UK: “Yes — happiness wouldn’t be happiness without a violin-playing goat.”

How did June go by so quickly?! It’s been a month since I got home from London and I still miss it! With the Olympic team trials going on right now, the pull to go back is stronger than it’s ever been. I’m also reading the official biography of the Queen Mother, and it’s fun to visualize the castles, landmarks and locations mentioned as I read.

Saturday, May 26, 2012
This morning, I really started to feel the wear of the breakneck pace I’d set for myself in creating this trip’s itinerary. It took me a little longer than I wanted, but Katia and I were able to make the 0830 train to Kings Cross as planned. Katia was once again going to work at the British Library while I ventured off, with plans to meet up in Notting Hill later in the afternoon. I dashed off to the Underground when the train pulled in at 0930, grabbing the Victoria line to Victoria station. I transferred to the District line, which luckily was running smoothly, despite previous troubles, to Westminster Station.

I fought my way out of the station and along St. Margaret Street to the Cromwell Green visitor entrance. My tour was scheduled to start at 1000, which is when I ran up to the gate, already sweating slightly. I asked the guard at the entrance how to get my ticket (as I only had my Ticketmaster print out) and he pointed to a building across the street and a block away. I sighed heavily and in a voice tinged with panic, asked what I should do since my tour was to start now. Thankfully, he took pity on me, bringing me to the guard booth and filling out a spare ticket for me, letting me queue up to go through security. We each took a photo for a instant-print visitor badge and put our belongings through an x-ray machine, like at the airport. From there, where we walked through a bit of a maze, back outside and in again to Westminster Hall to meet our tour guide.

I was the last of the 23 people to join my particular tour guide, Ian. He looked to be at least 70 and had good humour about him. There were at least fifteen different tours going on around us, reminding me of the chaos at Westminster Abbey the day before. Except for Westminster Hall (which we would return to after the tour concluded), there was no photography allowed inside. This was particularly disappointing since their postcard collection was severely lacking (though I did buy a few). The tour lasted just about an hour, not giving Ian much time to give us too much background or trivia as we moved from room to room. It was fantastic to walk on the floor of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, even if we weren’t allowed to touch anything. I was also truly amazed by the Robing Room, where Queen Elizabeth II (and all monarchs previous to her) gets ready before the State Opening of Parliament.

Returning to Westminster Hall, the oldest building in the complex, we got a close-up view of the stained glass window created for the Diamond Jubilee. It was also completely surreal to see the place where Sir Thomas More was tried and condemned to death for treason as well as the places where King George V, King George VI and Winston Churchill lay in state following their deaths. I’m a total government geek, so I was completely enthralled to just be in the building and it was absolutely fascinating to actually see the workings and rooms where history is made.

After leaving Parliament, I decided to walk across the Westminster Bridge, enjoying the fabulous sunshine. I had unfortunately developed a twinge in my right knee, despite the fact that I had worn flats with my dress. It didn’t bother me while standing or while sitting, but only when I made the walking motion with my leg. I stopped for lunch at Eat at the Southbank Centre, happy to sit and rest as well as write a few postcards.

I spent a good hour at lunch before venturing to Waterloo station to continue my day. I stopped briefly at Foyles bookshop to pick up postcard stamps. (Unfortunately, I didn’t know to ask for INTERNATIONAL postcard stamps, so I ran the risk of my postcards not arriving after all. Luckily for me, the UK post took pity on me and the postcards got through!) I took the Bakerloo line to Embankment and transferred to the District line. It took longer to get to West Ham than I had thought and I walked up to the Olympics Walk about 30 seconds before they left.

Short of actually going to the Olympics, the tour was the next best thing. Julianne was very knowledgeable about the Olympic bid and the economics and historical development of the area. Having written a paper in college about economic development and regional cooperation in developing an Olympic bid, it was really interesting to hear how similar the economic development factors were for this bid. However, one of the most fascinating parts for me was when we sang part of the Star-Spangled Banner – why? Because the remaining factories we saw was the one that made “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” over Fort McHenry.

I was really impressed by the way that London committee has created venues and arenas that fit their long-term needs with short-term (Olympic-only) add-ons. Some of the major venues are purely temporary and others have thousands of temporary seats that will be removed once the Games are over. For example, the basketball arena is completely temporary and will be removed following the Games because, as our guide explained, the British aren’t very good at b-ball, so why do they need basketball venue? It was great to see all the venues and take the DLR to Stratford International to see the Athletes Village and the main Olympic Park. Stratford International station is awesomely modern. They will be running fast trains from Kings Cross that will get people to the Olympic Park in EIGHT minutes! And since they have the capability to do that for the Games, they have decided to start bullet train service to the Continent from Stratford International once the Games are over. The Athletes Village will be turned into affordable family housing, complete with a school and medical facilities!

My favorite venue was the Aquatic Centre. As Julianna was quick to point out, London is not Beijing and there will be no “Water Cube” or “Bird’s Nest.” But the Aquatic Centre is awesomely shaped like an flying manta ray. There is a lot of extra temporary seating on the sides, obscuring the full visual, but it really is spectacular. It was outside this venue that I got another taste of how Britain is NOT like America. Julianna mentioned that a famous swimmer, Ian Thorpe, who we might remember from the Sydney Olympics, “before Michael Phelps won everything,” visited the Aquatic Centre and liked it so much, he came out of retirement to try to make the London Games. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it out of the Australian trials, but I thought it was interesting to see the British/Australian link and giggled to myself about the thinly-veiled hostility towards our boy, Michael Phelps (as if he were a show-off, not a highly decorated athlete). There was still construction going on while we were there, but most things were near completion. I could definitely visualize how it will all work and look next month when the Game start.

(Aside that doesn’t really fit anywhere else: Julianna mentioned that London decided to build a velodrome that they will keep after the Games. Because as the Australians say, “The British are only good at sports where they can sit down – cycling, sailing and rowing!” Awesome!)

The tour ends at Westfields Stratford, which houses a HUGE John Lewis, official department store provide of Olympic merchandise. I spent almost £100 on the 3rd Floor on London 2012 merch (not all for myself, thank you very much!) and enjoyed the view from their observation window. I probably could have stayed there all day, but it was time to head back to central London to meet Katia.

I took the Central line to Notting Hill Gate, meeting Katia on the street, after getting out on the wrong entrance. We walked down to Portobello Road, but the merchants had mostly packed up their wares at the famous market. We stopped and got “gelato” (that was really ice cream) before looking for a pub in which to have a pitcher of Pimm’s. We finally found our place at Sun in Splendour, which was running a special, £14 for a pitcher. It was fascinating to watch the bartender make up the pitcher of Pimm’s and it quickly rushed to the top of my favorite drinks of all time. I’m dying to see if I can find a decent pitcher here in the States.

After we had our relaxing Pimm’s, we decided to head back to Cambridge for dinner. We had a bit of a trial, waiting for the correct bus to take us back to Kings Cross, but finally made it back. After our long day, we grabbed a taxi to dinner, instead of waiting on the bus at the other end. We ate a late dinner at Wildwood Grill. I braved having a burger (something Katia had warned me about) and it was pretty good. Not as good as you’d find in the States, but definitely yummy. I had a delightful chocolate ice cream cone with marshmellows in a toast to my boss’s birthday (though she was not with us). After we paid, we lucked out that the bus to Katia’s flat had just stopped outside, so we ran to get on at 2330.

Another long, but delightful day in the books, we fell into bed, ready for our beach day in the morning.