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Yes, I’m back, in fact we’re all back from gallivanting around Europe. Survived the crossing the street in Rome, dodged the pickpockets on the Metro, minded the gap in London, missed the Paddington rail disaster by about two hours, and even somehow flew there and back without the kids sending us completely insane.

Legoland or bust

This was something of an eventful day. Quite apart from being our last day in Europe, it was to be a day of plans, problems, revised plans, revised plan problems, revised-revised plans, revised-revised plan problems… and so on.

The first bit went reasonably smoothly: We said goodbye to Uncle Hew (since he was going to work early) and finished our packing. Then we called a minicab and locked up his house and caught the cab to the station.

Minicabs are something of a curiosity to someone like me who comes from a city where all the cabs are pretty well regulated. Minicabs basically consist a person and their car. You ring them, or go to their office, they drive you somewhere, you give them money. Simple as that.

Well, this minicab was a slightly grumpy old bloke with an ageing Ford, which was well-kept, apart from the rust and the fact that the whole car was overwhelmingly crappy. He got us to East Croydon station for a couple of pounds less than a normal cab, but by golly I think next time I’ll spend the extra money.

So, from East Croydon station, it was on to plan A.

Plan A:

Catch a Thameslink train into London Farringdon, then the tube to Paddington station. See if we could con the Heathrow Express people into accepting our Britrail SouthEast passes, or otherwise buy tickets. Check-in our luggage at Paddington. Then catch a train to Windsor, go to Legoland, come back to Paddington, have some dinner with Josh and Cathy, then catch the Heathrow Express to… you guessed it, Heathrow! Get on board our 10pm-ish flight, and head home.

Problem with Plan A:

We got to Farringdon around 10am, and being the eagle-eyed person that I am, I noticed a scribbled message written on the noticeboard. Something about an incident at Paddington, and that there were no trains, though the tube was running normally. I found an Underground man, who told me two trains had collided near Paddington. "There’s one person dead and hundreds injured." And no other trains running.

[The sobering headline on our last night in England. Click for enlargement]
The sobering headline on our last night in England. Click for enlargement.

We would find out later that it was considerably more than one person dead. We had missed by about two hours, stumbling into what would become known as the Paddington disaster to most; or the Ladbroke Grove incident to the rail officials.

Thankful that we were only inconvenienced by it, and not involved in it, we started to formulate plan B.

Plan B:

Catch the tube to Heathrow. Check-in our baggage there, then catch a cab to Legoland, and one back that evening for our flight.

So we caught a tube one stop to Kings Cross, and changed to the Piccadilly line to go to Heathrow. When we got there, we lugged our luggage up to the correct terminal. 

Problem with Plan B:

It was now about midday. But for our flight, we couldn’t check-in until 4pm.

Plan C:

Put our bags in Left Luggage at Heathrow. Easy peasy. Then we could go and get a cab to Legoland.

Problem with Plan C:

We got to the cab rank, and found a sign with estimates on how much various destinations might cost. Windsor estimate: £35. Add the trip back (another £35) plus the admission to Legoland (another £46.50), and it was starting to look like an awfully expensive outing for what would probably be only about four hours worth (if we were lucky) looking around the park. Work it out in Australian dollars… go on, I dare you.

Plan D:

Catch a bus to Windsor instead. The price should be more reasonable at least.

Problem with Plan D:

(a) The buses were only every hour. (b) Time is still running out to have £46.50 worth of fun. (c) We have absolutely no idea where we’re going. It’s all too hard.


Jeremy enjoys another ride on the tube
 

View from the park in Hounslow – yet another plane goes in to land at Heathrow
 

Heading home at last

Plan E:

Kill time, find a park for the kids to play in, and relax, like you’re meant to do when on holiday. Call Josh and Cathy and arrange dinner somewhere on the Piccadilly line (well, not in a train or station, but somewhere not too far from one). Promise the kids we’ll go to Legoland as the number one priority when we next come to England. And when we get home, buy the kids some Lego with just a fraction of the money we would have spent getting there today under Plan C.

The success of Plan E

Plan E worked a treat. We caught the tube back towards London, and spotted a suitable park in Hounslow. The kids had a play with some of the local Londoner kids in the playground there, and we relaxed, munched on chocolate, read the papers, and watched the planes going into land at Heathrow flying right over our heads every minute or two.

We also phoned Josh and arranged for him and Cathy to meet us in Earl’s Court for Italian, which they did some hours later. We drank a couple of bottles of wine, chatted happily, and in the end Josh kindly offered to pay, since he said we earned Australian dollars, which in comparison to the English pound, "aren’t worth pissing on". And fair enough too.

We promised them a meal next time they were in Melbourne, then got back on the tube, collected our luggage, checked-in, got on the plane, and headed for home. We hadn’t done what we’d started out expecting to do, but we’d had a fairly hectic day.

And as the plane jetted off heading back towards Asia, and ultimately, Australia, I sipped on a glass of water, and as the others slept, put my glass down, and slowly drifted off too.

I woke several hours later with damp jeans. I thought for a few seconds I’d embarrassed myself, but it was just the glass – it had toppled over, and water was soaking into my lap. 

The joys of Croydon

Being our second last day in England, we took things pretty easy, as apart from embarking on a 22 hour flight home the next day, we were also planning a whirlwind trip to Legoland. So first of all we gave Hew’s washing machine a good workout, while the kids ran around his back garden, and then accompanied me in exploring around his estate. And when I say his estate, I don’t mean he owns the whole thing and that it’s a massive mansion plus grounds in the Surrey countryside – it’s a (very nice) semi-detached house in an estate of about thirty like it.

Then we strolled down to the main road and caught a bus down to Croydon, and posted all our postcards before proceeding to explore the multitude of shops. Croydon may not be as vibrant as central London, but it’s quite nice in its suburban way. The main street is closed off to traffic, so you can stroll at leisure, though we made sure to stay out of the way of the (mostly) bright red trams which occasionally hurtled through, bells dinging frantically, but not actually carrying passengers, apparently just being tested.

We found ourselves lunching at something called BH’s, a department store restaurant, the origins of the acronym having now been forgotten, at least by me. For UKP 3.99 we scored a main meal, a drink and some dessert, which seemed to be a pretty reasonable deal considering it was England. Even more impressive was the fact that the food was not only edible, but quite tasty!

A little more browsing, a nose around Sainsbury’s, and we were ready to head back to Hew’s house to begin the arduous task of attempting to pack all of our belongings into our backpacks and assorted auxiliary bags.

Elementary

After some consultation with the Lonely Planet guide about what else we could see in London, we headed into Victoria and wandered around the multitude of bus stops trying to find where the 24 to Camden Town went from. We found it, and the bus, just starting to depart. We dashed up waving our arms, and he stopped. In the blink of an eyelid we had folded the stroller, whisked it and both kids on board and waved our Travelcards at the driver.

"You might have said thank you", he said, a little crossly. Maybe he hadn’t been on his customer service course yet. "Thank you", I replied.



Camden Lock.
 

A statue of Sherlock Holmes, and an actor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes.

The bus ambled its way past Big Ben, along Whitehall and slowly up into Camden Town, where we got out and wandered among the huge crowd, looking at markety things, though my memories of this area are a little hazy because by this point we had started having a huge argument about… well, I’m not really sure how that all started. We stopped on a little bridge with a view of Camden Lock, just as a couple of barges came in, and the occupants set to work opening and closing the gates. It looked like hard, though enjoyable, work.

Argument finished, we found some lunch in the shape of some exotic looking hotdogs, then continued looking at stalls until we found ourselves at the tube station. Being a Sunday afternoon, London Transport had (probably wisely, given the crowds) made the station exit-only, and we continued walking down Camden High Road towards the next station, Mornington Crescent, where we caught a train down to Leicester Square.

Ice-creams and wandering around looking at buskers kept us entertained for a while. Especially one busker, covered in silver paint,  who was eating French fries and watching another busker. Then we went back to the tube and caught a train to Baker Street. Yes, Baker Street, home (though only fictionally) of Sherlock Holmes. And home (in actuality) of a bloke dressed as Sherlock Holmes, evidently pointing tourists towards a Holmes museum or other attraction of some kind.

Back to Victoria, where we experienced Unfamiliar Tube Station Exit Syndrome, which sent us walking around the block looking for the Sainsburys, which we eventually found, purchased food at, and before scurrying away back to Hew’s house for dinner.

Unfortunately…


Tower Bridge does the traditional thing.

We set out once more to explore central London. This time the first stop was Soho, because we wanted to sample the wares at a market, and the Berwick Street Market seemed as good a place as any. After inspecting and purchasing some of London’s finest fresh fruit and vegetables, we carried on to Chinatown, and found the famed Lee Ho Fook’s, as mentioned in the song "Werewolves Of London". They have obviously realised that the connection might be worth some serious money to them, because a picture of Warren Zevon and a sign with the words on it can be found in the window.

From there we strolled on to Leicester Square, for a look around at some of the buskers. I was due to meet yet another net.friend, Catherine, at Euston Station at 12:30, so we hopped onto the tube and spent a few minutes in the gigantic hall out the front waiting for her, watching the arrival and departure boards flicking over. She turned up with her entire family in tow, all the way from Stoke-on-Trent, and while a couple of them merrily trotted off to explore London for the afternoon, the rest of us went and had some tea and/or lunch in the food court.

We’d decided to head for Tower Bridge, and it seemed that the Circle Line would be our best bet, so we strolled down to Euston Square tube station. The train got as far as Aldgate when the driver came on the PA and announced, with repeated use of the word "unfortunate", that the train wouldn’t be going any further.

Aldgate was only one stop away from the Tower anyway, so we left the world of disrupted tube services behind and stepped out into the sunshine. A quick inspection of the map revealed that provided we didn’t get lost, it was only a short(ish) walk to the bridge. We didn’t get lost, and before we knew it, found ourselves moseying over Tower Bridge.

Then we went down and walked along the river next to the Tower Of London. To my utter surprise, because it’s only meant to happen in movies these days, the bridge opened to let a tall sail boat through.

Then we said our farewells to Catherine and family, and headed up to Tower Bridge tube station and boarded a train bound for Earl’s Court. Ah, Earl’s Court, supposedly London’s Australian quarter, though apart from the occasional Australian-themed pub, you couldn’t really tell. We had a walk around, and started looking for something to eat.

We settled on an unimaginative choice, primarily because the kids wanted it: McDonalds. I found a table and L got the order. At first I asked for a McFeast, then we realised they didn’t have them. Hmmm. Despite being Earl’s Court, they probably wouldn’t have a McOz either. I settled on a Big MadMacCow burger instead, and afterwards we got back on the tube and headed for Hew’s house via Victoria, where we encountered the same beggar as the day before, still using the same pathetic "I’m sorry to bother you sir" line… then he looked into my eyes and realised he’d tried it with me already and walked away with some speed.

Museums, Harrods, all that jazz


Trying to look at things from a different perspective at the Natural History Museum
 
[Hyde Park]
Just as I’m trying to take a picture of L and Jeremy strolling through Hyde Park, Isaac comes into view…
 

Anybody for a Cuppaccino Expresso?

 

With L’s plans to see Lyle Lovett in concert on this day up the creek due to the trifling matter of the performer’s father dying, we had the full day free to explore London at will. And explore we did. We started off catching the train/tube into the museum sector of South Kensington.

Armed with discount Connex vouchers, we went into the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), to look around their collection of various artefacts – historical clothing, pottery, photos, that kind of thing. The kids hated it, and made their opinions clear in no uncertain terms, until the adults of the party eventually succumbed to their demands.

Just across the street from the V&A is the Natural History Museum. I knew from visiting the previous year that this was, particularly for kids, everything the V&A wasn’t – full of interactive displays, interesting models of animals extinct and alive, and lots of other kids running around like maniacs. Not to mention the escalator that goes through the centre of a model planet Earth. And the Kobe earthquake simulator. Very cool.

We ate lunch in the museum, then continued exhausting ourselves trying to see all (well okay not all, but the most interesting ones) of the exhibits. This time round, the Creepy Crawlies exhibit was open, and was quite good.

Afterwards we walked onwards and outwards towards Knightsbridge, and took a look inside Harrods, where the security guard bloke asked me to take my daypack off and carry it by hand. Presumably that’s for security. If a revolutionary terrorist comes in with a portable rocket launcher strapped to his back, they probably make him carry that by hand too.

We continued to do battle with the Knightsbridge crowds while looking in more shop windows, before deciding to seek some peace and quiet. A quick look at the map revealed that peace and quiet in the form of Hyde Park was not too far away, so we headed over there. Jeremy had fallen asleep, but Isaac revelled in the open space.

Then we took a double-decker bus through Piccadilly Circus to Tottenham Court Road, and tramped up and down there for a bit, looking in Borders and Virgin and a few other places, and having a chuckle at a misspelt "Cappuccino" sign before availing ourselves of some dinner at a tiny but friendly Italian place.

After that we took a walk down Oxford Street. It was well after dark by now, but the streets were still packed with people. Before making the trek back to Hew’s place, we went into HMV and took a look around the discount and not-so-discount videos, where I found a copy of Quadrophrenia for UKP 5.99 and the Red Nose spoof "Doctor Who: The Curse Of Fatal Death" for UKP 12.99. Both things I wanted to see, and in the latter case, it was for a good cause, so why the hell not!

Back at Victoria station on the way to Hew’s house, yet another beggar approached with his patter being of the pathetic genre, specifically by saying in a worn out voice "I’m sorry to bother you sir…" He didn’t get any dosh from me, as (a) I generally prefer to give to charities instead of beggars, and (b) my change was going into the Web access terminal.

Fare dodging in Chichester

It was almost time to head back to London, but not before dropping in on my Uncle Kevin’s family again. We somehow managed to cram all our stuff into the backpack (the other one was back in London) and Gran and Grandad drove us to Bognor station. We said our goodbyes and boarded the train, then got off five minutes later in Barnham, to change to the next train to Chichester.

The screen said that the next train would go to Chichester, and when it arrived we boarded. L carrying Jeremy and a shopping bag full of miscellaneous stuff we’d probably need on our travels that day – stuff like snacks and spare nappies and so on. A fellow passenger decided to be a do-gooder and help L with her shopping bag, but instead managed to break the handle, which was probably not the intended outcome, but annoying nonetheless.

There weren’t any seats available on the tiny South West Trains service, so we stood, but thankfully it was only a ten minute journey. We got off at Chichester, and gave Uncle Kevin a ring and he came in his tiny car to collect us. It dawned on me later while reading the small-print on our Britrail SouthEast passes that they aren’t actually valid on South West Trains. Lucky for us the conductor had been nowhere to be seen on that train.


A short drive around the tangled mess of one-way streets of Chichester got us to Uncle Kevin’s house, where he and Liz (and Luke of course, though being a toddler he probably hadn’t helped a lot) had prepared a mass of food for our consumption. We munched, drank, sat, swapped toddler stories and let the kids play and watch Wallace & Gromit.

Kevin showed his sense of humour by asking young, impressionable Isaac if he liked McDonalds. And had he ever had a McHamster burger? According to Kevin, who kept a straight face throughout, they get a hamster, and a large mallet, and BANG! – flatten the hamster, and put it in a bun. Presto, McHamster burger.

When it was finally time to go, we said more goodbyes, and Uncle Kevin dropped us back at Chichester station, where we boarded a Connex train (and theydo honour Britrail Southeast passes) back to London. Well, East Croydon to be precise, as we were going to inflict ourselves upon Uncle Hew for a few more days.

After dinner I gave my old mate Merlin a call. He’d been in London on and off for a couple of years, and I’d dropped in on him the previous year when I was there. He said to come on over, and gave me instructions on how to get to his place in Lewisham. Thankfully I had an A to Z with me, and found the place okay, which just as he had told me, was a block of flats which had a car park that included a line marking where the Prime Meridian was. Very cool. Well, for a car park, anyway.

He showed me all the weird and wonderful music gadgets he had in his flat, which was a big change from the place he’d been living in the year before in Willesden Green. Back in Willesden, he’d only had one room, about 90% of which was filled with a double bed. In Lewisham he had two rooms plus kitchen and so on to himself, which was a vast improvement in terms of space.

We sauntered down the street for a quick ale at the local, and over a pint caught up on the latest news. After that it was getting late, so we walked back to Lewisham station and I made my way back to East Croydon, making the connection at London Bridge by mere seconds, and by the time I got back, thoroughly worn out after what had been a very full day.

Welcome to the English seaside

Today we explored various towns along the south coast of England. First my grandparents dropped us in Arundel, most famous for either its very impressive castle, or for being the headquarters of the Body Shop – depending on who you ask. Or is that Littlehampton?

We didn’t go into the castle (little kids and the interior of historic homes don’t, as a rule, mix), but we did wander around the town for a little while, judging the picturesque rating to be around about 8 and a half, despite the drizzle. We found the station, picturesque rating 2, and caught a train west along the coast, to the end of the line at Portsmouth Harbour.

HMS Victory, Portsmouth, England
Ancient, but armed to the teeth: HMS Victory at Portsmouth Harbour.

There is a maritime museum at the Harbour, but you can walk around most of it at no charge – only the exhibits cost money*. But you do have to go through a Royal Navy checkpoint first, where they make sure you’re not a terrorist. Portsmouth is also a military base, and it’s probably not a good idea to go wandering out of the area open to visitors.

*I wasn’t trying to be cheap, but I try wherever possible not to spend money to get into museums or other attractions that the kids are going to be completely mindnumblingly bored in.

One of Her Maj’s older ships, HMS Victory is on display on one of the docks. It looks most impressive, armed to the teeth with three levels cannons on each side. You get the feeling looking at it that if every cannon went off at once the whole boat would keel over.

Outside the harbour we found a pub that looked like it had a thoroughly decent lunch menu – and it did. So we stuffed ourselves full of food and ale (well okay, not so much ale for the kids) before staggering back to the station, and caught a train back into Portsmouth proper, the town centre, for more wandering around and in and out of shops, of which there were many.

Back on the train, which by this point was like most public transport is at around 4pm the world over: crowded with noisy schoolkids heading home. We got off at Barnham to change to the Bognor Regis train, but had a quick look at the town first. A quick look was all that was needed – there was hardly anything there. A convenience store and that was about it, apart from the station. So after buying some snacks we headed to Bognor, this time not too late to look around the shops there.

My notes of this day are a bit vague, so I don’t even recall what we had for dinner. Not that you probably care. Suffice to say that after a bus ride (for which I bought the tickets with no problems this time) we ended up at my grandparents’ house again.

Just after dark we took a quick walk onto the beach. The tide was out, and on the sands it was dark, it was very cold, and it was windy. Welcome to the English seaside. But by golly, for some reason it was very atmospheric. It’s times like that when the senses are shocked enough to make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings, that you fully appreciate where you are.