Monday, September 24, 2012

London 2012 Part II: Tubes and Travels

If Gawick is such a hive of activity, I shudder to think what Heathrow must be like. It’s early afternoon, and the entire airport is knee-deep in people. Suddenly British accents are all around me, I’m peering out a window and staring at England, and there are unfamiliar shops and brands all around me. We left Cape Town approximately 20 hours ago and we’re absolutely exhausted. Now imagine having to board the Gatwick Express to somewhere in London, then hop on the tube and transverse the Northern, Central, Jubilee and who knows what other lines to finally terminate at Wimbledon – although the closest station to where we staying is actually called Collierswood. OK. Right now I’ve never even heard of the Northern/Central/Jubilee lines and I’m not exactly au fait with public transport, so this is where my genius hire car plan comes in.

But first… oooooh, is that cherry coke? Also, is 70p cheap or expensive for a colddrink? How much is that in Rands? Mathematics aren’t my strong suit, but I figure it’s pretty much what I’d pay at home for the same thing. Except we don’t have cherry coke at home. What a delight this country is!

Onto the hire car then. The lady behind the counter tells us that unfortunately the car we’ve ordered isn’t there, so can she give us a slightly larger car for the same price? Now, we’d ordered Ford Ka simply because it’s tiny and cheap on petrol. So we’re expecting to receive possibly… oh, I dunno, a Chevy Spark or an Atos as a replacement, but on arrival at the parking lot we’re in for quite a surprise: they’ve given us a gigantic monstrosity of a car that’s sure to chew through diesel as fast as a hungry American pre-teen chews through a helping of McDonald’s. Well, this is awkward.  None of the other car rental places have any cars available that day, and when we finally find one that does, they quote us twice what we were originally supposed to pay. We may as well suck it up and spend all our food money on petrol. After much arguing and me putting on my stern face, we’re eventually given a Honda Civic instead. It’s still a pretty big car, but at least it’s not that massive 4x4 they had threatened us with.

Time to hit the highway to Wimbledon! Wait. Did I just say ‘highway’? I meant it’s time to meander down the quaint country lanes to Wimbledon. Seriously. It’s kind of ridiculous. We’re relying on the directions I’d printed from google maps a few days ago, and we do get lost once or twice, but finally we make it. Hehe. How adorable is this suburb? It’s all tiny, old fashioned houses stuck on top of one another, just like something you’d see in Harry Potter. I soon discover that most of England looks just like this.

I can’t remember whether or not we ate supper that night, all I remember is that it was the day before the Olympic closing ceremony, and I was extremely tired around 7pm. So I set my alarm for 8pm so that I could wake….. up….. and …. watch…. Caster ….. Semenya’s ……… race.

Needless to say, the next time I was conscious was when the sun broke through the curtains the next morning. Is this real? Am I really awaking in LONDON? I thought it rained all the time in England. Clearly not. It’s beautiful outside.

This is the last day to take advantage of the Olympic vibe, and we simply must see the stadium! And, well, every other tourist attraction in the entire city is on the list too, so we’d better get a move on.

The London Underground is surprisingly easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. We purchase day travel cards, and then hop on board the Northern Line northbound to London Bridge. It’s all entirely unplanned, we just do it. London Bridge. London frikken Bridge. The one that was falling down in the song. It’s al so surreal! But hunger raises its head, and it seems most of the shops are closed. Granted, it’s around 9am on a Sunday morning, that could be why. The one place that is open is none other than Starbucks. Ahhhh that must be the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s HUGE. The chocolate muffin is pretty awesome too. I feel so cosmopolitan walking around LONDON with my cup of Starbucks. Damn. I’m becoming a hipster.

London is remarkably beautiful, I’m completely in awe. We walk over London Bridge, see Tower Bridge with the Olympic rings, nearly get taken out by a couple of red buses… I’m in heaven. I’m walking the streets of London. Just like the song. They marathon of the London 2012 Olympics is being run today, and we follow the hoards of people in the general direction of the event. Olympic signs! Am I really here during the Olympics? This is ridiculous! Click, click, click. So many photos.

We go walking for absolute ages up the street towards, well, we’re not sure exactly. We’re just walking and it’s great. Eventually we end up in the worst kind of shop: one of those places where everything is branded with the Union Jack, and a tourist’s bank balance finds its final resting place. I acquire a London hoodie, a new pink purse with ‘City of London’ stamped on it, and a variety of other knick-knacks. I simply can’t help myself. I think I’m actually squealing.

What’s up with all the pay toilets though? A Pound to use the loo? That’s R13! This is about the time when I stop converting everything in my head. It’ll only lead to despair.

HOLD UP! Is that the Tower of London?! We pose for photos with the beef eater, who is the friendliest person we’ve met all day, and then continue on our merry way, towards Tower Bridge. Which promptly begins to fold as we walk over it. Cue squeals and a rapid walk to the other side, before the bridge parts to make way for a boat. It’s super cool. Let’s take more photos. And let’s have a convo with the policemen and tell them we’re in the country to see The Killers. They accuse us of being groupies. We don’t deny it.

How big is London anyway? We wonder if we can walk to the Olympic stadium. But that’s kind of like asking if you can walk from Table Mountain to Robben Island. No. No, we cannot. So we’re back on the Northern Line to Bank, and then the Central to Stratford. The disconcerting thing is how quickly this terminology is becoming part of my vocabulary. We can’t physically get to the stadium, but we can catch the occasional glimpse of it from outside. But then, who even cares about the stadium – SHOPS! Westfield shopping mall is huge, and I’m in and out of all the shops I’ve only ever read about in magazines. I manage to control myself, however, and my only purchases are a pair of lightning bolt-shaped earrings to Friday’s concert, and a few Gaslight Anthem CDs that I can’t even get at Look & Listen back home. The mall is absolutely bustling, and the queues in all the shops are horrendous, but I’m starving and Marks & Spencer is surely the place to buy lunch. I purchase the first of the many pasta salads that I’ll live on for the next two weeks. Oh, and might I add that the UK’s music taste is fantastic – every shop I’ve walked into so far has been playing either The Killers or Coldplay.

Olympic athletes are swarming everywhere, and we surreptitiously take a few photos of them. We also somehow end up engaged in convo with some guys form Uzbekistan who claim to have won a medal for rowing.

What a day! We’ve done more than some tourists do in a week in one day, and we’re exhausted, so it’s back to Wimbledon to pass out for eight or so hours before we do it all again…

But first, tonight is the closing ceremony of the Olympics, and once again ‘surreal’ is the only word I can think of to describe how it feels to watch this on TV knowing I was at the stadium mere hours again. I don’t think I’ve really taken in the fact that I’m really in England. England. Enlgand, England, England.

I only have one mission for Monday: to find the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve been told that if one walks around Hyde Park for long enough, the Royal Albert Hall will appear as though by magic. Fine. I’m on the case. Northern Line to Bank, then, followed by Central to Marble Arch, which is apparently the closest station to Hyde Park. Yes, I’ve gotten all of this from a map. An actual, physical map. I’m getting so good at this whole tourist thing.

Hyde Park is literally across the road from the Marble Arch station, and so we start walking. We stop to ask some security guards where the RAH is, and they giggle. It’s quite a walk from here, they inform us. How long? We demand. Like an hour? Yeah, maybe an hour’s walk. We think they’re joking. They’re not. An hour – and a thorough creep of the stunning Hyde Park – later, RAH is in front of my face, in all its glory. I touch it. (I should probably explain that my fascination with this building comes from the fact that The Killers filmed their dvd here a few years ago. But even disregarding that fact, it’s an absolutely beautiful building.)

Lacking the stamina to walk back to the station, we decide to hop aboard one of those cool-looking red London buses. “Do we have to swipe our tickets somewhere?” we ask the driver. He glares at us. “You show the driver.” So we hold up our tickets and show him. “YOU SHOW THE DRIVER!”. Okay then, buddy, we’ll just go sit down, make no noise and pretend that we don’t exist until our stop.

Also, what’s up with all this traffic we’re stuck in? The Brits don’t drive, what’s going on?!

We eventually get through the traffic and jump off the bus. I learned my lesson from the blisters on my feet, and today I’m in takkies rather than the ballet pumps I sported all day yesterday, so the walk down another one of London’s very long roads isn’t that bad. But hold up again, is that Harrods? It’s another of those ridiculously famous places that I’d never expected to actually visit. I know that even breathing in there is probably out of my price range, but I have to go in just for fun. Although when the doorman opens up for me, one unfortunate thought is clouding my mind “Oh shoot… I’m in Harrods wearing takkies.”
The shop is utterly spectacular… I spend far too long gazing longingly at the rows and rows and rows of handmade chocolates before I manage to rip myself away and move onto the clothing section. Sigh. If I had a lifestyle that required me to attend high-end events, I could definitely find an outfit or two here. But I don’t. plus, I’m hungry, and there’s a Marks & Spencer nearby. I get a sandwich and a lemonade (and if anyone can find me a South African brand of lemonade that tastes like this, I’ll be forever in your debt. Actually, maybe it was just normal lemonade and my memories are skewing my memories. But whatever.)

Not yet satisfied with our day’s travels, we get back on the tube and this time head for St James, on first the Jubilee and then the Circle line. Up the stairs and onto the street, and suddenly Big Ben is staring me in the face (okay, just the clock tower is staring me in the face, Big Ben – as I’m later told – is the bell inside). Photos photos photos! It’s starting to rain and we don’t have an umbrella, whoops. Oh well. What’s a little rain when you’re in England, right? We’re in awe of Big Ben and the parliament buildings but finally we move off to Westminster Abbey. I’m not sure I’m doing any of these sights justice, so let me take a moment to say THEY WERE BREATHTAKING.

It’s still drizzling a bit when we get back on the train to Collierswood, and takkies or no takkies, my feet have taken strain. I’m slowly getting used to the way the the rumbles and shakes and slides very narrowly avoids the walls… I’m not even slightly scared anymore.

We decide we’ve done a lot in two days, and perhaps we should take a break from town and head off into the countryside tomorrow. We need to be in Leeds on Thursday afternoon, but maybe we’ll go to Wales for two days. Thank goodness for that device known as a GPS. 

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