England Trip 2010

Day 01

The Departure

Monday, 4th October, 2010

Our plane, British Airways 767 at Heathrow

Our plane, British Airways 767 at Heathrow

The day had finally come, it was time to begin our journey. The weather was temperate, not warm, not cool. It was overcast and grey with sprinkling rain. We took care of some last minute items, picking up a On30 steam engine that Kevin was taking over for his friend Peter, buying the last ‘chunk’ of our British currency (this was necessitated due to the daily ATM withdrawal limit) and making sure everything was packed just so. At last the appointed hour had come.

We left St. Catharines about 2:30pm, 04 October, 2010, Kevin Argue, Linda and I. Drove to Pearson International Airport and traffic was good. Parked in the GTAA outdoor lot and took the automated train into Terminal 3. We had already booked our seats and printed our boarding passes the night before so we went to the head of the luggage check-in line at the BA counter. That’s when Linda and I found out we hadn’t signed our passports (pointed out by the helpful man at the BA desk). After a snack at the Upper Crust (a British franchise) and a rest we headed through security. Linda was so tense getting her passport out of her pouch that she cut her finger on the zipper. During the processing I had to undo my belt because my overlarge Southern Pacific Railway buckle was concerning the security personal and they wanted to make sure there wasn’t something (er metal) concealed behind it. Kevin and Linda wondered what I was doing since it looked like I was about to drop my trousers.

With that out of the way we could relax in the departure lounge for an hour or so until it was time to board. Before long we were boarding BA flight 98, a Boeing 767 and taxi-ing out. The take-off was swift and smooth and we settled in for the 7 hours flight ahead. For the trip over we had upgraded to what BA calls World Traveller Plus which gives you a larger seat with more legroom, this proved to be well-worth the price. The in-flight service was excellent and we even got a few hours sleep before breakfast snacks were brought around as the plane began it’s descent to Heathrow.

Day 02

The Arrival

Tuesday, 5th October, 2010

Our Hotel, The President near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London

Our Hotel, The President near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London

We landed at Heathrow just before 8am local time, ahead of schedule. Going through passport control was a pleasant experience since the nice young woman at the desk allowed us to pass through as a group and wished us a happy holiday.

After some searching Kevin located our driver for the airport to hotel transfer. From there we were ushered into the garage and into a Ford Mondeo wagon. The weather was still overcast but mild. The drive in on the M4 took a long time, it was over a hour of stop and go traffic. Linda and Kevin dozed in the back while I took in the sights from the passenger seat…on the left. It took my mind a long time to adjust to everything being mirror image. Right turns especially felt wrong. At long last we arrived at the front door of our hotel (The President on Guilford road), tipped our driver and went in to register. Our room was ready but Kevin’s, while vacant, was not yet cleaned. We retired to our rooms to settle in and have a much-needed nap. It was about 11am when we lay down and we only slept until about 1:30. We woke up from a sound sleep, confused about what day and time it was but soon got reoriented. I reset the time zone setting on my watch and it automatically adjusted to local time.

Our room at the President

Our room at the President

The phone rang and it was Kevin asking if we would like to get some lunch, we readily agreed and set off on foot. Just round the corner, one street over we found our local Pret A Manger, a franchise which specializes in fresh, healthy food. We chose some sandwiches and I picked one called Ham and Egg Bloomer (since I didn’t get what I consider to be a proper breakfast). It was delicious and instantly became my favourite. The place was packed as the natives were also grabbing lunch. The Pret’s coffee was also quite good and he caffeine provided me with a much needed boost.

After lunch Kevin took us exploring. We located our London Transport zone passes and set off on the Underground. We went through Covent Garden which is no longer the flower and agricultural market it once was but is now a collection of shops and stores, including a 3 level Apple Store. They let me play, briefly with an iPad before dragging me off. The rest is a bit of a blur but I think we passed through Piccadilly with it’s many animated signs. We ended up at Trafalgar square and sat to take in the sights, Nelson’s statute, the fountains and all the people. After a few hours of exploring we decided to grab some supper. We chose another well-known (in England) franchise called Garfunkels. We enjoyed a nice meal there as well.

Me the Apple Store in Convent Garden. You can see what Linda is thinking ‘Get him out of here. Now!’ Photo by Kevin Argue

Me the Apple Store in Convent Garden. You can see what Linda is thinking ‘Get him out of here. Now!’ Photo by Kevin Argue

We returned to the hotel and rested briefly in our rooms. Linda went to bed then Kevin and I headed out for some Train spotting. We went to King’s Cross station and saw several trains sitting on the platform. Kevin chatted with a female Guard (conductor) and got some info about when the trains were leaving. Whenever Kevin chats with a native in this fashion he ends by giving them a Canadian Flag pin which is always well received. We snapped some photos of several local and high-speed trains. After an hour or so of this we returned to the hotel and to bed.

Day 03

Eye on London

Wednesday, 6th October, 2010

The London Eye

The London Eye

Breakfast the next morning was the included ‘Continental’ breakfast. I had cold cereal, toast with jam and tea. Kevin confirmed that the hotel coffee was bad. I realized that I had been unable to connect to the Internet to update anyone at home. We inquired and found out that the room next to the registration desk, the Atrium Lounge, had free WiFi. I went in with my iPod and composed an email message but it was taking too long to send and we had a 10am appointment at the London Eye.

Linda and I on the London Eye, photo by Kevin Argue

Linda and I on the London Eye, photo by Kevin Argue

We left before it sent and headed out in search of a bus. We took a bus across Waterloo bridge and walked to the Eye location next to the Thames. It was overcast, cool and rainy but by the time we got our tickets and got on the Eye the rain was letting up. The trip round the wheel took about 30 minutes and the view is spectacular. It’s a great way to get an overview of the city since you can see many of the more famous sights from there. We also noticed blue skies rolling in.

After that we walked across Westminster Bridge (I took a couple of photos of Queen Boudicca’s statue on the far side). Then we moved on to Westminster Abbey. Our tour of the Abbey included the use of an ‘audio wand’ which is a digital audio guided tour. At numbered locations, you simply type in the number and get an audio description of what you’re seeing.

I must confess I had mixed feelings about the Abbey. The sheer weight of history and the important people and events connected with it are surely impressive as are the stained glass windows and high arched ceilings. It’s just that it feels more like a museum of what Christianity (or more accurately Christendom) used to be rather than a living breathing Christian community. Services are stilled held there, in fact there was a eucharistic service in progress while we were finishing the tour but it still has a ‘behind glass’ feel. Follow the link to see an entire blog on this topic.

It’s still quite an impressive place, it goes on forever. And when you enter parts of it that are quite old it boggles the mind. The other thing, though, is that you are surrounded by death, there are tombs and graves everywhere. It’s almost like a who’s who of British history. Definitely worth seeing.

After a Pret lunch we took the Underground to the Tower of London. The sun was out now it was warming up. After making a necessary pit stop we queued for our tickets and assembled awaiting our guide. Our guide was a Yeoman Warder or ‘Beefeater’ who’s name was Chris. He led us on an informative, colourful and humorous journey through the tower and it’s, somewhat violent, history. At the end of the tour our guide said, “If you liked the tour my name is Chris, if you didn’t it’s Kevin.” We found that funny since we had both a Chris and a Kevin in our travel group.

Us with Tower Bridge in the background, photo by Kevin Argue

Us with Tower Bridge in the background, photo by Kevin Argue

After the guided part of the tour we went into the part of the tower where the crown jewels are kept. We wandered through some introductory films which detailed the history and the origins of the jewels. They’ve been collected over the centuries and represent both the spoils of past conquests and reflect the history of royal symbology. They were stunning to see in real life, almost too ornate to comprehend but still very stunning.

We finished our tour late in the afternoon and Kevin said he had a surprise for us. We hailed a London cab, climbed in and drove across town. We arrived at the Hard Rock Cafe, the original one (on 150 Old Park Lane in Mayfair), which was the surprise. Unfortunately the supper hour was well underway and we waited on the patio as it grew darker and colder. Finally, after an hour plus of waiting, we were ushered to our table where we thawed out and enjoyed our meal.

After this we made our way back to our hotel via bus and underground. Later that evening I was able to connect via WiFi and communicate with my family and the rest of the world.

Day 04

A Visit To Henry’s Place

Thursday, 7th October, 2010

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

After breakfast we made our way to London Waterloo Station where we boarded a Southwest Trains local for a ride across London to Hampton Court. The day was sunny and mild as we walked across a bridge over the Thames (a smaller river this far upstream) on through the gilded gates and onto the Hampton Court Palace grounds.

I really liked Hampton Court, built by Cardinal Wolsey from a private manor into a Bishop’s palace including rooms for Henry VIII, his first wife Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Mary. Wolsey fell from grace and died (or killed himself) and Henry took over the place. Henry expanded it into most of what you see there today. It was later added onto and improved by successive monarchs including, William III King George I and II. It fell into disuse as a royal residence after that and in 1838 Queen Victoria decreed that it should be open to all subjects to visit.

It’s very palatial and the grounds are beautiful. It was neat to see the rooms and halls once trod by Henry. Since Linda an I followed the series The Tudors we were very keen to see it. After we toured around and took several pictures and retired to the very pleasant Tiltyard cafe for lunch.

Linda and I at the Tiltyard Café

Linda and I at the Tiltyard Café

After lunch we walked back to the train station and boarded our train for the return to Waterloo Station. With people rushing in every direction Kevin led us through labyrinthian corridors to Waterloo East where we boarded a train across the Thames to Charing Cross station and then a short walk to Covent Garden. There we visited the London Transport Museum. This wasn’t part of our original plan but we had time and the museum isn’t overlarge. It was very interesting and worthwhile. We stopped for a quick refreshment, visited the gift shop, where I bought a T-shirt with the Underground map on it.

‘Crash’ Paxton at the controls of a London Underground simulator.

‘Crash’ Paxton at the controls of a London Underground simulator. The good news, they’ve agreed not to sue. Photo by Kevin Argue

After a pleasant supper at Garfunkel’s Linda and I said farewell to Kevin who was off for a side-trip to visit his friend Peter Bowen in Somerset.

Day 05

Coach Tour

Friday, 8th October, 2010

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

On Friday our day started early at 6:00am. We had contacted our tour company a couple of days before and found that they would be picking us up at 7:20. We appeared at breakfast at 7 sharp (they opened right on time) and were ready when our coach appeared at 7:20 (again, right on time, you’ve got to love the English for that). We departed and picked up several other folks at other hotels and arrived at London Victoria Coach Station. We were let off and told to wait at Gate 5. In the meantime we picked up a coffee and some water. Not long after a bus pulled up outside of gate 5. Since none of the folks around us stirred I assumed that it wasn’t our bus. It was. Luckily our guide came into the terminal calling us by name so we didn’t get left behind. We also found out, after we sat down that no drinks were allowed. ‘Oh well’, I thought, they’d seen us get on with out drinks and didn’t say anything.

So off we went to Windsor Castle. En route our guide, Paul, a middle-aged Irish man, regaled us with historic and hysterical tales. He also polled the passengers to see where we were from. We had Australians, folks from South America, Greece and, of course, us Canadians. A sheet was passed around where we indicated what we wanted for lunch. The day was foggy but clearing, still somewhat overcast. When we arrived at Windsor, the first thing I noticed was the elevated railway line, built up on brick arches, which terminated right at Windsor. Sure enough a train rolled in while we alighting from our bus. I was thinking ‘Man you can get a train to just about everywhere in this country’. We were told that the bus would be leaving at 11:20am sharp and that we should be on it. He reinforced this thought with a joke. ‘What’s the difference between a tourist and a hitchhiker? About three minutes.” Duly cautioned, we knew had had to keep pace. We almost got left behind the walking tour as we were a bit late getting out of the washroom. He wasn’t kidding!

The entrance gates to Windsor Castle

The entrance gates to Windsor Castle

Paul led us at a brisk pace right up to where we cleared security for the tour. We were also handed the customary audio wand. The union flag (apparently it’s only called the Union Jack when flown at sea) flying above the castle indicated the Queen was not in residence. When she is, the royal standard is flown.

The guided tour led us around the inner wall up to the entrance to the actual buildings. Then we followed audio wands on a tour of Queen Mary’s dollhouse and the State apartments. Once again we were confronted with things of incredible… beauty?… ornateness? Hard to describe. The doll house with it’s fanatically detailed interior. Royal china made over the centuries for various royal events, one set bankrupted the company who made it. Cases full of artifacts gathered (plundered?) over the centuries by various kings. The interiors of the State apartments decorated beyond comprehension. No photography was allowed inside but there are images which show these rooms. It was, in many ways, too much for the common person.

St. George’s Chapel

St. George’s Chapel

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go through St. George’s chapel where Henry VIII is buried. We hustled back to our coach, pausing only to get a few photos of the Royal Windsor Station concourse, now converted to shopping. We arrived on time and were once again, off. We headed off for lunch at a roadside pub. I had fish and chips and Linda had a vegetarian lasagna. I had ordered a sticky toffee desert which we had to go and prompt the staff to serve. It was well worth it and very good.

Once back on the bus, we set out for Stonehenge. After an hours plus journey and a detour around a traffic jam by our skilled driver Malcolm (another Irishman by his accent) we arrived at the Stonehenge site. Paul mentioned that the reason for the Friday afternoon traffic might be due to the fact that people were celebrating POETS day and asked if any us celebrated this in our native countries. Shaking heads and shrugging shoulders indicated that no one had ever heard of it before. He then went on to explain that it meant Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday. I found this very funny and vowed to remember it.

Stonehenge sits on open, wind-blown fields. The sun had come out while we were journeying to lunch and it was warm. We picked up our audio wands and walked the pedestrian tunnel under the road to Stonehenge. What can I say about it. it isn’t as big as I thought but it’s very impressive and soooooooo old! Not much is known about the builders or its purpose. There are the remains of a road, or avenue as they call it, which goes all the way back down to the river. Personally I believe it was built as a temple to sun worship and that’s why the sun lines up on the solstices. Like any religion major feasts are celebrated round calendar events. We got lots of photos there.

A sun worshipper at Stonehenge

A sun worshipper at Stonehenge

We set off for Oxford and arrived in the late afternoon. Paul led us on a walking tour showing us the martyr’s shrine commemorating when Queen (bloody) Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter, had protestants burned at the stake. He also showed us the very spot where it occurred. Oxford is a very picturesque town with bicycles everywhere. I would have liked more time to wander around on our own. Linda enquired as to the location of the Eagle and Child pub, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and friends had bent a few while discussing the various stories they were working on. We were told we had a few minutes of free time so we fast-walked over to the Eagle and Child. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for a pint so we walked in had a quick look around and walked out. We did get some photos though.

The Eagle And Child pub

The Eagle And Child pub

Soon it was time to get back on the bus and make our way back to London. Malcolm did a great job of negotiating traffic as we arrived back into rush hour on the M4. Paul announced that rather than trying to deliver us all back to our respective hotels that those of us headed for Bloomsbury would be dropped at Gloucester Road Underground station. This gave me some panic since we were without our guide, Kevin. Then he mentioned that it was on the Piccadilly line. Then I knew we were fine as our stop and our hotel were on that line.

We had no trouble find the correct platform by following the signs and were soon seated on the Underground making our way back to our hotel. The automated voice would periodically announce that “This is a Piccadilly service to Cockfosters” which is the last station on the line. After a time a heard a chuckle next to me “Cockfosters.” Linda found the name quite amusing and it became a joke for the remainder of the trip. I can still make her laugh just by saying Cockfosters.

We arrived back at the hotel hungry for supper. Since we had had a hot lunch on the tour we elected to pick up supper at the Pret. We then retired to our hotel room to watch the BBC constant coverage of the Chilean miners rescue.

Day 06

Bletchley Park (take the sodding jacket)

Saturday, 9th October, 2010

Working replica of one of the Colossus computing machines, there were ten built during the war

Working replica of one of the Colossus computing machines, there were ten built during the war

With Kevin off in Somerset we were on own own. Did we learn enough from our guide to navigate our way successfully? You can almost hear Kevin shouting, Yoda-like “Remember your training, help you it can.”

The plan for Saturday was to travel to Bletchley Park. When I mentioned this to most (if not all) folks when talking about our trip before and after, I was met with blank stares and shrugs. Bletchley Park is where the codebreakers worked during the second world war. Well-known to us geeks since that is where Alan Turing worked. He defined what a digital computer should be before any existed and was a math genius. His story has a tragic ending but his name lives on in geekdom. See? You’re shrugging and your eyes are glazed over right now.

Sculpture of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park Museum

Sculpture of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park Museum

Anyway one of the reasons I wanted to go there was they have reconstructed an early computer called Colossus and I wanted to see it. We knew that the train to Bletchley left from London Euston station which was just up the road from our hotel. I did a bit of research and figured out which bus would get us to Euston. We set off after breakfast, the day was overcast and cool.

I should say here that I have this ability or rather disability when it comes to reading the weather to decide how I should dress. I look at the sky and the forecast and come to the complete wrong conclusion. This day was no exception. I decided that a sweater was enough and that I wouldn’t need or want jacket. I was wrong.

We got to Euston and with a few taps of the touchscreen, purchased our train tickets from a kiosk. Our train was just boarding so we didn’t have long to wait before we were pulling out of the station. Our train this day consisted of overhead-electric self propelled cars, bright and modern. The train clipped along at a good speed, at times up to 90mph and within an hour we were alighting on the platform at Bletchley. I had a moment of concern as I didn’t know exactly how to get from the station to Bletchley Park but before long I noticed a sign pointing the way.

We climbed the pedestrian bridge over the tracks and were off on a ten minute walk to Bletchley Park. It was during this time I became aware that I was underdressed. I wasn’t freezing mind you but a jacket would have made things that much better. ‘I should have brought the sodding jacket’, I thought.

We were soon at the admissions office in the basement of the main building. We were informed a tour group would soon be forming and watched a brief film on Bletchley Park and perused the book store. Before long we were off to the main mansion were we assembled and were told a few basic things about the place and the usual safety stuff. Our guide then led us on a tour were he spoke of the history, of how the mansion came to be and how it was scouted as a site for top secret work during the war and commandeered. He spoke of how several low buildings ‘huts’ were built to house the various departments involved in breaking German codes.

Hut #1 at Bletchley Park

Hut #1 at Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park is an odd mix of various things. The museum devoted to the code breakers, a model ship display on one building, antique cars in a garage and a…wait for it…model railway club. I was delighted to hear that and we decided we would go there when we finished the tour. There is also the National Museum Of Computing where Colossus lives. There’s also a Hawker Harrier jump jet on display there, not sure why.

We found the building housing Colossus and I stared in awe at one of the first ever digital computers in the world. It clicked and whirred while it worked away breaking a code being read in though a perforated paper tape. Colossus was designed to break a German code called Lorenz. It was broadcast over the radio as high speed morse code (sounding a lot like a modem), transcribed to punched tape by talented Wrens and fed into Colossus for decryption.

We completed the tour and had a wonderful hot lunch in a cafeteria in one of the old huts. The food was good and the atmosphere in the cafeteria seemed somewhat military. One could imagine the various workers sharing meals there, perhaps discussing some cryptographic problem.

After lunch we tried to get into the rest of the Nation Museum of Computing but it was, sadly, closed. We then wandered through the antique cars, model ships and model railway. The club, known as the Milton Keynes Model Railway Society, they have several different layouts in various gauges and scales. Then even have one devoted to Tri-ang which were the first electric trains I ever owned (I blog about here). We spoke to one of the club members, whose name was Chris, and told him we were from Canada. We spoke about trains and model trains for a few minutes before Chris had to excuse himself as he was about to be interviewed by a British model railway magazine.

After this we completed our Bletchley tour showing examples of the German Enigma machines used by the German navy to encrypt and decrypt messages, a mock-up of the Bombe, the electro-mechanical computer used to decrypt the intercepted Enigma messages. There was a sculpture of Alan Turning and other wartime memorabilia there as well. After this we left Bletchley Park and walked back to the train station.

The great thing about the British transportation system is that you don’t worry about running to catch the train. You just go and wait for the next one. We read one of the train boards which revealed the next train back to London Euston was due in about 15 minutes. I photographed some of the trains. The most interesting were the Virgin 125mph trains. These have to ‘slow down’ to 100mph as they pass through the station. They are preceded by an automated announcement which says “Please stand clear of the platform, the approaching train does not stop”. Next the train whooshes through the station in a blur. The only way to get a photo was to hold down the shutter button and select the best frame from a sequence.

A Virgin high speed approaches 'Please stand clear of the platform, the approaching train does not stop' Whoosh!

A Virgin high speed approaches ‘Please stand clear of the platform, the approaching train does not stop’ Whoosh!

Before long our train arrived and we rode the 55 minute trip back to London Euston. From Euston we decided to walk back to the hotel as it was only about 15 minutes down the street. Since we had had a hot lunch we decided to just grab a Pret supper (surprise, surprise) and we retired to our room and the telly.

Day 07

We Give Thanks For Steam

Sunday, 10th October, 2010

Ten wheeler (“King Arthur” class) named Sir Lamiel steam engine on the Bluebell railway photo by Kevin Argue

Ten wheeler (“King Arthur” class) named Sir Lamiel steam engine on the Bluebell railway photo by Kevin Argue

It was a pleasant sunny Sunday morning as, after a leisurely breakfast, we made our way to London Victoria Station. Kevin was back after an enjoyable visit with his friend Peter. In addition to catching up, they had seen copious amounts of trains over a couple of days of train spotting.

Today, we were bound for the Bluebell steam railway in East Grinstead to ride steam trains. Uncertain of exactly how to procede, Kevin asked a ticket agent about tickets for the Bluebell. It turned out all we need was one ticket each way, which got us on the Southern Railway train to East Grinstead, a bus ride across town to the Bluebell and the ride on the Bluebell itself. Amazing! Try *that* in North America.

We alighted from the bus at Kingscote station which is the southern terminus of the 9 mile Bluebell. The Bluebell Railway was the first preserved standard gauge steam-operated passenger railway in the world to operate a public service, running the first train on 7 August 1960. The day we were there, they were operating 3 trains. An all-pullman dinner train and two excursion trains. It was these latter that our tickets were valid for. The dinner train, called the Golden Arrow, was sitting in the station when we arrived. Since the Bluebell is single track with dual track passing sidings at both ends, they operate only one train over the line while the other two trains wait, one at each end.

Hanging out of the vestibule windows...the good stuff! photo by Kevin Argue

Hanging out of the vestibule windows…the good stuff! photo by Kevin Argue

Before long our train arrived and the Gold Arrow Left. Since the engine was facing south, it was cut off and run around the train to run backwards for the trip north. We took our seats in a coach on the train and settled in as we would have to wait for the other excursion train to come south. As soon as it arrived, we were off. Once under way Kevin and I grabbed our cameras and headed for the vestibule. We took turns leaning out and photographing as our train rounded curves. The Bluebell even has a 731 yard long tunnel about midpoint which is the longest on any tourist line in the UK. Riding along with my head out of the, window, on a beautiful autumn day with soot bouncing off my face, those were some of the best moments of the whole trip.

We passed Horsted Keynes, the station at the mid-point which is where all the line’s equipment is stored. We got some great shots of all the parked steam locomotives and coaches. All too soon we arrived at Sheffield park which is the northern terminus of the line. We got off our train and got some great shots from a pedestrian bridge of the train as the engine was cut off and a stop for water was made. It was mid-afternoon and we had not had lunch so we made our way into the attractive two-storey brick station. A sign indicated that there was a ‘carvery’ upstairs so we went up there and found a selection of beef, pork or turkey. Linda and Kevin had the turkey, me, I never turn down a chance for roast pork. Kevin and I also ordered up a, what else, Pullman ale.

Locomotives and coaches stored at Horsted-Keynes photo by Kevin Argue

Locomotives and coaches stored at Horsted-Keynes photo by Kevin Argue

As we sat with our hot dinner we realized that, back home, they were celebrating Thanksgiving Sunday and so we ate, drank and gave thanks….for steam! After dinner we browsed the gift shop where I bought a very nice Bluebell rugby sweater. The southbound train, with a 2-6-0 ‘Mogul’ was waiting to go south but there was a delay. It was announced that engine on the other excursion train was having issues and the Golden Arrow was delayed leaving Kingscote. We wouldn’t be able to depart until the Golden Arrow arrived at our station. If you don’t care about geeky railway things, you can skip the next paragraph.

To control the ‘traffic’ on the line the Bluebell uses an old British method which utilizes a ‘token’. The token was an object, sometimes a stick, or in this case a ring, which gave an engine crew the authority to occupy the line. The operators at a station couldn’t release a train unless they had a token to give out. Since the Bluebell only has one, only one train can move at a time. As a train arrives at the station they drop the token down to the operator who can then pass it the next train going the other way an so on. Neat system eh? Low tech but it works.

Right, are we all back together again? Good! Before long the Golden Arrow arrived and the crew in the cab of our engine opened the valves to let in fresh water to the boiler and the fireman (or stoker as the Brits call them) shovelled in more coal. We were making steam for the trip back. Kevin got a nice shot of the stoker, see below. We settled into our coach, this time in a compartment, just like Harry Potter on his trip to Hogwarts. We set off and were soon at the end of our day riding the Bluebell.

The engine is stoked for the return trip photo by Kevin Argue

The engine is stoked for the return trip photo by Kevin Argue

Luckily the bus was waiting as we alighted and we thought we would be setting off at once but had to wait a bit as a man with a collapsible bicycle awkwardly boarded the bus. We arrived at East Grinstead to find our London-bound train ready to depart. We scooted on board and were almost ready to go when we heard a bang on the door followed by a curse. Our collapsible bicycle friend was frantically trying to open the door, and carry his bike all at once. The door was opened and he got on, with no ticket. Luckily he was able to purchase a ticket on board.

When we arrived back in London, we agreed we didn’t need another big meal so we settled for a, you guessed it, Pret supper.

Day 08

Abbey Road, Elizabeth’s place and more

Monday 11th October, 2010

A sighting of apparently 2D Beatles on Abbey Road

A sighting of apparently 2D Beatles on Abbey Road

It was a another sunny morning, bright and cheerful for a Monday. Today we had a number of activities planned, the first being a visit to Abbey Road. We had been watching the excellent webcam site for a few months before the trip and so had a good idea of what to expect. We had reconnoitered which Underground routes we should take to arrive as close as possible to Abbey Road. We rode the Picadilly line west to Green Park, transferred to the Jubilee line and rode that to St. John’s Wood station. From there it was a short walk down Grove End road to where it meets Abbey Road. The famous zebra crossing is almost where Grove End intersects with Abbey Road.

There were already a number of people there so we waited until the walk was clear and traffic was light then Linda and I ‘did the walk’ while Kevin took photos. I figure the locals must loathe driving through here, as Abbey Road is a busy street. Also, being a zebra crossing, the rule is that once a pedestrian steps off the curb, all traffic must stop in both directions. If you follow the link above to the webcam site you will notice that there is traffic at this intersection pretty much round the clock. You will also notice there are visitors here every day. Kevin took several shots of us walking plus one of us in front of nearby Abbey Road Studios (the white building you can see in the background). We also made a point of standing in front of the webcam since you can view yourself on the website at the end of the day. We took some more photos, including one of Linda pointing to an empty crossing with the idea that I would create the cheesy Photoshop rendering you see at the top of this page.

The ummm two ummm.....lads?  photo by Kevin Argue

The ummm two ummm…..lads? photo by Kevin Argue

Us watching you watching us, taken from the Abbey Road webcam

Us watching you watching us, taken from the Abbey Road webcam

Kevin was anxiously watching the clock and determined that we didn’t have time for transit so he hailed a cab, this time a Mercedes MPV instead of the usual London cab, and we headed to Buckingham palace.

Kevin’s hope was that we would arrive in time for the changing of the guard. However, we found a notice posted by one of the gates that there would be no changing of the guard that day. We also noticed from the Union flag flying over the palace that the Queen was not present. We contented ourselves by taking some photos of the palace and Queen Victoria’s statue. I noticed, in our travels, that the name of two monarchs came up frequently in the form of events and memorials. One was King Henry VIII and the other was Queen Victoria. These two left significant, for very different reasons, legacies both in artifact and memory.

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

Our tour of the BBC was scheduled for 3:45pm, sharp. It was only late morning by the time we finished up at Buckingham Palace and so we had some time to fill in. Since we were in the neighbourhood, we decided to visit the Science Museum. We had originally planned that for Wednesday along the nearby Natural History Museum but thought that two Museums in one day might be a bit much so we bused our way to the Science Museum. Like many of the museums in London, admission to the Science Museum is free. We wandered through the exhibits, mainly the gallery called Making The Modern World. This included exhibits showcasing a number of inventions that comprise our world today. Among them were; several original steam engines; significant cars like the Citroen 2cv, Austin Mini and Volkswagen Beetle; a replica of a piece of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine; an Apple I computer, complete with wooden homemade case; and a Cray Supercomputer. If you don’t know what any of these things are, don’t worry Wikipedia does (wink, wink).

After a Pret lunch we made our way via the Picadilly and Circle lines to Wood Lane station adjacent to the BBC Television Centre. We identified ourselves at the tour desk and then joined the group. We were then taken through airport-style security. What is with this anyway? I mean, seriously, this kind of shakedown does nothing more than embarrass and inconvenience a lot of people and it provides little if any real security. It does provide a false-sense of security for people so I guess it will continue. The odd thing is that this particular shake-down was more stringent than the one for Windsor Castle. Go figure.

Anyway our two guides were enjoyable and made the tour fun. There was even a replica TARDIS outside the front entrance (that’s a Dr. Who thing if you don’t know). There is also a large sculpture outside that was originally a fountain until there were too many problems with errant water due to swirling winds in the semi-circular enclosure of the courtyard. The tour was informative, entertaining and included a visit to a real dressing room. At the end of the tour there was a faux game show starring tour participants. Yours truly representing Canada, the lone American on the tour, a Texan, for the U.S. and a woman from Scotland for the UK. We were shown a clip from the show Little Britain (a show I have watched more since, very funny) and then asked questions about the clip. I am afraid I did not do Canada proud that day as the woman from Scotland was the clear winner. Her prize? A BBC coffee mug while I contented myself with a BBC pen.

Me participating in an impromptu game show during the BBC tour photo by Kevin Argue

Me participating in an impromptu game show during the BBC tour photo by Kevin Argue

After a visit to the gift shop where Kevin snapped a photo of me posing with a life-sized cutout of Top Gear’s Stig the tour ended. By the time we made our way back to the hotel, it was dark and supper time. We decided to try an Indian Restaurant called Hason Raja, around the corner from our Hotel on Southampton Row. The waiter was very helpful in selecting items and we had an enjoyable meal. After supper we went back to the hotel and Linda retired but Kevin and I had a mission.

As I alluded to above, all the video recorded by the Abbey Road web camera is kept on the website for 24 hours. If we could locate our visit from the time of day we were there, we could save snapshots from the video. We grabbed my trusty Macbook and installed ourselves in the lounge where the free wireless Internet access was available. The problem was that the wireless link wasn’t terribly fast (I believe it was an 11mb connection), many people were using it and we were trying to view streaming video. Every time we tried to view the video of our visit it would freeze and we would have to exit the website and try again.

I explained to Kevin the technical issues, mostly being that too many people were sharing too little bandwidth. Kevin would glower at the various people around the room, the group of Japanese business people conducting a meeting, the American girl on Skype with her boyfriend, the Spanish couple reading their email, etc. and he would mutter “Go to bed!”. Eventually after waiting for an hour or more we got to see our video and grab a few frames, one of which is displayed on this page. So ended another busy but enjoyable day.

Day 09

Fast Train To Bath

Tuesday 12th October, 2010

The Scenic canal that flows through Bath

The Scenic canal that flows through Bath

The day dawned sunny and pleasant as we caught a cab to Paddington Station. This was a day we were looking forward to (Kevin and I mostly) as we had reserved seats on a First Great Western Intercity 125 train to Bath. The 125 stands for 125 mph, not the fastest train speed by world or even European standards but faster than any train we in North America can ride. For those interested in such things; the train we were to ride consisted of two 2,250 hp diesel power cars at each end with coaches in between.

The distance from London to Bath is about 100 miles by rail (more like 120 by car) and these trains cover it in just over 90 minutes. That’s about the same transit time as taking a VIA train from St. Catharines to Toronto except the VIA trip is about 30 miles shorter.

Kevin photographed me photographing a freight train from our train

Kevin photographed me photographing a freight train from our train

Needless to say whipping along at 125 mph was a thrill. We even saw and managed to photograph some freight trains. We alighted at Bath station, a unique station in that it is set uphill from the town and on a curve. As we watched and photographed our train departing a freight train appeared around the curve coming toward us on the other line. This seemed like a good start to the day. We lingered at the station and photographed two more passenger trains before making our way down to street level in Bath.

We left London just at 10 and it was now lunchtime so we tracked down a place to eat. We found a nice little place called the Tasty 1 Sandwich shop on Manvers Street and enjoyed a good lunch and free WiFi. After lunch we set out for the heart of the town.

Bath is a very picturesque town with eye catching vistas now matter where you look. There are beautiful gardens and a scenic canal with the Pulteney bridge over the canal which is lined on both sides with shops. We found and toured the Roman Baths. It was remarkable to walk in places once built and occupied by the Romans. The museum does a very good job of portraying what every-day life was like centuries ago. Still it was mind boggling to see lead pipes and water-sluices, still working, that were built by the Romans. For more detail on the baths themselves click here.

After the baths we walked among the street vendors and shops. Several of the streets in this part of town are closed to traffic. As we walked along we saw narrow lanes opening up into more shops, restaurants and tea shops. We stopped and had a fresh scone at one of these. We also came upon a street musician playing something, I later learned, called a hang drum. A metal circular, pot-like instrument with small indentations which is played by striking the thumbs at various spots to produce musical notes. It has a very unique sound, almost harp-like.

After more wandering and browsing, Linda bought a scarf for Rebecca, it was getting towards supper time. Our feet were sore and we were hungry. We found a place to eat called the Seafoods Traditional Fish and Chips on Kingsmead street. Sounded good to us. So we went in and enjoyed traditional English fish and chips.

The day was getting on and it was starting to get dark. Since we had reserved seats we couldn’t board just any of the trains that came through on a half-hourly basis at about a quarter past or quarter to, the hour. Our departure time as set for for 19:43 (7:43 pm). We wandered back to the station and sat on a bench on the platform and even managed one last photo of a train before it got completely dark. It was also getting cool so we decided to wait inside the station where it was warmer. Our train arrived and we boarded and even had a bit of a snooze on the way back. Bath was definitely our favourite town and the 125 mph train ride just made it that much better.

Worn out from all the walking, Linda catches some well-deserved rest on the trip back to London, photo by Kevin Argue

Worn out from all the walking, Linda catches some well-deserved rest on the trip back to London, photo by Kevin Argue

Day 10

St. Paul’s And Imperial War Museum

Wednesday 13th October, 2010

The front of St. Paul's Cathedral

The front of St. Paul’s Cathedral

As the remaining days of our trip, and our feet, were wearing down, there were still a few more places we wanted to see. The Rev. Thom Braun, a friend of mine, highly recommended St. Paul’s Cathedral. So we set out for the Fleet Street part of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We arrived late morning since we were getting more relaxed about breakfast and found that St. Paul’s had an early closing this day due to a worship service planned for the afternoon. The audio wands for St. Paul’s were touchscreen and the minute I started using it I realized it was an iPod Touch in disguise. The information was available in a non-linear format instead of the usual numbered stations you normally get and so the self-guided tour was a little harder to follow.

The place itself is breathtaking. It is a few centuries newer than Westminster Abbey and was built after the formation of the Church of England. Thus its layout was more open and less segmented than Westminster Abbey. Much more colourful and bright on the inside too. We toured the worship space itself and the ‘crypt’ below which contains collections of memorials and tombs of notable persons. Unfortunately we didn’t get to visit the whispering gallery or the dome as we were running out of time before it was closing for tours. Here’s a link if you want to learn more and see pictures since, as usual, photography is not allowed.

Linda in front of the Twining's Tea Shop, that corridor is the full width of the store

Linda in front of the Twining’s Tea Shop, that corridor is the full width of the store

After we left St. Paul’s we stopped at the Twining’s tea shop on The Strand since Kevin wanted to pick up some tea for folks at home. The store is basically a corridor lined with teas on both sides, narrow but with an amazing selection. After we left there got some lunch, I don’t actually remember where but let’s assume it was a Pret since it probably was. We went back to our rooms to rest for a bit. You can see we were slowing down as the days progressed.

Later we set out for the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. We walked among the exhibits , showing off military hardware from wars past and snapped several photos. Anything Japanese I got photos of for my oldest son Dan as he is a Japanophile (it’s in Wikipedia you can look it up), that is to say a lover of all things Japanese. I also took a few shots of an exhibit about the Dambusters bombing mission as a co-worker lost an uncle on that run. We also saw a Bofurs gun which Linda’s dad had been a gunnery sergeant on at RAF base Biggin Hill during WW II. We did notice, however, that there was a dearth of anything Canadian. The only evidence we could find of any acknowledgement of Canada’s involvement were a couple of shoulder patches from a uniform. Somewhat disappointing as we belive Canada played a more significant role than was portrayed there.

The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth, London

The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth, London

The Lambeth site isn’t the entire museum as there are four other sites. There are the underground cabinet war rooms which Winston Churchill worked out of, Duxford RAF base near Cambridge, the North museum in Manchester and another in Belfast. The cabinet war rooms were highly recommended to us as was Duxford…next trip.

After seeing all we wanted to see and putting a few more miles on our shoes we headed back to our hotel and supper. That night we tried a place called PizzaExpress, a UK-based pizza chain. They feature very unique and more healthy types of pizza. Linda had one with a hole in the middle which was filled with salad.

Day 11

Shopping And Paxton’s Head

Thursday 14th October, 2010

Harrods and keen shopper

Harrods and keen shopper

After Breakfast we set out for the Natural History Museum. The weather, as the week progressed was getting greyer and colder. Linda and I toured a few sections of the museum while Kevin rested his knees. We went through the dinosaur section which featured several large skeletons and some animatronic displays including some Dromaeosaurs and a T. Rex. We visited the Creepy Crawlies section full of insects, bug, arachnids, etc. We also went through the Human biology section. We saw Darwin’s statute and went through the evolution gallery. We finished up with an enjoyable fresh lunch at the museum cafeteria.

Darwin’s statue

Darwin’s statue

We then headed to Marks and Spencer plus Harrods for some shopping. I picked up a floral print shirt and Linda picked up a purse as her fanny pack had bitten the dust a few days before. At Harrods we bought two tins of Scottish shortbread, some jams plus some butter cookies for my mom. Harrods was amazing, the staff were better dressed than most of the patrons. We only saw the first floor and there are 4 more. It combines an old-school department store with the selection of a big box store and the exclusivity of a boutique. Somehow they make it all work. A true must-see for shoppers.

After shopping we returned to our hotel to drop off our purchases. The plan was to return to Trafalgar Square to get some photos. We went out and waited for a bus. We waited but all the traffic was stopped. People walking by mentioned that there was a bomb scare and the street was cordoned off. We continued to wait and traffic began to move slowly which allowed out bus to arrive. Climbed aboard and went upstairs. As the bus inched along we finally came to where the police had the street blocked in all directions for about a block. The word was that there was an unattended package that was being investigated. In all public places, train stations, the airport, on the buses and underground we were constantly being admonished not to leave bags and parcels unattended. Apparently someone didn’t get that memo. After many years dealing with the IRA combined with the 2005 bombings, the Brits don’t take anything for granted.

Traffic was being diverted to the next block. Linda was very tense while Kevin and I were more blase. Our bus proceed over one street and halted behind several other buses. After a time we noticed that traffic was beginning to move again and people were walking through to other other street which was no longer closed. The bomb scare was over. (As a footnote: the bus that was blown up in the 2005 bombings was right near our hotel at Russell Square) Our bus, which was parked what seemed like inches behind another bus was trying to pull around. I said to Kevin, “There’s no way, he’s too close, we won’t be able to pull out.” Sure enough and to my amazement, he did.

We soon made our way to Trafalgar Square where I got some photos just as the light was failing. Then we caught a cab to Paxton’s Head pub, back in Knightsbridge, not far from where we had been when we were at Harrods. We took some photos outside the pub and went inside. The ground floor was full of patrons enjoying a brew after work. We made our way upstairs to the sit down restaurant. It was quite nice. We had a lovely meal there and a pint as well (well Kevin and I did, Linda is more sensible).

Linda and I at Paxton's Head, photo by Kevin Argue

Linda and I at Paxton’s Head, photo by Kevin Argue

After supper we made our way back to the bus stop and to our hotel. Throughout our time in London, I had been pointing out the more interesting cars we saw, such as Bentleys, Aston Martins, even a Lamborghini. Kevin would point to a car and ask, “What’s that one?”.

I would answer, “A Bentley or an Aston Martin”, etc.

While we crossing the street we heard a rumbling coming toward us and Kevin asked, “What’s *that* one?”

“I don’t believe it” I said, “It’s a Bugatti Veyron. That car is worth £1,000,000! This is the first time I’ve seen one in real life.”

The trip was complete for me anyway. We made our way back to the hotel for our last night in London.

Day 12

The Journey Home

Friday, 15th October, 2010

Our Plane, British Airways Boeing 767 at Pearson in Toronto

Our Plane, British Airways Boeing 767 at Pearson in Toronto

Thus dawned our final day. Our flight home was scheduled to for 3:25pm and our transfer to Heathrow was scheduled for 12:30pm. We enjoyed a last leisurely breakfast at the President and completed our final packing up. We had enough time to sit in the lounge to send some final messages and Facebook updates before it was time to leave.

Our room where we had enjoyed our stay

Our room where we had enjoyed our stay

Our driver showed up driving, of all things, a Chrysler Town and Country mini-van. We had noticed several Chrysler/Jeep products driving around London and kept wondering why, with all the (better made) vehicles available, the locals would choose these. Kevin posed that very question to our driver en-route to Heathrow. Our driver (originally from the Caribbean), it turned out, was in love with all things American. He had ventured into a dealership and fallen in love with this vehicle. No accounting for taste.

England2010Day12-2

We’ve turned in our old school room key, time to go home

All too soon we were at the airport and using British Airways computerized check-in to print out our boarding passes confirming the seats we had selected on the BA website the evening before. The obligatory security check was next as we placed our carry-on, pocket contents and shoes into trays and submitted to the scans. All-in-all it was over fairly quickly and was as painless as such a thing can be. It’s all ‘security theatre’ anyway.

To our delight there was a Pret within the secure zone so I got to enjoy a last Ham and Eggs Bloomer sandwich while Linda and Kevin enjoyed Prawn baguettes. With the last of my British paper currency I bought a Top Gear magazine for £3.99, even with the exchange, considerably less than it goes for at Chapters in Canada. After lunch we made our way to the departure lounge. At the appointed time we were packed into a bus with the rest of the our flight and travelled for what seemed a long time out to where our plane was parked. To Kevin’s chagrin, this meant climbing the stairs into our plane rather than boarding via a jetway. Kevin’s mood didn’t improve as we wedged into our seats in the centre section of the plane. Kevin was feeling the onset of a cold and the cramped seating didn’t help.

We took off a bit late but our captain promised that we would be able to make up the time. During the flight I had planned to use my laptop to write these blogs but with no elbow room (I was seated between Kevin and Linda) this proved impossible. So I just listened to my Audiobook instead (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest, highly recommended). Needless to say the flight home was less pleasant. We all agreed that we would definitely upgrade to World Traveller Plus both ways next time.

Goodies from Harrods, you shouldn’t have!

Goodies from Harrods, you shouldn’t have!

We landed at Pearson in Toronto a bit ahead of schedule. I have memories of coming into Pearson from other countries several times ranging from 1978 to now and the memories are the same. You walk through endless corridors and large empty spaces to get to immigration and customs. Compared to Heathrow the ‘welcome home’ was clinical and cold. Anyway we finally collected our luggage and made our way to the automated train and back to the GTAA parking. It took some searching since it was dark and tempers were short as we had had a long day but we found the Corolla, put our luggage in the trunk and drove back to St. Catharines. Though traffic was light, we were tired and the drive seemed long but we finally arrived home. We were greeted enthusiastically by the kids and they liked the presents we bought. For Dan we got a ‘Mind The Gap’ t-shirt, we gave Rebecca a scarf we bought in Bath plus a double-decker bus keychain and we brought Phil a Union flag tank top. For everyone we brought two tins of Harrods Scottish shortbread plus some jam (all long gone).

The sad remains of the shortbread feeding frenzy

The sad remains of the shortbread feeding frenzy

The trip all-in-all was a huge success, with many thanks to Kevin for help in planning and getting around. The only downside is that now we’re hooked and can’t wait to go back.

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