We arrived at Gatwick early a.m. and checked into our hotel, which was in the County Hall building at the foot of the London Eye. Grabbed a traditional English breakfast (eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, toast, mushrooms and tomatoes—yum!) at a cafe near the hotel before heading to the Tower of London to meet up with the rest of our traveling companions (mikijean, her friend Shana, and tlbelle and hubby), who'd arrived the day before. After a lengthy tour of the Tower we staggered into the first restaurant we found (I can't remember what it was called, but it was on a little marina off the Thames), which turned out to be quite good. Afterwards we hopped a boat down the river to the London Eye. It was just after dark when we got on, so we had some spectacular nighttime views of the city. By then the jet lag was kicking our butts pretty badly, so we called it a night.
Monday was our day at the British Museum. The munchkin is really into ancient Egypt so we spent a lot of time on that and on the Greek stuff. After half a day we were pretty much all museumed out and still only felt like we'd barely scratched the surface of the whole place. It's all very impressive, although you do start to feel bad about all these glorious artifacts being taken from their homelands and named after stodgy English architects. Also it was absolutely packed with school groups and tourists, which made some of the more popular exhibits difficult to navigate. At 1:30 we met back up with the group to recharge with lunch and beers at the Museum Tavern across the street. After that we all headed over to St. Paul's Cathedral to attend Evensong, which started out kind of awe-inspiring but quickly became boring. Then we all decided to hit Harrod's and pick up some food to take back to the lovely flat where the rest of the gang was staying. Harrod's is crazy, ya'll, with the tacky and the excess, but also totally cool. And yes, we did check out the Diana and Dodi memorial and had a good giggle over it. The rest of the night was spent happily eating and drinking and chatting. Heaven.
TUESDAY (The play's the thing!)
Hamlet day! In the morning we met up with mikijean and Shana at Marylebone Station for our trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. After a lovely, relaxing train ride out to the country, we walked into town and checked into The Shakespeare Hotel. It was, of course, old and quaint and Tudor-style, and all the rooms were named after characters and places from Shakespeare's plays. Also there were several large school groups staying there, so it felt a bit like Hogwarts, what with all the English school children running up and down the stairs and eating at long tables in the dining room. After a spot of tea in the lounge downstairs, we decided to take a bus tour around the town. We didn't have buckets of time for sightseeing, so the only place we actually went into was Holy Trinity Church to see Shakespeare's grave. And it just so happened that while we were there, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber ensemble was rehearsing for their concert that night, so we got a bit of world class chamber music for free. After the bus tour we nipped into the Pen and Parchment for a pint and then it was back to the hotel to get dressed for dinner. We'd made a booking at Othello's Brasserie in the hotel, which turned out to be a fantastic choice--very nice food, a lovely atmosphere, and most importantly, totally separate from where the school groups were eating. Then it was time to walk over to the Courtyard Theatre for Hamlet!
Ya'll, I can't even tell you how great the play was. The Courtyard is a lovely, intimate venue (hard to believe it's just a temporary theatre) and we had seats on the first row of the Circle, just slightly stage right of center. Of course, if I'd known back when I bought the tickets that the actors walked through the aisles to enter and exit the stage I'd have bought tickets in the Stalls, but we probably had a better view from where we were. The production design was exquisite, the staging simple but impressive, and the costumes (a mix of period and modern dress) were just perfect.
As for Tennant, he was superb. It felt like he got off to a bit of a slow start—although you could easily blame that on the play as much as the actor—but as Hamlet started to lose his shit he really came into the role. Also? He spends several scenes barefoot in a t-shirt and jeans. Very nice. I wish I'd thought to Kinnear a photo for ya'll. Patrick Stewart was truly excellent as Claudius, and the rest of the RSC cast was fantastic as well. The play runs three and a half hours, which ought to feel long, but the whole thing just flew by--which I think is a sure sign of an excellent production. The munchkin really seemed to like it (although she did take a short nap just before intermission) because afterwards she was really keen to go to the stage door for David Tennant's autograph, despite her previous protestations that she was far too shy for such a thing. Sadly, after we'd been waiting for about 20 minutes someone came out and announced that Mr. Tennant and Mr. Stewart had already left the building. Although really, there was such a crowd that even if they'd come out I doubt we'd have had a chance at an autograph. Poor Shana didn't have a ticket to the play, so she'd spent the evening checking out the local pubs while we were at the Courtyard. We went over to meet her down the street at the Dirty Duck, where it turns out she'd befriended a large group of drunk Canadians who'd met Prince Edward the day before. For real—they had pictures.
Wednesday morning Mr. Sus, the munchkin and I headed to Warwick while the rest of the gang went to Oxford. We spent the morning exploring Warwick Castle, which is a bit touristy, but still totally fun and impressive. Also very crowded with lots of English school children in adorable school ties and sweaters. The castle is situated on a large hill and has lots of stairs, so we were dead tired by the time we were done. Still, it was only early afternoon, so we hopped on a train to Oxford and met up with the others at the Eagle and Child (J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' favorite pub), which was easily my favorite pub in England. We had an awesome waiter, my favorite beer of the whole trip (Beartown Bear Ass) and I had my first treacle tart, which was every bit as good as I'd anticipated. After that we had to catch a rush-hour train back to London, which was crowded and not exactly of the awesome, but we managed to make it back to the hotel where we crashed early.
In the morning we met up with the others for the Doctor Who Exhibition at Earl's Court, which was blissfully deserted, it being a school day and all. There were tons of costumes and props from all four seasons, of which I took many pictures, and we all bought crazy amounts of merchandise in the gift shop at the end. Then we walked around to Earl's Court Station, outside of which is the last real Police Box in London. So. Cool. It's kind of freaky to see it just sitting there on the sidewalk, totally ignored by the passersby, the way the real TARDIS would be. And yes, we were those dumb tourists taking pictures and getting in everyone's way. Shut up, it's a TARDIS. Then it was lunch and beers at a pub across the street (we all kept looking out the window at the Police Box the whole time we were there, just because it was so cool). After that we decided we were done with walking and got on one of the double decker tour buses to ride around the city. We hopped off at Hamley's Toy Store, which is seven floors of pure awesome. It's like a toy store from a fairy tale. Also, they have crazy amounts of Doctor Who toys that we can't get in the States, so we all bought even more stuff, including sonic screwdrivers, laser screwdrivers and TARDIS lunchboxes. Then it was more bus tour, until Mr. Sus, the muchkin and I had to hop off and head over to Notting Hill for dinner with our friends Brian and Libby, who moved to London over the summer. They took us to the Churchill Arms, which is a gorgeous pub covered with hanging baskets of flowers, both inside and out, that serves excellent Thai food.
By Friday, our last full day in London, we were all starting to feel pretty beat. We met up with the others at Westminster Abbey first thing in the morning, where we all did the audio tour (narrated by Jeremy Irons!)--thank god, too, because that place is so packed with tombs that I'd never have found the important ones otherwise. Westiminster is so incredible that even the munchkin found it interesting and I spent a long time in Poet's Corner reading all the inscriptions for all the authors memorialized there. After that we took a boat up the Thames to Greenwich. After a stop at a tiny little chip shop for some astonishingly greasy fish and chips we trudged up the hill to the Royal Oberservatory and the Prime Meridian. We took another boat back to London (drinking the whole way, of course) and then we all retired to the bar of our hotel, where we spent the rest of the evening lounging in comfy chairs overlooking Big Ben and Westiminster Palace. A perfect capper to a perfect vacation!