I recently returned from an excellent trip across the pond. I made sure to take copious amounts of notes, so that I could write up all my experiences upon my return. So many notes, in fact, that I have to split my vacation into two posts. The first will be this one, the story of my travel and experiences in London and Wales. The second post will be all about the convention I went to with my friends. So without further ado, my trip to the UK.
I left Phoenix on Wednesday, May 4th, a big day for Star Wars fans(May the 4th Be With You). Flying from Phoenix to Philadelphia, where I would have a layover before flying to Dublin for yet another layover before finally arriving in London’s Heathrow airport. I had an interesting experience right off the bat, with the flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia. The plane taxied out to the runway, we take off, and just as we get into the air the left engine makes this weird sound. I happened to be seated in the row right next to the engine, in the middle seat, with an elderly woman beside me at the window. I hadn’t quite heard an engine sound like that before, it was a bit disconcerting. The elderly woman and I exchange looks, we were clearly thinking the same thing: Is that normal? We looked around and no one else seemed alarmed, the Captain did not come on to announce anything. The elderly woman and I exchanged a second look, she pretended to bite her nails and I replied with another nervous smile. We climbed further into the air and the sound seemed to lessen, or we has just gotten used to it. But that was the loudest and most awkward damn engine I have ever heard.
Then there was the experience of flying through a sea of clouds. I’d flown through clouds before, but never like this. It was upon our descent into Philadelphia. There was no land to be seen through the clouds, nothing but various white fluff. It gave the illusion of sailing on them rather than flying through them. We finally began to dip into the clouds, but they are so thick, it takes a good 10 minutes to get through and below them. You couldn’t see anything once the plane sunk into them, thick like fog. It was as though the plane was wrapped in a white blanket. We finally landed and taxied up to the gate. I then made quite a long journey from one end of the terminal to the other, making it to my gate as my plane was already boarding. I didn’t of course realize this until they made an announcement asking the group after me to board the plane. I gave up on the idea of grabbing food and boarded the plane.
I had a window seat for my flight to Dublin from Philadelphia, not that I would be able to see anything when looking out, as I was once again near the wing and that made it hard to see. Plus, it was an overnight flight, so the shade would be down for a majority of the time anyway. So without a view, I amused myself with in-flight movies, as I often do on long flights to Europe. Do you know how many movies you can fit in on a flight like that? Quite a few if you don’t plan on sleeping. I did try after the second movie, but I always find it difficult to sleep on a plane, especially if you’re in regular economy seats with a stranger seated next to you. Plus, I forgot my neck pillow, so any resemblance of comfort was out of the question. They had a lot of new releases available to watch, which is always great. You can watch movies that were barely just in theaters or still in theaters. The first movie was one that I had seen in theaters not too long ago, Deadpool. As soon as I saw it among the new releases, which was a long list of movies, I knew that had to be the one to watch first. I already did a review on Deadpool, so I’ll just end this by saying, it was still enjoyable the second time around.
The second movie was one that I had not seen before. I did have plans to see it in theaters, it just never happened, which is often the case with me and movies in the theaters. It’s so hard to catch them all. But I was immediately glad that I chose to watch this movie, it was actually really good and I enjoyed it a lot. I watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It’s everything of a classic Jane Austen novel plus zombies! I have actually not read Jane Austen, but I’ve always thought about it and I do know quite a bit about Pride and Prejudice. Most of my knowledge comes from other movies and shows, that are either similar to Pride and Prejudice or reference it. The era within which she writes is appealing and it’s tales such as this that leave me contemplating–am I a hopeless romantic for the classical love story? I don’t believe I have actually seen the original Pride and Prejudice, at least not the whole thing. But yet I seem to gravitate towards versions of the tale: Bride and Prejudice, Austenland, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The first movie is a Bollywood inspired take on the tale. Darcy is a brash American who falls for a pretty Indian daughter, who’s mother wants her and her sisters to wed. The story mirrors Pride and Prejudice very neatly except they add in colorful Indian dance numbers and Bollywood music. I loved it, enough for multiple viewings. Austenland again follows the original Pride and Prejudice storyline but with a twist. An American obsessed with Jane Austen novels travels to England to visit Austenland, a resort for fans where they can basically cosplay as a Jane Austen characters. Our main character falls for who she believes is just an actor playing Mr. Darcy before things go awry, and she is nearly fooled by an actual actor. By the way, the main character is played by Keri Russell and Jane Seymour is in this as the owner of Austenland. I also loved this movie. So it is no surprise that I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well. The funny thing is, I recently bought the original Pride and Prejudice on DVD. It was on sale at Walgreens. It’s on my list of things to watch.
I have my first adventure in the form of waiting in a customs line and not needing to, upon my arrival at Dublin’s airport. When I first checked in for my flight and checked my luggage, they were not able to tell me whether I would have to go through customs and re-check my luggage in Dublin. I figured it made sense, being the first stop into Europe, and a guy who had been sitting next to me on the fligt to Philadelphia had mentioned that I most likely would have to. He had overheard a conversation I was having with the older lady where I had mentioned not being sure if I would have to go through customs once I got to Dublin. So, thinking that was the case, I went right, when I should have gone left. I followed the crowd into the line for customs, instead of walking around in the direction of the connecting flights. I wind up waiting in line for a good 30 minutes, going through customs, out the exit, back upstairs to departures, through security, to finally make it to my gate. Now, luckily I had plenty of time for all of this and I had double checked with the customer service counter in the baggage claim area, before I left. They confirmed that my luggage had been checked all the way through to London and I did not have to worry. I was a little bit worried about whether I could trust that information and if I would see my bag when I arrived at Heathrow, but making it to my gate with plenty of time before boarding helped to calm me for the most part. So that was interesting, but now I know what to do for any future layovers in Dublin.
Once I arrived at Heathrow, I grabbed my suitcase with great relief and worked my way to the exit where I would meet up with two of my friends who had also flown in, both from Canada. We then hopped on the express train from Heathrow to Paddington Station in London. From there it was a taxi ride to Euston Station where we met up with two more friends prior to our final train ride from London to Birmingham. This was the location for the Supernatural convention in the UK, Asylum, and also where we met up with the last of our group, before walking to our hotel for the night.
After checking into the hotel, we experience another adventure and I get to volunteer as tribute. No, not for a teenage battle royal, but for being the one to sleep on the bunk bed. Yes, a bunk bed. The hotel room had a very interesting sleeping arrangement, a bunk bed over top a regular bed. I was sharing the room with two friends and immediately volunteered to sleep up top on the bunk with the tiny ladder and small opening on the end to climb through. My friends were happy they could share the regular bed. I was actually excited too. Any reason to make up for a bunk-less childhood. Although I’m quite familiar with the bunk situation as an adult, just in a far less fun environment, so it was no big deal for me. After all the travel, I laid down and slept like a log. The other half of our group were sharing a similar room and eventually opted to get another room with a single bed instead of the bunk. In the morning, we checked out and walked with our suitcases to the con hotel to check in and prepare for the three day convention, Asylum 16–a Supernatural(tv show) convention. But more of that in the follow up post.
The Monday after the con, we packed up and got ready to check out. A couple of us went down to eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant and the rest of us stayed in one of the rooms eating oatmeal and whatever other snacks were available. Then it was off to the Birmingham train station to make the journey back to London. From there we said goodbye to our friend Matt, who was headed off to visit family. The rest of us would go check into yet another hotel, and would be going to see Jason Manns in concert, at the Underbelly in London. But before that, we did a bit of sight seeing on the walk from the train station to the hotel. We stopped at King’s Cross Station a famous train station in London, more recently made famous as the home of Platform 9&3/4 from Harry Potter. My friend Lisa and I got in line with the tourists so I could have my picture taken at the “platform”, while our friend Lucy waited at the side to take pictures from there. You had the option to purchase a professional photo or to take as many photos with a personal camera or phone as you wanted. Guess which option we settled on? I have to say, I’m much happier with the photos from my phone, way more options than just one overpriced professional photo.
We finally arrive at our next hotel, the Travel Lodge near Covent Garden. Two of our group(Sandy and Jade) were at the original Travel Lodge and myself with Lisa and Lucy were at the sister location across the street. While Sandy and Jade rested up in their hotel room, we went down to the hotel bar and had a drink while we decided what to do next. We hadn’t eaten and figured it would be good to do so prior to going to the concert. The three of us ventured out only to get caught in some London rain. It had been warm and sunny when we had first arrived in London and now when we were walking from the hotel to a nearby restaurant, it decided to rain. Of course, none of us had umbrellas, so we hid in an alley way trying to wait it out. When it didn’t let up, we ran across the street with our jackets over our heads to the Chemist(Pharmacy) and bought umbrellas. We were then free to walk further down to the street and found a restaurant called the Nag’s Head. I had a delicious local lager, Camden Hells Lager, and my first English fish and chips which was delicious. This big piece of fresh tasting fish that was curled up on the ends, even the batter tasted great. We then walked back to the hotel, met up with the others to go to the concert.
I got to hail a British black cab for us to take to the concert venue, Underbelly, for the Jason Manns concert. We arrived at the venue with time to spare. We met some other friends there and sat chatting with them for a bit while we waited. When it came close to the time for the doors to open, we headed out and stood near the door with the other people, waiting to be let in for the meet and greet prior to the show. We grabbed a great table in the back right across from the stage with a good view. Next we ordered some beers from the bar and shortly thereafter, Jason Manns joined us as our table. It was our turn during his rounds of the bar. He asked us if we had all been to the convention(where he also played, as he’s had involvement with the show and is a personal friend of several of the cast) and we said yes and also that we had all been to his show at the con as well. He also asked us what our highlights of the previous weekend were and we each took a turn answering. Lucy and Lisa both asked him some great questions as well, they were both seated closer, which was great and allowed us
to have a nice talk with him. He thanked us for being there and then moved on.
His friend Paul Carella was also there and would be performing as an opening act, but not before taking part in the meet and greet. He joined us at our table next. He is a Scottish singer who sounds like an American when he sings. He was really nice with a sexy accent. We chatted with him a bit as well and asked how he had met Jason. He told us the story and they actually met through a mutual friend, also a musician, before he was asked to tour with Jason and Rob Benedict(actor, singer) through Germany. Since then, he always plays with Jason whenever he’s in the UK. Paul left us then to hit the last table before preparing for the show. A few Supernatural actors showed up to the show as well and sat in a sectioned off area to our right, first Ruth Connell(Rowena) with Emily Swallow(Amara) and a bit later Gil McKinney(Henry Winchester). I was standing at the bar for our next round of drinks and happened to be right next to Ruth. She commented on how large a glass of wine the bar tender was pouring for her, I said: The night is young. Paul finished his set not too long after that, the songs a combination of country, blues, and 60s rock. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan were probably big influences, I imagine. Jason came up next and sang some covers and originals, even a couple songs with Gil McKinney. Gil has an amazing voice and has actually recorded a couple songs with Jason for an upcoming album funded by Kickstarter.
This was most definitely a way better venue for a show and the sound quality was tons better, so it was fortunate that I got to see Jason and Paul live in a venue such as that. At the end of the night, I hailed another cab, this time with video evidence of my cab hailing skills, We returned to the hotel for some much needed sleep, before a busy day of touring London.
Tuesday morning came and we woke up early, in order to fit in as much sight seeing as possible. We started by saying goodbye to our friend Lucy who had to go home to visit family, before eventually returning to Vancouver. After that we walked from our hotel to Trafalgar Square where we would catch the “Original Tour” bus, which we would be using for sightseeing all over London. Unfortunately, the weather was not perfect for being a tourist, although it was perfect London weather. Luckily, I had planned ahead with boots and a leather jacket, plus the umbrella from the day before. In Trafalgar Square, we started our process for picture taking: pictures with my phone, Lisa taking pictures of me with my phone and her camera, a selfie of the whole group. We climbed into the double decker tour bus and went directly upstairs, under the roof portion where it was dry with our on-the-bus tour guide Fred. A few blurry, rainy photos through a rain splattered window and several jokes from Fred later, we arrived at Buckingham Palace where we got off as our first stop and said goodbye to Fred.
More pictures happened, of the Queen Victoria Monument and the palace itself. I had my picture in front of both, as well as with the guards in the background. Back on the bus towards our next stop, we met our next in bus tour guide, again on the upper level. We didn’t catch his name, but did find out that he was a Supernatural fan and has watched the show since the beginning. We also learned from him that the Queen was actually at the palace that day for official business, which was cool to find out. While on the bus, we passed by MI5 and MI6 which most people would know from James Bond. But, he did tell a story about a young American girl who asked if the MI in MI5 stood for Mission Impossible instead of Military Intelligence. I apologized for my country and made him laugh. He next explained that Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower instead of the tower itself. Another cool fact that we learned from our Supernatural fan tour guide, as we drove past Buckingham Palace, was that the royal guards have uniforms worth over 40k pounds. Their hats are made from Canadian bear skin which are now nearly irreplaceable since it is now illegal to kill Canadian bears for their skins. So on a day like today, when it was raining, they would normally cancel the changing of the guard. This is a huge ceremonious event that draws crowds to watch it. But the rain can ruin the uniforms and hats, so its better to cancel, since otherwise replacing a hat would involve waiting for a bear to die of natural causes, but hopefully they still try to avoid that as well. Pieces of the uniforms are hundreds of years old, because they try very hard to keep them in pristine condition.
This was where we said goodbye to our fellow Supernatural fan and did the tourist-y thing around the houses of Parliament and Big Ben’s Tower. We grabbed something to eat at McDonald’s for lunch, then caught the cruise boat for the Thames river cruise, which was included with our unlimited bus access. The river cruise was short but the boat snaked its way along further down river and let us out at the Tower of London. We departed the boat and I suddenly realized a misconception that I have had for quite some time about the Tower of London. The prison is located in a castle instead of in one of the towers of the bridge. Also, that the fancy bridge is called the Tower Bridge and the London Bridge is actually quite bland looking, much like the smaller one we have in Lake Havasu, Arizona. The Tower of London was once actually a way to enter London from the river and the King created a special gate to gain access the prison, which was only a small portion of the Tower of London.
Next stop after the Tower of London, was Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Being a fan of Shakespeare, I was excited to see where it all began. It’s amazing how they have managed to rebuild it, twice, and keep it true to the original design. The first time, it was torn down by a king who had outlawed fun during a civil war. The second time, it burned. We made a brief stop at the Millennium Bridge close by, predominantly featured in Harry Potter, in a scene where Harry and other are attached in London by Death Eaters. We then made our way back to the bus stop and hopped on for a long bus ride back to Trafalgar Square. Along the way we passed by Baker Street and a statue of Sherlock Holmes. We also passed by the original Madame Tussauds’ museum.
From Trafalgar Square, we headed in the direction of the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant, finally with no rain. I had sausages and mash with a Sherlock Holmes Ale, only brewed for the pub, both were very tasty. The decor was fantastic as well, all over the dining rooms, there was even a separate room completely done up like Sherlock’s living room at 221B Baker Street. It was really cool.
On the way back to the hotel, we made a detour to the Covent Garden Market. We wandered through the shops and took our last sight seeing selfie with the whole group. We said goodbye to our friend Jade who was headed home and then there were just three. Lisa would leave us in the morning to go back to work and I would travel with Sandy to Cardiff. The plan was to go to the Doctor Who Experience. The rest of the evening was spent in the hotel room, relaxing after the long day out and about.
Then there were two. Sandy and I checked out of our hotel and took a taxi back to Paddington station. It was hard to believe we had all arrived there nearly a week ago to start our Birmingham/London adventure, and now it was nearly at it’s end. We boarded the train bound for Swansea, stopping along the way at Cardiff Central. One thing I should mention about the train ride to Cardiff however, we passed through a really long tunnel half of which was under a river. What is the significance of that? The 4 mile long tunnel, half under the river, marks the border between England and Wales. So when we popped out the other side there was a sign welcoming us to Wales. Upon arrival in Cardiff, we waited for Sandy’s husband who was picking up her suitcase. Rainy weather warranted a cab ride to the bay where the Doctor Who Experience is located. Once we got to the DW Experience, we had a bit of time to kill before the tour started. We sat in the cafeteria eating sandwiches and drinking coffee and soda, then got in the queue to wait for our group to be let in. For the first 30 minutes, you are not allowed to take photos or videos. I can understand why, you are effectively in your own mini episode of Doctor Who. They don’t want you ruining the surprise for future guests. You have to help save the Doctor and…the universe, naturally. I’m not going to give anything away, but it was amazing and so much fun! I highly recommend it!
The funny thing about cities by the ocean, they get rain, a lot of it. It was raining cats and dogs when we left the DW Experience. Luckily, we caught the next bus bound for the city center shortly after stepping out into the rain. The next stop would be Cardiff Castle, which both Sandy and her husband had recommended I see while there. To avoid the rain, we walked through a huge mall, effectively crossing the city from where the bus had let us out to where the castle was located. Now I should probably note, I had been lugging around my suitcase the entire time. At the DW Experience, I was able to store it in the cloak room(coat room for American readers). At the castle there was a little storage house near the guard house at the gate and I was able to leave my suitcase there. Good thing too, it would have been hard to carry it up and down all the stairs.
We wandered through the wartime museum, featuring Welsh War History through the ages. But also a piece of American history as well. A very old piece of colors from an American Battalion hangs on a wall, captured long ago at the battle of Fort Detroit in 1812. The US Military has asked for it back and when that was a no, they asked to borrow it. The Curator of the Cardiff Castle told them he’d sooner take it outside and set it in fire then do that, since he knew he would never get it back if he did. This was a joke of course, but apparently no one from Wisconsin laughs at it, which is odd considering the flag is from Michigan. The museum guide explained, a Californian tourist had told him that a people who called themselves cheeseheads and not as a joke probably don’t have a sense of humor. The guide has gotten laughs out of tourists from Washington, California and now Arizona, but never those of Wisconsin. I’ve never been to Wisconsin so I’m not sure if that’s true.
From there we went into the air raid shelter of the castle that runs along the old wall. They have installed a sound system that goes off when you enter, with a message from the late 1930’s. The message signaled the beginning of WWII between the British and Germans. As you continue down the tunnel, the walls are decorated with signs and war advertisements from the era. Then half-way through the air raid sirens go off and the sounds of bombs dropping overhead. It’s creepy to hear while walking through the dark tunnels, with intermittent lighting. But, it was also a really cool experience,
Next I went to the Castle Keep, climbed some treacherously wet, steep steps and took photos from up high. Even one of my friend Sandy who was waiting for me down below. I didn’t go all the way to the top, as it started to rain hard again and I really wanted to avoid falling down slippery steps in the pouring rain. So ended my visit to Cardiff Castle, with a taxi ride back to the train station. I had a coffee with Sandy while we waited for my train, then said our goodbyes. I headed back to London for my last night in the UK and she went home. After a week surrounded by friends, it felt lonely on the train to Paddington. From Paddington the plan was to catch the Heathrow Express to Heathrow Airport and from there take a taxi to my hotel close by, to spend a nice relaxing evening in before flying home.
My hotel was actually not a hotel but a house that I had booked a room in. It was a little hard for the cabi to find at first but it all worked out in the end. I chatted with my friends on the free wifi(finally!) and let them know I had arrived safely at the last “hotel”. I messaged my mom my arrival time so she would know when to pick me up from the airport after my non-stop flight. I was actually pretty glad that it was a non-stop flight, it would be a shorter travel time and I would be dealing with customs in Phoenix without needing to collect my luggage before hand.
In the morning, I walked from the house to the nearby Radisson Hotel where I had read about an airport shuttle. Sure enough, the shuttle arrived and five pounds and a quick circuit of the rest of the hotels later, I was back at Heathrow airport. I check in, got my boarding pass and waited for my gate to be assigned. While I waited, I tried to spend my remaining British Pounds and bought a sandwich, bottle of water and some postcards. I still wound up with change left over which I brought back with me. Once I got to my gate, I checked in with my friends one last time using the airport wifi, then it was back to Phoenix.
So ended my UK Adventure. Part of me wasn’t ready to go yet and part of me was. Isn’t that always the case when traveling though? You fall in love with a new and exciting place and want to explore more of it immediately. But then you also miss the comforts of home that a hotel and living out of a suitcase just don’t provide. At least, that’s how it is for me. I love traveling and wish I could do more of it, but there is a certain sense of comfort that can only be achieved when surrounded by the things you know well. However, should you ever find yourself in London, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket for the Original London Tour. Take time to let yourself discover the city, you’ll never know what you may learn.