From London with Love
October 27th was Katie’s and my 5-year wedding anniversary, and so we decided to do something that we’d never done before: take a relaxing day trip somewhere cool.
“Relaxing” really is the operative word here, because typically when Katie and I take a trip anywhere, it turns into a still-exciting-yet-exhausting marathon of site-seeing, after which we both feel like we can hardly stand. So in an effort to take a time-out from thinking, and just enjoy hanging out together, we decided to go somewhere where we’d already done a great deal of site-seeing already, and therefore wouldn’t be as tempted to stray from the plan; London it was!
Planning the Trip
One area of London that we had left mostly unexplored during our previous trips was the borough known as Mayfair, where London’s main fashion and shopping district can be found. We decided to dedicate the majority of our time to wandering around this part of town, checking out historic Oxford St, New and Old Bond St, Savile Row, and Picadilly St., and then planned to end our day in the Westminster area, where Westminster Abby and the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and Parliament can be found; it’s hard to go to London and skip those!
To get to London from Leeds, we had the option to fly, take a bus (called a “coach” over here), or take a train. Flying is usually expensive, so it’s not an option we even looked into. Travelling by train is typically faster and more comfortable than traveling by coach, but in this case it would have only gotten us to London thirty minutes before the coach would have, and the coach was actually considerably cheaper, so we went with that.
We decided to take our trip on Saturday the 28th, leaving Leeds at 7:00am, and getting into London at 11:30am. We booked a round-trip ticket, and our coach back to Leeds was scheduled to leave at 9:30 that evening, so we would have about 10 hours to kill; plenty of time to stroll, and make at least two very important stops along our way…
It was pretty chilly that Saturday when we left, and it was only supposed to get up to about 60 degrees in London. But I did not care. My wardrobe for that day was going to be very specific. As a James Bond fan, I had been waiting a long time for the opportunity to walk around London in a suit, and Saturday was going to be that day, and I would be damned if I was going to cover it up with some bulky coat.
Katie dressed very nicely as well of course, but she was much more sensible when it came to the whole coat thing… and as it turns out… she was much more comfortable too.
The Amber Car picked us up before sunrise right outside our apartment gate at about 6:30, and took us quickly to Leeds Coach Station – only about a 5-10 minute drive.
It was super windy that morning, and the coach station was cold, making the metal seats we had to sit on cold too.
There were quite a few other passengers there already, most of them waiting for the same coach we were waiting for.
Unfortunately, after queueing for about 30 minutes at the exit door which would take us out to our coach, an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us that our coach was still going to be another forty minutes in arriving, which means we wouldn’t be leaving until at least 8:00, which was pretty annoying considering we only had 10 hours to spend in London to begin with.
But, as promised, the bus rolled in promptly at 8:00, we all boarded and were quickly on our way out of town.
We were lucky enough to score two seats right behind the bus driver, which gave us a pretty good view out of the front windshield so that we could enjoy a bit of the countryside as the sun came up that morning while we rolled down the highway.
Unfortunately, taking pictures out of a bus window is not ideal in terms of producing quality images, but I can tell you that the English countryside is about what you would expect. Very agrarian, with what appears to be more livestock-based farming than crop-based farming, given the regularity with which we saw goats, horses, and cows.
Another nice feature is the rolling hills, some still very green, surrounding small towns with their church steeples jutting out from the silhouette of the rest of the other homes and buildings.
Other than that, truth be told, it’s like any other highway, haha. It actually feels a lot like travelling on a highway in the Midwest, with farmland and trees on the left and right for miles.
Arriving in London
After pulling through the welcoming outskirts of London, we soon found ourselves turning onto Oxford St. I remember thinking it would have been great we could have just been dropped off right there, rather than having to continue further toward The River Thames until reaching our set destination of Victoria Coach Station, down in Belgravia, next to Westminster. “It would save us so much time and walking if they could just let us off right here!”, I thought.
No sooner than the thought had crossed my mind that the driver got on the PA system and asked if anyone wanted to get off at Marble Arch.
Marble Arch?! Was that closer than Victoria Coach Station? It sure was! It was just at the corner of Hyde Park on Oxford Street.
We checked again with the driver, just to make sure it was okay, and with his confirmation we grabbed our stuff and hit the sidewalk outside, now practically back on schedule despite our coach having left Leeds late.
It was a sunny day in London by then, but the chill hadn’t completely gone yet, and it was quite windy, making it pretty cold for your average suit-wearer when walking in the shadow of the tall buildings.
As we made our way down Oxford St, it was clear that the Christmas season was almost upon us. There were already Christmas decorations hanging across the street from one building to another – cool globe-like decorations.
We stopped into Marks and Spencer department store first. We didn’t know it at the time, but this department store actually began in Leeds, and we had already visited their location at Trinity Leeds several times. We checked out some Hollywood Deco style dishes that caught our eye, checked out the wide variety of exciting Christmas crackers (a staple in English Christmas tradition), and hopped back out onto the street.
We wandered a bit further until we came across a massive building, taking up an entire city block and lined with tall stone columns. This was the century-old department store of Selfridges.
If you don’t know about Selfridges, it’s worth the time to watch the PBS documentary on the department store (available on Netflix), or check out the Wikipedia page. The founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge, was actually an American from Chicago who moved to London in order to make his own name in the retail world, and in doing so, he completely redefined British shopping traditions, which actually had a significant impact on British society in terms of blurring class lines, and providing women with the opportunity to be more independent when outside the home, not to mention setting a standard for department store configuration that is still being adhered to today around the world (e.g. makeup and perfume being located close to the entrance, large display windows, etc).
Another fascinating, yet sad note about Selftridge himself, was that he was eventually stripped of his decision-making power by his own board of directors because of irresponsible use of the companies funds, and died completely penniless.
On a happier note, the legacy of what he built is still alive and well today, and Katie and I enjoyed our brief peruse around the first floor, where there were cosmeticians providing zombie makeovers to Halloweeners, and customers continued to flow in and out of the huge, ornate, seemingly original doors.
After Selfridges, we continued a bit further down Oxford Street until we came to New Bond St, where we hooked a right to continue our tour of fancy-store-window shopping. We enjoyed more over-the-street Christmas decorations on our way too!
We passed by several more of your typical high-end stores, and then decided to scoot through another beautiful arcade and stop into Pret A Manger, a quick grab-and-go sandwich, salad, and soap chain that you can find on virtually every other block in any city here in the UK.
We did, however, find ourselves eating outside, as this Pret A Manger charged its customers extra if they wished to stand and eat inside at the crowded window tables… forget that!
So we stood outside, sheltered in the corner of a building, laughing and downing our sandwich as our fingers turned blue and fellow shoppers stared curiously at us as they walked by.
We stepped into Tiffany’s and Cartier, and then left the New and Old Bond St area and headed down to Piccadilly St (we actually completely forgot to walk down Savile Row! (It’s on the list for next time…)
As we emerged onto Piccadilly St, we looked to the right, and spotted the famous Ritz hotel, featured in movies such as Notting Hill, and I’m sure several others.
We turned left towards the well-known Picadilly Circus, and made our way to one of our must-stops, another timeless department store, Fortnum and Mason.
Fortnum and Mason is one of Katie’s favorite London stores, inside which you find tea and biscuits (thin cookies) galore, all available in very neatly designed metal tins, along with a myriad of other posh food, home, and clothing products.
Katie said we’d only spend like 30 minutes there… I think we left just short of two hours…
And then it was time…
… for the most anticipated visit of our trip…
… to Lock & Co Hatters…
… the oldest hat shop in the world…
We left Fortnum and Mason out of their side entrance and made the short walk to St. James street, and then down to the small, inconspicuous store front of Lock and Co Hatters, opened in 1676, and at its current location since 1765, eleven years before the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.
Lock and Co was responsible for the creation for what is known as the bowler hat, and has an extensive list of well-known clients, from Winston Churchhill, to Pierce Brosnon, to Oscar Wilde, so on and so on. (Wikipedia – Lock and Co)
More recently the shop was actually featured in Kingsman: The Secret Service, as Samual L. Jackson exits the store-front with his new hat, and there’s actually a Kingsman-themed store almost immediately next to Lock & Co!
Walking into Lock & Co is like walking into your own personal tailor shop. You have the old-fashioned multi-pane glass windows, well-dressed attendants, and very formal, cozy environment.
The hats are there for you to try on as you wish. I wasted no time in grabbing one of the fedoras for a quick look in the mirror.
However, what I was really on the hunt for was a Lock and Co flatcap, and so we made our way to the back of the store, where a couple of attendants explained to us the difference between the fabrics, the different constructions, and the benefits and occasions for both.
You could tell that they took pride in the quality of their product, which they’ve obviously spent centuries perfecting.
We ended up going with a grey flatcap made from loden, a special type of wool that is warm, weather resistant, breathable, and most importantly, dope-looking. It was a good stop to say the least.
To Buckingham Palace
After Lock & Co, Katie and I made our way toward Buckingham Palace. The changing of the guard had already taken place for the final time that day, but we had only planned on enjoying the walk by to begin with.
We had to cross through lovely Green Park in order to get there, and we took a moment to snap a few commemorative anniversary photos in the fall setting.
I was, admittedly, still a little amped up from the whole Lock & Co experience, and so apparently began to make a triumphant spectacle before Katie got me back under control…
We finished crossing through the park and found ourselves at the front gate of the Buckingham Palace. To our delight, the guards were in their red uniforms, whereas they had been in their grey winter uniforms the first time Katie saw the changing of the guard in person earlier in the year, and so this was the first time she had seen them in red.
We snapped a few quick photos, breathed in the ambience, and continued on our way as the sun began to set.
Our next stop was the borough of Westminster, namely Westminster Abbey, just to marvel at its exterior and to peruse the gift shop.
Then, we hooked around the corner to see parliament, and caught perhaps the ugliest vista of the Elizabeth Tower there has ever been.
We felt very fortunate to have come and seen it earlier in the year, especially Katie, who saw it for the first time during that previous visit, because at present, the entire edifice was covered head to toe with hideous scaffolding, glowing palely with sterile, fluorescent, construction bulbs. Mleh! The bell, Big Ben himself, isn’t currently ringing either… boo…
Regardless, we crossed Westminster Bridge halfway in order to see Parliament from The Thames, which in years passed had been one of the highlights of London at night, but for two visits now had not been lit to full capacity because of maintenance or something… but it was still nice to spot to be, especially with the London Eye glowing red in on the opposite side of the river.
Soon it was getting cold and we were getting hungry, so we headed back the way we came in search of food.
As we reached the bottom of the bridge by parliament again, we were caught off-guard by a considerable drove of zombies, skeletons, and other horrific characters on roller skates, making their way quickly toward us, taking up the entire street, which was a fun surprise.
For supper, we settled on a tiny pub across the street from parliament which I’d wanted to eat at since I first saw it when I came over with my dad and brother several years before, called St. Stevens Tavern.
There, in the crowded space filled with dinner goers, Katie and I split several tasty appetizers as we listened to the chatting around us.
Towards the end of dinner we struck up a conversation with an Englishman sitting next to us who was accompanied by two French women and one French man. Their assembly seemed an odd one, as the Englishman appeared to know no French, and was not included in much of the conversation with the rest of his company at all.
He had guessed, I suppose from the weird way I must talk, that I was Irish! He realized only after speaking with us that we were American, and we explained why we were in the country, and he asked us what we thought of the Yorkshire accent up in Leeds.
One of the French ladies had been to Miami, and had not been impressed. She liked New York though.
As we all got up to leave the restaurant at the end of dinner I mentioned how nice it was to hear them speaking French amongst each other because I had just started learning it myself, and I uttered “Enchanté” as carefully as I could to them, which one of the French women said sounded excellent. It was pretty loud in the restaurant though… she was probably drunk… just kidding.
It was a cool interaction.
Back to the station
After the dinner we headed back to Victoria Coach Station through streets lined with what appeared to be charming four-story apartments, but what we discovered were actually mostly hotels and small business.
Arriving at the station and getting to our coach was extremely reminiscent of when we’d passed through its doors earlier in the year to visit our friends in Leicester, two hours to the north.
Soon we were cozy in our seats and rolling away through the English country which was now completely dark, and we pulled out one of our phones and skyped with Grandma Miller, who was celebrating her 90th birthday at the Possum Trot in Danville surrounded by many warm, familiar faces.
Seeing everyone at such a happy event was the perfect way to cap off a really wonderfully relaxed day-trip in London.
Photo Credit: Mostly Katie, some Jeff