Eh Canadian in London

Thoughts and rambles on a year in London

Old Friends, Weekends (Or, Ticket to Ride: Stirling & Cambridge Edition) — March 7, 2016

Old Friends, Weekends (Or, Ticket to Ride: Stirling & Cambridge Edition)

I’m beginning to write this post whilst sitting on a train back from Scotland dreamily staring out the window at the gorgeous views of the British coastal countryside. It’s a final tourist adventure to cap off a few weekends of exploring and reconnecting.

A couple of weekends ago a good friend came to stay with us for the weekend. Though this visit was much shorter than the last time we had a visitor, it was still an opportunity for me to whip out my excitedly-visiting-London-cap. We decided to split our time between seeing stuff and doing what we’d normally do, so one day we toured through South Kensington to admire the Victoria & Albert Museum and Kensington Gardens, while the other we committed ourselves to the chaos that is Oxford Street. I’ve still not managed to see everything in the V&A properly, but it remains one of my favourite museums in London. Its contents are fascinating, its layout well curated, and it magically manages to never be overwhelmingly busy.

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Victoria & Albert Museum

Oxford Street was its usual self, but spending an afternoon shopping and catching up with a great friend is always a top notch Sunday in my books. Though I only got to see her for a few days in London, I said goodbye to my friend with the happy knowledge that I would be seeing her in Stirling in a couple weeks.

Before I went up to Stirling, I fit in a day trip to Cambridge to visit a friend currently studying there. I had been to Cambridge once before in the late afternoon, but because of the timing and awful weather I hadn’t gotten to see much of the city. This time around, it was a gorgeous day and I arrived much earlier. My friend very kindly turned tour guide and showed me around the colleges and the Fitzwilliam museum. From the canal views in Darwin College to the fairytale magic of Pembroke College, I was quite swept up in the beauty of Cambridge. My absolute favourite college definitely was King’s College. How do I know? While walking around we approached King’s from several different angles and every single time I excitedly turned to my friend and exclaimed “Oh my god what’s that? It’s so beautiful!”.

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King's College. Don't forget to breathe!

After a day of exploring, eating, and playing board games, it was time for me to head home. I spent a relatively quiet week in London until Friday, when I got on a train for my first trip to Scotland.

After a train journey full of mishaps that led to me missing all my connections, yet still ending up in Stirling right on time, I finally made it to the so-called Gateway to the Highlands. My Scottish geography is hardly stellar, but Stirling is roughly between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and to the North.  It’s not a huge city by any means, but it was a beautiful introduction to the Scottish landscape and history.

My first proper day in Stirling was primarily dedicated to Stirling Castle. It has been around in various forms for almost 1000 years, with the oldest still surviving bits of the castle existing from about the 1300s. It’s a site of the turbulent history between Scotland and England, as various kings and queens walked the halls, fought sieges, and led rebellions. Putting the history aside, the castle also has stunning views of the natural scenery.

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Me forcing my friend to take pictures of me with the gorgeous views from Stirling Castle
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Walking along castle walls

The day after Stirling Castle, we went to the other main tourist attraction in Stirling: the Wallace Monument.

The Wallace Monument is basically what it sounds like: it’s a towering monument built in honour of the Scottish hero William Wallace. Not only did we walk up the hill on which it stands to see the monument, we also climbed all 246 steps to get to the top. Thankfully there are stops along the way that teach you about the battles between the Scottish and the English  (including the Battle of Stirling Bridge, a surprise Scottish victory led by Wallace), the life of Wallace and the story of how he became interpreted as a national hero, and the history of the construction of the monument itself.

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Crossing the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge
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Walking up to the Wallace Monument

In addition to the interesting exhibitions, the walk up is also worth it for the breathtaking views once you reach the top. What really struck me about Scotland was how gorgeous it is. Yes there is beautiful architecture and fascinating history, but being surrounded by green and snow-capped hills and scraggly cliffs is such a welcome change from the vertical skyscrapers of London. To put it simply, Scotland is easy to fall in love with.

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View from the top makes all the stair climbing worth it.

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Now, besides the natural beauty and learning the history, what else did I get up to in Stirling? Eating of course! Like a true tourist I immediately went for two Scottish classics: Irn Bru and haggis. Full disclosure: the haggis came on a burger in a Wetherspoon’s so I’m hardly claiming a truly authentic experience here, but it still hit the spot when it came to satisfying my tourist food desires. Irn Bru was a real first for me and a pleasant surprise. With the exception of Scottish praise, I had not heard one good thing about the soft drink to be honest. Getting past the fact that it’s not available in North America because the company won’t disclose its secret ingredient, and moving beyond the rather startling shade of orange, Irn Bru is actually pretty good. It’s by no means my favourite beverage, but I certainly didn’t react to it with the same repulsion that others have. Sadly I didn’t get to round off the Scottish food experience with a deep fried mars bar, but from a health perspective that’s probably for the best. I’ll be returning to Scotland in early May and even though I haven’t yet made it home to London at the time of writing this, I can’t wait to go back!

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Rediscovering London — January 17, 2016

Rediscovering London

After both a peaceful and hectic holiday season, I suppose it’s time for some new year reflections. Recently a good friend of mine came to stay with Jason and I for about a week, which was a ton of fun. I booked time off work and went into full tourist mode. While on the one hand I was acting as an at least semi-competent tour guide pointing out all the sights I’d seen before, I also realized something: this week was really my first time experiencing London as a tourist. Sure when I first moved here I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, and I did go out to all the main attractions, but I was also so caught up in the practicalities of moving to another city (looking at you phone plan, bank account, and flat…) that it was a never imbued with that care-free feeling that comes with being on vacation. Now that I’ve been here for over 6 months, I am hardly a tourist (or so I’d like to think), so when I started my time off I was really looking forward to/expecting a relaxing vacation in a city I had already come to know. While this was to some extent what happened, spending time with a friend for whom everything was new, and who had such passion for the history and culture that can be found in London, I suddenly found myself excitedly running to and from museums, finding new routes on citymapper to get to places I didn’t even know existed, and really, being what can only be defined as a full-blown tourist.

Aside from the specific amazing experiences I had, which I’ll come back to in a second, the whole week of thinking of London only as a city that was full of things to do and see, rather than as a city where I work/live/need to do the boring everydays like paying rent and buying groceries, was a completely new and utterly needed experience. After starting my new job I was already feeling a lot more positive about my time here, but finally getting to be a tourist really invigorated my love for this city. Whenever I even begin to think of all that London has to offer, I am immediately mind-boggled. My week with my friend was only a small taste of what the city can be, but here goes:

Day 1 

After shepherding a jet-lagged, travel-weary best friend from the tube station to my flat, we decided to just do some walking around the neighbourhood. We quickly stumbled upon the Tower of London, which I had never seen up-close before, then crossed Tower Bridge and sat on the Southbank of the Thames. Considering that this was easily our quietest day together, in hindsight our activities really do represent just how great of a city London is. I mean really, when a walk along the Thames is considered casual, you can only go up from there.

Tower Bridge London
Tower Bridge

Day 2

My friend really wanted to go to the British Museum so we decided to cross it off the list early on. This particular Monday was also a Bank Holiday so the museum was just as hectic as ever, if not more so. We floated the idea of spending the whole day perusing the museum’s seemingly endless halls, but honestly it is such a large place and with crowds like that we were quickly overwhelmed. We hit the important (to us) sights (in this case the Elgin marbles, the Tudor section, the Ancient Greco-Roman halls, and the Rosetta Stone) and then left the museum to begin our week-long love affair with Prêt-a-Manger. Quick side note about Prets: there aren’t that many food things I feel like I’ll truly miss when I come home, but the charm of this grab-and-go sandwich shop chain has infinitely won me over. Anyways, after recharging we decided to do a bit of shopping. Since we were in the vicinity of Oxford Street it seemed like a reasonable place to go, which we did with much pleasure and a little trepidation. Navigating the crowds and shopping on the high street is a quintessential London experience, but one we also wanted to escape fairly quickly. Though fun, if I had to sum up this day in one word it would be: crowded.

Day 3 

The number one must-see tourist attraction for my friend was Hampton Court Palace, which I must confess I didn’t know existed until she told me about it. Basically, it’s Henry VIII’s palace and a fascinating site of Tudor history, particularly Henry’s turbulent relationships with all his wives. It later became the palace of 17th century monarch King William III and Queen Mary II. One of the coolest things about Hampton Court Palace is its divide between these two historical time periods: when William and Mary moved in they intended to redo the entire ‘outdated’ Tudor decor, but ran out of funding, so now the palace is half-Tudor, half-17th century. Their renovations were modelled after Versailles, just to give you an idea of how discordant the two architectural styles really are.

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace style #1
Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace style #2

Once again the palace was quite crowded, but there are lots of hidden (and not-so-hidden gems) to be found. The Chapel Royal, which is adorned with stunning decorations and the rather bold Tudor motto Dieu et mon droit (God and my right), was a definite highlight. Fun fact: it is rumoured that Jane Seymour’s heart is buried beneath the altar. There’s also the Great Hall, which features some interesting symbolism: a stone archway displays Katherine of Aragon’s pomegranate and Henry VIII’s tudor rose. One small wooden carving of the intertwined H & A of Henry and Anne Boleyn can also be found here. We also visited the hallway where Catherine Howard tried to flee for her life. Exploring Tudor history isn’t exactly uplifting, but it certainly is interesting. One of my favourite parts of Hampton Court Palace is the royal kitchens, which are absolutely massive. They still had one of the fire ovens roaring and roasting a rack of meats. The other portion of the castle has lots of luxurious paintings and furniture, but a definite highlight is the velvet-lined toilet, which (for better or worse) still has an odour of, well, you know…From toilets we moved onto the gardens, which are also stunning. We didn’t go too far through those because the light was fading and the weather was starting to turn, but their beauty certainly did emphasize that being a royal has its perks!

Day 4 

I made this a bit of an indulgent day for myself by picking some of favourite things in London: the conveniently close together British Library and Wellcome Collection. If you’ve read my blogs before you’ll already know how I feel about the British Library, but I had a great time bringing someone there for the first time who truly appreciates what it can offer. I finally got to see their pop-up Alice in Wonderland exhibit, which was quite interesting. My favourite item on display were original woodblocks for the Tenniel illustrations. I must confess: it was the one time I wasn’t completely blown away by the British Library, but only because I am lucky enough to have seen the absurdly great Alice 100 collection in UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections library. While the UK generally has the upper hand on literary history, RBSC’s collection of Alice in Wonderland objects is just simply incredibly strong. After seeing Alice, I excitedly pulled my friend into the Treasures gallery where we oohed and aahed over all the usual suspects (one of the original Magna Carta’s and a handwritten letter from Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII just to name a couple).

We then quickly hopped over to the Wellcome Collection, which has a couple highly in-demand exhibits on right now. Rather than waiting in line for those, we decided to do the permanent exhibit, which is always a fascinating cabinet of curiosities. Particular highlights in there include Charles Darwin’s walking stick and Napoleon’s toothbrush .

Day 5 

This day was New Year’s Eve, and I must say it’s one of the best NYE’s in recent memory. Not because we went clubbing in Shoreditch or found some amazing house party, but because we actually did stuff we liked and didn’t just do what was expected. Our day was spent at Westminster Abbey, which I had never been inside before. What is there to say about Westminster Abbey? It’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s so most definitely worth the rather expensive entry fee. It’s by far the most memorable thing we did this trip. It’s indescribable. Perhaps as a supposedly cultured English major I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I really had no idea who was inside Westminster Abbey. I got the general gist, but because I wasn’t well-versed in the specifics I was completely overwhelmed/surprised/overjoyed almost every time I turned a corner. Darwin? Yup. Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots? Yup. And don’t even get me started on Poets’ Corner. From Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Austen and the Brontës, to T.S. Eliot and Lewis Carroll, I definitely got teary eyed walking through that stunning section of Westminster. In hindsight I did know about Poets’ Corner, but while you’re in the Abbey everything is so incredible you just kind of forget…until you suddenly stumble upon it and then have to pull yourself together and act like a functioning human. It’s impressive for the obvious reasons, but something also struck me that I wasn’t expecting. As an English major I have studied almost everyone in Poets’ Corner, but somehow I had never quite “seen” them all at once. It was like experiencing my entire undergraduate degree in the span of a few seconds. I just suddenly has this sensation of realizing all the incredible things every person there has done with language and narrative and the innumerable ways in which this small collection people has so deeply shaped and changed the way we perceive the world.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey = ideal way to spend NYE.

Because of the fireworks, Westminster was beginning to shut down, so we decided to walk to the next tube station, St. James’ Park. What we didn’t realize is that the trek would take us basically to the front steps of Buckingham Palace, which was an unexpected bonus on the day. Back at the flat we made ourselves some good food, watched Disney movies, and drank sparkling wine. Around 11 it occurred to us that we were in London on NYE and maybe we should go back outside again. There were fireworks on the Thames so we made our way down to Tower Bridge to try and catch a glimpse away from the insane crowds. The bridge was busy, but not overwhelming. We parked ourselves behind the Tower of London, which in hindsight wasn’t the smartest move because the Tower obstructed most of the view. However, the way I see it I can catch fireworks anywhere, but where else in the world can I ring in the New Year with the Tower of London? Again there was this incredible sense of history in the city – I couldn’t help but think about all the new year’s the Tower has rung in since William the Conqueror began its construction. It was a truly London New Year’s Eve, and it really couldn’t have gone much better.

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The Tower of London obscuring our view of the NYE fireworks. Not a real problem.

Day 6 

Because of the Bank Holiday we weren’t sure what would be open, but luckily both Camden Market and the Imperial War Museum were good options. We began the day in Camden taking in some of London’s quirk and charm. The market was its usual overwhelming self, but after wandering through its many arteries, we grabbed some delicious jerk chicken and got amazing cookies from Cookies & Scream.

For a bit of a change of gears, we went from North to South by taking the Northern line down to Elephant & Castle to get to the Imperial War Museum. We didn’t have much time so we prioritized the Holocaust exhibit, which unfortunately we didn’t get to finish this day. I’ll definitely be making a trip back because it is incredibly well put together. I’m a big fan of the IWM, though sometimes their representations of history are problematic. In their WWI exhibit, there is still a definite ‘Rule Britannia’ vibe, which is a bit surprising as a non-Brit, but when it comes to the Holocaust they really are spot on. They do a terrific job of blending big-picture context with personal stories and artifacts. Something that particularly impresses me about the IWM is their ability to make their exhibits truly immersive. Everything from the content to the overall architecture, which is full of corners and angles, encourages curiosity. You simply want to keep looking and discovering, which is in and of itself a great achievement for the museum.

Day 7 

When we got to the weekend we knew exactly what we were doing because we saved the things Jason wanted to do for when he wasn’t working. So Saturday was the Tower London. The Tower of London on a Saturday is honestly awful. The Tower itself is amazing and the crown jewels are very impressive, but there were just so. many. people. And this is after a week of touristing around London! It was wall-to-wall people in the White Tower all shuffling along like sardines in a tin. It was a bit quieter when we joined a tour group to go into the chapel where Anne Boleyn was buried. The chapel that is actually inside the White Tower was also surprisingly peaceful, and unexpectedly lovely. It was very simple with stunning lighting and the respite from the crowds was much appreciated.

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A raven guarding the White Tower at the Tower of London.

After escaping from the Tower we went down to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Pro tip: if you want to go see a church that normally has an entry fee, go for the services, which are always free. The only caveat is that you only get to see the part where the service is held, so this tip doesn’t apply to Westminster Abbey, which you absolutely have to explore (although Jason and I definitely want to back to the Abbey for a service now that we’ve both seen it). In the case of St. Paul’s, you get to sit under the dome and take in all of its beauty. We went for an evening choral service and it was truly wonderful to sit and listen to lovely music while basically gaping at just how elaborate St. Paul’s is. I had no idea it would be that stunning so that was definitely another highlight of the week.

Day 8 

My last day before going back to work was happily spent in Kensington. We went to the V&A, which is quickly becoming one of my favourite museums in London. I had been a couple times by myself before, but I had forgotten how nice it is to go sightseeing with friends. We took in an eclectic array of objects ranging from Japanese kimonos to Medieval English tapestries and generally had an all around good time! Since we were in the area we also popped into the Natural History Museum. I’d seen their Treasures gallery already, so I was most impressed by The Vault, which hosts all their precious gems/similar items. From a collection of every colour diamond available in the modern world to diamonds from star dust (the sign amazingly read: “These are the oldest things you will ever see”. Given that they’re billions of years old I assume that to be true), it is a sparkling and impressive display. I haven’t had a chance to give the Natural History Museum the full attention it deserves, but I will definitely make a point to go back in the coming months.

After the week of fun I returned to work and eventually my friend had to go back to Canada. Since then Jason and I have done two exciting things: visit Charles Darwin’s house and try crodoughs from Rinkoffs Bakery.

London NYE Fireworks - Tower of London
Jason relieved to have finally made our way to Down House.

Charles Darwin’s house (Down House) is a bit outside of London, but I hadn’t realized quite how difficult it is to get to. After taking the overground and train, we waited for a bus that only runs once an hour, which just decided not to show up that hour. We took an alternative route, which ended up involving spending rather a long time walking on a road with no sidewalk alongside cars in rather cold weather. Eventually I looked up and said ‘Oh look at that house, it’s beautiful!’. Turns out that house was Darwin’s house so really the trek was worth it! The top floor has been turned into a mini museum, but the bottom floor preserves the rooms as they would have been. We did an audio tour and looked at his drawing room, hallways, billiards rooms, dining room, and study. Jason’s favourite was the drawing room because it really retained its sense of family vitality and socializing, while my favourite was the study, which still contains the chair where Darwin sat and wrote On the Origin of Species. Luckily the sporadic bus was running when we wanted to go home, so our journey back went much smoother.

Crodoughs from Rinkoffs Bakery
PB+J/Pistachio Salted Caramel crodoughs from Rinkoffs were a very good idea.

Finally, we come to yesterday where we finally tried a local bakery I’d been hearing a lot about: Rinkoffs. Their star attraction are their crodoughs (basically cronuts, aka a cross between a doughnut and a croissant). Theses magnificent giant fluffy baked goods are pretty great. Jason tried PB&J and I went for pistachio/salted caramel. As wonderful as it is to go see the sights in London, if I’m going to embrace the tourist lifestyle that is definitely going to extend into the world of food as well. More updates to come as I continue eating and exploring my way through the city!

The Oops-I-Haven’t-Written-a-Blog-in-2-Months-Blog — December 3, 2015

The Oops-I-Haven’t-Written-a-Blog-in-2-Months-Blog

I recently realized that, despite having much more free time on my hands as of late, I have been absolutely horrible at keeping this updated! Two months ago I wrote about my wonderful experiences in Dover, so here’s what I’ve been up to since then:

Honestly, Not Too Much in the Grand Scheme of Things

While I have actually left both my flat, the city, and the country since my last blog, I can’t also help but feel that I haven’t done a whole lot given that two months of unemployment theoretically left me with tons of free time to go out and explore. Unfortunately that didn’t turn out to be the case mainly because 1) job hunting itself took up a lot of my time and 2) not having a job didn’t leave me with many resources for going out and about.

Having said that, I continue to explore new bits of London. Locally I saw the Whitechapel Gallery and the Stepney City Farm, while further out to the centre I finally got to return to the V&A and see the Science Museum. A highlight of my local adventures was seeing the fireworks display at Victoria Park for Guy Fawkes Day. For what is, admittedly, a rather poor London Borough, I must say that Tower Hamlets put on quite a show that made me quite nostalgic for Vancouver’s Celebration of Light. It was also the first fireworks I show that featured literal bursts of fire so bonus points for that!

Fireworks Night at Victoria Park
Fireworks Night at Victoria Park

Copin’ in Copenhagen

Under normal circumstances a weekend trip to Copenhagen for my birthday would warrant its own blog post. However, the trip unfortunately took a turn for the worse when Jason got food poisoning on our second night there. All things considered, Copenhagen was an absolutely lovely city and I can’t wait to go back so that I can explore it (and report back) properly!

We did still manage to do a few amazing things. Our first night there we went to a highly-recommened hole-in-the-wall burger joint called Banana Joes and oh man…it was fantastic! Not only was the burger itself delicious (the Banana Joe special is a cheeseburger with special sauce and a fried egg), but the real highlight of the experience is meeting Banana Joe himself. Banana Joe works a regular, full-time job and runs his restaurant on the evenings for a bit of pocket money, yes, but mainly because he loves to host people and make them feel welcome. He spoke at least 5 languages, although I thin kin reality that number is higher, and had such a genuine approach to interacting with his customers. We talked to him about his life story and how felt about running his business and he told us stories about customers he’s had from all around the world. Basically, I can’t recommend Banana Joes enough and would definitely peg it as a must-visit for anyone who 1) eats burgers and 2) is in Copenhagen.

Banana Joes
Banana Joe Special. Are you drooling yet?

Jason and I lucked out with our Airbnb place; it was easily connected to the airport and getting to the centre was a simple straight-line walk. On Saturday we did just that walk and ended up window shopping on the Copenhagen high streets before going on a free walking tour of Christianhavn. The tour was interesting and informative – the main theme was the architectural mishaps of Copenhagen that include a sinking National Bank and a leaking National Library. The tour ended on the outskirts of Freetown Christiania, which is an independent society I had never heard of, but am now quite interested in. Fun fact: its two main exports are bikes and marijuana. Jason and I didn’t spend much time there, but it was a corner of Copenhagen I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter.

Jason in Copenhagen
Jason in Copenhagen.

After Jason got sick he was out for the rest of the trip, but I made a couple small trips out on the Sunday and Monday. I basically just repeated the walk into the centre, which was quite beautiful. Copenhagen has such a relaxing vibe and everyone we encountered was quite friendly and forgiving of our lack of Danish language skills.

A Rainy Day in St. Albans

Since I’ll be returning to the ranks of the employed next week (yay!), I thought I’d take advantage of my last “days off” to do a couple more day trips in the UK. A quick search of recommended day trips frequently mentioned St. Albans, which admittedly I had never heard of, and since it was only half an hour out from London I thought I’d give it a go. On Saturdays there is a street market so despite the dismal weather predictions off I went! I must confess: it was on the whole a bit of a disappointment. I’m still glad I went out and saw the town, and it certainly has interesting historical things, but after a few hours I ended up killing time in a mall. Admittedly I think my mistake was going at the end of November; I can easily imagine how pleasant St. Albans would be on a nice sunny day, particularly as there are lots of parks and outdoor walks. Either way, St. Albans is still fascinating and did have some great attractions.

St Albans Cathedral
St. Albans Cathedral

The main draw for me was St. Albans Cathedral, which was built around 1088. St. Albans sits on the site of an old Anglo-Roman city called Verulamium, and when they were building the cathedral they literally looted the stone of the old Roman buildings to construct it. You can also go visit the old site of Verulamium itself, which is now a lovely park. They have preserved an Ancient Roman mosaic that is on display to the public. St. Albans is also home to what is potentially England’s oldest pub (although that is quite contentious): Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which might be the best pub name I’ve encountered so far. The history of St. Albans was great to explore, but, again, best done in better weather.

A Sunny Day in Canterbury

On Tuesday I went to Canterbury (in much better weather I must add) and had an amazing time. The main draw for me was the Cathedral, which is really just indescribably stunning. I can never quite get over how much history England possesses. It was surreal coming home back to London on the train, arriving at my flat, and then thinking: today I walked the same streets as Chaucer and Marlowe and stood on the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered. Okay, maybe that’s a bit bleak, but hopefully you still get my point!

Canterbury Cathedral in the distance.
Canterbury Cathedral in the distance.

I spent a good hour or so exploring the Cathedral and its different components, from the Quire to the Crypt it is full of architectural beauty and artistic gems. I didn’t know much about Medieval wall painting, and still don’t, but was surprised at how drawn I was to them. The whole atmosphere of the Cathedral was quite special and though I don’t consider myself a religious person, I was still moved when the entire place stopped for a moment of prayer. I spent a bit of time walking around the rest of the city centre and read for a while in a park, but really nothing could compete with Canterbury Cathedral. As the sun set I returned for a last visit before my train and had the wonderful experience of seeing the Cathedral both by day and night.

Canterbury Cathedral by day.
Canterbury Cathedral by day.
Canterbury Cathedral at night.
Canterbury Cathedral by night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After returning from Canterbury I wanted to rest so the past few days have been ones of laziness and relaxation. As December gears up I look forward to experiencing my first London Christmas! I’ll be searching out the best markets and festivities and will be sure to update you as I go along (well…eventually…).

Ticket to Ride: Cliffs and Castles (aka Dover) Edition — October 2, 2015

Ticket to Ride: Cliffs and Castles (aka Dover) Edition

Because the start of Jason’s internship coincided with the beginning of my unemployment, I thought I had best use the time to go on a few adventures. While at first lofty ambitions of jetting across Europe seemed like the best idea, I had a sudden realization: despite the fact that it is officially fall, and indeed October no less, it is still sunny in England. Shocking, I know. My Vancouver instincts were to be hunkering down for shelter from the rain at this point, so it has been a pleasant surprise to find sunny skies and decently warm temperatures instead. Given this rather miraculous circumstance, I thought it best to actually do some exploring around England while the weather holds up because if I don’t do it now, it’s either battle the climate or wait until next year! In particular, I’d gotten it into my head that Dover would be a nice place to visit, white cliffs and whatnot, and also that Dover was a particularly weather-dependent destination since you really do want to go for the view. With that in mind I decided to book a train ticket for a quick day trip and happily headed off on the first of October.

Dover
My first glimpse of the White Cliffs of Dover through the train window.

Before I decided to go to Dover my idea of the town revolved around vague notions of white cliffs and poetry. Turns out, there is another very epic thing in Dover: a castle. Rest assured, when I got off the train Dover Castle was my first stop.

Dover Castle, Dover, Kent
I spy with my little eye…Dover Castle!

The castle is relatively easy to get to; there’s a lot of useful signage around Dover pointing you in the direction of various interesting sites. What I hadn’t necessarily thought of ahead of time was that castles, for obvious strategic reasons, are built on hills, so when I decided to stroll over to the castle, I hadn’t quite realized just how uphill that would be. Nonetheless, it really wasn’t too strenuous, and I eventually found my way to the ticket centre, admittedly slightly out of breath, and bought an annual English Heritage pass that will let me visit lots of sites throughout the UK for the rest of my time here.

In simple terms, Dover Castle is really, really awesome. I thought it would be a relatively quick stopover on my way to the cliffs, but I spent a solid two and a half hours exploring all of its nooks and crannies. It’s an extremely fascinating site because history literally layers on top of itself for all to see. Its Ancient Roman origins are evidenced by a lighthouse from the 1st C. AD that sits next to St. Mary in Castro church, which is from ~1000s, that both stand next to the Great Tower and Dover Castle as a whole. I’m not exactly a history buff,  but here’s my basic understanding: the castle itself is a Medieval structure built in the 1180s by King Henry II. The castle was built shortly after the assassination of Thomas Becket, which is relevant because: 1) Henry II was suspected of orchestrating the murder 2) Public opinion of Henry II wasn’t so hot 3) Everyone was making pilgrimages to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral and 4) People going to Canterbury would likely pass Dover so wouldn’t it be great if Henry II had a nice fancy castle where he could entertain them all and show off his wealth and power? If you want to learn more about what happened at Dover Castle, check out the English Heritage page on it. Though Dover Castle was initially built to be big, impressive, and a site for entertaining guests, political turmoil also made it a key strategic location for various wars. The castle has been modified and upgraded several times since its Medieval days; for example, you can explore Medieval tunnels and soon find yourself in 17th and 18th-Century sections. Even more modern are the modifications from the 20th century for World War One and Two. If I’d had more time, I would’ve done their quick tours of sections of the site pertaining to war hospitals and Operation Dynamo, but for this trip I opted for self-guided exploration.

Dover Castle tunnels
Exploring the tunnels at Dover Castle.

In addition to exploring the tunnels, you can also basically walk around everywhere and explore what you’d like. I started with a perimeter walk around the battlements and then went into the Great Tower. The views are absolutely stunning and I found myself taking more selfies than I had ever before done, but hey, when you’re travelling solo a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do! The Great Tower is fun because they’ve partially turned it into an interactive site, mainly geared towards children. They’ve recreated the rooms so that they look like they would have when the castle was in use. There’s fake food in the kitchens, a table set for royalty, bedrooms, ale kegs, and all the rest. They also have voice recordings of general conversation that would take place in each setting, from practical instructions from servants to scandalous gossip in the dining hall. In one room I even found a hologram discussing things, but I didn’t stay for very long to figure out what was happening. You can climb all the way to the top of the Great Tower, which gives you a gorgeous panorama of Dover.

The Great Tower, Dover Castle
The Great Tower
Dover Castle
Looking onto St. Mary in Castro church and a Roman lighthouse from the Great Tower.
Dover Castle
One of many amazing views from the Great Tower.

After climbing to the top of the Great Tower and trying to absorb the view, I headed back down and off to the oldest part of Dover Castle: St. Mary in Castro church and the Roman lighthouse. As previously mentioned, the church dates back to the 1000s and the lighthouse is from the 1st C. AD. They stand slightly off to the side and make for a quick and easy tour.

St Mary in Castro Church, Dover Castle
St. Mary in Castro Church
Roman Lighthouse, Dover Castle
The Roman lighthouse

At this point it was getting to the middle of the day so I grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and then decided to make my way down the cliffs that had initially drawn me to Dover. I found a really handy set of instructions on the White Cliffs of Dover website on how to get there from the train station, so I easily made my way through winding paths up to the National Trust Welcome Centre, where the walking trails begin. Again, this involved rather a lot of walking uphill, but it was so worth it!

 

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My trusty steeds carried me up castle and cliff – then deserved a break!

There’s not too much to say about the White Cliffs of Dover other than that they are indeed white and are absolutely stunning. I took way too many photos (and yes, selfies), but here are a few:

White Cliffs of DoverDover

 

 

 

 

 

White Cliffs of DoverWhite Cliffs of Dover

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, Dover was the perfect destination for a quick day trip to escape the city and to do a bit of solo travel. It was close enough to London to make it easy and accessible, and there was plenty to do. Of course it would’ve been nice to travel with Jason, but Dover is so fascinating that you can easily lose yourself amidst the Medieval castles and stunning scenery.

While I certainly felt connected to English history at my previous day trip to Oxford, there was something particularly unique about how the past manifests itself in Dover’s present. Where Oxford has an intellectual core that continues to thrive, Dover retains its bustle as a key port in England. While you can absorb the history of the castle or think about the longevity of the cliffs, you also look out over the ocean and see modern roadways and incredible busy ports filled with cargo ships. On the one hand I found it depressing to see such natural beauty seemingly sullied by modern technology, but I also realized that the port in itself was a part of Dover’s history. Even in the 1180s, Henry II was building a giant castle to show off his wealth and power because everyone was travelling through Dover; how is that much different from billionaire mansions now? Though it would have looked much different, especially to modern eyes, Dover was always full of activity and its only adapted to its times. For me, the port is much more like Oxford’s university than the castle because both the universities and the port are still very much in use. This layering of history is fascinating to discover across UK and I can’t wait to figure out where to go next!

Little Doses of Culture: Going to the National Theatre — September 26, 2015

Little Doses of Culture: Going to the National Theatre

While this is by no means a groundbreaking discovery, it is worth saying that London is overflowing with things to do. Whether it be museums or bars, London does nothing on a small scale. So, when Jason and I decided that, being in London and all, we ought to go see some theatre, we were immediately overwhelmed with options. Go see an award-winning musical in the West End? Find some obscure off-the-beaten-track production in a tiny corner of East London? There’s something for all tastes easily available so when you don’t know really know what you want…where do you start? Like most things so far, budget became a key factor in deciding what to do. Something I hadn’t realized, but am quickly coming to appreciate, is the extent to which London theatres are aware of this fact. To my pleasant surprise, being in the age range of 16-25 is a great place to be if you’re into London theatre because many organizations offer youth passes that get you tickets for as low as £5!

I first discovered this scheme through the National Theatre, whose entry pass program is fantastic, and quickly convinced Jason to sign up as well. Though tickets tend to sell out rather quickly, we got some for a Saturday afternoon matinee of The Beaux’ Stratagem. So, on a Saturday morning when most people our age were likely recovering from last night’s antics or looking forward to their evening plans, we were trundling onto the tube towards the National Theatre for an afternoon show. I am by no means a theatre expert, but The Beaux’ Stratagem was fantastic. It is a comedic play about two men who decide to go to a small English town to marry for money. Not only was it generally a pleasurable story to watch, but I was also struck by the genuine quality of the production. No offence to theatre in Vancouver, but London really is such a cultural centre that cheap tickets by no means mean you are taking a gamble on whether or not what you’re about to see is actually worth it. One of Jason and my’s reactions to seeing The Beaux’ Stratagem was to immediately book other entry pass shows while we still could. We’ll be going to Jane Eyre in December and As You Like It next year.

One unexpected exciting thing about the National Theatre was the building itself, which is a stunning brutalist building designed by Denys Lasdun. Given that my previous experience with brutalism primarily consists of Buchanan Tower, I was shocked at how fascinating and beautiful the National Theatre actually is. Luckily enough, they even had a small exhibit inside about the construction of the building and the challenges faced. In classic London fashion, key contributors to the design included figures such as Laurence Olivier, whose name graces the theatre in which Jason and I saw The Beaux’ Stratagem.

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National Theatre
A taste of the architecture of the National Theatre.

Another striking feature of the National Theatre was the attendance. Perhaps this is just a product of my general lack of theatre knowledge, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the theatre basically filled on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With so many options throughout the city, it is impressive to see that theatre continues to draw such strong crowds. Though Jason and I were admittedly amongst the few younger people in the audience, it seems that theatre truly is alive and well, and much more appreciated, in London.

This demand for theatre is further evidenced by the fact that the National Theatre is by no means anomalous. Equivalents to the entry pass can be found at the Barbican and the Royal Shakespeare Company, both of which I’ve signed up for, and likely many more companies that I simply haven’t looked into yet. By making theatre financially accessible to a younger audience, it appears that London is successfully feeding a long-term passion for theatre in its inhabitants. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, but it is inspiring to see them at least making such a substantial effort. It reminds me of how I feel in regards to many of the museums being free; London is a city that lives, breathes, and breeds a love for culture in al of its forms. Though I’ve always considered myself a relatively cultured person, I now find that I am much more active in my search for events happening in the city. I don’t think this is simply a matter of having a more touristy mindset. There is something about London that genuinely encourages this kind of cultural curiosity and desire for more. Now that I’ve got a taste I feel that I shall be perpetually searching for what’s next – and I’m certainly not complaining!

Ticket to Ride: Oxford Edition — September 12, 2015

Ticket to Ride: Oxford Edition

After puttering around London for the past few months, Jason and I finally took our first trip outside of the city by going to Oxford. We caught a morning train from Paddington and arrived in Oxford before 11. As someone who generally hates all forms of transportation because of motion sickness, I was pleasantly surprised by the train ride. It was really smooth and we got our first taste of scenic views more akin to the countryside than the London metropolis.

London to Oxford - Train View
One of many awful photos I tried to take through the window of the train from London to Oxford.

After leaving the train station we just sort of headed off in what intuitively seemed to be the right direction. We came across a little street market where we grabbed a quick lunch before heading off towards the city centre. Unlike Jason, I had never been to Oxford before, so I hadn’t realized exactly what Oxford was. That sounds rather silly, but I was expecting to come across a large, formidable campus that was somewhat separate from the town itself. Instead, the town and university blend together, which lets you have magical experiences of walking down a street looking in shop windows only to suddenly find yourself at the steps of the Bodleian, or an amazing college. Jason and I both felt that Oxford still thrives with an embodied sense of history that can sometimes be lacking in London, and the basic architecture of the city certainly supports this.

Our first major stop was the Ashmolean Museum, which houses an impressive range of art and artifacts from around the world. It feels like a mini British Museum, which made it perfect for me because I always find the magnitude of the British Museum a bit too overwhelming. One particularly fascinating exhibit was a small section about curation. It was likely geared towards small children, but it consisted of several hands-on elements that asked you to consider questions a conservator would face every day. While I was running around this section and their exhibit on reading and writing, Jason was admiring their collection on Japan and an exhibit on the history of money (typical).

Encountering the Ashmolean.
Encountering the Ashmolean.

After our Ashmolean adventures, we went back to wandering the streets, casually encountering gorgeous churches and colleges. Much to my delight, we soon stumbled upon the Bodleian. My eyes quickly darted across the street to Blackwell’s, while Jason was admiring the History of Science Museum. We split up to explore these different institutions and both spent an hour or so quite content amongst our respective interests. When we met up again we decided to take a quick look at the Bodleian. We didn’t actually get tickets to go inside because there was so much to do in Oxford that we decided to carry on exploring (with every intention of returning to the Bodleian on a later trip). The relatively new Weston Library is now open to the public and contains a small, free exhibition room. The exhibit rotates every six months or so and when we were there it was showcasing works on the theme of “Genius”. Much like the British Library, the Weston showcased some incredible treasures. Highlights included: Kafka’s journal, handwritten letters from Gandhi in prison, Euclid’s Geometry, a Magna Carta, Elizabeth I’s calligraphy, a Gutenberg Bible, and Tolkien’s original drawing of The Hobbit book cover. Basically, it was another overwhelming and fascinating book history experience and was certainly a highlight of the trip.

After emerging in a contended daze from the Weston, Jason and I continued our ambles. We passed the Radcliffe Camera and looked (from the outside!) at some of the colleges, including Christ Church. Again, the history and beauty of Oxford is so alive; you really feel like you are part of a grand tradition when you walk the streets. It was even a bit surreal walking past places like the Oxford University Press bookstore. That may be silly, but I’m so used to seeing their publications hidden in some obscure corner at UBC, so finding their physical home base, so to speak, was actually quite exciting for me.

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Oxford University Press bookstore.

By this point it was getting late in the day and most of the colleges were closed. We did manage a stroll through the Christ Church gardens, but it soon became time for dinner anyways so that became our next mission. Though there are lots of options in Oxford, we decided to really embrace the tourist lifestyle and go to The Eagle and Child, aka the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hung out. It’s a small, unassuming pub from the outside, but once you enter there is a bustling atmosphere and remnants of Lewis/Tolkien memorabilia decorate the walls. Fittingly, we sat under a print of the cover of The Hobbit; having seen the original only a few hours earlier, it really was a bit of a surreal experience. Admittedly the food was at best average, but the idea of eating (and drinking!) where Tolkien and Lewis did the same is undeniably amazing. I still can’t wrap my head around just how much history there truly is in England.

Gardens by Christ Church College.
Gardens by Christ Church College.

After dinner, Jason and I had a couple of hours to kill before our train back to London. By this point we were getting quite tired, and all the buildings were closed to the public, but we did have a nice time continuing our stroll throughout the city. We revisited some of the same places to see how they change after nightfall. The Radcliffe Camera in particular remains stunningly beautiful. Though having one day in Oxford is not nearly enough time, spending an entire day exploring is rather exhausting. We soon decided to return to the train station and go back home. The ride home was much less exciting, as we couldn’t really see anything out of the windows since it was dark, but all in the all the journey was quite pleasant.

Even with high hopes, Oxford definitely exceeded my expectations. In addition to being a beautiful and fascinating city, it is also imbued with such an enticing vitality. You get the sense that people remain deeply connected to a sense of tradition and the past. I assume this could get quite problematic if you were actually attempting to study there in a 21st century context, but as a traveller it provided a refreshing change from ever-adapting London. While London of course has an extensive history, there is a sense of much more rapid development and forward momentum. Oxford takes it time and similarly encourages you to do the same. It is with eager anticipation that I look forward to what must inevitably be more visits in the future.

Culture and Consumerism: Encountering Oxford Street — August 2, 2015

Culture and Consumerism: Encountering Oxford Street

Last weekend I had to run what I thought was a quick errand; I was searching for ink to refill a pen and discovered a pen shop carrying the brand I needed had a location on Oxford Street. I have briefly breezed by Oxford Street in the past en route to other destinations, but I figured this would be a good chance to explore the area more fully, while also getting something practical done. I had no intention of spending much time there, but one attempt at running an errand somehow turned into my spending the entire weekend at Oxford Street because not only did I spend an entire Saturday browsing through the plethora of shops, I also returned on Sunday and did much the same.

In hindsight it is rather embarrassing because it is so easy to look upon Oxford St. as a horrid site of rampant consumerism, but at the same time it embraces this identity and performs it so well that you almost can’t help but embrace it yourself. I should also note that Jason remained unimpressed by the whole situation, though he gallantly put up with my journeys through racks, aisles, and changerooms, but I have never been one to shy away from a good shop so when all the major international brands come together in one small stretch of pavement and all decide to have a sale well…I was entirely contented.

As much as we may not want to admit it, the steady stream of H&Ms, Zaras, and Topshops alongside the incredibly impressive Selfridge’s is in many ways as much a part of the culture of London as the British Museum. Yes, there are crowds in the British Museum and you’ll have to perform some minor acrobatics to find yourself in front of the Rosetta Stone, but that was nothing compared to the gigantic mass that piles onto the entirety of Oxford St. in a steady stream on a Saturday afternoon.

While Oxford St. on a Saturday is likely the domain of tourists, the whole environment feels so much more naturalized and “local” than the museums. I have had conversations with Brits who have never been to the British Museum, but if you mention Oxford St. it is obvious that they have been at some point or rather. As depressing as that may be, there is something special, at least for me, about Oxford St. It has iconic power and is architecturally quite stunning; it brings together “Old” and “New” London, although certainly the emphasis is placed on modernity. Jason has found the opposite to be true, and while I understand where he is coming from (there is not an explicit sense that people are deeply aware of a connection to the historical legacies of the city), I can’t help but feel there is something intangibly more cultural and historical about Oxford St. as a commercial centre. My only piece of evidence is simply the contrast between Oxford St. and another famous commercialized space in London: The M&M Store.

I think I can easily say that visiting the M&M Store was one of the most overwhelming and terrifying experiences of my life. In addition to the deep M&M craving, it also overwhelmed me with a sense of just incredible excess. It is one giant, and wildly successful, marketing ploy. Arguably, so is Oxford St., yet I didn’t experience the same revulsion or skepticism. Perhaps it is simply a matter of variety; Oxford St.’s strength is in its wide offering of storefronts, whereas the M&M Store bludgeons you over the head with variations on one product and brand. Either way, Oxford St. definitely had a more social aspect. On the one hand it is totally the place to go if you want to be absorbed into the homogeneous masses, but on the other hand it is also a place I’ll totally want to go to spend time with friends who may visit. Stereotypical? Maybe, but that’s part of the fun. If London is a cultural centre then it is both high and low culture that must be celebrated. While that could be understood as the difference between a National Theatre production and local comedy club, I also see it is as the relationship between the cultural institutions (I’m looking at you, British Library) and the pop culture industries represented by the large department stores and streets of shopping. Any way you slice it, London really does have something for everyone, or perhaps more fittingly, for every part of yourself. As much as I enjoy an afternoon spent perusing art at the Tate Modern, I also want to indulge my inner consumerist, and London has proven itself the perfect place to do both.

Drop Everything and Go to the British Library — July 7, 2015

Drop Everything and Go to the British Library

Moving to London has certainly had its ups and downs, usually in rapid succession. We think we’ve found the perfect flat one day, only to find the next that we miscalculated the rent and it’s out of our budget (discovering this, of course, only after fumbling through 2 hours of paperwork with a slightly befuddled agent). However, the scale suddenly tipped in the balance of highly positive when I finally set foot in the British Library.

I had very high expectations of the British Library, as I had of other sites like the British Museum and Buckingham Palace. While I highly enjoyed my visits elsewhere in London, I was yet to feel that complete and utter sense of being awestruck that I had been searching for. Encountering Big Ben was the closest I’d been so far, but as I approached the Library I was both excited and apprehensive. What if it wasn’t actually that great? What if my hopes were too high?

 

One part of the British Library with St. Pancras in the background.
One part of the British Library with St. Pancras in the background.

As luck would have it, there was absolutely no reason to worry. Because the British Library is by far the greatest place I have ever visited and if you haven’t yet been, I strongly suggest dropping everything and getting over there as soon as possible. I should note that I have only seen a fraction of one exhibit in the Library, but the impact my visits have had is immeasurable. Their exhibit on the Treasures of the British Library is astonishing. The scope and value of the collection literally takes your breath away. Photos aren’t allowed, but he’s a brief list of *some* of what I’ve seen so far:

  • Medieval music manuscripts
  • Handwritten music from Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy
  • Jane Austen’s writing desk
  • Manuscripts of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels
  • Shakespeare’s first folio
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook
  • Handwritten Beatles lyrics
  • Letters from Anne Boelyn and Henry VIII
  • The Duke of Wellington’s personal notes on the Battle of Waterloo
  • A ledger from Saint Helena documenting the expenses of keeping Napoleon exiled
  • The Beowulf manuscript

The list could go on and there’s so much I still haven’t seen! With over 150 million items in its collection, the British Library is such a formidable place of history and culture. While I’ve come to London for new experiences and challenges, the British Library satisfies that nostalgic desire for the “Culture” of London. It is not a perfect, idyllic organization free from all flaws or criticism, but it taps into the sense of iconic Britain. It represents everything I naively came to London to see, and its capacity to do so still astonishes me.

The fact that it’s free also helps of course. Part of what’s so amazing is the accessibility, relatively speaking. As an institution, I can think of nothing back home that’s comparable, let alone free. The value the UK has placed on sharing this collection with the public is inspiring and something I hope I can work towards in future contexts if I’m so lucky to end up working in libraries and/or archives. You truly get the sense that the collection, and all the cultures it represents, are valued.

I know the tone of this post has shifted slightly from the usual, but while I do have updates to share in the future (we found a flat! I’m employed!), I’ll hold off for now. Rest assured that as I make my way through this mad city I continue to be surprised and befuddled, but encountering the British Library is one of the many ways through which I am beginning to feel at home.

Great Expectations — June 24, 2015

Great Expectations

Now that Jason and I have been here for a couple of weeks, everyone has been asking about our explorations of London. Unfortunately, though we have had a few opportunities to begin visiting various parts of the city, are responses have been, on the whole, rather dull. Rather than navigating the British Museum, wandering through the Bloomsbury area in search of remnants from the Modernists, or catching the latest theatre shows, we have been taking care of the necessary, but unexciting, tasks involved in moving to a new city. Bank account? Check. Phone plan? Got that. Flat hunting? In progress. Becoming acquainted with the fantastic landmarks and cultural history of this wonderful city? Woefully lacking.

When I thought about moving to London I certainly had romantic notions about quickly falling in love with this city and all it has to offer. In reality, the city is great, but for me there is a strong disconnect between the London of my imagination and the London I am learning to navigate on a daily basis. Of course I always knew there would be this gap, but what I’ve found most striking isn’t that London is “disappointing” in any way, but rather that the wonders of London remain inaccessible to me as I’m caught up in practicalities. Perhaps ironically, my desire to truly experience London by moving here has thus far prevented me from really appreciating my surroundings. Unlike a tourist, I don’t feel the immediate need to soak up every landmark because I know that I have a year to enjoy it, but more pressing is the way in which looking for a flat has affected my ability to explore. Until we settle into a place I can’t help but see every neighbourhood as a potential home. This view is entirely problematic because I have to make an active effort not to get attached to neighbourhoods outside of our budget (I’m looking at you, Bloomsbury) and to not compare them to the neighbourhoods we can afford. Approaching London this way has meant that, while I appreciate the beauty and activity of the city centre, I have to distance myself before becoming too attached. As our deadline looms, I know we will soon find a place that we can call our own and once that happens the true exploration and enjoyment of London begins. Having said all that, it’s not as if we’ve only been running boring errands! Here are some of the mini adventures that Jason and I have been on thus far:

  1. The Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood: What is perhaps most interesting about this museum isn’t its content, but its structure and curation. It is not only a record of childhood throughout history, but a record for children as well. The simple, low-placed placards and frequent play areas clearly framed the museum as space for children to roam and explore. As someone with a deep interest in archives, it was very interesting to think about this space. It’s structure made you encounter the items from a child’s perspective, which lead to a different kind of education than you normally find in a museum.
  2. Westminster: After wandering through the rather monotonous, post-modern, and depressing financial district around Canary Wharf, Jason and I decided to catch the tube on a whim and get off at the Westminster station. When we emerged from the station we were immediately greeted by the sight of Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), and Westminster Abbey. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that sight, especially if you’re not expecting it. Though we didn’t enter any of the buildings, the architecture and history was beautiful and completely enchanting.

    Big Ben
    The view of Big Ben as we emerged from the Westminster tube station.
  3. Charing Cross Road (Etc.): I was very excited to see Charing Cross Rd as I heard it was famous for its bookstores. In addition the cute secondhand shops that line the street, I was also searching for the flagship Foyles location. I eagerly set off in exactly the wrong direction and did not realize my error until we stumbled upon the National Portrait Gallery. That is by far the best part of London so far. You can be merrily on your way, terribly lost, and then you come across a National Portrait Gallery. We nipped in quickly and did a tour of the 19th and 20th Century portraits. I was particularly struck by the regal images of Queen Victoria, as well as portraits of authors such as the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. After that side tour, we did eventually find our way to Foyles and many other bookshops, where I picked up the first of what I’m sure will be many books in England.
  4. The Geffrye Museum: The Geffrye is a museum of British homes and gardens. It is relatively small and is basically one hallway down which you walk and encounter various rooms that are staged for different time periods (1600s onwards). Jason and I initially decided to go because it was in the neighbourhood and free, and we were pleasantly surprised at how interesting the exhibitions were. If you’re looking for a shorter, quieter peek into England’s history, I would definitely recommend this museum.
  5. Buckingham Palace: The day we went to Westminster we realized that Buckingham Palace was relatively nearby so we decided to visit that as well. We did not go inside, but instead enjoyed the monuments around the palace. There were also some pleasant parks in the area, which we did a quick walk through, although we decided to leave Hyde Park for another day.

    Buckingham Palace
    Our first visit to Buckingham Palace. I’m sure our invitation to tea got lost in the mail.
  6. Markets on Markets on Markets: Our first week here we were still getting organized and thus missed many of the cool weekend markets London has to offer. This weekend we made an effort to go exploring so we went to the Broadway Market (by London Fields) on Saturday and the Columbia Road Flower Market on Sunday. Broadway Market was literally a feast – I had a delicious fried chicken sandwich from Butchie’s and was tempted to try many of the other pastries and snacks that were offered by a variety of vendors. The Columbia Road Flower Market is exactly what is claims to be and it was so busy that we ultimately just fought our way through the crowds from one end of the market to the other, as we were not actually looking to buy flowers that day. We also wandered over to Brick Lane and checked out that market, by far one of my favourites so far, which is also home to my new favourite bookstore, the Brick Lane Bookshop. A few days later we met up with some friends and had our first experience of the Camden Market. Much like Columbia Road, Camden was quite overwhelming. We basically meandered the stalls wide-eyed and bushy tailed and made it out again without buying anything, simply because the initial experience was such a sensory overload. We will definitely return to Camden, particularly as the street food sections smelled absolutely amazing!
    Columbia Road Flower Market
    Escaping the chaos of the Columbia Road Flower Market. This photo does not do justice to the sheer number of people packed into that one street.

    In hindsight we have indeed done more exploring than it has initially felt like, but we look forward to venturing forth (next on the bucket list: the British Museum and British Library) and sharing our experiences when we do.

The Journey — June 14, 2015

The Journey

By this point Jason and I have been alive and well in London for several days, but as we have been mainly running errands our lives have been, on the whole, mostly unexciting, although rather hectic. London has so far proven to be a lovely, albeit confusing, city. The tendency to not label streets has led to some interesting adventures, but it also provides a unique way to explore any given area. Given that the past few days have consisted mainly of figuring out bank accounts, transporting luggage, setting up cell phone plans, and seeking the nearest Tesco, I thought I would instead talk about our actual trip over.

Jason and I flew to London on Icelandair with a layover in Keflavik, Iceland. It is possible that I am the only person in the world who would be excited about a 10 hour layover, but having the opportunity to explore a country that is (still) at the top of my travel bucket list was too tempting to pass up. The airline itself reflected the quirky charm of Iceland. They are currently pushing their #MyStopover service, which allows flyers to have an up-to-7-night stay in Iceland on their way over to another country without extra charges. Because they are emphasizing Icelandic tourism, the TVs on the planes shared fun facts about the country whenever the plane sat on the runway. I now know that there are more sheep than people in Iceland, as well as a few other such facts that have at the moment slipped my mind. The flight from Vancouver to Keflavik was just under 7 hours, and while I mainly preoccupied myself with the offered movies and Friends re-runs, it is always an experience to fly across Canada. From the Rocky Mountains to the Canadian Shield, the different landscapes are truly stunning from an aerial perspective. We also had the experience of sitting in front of a rather eccentric couple and their cat. It was the cat’s first time flying such a long distance and needless to say, it did not enjoy the experience. However, all things consider, the flight over was generally quite pleasant and we arrived in Iceland at 6:00am local time, which felt like 11:00pm to us.

Eh Canadian in London Keflavik Airport
After our 7 hour flight, we needed something to eat! Surprisingly, the Keflavik Airport sells delicious Tikka Masala sandwiches.

Before leaving, I had wild ambitions about all the museums and sites I was going to visit in Iceland, since 10 hours seemed like a long time. However, once we arrived and got settled with food we realized that we had already killed 2 hours. Additionally, the distances between the airport and other locations were rather far. Instead of going to more popular tourist sites, such as the Blue Lagoon, or the capital city of Reykjavik, we opted for the nearby town of Keflavik, which was a quick 5 minute cab ride away. Our cab driver seemed unimpressed with our destination choice; when we asked what there was to do Keflavik he essentially responded “Nothing! It is not an interesting place”. However, after spending almost 7 hours camped out in a flying metal tube, something a little more open and peaceful sounded just about right. We had a great time spending an hour or so walking about Keflavik. It is a seaside town with a path that winds along its coastline. It was interesting to see something as familiar as the ocean paired with new (to us) species of birds and the distinctive brown and green Icelandic landscape. It was about 8 degrees while we were there, and once it started to drizzle we thought it was best to just head back to the airport. It’s certainly true that Keflavik is a small town, but it was exactly what we were looking for: a new place to explore and breathe in the fresh air.

Our walk along the coast of Keflavik.
The coast of Keflavik.

The Keflavik Airport was a good place for us to try and kick jet lag. There was food, a bookstore, as well as comfortable seating, so what else could we really ask for? Eventually our 10 hours were up and we got on our flight to London. It took about 3 hours and from there we went straight from Heathrow to our hotel. While it was a challenge commuting with a year’s worth of stuff, I was immediately impressed by the efficiency of London’s transportation system. So far we have had pretty smooth rides all along, although we did get very overwhelmed and slightly lost by the expansive Liverpool station. With the exception of a quick trip up to Baker’s Street (unfortunately for the purposes of banking, rather than Sherlock Holmes) that included a delicious lunch at Blandford’s (the name may be misleading, but it is actually a great Italian restaurant), we haven’t had much of a chance to explore the city, or the tube lines. However, in the next few days that is sure to change and I will be sure to update you when I do!