After leaving the Cotswolds, we drove to the Lake District, where we spent a few days in the lush green surrounds before driving into Wales, along the northern coastline from East to West, to Y Felinheli, a small village near Bangor, directly across the strait from the Isle of Anglesey.
The drive along the northern coast was breathtaking; castles one side, ocean the other; and we were, literally, driving through mountain-sides.
We arrived at our little village just in time to watch the sun setting over the strait. We stayed at Cryd-Yr-Awel, a home-away-from-home. Looking out from our holiday house on a hillside, we had perfect views of the village below, and of the Menai Strait – which separates the main land from Anglesey. The gorgeous colours of the sunset reflected poetically off the water.
Y Felinheli is a small village, developed as a slate shipping port, with around 2000 people, 72% of which speak Welsh as their first language. It was small and there wasn’t much activity, but it was a beautiful backdrop to the gorgeous places nearby.
On our first day we drove to the Isle, which dates back to the Druids, with a Roman invasion at AD 60.
First stop was Beaumaris Castle - the most “technically perfect” medieval castle in Britain, with the site of the castle allowing its builder to provide complete symmetry with the layout.
Building was started in 1295 by King Edward I to stamp his authority on the Welsh. The castle was never finished and remains incomplete today. Towers were left without their top storeys and turrets were never begun.
Most of the castle is surrounded with a moat; it’s easily accessible and is one of the most interesting of Edward’s castles; but it also disappoints, with its heritage and history ruined by the bright children’s playground and picnic tables built on the grounds - taking away the castle’s authenticity.
Second stop was Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – with the longest place name in the world. I’ve been here before, but Mum found it so fascinating it was a real effort trying to drag her away.
We drove the roads nearby in search of a gorgeous, quaint church we’d been looking at from our balcony across the strait. It took a while searching and driving along small roads, but we eventually found it hidden amongst the trees.
Llanedwen Church was founded in 640 and was a sacred spot of the Druids after Llanedwen, along with two adjoining parishes, formed a district which was the principal seat of the Druidical priest-hood - there are still numerous remains of temples, alters, circles and cromlechs. It’s built on a bank, sloping to the water’s edge. The scenery is bold, striking and picturesque, and the graves are set with box plants, trimmed into a compact form resembling a coffin.
Some gravestones are new. The oldest I saw dated back to 1735, but there were many others almost completely buried in the soil that could have dated back much earlier. Among those buried here include author Rev Henry Rowland, and the 4th and 5th Marquess of Anglesey, and Sir Henry Paget.
The thrill of visiting old graveyards is that by being able to see graves that are older than my own country, it really hits home as to how much history Australia has missed out on, being such a young country.
The following day, our final day in Wales, we drove to Caernarfon Castle. When I was here in 2003 we stayed at a little hostel within the walls of the castle city. As with everything else, this time I was exposed to a different experience. I’d enjoyed walking the walls of the city last time I was here, but this time I walked around them staring upwards at their magnificence – taking note of the details, the chipped and broken stones. I also went into the castle this time, and the grounds are so different to others I’ve seen. I was in awe walking up the towers and around the walls. Reaching the top of one tower my legs turned to jelly and I had to make my way through a maze of museum to get back to the ground before I collapsed.
Just as the weather turned sour, it was time to pack up and leave for Europe. We flew from Birmingham to Paris and from here, hired a car which we would drive to St Malo (on the western coast of France) and then onwards. The trip to St Malo should have taken three hours, but took more than seven. Friday afternoon peak hour traffic in Paris has to be the worst idea ever!
We were all tired and cranky, but our spirits were lifted as soon as we arrived at the home of mum’s French pen pal Michelle. The entire family had come to have dinner with us, and waited for our well overdue arrival to do so. We were greeted with a three course meal at 1am – seafood, fondue and ice-cream, topped off with champagne and beer. The family were extremely lovely and went out of their way to make us feel completely welcome. Even Dad stayed up to have a cup of tea at midnight.
Mum and Dad stayed there for a week so Mum could catch up and have some fun with her pen pal and Dad could finally relax and enjoy himself and his routines once again.
We didn’t want to leave the next day – the hospitality and fantastic food something we were afraid to miss, but a road trip with my brothers was beckoning.
One of the most spectacular regions in the world, Wiltshire, in Southern England, is famous for the “unexplained.”
UFOs, crop circles, standing stones and white horses in the mountain-side are topics of mass-conversation and much speculation.
UFOs have been recorded in the region for centuries, but one of the most memorable experiences was in the 1960s when the small town of Warminster became the epicentre of a phenomenon called “The Thing.”
It began in 1963 when residents heard a loud, unidentifiable whine in the sky at night. No one saw anything, but word spread and soon people began to fear it.
In the year that followed there were more than a thousand sightings of UFOs and these continued for more than 10 years, as Warminster became a place of pilgrimage for people searching for the truth.
Since the mid-1970s, reports have been slowed to just a few sightings every year.
Another popular unexplained mystery is Crop Circles. Although, these are not exclusively Wiltshire phenomena, more appear here than anywhere else in the world.
I’d heard a lot about the crop circles of the region - ancient images carved in stone reveal evidence of crop circles dating back to AD 800.
Since the 1980s, the circles have manifested in large numbers; they first appear in April each year in corn and canola. Barley comes next, then oats and wheat. Often after harvesting, a green replica is formed as a result of seeds being trodden into the ground by visitors.
The circles range in size, with the smallest recorded at six inches, while the biggest had 409 circles measuring 787 feet in diameter.
Many people have experienced physical effects while visiting the circles, including losing time, nausea, vomiting and headaches. I thought it was quite scary when I read it’s not recommended for anyone with a pacemaker, or anyone who is pregnant, to go near them.
Visitors are also warned to leave the area immediately if they begin to feel unwell. Some people have even come away from the circles believing in miracles – with illnesses mysteriously cured.
As with everything, there are plenty of theories as to how the crop circles come into existence – the most popular is alien invasion.
Pilots have reported seeing the circles just minutes after others have flown over, reporting nothing.
While some are undoubtedly man-made for TV ads, shows or hoaxes, there are others which seem to have no explanation at all.
Investigators are able to tell the difference because the real circles have a mathematical precision that is beyond belief, something man-made or hoaxed circles lack.
A popular question is why Wiltshire is so prone to this phenomenon. Some have suggested it’s because of the county's litter of monuments, ancient pathways, burial grounds and stone circles.
Others believe the circles are merely performance art to attract tourists. It remains another unknown mystery.
Driving into the region from the north, we stopped first at Avebury.
Avebury is a prehistoric landscape of standing stones, dating to around 2600 BCE. Situated on approximately 28 acres, Avebury is made up of a huge circular earthwork ditch - originally about 30 feet deep - and a bank about a quarter of a mile in diameter, which encloses an outer circle of standing stones.
Within this outer circle are two inner circles, both around 340 feet in diameter, which are believed to have been temples.
The stones are from Avebury Hills, just a few kilometers away, and many have heads carved into them, which face sunrise or sunset at particular times within the year, corresponding to known dates in the ancient agricultural calendar.
It’s believed Avebury originally consisted of 154 stones, of which only 36 remain.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, stones were removed to make way for crops. They were broken up and used to build houses, or simply demolished. In the 14th century some of the stones were buried to protect the people against pagan practices.
Many of the stones have their own stories, like the Swindon Stone, which is the largest and weighs about 60 tons; the Devil's Chair to which local legend attributes mystical powers, such as the ability to summon the devil if you run round it 100 times anti-clockwise; and the Repaired Stone, which has been reconstructed in an odd shape.
Studies of the theories behind Avebury’s construction only really began in the 1980s and will continue many years into the future, but it’s possible the truth will never be uncovered.
Standing right up close to the massive stones, I could only wonder at the thoughts going through the minds of those who built it. What was on the mind of the creator? Whose idea was it? Why? And how amazing it is, that these stones have stood the test of time to create this wonder we view today.
40km south is Stonehenge – the most famous stone circle in the world.
Getting there, I passed by Silbury Hill – a manmade mound thought to have been built around 2600 BCE. Out of place with the rest of the landscape, Silbury Hill consists of more than 12 million cubic feet of chalk and earth and measures around 40 meters (131 feet) high.
It would have taken around 18 million man-hours to build it. Its original purpose is the mystery, with suggestions it is a symbol associated with fertility rituals, or that it was used as a solar observatory created by shadows cast by the mound, facing towards Avebury. No matter the theories, Silbury Hill is another unsolved mystery in the history of the shire.
Further along towards Stonehenge are the famous White Horses of Wiltshire. Two thirds of the county lies on chalk, part of the Southern England Chalk Formation, and cut into the chalk hillsides are eight figures (originally there were 13) which have been an important symbol for centuries.
The exposure of white chalk beneath the green hill grass provides an extraordinary sight. It’s believed some of the horses were derived from early horse worship in prehistoric times by the Celts, Romans, Saxons and Danes; while others are linked to political satire.
The oldest horse is believed to date back to 878, dug out to honour King Alfred’s victory over the Danes in the battle of Ethandune – however this was replaced in 1778 and has been restored several times since.
The only problem is, historians can’t agree on whether or not the battle even took place in the vicinity – and so the true origin of the horses remains unknown.
A few minutes from Stonehenge is Woodhenge, originally a wooden structure similar to Stonehenge. It’s believed to have been set up around 2000 BCE for ceremonial use.
Today, concrete posts mark the positions of the original timbers, evidence for which was obtained by excavation. There are a number of similarities to Stonehenge – both have entrances facing the midsummer sunrise, and the diameters of both circles are also similar.
As with everything in Wiltshire, there are a number of theories for the origins of Woodhenge – including a sacrificial burial ground or the burial ground for a Celtic royal family; however the study of Stonehenge has overshadowed any real breakthroughs.
Finally I reached Stonehenge.
Walking through the eerie construction, I listened to the theories about its purpose. It’s still unsure the purpose Stonehenge served, but scientists and archaeologists throughout the world are still trying to find out with new theories and evidence emerging.
It's thought the name Stonehenge originates from the Anglo-Saxon period – the old English word ‘henge' meaning hanging (literally ‘the hanging stones').
Stonehenge is believed to have been built in three stages - the first of which was a circle of timbers surrounded by a ditch and bank.
Deer antlers, believed to have been used as pick-axes, were found during excavations and testing has shown they date back to around 3100 BCE. There are also 56 holes, named Aubrey Holes after the 17th century antiquarian who found them, which date back to 3150 BCE.
The second stage is believed to have commenced around 600 years later, in around 2500 BCE, when it was rebuilt - this time using bluestones. These came from the Prescelli Mountains in South Wales, 380 kilometers (236 miles) away.
The five-ton stones would have been dragged down to the sea, floated on huge rafts and brought up the River Avon and, finally, overland to where they are today. It would have required unbelievable dedication from ancient man to bring these stones all the way from Wales. Sarsens were also brought down from nearby Avebury Hills.
In about 2300 BCE, the stones were dug up and rearranged and this time even bigger stones were brought in from the Marlborough Downs, 32kms (20 mi.) away. You can still see the drag marks today.
Each pair of stones was heaved upright and linked on the top by the lintels. To get the lintels to stay in place, joints were made in the stone - the first known woodworking techniques.
The heaviest weighed around 45 tons, and the mystery as to how they got the stones to stand upright, it still unknown.
Over the centuries, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the stones and theories have ranged once again from alien encounters, to celebrating the marriage between earth and sky, to calendars of the stars.
The biggest breakthrough, however, was in January 2007 when excavations uncovered a village near Woodhenge, believed to be linked to Stonehenge.
Dozens of homes were found dating back to the late Stone Age period when the stones were erected, strongly suggesting the monument and settlement were a center for ceremonial activities – with Stonehenge most likely a burial site.
The finding, at Durrington Walls suggests a surprising level of social organization and ceremonial behavior to complement the stones. The houses, measuring 14 feet square, were found to have a central hearth, remains of wooden box beds and were scattered with human debris.
An avenue 100 feet wide leading to the River Avon was also uncovered – mirroring a similar path leading from Stonehenge to the River – leading researchers to conclude a connection between the two sites, perhaps as part of funerary rituals. This is supported by another discovery of around 250 cremated bodies at Stonehenge, making it the largest cemetery of its time.
It’s still unknown who the inhabitants were, with earlier investigators theorising it was Celts, Gauls or Egyptians, but it’s now believed to be migratory Britons, with at least one exception – one of the cremated remains found at Stonehenge were of a man from the foothills of the Alps.
The discovery of pig remains surrounded by arrowheads at the village site, suggests a festival and feast, leading to the theory that while Durrington was for living, Stonehenge appears to be a monument to ancestors.
It is certainly the most promising discovery to date, but the true and complete origins of Stonehenge may never be completely solved. If they were, I don’t think the site would remain as popular.
Wiltshire has a special past and its unsolved mysteries will keep it distinctive into the future. The unknown is the biggest thrill.
When my parents and brothers, Justin and Shane, came to London to meet me for a four week trip through Europe; I knew it was going to be great to see them again and I couldn’t wait to spend more time with them.
The only downside was that Dad had suffered a number of minor strokes in the past few years and with dementia as well, he was very angry and confused a lot. The strokes had taken him back to childhood mentality and overseas, he was out of the comfort zone of his own house and placed into an unknown world where people crowded the streets and life operated without schedule.
Dad had become obsessive compulsive with the strokes – coffee at 10am, lunch at 12am, coffee at 3pm, dinner at 6.30pm, shower at 8pm and coffee again at 9pm. He’d been living to this schedule for two years and it was impossible to change it without a fight.
I can understand now how much it must have frustrated him being forced into the positions we often put him in, like trying to beat the traffic to cross roads, spending hours driving without a stop, but we wanted mum to enjoy the trip as much as possible as well – she deserved it after spending the past few years as dad’s full-time carer and had dreamed of doing this trip her entire life. She often says she regretted taking Dad, but I know she could never have left without him. “One last holiday together”, she always said.
Despite the anger, the frustration and the violence – something I never thought I’d experience in my life – the few days where Dad laughed, smiled and enjoyed himself made up for the weeks he didn’t … and all in all, I know none of us would have done it without him. He died three years later and it’s the smiles we still talk about the most.
With their arrival in London, we spent three days doing touristy things and as a holiday-maker, I realised again how much uglier the city is. We then caught a bus to Oxford, hired a car and drove to the Cotswolds – the Heart of England.
The Cotswolds are well-known for its gentle hillsides, sleepy villages and “typical English” atmosphere. Being here is like stepping back hundreds of years in time and the honey-coloured limestone used for building has ensured the area has a magical uniformity of architecture.
During the medieval period of the 13-15th Centuries, the Cotswolds was most famous for its heavy fleeced and high quality wool sheep that were traded throughout Europe creating enormous wealth.
The Cotswolds is characterised by its small towns and villages, one of which – Boughton-on-the-Water – provided our family haven for a week.
Set on the tiny banks of the River Windrush which runs through the centre of town, Boughton-on-the-Water is a small village of around 2000. It’s typically known as the Venice of the Cotswolds.
Acorn Cottage, where we stayed, was everything you’d hope to see in the English countryside – a white cobbled stone structure, surrounded by replicas. It was just a short walk into the centre of the village where shops, cafes and pubs lined the street on the river bank.
There’s not much excitement with pubs closing by 11pm; and I found the younger locals aren’t very friendly and are unapproachable, but Boughton was a brilliant base for the week ahead.
Just a short drive from Boughton is Stow-On-The-Wold, a historic market town said to have originated as an Iron Age fort. We drove via here on the way to Gloucester, close to the Welsh border, where we stopped for breakfast at a dodgy little café. Rain was pouring down outside, dad was in a bad mood, and the café was full of bulky workmen from the nearby docks.
Gloucester gained notoriety in 1994 when locals Fred and Rose West were arrested for the abduction and murder of more than a dozen women between 1967 and 1987. Their home, 25 Cromwell Street, where the remains of the victims were buried, was later demolished. I felt shivers through my spine walking through the streets here, even though I didn’t know about the murders at the time.
As soon as we’d had a morning coffee, we couldn’t wait to get out of there and drove to Cheltenham for lunch and a bit of shopping.
Cheltenham isn’t far from Gloucester, but the difference is amazing. It’s known for being a posh area and has been a health and holiday spa town resort since the early 1700s when mineral springs were discovered. The main shopping street is a massive mall, filled with all types of boutiques and department stores. We shopped here for a while, before heading back to Boughton in time for dinner.
Although there are many quaint villages in the county, there was only one other place we just “had” to see - just a 5 minute drive from Boughton is the Slaughters.
Driving into the traditional English villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter is truly a step back in time to an era well-beyond Australian history. It was gorgeous, unique and spectacular. The villages are about a mile apart, with Upper Slaughter less touched by tourism. It has an open square bordered by cottages, with bridges and wild flowers the epitome of a beautiful traditional village.
Lower Slaughter is downstream and the river is a feature of the village as it flows between bright green grass banks. The Manor here was built in 1658 for the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, and is now a hotel, with a red brick Victorian corn mill – the colour contrasting with the stone cottages. Although you can walk to the Slaughters from Boughton, with Dad it was easier for us to drive. We loved driving around the hills and absorbing the beauty that surrounded us.
Half an hour drive from the Cotswolds is Stratford-Upon-Avon, and 10 minutes further from here, is an astounding step into truly Medieval Britain.
Warwick Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world, and is known as “Britain’s most spectacular medieval experience”. It lived up to this reputation and was truly like stepping back in time to be a part of the Henry VIII experience.
It has a history of murder and mystery, dating back more than a thousand years to its first fortification, said to have been in 914 by the daughter of King Alfred the Great – to protect the small hilltop settlement from Danish invaders.
William the Conqueror established a mote and barley fort in 1068 – the first true castle built on the site. In the 12th Century this was replaced by timber and by this time, the castle had been taken over by Henry de Beaumont. His descendants became Earls of Warwick – the last of these dying in 1242 without an heir. The castle was handed to their cousin, William Mauduit, and upon his death, it was succeeded by his nephew William de Beauchamp who brought the castle to the height of its fortunes. Reading the history, it seems the Earls often died without heirs so the castle continued through distant generations.
Charles Guy Greville was the second last Earl of Warwick and became a Hollywood actor under another the name of Michael Brooke. He died in 1984.
In 1978 his son David sold the castle to Tussauds Group – famous for its wax museums – who have since completed restoration, opened it to the public and recreated life in the castle with wax figures of the dignitaries who inhabited or appeared at the castle over the years. The figures are so lifelike it feels as though you are truly watching Henry VIII, or Francis Greville (Earl in 1893), or joining conversations with Edward Prince of Wales and Clara Butt.
The most intriguing features of the castle would be the Dungeon, Torture Chamber and Ghost Tower – said to be inhabited by the ghost of its former owner Sir Fulke Greville, who was murdered by one of his servants – who then killed himself.
According to legend, Greville’s ghost appears from the portrait hanging over the fire place in the study and walks around the rooms in the tower. Creaks, groans and mutterings emanate from dark doorways of the tower, while its history seems to be whispered into the darkness.
At Warwick Castle, you live the experience – the tales of treachery and torture, passion and power, the fascinating people, times and events. You can watch as archers practice their skills in the yards outside, feel the weight of swords and experience a soldier’s view through the opening of a helmet. Walking among the wax figures, don’t be surprised if one comes to life – an employee lavishly dressed and acting out scenes of the past. In the scary silence of the dungeon, you can see the markings of past captives – a line for each day they were held here.
During the summer months, the castle comes alive with activity, from world class jousting tournaments to battling knights, friendly dragons, jesting, music and the world’s biggest siege machine shooting. The re-enactors of the castle’s past camp on the grounds for this time, eating authentic food and living an authentic medieval lifestyle.
Madame Tussaud’s has done an amazing job bringing the castle back to life and the hundreds of thousands of visitors here each year are not disappointed. As we drove back to the Cotswolds with my own visions of the Castle’s past running theatrically through my mind, I know I certainly wasn’t.
I’m not a big fan of board games. In fact, I find them boring and a waste of time. But every day walking through the streets of London, I felt like I was on a giant Monopoly board – passing through places like Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus.
At every fourth corner I almost expected to see a jail, and I kept waiting for a Community Chest to appear before me so I could get my “Get out of Jail Free” card. I was also hoping that at every other fourth corner, someone would be standing there waiting to give me $200! Unfortunately, they weren’t. But then again, I wasn’t a silver dog… a shoe… or a bucket.
On one of my days off work, I decided to take myself on a Monopoly Tour of London. Straight after waking up, I caught the tube over to Hyde Park to start my tour at Park Lane.
Park Lane is one of the busiest and noisiest roads in central London, and although it was originally a country lane, it became a popular residential area in the 1800s. It runs from Hyde Park Corner to Marble Arch.
From the station at Hyde Park Corner I wandered into Mayfair – named after the annual May Fair that was held here between 1600s and 1700s. Most of the area was developed after the Fair was banned in the mid-1700s, and the wealthy families moved in. A large part of Mayfair belongs to the Queen, who lived here as a child, and it’s now very commercial with houses converted into offices, luxury hotels and restaurants.
I followed this along to Bond Street – one of the principal streets in the West End shopping district. It runs to Oxford Street – one of the world’s most famous and largest shopping streets, with more than 300 shops. I called in here to my favourite jewellery store – a little shop hidden away where they sold a range of necklaces for just one pound! The shop closed down just before I left London, but not before I’d scored myself some gorgeous imported necklaces to take home with me.
I walked along to Marlborough Street (actually called Great Marlborough Street), which runs though the western part of Soho, joining onto Regent Street – named after Prince Regent (George IV) and built as part of a ceremonial route from the Prince’s residence to Regent’s Park. I followed this along, stopping on the corner of the short, narrow Vine Street, then moving on through Piccadilly Circus to Coventry Street – which joins Piccadilly to Leicester Square.
I took the long way round, through Pall Mall – best known for it’s gentleman’s clubs – to Trafalgar Square, where I stopped for lunch and a wander through the square famous for its museums, sculptures, fountains and pigeons.
Feeding the pigeons was popular with locals and tourists, but with so many pigeons, the buildings were covered with excrement, which not only made them look ugly but also caused some major damage. In 2003, by-laws were introduced to stop the feeding of pigeons – and in 2006 when I returned here after having been here in 2003 before the laws were passed, the drop in the number of birds in the area was massive.
On through Whitehall – lined with government ministries; Northumberland Avenue – built on the site of Northumberland House, the London residence of the Dukes of Northumberland, and home to the Ministry of Defence; back through Leicester Square where I stopped for a drink and another short rest at the Imperial Pub before moving on through Bow Street in Covent Garden back towards my hotel, passing by Holburn and on to The Strand – once just a muddy riverside bridle path linking the City to Westminster until Victoria Embankment was constructed in the 1860s. The Strand is lined with shops, theatres and offices, and it was along here Simone and I had seen a theatrical production of Stomp while she was visiting.
I walked along Fleet Street – traditionally home of the British national Press until the 1980s – crossed the bridge and wandered along the river past the site of the old London Waterworks near London Bridge and along to Old Kent Road.
I followed Tower Bridge Road from here, crossing back over the river on Tower Bridge, passing by the castle and stopping for a moment at Fenchurch Street Station. Fenchurch Station was the first to be constructed in the city, but has no direct link to the Tube.
A short walk from here is Whitechapel – where the Elephant Man was exhibited in the 1800s, and which became notorious in the 19th Century for the murders of Jack the Ripper, who was originally known as the Whitechapel Murderer, and who is the world’s first recognised serial killer. It’s more recently well-known as the home of the Brick Lane Festival.
Moving on, I arrived at Liverpool Street Station – a mainline railway station for eastern England first opened in 1874, with an underground connection. Stopping here for another drink break, I considered my options for the last few stops of my tour… and decided the best way to continue from here would be to break it up by travelling underground. By now my feet were killing me, and it looked as though it could rain at any moment… so I bought my train ticket and headed onto the tube towards Angel Islington.
Islington is one of London’s central boroughs, formerly known as The Angel – which was originally an inn near a toll great on the Great North Road, dating back to the early 1600s.
I stayed on the tube, which took me alongside Pentonville Road towards Kings Cross Station – just a five minute walk from my hotel. I stopped here and continued on the last leg of my journey on foot, along Euston Road, past Great Portland and Baker Street stations (with a small detour into Regent’s Park to sit and watch the squirrels play), finally stopping at Marylebone Station – just a hop, skip and a jump away from where I started at Hyde Park.
By now it was way past dinner time so I caught the tube back to the Hotel in Russell Square… the journey having taken me all day, but giving me the opportunity to see London in a completely different light to the regular tours most people pay for, or do themselves. I will never look at a monopoly board the same way again – now when I land on the spaces, I can picture these as they truly are. And to be honest, I don’t think any of them would look as nice with green houses and red hotels built there.
Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
London. The last time I was there, I hated it. This time, I really enjoyed myself. I think London is completely different as a tourist – the rush to see everything, the crowds of other tourists and locals blocking footpaths throughout the city, and the endless lines of traffic making it impossible to get anywhere fast – but as someone with plenty of time, it’s much more enjoyable.
I can’t imagine it would be possible to get bored. It’s small, but there is so much to do.
I went been back to the same places I saw last time – I’ve seen both sides of the poverty line. I’ve wandered through the streets challenging my way through mess, and through some of the cleanest footpaths I’ve ever seen. Yes, London can be dirty, wet and cold – the way I described it in 2003 – but it can also be positively glowing with sunshine, life and laughter. Staying here in the summer, I saw this more every day.
I started work just five days after my arrival from the Netherlands. It was my first job interview at a hotel in Cartwright Gardens, Russell Square, in Central London, and I got the job.
I can’t get over how close everything is in London. Looking at a tube map, stations seem worlds apart. Yet it would be possible to walk the entire length of the map in a day. A 30 minute walk down Oxford Street, for example, will see you pass by 4 or 5 stations. You can begin at Holburn – pass Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus, Bond Street and onto Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, all within half an hour provided you don’t get stuck behind ‘tourist traffic’ – used to describe the many tourists you encounter on the streets who haven’t caught up with the pace of London – and who it seems you always get stuck behind when you’re really in a hurry to get somewhere.
Starting out, it’s impossible not to follow the tube map to get around. Once you get your bearings, you realise although some stations are actually two or three different train line changes away, they are only a 10 or 15 minute walk. A simple example is to travel from Russell Square to Warren Street.
Follow the tube map, and you get the Piccadilly line from Russell Square to Kings Cross, change to the Circle line to Euston, change again to the Northern or Victoria lines, finally ending up at Warren Street, first stop. But what you don’t realise is Warren Street is just a 10 minute walk from Russell Square - walking straight, with just one left turn to take. A 10 minute walk compared with a 20 minute train journey – changing trains twice. When I first arrived in Russell Square, it actually took a week or two to realise Euston and Kings Cross stations were also only five minute walks from the hotel.
Within 10 minutes walk from the hotel, I could also be at Camden Markets, 15 minutes and I’d be at Soho or Covent Garden, 20 minutes to Oxford Circus or Trafalgar Square.
On my first day off work, I went to the British Museum – its free, and just a short walk.
The Museum was established in 1753 and is one of the largest museums of human history and culture. There are more than seven million artefacts here and it’s an awesome display of Roman Ruins – with the actual ruins rather than replicas - statues, Babylon artefacts and the largest collection of ancient Egyptian materials outside Cairo - including Egyptian mummies and coffins. These have always been the most popular attractions in the museum, and spectacularly, modern research is heavily on show with investigations into the human remains, X-rays and CAT scans of the mummies. Some of the CAT scans show the skeleton and soft tissue still intact.
I spent hours walking through the museum, and barely saw half of the exhibits. I’d planned to return one day – but as with most of these promises to myself, the day never came.
Within just weeks of arriving in London myself, my friend Simone was finally well enough to join me. Though she was only there for a few days, it was fantastic to finally share some of the holiday with her.
After much hugging and crying we headed out to do the Big Red Bus Tour – although our bus was more a cream-brown colour, which kind of defeated the purpose of our excitement. We made it about half way around the tour and after a River Thames cruise we stepped off into Westminster so we could listen to the bells of Big Ben.
We passed a booth where they were selling discount Lion King musical tickets and couldn’t resist, so, after a mad rush home to get ready to go out, we went to the theatre for the performance. The choreography, the artworks, the costumes, the singing - it was all brilliant. I think because our seats were close to the front we might have missed out on some of the effects of the costumes and stage design, but it was still an amazing show. I felt some of the actors weren’t really suited to the characters, but others were perfect -- like the big guy with long spiked hair who played Pumba, and the wonderful Zulu woman who played Rafiki. As with the movie, I cried when Mufasa was killed, and laughed until it hurt with Hakuna Matata.
The following morning we saw the Changing of the Guards and then were back on the bus, sitting on the top deck all day. It was a really great way to see London and it made me feel almost like a local - I knew my way around London in a way I never thought possible.
After only a few days together, it was time for Simone to leave again. Sight-seeing now was entirely personal and I spent many of my days off from work wandering the streets and just breathing in the golden city around me.
One of my favourite places to go to just “chill” was Covent Garden. Here, in central London, street performers and markets take over the malls providing hours of entertainment. From the 1500s, the area was a flower, fruit and vegetable market but in the 1960s traffic congestion caused the area to become unsustainable. Threats of a redevelopment caused outcry from the public and the market was moved. Every day, the area is crowded with tourists and locals flocking to the theatres and restaurants or simply wandering, like I did, to watch and laugh at the many performers.
A short walk from here is Leicester Square – where film premieres are typically hosted; Piccadilly Circus – a major traffic intersection highlighted by tall buildings with neon signs and video displays, as well as the Shaftsbury memorial fountain - the perfect central meeting point for friends on a night out (it became my regular post on a Thursday night waiting to meet my friend Heather); and of course, Soho – the gay hub of London.
Soho is famed for its clubs, pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as its sex shops and red light district. It is home to industry, commerce, culture, entertainment, and is residential to both rich and poor. It’s also home to London’s gay community, with the streets given over to gay businesses.
The area was grazing farmland until the mid-1500s when Henry VIII turned it into a royal park. It wasn’t until more than 100 years later that building was allowed. The aristocrats moved in; although the settlement of immigrants began to create character for the area as being neglected and undeveloped, paving the way for the Soho of the future. By the mid 1700s the aristocrats moved out and artists, prostitutes, music halls and theatres moved in. Soho has since had a reputation for being the heart of London’s sex industry – though most of the industry is not evident in comparison with other red light districts around the world, particularly Amsterdam.
London, like the Netherlands, celebrates summer in style. My first two months in London spent working, partying and sightseeing was a brilliant lead up to Festival Season – which predominantly began on the last weekend in August with the annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Notting Hill Carnival is the biggest carnival in Europe and the second biggest in the world after Rio. It’s led by the Caribbean population and attracts up to 1.5 million people every year. In the 1970s the carnival was marred by riots – with predominantly Caribbean youths fighting with police about harassment the population felt they were under. In 1976, more than 100 officers were hospitalised after the event. In recent years, the event has seen less serious trouble – although in 2000, two men were murdered and there were 19 stabbing incidents reported to police. This has kept a lot of people away from the celebrations, particularly on the busiest day - Carnival Monday.
I went on the Sunday – Children’s’ Day - in between shifts at the hotel. It was great to see all the hard work people had put into floats and costumes, but to me it felt more like a Parade of Bystanders.
The oversized crowd made it hard to move and things were made worse by the police and, although they did a brilliant job, the organisation wasn’t great and we were left with more than 10 minutes break between floats as officers closed off the street in between to allow people to cross. This continued the entire afternoon. I had to leave for work just three hours after the parade started, having seen no more than 10 floats.
Notting Hill carnival builds up the excitement for more celebration, starting with Regent Street Festival – which in 2006 had a Spanish theme. London’s biggest one-day event, the street was filled from top to bottom with Spanish dancing, music and stalls. There were flamenco dancers, dancing horses, Catalonian castellers (human towers) and monumental paellas – so huge it fed the entire crowd, and delicious as well.
There is plenty more excitement with the Oyster and Seafood Festival – celebrating the start of the native oyster season, where I filled my face with octopus, mussels and braved a freshly cracked rock oyster (ugh!); the Great River Race – a mix of colour, spectacle, competition and fun on the Thames River as more than 300 boats, including Hawaiian outrigger war canoes, Viking longboats, Chinese dragon boats and Norwegian scows, compete against naval whalers and Cornish pilots for trophies; and BBC Proms – daily orchestral classical music concerts.
Brick Lane Festival is in mid-September in London’s most famous lane, attracting more than 60,000 visitors for one of the biggest cross cultural street parties and a global mix of music, food, history and culture; and the Thames River Festival brings parades, funfairs, fireworks and a huge lantern procession to the River Thames. Also in September are the Art Fair, Antiques Fair, Design Festival, Harvest Festival, Raindance Film Festival and International Curry Festival.
I tried to take in as much as possible in between working hours – I’d never heard seen so many festivals, and had a fantastic time joining the celebration of summer.
From London I went on a whirlwind tour of Britain to see as much as I could in 6 days. Windsor Castle was the first stop - an official residence of the Queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. A royal palace and fortress for over 900 years, the Castle remains a working palace today.
After a short stop, the bus continued on to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. At this stage I didn’t know much about Stonehenge and to be honest, it looked just like a bunch of stones to me. It would be a couple more years before I could fully appreciate the history of the site and I didn’t go past the fence before continuing on to the next stop on the tour.
Lacock, also in Wiltshire, is a popular medieval village dating back many centuries and virtually unspoilt. The National Trust owns it and most of the houses were built before and during the 1700s. Traffic isn’t allowed into the centre of the village, which includes a 14th century barn, a medieval church, and an inn dating from the 1400s. The village was used for filming of Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter films.
Further on is Bath, in Somerset countryside, close to the border of Wales. Bath has been listed as a World Heritage Site and has some of the most spectacular architectural sights in Europe, particularly its Roman Baths fed by ancient hot springs, also its Abbey and Georgian stone crescents. The city was first documented as a Roman Spa, but there are suggestions it was founded much earlier.
According to fable, Bladud, the 10th ruler of Britain, founded the city after he discovered the hot springs while in hiding. It’s said the site of the main spring was treated as a shrine by the Celts and dedicated to the Goddess Sulis. The Romans are believed to have occupied Bath shortly after their British invasion in 43 AD.
During the Roman Period, grand temples and bathing complexes were built. The waters of the spring were believed to be a cure for many afflictions and during the Elizabethan to Georgian times; it was a resort city for the wealthy. The baths have since deteriorated, but remain the city’s main attractions. The city became a tourist hub in the 18th Century and continues to be the second most visited city in Britain today, after London.
I spent the night across the border at Abergavenny, Wales. It’s a market town north of Cardiff and has a rich history from Roman times, including the infamous killing of the Welsh Lords by William de Braose in the 1100s.
Britain’s largest open-cut mine, the Big Pit, is nearby. I wouldn’t recommend a tour here if you are claustrophobic. A group of us were fitted with hard hats and protective clothing and then squashed like sardines into the ‘lift’ that would take us 300 feet underground and into the mine itself. For a moment, I understood what it must be like to be a mole, blinded by darkness digging its way through the dirt. Once at the bottom I thought of the many miners who, every year, are trapped by collapsing mines. It must be absolutely terrifying – being so far from the top, with no way out. Bad thoughts aside and I was fascinated to hear the story of the coal-mine canaries. From 1911 to 1986, canaries were used to detect harmful gases in the mines – if the canary showed any signs of distress, the mines were determined unsafe. Using the birds was eventually phased out and electronic detectors are now used.
The drive continued on to Snowdonia Mountains, north Wales and to Caernarfon Castle, where we would spend the night within the castle walls. A moat and bailey castle was first built in 1090, but the castle today was established by King Edward I in 1283, as a symbol of English dominance over the Welsh. The original Welsh settlement was destroyed and a new town was built within the castle walls with the intention of taking Welsh tradition away and creating English influences. King Edward II became the first English Prince of Wales – with Prince Charles becoming the most recent in 1969.
Welsh tradition, however, is still very much alive at Caernarfon Castle, with 80% of the population speaking only traditional Welsh.
Along the city walls is the Bell Tower, said to be haunted by the last man hanged in 1911. “Murphy” was charged with murdering his girlfriend and was to be killed by hanging. The bell had always chimed three times to announce the death of a prisoner. On the day of his death, the bell chimed twice and has never been heard since. It had worked for more than 150 years prior with never a problem. It’s said Murphy haunts the area and is seen at least once a year by locals.
I had no plans to wait around and see for myself, so it was off to the Isle of Anglesey, a short drive from Caernarfon, to the town with the longest name in history. In Wales, the town is simply known as Llanfair PG.
To the tourists and locals, the small village boasts one of the longest place names in the world - Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
With 58 characters in its name, "the church of St Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St Tysilio's of the red cave", its Welsh meaning, has been written into the Guinness book of records.
The village didn't always have such a long name. In the 1800s it was simply called Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, "St Mary’s church near the pool by the white hazels", but with the establishment of the railways and the construction of a line between the nearby towns of Chester to Holyhead, the locals wanted to attract tourists to the village.
They put together a 'tourism committee' and although it’s not known who decided on the new name - some say it was a local tailor, while others swear it was a cobbler from the nearby town of Menai Bridge - the idea was successful. The village now attracts hundreds of tourists daily, all contributing to the town's economy by spending their money on one-of-a-kind gifts for family and friends.
There's not much to do in the town itself. We went to the train station to take photos of the longest station name in the world. At the local shopping market we had our passports stamped with the town's name, and then went to the tourist information centre where, after asking nicely, the person behind the counter pronounces the name of the town. We spent the rest of the day trying to repeat it, without success.
Apparently, once you learn to change the F to V, Ff to F, Ll to L (while blowing air out the side of your tongue as you say it), Ch to H (with your tongue at the back of your throat, like the German Ch), Y to uh, and W to oo; you just might start to make sense. Instead, I gave up trying and now simply call the town “Lan-fair-go-gol-goch” – much easier.
Heading back into England, next on the tour was the home of The Beatles. Liverpool is a port on the bank of the River Mersey and was first used as a harbour in the 13th Century to send supplies to Ireland. Since 1750, the population has grown from 22,000 to almost 500,000.
Buildings along the street are boarded up, most are old and have never been restored to their original beauty – which I am certain they once had. The day was cold and windy, which didn’t add to the depressing state of the city.
On the other hand, the Lake District is at the other end of the scale and although the rain continued, it was beautiful to see the Lake itself, along with all the fells, pikes, dales and villages. The Lake District is commonly called the Lake“s” District however there is only one actual lake, Windermere. Windermere is the largest lake in England and is gloriously surrounded by mountains. All land in England that reaches higher then 3000 ft above sea level, lies within the Lake District. I stayed the night in Ambleside, on the northern end of Windermere Lake. A leisurely walk down to the Lake and I was able to watch the sunset fall over the water, creating a mystical appearance as a fog began to form.
Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland was built nearly 2000 years ago by Emperor Hadrian, the wall was to mark the northernmost boundary of Roman Britain. It was 73 miles long, six metres high and three metres wide, built entirely of stone. The purpose was to separate the Romans from the Barbarians - Caledonian Picts and Brigantes, tribal descendants of early inhabitants of Britain.
“Common knowledge” is that the wall was built to separate the English from the Scottish, however when the wall was built, neither existed. At that time, the Scots inhabited Ireland and the English were a Germanic race in Europe. Neither race settled in Britain until 300 years later. Today, it’s possible to walk the distance of the wall, although much of it has changed from its original form, with border skirmishes seeing many of the stones reappear in houses, field walls and churches. The wall is still marked with 2000-year-old remains of forts, mile castles, temples and turrets and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.
I spent the next 24 hours in Edinburgh exploring the Castle and the streets. Edinburgh Castle is traced back to 600 AD; but previously existed under the name Din Eidyn. The Castle is built on an extinct volcanic crag and it looks out over the city with 360-degree views. I watched Scottish dancers and pipe players perform at the castle entrance and walked along Victoria and George Streets, where Roman-style buildings and monuments inspired us back into history.
That night I went on the Ghost and Torture Tour of the city and was told of the gruesome history of Edinburgh, including the Black Plague, witches, body-snatchers and torture.
Hundreds of years ago, houses in the narrow streets of Edinburgh were built to around 15 storeys high, but because of the lack of proper materials, they were made to lean on the house opposite, in order to stay upright. These are said to be the first known high-rises, and up to 20 people would live in one room. The problem was they would often fall down because of the terrible support system, crashing to the road beneath.
In 1645, Edinburgh was hit with the black plague. If anyone within a household showed signs of the killer plague, a white flag was flown from the window and the occupants were locked away for up to three months, with no food or supplies. To survive, they had no other choice but to eat the dead – which usually gave them the plague as well.
The well-known children’s rhyme, Ring-A-Ring-A-Rosey is often mistakenly said to have been written about the plague as a way to educate children to recognise the symptoms and stay away from other children who showed them. Though there is no evidence of this, it made sense. The ring was said to refer to the black ring appearing on the skin, which devoured the flesh. This devouring resulted in an odour, so people carried flowers/posies around in their pockets to ward off the smell. One of the symptoms of the plague was sneezing, hence the Atishoo, and the last line referring to death. The connection wasn’t proposed until the mid-1900s, so is believed by historians to be completely baseless.
Witches were another major problem in the streets of Edinburgh. Bodies of witches were thrown into a lime pit, which is today covered by a car park. But first, the witches had to be found. One way was to take suspected witches to a torture chamber, where a qualified “witch-finder” would stab them. If they didn’t feel the knife, they were declared to be witches. However, the witch-finder was paid for each witch found, and so invented a knife where the blade went back inside the handle, leaving the victim unharmed by the stabbing and at the mercy of the people.
Another way of finding witches was to tie their feet together and nail their hands to their knees. They were then pushed into a Loch filled with faeces that had washed down drains from adjoining streets. If the “witches” floated, they would be further tortured. Their family would also be tortured, with such instruments as a finger crusher, ball crusher, jaw breaker, masks, chastity belts and bamboo points thrust into fingernails.
The ghost tour ended with a walk through the underground vaults, where I was told of poltergeists and ghosts, people fainting and being scratched by something unseen.
After a restless night’s sleep, I headed back into England, with a short stop at Jedburgh and the Last Shop in Scotland. A small town on the Scottish border, it’s also home to Jedburgh Abbey, Mary Queen of Scots home and Castlegate. My visit to the Last Shop in Scotland wouldn’t have been complete without buying some shortbread – purchased in the land that made it famous. At the border we were greeted with the eerie sight of a bagpipe player, beneath a dense mist, standing beside a large stone marking the border. It seemed like the perfect farewell to Scotland, as we crossed from one country to the next.
The drive continued through Newcastle, over the ‘test-bridge’ for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and on to Gateshead, home of the largest sculpture in Britain – the Angel of the North. A sculpture of an angel, its’ wings are open wide in a gesture greeting visitors to the region. It towers 20 metres high and has a wingspan of 54 metres. Created by Antony Gormley, it was assembled on site in February 1998 and is made from 200 tonne of steel.
The final night was spent in York. The city walls are among the longest and best-preserved walls in England and were built in Roman-times as defence for the town. In the first century AD, the Romans built a military fort on the banks of the River Ouse, and York, then known as Eboracum, began to build up around this fort. The walls were built to enclose both the fort and the town. In 1800 three walled forts, four gates and some sections of the wall were demolished because they were too old and too expensive to maintain. Some sections of wall have since been repaired and you can walk around the top to look over the town.
On the walk you can see Multiangular Tower, from Roman times; Micklegate Bar, a rectangular gatehouse marking the main entrance to the city - once a place where traitors heads were displayed to deter rebellion; and York Minster, the widest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, dating back to 627 AD. The cathedral suffered numerous fires and was continually built up over many centuries, with on-going repair work continuing into the 21st Century. Walking through the cathedral, I started feeling quite ill. I blamed it on punishment for being an agnostic in such a highly religious environment, but it was more likely the potent burning of incense.
The last leg of the tour took me first to Sherwood Forest, a remnant of a much larger and very famous, forest from the legend of Robin Hood. Originally, the forest was about 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, and was one of the largest royal forests – a private hunting ground for the royal family. In the 16th Century, many trees were felled to make way for farming and development.
In the forest stands Major Oak, a large oak tree, which according to local folklore, was Robin Hood’s headquarters. The Oak is thought to be around 800 years old and its massive limbs are supported with scaffolding in order to hold the tree upright. The forest is also a leisurely walk and with silence surrounding me, I could even picture Robin and his merry men swinging from the branches, gliding down to steal from rich passers-by.
After leaving the forest, we passed through Nottingham, also famous for its Robin Hood links. It is part of Nottinghamshire, the UK’s most haunted county, and the city was formerly known as Snotingham – the “ham” or home of a Saxon group bearing the unfortunate name of Snot. Evidence of life in Nottingham dates back to 40,000 – 28,000 BC, and highlights include Nottingham Castle, Newstead Abbey and the Creswell Crags.
I was keeping my eye out in Nottinghamshire in case I spotted any ghostly activities after hearing stories like the screaming children in the Castle – from 1212 when King John executed 28 sons of Welsh noble families; the “Black/Goblin Friar” – the ghost of a monk who haunts Newstead Abbey; or the ghosts that haunt Bestwood Lodge – the screaming children, the smell of oranges frequenting the rooms where Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwynn (who sold oranges before becoming an actress) built their love nest, and the numerous medieval clothed ghosts who are said to still call the Lodge their home.
The birthplace of William Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon, is in the heart of the English midlands along the banks of the River Avon, it’s a market town dating back to medieval times famous for its connections to Shakespeare.
The house in Henley Street, where his life began, is now a museum dedicated to the man himself. Owned by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, it holds 400 treasures, including portraits, old coins, documents and photographs.
In the nearby village of Shottery is the home of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. Also guarded by the Birthplace Trust, the home still holds the couple’s bed that has been there for 400 years. Tables, chairs and kitchen utensils also still remain the same.
After Shakespeare became famous and wealthy, he bought a new home which he named New Place – not what you’d expect of a man who is remembered centuries later for his literary talents. This house was demolished but the site is still a landmark. His granddaughter, Elizabeth, who married Thomas Nash, was the owner of the house next door, now known as Nash’s House and also owned by the Trust.
Another part of Shakespeare’s life in Stratford is the Holy Trinity Church, alongside the Avon. In a way, Shakespeare’s life started and ended here – it is where he was baptised and buried. His wife and daughter lie beside him in the chancel of the church.
Nearby is the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre - a modern building housing a theatre, picture gallery, library and museum. On April 23 each year, the town celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday, with a procession through town of bands, civic dignitaries, actors and dancers, all celebrating the life of a man who changed the world of literature – a world that has never looked back.
Oxford was the final stop on our itinerary before heading back to London. The City of Dreaming Spires, named by Matthew Arnold in reference to the architecture of its buildings, is famous throughout the world for its University. For more than 800 years, Oxford has been home of scholars and royalty. The university is the oldest in the English-speaking world.
After another few days in Baldock, a small parish market town with housing dating back to the 16th Century around an hour train-ride from London, feasting on home cooked roasts and Yorkshire pudding it was time to move on. The rest of Western Europe was waiting.
My first impressions of London are that it’s cold, wet and overpopulated.
With 12 million people, it has a population that is 10 times that of Brisbane and three times Sydney, even though the city is just one sixth of Sydney’s geographic size. In this type of environment, things are bound to get a bit rough.
It’s a mixture of worlds, with beggars living alongside the rich and famous. Much of London simply looks dirty – I guess to some people this is part of the appeal. To me, as a tourist, it was a major turn-off.
On my first night in London, I stayed at a hostel at Holland Park. In Central London, Holland Park is one of London’s most beautiful parks, with formal gardens, peacocks roaming throughout, an open-air theatre, grass and wooded areas. The hostel itself is a mix of old and new, with one wing a former Jacobean mansion that was built in 1607 and the other section built in the 1970s. Political leader Charles James Fox later owned the mansion.
My second night was spent at Dover Castle, which is just a short walk from Tower Bridge and we were able to take advantage of its proximity to explore the bridge and Tower of London.
Tower Bridge is gothic style and was opened in 1894. It’s still a working bridge, which opens around five times a week to allow boats to pass under it and it’s also a museum with interactive computers, holograms and working models showing how it was built.
Construction of the Tower itself started in 1078 by William the Conqueror, who wanted to impress Londoners. Its primary function was a fortress, a royal palace and a high-status prison – Queen Elizabeth I was even imprisoned there. It’s also served as a place of execution and torture, an armoury, a treasury, a zoo, a mint, a public records office, an observatory, and since 1303, the home of the Crown Jewels.
Nearby is Monument - built in 1671-77 to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its height is 62 metres, the exact distance from the fire’s source in a bakers shop. It’s the tallest freestanding Doric column in the world and is made from Portland Stone. I made my way up the 311 narrow stairs for my first views of London.
You can’t go to London and not experience the Big Red Buses. I was so excited to be on one and had decided to just get on and see where it took me. I sat at the top, right at the front so that I would have the best views. The bus drove to its first stop. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat. I waited for it to move on further. And waited. And waited. Finally I realised it wasn’t going anywhere. It had reached the end of the line. I finally gave in and made my way through the completely empty bus and back onto the pavement ... my first experience on a Big Red Bus. Fortunately I didn’t lose my zest for adventure and after that got on every bus I found to see where it would take me. It was a great way to see the city, with particular excitement at the unknown destinations awaiting me.
The day included a visit to Trafalgar Square – where we saw the National Gallery, which has one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Drove down Oxford Street, past Marble Arch, and on to Harrods Department Store where the cheapest item I found was a chocolate that cost around 10 pound. Instead I left with a free brochure.
I headed to Parliament House and Square, where I noticed crowds of people waiting at the gates to the Square. Having had no idea what they were waiting for, but assuming it was something or someone pretty special, I asked a guard what was happening and he responded with “You’re republicans, aren’t you?” ... a bit taken aback, I replied “No, we’re Australians”. He then pointed out the flag on the pole at the top of building and said when that particular flag is flown, it means the Queen is in the building.
So, like the rest of the crowd, I waited for a glimpse of the most famous woman in the world. A short time later she exited the building, got into her waiting car and drove out the gate right past me. It lasted all of about 10 seconds, but the excitement of the crowd built up the atmosphere for something that would normally appeal to me as much as watching paint dry. I was sure she was going to invite me back to the Palace for tea, but I think she forgot. So I headed through the city making my way towards the Palace just in case.
At Parliament House I was also treated to the sight of the second-most-famous face of London – Big Ben. Nearby, Westminster Abbey is the resting place of royals and one of the most visited churches in Christianity. The building is full of tombs and monuments, and was made particularly famous worldwide in 1997 with the coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral.
I arrived at Buckingham Palace but the Queen had already gone inside. Again, I guess she forgot about me. As sad as I was, I’d been told the changing of the guard said to be a London “must-see”. Unfortunately, with all the excitement about seeing the Queen and the expectation of tea, I’d just missed the changeover. So instead I poked my nose through the palace gate, thinking maybe if she saw that I was already on the Palace grounds she would have no choice but to invite me in. I soon gave up and decided instead to go for a walk along Regent Street and through Hyde Park - once a royal hunting ground, a venue for duels, executions and horse racing.
There is so much history to the city, but in the limited time we spent here, I wasn’t able to find the glamour that is generally associated with London life-style.
This was something I would have to wait a few more years to experience first-hand.