Take it to the (South) Bank

Today, I met up with Christine and Tom, the last of my Ontario connections to visit London during my sojourn. The weather and sightseeing gods were apparently with throughout, because we had a wonderful time, despite having nothing concrete planned other than a meeting place.

We met at Trafalgar Square and decided to wander towards Buckingham Palace to see if we could catch a bit of the Changing of the Guard. On our way down the Mall, we encountered the Horse Guards regiment returning to their barracks. Very cool, and it got better.

Horse Guards heading home

The crowd near the palace gates was thick as we neared, so we decided to stay along the Mall, where we witnessed Grenadier Guards marching toward the ceremony and back again afterward.

Grenadier Guards en route to Buckingham Palace.

We moved along and were also lucky enough to see the day’s band, the Coldstream Guards, as they marched out of the palace gates playing martial music, followed by another group of Grenadier Guards. Wonderful to see them all up close – and lucky for them that the weather was cool, since their uniforms are a bit on the heavy side!

Coldstream Guards band leaving the palace

We walked back through Green Park to Westminster in time to hear Big Ben chime noon – a real treat, since he may be silenced until 2021 while the clock is refurbished. However, the announcement about his silencing brought forth a huge hue and cry from the British public, so there may be some negotiation on when he tolls and when he is silent. The bell tolled all through the London bombings of the Second World War, so people are outraged that he should stop now.

Big Ben chimes the noon hour

Next, a ride on one of the riverboats that take travellers from pier to pier. We opted to go as far as the Tower of London – St. Katharine’s Pier – and hopped aboard the front of the boat. Our waterman offered to provide commentary, even though it wasn’t really a tour boat, but he was wonderful. We learned that Waterloo Bridge is “The Ladies’ Bridge,” since women built it while men were off fighting during the Second World War, and we discovered that the Millennium Bridge is also called the Wibbly Wobbly Bridge, since it closed down hours after its official opening due to its tendency to sway. (It’s fixed now, never fear!) We heard this commentary delivered in a wonderful “Souf” London accent – I could have listened all day.

After lunch at the Dickens Pub at the nearby marina, we decided upon a walk across Tower Bridge – and what a walk it turned out to be. We were nearly across when we heard a siren, and it turned out that it was the signal that the bridge would be opening, something that happens only about three times a week! We backed into safe territory and watched the show.

Tower Bridge on the move

The ship coming up the Thames turned out to be a tall ship – a training ship for Naval cadets, and as they passed, the sound system on the ship blared, “Rule Britannina,” and the sailors hanging from the rigging in their spiffy uniforms waved to the crowd. What a sight!

Naval cadets approaching Tower Bridge

We continued on to the South Bank of the river, and it was a lively, bustling place. There is a promenade all along the waterfront, and there are shops, restaurants, buskers, the National Theatre, the South Bank Centre and more. A stop at Borough Market to look at the gourmet food stalls led to some yummy goat’s milk ice cream and a reminder of the terrorist attack there just months ago when signs thanked us for our support of the market.

Supporting Borough Market

Our wanderings brought us in touch with all kinds of street theatre: giant bubble wands, teenagers swinging from the underpinnings of the Thames Bridges on ropes (undoubtedly illegal), expert sand sculptures and singers plying their trade.

A wonderful way to spend a (partially) sunny day: exploring the city with friends and finding it full of life.

Here’s to sharing a lovely day in London with friends!

Tour de Torontonians

It has been quite the week. For some reason, all kinds of people I know decided to converge on London within a few days of each other, making this the most social stretch of time I’ve had all summer. In fact, when I looked back to Monday’s Science Tea, I couldn’t believe it took place this week.

Science Tea? Did I really write those two words together? Indeed! The lovely Ampersand Hotel, right near the bus stop for my Battersea buses in South Kensington, offers a science version of its afternoon tea, designed to entertain the youngsters who visit the nearby Science Museum with their parents. A client of mine, Nicolle, and her family, are science lovers, so I knew this was the perfect way for us to meet. It was a delightful afternoon of great company and fun food: Petri dishes full of jelly, dinosaur-shaped cookies, cheesecake Saturn with white-chocolate rings and dry ice to add some clouds to the sunny atmosphere. What fun!

Saturns, spacemen and spaceships ensure our tea is out of this world!

On Tuesday, Jemma, Virginia and Sandy arrived from Portugal for a week and settled into a hotel nearby in Battersea. We’ve been to the Tate Modern and a pub dating from 1549 together, and various permutations and combinations of us have met for lunch and dinner.

Foodie friends

We made a stop at Harrod’s, with its luxurious, deluxe offerings and its shrine to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed. We toured Buckingham Palace and its ornate interiors in the pouring rain and saw some of the gifts the monarchs received from other countries, including Vancouver 2010 Olympic mittens from Canada!

Royal Carriage

We even helped Sandy locate the hostel where she stayed when she toured Europe at age 21. The fun continues Monday with a visit to the London Eye and a farewell dinner before we go in various directions.

Friday saw me boarding a train for Birmingham for the day to attend the Festival of Quilts, Europe’s largest quilt show. I met my new friend from Surrey, Christina, there for an afternoon of ooh-ing and aah-ing over amazing quilts by incredibly talented people.

One of the prize-winning quilts at the Festival of Quilts

I took an hour-long workshop to practise paper piecing and I – of course – purchased some fabric. With so many vendors around, how could I fail to support the British economy?

Today, another client, Barb, and a friend met me for an excursion to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, aka Kew Gardens. (It is one of only five Royal Botanical Gardens worldwide, including the one in Hamilton.) We saw a wonderful variety of exhibits: water lilies, orchids, the kitchen garden, cacti, temperate plants and a treetop walk above the fray.

Colour everywhere!

There was also a sculpture with sound and light that simulated a beehive, an amazing piece of creativity; and a peacock that roams free in the flower gardens. Everywhere we turned there was fascinating plants, lovely vistas and peaceful places to relax.

Kew Gardens delights visitors.

After all of this fun, I may actually have to sit down and do some work tomorrow. It will undoubtedly be a shock to my system, but I need to clear my calendar before a quilting pal from Waterford, Christine, and her husband blow into town on Tuesday. Never a dull moment, eh?

(Westminster) Abbey Road Not a Smooth One

Note to self: Before setting out on a weekend jaunt, check the London transit closures. Just as in Toronto, subway (tube) maintenance takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, causing transit chaos among the gazillions of visitors to the British capital, not to mention the residents. 20170723_105356 (2)

Of course, it was partially a disaster of my own making. I stopped at the local library and left my jacket behind, a disaster I didn’t realize until I had jumped off the bus at the underground station. Instead of heading toward the train, I retraced my steps to the library and did the route to the station again – only to discover that it was closed for the weekend! So, I could have remained on the first bus, but, instead, it was on to another bus that took me to a working tube station. Oh, did I mention that it was raining?

Tube not running? Take the bus!

My initial frustration evaporated, however, when I ended up sitting next to a young man from Austria on the bus. We exchanged the “why are you in London?” stories and had a lovely ride. Chatting with random people is part of the pleasure of being a newcomer.

I eventually arrived at my destination, Westminster Station, close to the Houses of Parliament and my destination, Westminster Abbey. Masses of tourists were on the streets, taking photos and absorbing the scenery. All of that power – church and state — in such a small area is daunting.

Since I had purchased my ticket for the Abbey online, once I wended my way through the crowds, I was home free. Ticketholders have a separate, short queue, so I was in the door fairly fast. I decided to pay a bit extra for a tour with one of the vergers and set off to see the marvels of the Abbey.

Unfortunately, I can’t share photos with you, because photography inside the Abbey is forbidden. You’ll have to take my word that the scale is staggering and the ornamentation is ornate and intricate in places, colourful in others. In addition to being the setting for Royal coronations, it is the final resting place for numerous monarchs, politicians, artists and scientists. Queen Elizabeth I and her sister, Queen Mary, share a chapel and a tomb, while their cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, lies across the hall. Henry VII and his queen, parents to the notorious Henry VIII, are buried there, as are Edward the Confessor, William and Mary and a number of other kings and queens.

It is always disconcerting to walk across the tombstones etched into the floor, especially when they are people one recognizes: Georg Friedrich Handel, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton are only a few of the luminaries buried here. The modern tombstones are smaller, denoting the burial of a cremation urn, rather than a body. Times change.

A highlight of my visit was the chance to stay for choral Evensong and to sit in the Quire (choir), carved hundreds of years ago. It offered a view that only select guests at William and Kate’s wedding were able to enjoy, so I just pretended it was their service instead! The Abbey is known for its boys’ choir, but they are on holiday during the summer, so a lovely coed choir performed in its place. It was my first Church of England service, so I guess it’s all downhill from here!

Take me to Church(ill)

While London today may reek of hip and cool, it’s the London of the past that has the strongest pull. From churches to Churchill, there is so much history to absorb and the chance to walk in the footsteps of so many amazing historical figures.

I began my week with a visit to the Churchill War Rooms, the network of subterranean offices and sleeping quarters where the British prime minister and his cabinet planned during the Blitz of London. Interestingly, although the building was reinforced, if a bomb had hit directly, they probably would not have been as safe as they believed. Luckily for the Allies, the Nazis had pinpointed other targets.

Churchill statue

Churchill, himself, was a fascinating person, and it was interesting to soak up more knowledge about his life. As was the fashion among the wealthy of the day, he was a skilled polo player – a small measure of how different his life was from my workaday existence!

My sister arrived Tuesday in the pouring rain – the only really awful weather we’ve had since I’ve been here. We navigated our way back to the flat, dried ourselves off and prepared for sightseeing.

Our initial foray was to St. Paul’s Cathedral, an architectural masterpiece by Christopher Wren. En route, we stopped at a smaller church that was bombed during the Blitz, St. Andrew’s of the Wardrobe. (The man on duty insisted on walking us part way to St. Paul’s so we wouldn’t get lost. People here have gone out of their way to be kind!)

It turned out that much of the area surrounding St. Paul’s was decimated during the Blitz, but volunteer firefighters kept the cathedral nearly intact. It was London’s first Baroque cathedral, and Wren, bless his heart, wanted it to be light and airy, rather than dark and brooding.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

The stained glass and mosaics are amazing, as is the decoration and the design. The grand scale of the building is echoed by the grandeur of people who are buried there, Wellington and Nelson among them.

The next day took us southwest to see the Salisbury Cathedral, a great gothic edifice, and Stonehenge, a “church” of another kind situated on the Salisbury Plain. We navigated the British Rail system despite a train cancellation – always gratifying!

Salisbury was as dark inside as St. Paul’s was light, and the statement that each makes about man’s relation to religion is worth consideration. The choir areas in each cathedral were fascinating, too – there are seats assigned to the local dignitaries and a special carved podium for the bishop. It must be humbling to take part in a formal service there.

Salisbury Cathedral, chapel

Despite the huge influx of visitors to Stonehenge these days, the site retains its magic. The stone circle is magnificent, seemingly springing forth from the rural landscape. Researchers now believe there was an alley from the stones down to the River Avon a few miles away. Depending on the light, the structures can seem brooding or joyous, and each step around the perimeter reveals a new arrangement, one more alluring than the last.


As crowded as Stonehenge can be, the air is still infused with mystery, and visitors are easily caught up. The rooks that patrol the area and the starlings that nest there simply add to the sense of intrigue, as does a landscape dotted with burial mounds whose chalk surface has long been covered by grass.

Sisters at Stonehenge

All in all, satisfying ventures into the city and the countryside! British Rail has a been a pleasure to ride, and navigating the buses and the subway is made easy, thanks to sites such as Google maps and Transport for London. Time, perhaps, for a prayer of thanks that Churchill and Co. were able to keep Britain safe for us to enjoy years later.

Out and About

Hello from across the Pond! I am settling into my new life here in London, managing to figure out which keys go with which locks and finding my way to the grocery store and to the city centre.

Although I am saving many of the London sights for my sister’s visit next week, I am still managing to play tourist – in between doing work. Yes, no rest for the wicked.

Elaine on Canada Day

I ventured to Trafalgar Square for the giant Canada Day party and celebrated with a crew of others dressed in red and white. I even saw the High Commissioner, although her name meant nothing to me, so she is undoubtedly a party loyalist. The crowd was large, and there was a Tim’s set up – I met people who waited in line for three hours just for a box of Timbits!


A shout out to Kathleen for introducing me to meetup groups, because they have them in London, too, and it’s a great way to hang out with locals while seeing sights. On Sunday, I joined a group for a journey by rail to Eltham Palace, a childhood home of Henry VIIIand his siblings. Much of it had fallen into ruins, including an amazing medieval hall, but a wealthy couple took it in hand in the 1930s and turned it into an art deco creation, while restoring the hall to its original condition. It was a gem of a home, and the extensive gardens were equally beautiful. The other half lived very well, indeed!



Yesterday, July 4, it seemed appropriate to celebrate my other nation’s birthday with a trip to Wimbledon. Tickets are impossible to obtain, unless you sign up for the ticket lottery or buy an expensive hospitality package – unless you join the queue for a grounds pass. Quite the experience! We sat in a field for four or five hours until the grounds opened and they let us trickle in through security. I landed next to a father and son from Vancouver, so we had a very nice chat, but, oh, my, there must be a more efficient way. (Yes, I know it’s tradition.)


I did get admitted to the grounds, and it was a treat. I wandered around to get the lay of the land before plunking myself down at a small back court where benches were available. In honour of July 4, I was able to see two U.S. women battle it out for a place in the second round, as well as a match between a woman from China and one from Kazakhstan.


In the process, I had the company of two other women: one, a young bartender from Nottingham and the other a hair salon manager. Since her salon is in Wimbledon, she has met all kinds of people and even introduced us to Andy Castle, a BBC tennis commentator who is in disgrace for his comment about a player’s girlfriend, who is a dental surgeon: “I wish my dentist looked like that.” Oh, my! Such scandal.


I did get to see some of a Gael Monfils match, but most of the big names, including Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, played on the show courts, which are sold out ages in advance. Ah, well … there was still good tennis everywhere and atmosphere aplenty.

Today, life is much quieter: work, grocery shopping and laundry. I want to have my duties out of the way by the weekend so I can enjoy myself.



Bonjour, Battersea!

This is the post excerpt.

MyLondonDigs.jpgSo, the adventure begins! I arrived last night at Heathrow: smooth flight, nice seatmate, comfy airport hotel. I wasn’t sure I would fall asleep, given the five-hour time difference, but morning was here too soon!

I took my first bus to the tube station at Heathrow, purchased my Oyster transit card and wrangled my suitcase onto the train, bound for the city. My landlady met me at Gloucester Road, and we loaded my bag into her car. It was almost as big as her back seat; my Corolla would be a giant on London streets.

My flat is in an old Victorian block of homes on the South Bank of the Thames, across from Kensington. There are lovely moulded ceilings, a bow window and a marble and tile fireplace – amazing. It is light and airy and even has a small outdoor patio.

After unpacking my gear, I took a walk through Battersea Park, which is only a block away. It is huge. There’s a lake, a mini children’s zoo, a community centre, tennis courts, soccer pitches and lovely landscaped garden areas. There’s even a weekly yoga class, if it fits into my schedule!BatterseaParkPagoda

Tonight, it’s off to a local pub with my landlady; she is a sweetheart and has made me feel very welcome. Tomorrow, it’s Canada Day, so I’ll celebrate along with other visitors and ex-pats. Road hockey at Trafalgar Square, anyone?