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You can pack a lot of adventure in a whirlwind trip to England’s capital

Whew — a whole lot of London can be packed into three days. For the first direct flight of Air Canada’s summer season from St. John’s to London, The Telegram was invited on a tour of the British capital organized by the St. John’s International Airport Authority and Air Canada.

The adventure began on the overnight flight from St. John’s, which  takes five hours. The flight is actually a half hour faster going to London because of prevailing winds.

We arrived in London at 6:30 a.m. on a Friday and I left a day after the tour ended, departing at 1 p.m. on the following Monday from Heathrow.

That first day, we freshened up at the arrivals lounge at Air Canada and I fuelled up on cappuccino for the long day ahead.

Two things struck me as we later emerged from the hotel at  Paddington train station — the lushness of the city after leaving bare-branched St. John’s, and the never-ending architectural eye candy.

Striking out for Hyde Park, I did a double take as we passed the Peter Pan statue in adjacent Kensington Gardens, a twin of the one in Bowring Park back home, both by sculptor Sir George Frampton.

In Hyde Park, we passed well-behaved dogs strolling off-leash beside their owners on a warmish spring day — foliage in full green splendour.

Near Hyde Park Corner we smelled roses and other flowers in bloom, a treat considering my tulips had yet to open before I left.

Needing to get to Trafalgar Square to meet a Newfoundlander living in London, I ventured off on my own to the London Underground with my Oyster card — the subway pass.

I asked for directions from the helpful staff and gasped as I looked down the steep escalator — alarming for anyone prone to vertigo.

“Stand to the right,” the sign said. A steady stream of passengers squeezed down the escalator, alongside those in less of a hurry, including me, gripping the rail.

It wasn’t long, however, before my subway skills returned.

But even by the third day, the “mind the gap” reminder from the conductor each time the train door opened was still charming.

Emerging at Charing Cross station that Friday, I walked towards Trafalgar Square, taking in the columned buildings, statues, fountains and the crowds of people from numerous countries milling around, snapping photos.

The front of the National Gallery is a gathering place for buskers, bands and political activists.

I watched a trio of Asian youth perform a medley of Beatles hits, while a cowboy busker adorned in head-to-toe bronze makeup and paint stood perfectly still, moving when someone dropped money in his bucket.

The National Gallery is free, and I wandered in, quickly soaking in the mind-blowing art of European masters, so vivid I imagined the characters could walk off the canvas and come to life in front of me.

Outside, I checked out one of the iconic red phone booths, where you plunk in 60 pence to make a phone call. The booths are more a tourist attraction now, because of the high volume of mobile phones in London. But it’s still pretty cool when you stand next to one as the double-decker buses and distinctive London taxis rush by.

Then I got lost and wandered down a few streets, gaping at the architecture, and finding myself in front of theatre marquees for “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and others.

That night, with Big Ben as a beacon, we walked towards Westminster Abbey, passing the Parliament buildings and gated Downing Street along the way.

Downing Street — No. 10 is home of the British prime minister — is guarded with bobbies armed with assault rifles, but the policeman on duty in front of the gate is happy to answer tourists’ questions.

After dinner we returned to Piccadilly Circus — the Times Square of London — to view the district all lit up.

The fountain was crowded with people, many of them with drinks in hand, revelling on the Friday night before a three-day weekend, or what’s known in the U.K. as a “bank holiday.”

It was also the weekend for the league football championship match at Wembley Stadium between Barcelona and Manchester United, so the streets and tourist sites were teeming with fans draped in the colourful flags, scarves and jerseys of the two teams.

Barcelona went on to win the game Saturday night.

On Saturday, bright and early, we were armed with a London Pass — an all-inclusive card that allows travellers to bypass ticket booths at individual sites and save on the sometimes hefty entrance fees.

It sells for a flat rate and comes with a thick booklet covering more than 50 attractions, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and a hop-on/hop-off Thames river cruise. One adult day pass costs £44 or $70 Canadian.

Back at Westminster Abbey, the recent site of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I admired the ornate interior of the church with its jaw-dropping archways and stained glass — visitors are prohibited from taking photographs.

It is amazing to walk over the inlaid grave markers and stand beside the crypts of kings, queens and other famous people.

Among those buried there are Queen Elizabeth I, writer Geoffrey Chaucer and the Unknown Warrior.

On the River Thames cruise we sailed under the rather plain London Bridge,  not to be confused with the famous Tower Bridge.

After a short lunch of baguettes with goat cheese and tomatoes purchased at an outdoor kiosk, we hit the Tower of London.

As time was at a premium, we joined a long line to view the Crown jewels.

The queue moved briskly past glass-encased crowns, swords and sceptres sparkling with jewels and gold.

I stared at a glass case containing a punch bowl large enough to bathe in. Opulence isn’t a strong enough word to describe the solid gold bowl, inlaid with finely detailed vines and figures.

Outside the tower, I parted company with the group, planning to meet up with them in the hotel lobby later to head out for dinner and to see “Billy Elliot The Musical.”

I had about an hour and a half to do some interviews and make the 30- to 40-minute subway journey back to the hotel at Paddington Station.

Talking to people in the crowd, I learned the Tower Bridge was going to open soon, so I stuck around to take pictures.

See BIKING, page A26

In the age of the Internet, where you can access almost any image from anywhere in the world, it’s still amazing to see the bridge open and close. Several hundred people stood on the edge of the Thames, snapping photographs.

Schooners, their sails down, passed underneath.

Even though I had a subway map somewhere in my gear, I decided to take a stroll along the Thames path, figuring I would chance upon another station nearby.

I was wrong. I walked for about 15 minutes and realized I had better ask for directions.

I stopped a woman who told me the Tower was indeed the closest Tube station. So I’d have to backtrack, risking being very late for dinner.

She asked where I was staying and suggested I rent a one-pound-a day bicycle from the kiosk in front of us.

I actually had my credit card out, when visions of being squished beneath a double-decker bus began dancing in my head. The bike rental comes with no helmet, and with my bad balance and even worse sense of direction, I had the good sense to stop catastrophe in its tracks.

Instead, I started hoofing it for the Tower subway stop.

I made the station and asked the always friendly staff for directions.

“Turn left on the platform and take the Circle Line. It will take you right there,” I was told.

I jumped on a train and realized I was on the District Line. I asked a man about getting to the Circle Line, mentioning my final destination. He suggested getting off at the next stop.

I jumped off and a chorus of voices called out to me to get back on. The people in the front of the subway car had maps out trying to find the shortest route for me to Paddington Station. They suggested a transfer and made sure I got off at the right stop. It was one of those nice moments in life when strangers bond over a simple thing like directions.

I made the connection to the Bakerloo Line, soaking in the foot-stomping, chanting revelry of tipsy Barcelona fans on their way to the big game. Every time the door opened, the fans would call out to  each other or try to out-shout Manchester United supporters on the platform.

That night we dined at the Goring Hotel, a family-run boutique inn where Kate and her family had prepared for the Royal wedding.

Impeccably dressed, well-mannered staff served us a lovely meal of sea bass in time to make it to “Billy Elliot” around the corner.

I’m not usually a fan of musicals, but the show — with music by Elton John — was dazzling.

I’d seen the movie years ago, but the live performance was breathtaking. “Billy Elliot” tells the tale of the young son of a striking coal miner who discovers his passion for ballet.

Then it was back to the Goring for dessert and stories from the staff of waving off Kate on her wedding day.

The next morning we were up early again for a visit to Buckingham Palace. Until you stand outside the gilded gates, you can’t quite appreciate the pomp and circumstance.

That afternoon, my solo adventure in London began and I changed hotels to Trafalgar Square.

The taxi fare was about 15 pounds — $23 — and took 10 or 15 minutes. I wasn’t really paying attention to the time, but was listening to the 72-year-old cab driver’s recommendation to check out the best park in London — St. James.

I headed there, interviewing picnicking Londoners, including one family who filled me in on the happenings on “Coronation Street,” which has delayed viewing in Canada.

“We’re not all like that. We’re not in the pubs every night drinking,” they quipped. “We drink at home.”

I popped into a couple of British pubs, ordered “the Codfather” for lunch — a plate of fish and chips, frozen peas and toast that would’ve fed at least two people. I left most of the meal on the plate.

Then I walked towards Covent Gardens — a neighbourhood that dates to the 1st century — arriving too late for the market, but I made a few shops.

Not wanting to be roaming around by myself after dark, it was back to the hotel and then up the next day for Heathrow.

There was a road race that resulted in some streets being closed around Trafalgar Square, so I dragged my luggage to Charing Cross Station, where I got a cab back to Paddington and the Heathrow Express.

At Terminal 3, I ran into a small glitch at customs when an apologetic agent turned up a small bottle of shampoo in a forgotten pocket of my carry-on.

For that reason, it’s best to leave lots of time for delays and glitches.

Getting to the airport early also allows you time to stroll past the stores at Heathrow, including Tiffany’s and Harrods, where you can buy a Queen Elizabeth commemorative pen for $1,680 pounds sterling, or $2,666.

Finally seated on the plane, I was exhausted. It had been a whirlwind tour, but a whirlwind that left me wanting more of London and all the things yet to see and do.

The cheapest return ticket to London from St. John’s costs $1,275, taxes in, on Tango Plus.

If you go, you can add comfort to arrivals and departure waits by purchasing access to Air Canada’s lounges.

Besides snacks and drinks, the lounges offer showers.

Access to the London arrivals lounge costs $35 if pre-purchased.  The Maple Leaf lounges at departures in St. John’s and London are $45 if pre-purchased with an eligible fare.

 

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Weblinks

www.aircanada.com

www.londonpass.com

www.visitbritain.com

 

Organizations: Air Canada, International Airport Authority, National Gallery London Underground Manchester United Paddington Station Bakerloo Line Charing Cross Station Heathrow Express Harrods

Geographic location: London Bridge, Heathrow, Trafalgar Square England Paddington Hyde Park Westminster Abbey Kensington Gardens Bowring Park Barcelona Downing Street Charing Cross River Thames Big Ben U.K. Wembley Stadium Buckingham Palace Canada Covent Gardens Maple Leaf

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