Aaaaaaaahhhh….. our first visit to an English-speaking country. A month shy of our 1- yr anniversary, it was time. We couldn’t wait.
We wanted to do something different and special to celebrate the week of birthdays for 3/5ths of our family and London was the one place Owen had been wanting to visit. Plus, one of our very favorite bands, The National, happened to be playing at a music festival,, All Points East, in London that weekend in Victoria Park.
Chuck had found a cool airbnb to rent that was actually an old church converted into a house; but unfortunately, the week before, the owner cancelled and we had to scramble to find another.
We were thankfully able to find a perfectly great apartment in East London in the Whitechapel area; a bustling area riddled with coffee shops/cafés and a few blocks from Brick Lane- an industrial-chic area popular among students studying the fashion-industry and a big artisan market…
Our apartment was in a high-rise building with an elevator and a carpeted hallway that had some kind of amazing smell- the boys literally melted every time we got off the elevator- Wells called it the “calm” smell and the “relax” smell…. which I’m pretty sure was called “Febreeze” or “Glade”… lol.
We drove to Lyon and flew out of St. Exupery to London- Luton, a small airport an hour outside of central London, where we arrived an hour behind and our poor driver that Chuck had hired had probably been standing for 2 hours with a sign that read “McFadden”. This time, we flew Easy Jet and other than the border patrol asking for ALL of our carte de sejours (travel visas), rather than just Chuck’s (he only brought his- oops) sitting on the tarmac for an hour, everything went smoothly.
When we got off the plane and into the airport, we could already feel the English speaking… it was so nice to be able to see signs everywhere in your own language!
Chuck had reserved a car service beforehand to meet us at the airport and it was so great. We hopped in our mini-van and Charlie, our “up-front” rider, got to sit on the left side and it was just so weird to see him on that side; like he was driving! As the weather report had predicted, we drove through rainy countryside into the upper limits of the city with its’ Tudor-style townhomes into an increasingly more cosmopolitan area which reminded me so much of Georgetown, Washington, DC, an area so close to my hometown where I grew up.
After meeting the nicest host yet at our apartment to orient us), we unpacked a little, took a few bites of the scones and jam she’d left for us and we then gave in to our eternal craving for Mexican at a nearby cantina called Lupita. The boys loved watching the waiter make our guacamole table side.
So fun to watch the big red buses pass by outside…
But, as usual after a long day of traveling, the kiddos were ansy and went outside to people watch (and fight apparently…)
All were tired, so it was an early night to bed. But not before we went to the grocery to check out all the new things they had that were different here in England. The boys grabbed a bag of Rolos and some other cool looking snacks.
The next day we went to a coffee shop in our neighborhood with great breakfast menu. When we got there, it was pretty busy, but they had seating downstairs, so as we walked down the steps, we noticed that we were the only ones down there… except for this guy asleep on a bench under a table.
It kinda freaked the boys and I out… but then we realized he was just an exhausted cook taking a quick nap on his break.
Little did Owen know (we found out later) that it was National Donut Day, so his breakfast was perfectly appropriate!
After breakfast, we headed to the Tower of London, a huge castle on the River Thames, near the London Bridge. As one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world for over 350 years, it is also one of the oldest!
The Tower was built by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century and was used as a prison with torture chambers and where prisoners were held prior to being put to death for various crimes. It has also been home to the Royal Palace where many kings (including, most famously, Henry VIII!) and used as an armory, a public record office, the Royal Mint and remains the home of the famous Crown Jewels.
Check out the (now grassy) moat that surrounded the towers!
We took a Beefeater tour, which was quite interesting. The Beefeaters, are ceremonial royal guards who were historically responsible for the security of the Crown Jewels, and also the prisoners. A Beefeater is one of an elite group of 37 men selected who meet a long list of qualifications including a long history in the Armed Forces, various military achievements and awards. Along with the privilege of living on the tower grounds, each guard is required to go through a long rigorous study of the complicated history of the Tower itself and know it by heart.
Inside the tower, we walked around and looked at the many pieces of Armor, as well as weapons and other interesting pieces, including this dragon built from armor, with ruby eyes!
The criminal to be put to death was Josef Jakobs, a German spy who parachuted into London at night and accused of espionage. The chair in which he was executed was on display, with which the back part of the chair was still missing.
We visited the torture chambers and also thought this water gate was pretty cool, “Prisoners’ Gate”, where prisoners used to be delivered by boat and enter through this gate.
To me, some of the most interesting history of the Tower involved Henry VIII and his several wives, most notably Anne Boleyn, who he ultimately had sentenced for death for crimes she didn’t commit, so that he could end his marriage to her and marry another woman in hopes of having a son, which Anne was unable to “provide” him.
As we walked the grounds, there was a play being performed about the story of Anne Boleyn. This was actually the execution scene!
One other cool thing we had read about in the history of the Towers was the Ravens, 6 birds that live (in captivity of course) in the Tower, and have since the 1600’s. Cared for by the Tower Ravenmaster, they are believed to protect the Crown as well. Legend has it that the security and stability of the Crown and Britain itself rely on the Ravens presence in the Towers (source: wikipedia).
Unfortunately, the line for the Crown Jewels display was too long to wait in and as it was lunchtime, we decided to head down the River Thames in search of a place to eat.
From inside the Tower, there is a cool view of this huge beautiful bridge, the Tower Bridge that many people (including us!) often mistake for the London Bridge, though it is not the true London Bridge.
The actual London Bridge is really just a non-descript plain bridge situated a little further down the River. Other than this inscription underneath, it was pretty ordinary and nothing exciting!
This was a better view of the Tower from the other side…
And Big Ben, which we couldn’t see because it is currently under renovation and covered in scaffolding!
On our way to find lunch, we took a detour through the most amazing market, the Borough Market. There were so many choices! The desserts were especially beautiful and soooo yummy looking… check out those cookie dough cupcakes. I MUST figure out how to make these!
And the truest written words I have ever read in my life….
We kept walking and walking and before we know it, we had gotten to the end of the market and back out onto the street. and hadn’t decided, so we went across the street to a cute burger place called Honest Burger, of which the entire menu was locally sourced. We were given a cool booth downstairs that was in a little room all by itself. It was so cool!
The burgers were so good, but the rosemary fries were the best! This was my lemonade with Pims/cucumbers 😉
Unfortunately, though Owen and I had hoped to ride the London Eye, we had failed to reserve ahead of time and there was no space left when we were passing by through Southbank Park… We did love seeing this massive ferris wheel up close, though!
The temps were so perfect that afternoon. We were so lucky to have partly sunny, since the original forecast called for rain those first few days! We walked and walked and walked. We loved this area, Covent Garden.
There were so many great stores, including some big chains stores that we needed to visit to load up on clothes for the boys, etc. The clothes in France for the boys are not the easiest to figure out cut and size wise!
And of course, the Apple Store….
We grabbed ice cream and sat in Trafalgar Square to recharge the batteries:)
After basically completely being harassed by a desperate rickshaw driver who tried his best to convince us that we could all 5 fit in his tiny little back seat attached to his bike, we hopped in this cute cab which was a much better option…
The next morning, we wanted to go to Brick Lane, which wasn’t too far from our apartment. We had read about this industrial market-y area and wanted to check it out.
We stopped and ate breakfast in this cool industrial warehouse looking place which I think is a coffee shop in the mornings and a bar at night.
Brick Lane is one of the few big artisan markets that we visited and it was so fun to see all the cool things the artists and vendors were selling. All kinds of antiques, vintage items, clothes and jewelry. (my pics inside the market are limited, as most vendors request that you refrain from taking pics inside or of their goods)
This shop above had all kinds of old widows, frames, bookshelves, clothes, lamps, etc and a cool Vietnamese coffee shop in the back.
There was even some food stands, including this one selling Bacon sandwiches (super famous in British cuisine), but we loved that they were called Baps.
Speaking of bacon, when you love it as much as all 5 of us, you can’t help but love a city that has bacon as one of its most popular foods, the bacon sandwich to be exact.
Along Brick Lane itself, there were shops, cafes, coffee shops, chocolate shops, bakeries, etc. I took a picture of these cronuts I saw in the window and sent them to my sis, Jen. For some reason, they always remind me of her….
The graffiti was everywhere and just incredible…it really is an art form!
Later that morning, we hit one more artisan market nearby- Spitalfield Market, which was indoors and also had a food market attached.
Lunch was across the street at a pizza place. We went back to the apartment to rest before heading to Victoria Park to see The National, one of our favorite bands. When Chuck discovered that they were playing in London over our birthday weekend, we could NOT miss it!
We hopped on the subway and then off at the closest stop to Victoria Park, after walking a mile or so we got to this huge outdoor venue with concertgoers everywhere! It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm, but not hot.
As we walked around to find a spot to claim, we checked out all the different food trucks and wondered how we’d ever decide- gourmet grilled cheese, Vietnamese food (Nems), sushi, pizza, burgers, Vegan, etc. It was crazy! They had all kinds of different activities- Italian swings, other rides, and there was this pop-up beauty place where you could go in and get tattoos or glitter face paint, kinda neat.
Other than needing to wait in line for 1.5 hours for dinner, the night was perfect. The music was so great, it didn’t really matter where we were standing, because we could hear and see the stage perfectly!
This was the first concert for Wells and Owen. We had taken Charlie last year to Red Hot Chili Peppers for his 11th birthday, but to me, a music festival is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. But, being Chuck’s kids, it was time. I haven’t met many people that love music and concerts as much as Chuck does and it was time to pass the torch :).
It was a super fun, late night and I don’t think we were in bed until 1:00, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Chuck’s birthday.
The next morning was birthday central. With 2 birthdays 32 years apart, Charlie, Wells and I hit the ground running to try and make the day fun for O and C every year. We had our pic of tons of fun things to do, it was almost too hard to decide.
This is how Owen started his day…. ice cream for breakfast while wearing his favorite T…
And speaking of T-shirts, we walked right by this store and I teased C that I was going to make him wear this t shirt…
We had talked about doing a boat tour because it seemed a great and quick way to find out a lot about the particular area of the city where we were staying. It was HOT that day and we were sure there would be A/C or at least fans on the boat, but no such luck. They even had the doors and windows shut! It was hot! Even with cold drinks 🙂
After the boat tour, we had an hour to grab lunch before heading to see School of Rock.
We enjoyed every second of this play- each of the kids in the play were ABSOLUTELY insanely talented. Not only could they dance, sing and act, they were each playing their own instruments live! It was unbelievable.
After the play, we walked around a bit, grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and headed back home. As we rode through the city in the cab, we spotted a Krispy Kreme on a corner when we were sitting at a light. Being a late Sunday afternoon, it was closed. Krispy Kreme no doubt sits on our “list of American foods we miss” and as such, the disappointment in the car was palpable. We didn’t even know there was such a thing over here in Europe! What a tease!
For dinner, It was our last night in London and we had not had fish & chips yet. There was a famous restaurant around the corner from our apartment called Poppy’s, but while waiting outside for our name to be called, we changed our minds. It hit us that Owen hates fish and it didn’t feel right that there the all fish menu might not be fair for a 10 year old on his birthday. Sweet guy never said a word, but when we found a great little Italian restaurant nearby, he was content.
The next morning we were up and out early for our drive back to Luton to catch our flight. As we usually do, we erred on the side of caution and went super early because we knew London morning rush-hour traffic could be crazy.
When we got to the airport and to our gate, it was unbelievable. Right in front of us… was a Krispy Kreme!
Geniously, they had these tins you could buy to carry your donuts on the plane, so obviously that’s what we did. And that was birthday cake for the next night.
After a long day of travel, we were happy to be home. But sadly, there was one thing I had not quite gotten to before we left 5 days earlier…
Somehow Charlie must have known because after putting our bags down, that was the first thing we did; go check on the fish. Poor Wells was totally heartbroken. Exhausted and sad, this “mother of the year” stood next to him as we said goodbye to Bubbles and flushed him out to the ocean…
Next to cats and plants, it was time to add “fish” to living things I am unable to keep alive. Ugh. I’m hoping that is the end of this list…