London Escape

During the end of August to early September, schools in Japan go on summer vacation. My workplace, a Japanese high school, was no exception (although, most students and teachers continue to linger around school for extra classes and extra curriculum activities – aka school club activities). Luckily for me, my job role did not bind me to any work commitments of the sort.  Not sure whether it was the travel bug or the stress built up from work, but I had to go for another holiday to unwind. Together with my friend, A, we booked flights and headed on our way for a summer escape to London.

The trip to London was 10-days long. I’ve visited London before – around December 2014. Due to my travel plans at the time, I was only in London for two and a half days. I regretted how short that trip was, and promised to return as soon as I could.  This time around, the summer trip was to fulfill three purposes: one – my long desire to see London again; two – to explore the countryside of London; and three – to feed the food lover that I am (because since moving to Japan a year ago, I’ve not had real British food).

Making my way to London was as smooth as anyone could’ve expected. My 22-hour long flight had no delays; immigration was long, serious and thorough; and my luggage didn’t get lost. Since I’d flown from Japan, I’d had to convert yen into pounds. The timing of my trip was right after the Brexit reference, which resulted to the yen being quite high. Prior to arriving, I was a little concerned whether the locals would act a little different towards a tourist like myself. I am Australian, but I am also Asian (in case I failed to mention that earlier). Having come across a heap of videos on Facebook and YouTube of foreigners being more publicly and verbally abused was a little unsettling. But all that concern turned out to be unnecessary. I felt the same way as I did the last trip to London. I felt welcomed. In fact, I felt like I was at home. It has the best of the two places I call home – the diversity found in Australia, and the transportation efficiency found in Hong Kong.  Being in London started off great.

And what followed the day after my arrival in London was nothing short of delightful, adventurous and stupendous. First stop of day one was Camden Town. Camden Town is an inner city residential district area of London. It is located about 2.4 miles north of the center of London. The town hosts many street markets – including the infamous Camden Town Market – as well as many music venues, cafes and boutiques. It reminded me of a suburb I used to visit often back home in Brisbane, Australia, called West End. I found this place to be very hipster – relaxing yet cool. Camden Town Markets is a huge venue with endless options of food, boutiques of quirky and funky clothing, as well as secondhand and antique shops.  Given I was in London, I headed into one of the antique shops and bought myself two brioches. My travel mate, A, also couldn’t resist and did the same. In Camden Town, we easily spent a full day there eating, exploring and relaxing.

The day after that, we headed on our way to explore the East district of London. It was suggested to me by a friend that when exploring East London, a walking tour is the best way. Our walking tour was guided by a local street artist named Charlie. He showed us some of the hidden treasures in the area, which were art pieces made by other renounced street artists. Some of the artwork pieces were amazing. If he had not pointed them out, I wouldn’t have noticed most of them. He explained to us that many of these artists plant their artwork in non-obvious places, with no purpose but simply to put their art out there. I guess it is one of those things where it really is up to the people to discover it, and what you make of it when you do. Charlie also took us along some of the most famous streets in East London – Brick Lane and Osborn Street. I noticed East London had a lot of Indian and Mediterranean restaurants too. As it turned out, it’s highly concentrated with the Bangladeshi-Sylheti community. Another name for this area is Banglatown.

Brick Lane is the heart of this city. Unless I had someone to take me to this area, it also would’ve easily gone unnoticed in my travels. My travel mate, A, and I had this tour arranged by a friend. We weren’t required to make any payment prior. Guests were, instead, asked to pay any amount they felt appropriate based on their own personal opinion. The tour started at around 2pm, and ended 2 hours later. It was a worthwhile tour, in my opinion, to see some of the hidden treasures and an unknown side of London.

When you’re in London, it’s a crime not to spend some quality time in the central part of town. For the entire time in London, I stayed at Hotel Cavendish in Fitzrovia.  Staying there made it unavoidable to indulge in Central London.  A whole day was dedicated to exploring the area, including Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, St James Park, Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, South Bank, Southwark, and London Tower Bridge. I took over 300 plus photos along my travels that one day, I was struggling to capture everything due to the lack of memory on my memory card.  I spent at least 6 hours in total at museums – including the infamous British History Museum and the Natural History Museum. I dedicated one day to the British Museum, as my friend A is a history buff. The Natural History Museum was a good half day well spent on a separate day, where I met up with an old colleague there. That same day, I also managed to explore Hyde Park a bit too.

When visiting London in the summer, adventuring the streets ain’t the only perk travelers get – they also get to enjoy the cool summer weather and long daylight up until around 9 or 10pm. The only real issue you have is knowing when to return home.

London city is beautiful enough, but I wanted to see Great Britain’s countryside in order to experience the other side of England, and also visit certain cities away from London. But due to time, effort and budget restrictions, A and I both felt that the best option for us to see the countryside was by tours.

A suggested we go see Stonehenge, and so off to Stonehenge we went with a group called Premium tours. Apart from Stonehenge, the tour also included Bath. The first stop of the tour, Stonehenge, was an excursion with a mixture of ancient history, peacefulness and bliss. The stones at this national treasure stood nice and tall in a field of green on the cool breezy day of our visit. The sky wasn’t perfectly blue, but the atmosphere was very relaxing. The tour coach took a little over 2 hours to arrive there, yet we only spent around 30 minutes on site. As peaceful as it was, it did seem a tiny bit underwhelming, given its reputation. It sounded too short an amount of time for a visit when our tour guide first set the time, but it turned out to be quite enough. Being on tour pushes its guests to be on time. So once the 30 minutes was up, everyone was already on board and ready to see the beautiful city of Bath.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge – National Heritage

From Stonehenge to Bath, it was a one-hour smooth drive through the beautiful green fields of England. The tour guide gave us a little talk about Bath. I knew it was a city well-known for the Roman Baths, architecture, literature and art. When I saw the city in person, there was no hint of disappointment, with Bath living up to its reputation. I took my camera out and just could not stop capturing every angle and piece of scenery available. Because this was a day tour, we were limited to only 2 hours to explore the city. We walked and explored the center of Bath in great detail, headed to the infamous Crescent, and captured a few shots of Bath Abbey. The tour also included entry into the Roman Baths. A little overrated and overcrowded in my personal opinion – but still worthwhile to see once.  I was reminded on the day that in Bath there was a small museum for Jane Austin. Unfortunately due to our limited time, we weren’t able to check it out. Bath was no doubt breathtaking, and is definitely worth spending at least a day or two to exploring. Sadly, the time to return back to London came very quickly, and it was a 3 and a half hour drive back for the end of the tour.

    Leeds Castle, Dover Port, Canterbury and Greenwich were all on the list of places on my next tour. This tour we took through Golden tours. Leeds Castle is a stunning historic building, where guests can go in and take a walking tour inside. It is situated in Kent – about 2 hours outside of London.  The castle has a long history of over a thousand years. It was widely used in the medieval times, and at some stage, used as a palace for King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. It furthermore become a Jacobean country house, a Georgian mansion, and when it reached the 20th century, it become a place of retreat for the influential, rich and famous. Nowadays, the building has become a national asset where people come to visit. Some even have their wedding held there (which I could imagine isn’t a price most could afford). After exploring this castle and taking some shots around the area, we headed to Dover Port. Dover Port is where people take the ferry off to France. The main characteristic of this port are the cliffs, as they are gleam white when the sun shines on them. Sadly, the day of my tour was a cloudy and gloomy day, so I could only see grey cliffs.  This was simply a short 10 minute photo stop. After that we headed off to Canterbury.

Canterbury is about 2 hours away from London. The primary purpose of the visit was to go and see Canterbury Cathedral. The Cathedral is a magnificent building and is a world heritage site. To be able to walk through this gorgeous building was quite amazing. I spent at least an hour slowly touring the inside, and then later taking in its detail on the outside. The site was just beautiful. After finishing up at Canterbury, we had to get back on the coach and head to the next and final stop of the tour, Greenwich. I had no idea how close Greenwich was, and later learnt it is the home of time and where the Eastern and Western hemispheres meet. I now understand where the acronym “GMT”, Greenwich Mean Time, comes from.  Finishing up the tour, we took a ferry from Greenwich to Embankment. The ceiling of the ferry was transparent – so travelers were able to enjoy good eye level and above head views. The ferry ride was quite amazing along River Themes. I felt it was a great way to end the tour after a long day.

With one more full day available in our holiday, A and I did one last tour with Premium Tours. We went for the Downton Abbey experience. What this means is we went to the place where Downton Abbey was filmed. The tour also included visiting the infamous Oxford city. We did a basic walking tour of the area – but very quickly headed on our way to the village where Downton Abbey was filmed in Bampton. Listening to our guide explain the ins and outs of the show was very fascinating. One crucial fact I learnt was the distance between the gorgeous castle for which the Crawley family live and the local town that most characters visited, was not as close as the show made it seem to be. In reality, it was a full hour bus ride between the two locations. Fancy that! Also, Bampton town is quite small. Most of the shots of the town in the show was a balance between two main streets and three main buildings. The castle used in the show was called Highclere Castle. This castle is one hell of a sight indeed. It was glamorous in the show, and equally so if not more in real life. Real people do in fact live in this castle. They are the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Throughout the year, the castle is open while the family are away on vacation. Guests were allowed to take a tour inside with photography being forbidden. Given the timeline of our trip, it was a great coincidence that the Earl and Countess just so happened to be away at the time.

When you’re having a good time, you loose track of time. In my case, I also lost track of sleep and money. No regrets of course. The day to leave London eventually arrived. On the morning we left, I was awake and packed. The flight to head home was scheduled for 12:25 in the afternoon. I knew I had plenty of time, so I went to enjoy a lovely breakfast offered by the hotel. While eating my breakfast, I got a Whatsapp message from a friend in Hong Kong.  The text read “What time is your flight?” Reading that message, I felt something was wrong and I did something I don’t usually do before getting on a flight. I went to go check the flight status on my phone. I found out within seconds that my flight had been cancelled! Originally on schedule to leave within 4 hours, I no longer had a flight to return home. My flight was with Cathay Pacific, hence my route had to go through Hong Kong airport. Due to a major typhoon, my flight had been cancelled, as the airport had been consequently shutdown. Trying to keep calm, I contacted A (who was already on her way to the airport). For the following hour and a half, I made a bunch of phone calls to airlines to see what flights were available to Japan. It was no surprise that a lot of the lines were busy due to the amount of phone calls that must have been coming in. I cannot imagine how many people were affected by this typhoon, and were also frantically trying to find a way to their next desired destination. Eventually, I got in contact with Emirates and bought two tickets for a 6pm flight via Dubai to Japan. All went pretty smoothly from that point. The flight back home was long and exhausting, but thank goodness, we didn’t experience any more hiccups. The moment the plane landed in Tokyo Haneda airport, I felt so much relief. I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment.

Moments after my return to Japan, I switched on my phone.  A huge bunch of new messages and news notifications were making my phone go crazy. A and I found out that exactly two hours after our departure from Dubai airport, a separate arriving Emirates plane had crash landed on the runway. The entire airport was shutdown for the following 5 hours. Talk about traveler’s luck!

A trip to London (or any trip in general for that matter) does not happen if one is not prepared to pay the price. This 10-day trip to London was a mixture of words that compile to adventurous, expensive, sleepless, tiresome, reckless, pleasurable, mistaking, satisfying, frustration, breathtaking and penniless. Each day, I walked an average of 22000 steps and took at least 150 photos a day on my DSLR camera. I fell in love with London all over again, and truly made the best of my time to see both inner and outer London. Earlier in this blog entry, I mentioned about the purposes of my London trip. I would say I had achieved all that was planned with a few extra surprises than I expected.  Sure, the trip was tiring, but worth every moment – if you are willing to appreciate and indulge.

You have read mostly about my travel adventures. Let me leave you with a few shots of the food I had in London!

 

PS: Thanks for reading my post.  I took a whole heaps of photos while I was in London. If you want to see more, please go check out at https://500px.com/littleme

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