Saturday, 28 June 2014

Seeing the sights

I only had one thing to do today and that was go to the bank to get an account set up. In true Sasha style, I didn't scroll down the whole way on the confirmation email and thus found the part about "what you need to bring" that morning. I was missing documentation for my details of a secure UK postal address as I am using BritBound for the time being. There wasn't anything I could do until the BritBound offices opened at 9am, and so I decided I would do some sight seeing.

Laying in bed, I researched a few free walking tours as I heard they were a great way to get a feel for London. Perusing their tripadvisor reviews, I settled on Free London Walking Tours, partly because it got great reviews (an up-and-coming tour company) and partly because it had a more agreeable start time that would allow me to make it to my bank appointment without hassle. I chose the Royal London Walk as I even hadn't made it into the centre of London yet to see those sites and embarked to find my way to the meeting point at Victoria Embankment. In the meantime, I called BritBound, reasons for which were twofold: 1) to see if my phone worked (hooray! It did!) and 2) find out what I needed to take to the bank appointment - nothing, as it turned out, and all was well.

I was running early and wasn't exactly sure where to meet. I happened to look back over my shoulder and saw the specified green umbrella behind me, so a quick about turn and I introduced myself to Andrew, the guide for today and owner of Free London Walking Tours. He was a barrel of enthusiasm and energy as we waited for more people to turn up. A Canadian named Irene joined us shortly after, and two Americans (who soon realised they were on the wrong tour and joined another). And so we were two. This didn't faze Andrew one bit and I actually enjoyed the intimate tour - he was talking directly to us and not over us to a large group and could really engage with us as people rather than trying to herd cats.

I cannot even begin to describe what facts and figures and dates and trivia Andrew bequeathed upon us - it was complete information overload for me and I didn't take most of it in. It did allow me to begin getting my bearings for London (wait, not City of London, but City of Westminster - that's where practically everything is. Many tourists never even make it to the City of London - it's mostly office buildings. It's where money is made, Westminster is where money is spent - interesting distinction!)

At a glance, we passed the London "Definitely-not-a-ferris-wheel-but-an-observation-deck" Eye, through the town (I can't remember the names of some of the things we saw), stopped near Big Ben (why is it called Big Ben? No one truly knows - did you know it's not the clock tower that is Big Ben, but the actual bell inside?), past Westminster Abbey, onto 10 Downing St (the Prime Ministers residence, currently housing David Cameron - and he was home, judging by the security) and around to the Horse Guards Arch to watch the first Changing the Guard. This street is lined with all the flags of the Commonwealth (past and present), with New Zealand, Australia and Canada taking pride of place in the centre with the Union Jack. We watched as one group of guards gave way for the next in perfect harmony and the magnificent beasts with their ornately decorated riders atop them rode past, sending Asian tourists scattering as they refused to stay behind the line.

Continuing around, we made our way through St James Park (full of strange imported birds as one of the kings had a penchant for exotic water fowl) and over to Buckingham Palace where we couldn't necessarily see the Changing the Guard so well, but we were perfectly positioned as they marched past us back to the barracks in complete and perfect time. The Royal Standard was above the Palace, marking old Queen Elizabeth was inside. Continuing on, we visited some of the other palaces, learning their histories and that of the royal family, before returning to Piccadilly Circus to bid farewell to our guide. Andrew was an incredible wealth of knowledge, funny and theatrical and I would like to do some more research and then attend another of his tours a little better armed (so I can ask some questions!)

Irene, the other lady in the tour, then helped me find my way to my next appointment which was at the bank. Little to tell, this all went far more smoothly than I anticipated. While there, Yvette called me and we arranged to meet back in Town (Westminster is called "Town", London is called the "City"). After meeting her in Piccadilly Circus, we leisurely wandered around, chatting, getting advice, before decided to have a quick peek in the Huntarian Museum (as Yvette is a medical student). Basically, it was walls and walls and floors of specimen jars dating back to the mid-1700's. It was creepy and fascinating and I tried not to think how they would have gotten some of those specimens, animal and human alike.

Thursday night I had offered to take Yvette and Josh to dinner in appreciation for letting me stay and for being so accommodating. We had a few drinks and then made our way to a well reviewed mexican restaurant, which was delicious, followed by some interesting cocktails in a near by pub. It had been a long, long day for all of us and so we made the long tube ride home, myself battling sleeping on the gentleman's shoulder next to me.