A rambling tale of London’s wonders.

So. London. It’s big. Very big. Not particularly backpacker friendly either I might add seeing as my friend and I were far from the only travellers wandering aimlessly through Victoria station like unguided sheep. Ah, good times! It would also be in London where I discovered that holding up two fingers is, for strange reasons I would later understand, an insult. Despite this it was hardly a habit I could get rid of and I presume I left a trail of confused staff throughout the UK wondering whether I’d insulted them or not. I wasn’t insulting them, I just wanted two tickets for the London underground and it was loud outside so, in my glorious naivety, indicating the number two via finger signals which resulted in much grumbling from bored-as-hell-looking train ticket… guy. Nevertheless, tickets were bought and undergrounds were explored and eventually locations were found to much rejoicing.

Having read Neverwhere, a fantastic Neil Gaiman book which takes place largely in the London underground, I can now say proudly “I get it!” and then repeat over and over to much inner snickering “Mind the gap please, mind the gap!”. Oh har har har, me so clever. But truthfully, having grown up in the city of Calgary which uses an above ground train system for public transportation, the London underground was very cool. I’d also visited and enjoyed the Montreal underground system, but London’s just had a certain charm that could probably be attributed to the copious wacky Brit adds that plastered the walls, fun station names and themes, and the fact I’d read Neverwhere (Islington station, oh wow!). Very cool. Extremely convenient too once you’ve got the general gist of it figured out, not terribly expensive either. “Zones 1 and 2 please, all day, thank you very much”, and voila, via those few words towards one bored person and a small token sacrifice of money, you are given free reign over London. Or at least the interesting bits.

And I’ve yet to have really even spoken of the city itself. How shall I phrase this, hmm. London. It’s big, it’s mean and somewhat surly, and yet it’s also undeniably one of the most damn interesting places I’ve ever and probably ever will be. As I stated before, once you’ve got the underground figured out the city pretty much opens up to you quite nicely and rather than if and can we? it all becomes a matter of whether you’ve the time (And money for some things!) to see it all. For a home base my friend and I got stayed at a rather nice hostel by Swiss Cottage station. I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of the hostel, but at least I still remember the train station. A fairly nice district that didn’t really strike me as particularly great or bad, nor memorable really, but which had a couple nice restaurants to eat at at the least and nice enough people by London standards.

So what’ve I seen in London? The British Museum was one of the first places as a bit of a history buff, and it did not disappoint. To say it’s big is an understatement, the British museum is HUGE. Indeed, many sections of the museum are kept closed for the simple reason that they’ve not got enough staff to keep the full place open and watched by the ever vigilant glazed stare of semi-conscious security guards undoubtedly irritated by idiots like myself constantly asking “So, what’s in that section that’s closed eh?”. Poor buggers. Anyway, vast fascinating place full of all sorts of curiosities. The Greek section is particularly noteworthy as entire buildings have been taken apart then reconstructed within the museum for tourists delight, vast marble hallways with walls to either side adorned with neat ‘Parthenon stuff’. Even got to see a crystal skull, which I was vastly disappointed with as it was neither alien nor did it beam strange messages into my mind *sigh*.

Never did manage to see the whole museum, or even all the parts that were open that day. Too much to see, too little time. The story of London. But what I did see was extremely cool and I’ve no doubt that someday I’ll head back to London and spend a couple days trying to see and read everything in that place.

Another museum visited was the Imperial War Museum was was again extremely interesting. Seeing, up close, an old Jagdpanther tank from World War 2, riddled with holes from anti-armour guns no less, was an almost surreal experience after having spent so many hours playing various WW2 games and reading books on the era. Then the various tanks like the Sherman or the Churchill, guns, bombs (Damn that V2 was huge!) and even planes, all forming together into some sort of super childish war fantasy where images of tanks roaring across landscapes and a lone soldier (me!) single handedly defeating the dastardly foe. Fortunately the museum foresaw this and handily had a holocaust exhibit open to the public which not only managed to portray the full gruesome reality of war but also crushed, smashed, and dashed my poor lil’ ego fantasy to bits while getting me all depressed and sad in the process.

Where else did I see? Buckingham palace of course, verdict? Nice house, cool golden statue and fountain outside, silly guards with big fuzzy hats. Neat. Also got to see a military parade there for some reason, I suspect it was all for me, and a lone Jamaican security guard trying in vain to keep the ever growing hordes of tourists from walking on the road as morning turned to day. There was just something strange about watching this lone guy shouting into his walkie-talkie (funny name) with his over-the-top Jamaican accent outside the British Queens place while various tourists snuck across the road whenever his back was turned and the Brit military in all its splendor slowly advancing down another street. Eventually he got his backup but as far as I’m concerned that man was a hero for holding things together as long as he did on his own. A hilarious hero with an amazing accent and a really loud voice!

Where else? London Tower. Expensive, crowded, and with really long lines, but totally worth it if you get a cool Yeoman guide like I was fortunate enough to have gotten. Big guy with a booming voice and a good sense of humour. He single-handedly made the Tower of London fun and without him, bluntly put, I would have felt fairly disappointed by the whole over-crowded tourist-trap place. Definitely if ever visiting the place wait to get a Beefeater guide, even if it takes awhile waiting for the next one. Totally worth it, presuming they’re all as entertaining as the one my friend and I were fortunate enough to get.

Hmm… Oh, the HMS Belfast. Good sized battleship museum that if you buy tickets for you’re pretty much given free reign to wander around and explore. Yes, even the dangerous narrow bits with tight walkways and extremely steep stairs which I can only imagine how many over-enthusiastic children have fallen from. A bit pricey but certainly worth it if you, like me, have an interest in history and military and all that stuff and have never been in a military ship that size before.

There was plenty other things I saw while in London, all in all a good chunk of time was spent there, more than any other single location during this particular trip. Hyde Park, extremely beautiful. Westminster Abbey, from the outside only sadly as it was closed for a ceremony the day I was in that area. Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster (Hint; it’s very big!). Greenwich observatory. London Wall, not really much left of that these days but still noteworthy. Many, many other less famous things. London is just vast to such a degree that it’s mind boggling, and with such a rich history to boot. I would have to spend a month or longer to even ‘pretend’ I’d seen everything there is to see. Indeed, the city is so big that it’s difficult to really pin down any particular ambiance or mood the city sets, any overall ‘Londonness’. Locals were neither particularly nice or rude, streets varied from clean to filthy depending on the street. Just too big to really nail down to any series of attributes like I generally like to do.

Amazing place, I’ve no doubt I’ll be there again soon enough doing the tourist thing, there’s just still so much to see.

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