plenty of cash on hand because your plastic may be unusable.

We also visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I’m neither a fan nor a critic of his work, but I’m fascinated by the creative achievements of someone from such humble beginnings. Shakespeare’s father made gloves, which was a worthy career during a time when working with one’s hands was expected.

But a glove maker’s son becoming one of the greatest writers in the English language is unusual, a head-turning kind of a story that today would be studied and analyzed for educational journals. Shakespeare’s genius, judging from his body of work, had to have been in his DNA. It must have been innate.

He must have had support from his parents to reach what today we consider a major position in literary history. He had to have the time, the creative imagination and the writing skills for such achievements.

And that is what fascinates me. What is the source of creativity? What are the best ways to nurture and encourage talent? How can parents without such abilities recognize and encourage talents?

Humanity benefits when talent blossoms, whether it involves interests and skills in arts or sciences. Conversely, the world suffers when talent is repressed by ignorance and criticism.

Too little time

Looking back on our Paris-to-London trip, despite the challenges in France with the language and reading the street signs and menus, and trying to cram too many plans into too little time in London, and remembering the “Look Right” warning at London’s crosswalks, our adventure was too short.

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Jul 19th, 2011

2 Comments to 'A London Adventure, With Visits to Westminster, Stonehenge, Oxford, Warwick Castle and More'

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  1. Mary Beth Campbell said,

    Your travel stories of Paris and England brought back memories, as I have traveled some of the same paths. I took the Eurostar in the opposite direction and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did Stonehenge, Oxford, Bath and more. I am yearning to return to England and to make a first visit to Scotland – those Campbells are calling to me.

  2. Helen said,

    It is so wonderful to re-experience our travels through your eyes, photos, and stories. You have a gift for capturing in words your very interesting experiences while you travel. We will never forget the amazing opportunities we had this year. How special to meet so many wonderful people and enrich our lives.

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