Parent's Visit

Parent’s Visit, Days 11-16: New Year’s in London

On the morning of the 27th, I walked with my parents to the Cambridge railway station. Over the next two days, they would be going duo to Dover. This part of their trip had been the least planned. We had discussed it the previous couple of days and decided that they would get the most out of visiting Dover. At the railway station, I showed them the multi-level cycle park. Mum was amazed; nothing like it exists in Adelaide.

I left them with tickets to London King’s Cross and instructions to transfer to a return train to Dover from neighbouring St Pancras (using HS1 – jealous). That day, they visited Dover Castle. The next day, they hiked to see the White Cliffs (hiking is something they quite enjoy). They later commented that the quality of the trail was poorly maintained compared to Tasmania, where they normally go hiking.

After sunset, I got a text from Dad saying that they were at the Dover railway station, ready to head back to London. I left to the Cambridge railway station and got a train to London which arrived slightly sooner. I found them on the concourse of St Pancras station, having just got off their train and with very little phone battery. I bought them both Oyster cards, and we headed to Kensal Green, where our hostel was located.

The hostel in London was something I had booked months in advance; beds in London around New Years tend to go early. It wasn’t the nicest hostel, nor the best well run, but it served its purpose as a set of beds and a base camp to see London. It was just across the road from Kensal Green tube station too, a nice bonus.

After checking in and depositing bags in our room, our minds turned to dinner. I saw this as an opportunity to take them in central London and experience a little of the local culture. We took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, to see London’s response to Times Square, New York, and then started to wander the West End. Being the period between Christmas and New Year’s, the streets were exceptionally busy, many more people than one gets in Adelaide. We ended up in Leicester Square, marvelling at the line to the LEGO store, and took the obligatory trip around the M&Ms store (for no reason other than to see how much you can market essentially one product). We had dinner from vendors who had set up a Christmas market in Leicester Square itself. Finally, quick jaunt down Shaftesbury Avenue and we returned to our hostel to call it a night.

– – –

Our first full day in London began. Mum had not been to London before (other than to change trains a couple of days prior), and Dad had only been once 6 years ago, and then only briefly. That meant we had to do all of the obligatory London tourist activities, starting at Buckingham Palace. As ever, there was a crowd of people at the gates, taking photos of the Queen’s Guard (in their non-red winter coats). Despite its significance, both to the UK and to Australia (we are still a monarchy), interest hear was low, so we took a stroll down the Mall to see Trafalgar Square, with Lord Nelson standing atop his column as ever. From there, we walked the Embankment a little, before ducking back in to try and pry through the guarded gates at Number 10, Downing Street.

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The highlight of the morning was the most stereotypical London landmark of all: the Houses of Parliament. Now, a lot of people can get fussy if you call the clock tower “Big Ben” rather than the “Elizabeth Tower”, often pointing out that it is indeed the bell that is named “Big Ben”. Whilst I see where people are coming from, I opine that if people call an object by an alternative name, and that name grows to a point where it is widespread and commonly understood, then that name is as good as the legal name for most but legal uses. Hence, I interchange frequently between “Big Ben”, “Elizabeth Tower” and the “Houses of Parliament” without worrying about the semantic differences. In any case, we took our Big Ben photos then headed on to Waterloo station to get back on the tube.

We rode the full length of the Waterloo and City line to get to our next destination: the Tower of London. As ever, the Tower was both busy yet fascinating. So much history has played out within its walls, and the stonework is remarkably satisfying too. We walked through a number of the exhibits, especially along the walls and the White Tower, constantly trying to fit each of the Kings and Queens into our understanding of the timeline of British history. The White Tower, in particular the armoury, was my favourite part of the visit. We didn’t go to see the crown jewels, the line was simply far too long for it to be reasonable (after zig-zagging all over the courtyard infront of the building, it extended past the Fusilier Museum and the New Armoury).

From the tower, we walked over Tower Bridge and along the Southbank, where more Christmas market stalls had set up. There were foods from all over the world, so we each found our dinner and sat around to eat it. After, we went to London Bridge and caught a tube back to the West End. We had some time to kill, so we joined the queue to go to the LEGO store. It was packed with people, many of whom were walking out with toys. They couldn’t fill the shelves fast enough. One particular London Bus model was restocked then sold out in a matter of minutes.

We had tickets to a production of Much Ado About Nothing by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and arrived in time to pick them up and find our seats high in the Grand Circle. As ever with cheap West End seats, we couldn’t see part of the stage, but that didn’t bother us much after it got started. Personally, I wasn’t familiar with the story, but I thoroughly enjoyed the production. It felt distinctively Shakespearean, even though this production seemed to be set in the 1800s. In particular the performances of Benedick and Constable Dogberry were outstanding, carrying the original humour well yet still adding production-specific non-verbal gags. Finally, one has to remember that the play was written some 400 years ago, so I had to look past a few things which aren’t quite appropriate for the modern day, but would have been normal back then.

– – –

On the second-last day of the year, having sent home Birthday wishes, we took the tube to King’s Cross to visit the British Library. I had told Mum about my visit to the exhibition on Mapping the 20th Century, earlier in the month, and she wanted to see it for herself. We had breakfast in the café outside the Library, and toured the exhibit shortly after opening time. I won’t go into any more detail about the exhibit, since I’ve already covered my thoughts on it.

For the middle of the day, we went out to Camden Town to visit the markets there. This was something I had read about but not actually visited before. Over the course of the next two hours or so, we wandered slowly up the High Street, taking in as much as possible. As a brief snack, we had some oversized Polish Sausage from a food vendor. The first marketplace we visited was the Union Street Market. There were many vendors in here, but they mostly sold the same collection of clothing and souvenirs. We would find more interesting stalls at the Camden Lock Market.

On our way across the bridge across Regent’s Canal, Dad noticed that there was a lock slightly upstream, and a canal boat about to enter it. We stopped to watch. The boat made it in safely. There were three people aboard. One seemed to be the owner, one was his novice friend, and the third didn’t make an appearance until a bit later on. They closed the top of the lock fine, but when it came time to drain it to get out of the other side, the lock wouldn’t empty fast enough. Water seeped through the top gate faster than it would be let out of the bottom gate, and they couldn’t push against the water pressure hard enough to get out. They had to resort to filling the lock back up again to move into the neighbouring lock. However, another canal boat had shown up in the meantime, so they let them in first as they backed their own boat out of the lock. But as they were backing it out, a third boat arrived, and went joined the second boat in the operational lock. So they had to drain, then refill and drain the second lock again just to get themselves further downstream.

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We ate lunch properly at the Camden Lock market and browsed there a little before catching a tube back into the city. Dad wanted to go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and to get there, Mum opted for the driverless DLR trains. Getting on at the first stop on the line meant we got to sit right at the front window as the train took us through the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf to Greenwich.

We walked up the hill to the Observatory, but unfortunately a deep fog had set in and the view from the top was short. Nonetheless, we found the meridian marker and then set about wandering the museum. As ever, I found myself marvelling at the exhibit on the work of John Harrison, the English clockmaker who spent his life solving the longitude problem. For those not familiar with Harrison, he was a self-educated clockmaker who tried to make an accurate clock for use on sea voyages, the idea being that if one knows the local time at both one’s current location and one’s home port, one can calculate their east-west position on the globe. He made four timepieces, all on display at the Observatory. The first three are each larger than the previous, trying to account for the motion of the ship, changes in climate and so on. But the one which solved the problem, H4, is tiny and yet was one of the most accurate clocks built to that point.

After our time in Greenwich, we went to the pier to catch a ferry back along the Thames into the City. It was still dark and foggy, but the experience of sailing under the Tower Bridge is a majestic one. From there, we went out to Angel, where we met with Kelsea, the daughter of family friends who was now living and working in London. We shared dinner in a small kebab restaurant, telling stories of what it is like living in London. After that, it was time for the train home.

– – –

New Year’s Eve had arrived. We planned to go and see the fireworks later that night, but first we had the morning to kill. From the platter of museums in London, we went first to the Natural History Museum. The line was long, lots of children were eager to get in to see the dinosaur skeletons. Eventually, the front of the queue arrived, and we went in to explore. There is a lot to see at the NHM, and there was a lot that we didn’t see. Of the things we did encounter were the human body section, the dinosaur exhibit (if only to see the parents trying to follow the children run around), the Cocoon (which is all about the day-to-day work of zoologists), the marsupials (because Australia) and the geology area (and the Earthquake simulator).

After lunch at a small café outside, we headed next to the British Musuem. Again, the British Museum is vast, and we only saw a small portion of it, namely, the exhibits on Mesopotamian and pre-Roman Britain, plus the famous Rosetta Stone. One can get tired of Greek or Roman sculptures fairly quickly – there are so many around – but the really fascinating parts are the day-to-day objects people used centuries ago. A simple tax ledger or farming tool are fascinating.

We had our last dinner for 2017 in an Italian restaurant in Soho, before heading towards the Embankment. This year, the New Years Eve fireworks were a ticketed affair. I had purchased tickets several months ago. We were designated to the Red Area, which extended along the north side of the Thames between Embankment and Temple tube stations. There were two entrances to the Red Area, one at Savoy Place and the other at Surrey Street. As we walked along the street we saw a long line of people queuing along the footpath. When we asked them what they were queuing for, they told us it was to get into the Red Area, via the Savoy Place entrance. This didn’t bode well. But, when we made our way to the Surrey Street entrance, there was no line at all.

Our bags and tickets checked, we were now free to roam the Red Area. We found a spot west of Waterloo Bridge where we were second from the front and could see the tower of Big Ben. This was good enough, so we settled in for the 4 hour wait until the fireworks.

By the time the year’s end came, there were many rows of people behind us. A particularly pushy group tried to get around us, but those of us who had been there for hours were having none of it. We counted down the new year with a counter on the side of one of the buildings on the Southbank, then watched the fireworks that started a second too early (because of the added leap second).

Once they were over, we made our way back into town. I didn’t want to go to the closest tube station, as it would be too crowded, so we ended up at Holborn. The station entrance was crowded and people were pushing and shoving, but we eventually made it onto a train back to the hostel.

We only got a few hours sleep, because before long we had to head to the airport. We checked out of the hostel, and took the tube to Heathrow. Mum and Dad checked in, we had a final coffee break, and then I waved farewell to them as they went through security. They were in for a long flight back to Australia.

I took the tube back to King’s Cross and then a train back to Cambridge. This time, I’d left my bike in the cycle park and so easily made it home before Mum and Dad had even left the UK.

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