Saturday, June 27, 2009

Joel and Heather's Guide to alternative tourism

Or: Our Third London

Having traveled to and enjoyed London together twice before in the past three years (I'd been once before in high school as well), Heather and I decided to pay London a final visit before leaving the UK. We'd seen and done most of the typical touristy stuff (at least, all the touristy stuff you can see and do for less than £5), so we wanted a less metropolitan (but equally cheap) experience this year. The more well-known, touristy London is definitely worth seeing — especially if it's your first trip or you have a bit of travel money saved up — but there are tons of other interesting things to do in less crowded, less maddening areas.

We arrived by train at London Euston station. Immediately upon exiting, we stumbled into the British Library (serendipity!), which houses such national treasures as the Magna Carta, the original handwritten Alice in Wonderland, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and two of the oldest existing Greek Bibles: the Codices Sinaiticus (4th century) and Alexandrinus (5th century). After dinner (Pret), we met our welcoming and hospitable (Polish) CouchSurfing hosts, Gregor, Joanna, and their two children. Gregor has very wide musical taste and introduced me to one of the best musical ideas I've ever heard: Polish folk reggae! Here's a video (warning: Youtube). Jamaicans in the snow!!!

The Roof Gardens in Kensington are Richard Branson's private garden (and nightclub) on the roof of a six-story building in central London. There are three gardens on the roof (Tudor, Spanish, and English Woodlands), with trees, flowers, shrubs, ducks, and even four pink flamingos ('Bill', 'Ben', 'Splosh', and 'Pecks'). This was definitely a highlight of our trip. It's pretty surprising to walk out on a rooftop and find such a nice garden. Doesn't cost anything to see during the day — just call ahead to make sure there are no weddings or events going on. From there, we go to Kensington Gardens, which are tacked on to the west side of Hyde Park, where we eat a picnic breakfast and sit by the water. There's so much green space inside London! We did indulge in a couple of touristy activities today; we checked out the Portobello Road Markets area (the actual market is only on the weekends), and went to Westminster in the evening to sit by the Thames and look at the Houses of Parliament for a while. Most importantly, we stopped at the Algerian Coffee Stores, which we discovered last year, to buy tea and coffee. Why did I buy Colombian when they have so many other hard-to-find varieties of coffee? I don't know. I'm bad at last-minute decisions. Heather bought some Ti Kuan Yin, a really good choice.

Oxford. What can I say? It's impressive, ancient, and overrun by tourists (to whom most of the city's doors are barred and bolted tight). We got ice cream and watched tourists trying to propel their rented punts and stay dry at the same time, then went for dinner at the Eagle and Child. This, as you may know, is the seventeenth-century pub at which the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, et al.) met every Tuesday morning for 30 years to discuss whatever legendary authors, philologists, and theologians discuss. We were highly impressed with how low-key it all was. They did sell t-shirts and had pictures of the Inklings on the wall, but the pub did not have any hint of that tacky shrine feel that tourist attractions seem to aim for. It was still very much a functioning pub, with decent prices, good food, and warm ale. Oxford was a bit of a mixed bag for us: it's good to have finally seen the University and the Bodleian Library (or their exteriors); on the other hand, it's not a good place to visit on a budget, and tourism in a University town seems problematic. There's no way, as a tourist, to participate, which is surely the whole point of the University as an institution. Also, did not succeed in obtaining a boater hat for Heather. Apparently they are no longer in fashion.

Spent the whole day in Hampstead Heath, 790 acres of forest, bogs, ponds, and fields to the northwest of central London. Its status as a park dates back to the 900s A.D. It boasts one of the best views of the city, apparently protected by law, from Parliament Hill (a.k.a. Kite Hill). There are also ponds for swimming (a sign reads: 'Warning: the water is cold, opaque, and untreated. Deep silt.') and fishing (catch and release, no barbed hooks or live bait), although we hadn't come prepared for either. We had great weather, got a bit sunburned, wandered aimlessly in the woods, climbed a tree, ate tinned fish for lunch, and envied all the people with dogs. If we ever come back to London, we will definitely spend more time here. In the evening, Gregor cooked us a traditional Polish dinner with fried pork chops and boiled potatoes; everything covered in dill. Amazing.

Took the train home; tried to write postcards while the cars semi-successfully attempted to negotiate the rails.

In summary, our favorite activities are sitting and walking, for both of which London is an ideal location.

P.S. There are more pictures from our trip here on our Picasa page.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful view of London--things that are usually not in the brochures! So glad you could have such a nice week.

Wow! You ate dinner where the Inklings hung out!?!?

Mom Shaver

DaviMack said...

Great stuff, guys! Thanks!

Krista said...

I love the pictures. By the way, where will you guys be in October?