Across the Pond: London, England

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We’re finally here! The first trip across the Atlantic for both of us.

I have wanted to visit England ever since I was little. To me, England has always been a magical and mysterious place that I could only visit through my favorite books — and not just Harry Potter. In fact, many of my favorite authors, from childhood on, have been British and either wrote books set here or inspired by what they saw around them.

As a kid I devoured all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books (Matilda was my favorite). In college I took classes devoted to British literature and wrote my thesis on a little known period of British history. I won’t bore you with the full-synopsis but it involved that one time the Brits tried (sort of) legalizing prostitution as a way to curb the spread of syphilis. Fascinating stuff.

During law school I finally discovered Tolkien. One year for Christmas, Brandon bought me a beautifully bound copy of The Lord of the Rings, complete with additional appendices for reference. Pure magic. And of course, I’ve now reread and rewatched the Harry Potter series more times than I care to admit.

There is just something about this country that I seem to find intriguing. Maybe it’s the dry humor. (I did watch a lot of British comedies on PBS as a kid). Maybe it’s the idyllic countryside and the cobble stone roads. Maybe I just really like creamed tea and lemon curd. Or maybe I’m a huge nerd and want to find out what really happened to my Hogwarts acceptance letter.

For those of you that aren’t Harry Potter fans (muggles . . . ), please forgive the jokes and bear with me. The impetus for this trip may have been seeing the Harry Potter play in person, but that is just a small fraction of the things we have planned. In fact, I’m only planning to write one Harry Potter focused post. I solemnly swear. But if you’re also a fan and itching to hear all about the play — stay tuned! — that post is coming up right after this one.

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We landed in London at 9am (ahead of schedule). Heathrow Airport was easier to navigate than I expected and customs was nearly non-existent. We turned in our landing cards with our basic info but no one searched our bags or asked us any questions. In fact, the area that looked like it was for baggage search wasn’t even staffed.

Once we had our luggage, it was time to figure out the public transit system. Heathrow Airport is not really in London, but rather, on the outskirts in a suburb. However, the public transit here is fabulous so you have lots of options when leaving the airport. We chose the cheapest option — the London underground. We planned on using the underground for transportation while staying in London and figured this was as good a time as any to figure it out. We bought two rechargeable Oyster cards (the subway pass used by the locals) based on advice from friends and family. Just swiping the card is way easier than buying individual tickets and each ticket is actually cheaper. We put £25 on each card and never ran out of money. (We forgot to return the cards when we left London, which would have got us the £5 per card deposit back and told us how much we actually spend riding the underground.)

The underground is actually pretty easy to navigate, even for people like us, who come from a place with abysmal pubic transit. A 45 minute ride on the Piccadilly line took us very close to our hotel. In fact, almost everywhere we went in London was somewhere near the Piccadilly line.

Apparently lots of people complain about the London underground, saying it’s old and dirty (both of which are true) but I found it fun and charming. Probably because riding on subway systems is still a novelty to me. I had a great time smiling at people for no reason other than to see if I could get them to smile back. They almost never did. So at least one stereotype about Londoners held up.

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NOTE: We did not take these photos of the hotel. They all came from Google images or the hotel’s website.

We stayed at the Gore Hotel in South Kennsington, very close to Hyde Park. The hotel is wonderfully old and quirky. Our room was on the top floor. To get there we could either go up many flights of old winding staircases or take the tiny ancient lift (elevator) up four levels and then through multiple doors, up a staircase and through two more doors. We felt like we were tucked away in our own little corner.

Because we landed at 9am our room wasn’t ready when we arrived, but the nice woman at the front desk offered to hold onto our luggage for us and even gave us a great recommendation for lunch. We left our bags and walked to the Coco Momo on Gloucester Road. My mom had warned us that due to the time difference and overnight flight we would be fighting to stay awake. She said that a nap would throw our sleep schedule off and we should just drink champagne instead. Typical mom suggestion!

We followed her advice and ordered cocktails at the Coco Momo even though it was only 11am. The gin and tonic was refreshing but the food was even better. Brandon had a burger and I had the mezze platter, which included fresh bread with lots of little nibbles like hummus, olives, pickled shallots and grilled mozzarella. So good! By the time we had finished our food we were nearly falling asleep in our chairs. So much for mom’s plan! We went straight back to the hotel and took a nap.

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We really enjoyed our hotel and highly recommend it. It was the perfect mix of historical building with modern amenities. There are historical prints throughout the hotel, thousands of them supposedly. On the bottom level they have a gorgeous (but very underutilized) library. The books, however, are clearly not for browsing. This room is really just a place to have a drink that’s a bit quieter than the bar. The books were all selected because they look old but it is really just a collection of outdated encyclopedias, a few of those “complete works of so and so author” collections, and some old legal texts.

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Down the hall was Bar 190. It was dark and wood-paneled. A place for cigars and scotch (if they still let you smoke inside bars). It was also the location of a raucous rock and roll party. The Rolling Stones held the album release party for “Beggars Banquet” here in 1968. It was apparently such a crazy party that the hotel is still able to capitalize on it. Fans want to have a drink right where the action took place.

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There were a number of photos from the party hanging in the bar but this one is my favorite. Notice the unzipped fly, plastic fork in his boutonniere pocket, whipped cream flying everywhere.

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Funny enough, my favorite thing about this hotel was the bathtub. I love taking baths and living in the RV I don’t have one. Last time I took a bath was at the hotel we stayed at for our wedding, over a year ago! I soaked it up and took a bath every single day we were in London.

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The next morning we got up, ready to tour the city. Our plan was a walking tour that started in Hyde Park, wandered by Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guard, followed by a tour of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

But, of course, the very first thing I took a photo of was a red telephone box. If you’ve never been to London, you’ll find yourself at first amazed by these. Look, so British! OMG! They actually work! This country still has real pay phones! After a while you’ll realize that these are literally everywhere and stop taking photos of them. I suspect they are still around (and still operational despite the ubiquity of cell phones) for the same reason I kept taking pictures of them. They are just so iconic. The Brits might go nuts if they were taken down. Although later in our travels we saw the booths repurposed into all sorts of things, such as neighborhood sharing libraries and even one that housed a defibrillator.

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Our hotel was less than a block from the Queens Gate entrance to Hyde Park. This enormous green space appears to be well-loved by the locals. We saw runners, walkers, kids riding bikes, old men feeding ducks at the pond, and people riding horses.

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The monument below was built by Queen Victoria as a tribute to her husband Albert. The opulent gold and sheer size seem fitting as a royal tribute.

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I know Americans sometimes get a bad rap overseas (and sometimes for good reason) but come on Budweiser! Advertisements like this are seriously not helping our case.

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When we got home to the states we had a couple of friends ask us if we had been treated badly because we were American. I’ve heard the same stereotype thrown out — that people from many countries (particularly European countries) currently dislike Americans. Although we did occasionally get asked about American politics, the only preconceived notion that anyone seemed to have of us was that we wanted ketchup with everything. Wait staff would hear our accents and offer us ketchup, regardless of what we ordered. We asked about it, and sure enough, it was because we were American. The British tend to use mayo where many Americans would use ketchup. Still a generalization but really they were just trying to be helpful. We thought this was funny and found the people to be wonderfully welcoming and friendly.

Personally, I think that the way locals treat you while traveling is very much related to your attitude. If you are friendly to people, they will generally be friendly back.

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We had timed our walk through Hyde Park so that we would arrive at Buckingham Palace in time for the morning changing of the guard ceremony. As we were about to go under the Wellington Arch we were passed by a group of mounted guards in full dress, presumably on their way to the palace. This should have been a sign to hurry up but we continued our leisurely stroll. We thought we had left plenty of time to be there early and get a good spot. Ha! We had no idea what we were about to walk into.

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The lion and unicorn are important symbols in the United Kingdom. In the full royal coat of arms the lion represents England and the unicorn represents Scotland.

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There were throngs of people surrounding the palace when we finally arrived, still 30 minutes before the official start time at 11am. It was so crowded that we were never able to get through the crowd and get a glimpse of what was inside the palace fence. I can’t imagine how the Queen must feel with all of these people on her doorstep each morning!

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We thought about leaving but then the marching band started. Once the parade begins it becomes nearly impossible to leave because the police keep the crowd roped off to prevent anyone interfering with the parade of the guard. We were stuck in the center of the crowd for the entrance parade and couldn’t see a thing, but as soon as the guards had entered the palace yard everyone turned around and pushed their way towards the palace fence. We took this opportunity to go the other direction and stake out a good spot for watching the exit parade.

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The mounted police were very friendly and took pity on all the people who were unable to see the show. One even rode his horse along the edge of the crowd, stopping to let everyone pet her. He joked, “This is the only free thing in London. Enjoy  it!”.

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Our plan worked and we had a killer front-row spot to view the exit parade. Still have no idea what went on inside the palace fence!

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For future reference, the best time to see Buckingham Palace is definitely not during the changing of the guard. Stop by at any other time of day and you can walk right up to the fence. The palace is also beautifully lit up at night.

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For what it’s worth, a helpful cabbie later told us that this day was even more crowded than usual because it was a bank holiday. In addition to the usual tourists, the crowd had expanded with locals enjoying a day off.

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Once we finally peeled ourselves out of the crowd we made our way through Green Park along the Birdcage walk to our next stop — Big Ben and the Parliament building.

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We had to wait in line for at least 15 minutes to get this photo. This is easily  the most popular telephone box in the city.

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At this point we were cold, tired of walking, and it was raining. We stopped at the first pub we came across — Fuller’s Pie & Ale at the Red Lion. We learned later that Fuller’s is a huge chain of English pubs but we still loved it. It’s funny how that works. When traveling through an unfamiliar area you can find a great restaurant that you thought was a unique find, only to discover later that you just ate at the foreign equivalent of TGI Fridays. To be fair, Fuller’s pubs are much better than a TGI Fridays. They brew their own beer and my steak and ale pie was amazing. Plus, the creative decor and legitimately old building gave the place a great vibe.

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After lunch we walked all along the front of the Parliament building, trying to find the entrance. I was really hoping to tour this incredibly beautiful and historic space but they were inexplicably closed. I had read that while Parliament is in session the building will sometimes be closed to tourists. They don’t say when or why this happens, making a tour somewhat difficult to plan. This wasn’t the case for us, however. It was simply a bank holiday. But we wouldn’t figure that out for at least a few more hours.

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The intricate carvings, extensive windows, and sheer size easily make the Parliament building one of the most impressive buildings we saw in England.

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With our plans to tour Parliament thwarted, we walked across the street to check out another beautiful and historic space — Westminster Abbey.

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Photography is not allowed inside the Abbey so you’ll just have to use your imagination

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We had to wait in line for about 15 minutes and pay £21 each to get inside. We both had differing expectations regarding the Abbey and neither was totally accurate. For some reason, Brandon thought this had been the home of some important rich person back in the day. Perhaps we watched too much Downton Abbey and he got confused. Perhaps it’s because Brandon never reads my guidebooks. I thought the Abbey was just the church where the royals held coronation ceremonies, funerals, and weddings. Technically this is accurate, but this is really only a small portion of the Abbey and its history. Neither of us expected the Abbey to be filled with the tombs of hundreds of dead people.

The building itself is beautifully ornate and the whole experience was quite moving, despite the fact that neither of us are even remotely religious. It was eerie to be surrounded by the tombs of so many Kings and Queens. I can only imagine what touring this place must be like for the British, who are much more familiar with their history than I.

The tomb of Oliver Cromwell was interesting, in a dark sort of way. Cromwell had led a civil war in England during the mid 1600s, eventually overthrowing the crown. When the crown regained power they dug up Cromwell’s body (he had been entombed in the Abbey alongside kings). But the crown didn’t just want his body removed from the Abbey — they wanted revenge. They had his body hung from a noose and then beheaded. A bit overkill I’d say, considering he was very much already dead.

My favorite part of the Abbey was the stage on which they hold the important ceremonies, specifically coronations, funerals, and I believe, weddings. There was a video of the current Queen’s coronation ceremony. She looked so young and honestly, a bit terrified. I can’t even imagine the emotional enormity of being crowned Queen of England. This stage is also where they held Princess Diana’s funeral.

The coronation chair itself is fascinating and a huge draw for tourists visiting the Abbey, so of course, they put it right before the exit. The English have been using the same wooden coronation chair since the 1300s. I find it absolutely amazing that it hasn’t been broken, stolen, burned, etc. Most of the ancient decorative carving has worn away and it actually looks pretty terrible. There is even some graffiti carved into the wood, probably from long ago. These days the chair is well protected inside an alarmed, fire-proof glass room.

recommendations for touring the Abbey: Allow at least two hours to do the entire walking tour, more if you are particularly religious or a serious British history buff. If you took the time to read all of the inscriptions on the tombs you could be here all day, but if that’s what you’re into then this place would be a goldmine. If you are a religious person you might want to spend more time in the chapel than we did. There are places where you can light candles, write prayers, as well as opportunities to speak with the religious leaders that manage the Abbey. Sticking around for the evening service might also be interesting. I believe there is a choir and I suspect the acoustics in the Abbey would create an incredible sound. Finally, you absolutely need to take advantage of the free audio guide. These devices are very popular at museums these days and sometimes they are just a distraction, but the commentary put together at the Abbey is very informative and helps guide you through the walking tour. We would have been lost without it.

We were absolutely beat after touring the Abbey. I swear we must have walked at least eight miles that day. We had originally planned on walking home but that was just not going to happen.

We flagged down a cab outside of the Abbey to take us back to our hotel. Both Uber and the traditional London black cabs are all over the city. We never used Uber because we kept having such great experiences with cab drivers, although I’ve heard Uber is somewhat cheaper. Leaving the Abbey, our cabbie gave us some great advice on which public transport routes we should use to get to the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside of the city and where we should pick up our rental car once we left London. All of his advice proved to be excellent.

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Back at the hotel, Brandon took a nap while I took a bath. For dinner we walked down Kennsington High Street and basically picked a restaurant at random. We weren’t familiar with any of them and didn’t have enough cell data to google recommendations. We ended up at an Italian chain called Prezzo that I absolutely do not recommend. Brandon’s pizza was fine but my mushroom ravioli was basically just sitting in a sauce of mushroom water. The addition of some cream and a little cheese, maybe some garlic, could have done wonders for this dish. I wished I could go back into the kitchen and show the chef how to make a decent pasta sauce! Plus, our phones just wouldn’t stop ringing with fires to put out back home. There was an issue with our cows at the ranch and our dog was apparently getting out and chasing cows at the neighbor’s house! It was a little stressful and we had to use more international calling minutes than we would have liked but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits.

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At this point the story gets a little out of order. Technically, we spent day two in London touring the Harry Potter studios and day three seeing the two-part Harry Potter play. However, I’ve decided to separate both of those adventures into their own post (coming up next!). From here we continue on with more history and our fourth full day in London.

For our last day in London we decided to exclusively use cabs instead of taking the underground. We wanted to at least get a passing glimpse of some of the streets and buildings we were missing by taking the underground everywhere. This was an excellent decision.

Our first cabbie of the day was amazingly irreverent of the local traffic laws. He started off by driving the wrong way on a one-way street. He also nearly bumped a motorcyclist at a stop light, rolled his window down to talk trash to other drivers (particularly those in large cars on narrow streets), drove in the bike lane, and popped the curb and drove right on the sidewalk to avoid traffic around a corner. To cap it all off, he hand-rolled his cigarettes while driving. Of course, this was all very illegal and we technically should have reported his licence number because this old man is a public safety hazard, but we didn’t. We had a great time, and to think, that’s not even the sketchiest cab ride I’ve taken. Mexico definitely takes the cake in that category!

First stop of the day was the Tower of London, another tour stop off Brandon’s list that had been highly recommended by friends.

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The tower has served many purposes over the years but primarily has served as a military stronghold. The green lawn you see below used to be the moat!

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Totally unrelated, but I had a great time trying out different lipstick colors while we were in London. Bright red was my favorite.

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The Tower was built on the edge of the River Thames. This water entry gate was how prisoners were brought into the tower complex. Of course, the torture chamber was nearby.

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Most of the artifacts found throughout the complex are military related, i.e., lots and lots of cannons.

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A much more modern version of the cannon, i.e., a giant gun.

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This building here is probably one of the biggest draws of tourists to the Tower. Inside you’ll find the crown jewels. All of them. Displayed inside beautifully lit glass cases and surrounded by an incredible amount of security, some visible but mostly out of sight. The crown jewels are the crowns, septers, gold, diamonds, ect. owned my the monarchy and  used for ceremonial occasions. Of course, the Queen and her relatives own much more jewelry than what is on display here, but this is the cream of the crop. These are the crowns worn for their coronations going back hundreds of years. They are absolutely gorgeous and photography is absolutly not allowed (for security reasons, of course). They have a diamond inside this building that weighs 500 carats! Think about that for a second — 500 carats! And that diamond was actually carved out of a diamond weighing closer to 1000 carats! Elizabeth Taylor probably would have died of envy if she ever walked through this place.

They have a moving sidewalk that takes you along the cases to view the jewels. I circled back and took the tour three times! Incredible.

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Something I found fascinating about the Tower was the contrast between new and old. You can stand on a walkway built 1000 years ago and look out at the funky shapes of modern glass skyscrapers.

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But within the corridors of the complex you are practically transported back in time.

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A portion of the exhibits are actually devoted to the modern British military. The Tower grounds were used as a gathering place for new recruits during WWI and WWII. The grass that used to be the moat (shown in an earlier photo) was were new recruits would line up in their civilian clothes before being inducted into the service.

 

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The classic British guard standing by at the entrance to the building containing the crown jewels. They really never move.

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But this one looked at me!

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The Tower has traditionally kept ravens within the grounds. Superstition holds that if the ravens were to leave the Tower grounds the crown would fall. The Brits may be superstitious but they are also clever. All of the Tower ravens have clipped wings and can’t fly. They just hop around and live a plush life being fed tasty treats by their keepers.

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They are also very accustomed to tourists but somewhat ambivalent about posing for photos.

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The Tower staff know each raven by name and treat them like prized pets. This was one of the oldest ravens at the Tower. This man saw me and a few others taking pictures with the bird and came by to chat with her. He was talking to her like I talk to my dog, “How’s your day been? Everyone treating you well? Want a biscuit?” It was very sweet.

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The White Tower is probably the second most popular exhibit at the Tower of London. This ancient building houses an incredible collection of armor and weapons.

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Each suit of armor was custom-made for the wearer. In some cases this owner is known but in many cases the original owner has become foggy throughout history. The display was originally for suits of armor worn by kings but has expanded over time.

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These two suits are the largest and smallest of the collection. It was originally thought that the tiny suit was for a child but some now think that it was made for a dwarf, possibly a court jester. The gigantic suit was unbelievably large. Whoever wore this must have been nearly seven feet tall and built like a horse. That makes that a nearly eight foot sword standing next to him. It would take incredible strength just to lift it, let alone swing it with any sort of accuracy.

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This suit of armor is actually Japanese, a diplomatic gift to King James I in 1613 from the Shogun of Japan. The Japanese were obviously working with different materials than the English back then. Still equally terrifying.

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My favorite suit of armor. No, this is not a real suit of armor for a bird, at least not literally. This is an art piece gifted to the Tower by a local artist. He had visited the museum as a child and became fascinated with armor and knights. As an adult he made this piece to represent the armor that we all wear and how it keeps us from reaching our potential. The armor is our doubts, our fears, our preconceived notions of what we are capable of,  what is acceptable, all of those things that keep us from taking a chance on our crazy dreams. The bird may be safe while wearing that suit of armor, but he is weighed down. He can’t fly.

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Another art piece that I loved. This one didn’t have a placard explaining its significance to the artist. For all I know the artist just built it to be awesome. And awesome it is.

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The final level of the Tower is devoted to interactive exhibits, mostly geared towards kids but equally fun for adults. They had computerized displays where you could launch a cannon ball, build a castle, and plan a siege. One display involved pulling back on a pretend bow to test your strength at shooting an arrow. An older woman and her friend were struggling to pull the bow. It was just too much weight for them. A man nearby told them, “It’s okay. It was made for men. Women are just too weak.” This seriously pissed me off and I was next in line, so I grabbed the bow, pulled it all the way back, and hit a near bullseye on the little computerized target. I glared at the man and moved on to the next exhibit, a wooden face cut-out of knights in full armor. The women who had struggled with the bow kindly offered to take our picture.

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If you’ve ever thought it sounds romantic to have lived in a much earlier era, remember that this is what a medieval toilet looked like. And this is the nice version, only available to rich people and royalty. The commoners had to do their business in a chamber pot or the most convenient bush. For those of you with a strange curiosity as to where exactly the waste went — this toilet was on the top level of the tower, the hole goes directly to the exterior wall and waste would essentially just run down the side of the building. Eeeeww.

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Just when you think you’ve seen enough cannons to last a lifetime, you walk though the corridor exiting the White Tower and are confronted with more cannons than you’ve ever seen before. Brandon loved them.

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Something must have gone terribly wrong. This one is noticeably bend downwards.

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We nearly left the Tower before we realized that we had neglected to tour an entire area of the complex. This area was remodeled during the Tudor area, which is evident in the architecture. It was primarily used as a temporary residence for the King.

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The King’s bed chamber, complete with period appropriate bed linens and curtains.

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I had a hard time deciding whether these guys loved or hated their job.

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Directly across from the Tower is some very interesting modern glass architecture. Quite the contrast.

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And, of course, the Tower Bridge.

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We had intended to also visit the British Museum that day, but by the time we finally left the Tower of London it was around 3:30pm and the museum was closing in an hour and a half. When we factored in the time it would take to get there it just didn’t seem like it was worth the trouble or that we could really do the museum justice. Friends had told us you could spend days just touring that one museum. We decided to leave the British Museum for another trip and focus on something more practical — shopping.

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Brandon really had no idea what I was talking about when I suggested we blow off the British Museum and go to Harrods. I just told him it was a famous department store. I didn’t tell him it was going to be the most expensive department store he’s ever been in.

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These are the types of cars you find parked outside of Harrods. Although, to be fair, that’s really just a gold vinyl wrap job. Not actually a gold car. But you could probably order a real gold-plated car from Harrods if you really wanted one. This store carries more luxury designer brands than I have dollars in my bank account.

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I’ve never been able to afford (or rationalize purchasing) luxury designer clothes, but I’ve always thought they were beautiful. High-end designer duds use the best fabrics and are sewn with perfect tailoring and detail. And because high-end designers are constantly trying to be new and different, they create clothes with are unique and brimming with artistry. However, everything that makes these items beautiful (plus an exorbitant price tag) also makes designer clothing incredibly impractical for real life. At least my real life. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy gawking.

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Harrods is eight floors of high-fashion heaven. All of the designers are there, most of which I’ve only seen in magazines, never an actual store front. The first place we went was the evening wear department, the most elaborate of the overpriced garments. Of course I immediately got in trouble for taking photos. Apparently you are not supposed to take photos inside of Harrods, or at least not inside the evening wear department. I decided to be covert and just take iphone photos from then on.

The designer clothes were amazing but definitely not as crazy as the toy department.  One of the animals pictured below costs £399 — ON SALE!. That’s $515 US for a stuffed animal!

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We didn’t see a price tag on the polar bear but he seems friendly.

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Bonus points for anyone who notices the species discrepancy in the photo below.

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When you are ridiculously wealthy you don’t buy your kids a Barbie Jeep. You buy them a mini Ferrari!

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Brandon was really a pretty good sport about the whole thing. He doesn’t generally enjoy shopping, much less for designer goods we have no intention of purchasing. But I took him to some of the stores he might enjoy as well, such as the gun locker in the outdoors section. There you can look at elaborately engraved hunting rifles and shotguns worth £20,000.

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When I found the Christian Louboutin store I knew what I had to do — try on the tallest heels I could find and see if I could walk them! My personal shoe preference leans more towards vintage styles with tall but thick heels and, of course, my beloved flip flops. But more many women, these towering stilettos with the trademark red sole are the creme de la creme of footwear.

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These are five-inch heels with no platform to make the angle of the foot less extreme. Supposedly this is model Kate Moss’s everyday shoe. Ouch!

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I walked around the store briefly but I can’t imagine walking in these for longer than a few minutes. They also cost $675, just a wee bit outside my price range!

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London was amazing. Overwhelmingly full of history, culture, and people. You could spend weeks here just visiting the museums. We just barely scratched the surface. But London is not our only stop on this trip. Once we leave London it’s road trip time!

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3 thoughts on “Across the Pond: London, England

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