So we weren’t going to tell you all until we had done it but after the flight we spent our first night in London sleeping on seats at Gatwick airport. The plane wasn’t due to land until after 1am and we didn’t think it was worth the effort to book a hostel and find our way there in the middle of the night only to sleep a few hours – assuming the plane was on time. We also didn’t consider it worthwhile to turn up on some distant acquaintance’s doorstep in the middle of the night sheepishly asking for floor space. Alas, it is our OE, it had to happen at some point. It wasn’t too bad really, and in the morning we made it to our hostel-come-bar perfectly happy and looking very much like we had slept on the floor of an airport. We settled in and had a wander round the area, which turned out to have the national observatory and Greenwich meantime line, the maritime museum and a milkshake store which sold over 100 flavours of milkshake such as mars bar, jelly bean and aero. We raided the supermarket for dinner and already felt like we were going to like the place.
On our first day in Londontown we ventured out to tick off a few of the major attractions. The entire central city was crowded with scaffolding, fences and cranes – it was almost like being back in Christchurch with all the fixing and building and digging and roadworks – except this was all in the name of sprucing the city up in preparation for the Olympics in 2012. We climbed the on lions in Trafalgar Square, found Picadilly Circus almost by accident and finally found a Topshop. Topshop had us riding down the escalators with our jaws on the next step down. Unlike anything in New Zealand it was hard to know where to start and even harder to know when to stop. We each left with a bag in our hands and thought we were very restrained considering all the pretty things on offer. We giggled at the multitude of double decker red buses, telephone boxes that seem to exist just to let you know you’re in London, and black taxis with backwards doors. After a quick stop in Karen Millen to admire the artwork they call fashion we made it to Madam Tussauds for some serious posing faces and celebrity photos. The man operating the indoor ride gave us high fives for being Kiwi – the British are just cool like that. When we got to the ‘scary’ part where they had a Spookers type walk-through fright area we found ourselves at the front of the line (again) after a group of young males chickened out. We very bravely walked through the creepy maze with real life zombies and dangley spooky things holding hands the whole way. Unexpectedly, we walked out and looked at a display of the guillotine that was used to behead Marie-Antionette, just in case you were wondering whatever happened to it. We made it home for a traditional fish’n’chips with vinegar (they had nothing on the ones from home) and an interesting night talking to a man named Boris from Croatia who was the manager of a band (called the Sale of Joy – actually pretty good) yet who was staying in a budget youth hostel – possibly because he liked to creep out Kiwi travellers.
We got up the next day once again ready to face more touristing. We checked out the big ben, refused to pay entrance to Westminster Abbey and went a bit mad in the souvenir store instead. It was only the day after Obama had visited and apparently written the wrong date in the visitors book, so there were still a few protesters and uniforms around. We made it to Buckingham Palace early for the changing of the guard, so stood around turning pink under the rare London sunshine and had a chat with an officer on a horse who spotted us in the crowd and stopped to ask us where we were from and how our trip was going. His badge said Officer Pitt and he introduced his horse as ‘Intrepid’ and told us a bit about the selection training process. It was all very polite and British. After the marching and the photographs we walked back towards the centre of London, past a squirrel casually hanging out in the park (more photos) and in to find 10 Downing Street. It was all blocked off because of Obama’s visit, and as we were leaving we walked past Officer Pitt and Intrepid who had trotted into town, and acknowledged us with a wave and a smile. After a quick lunch we went to the Tower of London – which isn’t really much of a tower at all – to check out some more old stuff. We got to see a lot of very pretty diamonds and jewels in the old orbs and crowns of previous royals, as well as 2868 sparkling diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds in the Queen’s crown. As we were wandering the grounds a guard stopped us for another chat, asking about our trip, saying he hated us for being able to do it, and letting us go by wishing us a good visit to London. We later wished we had asked him for a photograph as he was wearing the full traditional guard uniform. We only indulged in a few souvenirs and headed home to try a jellybean milkshake, some pints of strongbow (yummy apple cider) at the pub and some good old-fashioned accent mocking with Canadians and Australians. It was definitely a good day to win the London sevens and pretend we really cared about it.
After a couple of hectic days we spent our last day at our hostel in Greenwich reading, walking around the area and visiting ‘the queens house’ that was built in 1616 and housed even more impeccably polite and helpful workers. Hayley finally lost the tiny key for the lock on her bag and had to have the padlock broken open with bolt cutters. Very sad to leave our lovely haven in Greenwich, we left with very heavy bags to find Kate and Pete’s – friends of Hayley’s boss who had offered a place to stay in exchange for some babysitting for their 19 month old daughter Freya. It took us two hours to get there, including the time it took to walk from the wrong train station to their house. Once we arrived we were treated to an amazing pasta dinner, with that green leafy stuff we hadn’t eaten in forever, and even a dessert. We had our own room with ensuite and felt like royalty.
With a suggestion from Kate we hit up two markets at Covent Garden and the famous Portobello Road. It’s hard to know why we ever shop anywhere else – they had everything. Absolutely everything. And all for ridiculously cheap prices. The place was dangerous for the last of our savings but very VERY fun. Unlike seedy Marseille, the men were much more polite. The first guy walked up to us and said he was about to kidnap us (only about a 3 on the creepy scale) to go and play pool in a nearby pub (at about 11am). The second followed us across the road and politely asked what we were up to incase we would like to stop for a drink (also in a pub). We ran away giggling like any mature adults would do on both occasions. We also bought ‘Oyster’ cards and felt like real life Londonners by swiping them to get on public transport instead of all the amateurs who had to buy tickets. That night we returned to Kate and Pete’s place for babysitting, by which we mean that Freya had already been put to bed, and was silent the whole time as we ate pizza and admired our new purchases.
On another recommendation from Kate we got on a bus that took us all the way south of London to Croydon to check out the holy grail of budget shopping that is Primark. Similar in size to Topshop and similar in price to the Warehouse only halved, we went absolutely crazy filling up a bag of goodies that we never intended to buy. To be fair, we did need some of the items at least (who can say no to seven pairs of socks for a pound?). That night we finally went to a real show at a real theatre like we had wanted to all along. As we had left the decision so late however all the Billy Elliots and Dirty Dancings were far too pricey for our of our shopping-bag-laden selves, so we compromised and went to a much less pricey or acclaimed show called ‘Naked Boys Singing’. Yes, they were naked. Yes, they were singing. There was even some dancing involved, and we hadn’t laughed that hard or giggled that much in the hours that followed in a long time. Not quite wanting to go home just yet, we visited Trafalgar Square, where hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate something to do with football. We later found out it was the final between Spain and England – still unsure of who won however, still indifferent also.
On our last day in London we had a very quiet day at Kate and Pete’s watching Harry Potter movies and packing all of our new purchases into our bags. We went down to a local pub for a Sunday roast and decided at the end of the year we would come back to London to live and work, we had absolutely loved it there, and this time, London actually loved us back.