For our second housesitting assignment we got the opportunity to watch three cats in the town of Banstead, south of London. Banstead is by no means a big town in any part of the world, its city limits supporting less than 20,000 people. For that reason, it does not have much in the way of attractions. The most obvious draw of the city is of course its proximity to London with all of its iconic sights and cultural importance.
The public transportation in London is nothing short of amazing if at the very least due to the sheer amount of people that rely on it on any given day. However, the massive size of London, how long it takes to travel between places in the city, and the vast number of things to do make planning to travel around the city very difficult. Since this was our second time in London, we opted to skip some of the larger sights in the city we had already seen and took an easier, less stressful path around the city.
One of the first attractions on our list of things to see was the Harry Potter Studio Tour at WB Studios, but its popularity makes it quite difficult to get tickets unless you do so far in advance. We instead opted to take a free Harry Potter walking tour which promises to show you some of the places in the city where the movies were filmed, as well as other places that influenced the looks of some of the fictional places depicted in them. The places we went to included two streets inspired by and eerily similar to both Diagon and Knockturn Alleys, the two entrances to the Ministry of Magic shown in the movies, the Millennium Bridge destroyed by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and lastly, the location on the film premier for the last movie. Throughout the tour, our guide supplied us with facts about the movies, but also interesting things about the city and some cool personal anecdotes. It was well-worth doing and a good way to re-experience Harry Potter in the city that heavily influenced the movies.
After our walking tour, we enjoyed a beer and went off to get some lunch. We had discussed it before coming to London, and since it is one of the few cities outside of the US that have them, we knew that without a doubt we would have to go get some Chipotle. The struggle of not having the different foods we are used to having in the states had started to take a toll on our psyche and Chipotle was really nice to be able to experience again. The taste of home really brought up our morale.
We had plans for a tour later in the evening so we had a few hours of extra time to explore a little. We had ended up at the South Bank of the Thames after our Jack the Ripper tour so we did a little exploring of the area, which is known as a major cultural center of the city containing a theater, several eateries, a major book market, and the famous Ferris wheel in the heart of the city called the London Eye.
We took advantage of the rest of the time we had by seeing a few of the lesser known sights in the area including the oldest church in London, All Hallows-by-the-tower. The church has overlooked the London Tower since 675, providing it with the unique honor of being the burial place for the beheading victims proven guilty by the crown. I had also heard of a former church nearby called St. Dunstan in the East. St. Dunstan’s is a church which after heavy bombing in WWII was never rebuilt and the shell of the building was instead converted into a public space with a courtyard overgrown with (carefully pruned) vines, trees, and other vegetation.
The last time we were in London we took a Jack the Ripper tour and enjoyed it so much that we decided to do another one. Again it was free and was done by the exact same guide that we had done the Harry Potter tour earlier that day with. The tour is so interesting to go on to see the enormous difference in the area as compared to what it was in 1888 during the time of the murders. The area in which these horrific murders occurred was once the home of thieves and prostitutes, many of which were just trying to make ends meet or had had a recent stroke of horrible luck. The tour takes you around to where each of the murders took place and provides you with some of the circumstances behind how each woman got to be where they were and other relevant information regarding the search for the killer and some of the suspects. It is all very creepy but still quite interesting to hear about and see what has come of these murder sights, which are now overrun in the long years since by office buildings. What happened in those very same streets are forgotten by many who walk there daily.
The next day, in an effort to save money, we decided to stay around the Banstead area. Our homeowner left us a couple of bikes and had recommended to us a pub nearby that we decided to stop in for lunch. What we thought was going to be an easy ride turned into quite the trek. From the house we biked through a little wood, over several different farms, and through county fields, the whole way hindered by trying to force our bikes through the mud and muck. Our estimated eleven-minute bike ride converted quite quickly into a 45 minute to an hour bike ride (thank you Google Maps). By the time we got to the pub we were muddy, tired, and certainly ready for a drink.
The pub we wondered into would not fall into the category of what we would call a pub, but was more of a fancy restaurant that had a pub attached to it. We had lunch at the restaurant, the whole time keenly aware of the shabbiness of our appearance with mud on our clothes as compared to our perfectly manicured neighbors. After, we left our table and found a separate little table at the attached pub and felt far more at home in our surroundings. Our new found comfort and the lack of desire to ride all the way back home resulted in us staying at the pub through both lunch and dinner, the whole time playing cards and relaxing. It made our tough ride there all the more worth it.
Since sunset at this time of year in England is around 4:30, we then had to ride home in the dark, this time only taking streets rather than lanes home so we could ride on the sidewalks. It was a lot easier on the way back. As luck would have it, however, half way home the chain on my bike broke and I was forced to peddle it like a scooter, taking advantage of any and all hills to coast down on the way back. Needless to say, we had quite the adventure that day.
The next few days was spent again in money-saving mode and we spent a lot of time relaxing in the house, especially as the temperature had started to plummet. However, by Friday I was starting to get cabin fever and since Lauren had to work that afternoon, I took the trip back up to central London by myself. I didn’t want to leave her out too much so I opted to visit a couple of places that I didn’t think Lauren would necessarily mind missing too much.
My first stop in London was an interesting little museum called the Wellcome Collection. The collection holds a variety of curiosities along with several interesting exhibitions. Sir Henry Wellcome was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and huge collector of medical artifacts which eventually formed into the Wellcome Collection. In the collection is a wide variety of interesting and unique (and sometimes disturbing) items. These items include, but are not limited to: Napoleon’s toothbrush, Dolly the Sheep’s poop, various glass eyes, Charles Darwin’s walking sticks, several tattoos preserved on human skin, a guillotine blade from the French Revolution, a shrunken head, and a mummified body from between 1200 and 1400. The artifacts were incredibly interesting to look and hear about, as were the other exhibitions which included an insightful look into the importance of graphic design in our everyday lives.
After leaving there I walked to the nearby British Library to have a peek around. Currently there is a History of Magic Exhibition going on including some Harry Potter artifacts, but as I did not pre-register for tickets I did not get a chance to see inside. This trip would not have been a total failure if I would have at least got to see the libraries enormous collection – everything published in the UK – but access to the books require a reading card which also requires a UK address which I do not have. Oh well.
The next stop over on the tube was for King’s Cross station which plays a pretty important role in the Harry Potter series – the portal into the magical world – so I stopped in to get a look at the prop trolley placed at Platform 9 3/4. There was a sizable line to get a picture with the trolley, as I would assume there usually is, as well as a nice sized Harry Potter shop right next to it which would be a great place to get a souvenir if ever in the area.
My last stop on my little tour of the city was the British Museum. The museum is utterly massive, holding upwards of 8 million works and is the most comprehensive and detailed exploration of human cultures from the beginning of mankind up until present day. There are so many things there that it would take all day to explore, but I did my best to see the entire museum which is no easy feat. Some of the major pieces on display in the museum include the Rosetta Stone which was the key for modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilization, one of the famous giant statues uncovered on Easter Island, and finally, several sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon in Ancient Greece. Among these pieces were also thousands upon thousands of other artifacts from every continent. As I said earlier, this is just a small example of artifacts in the museum as it could easily take up a whole day to explore.
Lastly, I went back to the South Bank Center to have another quick look around at the book market and walked back over the Westminster Bridge to look at the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and of course, Big Ben. I wanted to see them all lit up at night since we had not really made an effort to see them earlier. Afterwards, I headed back to our place in Surrey.
Our time in London was a real treat for us. Since we had seen some of the bigger sights in London before, we were able to relax and enjoy the city without feeling rushed. For that reason, I feel like we got a better feel of the people in the city and the distinct mix of cultures that really made the experience shine. I know the last time I came to London I felt a little overwhelmed, but this experience has really highlighted exactly why London is the most visited city in the world.
- If traveling in London, make use of contactless payments such as Apple Pay as it is very convenient and actually cheaper than buying an Oyster card. Plus, contactless payments do not require a signature or pin code so it is much faster.
- The British Library, while enormous, is not worth visiting as someone who does not own a membership card. Access to any books in the collection are prohibited without one.
- The major sights are not cheap by any sense of the word. Be prepared to drop some serious money traveling central London.