One of the conditions of taking my mother to Europe (is if there has to be conditions) is that we visit the old family home in Thornbury England near Bristol. The easiest way to get from Paris to England was via the Eurostar train that travels up to 200 mph between Paris and London. Originally I'd planned on two nights in Bristol with a daytrip to Thornbury and two additional nights in London for sightseeing. Two nights in one place really only gets you one full day so to be more efficient I changed those plans to include 3 full days in London with a daytrip to Thornbury. This would make for a long day going to Thornbury but it's just over two hours on the train to Bristol and then another 45 minutes on the city bus to Thornbury. Quick math says we'd have 5 hrs of travel that day which is doable.
I got 70 euro tickets leaving Paris' Gare de Nord station at 8:30 am and arriving in London's St Pancras station around 11 am. The Eurostar train has really made London and Paris accessible for daytripping. Before the channel tunnel was dug it would take you six hours to get between cities no matter if you flew (airports aren't in the city centers), rode a bus or took a train/ferry/train combo.
Gare de Nord was a reasonably short walk from our Paris apartment so we didn't have to add on metro fare or a taxi. Once in London we'd take the tube to Clapham Common station and walk about a mile from there. When we leave London we'll take the tube to Liverpool station and catch the Stansted Express to Stansted airport to catch our Ryanair flight to Trieste Italy – the closest place they fly to Slovenia.
Our apartment in London wasn't as central as I might have liked but it's what we could afford – London as you may have heard is a very expensive city.
London brings back many memories from the past as it was my very first introduction to Europe years ago. I've been to London many times over the years and in fact used to fly into London because the cheapest plane tickets from Seattle were often into London Heathrow.
My very first trip to London was very memorable. I really hadn't traveled beyond three timezones before so I arrived with jetlag and absolutely exhausted as I didn't know I was supposed to sleep on the plane. As soon as I got to my hotel I took a “short nap” and woke up in the dark. Then I stumbled around in the dark trying to find food…. Another time I flew into London on a budget flight too late to catch the tube so I had to ride a bus. By the time I got to central London it was 2 am and I was headed back to a different airport in 6 hrs. Considering the cost of London and how little time I'd have to sleep I didn't go to a hotel and instead slept in a doorway. Ah, the memories!
In looking for an apartment on airbnb.com I requested 6 different places and had all 6 either ignore me or turn me down. I finally found a “book it now” apartment in the Battersea Park area and jumped on it as it was as cheap as we were going to get and there was no waiting period for approval. The price - $260/night for one room and a pullout couch in someone else's apartment they currently live in! As they say - Welcome to London, I hope you brought money…. Just as a frame of reference we got our 100 square meter, 2 bedroom apartment in Paris for 1/3 that amount.
The trip from Paris to London was uneventful – too much so even. The group was excited to be riding in a train underneath the English Channel not knowing that it's no different than any other tunnel – it just takes a bit longer. It goes dark, and then it get's light. A bit of a disappointment. On arrival I attempted to buy Oyster cards so we'd get a discount on the buses and trains. After going through at least 2 bank cards we got the third to work and we were off to the tube which seems smaller than the last time I was on them. I know they aren't and I'm sure my brain is comparing them to other Metro systems in the world but really, they're quite small due to the size of the tunnels themselves.
We arrived in our little district and walked for about half an hour before arriving at the apartment. I got out my reservation sheet and walked up to the door only to realize that I didn't know which apartment she was in. I had no other choice but to ring each one and ask for our host. I could start from the lowest number or start from the highest – I chose highest and working backwards. After 5 numbers I got our host and she let us in. Had I gone from the lowest number we might still be there (kidding).
The apartment was small but we got one bedroom to ourselves and also a blowup mattress and the pullout couch. The host had a small boy with more energy than any one person should have. Adorable but only from a distance after you've had a shot or two of whiskey. We lucked out though because our host was going into the country to see relatives and would be gone most of the weekend so we largely had the place to ourselves.
The Battersea Park area turned out to be really cute and where “real” London is. The touristed areas are nice but when I went to the Sainsbury in our little district I didn't see any tourists anywhere. I like that. There were plenty of eating establishments, some nightlife and the aforementioned grocery store. We were on a pretty strict budget as we already knew before arriving that London was going to hurt. Our accommodations were more per night than our entire budget in other cities. Anything we spent beyond that would cut into our future trip so we were careful. We ate breakfast at home, brought sandwiches with us when we went out and even ate frozen pizzas one night. Another night we had Chinese and the last night we had Indian because you can't go to London without eating Indian! Three curries, naan, rice and pakoras were $100 US – our entire food budget for the day. Remember that our entire budget was blown just on the apartment and every pound we spent ate into our future days. Even though were were really careful we were quickly chipping away at our budget for Slovenia, Croatia and Italy but there wasn't anything we could do… It's London, bring lots of money.
Because we arrived on our first day before noon we hopped a bus and headed to Sloane Square where we'd see a bit more of the city center. Not wanting to spend more money we window shopped, took photos of some interesting buildings, sat in a park and then took the bus back home. But bus is half the cost of the tube at £1.50 per ride whereas the tube was £2.40. That's about $2.40 per ride each way on buses. That's twice the price of Paris but comparable to buses at home. The saving grace for the oyster is that you have a daily maximum of about £4.50 or roughly two rides. Once you've ridden the bus twice the rest of the day is free. Not a bad deal. Still the buses added $25 to our daily expenses. Had we used the tube it would have been over $40. Without an Oyster card it would have broke us. Insane.
For dinner we ordered Chinese at the place downstairs. The food was average and I didn't have to give up more than one kidney and two toes in exchange for dinner.
Warning: you will hear me complain more about the cost of London before this blog post is over…
Day two had us take the bus to Hyde Park Corner where we walked to Buckingham palace to see the changing of the guard. We had actually missed it by an hour but due to the rain they postponed it until we go there. It's either that or the Queen saw us arrive and ordered it just for us. It was kind of neat to see them do their walk but outside of that Buckingham palace doesn't have a lot to offer from the outside. It's not Versailles by any means!
After Buckingham palace we walked to Westminster Abbey, the Parliament and Trafalgar square. I had good memories of sitting on the steps at Trafalgar Square watching the street performers on the past. It's just not the same when people are freezing and huddled under an umbrella. Hungry we ducked into a small grocery to buy a $10 ham and cheese sandwich to get us by until we could get back to our apartment.
When in London eat Indian food they say so we did. My mother and I went across the street to the Bombay Bicycle Chef to get a menu and it had been raining all day so the floor was slick and mother's feet went right out from under her and she landed flat on her back. Normally when a 75 year old person falls it's bad but she slid into home plate and only needed help in getting back up. Later I returned to order our best meal in London – curry!
Our last day in London was going to be a big one. Mother and I were headed to Thornbury and the three girls were going to the Harry Potter Warner Brothers studio near Watford Junction in the outskirts of the city.
Kris had booked the tickets to Warner Bros studio months in advance but hadn't planned transportation. Upon learning it was going to cost $100 per person to get there she was nearly in tears. There's no way we could justify that so I spent the next hour trying to find a way… I ended up with a bus to Euston, London Midland train to Watford Junction and then the Warner Bros shuttle to the studio for $36 each person round trip. The reason I got the trip so cheap was that one way tickets on the London Midlands train were cheaper than round trip for certain times. I found the right times, combined it with a bus and voila! Still $30 per person get across town on a 45 minute train is still pretty nuts and $100 is downright insanity.
Keeping with the “we're way over budget” theme our train tickets to Bristol were about 3x the price that I thought they were when I checked two months prior. A bit more digging showed this to be true. Our only choice was to take the very reasonable bus which would take nearly 3 hrs one way to get there. Our 5 hr daytrip turned into 10 hrs but we could afford it.
You're probably starting to see a common theme here. If you think I'm whining a bit too much then please keep in mind that even though we cut as many corners as possible our last day in London cost us $660 USD without food. That's with taking buses, certain cheap trains, handicap discounts, oyster daily maximums etc.. Can you imagine what it would have cost if we just wandered around willy nilly seeing the sites? I'll tell you – right around $1000… in one day…. just for transportation for 5 and entry to Warner Bros studio for 3 people. Crazy place this London..