European Adventure 2019, Leg 2: England

Leg 2, Day 1: Intro to England
June 16th, 2019

For what already seemed like the 20th time on this trip, early the next morning Danielle and I were on a bus. We opted to not take a taxi to the bus stop. The station was on the far outskirts of the downtown area and our bags were heavy, but we had more control over time this way and knew we were not going to exert ourselves in any other way that day.

I do not remember a lot of my thoughts on that bus ride, or really the first half of that day. Travelling can often be a blur, especially when someone like me, who tends to be a control freak about timing, becomes hyper-focused on keeping to our schedules. In my defense, our transportation blunders were few and far between the entire time. In addition, I think I truly felt a sense of closure with the first part of the trip. I had seen pretty much everything I wanted to see, everything I could see in a three night stay anyways, and I focused on looking forward not backwards.

I remember that this was the first time we had mild concern about our baggage. It became obvious very quickly that our flight to London Luton Airport was considerably overbooked and they asked for volunteers to take a later flight. We did not volunteer as we had a schedule to keep on the other end, but everything worked out, we just had to check Danielle’s blue rucksack. When that bag is as packed as it was, it just barely squeaks by most airline’s criteria for an acceptable carry-on, and it was a dice roll whether there would be an issue with it on each flight, though the dice generally rolled in our favor.

It seemed like an eternity as the gate had us go up a flight of stairs only to go back down in order to board our absolutely crammed flight, but these are things anyone traveling should come to expect. The Keflavik airport is the sole hub for Iceland’s booming tourism industry, and it was clear that the airport could barely keep up with all of the demand.

Even with all of the trudge involved in airplane travel, my spirits were high as we exited the plane. Luton airport is much smaller and more isolated from London proper than Heathrow, but it was closer to where we were going and the ticket was probably cheaper. Danielle had spent a lot of time in Europe when she was in college, and she was flagged by British customs for visiting certain countries and living in Ireland for six months. Nothing came of it besides being sidetracked for about ten minutes, but I found it quite amusing that she would be questioned.

Eventually we made our way to the terminal exit, and met up with then-Danielle’s now both-of-ours friend Alix who was there to pick us up. Alix is a fantastic person who I got along with instantly, and I couldn’t be happier to have her in our wedding party this August. As we bused back to her parking spot, it struck me that the airport had a massive sea of cars, but in the US we would use parking garages, and it confused me why they did not.

The two or so hour drive to Alix’s house in Coventry was fun but uneventful. Alix showed us around Coventry a little bit, including a church that suffered heavy bombing to the point of unusability during the Battle of Britain. I had fish and chips as one of my who can count how many times on this trip at a chain pub, and we pretty much spent the rest of the day relaxing at Alix’s house and settling ourselves in for the next three nights.

Overall, it was a relaxing intermediary day that I am glad we had, it was a well-placed transition in our journey.

Leg 2, Day 2: London
June 17th, 2019

On her way to work, Alix dropped us off at the train station for the main event of our time in England. It is an hour and a half each way from Coventry to London, but it was still about mid-morning when we arrived at the Euston railway station. From there, we took the London Underground to our first main stop within the city.

One of my favorite things about London was the Underground itself, known locally as “the tube.” There are cities with much better public transit than London, but this was my first experience with a public transit system that was this fast, efficient, and thorough. To me, this was a megacity realized, this was the peak of human local transit potential. Though not nearly the largest, London is one of the most important and well-known cities on the planet, and clutching the poles in the rail cars I pondered how many dozens of people from dozens of countries have been in the same car, going to the same stops, and in that moment I felt connected to the rest of humanity.

I had a couple personal peeves with it, though. I know it is called the Underground, but it is deep underground. There are little to no shops, and there are not even any bathrooms once you leave the ground level. This upset me for a while, but honestly, cleaning bathrooms at every station on a regular basis would cost a lot of money in labor and supplies.

Danielle’s coworker Juli had happened to schedule a trip to England at the same time as us, and the plan was to meet her at Trafalgar Square. We emerged from the deep a little bit early, so we skirted our way around the square to successfully find coffee and a bathroom.

We eventually found Juli and navigated our way to the stop where we would catch our hop on-hop off tour bus. We did not really spend any time in the square itself, but I encourage you to look up Admiral Nelson of the eponymous Nelson Monument, that guy was a badass.

I don’t know if this was the bus’ first stop of the route, but it was empty and we had our pick of spots on the upper deck. It was as perfect as weather gets, and we were told at one point it had been raining for days beforehand. With a couple notable exceptions, we brought warm, pleasant weather wherever we went the entire trip. That was just one more factor that contributed to the success of our journey.

There was a constant sea of people and traffic during the bus ride, The juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture next to modern malls and skyscrapers was enthralling. This was another one of those moments where all I wanted to do was sit back and process what I was seeing,

Eventually we made our way to the Tower Bridge, and exited the bus right next to the Tower of London. The surrounding cityscape makes the Tower of London look quite innocuous, but it is one of the most important and iconic features of the entire city. We did a circle around the tower, navigating our way through the dozen school and tour groups. There is always something to look at in London, and I found the not-as-famous things as interesting if not more so.

We trekked across the bridge for lunch. There is apparently a massive world food market and eatery called Borough Market on the south side of the Thames near London Bridge, I had never heard of it. Describing the entire place would be a writing project of its own, but let’s just say options for cuisine were wide open. Recently I measured the distances on Google Earth, and Borough Market is the farthest I’ve ever been from home, and I think that is very fitting.

After Danielle, Juli, and I ate and I took a few minutes to call my mom to tell her how the trip was so far, there was a moderate struggle to find a bathroom. I want to take this opportunity to warn anyone traveling to these countries that unless you are in an area geared specifically for tourists, and sometimes not even then, bathrooms are often difficult to find. This market was a massive complex with at least a couple thousand people in or nearby, and it took us about ten minutes to find the public restrooms, and another fifteen to use them. If there were a facility similar to this in the US, there would be two different bathrooms, each with a half dozen stalls, and they would be clearly marked. Here, there were three single-person rooms period, and the signage to find them was nonexistent. I do not know what social proclivites caused this, but I would be genuinely curious to know, because it was a common theme on our trip.

After we were done, we made our way across London Bridge to our next bus stop. The openness and touristic quality on our first bus was completely lost on this one. This ride was more of a city bus ride, and not even a very good one. I did manage to catch glimpses of various landmarks, like The London Eye and the parliament building. Big Ben was under renovation so there was not very much to see anyway.

Eventually we made it to the Buckingham Palace tour bus stop. Tower Bridge/Tower of London and Buckingham Palace were the two places I cared about visiting the most while in London. The former was mainly for the historical significance, the latter was for a somehow dorkier reason. Eleven months prior, I stood right outside the gates of the White House in D.C., where the POTUS sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. I wanted to see the building where the other Resolute desk sits, a symbol of unity between the two powerhouse nations. Yes, that is the sort of anecdote I become sentimental about.

That aside, the area surrounding the palace was gorgeous. The Victoria Memorial and surrounding gardens brought personality and life to the square. Fans of Good Omens cannot forget St. James Park, immediately next to the memorial, so we had a few minutes of fun guessing which bench David Tennant and Michael Sheen sat in during the show.

We walked through St. James park to a tube station for our next stop, the main attraction for Danielle and Juli, the Natural History Museum. I enjoyed it as well, but for them it was a science teacher’s hallowed ground. The first things you see when you enter the main entrance are a statue of Charles Darwin and a full blue whale skeleton, and on two floors are a dozen branches that lead to different wings of the museum.

It was a fantastic museum, You name it, it had it in terms of standard exhibits you would find in a science museum, but due to the fame and funding, it had a lot of unique and specialized things you would not be able to find anywhere else. By far my favorite single thing I saw on this entire leg of the trip were some scarce wisps of matter that you had to strain to even notice against their stand. These flecks were asserted as the oldest thing you will ever see, dated from before the formation of the solar system. I did not take a picture of them because if you want to have such an experience you will just have to go see it for yourself.

Our next stop is a must-go for any Harry Potter fan – King’s Cross Station. I have never been a huge Harry Potter fan, I kind of missed the boat as a child, and I am pretty sure I would be a Hufflepuff, but through the people I know including Danielle I have sort of vicariously been one. The 9 ¾ wall has been obviously taken over as a tourist spot, but it was a wholesome experience and the gift shop was quite good.

Our day of tourism had come to a close. We stopped by Juli’s AirBnB for a quick rest before going to dinner at Nando’s, a British restaurant chain that any American would feel right at home in. We went back to grab our stuff and say goodbye, then I enjoyed one final tube ride back to Euston station. I feel like I had as good of a London experience as anyone could in half a day.

Leg 2, Day 3: Cotswolds and Bath
June 18th, 2019

This was just a fun, mostly laid-back day we spent with Alix. She chauffeured us south from Coventry into the region known as the Cotswolds, called such for the rolling hills it comprises. Put simply, it was quaint British countryside, which is honestly what I wanted to see the most during our English leg of the trip. We stopped for lunch in Bourton-on-the-Water, and the small town England experience could not have been more perfect. I ate a delicious English breakfast right by a stone bridge that went over a tranquil, duck-filled river that glided through the town. Afterwards we went to a local bakery for some sausage rolls and pointed at things as we walked back to the car. I’ve seldom felt more at peace than when I was in that small town in England.

The main event of the day was Bath, although keep in mind we had made a couple more stops and already driven for hours that day by the time we arrived here. This city was named for the Roman baths that dominated this area up to 2000 years ago, and the history major in me had to go here. The rule of thumb for me on this trip was the older something is the better, and this would be the oldest signs of civilization I think I had ever seen.

We did not take a guided tour and instead had freeform informational headsets, which I much preferred. The main large bath area itself was not nearly as interesting as the guts of the place inside, where you could see and in a couple allowed cases touch millenia-old ruins. In short, these are the only hot springs in England, and the Romans created the Bath as a sort of destination/vacation spot when they discovered it. It was dedicated to Minerva, and there was a temple to Minerva on the grounds. I did not see the temple, I do not remember if it was a separate paid exhibit or if it was just not open at the time, but seeing the walkways, steam rooms, and the still-flowing hot spring water in the ancient pipes was more than enough for me.

On our way home, we stopped in another town for fantastic and deep pot pies at a restaurant called Puddingface just to round out our wonderful English countryside experience. We packed as soon as we returned to Coventry so we could get as much as sleep as possible. The following day would be another very long one.

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