London, England 2/1/2000-2/8/2000

Prologue

We met Julia and Richard online through the Tom Waits Raindogs e-mail list. They live in Islington, London. We met them in person when they came to Boston for three Tom Waits concerts in 1999. They were absolutely charming, and told us that any time we found ourselves in London, we were welcome to stay with them. We told them to be careful, or we might just take them up on it!

Craig has always been a big fan of Yes and Rick Wakeman. Rick has been doing solo shows in his native UK, but he has not yet come across the pond with them. We thought that a Rick Wakeman concert might be the perfect "excuse" to go to England. Craig researched Rick's tour schedule, and collaborated with Julia to schedule a visit. When she was able to order front row tickets for us in Chatham, we knew that it was meant to be!

We were able to get $169 round-trip flights to Heathrow on United, so going off-season in February was definitely a good move. This would be our first international trip, and we procured passports.

2/1/2000 - Flight

We arrived at Logan airport quite early, to make sure we had enough time before our red-eye 7:30 p.m. flight. Checking in took no time whatsoever, so we had time for a nice dinner at Legal Sea Food. We flew United, and the international flight had great food, free alcohol, and personal TV's on the seatback in front of you. There were multiple movies going on at any time, and you could choose your own and listen with free headphones.

Unfortunately, the big dinner coupled with the red-eye flight made Craig's stomach quite uncomfortable on the flight, so he didn't really get any sleep.

2/2/2000 - Sightseeing with Julia

We arrived at Heathrow at 6:45 a.m. After the long walk to customs (this airport is huge!), we had to wait in line for a short time and then our passports were stamped and we were free to go. We hopped on the Tube and took it to King's Cross, where Julia met us outside of the Grand Northern Hotel at 9:00.

Julia took us back to her and Richard's house in Islington, a nice residential area of the city. We met their two cats (Humbert and Mathilda) and had tea, lebkeuchen, and oranges. We also looked at photos and then freshened up.

We were both exhausted and the jet-lag was catching up with us. But Julia strongly suggested that we do some sightseeing today. She had the day off from work, and the weather was unseasonably beautiful. We couldn't let such a gorgeous day go to waste. It was near 50 degrees, the sun was shining, and the skies were perfectly blue.

We left the house at around 11 a.m., with Julia as our guide. We caught an archetypal red double decker bus (#38), and were able to get a seat in the very front of the upper section. We had a great view of the city, and I was able to get my bearings pretty quickly (a rare thing indeed!) You hop on the bus at any stop, and if you don't have a daily TravelCard, the conductors will come around and sell you tickets after you have gotten settled.

We got off the bus near Buckingham Palace. We walked around and saw the palace, the Queen Victoria Memorial, St. James Park, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, and the Thames. Of course, upon seeing Big Ben and Parliament, we had to quote the roundasbout scene from National Lampoon's European Vacation. We could see the colossal and brand spanking new London Eye observation wheel. The structure was built for the new millennium, but its opeing had been delayed due to technical problems. In fact, today was the first day that it was open! But because of the delay, it was only open to folks who had existing tickets for its originally scheduled opening. So we could only admire it from the ground.

We sat in front of the fountains and watched the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, and explored Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. We went to Covent Garden, where we saw the Covent Garden Opera House and ate lunch outdoors at Ponti's at the Piazza.

It was surreal to see all of these landmarks which we had encountered only in books or TV and movies in person. And to have such a beautiful day in February...it was perfect!

We then took the bus back to Julia and Richard's.

We originally met Julia and Richard online through the Tom Waits email discussion list. She and Richard came to Boston in September 1999 to see Tom Waits in concert, and we met up with them then. So it was fitting that at their house we sat and watched a tape of Tom Waits on the BBC in 1979. We then listened to a recording of Jack Kerouac reading On the Road and looked at more photos.

We met Julia's daughter, also named Julia. We ate a wonderful dinner that Julia had prepared (soup, toast, and salad with sour cream.)

Julia went to the theater that night and Richard was working late. We were exhausted, and after talking to the younger Julia and her friend for a while, we went to bed at 8:00 p.m.

2/3/2000 - Cabinet War Rooms, Tower of London, and Fantasia 2000



We woke up at 7 a.m. We ate hot cross buns and "American-style" chocolate chip muffins that Julia had bought for us. Julia had to work today, but thanks to the nice introduction to the city that she gave us yesterday, we were perfectly comfortable exploring the city on our own. We walked to the nearest bus station and took the bus to Piccadilly Circus.

We saw the changing of the Queen's Life Guard. According to Changing-Guard.com, "Life Guards have stood guard at Horse Guards, the official entrance to St James and Buckingham Palace, since the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660." The guards were mounted on black steeds. Some wore red tunics and white plumed helmets (these belong to the Squadron of The Life Guards), and others wore blue tunics and red plumed helmets (these belong to the Squadron of The Blues and Royals).

We took an audio tour of the Cabinet War Rooms, an underground bunker where WInston Churchill and his cabinet met during the bombing of London in World War II. The entrance, next to the Treasury building, an unassuming little structure with the front wall made of sandbags with a hole through which it could be defended.

Inside we saw the Central Map room, with its tactical world map and the "Beauty Chorus" of brightly colored telephones. With papers and notebooks on the desk, as well as notes pinned on the map, it looked like it did in the height of war room planning. A sheet metal box on the desk was labeled "Cigarette Ends", and we confronted the thought of what this claustrophobic series of rooms must have been like when practically all of the occupants were smoking. Yuck!

It was very interesting to be in a bunker where so much history was made.



Churchill War Rooms, the meeting room, London
By Frankemann (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons


Map Room Cabinet War Rooms 20060617
By Kaihsu Tai (Kaihsu Tai, own work)
via Wikimedia Commons


We went into Westminster Abbey, which was beautiful, but it was also sensory overload. It was amazing how many people were buried there, and there were monuments to countless others who were buried esewhere.

We had bangers and mash for lunch near St. James Park.

We then took the Tube to Tower Hill. We went to the Tower of London and luckily caught the last Beefeater tour of the day. Our Beefeater (Yeoman Warder) guide was named George Brodie. He was quite entertaining and funny, and we learned a lot about the history of the Tower. It was not crowded at all, and when we went to see the Crown Jewels, there was only one other couple in the vault with us. There were moving walkways so that there is not a bottleneck of people looking at the jewels. We were able to get right back onto the moving walkway to have a second peek, since there were no crowds. By far the most impressive thing (in my mind anyway) was the Greater Star of Africa, the world's largest cut diamond. The weather was overcast and by the end of our stay at the Tower of London, it was sprinkling.

We took the Tube to Piccadilly Circus and ate fish and chips at Waxy O'Connor's Irish pub.

While walking back to the Tube, I spotted a poster for Fantasia 2000 at the Pepsi Trocadero IMAX theater. It never made it to Boston in IMAX format, so we were psyched to see it. The next showing was in five minutes, so our timing was perfect.

After the movie, we took the Tube to Angel and then caught a bus back to Julia and Richard's where Julia served us authentic homemade borscht (she is originally from Yekaterinburg, Russia). Not being big fans of beets, we were very pleasanty surprised, as it was delicious!

2/4/2000 - Canterbury Cathedral and Rick Wakeman

Today was the day of our Rick Wakeman concert in Chatham. Public transport is so convenient in the UK. We could get all the way to Chatham (33 miles), and would have time to stop at Canterbury on the way. Canterbury Cathedral was definitely something that we wanted to see.

We woke up at 7 a.m. After a quick breakfast, we walked through Canonbury to Islington/Highbury Station. We took the Tube to Victoria Station, at which point we took the British Rail to Canterbury West. It was a pleasant two hour journey.

We realized afterwards that Canterbury East would have been the better way to go (1 1/2 hours) and closer to the Cathedral. But that was ok; we took a cab the rest of the way. Canterbury was charming, and retained much of its medieval charm. I felt transported back to the Canterbury Tales. We ate lunch at the Old Monk Refectory, which is in the building just next to the Cathedral Gate. I had a beef and coriander burger, and Craig had lamb chops.

Next we went on as self-guided Canterbury Cathedral tour. It was beautiful. It was much less crowded and cluttered than Westminster Abbey.



Canterbury, Canterbury cathedral-stained glass 20
By Mattana (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons


After that, we walked around and went into some of the shops. One of my goals from this trip was to buy a wool sweater, and I found a pretty blue one on clearance at an Edinburgh Woolen Mill for 9.99 pounds! Craig purchased a new Rick Wakeman release (Preludes to a Century) at the Canterbury HMV Record store.

We walked to the Canterbury East station, and took the train to Chatham (it was a 40 minute ride). We walked through the shopping district of Chatham. We found the Central Theatre, where we had front row tickets to see Rick Wakeman. Thanks to Julia for procuring the tickets for us!

Seeing absolutely no signs for the show, we asked two women in the lobby if Rick was indeed playing there that night. They said yes, and laughed that we had come all the way from America. She said that Rick's car was around back, though it was a bit dirty. So, of course, we walked around the back to catch a glimpse of his car (a BMW with a license plate of "RW 100"). It really wasn't that dirty.

We went into Woolworth's and some other shops in search of postcards, but none were to be found. It really wasn't a touristy town. We went off in search of the vistor's center, but eventually gave up.

We went into the Hogshead Tavern for a pint. We killed a lot of time in there and planned to eat supper there as well. The kitchen was closed, and there was confusion about when it was to reopen for dinner. When it still hadn't opened at 6 p.m., we left.

What a difference! The streets that had been bustling with shoppers were now deserted, and no stores nor restaurants were open. Chatham definitely seems to be a 9-5 town. We ended up settling for McDonald's. As it was the only place open, it was packed with people. And we discovered that fast food is not as fast as it is in America. Also, there are no "double" anythings at McDonald's in England. Portions are much smaller.

We then went back to the Central Theater. There was a lounge downstairs, and we sat there until it was time to take our seats. We were in the front row center, and Rick Wakeman was amazing. He is a viruooso, and we could see his playing close-up. He is also a jokester and has a ton of charisma. We enjoyed his jokes and stories, especially when he modeled his vintage Soviet KGB uniform and explained its procurement. He had a great rapport with the crowd and I was enchanted and instantly a fan for life.

The set list included the following:
  • Birdman of Alcatraz
  • Catherine Howard / Catherine of Aragon
  • Seasons of Change
  • Jane Seymour
  • Nursey Rhyme Concerto
  • Merlin the Magician
  • Children of Chernobyl
  • The Journey / Dance of a Thousand Lights
  • And You and I / Wondrous Stories
  • Prelude to a Millennium
  • Guinevere / Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight
  • Help / Eleanore Rigby
  • Claire de Lune

At the end of the concert, Rick greeted fans in the lobby. We tried to get toward the end of the line, as we didn't want to be rushed. Soon, Rick emerges with a bottle of champagne, which he delivers to his soundman who is celebrating a birthday. We were close to the sound man, so Rick started greeting fans from that end of the line, and we were suddenly the very first people that he talked to.

He was very friendly, and seemed genuinely delighted that we had come from the States to see him. He said that we were mad to come this far, but that he was deeply honoured. He talked to us for quite a while, patted Craig on the back, and kissed me on the cheek. Swoon!

We had brought some items for him to sign, and Craig selected a couple and presented them for signatures. Rick signed them, and then grabbed the rest of the items, curious about what they were. He generously signed all of them as well. He had never actually seen the Preludes to a Century CD packaging, so he was especially tickled to sign that.

We had purchased a postcard of King Henry VIII at the Tower of London with the idea of getting Rick to sign it for our friend Barbara. We met Barbara through our mutual admiration of Rick Wakeman and Yes. The postcard seemed perfect, as it pays homage to Rick's seminal solo album "The Six Wives of King Henry VIII". He inscribed it to Barbara.

He mentioned that Yes was in town and asked if we planned to see them. Craig said that Yes tours the U.S.A. all the time; we were here to see the more elusive Rick. Rick laughed in approval.

By now, we had spent quite a long time with him. We apologized for taking up so much of his time when there were others waiting. He reassured us that they would wait if they really wanted to talk to him. The implication was that they were local and had many more opportunitries to see him play live than we did.

We got some other fans to take our picture with him, and we thanked him for an amazing concert and for his generous hospitality. He was so down to earth!

High on adrenaline, we walked back to the train station. We each bought a bottle of Fanta and boarded the train. It was so empty at this time of night that we were able to sit in the first class car.

We got off the train at Victoria Station to transfer to the Tube. Craig got onto the subway car, and the doors closed as I was about to step on. I was mortified! He had all of the British money, so I was standing penniless on the platform, not knowing how or where to meet up. Luckily, someone must have seen me, as the doors opened for one split second and I hopped on, adrenaline rushing. We discussed what we would have done if I had been left behind. Craig said he would have gotten off at the next station and waited for me. I said that I would have gone all the way to Angel to meet up with him. It was a good thing that it hadn't come to that!

We took a night bus from Angel to Islington, and arrived back at the house by 12:30 a.m.

2/5/2000 - The British Museum and the Royal Shakespeare Company

We woke up at 8:00 a.m. Julia was working again today, so after breakfast Craig and I took the 38 bus to The British Museum, in time for its opening at 10:00. We were mesmerized by the Egyptian exhibit. We actually got to see the Rosetta Stone close-up. It wasn't even behind glass. Flash photography was not only permitted, it was encouraged. We also saw the Book of the Dead, elaborately painted papyrus scrolls some of which date back 3500 years! There were lots of mummies as well.

Other highlights included the Elgin Marbles, which were part of the Pathenon in Athens.

We ate at the museum cafe. Craig had a curry chicken sandwich and I had a bacon and brie sandwich. After the museum, we did some souvenir shopping. We took the bus back to Islington and bought some groceries.



The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani.
By Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons


Julia and Richard returned from work, and Craig and I changed clothes for a night at the theatre. We ate some Russian appetizers: small pancakes with salmon pate and cod paste, as well as Smatana (a Russian version of sour cream).

Thirty minutes prior to curtain time, we left the house. Richard drove us to the nearby Barbican. Richard pre-ordered (and pre-paid) drinks for the interval (intermission) when we arrived.

The Barbican Royal Shakespeare Company theater was very nice. There are staircases on each side of the stalls marked with letters so that you can easily find your seat without an usher. The seats were plush and had plenty of legroom. We were in the third row. The production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was phenomenal. It is a play that both Craig and I are familiar with, and was a perfect comedy to enjoy in Shakespeare's native land.

At the interval, our drinks were waiting on a table, labeled with Richard's name. That was a major cultural difference between England and the States...in England, they trust people much more, and the people seem worthy of said trust.

After the show, we drove by the Lloyd's of London building in "the City of London" (the business district). It's a very industrial-looking structure (all of the duct-work is on the outside) and it was lit up blue at night.

Then we went to the Marquess Pub in Islington (near Canonbury) for pints. I had an orange Bacardi Breezer (which was available in most bars and restaurant as a nice alternative to beer). We then went back to Richard and Julia's house and talked and played with the cats for a while.

2/6/2000 - Tunbridge Wells, Leeds Castle, and Weill's Seven Deadly Sins

We got up at 8:30 a.m. and ate breakfast. We chatted with Richard and Julia for a while and left the house at 10:30. Richard drove us all to Hever Castle. It turned out to be closed until March. We tried another nearby castle, which was also closed.

We stopped in Tunbridge Wells, a very picturesque little town with shops and restaurants, for lunch. The town's claim to fame is its healing spring. We had lunch at the Regency Restaurant and Tea Rooms. I had a chicken, leek, and bacon pie, and Craig had a beef and mushroom pie. They came with squash, potatoes, kale, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflour. It was delicious!

We drove to Leeds Castle in Maidstone. It was very nice and had quite a history. However, it had been inhabited until 1974, so it was quite modernized. The weather was gray and drizzly, so we didn't wander around much in the lush, verdant grounds. There were many birds on the grounds.



Leeds Castle, Henry VIII Banqueting Hall
By Chensiyuan (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons


On the motorway back to Islington, we passed the Millennium Dome in Greenwich.

Richard made a delicious dinner of cod with peppers and tomatoes. We also had mashed potatoes and a French white wine. His secret banana dessert was incredible!

We then went to the Barbican to see Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins. The singer, Anne Sofie von Otter, was incredible, and she did several encores.

2/7/2000 - London Dungeon and Fantasia 2000 (again)

Today was our last day in England, and we weren't quite sure what we should do. We decided to camp it up and visit the London Dungeon across the Thames from the Tower of London. At the start, it was just a very campy wax museum, reminding me of one of the witch museums in Salem. It depicted the history of London, including the plague and the beheadings on the Tower Green.

However, once live actors started describing torture devices in gruesome detail, I began to feel faint. My vision was becoming a shrinking tunnel. I had to get out of there, and they whisked me away to the gift shop. (Their reaction made me think that this is a fairly common occurrence).

I wanted Craig to enjoy the remainder of the attraction, so I thought I would be safe in the gift shop. I went into the bathroom to splash water on my face, and found that they had left no stone unturned. There were pools of "blood" in the bathroom, and rubber severed limbs for sale in the giftshop. There were also many UFO-themed items for sale. I'm not sure of the connection there.

After what seemed like an eternity, Craig emerged. Craig had enjoyed the Jack the Ripper-themed amusement ride through the simulated sewers of London, but I couldn't get out of there fast enough. Of course Craig never let me live it down. He taunts me with "I'm going to faint!" if he thinks I'm being a baby about something.

We took the Tube to St. Paul's. We spent about an hour looking for a place to eat lunch. We realized we should have eaten near the Dungeon, where we had seen lots of restaurants serving the tourist population. The places that existed near St. Paul's were mainly for businesspeople; signs forbade "site clothes". We ended up eating at the Grapevine at Cheapside. It was a tiny Italian restaurant. I had spaghetti Bolognese, and Craig had chicken with cheese and mushrooms.

After lunch we had planned to tour St. Paul's Catherdal, but it was closed for a private service.

We took the Tube to Piccadilly Circus. The Lesbian Avengers were protesting a law which would forbid the teaching of homosexuality in schools. They occupied a double decker bus and painted it pink, and they climbed the statues in the circus. Some young men standing behind us briefed us on the whole situation.

We then had an early dinner at the Stock Pot. We got a 2 course chicken hot pot meal for 3.70 pounds. Craig got the minestrone soup, and I had the apple crumble custard.

We decided to see Fantasia 2000 again. We went up the wrong escalator in the Pepsi Trocadero building, and were unable to find the theater at first. All escalators seemed to go up. We finally went the wrong way down an escalator and found the IMAX thater again. We enjoyed our second viewing of the movie in IMAX format.

We walked to Liecester Square, and then took the Tube back to Richard and Julia's for curried chicken and rice and good conversation. We thanked Richard and Julia for their amazing hospitality. We had such a wonderful time in London and its environs. We felt more connected to history which we have known all of our lives, but had never experienced firsthand. And we had seen three amazing performances: one rock icon, a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and classical.

We went to bed at midnight.

2/8/2000 - Departure

We said a final goodbye to our lovely hosts and took a minicab to the airport.

We ate breakfast at Heathrow (scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, toast, orange juice). Security was very tight, as there had been a hijacking and an Afghan plane had been forced to land at Stansted Airport in England that very week, so we were searched and frisked. My long woolen trenchcoat seemed to make me look particularly suspicious, as they singled me out for an additional search.

On the flight home, we watched Anywhere But Here and The Sixth Sense. We were fed well (the stewardess passed around a tray of chocolates). U.S Shuttle picked us up at the airport and drove us home.
Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace

Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace

St. James Park

St. James Park

Parliament

Parliament

Rodin's The Burghers of Calais statue outside of Parliament

Rodin's The Burghers of Calais statue outside of Parliament

Big Ben

Big Ben

London Eye

London Eye

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Telephone box

Telephone box

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Tower of London

Tower of London

Tower Green, site of many beheadings

Tower Green, site of many beheadings

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Rick Wakeman, Central Theatre, Chatham

Rick Wakeman, Central Theatre, Chatham

Rick Wakeman, Central Theatre, Chatham

Rick Wakeman, Central Theatre, Chatham

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

Greek artifacts, British Museum

Greek artifacts, British Museum

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

See more pictures from this day


Craig, Steph, Julia (with Mathilda), and Richard (with Humbert)

Craig, Steph, Julia (with Mathilda), and Richard (with Humbert)



Back to Craig and Steph's Vacations

Read our guest book   Guest book Sign our guest book
Please send any questions or comments to steph@craigandstephsvacations.com
All photographs and text copyright 1996-Present www.craigandstephsvacations.com except where noted.