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Sunday, May 14, 2000

Arriving in a new place is always exciting. As I was about halfway back in the plane, I simply had to follow the crowd to find passport control. Suddenly, I found myself on a tramcar. The terminal at which we landed was connected to the main terminal by a tram that only travels a few hundred yards. After passport control, where I was asked the usual questions (Business or pleasure; how long would I be in the country; was I traveling with others), I soon found myself waiting for my baggage to go through customs. With nothing to declare, I walked right through customs without speaking to anyone and found myself in the main terminal.

It was like something you would see in a movie. There were two lines of people forming a corridor through which I had to pass. There must have been a hundred signs held up for different tours, groups, and individuals. I quickly saw the sign for the transport company that I needed to take into London. I introduced myself to the young lady and explained my situation. She called the front desk on her cell phone and quickly found the arrangements my mother had made the day before.

This is as good a place to say this as anywhere. Several weeks before I left on the trip I was reading an online travel site. Someone asked how difficult it was to obtain a cell phone in England. One person replied that cell phone stores are on every corner and most Brits have one surgically attached to their ear. This wasn't far from the truth.

I had about thirty minutes until the bus departed so I decided to take care of a few things. First, I found an ATM where I withdrew 250. I used ATMs 4 times. The first time I received an exchange rate of 1.52. The next three times I received an exchange rate of 1.49. This was nearly the bank exchange rate and I paid no commissions, exchange fees, or ATM fees. I had taken $450 cash with me that I returned home with.

I then purchased two 3 British Telecom phone cards. I should have only purchased one. I made many phone calls and thought I would use them both up, but by the end of the trip I had only used the first one for about half of its value. I would recommend buying a phonecard, as they will save you money.

I then called the hotel to let my mother know I had arrived. She told me it would take nearly two hours to get from the airport to the hotel. I then went back to the rendezvous point for the bus. We then had a fairly long walk to meet the van. On the way I had a pleasant talk with the van lady. She informed me that Gatwick is only about 15 miles from Brighton (I haven't checked this) and that they often get fog off the ocean.

The van was a fifteen passenger pulling a small trailer. The seats were small and the only way for those in the back to exit was for everyone in the front to get out first. Because of this, we were loaded in the order in which we would exit the van. I was in the second seat so by this I assumed I would be the second off the van. And I was correct.

It was a cool damp morning, probably not unusual for England. As we left the airport my nose was glued to the window to see as much as I could. We went through several small towns, passed many fields of sheep, passed one large country estate and an amusement park. As we got closer to London I begin to see the urban sprawl. How similar, yet how different, everything appeared. We passed over the Thames where crews were rowing their boats.

I was soon in London, and we dropped off our first passenger. I had been observing the driver to get any clues I could on traffic rules. I would be driving in this country in just a few days. After going up and down and in and out and round about many a one-way road (I was thoroughly confused), we pulled up in front of the Bayswater Inn. I believe it was about 9:30 a.m.

My mother was waiting outside for me. She was thoroughly glad that I had arrived. After grabbing my luggage, we went directly to the dining room so I could get some breakfast. Breakfast at the Bayswater consists of Tea, watery Orange Juice, extremely hard Rolls, with butter and jam. You can also purchase breakfast at an outrageous price.

Over breakfast my mother shared with me how their trip had gone so far.

After breakfast we went to our room. The room was in the basement. The only way to get to the room was on a very old and very rickety elevator. The only stairwell was a fire emergency exit with a sign stating an alarm would ring if you opened the door. The room had a window in the bedroom and in the bathroom. Both looked out onto what can best be called an airshaft. This was an area of about five square feet. Directly across from our bedroom was the laundry room.

Alan was asleep on the bed when I arrived. After stowing my stuff we started planning on what we wanted to do. We needed to change the vouchers we had purchased for a 7-day 2-zone pass. I had purchased these off the web for $35 each. They were good on all tubes and city buses all day for 7 days. I believed we saved some money by purchasing these in advance but not much. Before I return I will look at this more closely to see what is the best deal. We had also lost some money because I had the vouchers with me and my mother and brother had to purchase their first days tube pass. We also had to purchase 3 one-way tickets to get to the nearest tube stop where we could exchange them. Having the passes is tremendously handy. You can go all you want and don't have to worry about continually purchasing tickets. You can also use them to hop-on/hop-off the city buses. Even if it only saves you a few blocks of walking, it helps.

We decided on the following Itinerary for our first day: 1) exchange our vouchers for a tube pass; 2) take the Westminster Walk as described in Rick Steves "Mona Winks" book; 3) return to the hotel and change and then to the Ritz for Tea; 4) take the Jack The Ripper walk with Donald from London Walks.

With this plan, we left for the day. From the hotel to the tube is less than a five-minute walk. Most days we left from the Bayswater Tube on the circle line. Occasionally, we would walk to or return from the Queensway Tube a few blocks further down the road. We used this tube stop when taking the central line.

The tube system in London is great. You really only need a zone 1 and 2 pass. Almost everything can be found within the area of the Circle (yellow) Line. And you can easily transfer to the other lines that run through the heart of the city. Most places (with the exception of Buckingham Palace) are within 6 - 8 blocks of a tube. Actually, most places we went were closer than that.

There are some things you need to know about the tube. You will be hopelessly confused as to which direction is which. The train always seems to be going in the opposite direction than what I thought it should. Be prepared to walk. Just because a tube is a transfer point doesn't mean that the trains are close together. At some transfer points it seems you walk a half-mile or more to get from one to the next. Be prepared for stairs, stairs, and more stairs. And don't forget to watch for the rats playing on the tracks. You will also find that the cars are less crowded the farther you walk from the stairs. At certain times of the day this makes a huge difference.

We found the trains only moderately crowded during the day. Usually a seat was available within a stop or two. After 7 p.m. the trains were fairly empty. In the mornings (7 a.m. - 9 a.m.) they could be sardine crowded. You can also figure that it will take 3 minutes per stop and 15 minutes per transfer. So, if where you are going is 8 stops and 1 transfer away, figure it will take 39 minutes. It is always easier to take a longer route with fewer transfers than a shorter route with more transfers.

We quickly figured out the best trains to take and what were the best transfer points. By the end of the week I even had locals asking me questions. Just be sure to "Mind the Gap."

The machine where you purchase tube passes has hundreds of buttons. Not knowing what I was doing I punched the button for Victoria Station. A light flashed telling me to insert 1.50. I popped in 2 and got .50 change and a ticket. You insert the ticket into the machine and pass through a small gate. It is important to keep the ticket, as you will need it to exit from the next tube stop.

We soon boarded our train and quickly found ourselves at Victoria Station. We only stopped here this one time. Not only is this a tube stop but also a train station. There is a large street where a glass covering has been placed from roof to roof creating a mall. After exchanging our vouchers we proceeded to the Westminster Station Tube stop. Exiting the stop, you find Big Ben staring down at you from across the street.

Just as we got to street level, the Big Ben Bell started to ring. We had decided to follow the Rick Steves "Westminster Walk" from his book, "Mona Winks." I had photocopied the England section so I could just carry the individual pages with me. We first made our way halfway across the Thames on the Westminster Bridge. From this point there is a great view up and down the river of the new London Eye "Ferris Wheel", Big Ben, a permanently "moored" hot air balloon and Parliament Building.

As we walked back towards Big Ben, I stopped to take a picture of the Boadicea Statue. As I was focusing a double-decker London bus pulled up to the light, the driver graciously stopped several feet away so as not to block my picture.

Heading to the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Street, we could see the electrified Churchill statue in Parliament Square. The statue is electrified to keep the pigeons off. The square was completely roped off so we had to settle for taking pictures from across the street.

A block or so to our left was Westminster Abbey and the road to our right led to Trafalgar Square. As it was a Sunday, we decided to skip Westminster as I had read that several sections are not open on Sundays. So we headed for Trafalgar. Just a block or so up Parliament Street is a road that goes off to the left (King Charles Street). Walking down this road a hundred yards we found the Cabinet War Rooms.

Luckily they were opened on Sunday. It cost around 5 or so to enter. We did save 1 each by using the London For Less cards we had received as part of our package from Go-Today.Com. The tour is self-guided using a player that is similar to a cordless telephone. As you entered each room there would be a number you would punch in to give you a description.

We spent over an hour going through the rooms. You could spend much longer if you stopped and read all the informational boards. It was fascinating to see the rooms, maps and equipment that Churchill used to execute the war. I would highly recommend this tour to everyone.

In London, the basement of the Treasury building contains the Cabinet War Rooms. In Washington D.C., the basement of the Treasury building contains a few fish tanks.

Across the street from the War Rooms is St. James' Park. There were many people out enjoying this very warm day. On an island in the small lake in the park were twenty pelicans. We started back towards Parliament Street. On each side of this street are government buildings.

A block or two on down the road we came across Downing Street. Downing Street is gated with several security guards. #10 Downing is where the Prime Minster lives. There is not much to see unless someone is coming or going. We stopped for a couple of minutes to take a few pictures.

Another block down we came to the Horse parade grounds. In the front were two Horse Guards. I am not sure of the official title. Basically, it was two guards sitting on two large black horses. We took pictures of the horses, pictures of the guards, and pictures of each of us petting the horses. I am not sure what they were guarding. There was a gate in between them but people were coming and going as they pleased. So we decided to go through and see what there was to see. Beyond the gate was a courtyard, and then another gate that went through a building to a parade ground surrounded by bleachers. There were also several doors, each of which were guarded by an armed guard. Now, when I say guard, I mean the types of guards that you see standing in front of Buckingham Palace.

I believe this is the parade ground where the guard gathers each morning before marching to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards. Or, I might be completely wrong. One interesting note concerning the gate leading through the building - there was a notice that only the Queen was allowed to ride through this gate on a vehicle. Thus, anyone on a bike had to dismount and walk his or her bike through.

Continuing towards Trafalgar, we saw many statues to different generals and field marshals. We also passed the Banqueting Hall but it was closed for the day. Just as we approached Trafalgar Square I had something happen that has never occurred to me before. My leg muscles started cramping with every step I took. I believe this occurred for several reasons. First, I had probably become dehydrated. The weather was very hot. I had also had very little sleep in the past three days. What sleep I had wasn't the best. And I think I was low on potassium.

We were just a few hundred yards from St. Martin's-in-the-Field. I had heard of their cafeteria in the crypt so decided to go there to rest and get a bite to eat. The food was delicious. We had soup, sandwiches, and an apple crisp pudding. If you want only water, there is a water fountain that is hidden behind one of the columns (to save some money from buying bottled).

This is as good as any place to have this rant. People brag all the time about which country is the best. Those are basically stupid arguments. However, I will give the U.S. the upper hand for having water fountains available everywhere. In the U.S. you can find a water fountain available almost everywhere you go, especially public facilities. In England, water fountains are few and far between. Thus, you either end up carrying water with you or spend a small fortune on water. I would purchase large bottles of water to keep in the hotel or in the car. I also carried smaller bottles with me during the day. But these would quickly be emptied and I would find myself buying water. Ok, enough of that, just an observation.

After resting a while in the cool crypt, we decided to head to the National Gallery across the street. This is a massive building filled with thousands of pictures. Having learned my lesson in Washington D.C., we got a brochure and mapped out the "must sees" and left the rest for that "future trip" where we have unlimited time and money. I have found that I truly love art galleries. I could spend hours in each one. I also realize how little I appreciate the different works knowing so little about them.

Leaving the National Gallery we crossed to Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar is full of pigeons and tourist. The difference being a pigeon is suckered into buying small cups of feed to give to the birds touring the square. It was fun seeing the kids playing in the fountains.

We hopped the Central Line from Charing Cross Station to Queensway and then walked back to the hotel. Today, in America, is Mother's Day. I had made reservations several months in advance for us to have Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Hotel. You can find them at The Ritz has a dress code so we first had to change.

I had told my mother to pack a dress as we would be attending church and she would need dress clothes. I finally told her where we were actually going. So with Alan and I in slacks and sports coats, mom in her dress, we hopped the tube back to the Green Park stop. Coming out of the tube stop , you are only a few steps away from the Ritz.

We were thirty minutes early for our 5 p.m. reservation but our table was ready. The tearoom is very elegant. Tea consisted of your choice of several different types of tea, a variety of finger sandwiches, scones and jam, and some very fancy desserts. You could have as many as you wanted of each of these. There was also live music being played on a harp. One minor thing I found fascinating was the hot teakettle.

The pots of tea were so hot that you could barely lift them without using a cloth to keep from burning your hand. And they stayed this way the entire time. I don't know how they managed this but it was interesting. I also realized that the small grate on the table was to strain the loose leaf tea. So, my first cup was a little gritty. The sugar on the table was also interesting. It wasn't cubes but it wasn't loose. It could best be described as being similar to small rocks.

We ate everything they brought and even had another plate of sandwiches brought. We were all stuffed as we left. Did I enjoy having Afternoon Tea at the Ritz? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not, it is very expensive. But this was a special time and it was fun.

By now it was close to 6 p.m.. We decided to try to go to the Jack the Ripper walk that night at 7:30. But first we needed to go back to the hotel and change back into our street clothes. After arriving in Bayswater, I quickly stopped in a small store and purchased some bananas. I did this to help replace the potassium in my body.

We quickly changed and hopped back on the tube. By now it was 6:40 and we had 14 tube stops to reach the Tower Hill Station. At three minutes a stop it would take us 42 minutes. Several times we were delayed at different stations. But we managed to reach Tower Hill Station right at 7:30 and had no trouble finding Donald Rumbelow from London Walks.

Donald Rumbelow is recognized as a leading authority on Jack the Ripper. The walk was very interesting and very funny. Donald would stop, talk for 10 to 20 minutes, and then quickly walk to another location where this would be repeated. I got to the front so I could ask Donald a couple of questions. I also let him know that my knowledge of Jack the Ripper was mainly limited to the Star Trek episode.

I noticed several other groups from different companies doing the same walk. The entire walk last nearly 2.5 hours. Nearly 30 to 40 minutes of this is spent at a pub. I noticed all the other groups also stopping. Obviously, the tour guides get a kickback from the pub for stopping. This is the only thing I didn't like about the walk. The "pub" that you stop in is completely characterless and has been set-up to serve a large number of people in a very short time.

After leaving the Pub we only went to two more locations. By now we had walk clear across London. Yes, it's true. The city of London is actually only 1 square mile. Today, the population of London is a thousand or two at most. The majority of the city is made up of large office buildings that are deserted at night. During Jack the Ripper's time, the population of the city was several million. By now it was after 10 p.m. and we had to walk back in the dark . . . . oooohhhhh . . . . spooky.

We made it back to the hotel just after 11 p.m.. I had stopped at a small store a block from the hotel and purchased some water, an Orange Fanta, and some potato chips. After having a small snack I passed out on the bed. Alan was so tired he fell asleep on top of the sheets without undressing.

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