london

London: Borough Market, The Shard, Ships, and Greenwich

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When London is more like Phoenix

On our first, full day in London, we were in for a sunny scorcher, two words not often associated with the city. Knowing that shaded, indoor spaces would be slammed with tourists seeking shelter from the heat, we decided to be bold and plan for an outdoors day. We chose to start with a hop-on, hop-off Thames excursion, hoping that the water would miraculously make the day more bearable. It was a nice thought, anyway.

We used our London Pass, got our tickets, and climbed aboard the first boat towards Greenwich. A river cruise is a good way to see a city from a different vantage point, so we take the opportunity when it is presented. We headed up the Thames and disembarked at the Tower Bridge with a plan to walk to Southwark. It was almost 11 by then and the heat and sun were already turning taking their toll on us, so we walked deliberately towards our first stop, the Borough Market.

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We chose the market on the advice of an English friend we met last year while in Italy. His recommendation was spot on. The Borough Market is the kind of place I wish I could shop daily. Situated under railway arches, the market offers stand after stand of fresh fruits and vegetables, bakeries, artisanal cheese, cured meets, cold juices, and ethnic food. My first stop was to claim a gluten-free cherry scone. The boys, who had only three weeks earlier returned from a trip to Asia, grabbed some chicken laksa from a Malaysian vendor to check the authenticity. We later opted for some freshly squeezed orange-mango juice to combat the heat. I’m not sure I would have put a market on our London to-do list with our teenage sons, so I am grateful to Lee for planting the idea. It was a do-not-miss destination with wonderful dining options for everyone.

From the market, we made a beeline to The Shard. The Shard was not part of the London skyline when we visited 22 years ago. Begun in 2009 and opened to the public in 2013, the tower is a relatively new London fixture. Comprised of reflective glass panels, The Shard is a striking bit of architecture, with the lovely side benefit of being able to offer 360-degree viewing platforms at 69 and 72 floors up, respectively. On a good day, the view is said to be 40 miles. To add to the experience, The Shard has bars on both those observation decks, so it’s a great place to grab a quick drink and take in the scenery. Steve and I ordered a couple Aperol Spritz and toasted to our English friends, Lee and Jo, for the sightseeing suggestions they had provided that were turning out to be gold.

Our next stop was the HMS Belfast. Our youngest son is a history buff and is especially fond of war machines and weaponry, so a visit to this retired, WWII warship was a must. I’m not entirely sure a visit to a metal ship in the midst of a heatwave was a wise choice as I melted each time I entered an enclosed area to view an exhibit, but Luke thoroughly enjoyed his time there so it was worth it. It’s a fine place for history buffs and is easy to get to from Tower Bridge.

About the time we wrapped up at the ship, the temps were nearing a 102-degree heat index so we headed back to the river to catch the boat again, headed up to Greenwich. After discovering there was no cool spot to sit on the boat (the upper deck’s metal seats got a big NO vote from me and the enclosed lower area was getting zero pleasant breeze even from the open windows), we settled on the lower deck out of the sun and sweated our way up to Greenwich.

When we disembarked, we planned to hit the Royal Observatory first to visit the Prime Meridian before heading back to tour the Cutty Sark. With our London Pass, we cruised in through the admission area at the observatory and went to wait our turn for a photo op because, let’s face it, the Prime Meridian line is nothing more than an Insta spot. We had fun standing on either side of the imaginary line separating east and west hemispheres. Joe stood on the western side with his head in the east while Luke stood in the east with his head in the west. It summed up their personalities…Joe at home wishing to be traveling east and Luke out and about dreaming of home. 

After our obligatory photos, we cruised back down the hill to the Cutty Sark. I will admit this was one of the places I had a hard time getting excited about while we were planning. Knowing, however, that a visit here would mean something to Luke, I sucked it up. It turns out that the exhibit is well done and fascinating. The Cutty Sark is the last surviving tea clipper, a sailing ship built to bring goods quickly from east to west and vice versa. A large fire in 2007 could have destroyed the ship but she was undergoing restoration at the time and most of her masts and planks had been removed during the process. As a result, 90% of the Cutty Sark, which first launched in 1859, is still original despite the fire. The exhibit allows you to walk under the ship as well as stand on her decks. The visit was a fascinating trip through history to a time when the Cutty Sark was the Amazon Prime of the day. 

When the top-rated Indian food restaurant we were hoping to dine at had too long of a line for our hot, exhausted, cranky selves to tolerate, we chose a small, Naples-inspired pizza place called Rossopomodoro in Covent Garden. The food and wine were good (a decent gluten-free pizza can be hard to come by), and we were long overdue for some rest and sustenance. At dinner, we reflected on our day. I joked that I couldn’t wait to tell people I’d gotten my tan in London.

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Crashed out 

We arrived home having logged over nine miles and 22k steps. Despite the hot evening in our basement flat sans air conditioning, we crashed out early, dreaming of London’s typically cooler temperatures and cloudy skies.

 

What A Whole Lot Of Crazy Will Get You – Family Travel

Some are born crazy. Some achieve craziness. Some have craziness thrust upon them. These three lines are all applicable to me. I was born crazy. As I grew, I became adept at increasing my inherent craziness. Then I got married and birthed sons, which left me surrounded by additional craziness. Given the relative level of insanity I have been able to conjure from thin air, it’s no surprise that in January, whilst overcome by oh-my-god-I-hate-winter-and-want-to-run-away syndrome, I began planning a family summer trip to Europe. I live my life from trip to trip. As soon as I finish one, I begin planning the next. In my dream world, I leave Denver at least once every three months. Not because I don’t love it here, but because the world is calling me.

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Hey, Europe…you all ready for this?

I planned a three-leg, western European capital-city tour beginning in London. We’d spent weeks narrowing down our packing choices to fit into carry-on luggage. I’d rented us apartments in London, Amsterdam, and Paris. I’d purchased train tickets. I’d booked sightseeing tours and printed out Tube and Metro maps. I’d taught the boys a few useful French phrases. But, for all my planning, I was apprehensive. We’d always traveled on tours where someone else was responsible, with full knowledge that if something went sideways it would be their job to resolve it. This trip was all on me. Still, I reasoned, the four of us are capable and seasoned world travelers who should be able to overcome any obstacles thrown in our path, provided we don’t end up choking each other out of exhaustion, hunger, or frustration first.

 

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Some of us can sleep anywhere

We flew Air Canada to Montreal and then on to London. The airline, god bless their little hearts, ended up changing our itinerary from a two-hour layover in Montreal to a six-hour one, because why not? About fifteen minutes after we landed, I realized my wedding band was missing. A quick mind combing brought me to the conclusion that when I took my ring off to put on hand lotion during the flight I became distracted by something else and forgot about the ring. It must have fallen from my lap onto the floor or into a crack in the seat and, being exhausted, I had forgotten I had taken it off in the first place. Damn. To kill the six hours in Montreal, we tried some poutine, bought a deck of cards, and played endless rounds of Crazy 8s. Eventually I stopped flagellating myself over my lost ring. We’d bought it in Maui, so I now had reason to plan our next trip.

When we finally landed at Heathrow, it was not quite 11 am and a heat wave already had us at 85 degrees. Operating on almost no sleep, we found our way onto the Underground and landed at Victoria station. From there, we wandered around awhile, melting in the sun under our backpacks, waiting for our Vrbo check in time. We found a Pret a Manger (a quick food/coffee shop that became my London go-to because it has gluten-free and healthy items), grabbed some sandwiches and a protein box, and set off in search of a picnic spot. We googled a nearby park and arrived only to discover it was a private and gated park from which we were banned like mangy, stray dogs. So, we gave up, sat down in some shade outside said private park, and ate on the sidewalk. We are flexible and know when to cut our losses. 

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Cambridge Street – our home in the borough of Westminster

After checking into our rented flat, a basement apartment on a residential street in the Westminster borough, we headed out to show the boys some sights we were looking forward to seeing again. Steve and I had traveled to London in 1997 with his folks. We arrived on August 30th. Princess Diana would die in a car crash in Paris in the early morning hours of August 31st. We were there in the week leading up to her funeral and witnessed the mourners and piles of flowers and endless lines to sign condolence books. While we enjoyed our visit then, we hoped this trip would find the city lighter in spirit.

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Westminster Abbey

We began our whirlwind tour by hauling it over to Westminster Abbey, a 20-minute walk from our flat. The line was short and we went right in. Much to my surprise, our teenage sons were fascinated by the abbey. They were struck by its size and architecture, as well as by the history contained within. They stared for a while at the markers for Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Nelson Mandela. I stood in Poet’s Corner, paying my respects to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, greedily wishing they were given greater due but grateful they had been recognized at all.

After leaving the abbey, we walked the short distance to Big Ben. Apparently I had fallen down on my research because we found the clock tower shrouded in scaffolding as repairs to the facade are being undertaken. The clock face was still exposed, but we were not going to get an Insta-worthy photo of the tower on this trip.

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Churchill War Rooms display

Undaunted, we pulled out our London Pass again and walked to the Churchill War Rooms. Although it hadn’t been by intentional planning on my part, our trip coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day Invasion. Our sons are both world history buffs, so I knew they would be fascinated by the War Rooms as I had been back in 1997. As it was my second time through and I was tired and growing hungry, their comprehensive exploration of the museum was less charming than it might have otherwise been.

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Washed out photo of a weary and sweaty London explorer

From there we wandered to Buckingham Palace where we witnessed the motorcade for newly elected Boris Johnson disappear behind the gates on the palace grounds for his first official visit with the queen. The boys, being boys, aren’t much for palaces, so we ended our long, hot day with fish and chips at The Laughing Halibut before heading back to put our feet up. We opened all the screen-less windows, put on some local television to settle into British life, and drifted off excited for what London would share with us next.