July 9, 2019: Pursuing Parks 

(or Pursuing Paddington Part 2)

Want to know our secret for an incredible travel experience?. When we travel, we make a general plan for where we want to go and what things we want to do, but we make very few reservations ahead of time. That gives us the chance to fall in love with a city and extend our stay or avoid the stress of bad weather washing out our plans. 

So when we planned our trip to UK-Ireland, we only made a few necessary reservations: airplane tickets into London and back to the U.S. from Dublin, our first hotel room, tickets to the Sky Garden (another recommendation from the Hodgsons), and train passes that let us hop on & off any train in the U.K. throughout our stay. Everything else on our trip, for better or for worse, we booked as we traveled. So on July 9, 2019, we had two essential timelines: arrive at the Sky Gardens by 1:00 PM and board the overnight train to Penzance by midnight. 

It feels silly to say since we had spent most of the previous day touring London by bus, but Tiffany and I woke up that morning with sore feet! Still, the excitement overrode the part of my brain telling me I was tired, so we filled up with another delicious English breakfast courtesy of Tavistock Hotel, which included eggs, sausage, bacon, and black pudding, and set out to explore more of the city.

Since we only had two days in London, we wanted to avoid doing too many touristy activities. Long lines and steep entry fees do not fit our travel style!. We planned to start with the British Museum since free entry meant we wouldn’t feel bad if we couldn’t spend too much time there. The day was almost perfect, with temperatures in the seventies and cloud cover to block the sun. 

We decided to walk through Russel Square Park, located near our hotel and just one of the countless parks sprinkled throughout the city. Visitors filled the park, as people reclined on the grass to eat meals, visit with friends and take a break to enjoy nature. Walking through the park to start our day made us feel like a local, sipping coffee and watching the birds, a peaceful beginning to a busy day. 

When we arrived at the British Museum just a few blocks away, a line wrapped around the building with school-children and tourists. Since we had so many other destinations on our list, I convinced Tiffany to go to the British Library for a writing exhibit instead, deciding to save the British Museum for a future trip to London.

We both enjoyed the exhibit, as it explored the written language from its earliest beginnings to the future, from cuneiform to emojis. Since both of us have a love of English, literature, and history, we appreciated the exhibit and the information we learned.

Next, we headed across the city for our Sky Garden reservation. The garden sat on top of a building nicknamed for its shape, the Walkie-Talkie. Visitors need to register in advance for a free ticket. Tiffany was excited to explore the British garden, which was pretty but fell below our expectations. However, we enjoyed London’s incredible, 360-degree aerial views. 

The Shard

Tower Bridge

London Bridge

HMS Belfast

On the left edge, you can see the steeple of St. Dunstan in the East Garden (more below)

We went to Borough Market for lunch, an open-air food market that has operated since the 12th century. Various vendors were selling fresh and prepared food. After wandering the stalls to consider the wide variety of options, I chose to eat from an Asian food vendor. At another vendor, I ordered a traditional English cider, which tasted like a dry wine. Tiffany had her sights on a British classic,  a meat pie. She sang the song “The Worst Pies in London” from the musical Sweeney Todd the whole time she ate. Thankfully her pie was not the worst in London. Before leaving the market, we each selected a loose-leaf tea as a souvenir.

We continued our theatrical ventures by visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre a little further down the Thames riverbank. The modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe still allows visitors to stand in the open-air theatre and watch his plays performed just as they would have been in the 1600s, but we opted to rest our feet instead and sit with a cup of coffee.

Tiffany had read about a park called St. Dunstan in the East. Since it was along our route to the Tower of London, we stopped to see it, and I’m glad we did! This park, created from an old church’s ruins, had hauntingly beautiful sights. First built around AD 1100, it had twice been destroyed, first during the Great Fire of London and second during the Blitz of World War 2. After the bombing, only the church steeple remained intact. The vines and flowers planted between the crumbling, charred walls left me awestruck.

Tiffany had also read that we could see remnants of the second-century Roman Wall on our way to the Tower of London. Londoners respect their historical roots, as they balance a growing population with significant historical sites like this one. It was surreal, contrasting the built-up modern city with this segment of the Roman wall, with a bustling London Underground station on one side and a small playground on the other. It struck us as incredible that we could see graffiti on the playground, surrounding buildings, and even trash cans- but no one dared to defile this relic of London's past.

Finally, we arrived at the Tower of London. We didn’t plan to take a tour, again with the long lines, but did sit along the hillside to reminisce about old history lessons and the people imprisoned here. This stop made me realize that I wanted to explore at least one castle before leaving the UK, so we added that to our plans.

We headed back to Tavistock to grab our bags and head off for our night train. We chose Franco Manca’s, a pizza place just outside the London Underground station nearby. This pizza place, known for its sourdough crust, served “Alfonso’s No 7,” a pizza that earned its way as the second-best pizza I’ve ever eaten. Today, I can just mention our dinner before Paddington Station, and Tiffany instantly recalls we ate pizza and how great it tasted. 

Full of pizza and memories,  we headed to Paddington Station for a second time to board our overnight train to England’s western coast. The station was quieter than before since it was now 10:30 PM local time, meaning Tiffany could finally sit beside Paddington Bear! 

The overnight train was our first train on the National Rail, and it remains one of our favorite train experiences! Upon boarding, a car attendant, the train-version of a stewardess, greeted us. She showed us our private room and took our breakfast order. She offered a trip to the first-class dining car for tea and snacks before bed. As the train prepared to leave the station, we returned to our room and settled to sleep. By the time we awoke, we would be on the Cornish coast of England! Next stop, Penzance!