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Our trip across the pond

13 years ago

Here is my trip report for our two weeks in England. It is almost as long as War and Peace, you are warned. I didnt put in links for all the places we visited, I am happy to do so or explain if asked. Thanks to Denise who helped me a LOT!

Four months of non-stop work in the making, this trip has taken me the most research of all our vacations. We had two weeks, so I planned one week in London, and one week out driving somewhere  I made sure DH knew he would be driving on the left side of the road! I've ignored my friends and other responsibilities, and my DH says 'never again' but he is enjoying all the prep work and it sure is handy knowing things like which museums are open late and how to get around if your tube train suddenly encounters trouble and you have to get off to reroute.

Packing. When I booked Virgin Atlantic, I quickly scanned their webpage about carry on luggage. We believe there are two kinds of luggage - carry on, and lost. I saw that we could take one 19" carryon and a 'purse' with us onboard. What I DIDN'T read and what DIDN'T register is that one piece can be NO MORE than 13 lbs. Light luggage alone weights 7 lbs, empty. DH was laughing at me because he travels with Exofficio clothing - wash/wear drip/dry lightweight stuff that dries out overnight. He brings three sets of everything: pants, shirts, socks, underwear and does laundry in the sink every other night. The stuff is light and takes up little space. I'm too cheap to buy this expensive stuff for my growing boys, and didn't want to fight with them about doing them doing their own laundry, so I bought the least I could of the pants, and hunted for cheap t-shirts/underwear/socks to last the trip that we could toss as we go. I also bought four Eddie Bauer 3100 cubic square inch duffels (no wheels, waaaa) for $40 each that weighed three pounds. To lose another pound would have been too expensive - after a while it is cheaper to just buy the clothes when you get there. After much time spent on our scale, we did get our duffels down to 13 pounds each. We packed valuables, a change of clothes and all DH's camera equipment into four daypacks in case Virgin made us check luggage and it got lost. At LAX, our check-in agent didn't do more than glance at our luggage. So much for under packing, we could have taken a few more t-shirts and socks. I know Heathrow will be a different story. BTW when we got to LAX I found I committed the cardinal sin of not checking to see if our flight was on time. My bad - one hour late, AND we were there 3.5 hours early - one has to build in time for LA traffic. I knew that would push us out on our arrival time, meh. Turns out our flight ended up taking off two hours late due to standby passenger paper work. Shrug. Virgin's video entertainment was on-demand, whew. It was hard to watch if you are tall and the person in front of you put their seat back, . Not a problem for me, but one of my kids is tall. We watched movies all night and tried not to sleep to get a jump on jet lag and that worked our pretty well, mostly.

Our itinerary was pretty well set, but had some flexibility, allowing for changes and weather. It helps for me to have a plan every day or else I end up 'frozen' when I walk out the door, even when well prepared. For our first week in London, I had one popular activity planned every morning, with the intention of getting to the place early to beat the crowds. Our second week was planned out in the country with an automatic car, with trunk/boot. Accommodations: in London, I panicked because I wasn't finding apartments I wanted so I Hotwired two rooms at the Holiday Inn Camden Lock for $89/night. I knew exactly what hotel I would be getting through betterbidding. Only thing I didn't ask about was internet - I assumed that all Holiday Inns worldwide would be free wifi, because they are here in the states. Wrong - about $23 per NIGHT. I refused to pay that so through further research I found that the US consumer has been kept ignorant of something called 'mobile broadband' - a flashdrive type stick goes into your laptop's USB drive and it accesses the web via the cell service, like the iphone. Not lightning speed, but has wider coverage than standard wifi. The USB stick or 'dongle' costs about $45 plus airtime ($3.50/day) under TMobile. Note: although the hotel is very close to a tube, this location is far enough up on the Northern line to be considered out of the central area, and would caution those considering it to look carefully. It wasnÂt a problem for us because it had lots of amenities in the area and riding the tube is part of the experience, and I figured it added just a few minutes each ride in/out.

Day One -arrival - was planned to be arrival at Heathrow 3:30 PM. We had a 9:00PM flight out of LAX - so I was hoping we would be at our hotel, via Justairports car service, by 5:30 PM, with time to toss our luggage into the room and wander out to explore the Camden Markets and walk to Camden Rail station to get our London Travelcards (NOT Oyster as we wanted to do the 2 for 1 attraction discounts) and maybe pick up supplies at a Sainsbury grocery store and if we were REALLY lucky, a USB modem for our laptop at Carphonewarehouse. All was mapped out on a Google page. I borrowed about 180 pounds from friends and family so we wouldn't have to hunt for an ATM right off the plane - even with clear instructions that there were Barclays ATMs right after luggage in Heathrow, I didn't want to be faced with a rejected card and no way to pay our driver. I had procured four unlocked cell phones and four SIMs with 5 pounds (about $7.50) airtime each from Lebara (free mobile to mobile amongst us so we didn't have to track minutes calling each other when we were out and about separated, six cents a minute to call home, and 16 cents a minute to make calls within UK) and that was nice to have ahead of time. Two of the cell phones were ours - asked AT&T to please send us the codes to unlock the phones - and two were borrowed from a friend (thanks Bob, they work!) who travels a lot so I figured he had phones - score! DH has an Iphone. Can't/won't be unlocked. Anyhoo....

We met our driver exactly where he was supposed to be - at Hertz - a nice Sikh gentleman. I felt bad that he ended up waiting an hour for us even though he knew about the delay but that is part of the deal. We piled into the car and off we went. I asked how long it would take to get to our hotel - Sunday afternoon - he said 40 minutes, so I was happy I chose a car service instead of wrestling with the tube which would have taken longer. Alas, we got to chatting and enjoyed good repoire. I think our driver had good intentions on showing us the Royal Albert Hall and Hyde/Kensington parks - was very helpful in telling us things about driving - traffic cameras, road signs, etc. It was nice seeing the Peter Pan tent set up for the new play, etc. But traffic was horrible - protests and a game letting out - I don't think he anticipated the traffic or he might have taken a more direct/less congested route. Long story short....hour and a half to get to our hotel. Tired/hungry adults, tired/hungry kids. The driver was VERY professional, I could tell even he was upset about the traffic by his tone on the mobile when he called in, but he didn't show it to us. I knew the clock was ticking and the Camden markets were closing. Sigh. We checked into the hotel (Holiday Inn Camden Lock, Hotwire, $89/night two rooms, but didn't want to pay $25/day internet fees). We walked out to get dinner and then to the Barclays ATM (marked on the map) but it was out of cash - duh, Camden Market crowds probably cleared it out. Once again I was happy to have prepared with cash. Camden Rail - I knew the agents were gone and would have to buy our passes from the ticket dispenser. Luckily the agents were still in their booth and were happy to help us - but needed cash, no problem. Cleaned us out for all but 10 pounds for breakfast, whew! I think they were happy to be dealing with tourists who knew what to get - three adult one week PAPER travelcards, Zones 1 and 2, one child same, starting the next day. No arguing about Oyster cards. We walked along Camden Lock to get back to our hotel. People were out picnicking and enjoying themselves, and we showered and crashed. Everyone but me had a good nights sleep - I woke up after two and a half hours, up the rest of the night and terrified of the next day (wasn't that bad).

BTW for readers who might want to know why Barclays ATMs - I learned off the forums that Bank of America and Barclays are international partners in the UK and don't charge each other ATM fees and percentages. I had opened an account at our local BofA about a month before with enough money plus some for the trip, and asked for two ATM cards.

Day Two - Westminster Abbey, British Museum, a bit of muffin man fun with my family. Weather for the day: overcast, no rain. I cattle herded the family out of the hotel by 8:30 to get to Westminster Abbey. We stopped at Cafe Nero (truly dreadful coffee, the whole rest of the trip we pointed out every Cafe Nero and joked about it every time) for breakfast on the run - coffee and a muffin. Not enough food for my boys and I knew that, fixed later. Got on our tube at Camden (wasn't as crowded as I thought) and made our way nicely to the Abbey. On the way I saw a Tesco Express and marked it for snack supplies. We got to the Abbey early to ensure we got Verger guided tours and were one of the first ones in line. I had heard that sometimes attractions opened early but we had no such luck - the doors opened at 9:30 sharp. Regardless, we secured a 10:30 Verger tour and that gave me time to run the boys to Tesco. What a place! A store so narrow and long you could only go in and exit on opposite sides - if you don't pick up what you want the first time in, you have to exit the store and go around. I also found a Barclay's ATM nearby and pulled out some cash. Our Verger tour guide, Ben Sheward, was fantastic. My travel-averse 14YO even admitted he was enjoying himself - it helped that I had him read and watch the Da Vinci code. 16YO had just finished European History so at least he knew - more than me - about the history. I am reading Josephine Tey's 'Daughter of Time' so I made sure to see the Princes in the Tower's ossuary. After the tour we headed, on advice, up to Victoria Street to grab a bite at 'Eat', one of London's gazillions of sandwich/salad grab-and-go-places. 14YO, my pizza hound, noted the location of a Pizza Express when I told him I had a coupon. We rested in the park across the street for a few minutes. While there, I took out a TFL (Tube for London, THE public transportation site) map of the major busses and saw we could get to the British Museum with one bus, number 24. We sat on top in the front and took in Trafalgar Square and Whitehall (mounted horse guards and tons of tourists) and headed up Charing Cross road where I saw lots of bookshops for DS14, who doesn't go anywhere without a book. I'm hoping to get him to one of the Oxfam thrift shops to stock up - we'll need it. I have a map of their stores, hope we make it! We walked into the British Museum courtyard from the Tottenham tube side at about 2:30 - with 14YO slightly moaning - he hates museums - but that changed when we walked into the Great Room - big impression and attitude change! So far we were having a good day with this tough kid. He and I were starting to hit the jet-lag wall so we separated. DH and 16YO covered a good portion of the museum I think while the 14YO and I got to the Rosetta stone, Elgin Marbles, and the two of the seven wonders of the ancient world. We both rested a bit on the benches and got a snack at the cafes. I called DH at one point (we didnÂt get tarred and feathered for using the mobiles in the museum, but we are discreet, quiet, and short) and he said he was in the 'Clock' section - 14YO then said he wanted to come back to see it. There was also a sand art display on the ground for an Indian exhibition and that inspired him to see more. I told him we could come back. Mission accomplished, kid hooked! As we closed out the museum, I asked for directions to Rock and Sole Plaice - a fish and chips place in Covent Garden I had heard about. I noticed we had to walk down 'Drury Lane' to get there so, without telling my family, I got us all singing 'Do you know the muffin man' until we reached the street and I pointed to the street sign. Insert eye rolls from family. They will never see Shrek again without thinking of that! I tried that trick again the next day but they were on to me. Walking down Drury Lane, we passed a tiny art gallery that had even tinier art pieces - Willard Wigan - who creates sculpture on heads of pins and eyes of needles. Yup. One of the needles had not one, but TEN perfect little camels in it. Each artwork was under a microscope, about 20 pieces total. DH had seen this artist's work on his website and was thrilled we bumped into his actual real stuff, not pictures. 16 pounds entry fee, ouch, but worth it. DH pointed out to the kids that the British Museum was FREE. We continued down to Rock and Sole Plaice but I don't want to talk about it much because the food, cod and plaice, were terrible and they wouldn't give us tap water to drink. I had heard so much about it and Londoners were surprised to hear it wasn't good. After 'dinner' we continued to Covent Garden for a bit but we were winding down so we just watched a few minutes of a street performer. I had wanted to visit Neal's Dairy Cheese shop but didn't know exactly where it was - and we were getting tired. We finished our day at Leicester Square - needed another ATM stop (we are going cash, not credit card as much as possible) and headed home. We had enough time to stop at a Sainsbury in Camden to get muffins and bottled water for the next day. I slept much better that night!

Day Three: Split up. Weather: not a cloud in the sky, should have brought sunscreen. Perfect Southern California day. Today I had booked two back to back Photo Walks of London, with a 2for1 discount, for my hubby and 16YO. I really have to give a shout out to Ian, who runs this one man photo tour company. Website: My family was the only one on the 'tour' that day and Ian really did a good job getting them around. He took one look at my husband and his gear and said 'I can't teach you anything' - DH said 'good, work with my son' who enjoyed the attention. Ian has a special spot he takes people to get a picture of the horses coming through during the Changing of the Guard (not near the ceremony, which we didn't get to see) and DH said it gave him postcard perfect shots. DH said he doesn't know much about where he went  the Historic Tour covered Big Ben/Parliament, Westminster, Saint James, Trafalgar. The second tour covered the Pool of London  the Tower of London, London Bridge, Leadenhall (also known as Diagon Alley to Potter fans). Because it was the three of them they deviated from the tour and spent more time in some places, less in others or totally missed (Millennium Bridge, but we'll do that later) but DH said he had a full, wonderful day that I could not have set up for him because Ian knew the best angles. We finally met up at 5:15 (tour was supposed to end at 2:45) in front of the Mansion House, and we tipped Ian well. 16YO, my trooper, was sitting with his eyes closed, head on his hands, dog tired but with nary a peep of complaint. One of the 30 pianos that were scattered around London for the week was in the square and we enjoyed seeing people playing it. In the meantime, that was their day. After I dropped off DH, 14YO and I bee lined for Fortnum and Mason - I had promised him the best chocolate shop in London (did I do well?). I couldn't persuade him to make time for the Changing of the Guards or a London Walk. Ah well. The gal at the chocolate shop let him have a few samples. He was SO impressed he was willing to even try chocolates with nuts (THUD). He bought 100 grams, or about

, and a
. He was happy. I bought some tea for my in-laws and some cookies for myself and gifts. F&M had the most amazing cakes/tortes  here is a
. We looked downstairs at their grocery area and marveled at a whole Iberico ham leg for GPB1,200 - about $2,000. Yikes. We exited and hopped on a bus for fun and ended up at Knightsbridge. Harrods? Nope, he wanted lunch. We made it back to the Pizza Express by St. James Park tube station we saw the day before and both ended up with
- I had a coupon I found in a local paper. We spread out his chocolates on the restaurant table and took a picture (see above) and then he ate them up - it was too warm a day to carry them around. Well, he left one milk chocolate piece to share with his brother, grin. Our next stop was the tourist information office off Piccadilly Circus on Regent Street - I wanted to pick up a National Trust pass for our second week and a guide book but they didn't carry the book, just a map, so I figured I could buy the pass and guidebook while out at our first Trust property (wrong!). Grrr. I did get a free London map and 14YO checked his email. I've mostly been using the Fodor's map from the guidebook and that has done a good job for me so far. 14YO was lagging at this point but I figured we could make one more stop - Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross. Found it,
from the Harry Potter books. One thing I also wanted to do there is pick up the 2for1 actual coupon book since this was a large rail station. I finally managed to explain to one clerk what I was looking for and he reluctantly gave me two. I asked for two more since the coupons were printed back to back - you would lose something if you used one - but he said they didn't have many. I guess the rail companies really prefer people download their own, which I had already done at home. What a pain. At this point 14YO was out of gas. I called DH and found that we had more time than I thought - so I got the two of us back to Camden for a quick rest and nap - we were only two tube stops away, and I was to meet DS and 16YO at Bank station, straight down the Northern line, easy peasy. I got there at 4:45 and we tried to figure out what to do for the next hour until dinner. I am kicking myself for picking the Museum of London because I should have thought of Evensong at St. Paul's - perfect to rest while rejuvenating our feet and spirits. ThatÂs what I meant by I need to preplan! I forget stuff! I was actually hoping we could get to Wimbledon but the 16YO would not have made it, and Murray and the Williams sisters were scheduled for evening play so I knew we would not get in. All was not lost - a quick tour and chat with the museum staff who advised us to get to the Cheshire Cheese pub down the road for dinner. I looked at a map and started singing ÂThe Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Sweeney Todd and by now the kids figured out what I was doing. I navigated us to Cannon Street and then I figured we could hop a bus the rest of the way to the pub on Fleet Street - our feet were thankful that London buses are abundant and easy to use with great signage. The Cheshire Cheese was a great OLD pub that Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens frequented. Our waiter (we ate at the chop house restaurant section, the pub was packed) was chatty and helpful. We had a great meal, roast beef and better fish and chips, with treacle and sticky toffee for dessert. When we were ready to go, I asked DH if we had enough light for Trafalgar Square - he did - and jumped back on the bus to head over. The sun was setting and he was in photo heaven. We spent about 1/2 hour, 45 minutes there. I am too short to climb the lions and DH did NOT want to trust his camera that far away or to anyone else for a family photo, and I can't blame him. We hopped back on the tube to get home - Sainsbury again for breakfast pastries - and we called it a night.

Day Four - St. Paul's Cathedral, the New Globe tour, Romeo and Juliet, 39 Steps. Weather: picture perfect again. We got up and out the door with the intention of getting to the cathedral at just after 9:00 - soon enough to get oriented and beat the crowds, and not too early for the 9:30 staircase opening to the top dome. I thought the tube would be a little less crowded but it wasn't. We haven't experienced bone crushing crowds and never did, whew. There were only a few people there when we arrived - nothing like Westminster Abbey. I paid using a discountbritain 20% off coupon. We spent about an hour and a half here, I wanted to see the memorial to John Donne. I wished they would have had the 'Death be not proud' sonnet, but they didn't. We got up to the Whispering Chamber and did that as well as the Stone Gallery above. The very top was closed for renovation but we had had our Stairmaster workout by then anyways, grin. We then descended to the crypt - I told the kids we could have a snack with dead people. Florence Nightingale is buried here, as well as Lord Nelson and a slew of others. DS14 had just finished US History so he wanted to see Cornwallis' memorial. At 10:30 on the dot the tour buses started rolling in, but by then we had finished and walked across the Millennium Bridge towards the Globe. Right before we crossed we found another public piano and I made my DH play a few tunes while I grabbed his camera (don't have a clue how to use) and framed a shot of him playing it with St. Paul's dome in the background. Crossing the bridge was a nice walk and we all kept joking how it was going to be blown up in the next Harry Potter movie. We got to the Globe in time for an 11:00 tour, which was not nearly as good as the Verger. It was our guide, she was a bit slow in her delivery and sounded like she was rambling. Ah well. We walked over to the Tate Modern for lunch in the cafe (very good!) on the ground floor. Lunch was picture worthy  I had the

, but the dessertsÂkids ordered
, a
and DH and 16YO wandered around the museum and greatly enjoyed it. Right after lunch is my shut-down time - I need a break - and it was no different here. So I and 14YO sat a bit while the other two enjoyed the museum. ItÂs not for everyone but I would like to come back, I was fascinated by the few exhibits I saw. We got back to the Globe and bought seat cushions for our 2:00 Romeo and Juliet show - I had bought tickets a couple of months earlier - and settled in for the next three hours. DS16 had covered the play in school the year before, and DS14 was about to. The play was good, but the sun came out and got right on us for about an hour and that was distracting with the heat. We had dinner at Tas right next door (recommended, Turkish, reasonably priced entrees and specials) and rushed over to Piccadilly Circus to catch 'The 39 Steps' . That is a comedy based on Hitchcock's early movie by the same name, the whole movie reenacted by a cast of four. Very cleverly done and very funny but it was hard to stay awake - we are morning people for the most part. We woke right up coming out of the theater into the Times Square like neon of Piccadilly Circus. I was a bit concerned about taking a tube home to Camden since it is an 'edgy' place in town, but the Londoners next to us said no problem, and sure enough the place was still hopping at 10:30 at night. We got home safe and sound!

Day Five - Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Ceremony of the Keys. Another perfect day, slightly warm, a bit humid for me, but no rain! We got to the Tower of London just before 9:00 when they opened. We took our time there - made the usual first stop at the Crown Jewels then took a Yeoman Warder's tour. We stepped out to get a bite of lunch at Eat! Â here is an example of a fast food

- and returned for more touring. We finally left at about 1:15 to the Tower Bridge and sometime during that tour I remembered I had wanted to stop next door at All Hallows Church for a 1:10PM organ concert. Grrr, early AlzheimerÂs. After the Tower Bridge, we split up. 16YO FINALLY looked at my guidebook and said 'Hey! There is a Dali Museum here!' Good thing I downloaded tons of Days Out 2for1 coupons and carried them with me. I pointed to the Thames boat pier at the tower and told my DH to ask for a single ticket, with rail discount and to get off at the London Eye. Easy Peasy. 14YO and I jumped on a bus back over the bridge (I'm lazy) and we made our way back to Camden for a nap. With a stop at Sainsbury for chocolate and water, of course. When I got him settled, I wavered between going up Kentish Town High Street to an Oxfam thrift store/bookshop I had Googled to buy the kids more paperbacks - they both read and I kept our luggage weight down with no books to spare. Another trip to Sainsbury's won out as I hadn't yet had a leisurely moment to shop British stores. I had managed to pick up two boxes of Persil detergent and a plastic bottle of Branston relish when DH called - he was back. I trundled off with him to buy a map at a bookstore for our trip out in a few days and a stop at the ATM and the USB mobile broadband dongle.. After we all rested a bit, we exited again for dinner on Camden at one of the shwarma places (love cheap street food, no ill effects so far) and then down to the National Portrait Gallery, which was open late. I enjoyed that museum, I ran right into the portrait of Richard III that I am reading about as mentioned above. It was nice to study it to see how it compares with the book's description. I think he still looks like a nephew murdering villain. DH hustled us out of the museum to return to the Tower early - I had forgotten we had made note that the bridge was scheduled to open the drawbridge at 8:45. We got there in the nick of time and I have a happy shutterbug, with perfect sunset lighting. We then waited for the last item on our list - The Ceremony of the Keys. I had written away about two months before we left asking for any one of four days we would be there and I scored. I shouldn't feel so lucky, I thought there was supposed to be ONLY a group of 25, seems there was more like 250. It was still a very special ceremony. Now I know where 'Halt! Who goes there?' comes from. Our guide pointed out a passer-by, who turned out to be the Field Marshall - one of the two people who are allowed to request an audience with the queen. DH took some more night shots of the river and home we went.

Day Six: Hampton Court. Weather: threatening rain, but not one drop. Getting to Hampton Court was easy. The lines for the ticket agents at Waterloo were long so I collared a worker at the ticket kiosks and we ran through it quickly. Just caught the train out, reading all the newspapers about Michael Jackson's death. Since rain was threatening, we did the gardens first. Well, the maze first. Um....I took a tip from someone's kid here and printed off a solution to the maze, but at one point I got lost anyways. After the gardens we at lunch outside Lion's Gate at the King's Arms. I have been looking at the menus of the pubs for 'Ploughman's Lunch' but not finding one. I finally asked if they had one on the menu and was

...but they had their own homemade piccalilli, not Branston pickle. Better, I bet! Yummy. Kids and DH all had lamburgers. We returned and finished the Palace - they had a room giving out red and green cloaks for visitors to wear as costumes. I totally embarrassed my kids by donning one....since I was wearing a backpack, it made me look like a hunchback. I told the actor playing Henry the Eighth 'look, I'm Richard the Third' and got a good laugh. We just caught the train back to Waterloo - and as we pulled into the station at 4:30 I realized I could redeem my prior error of forgetting Evensong. We were five minutes late to St. Paul's but caught enough to enjoy the service. Dinner was Pizza Express at 14YO's begging bequest - I kind of wanted to go to Brick Lane but it was too far. Loved the dryer in the bathroom, never seen one before, it is a
and it was fun! DS14 wanted to go to Wimbledon - DH recommended I call BEFORE we trekked back that direction. I was waiting for the crowds to die down - I had heard that around 5:00 the grounds start emptying and the great unwashed can buy tickets turned in by the leaving privileged, for charity. When I called the box office at 7:00...I was cheerfully told that as of that moment there were 4,903 people waiting to get in. No Wimbledon for us, and we were told it would be worse on Saturday, then next day, when Murray would be playing and it was Saturday which boded even worse. We headed over to the Victoria and Albert, open late on Fridays, but once we got in the kids and I had had enough. I asked DH if he could make it back by himself, he gave me a look but we were done. On the way home the Northern line had a train stall by the Mornington Crescent station so I managed to get us home via Kings Cross. On the way I called to warn DH to make sure he watches for that. So glad we had mobiles. By the time he left the museum, he called to say the problem cleared up and he was OK. Do trains ever stall INSIDE the tunnels? We were lucky if so because we just got out where we were, Tottenham Court. Home, a bit of laundry, bed.

Day Seven: Greenwich. I let us sleep in half an hour today. We caught the tube, train, Docklands Light Rail to Cutty Sark and hiked up the hill. Originally I had planned out the perfect bus route to take us behind the park, so we would walk across flat land instead of up. I noticed that I had printed out the instructions for a weekday instead of weekend so I wasn't sure of the bus service schedule and I chickened out, so we had a nice workout instead . The very first stop of the day, before the crowds, was the obligatory family photo on the Prime Meridian line and I was excited about seeing Harrison's clocks, including H4, in the well done museum (read Dava Sobel's book 'Longitude)'. We walked back down to the Maritime museum and walked around a bit there, saw Nelson's coat with the bullet hole, and headed into town for a bite. I tried finding a recommended place 'The Cinnamon Tree' but I think when I finally found a phone number he said it was a take-away place and we needed to get out of the sun. So we ate at The Mogul instead, very inexpensive lunch, DH and 16YO were happy because it was spicy. After that we split up again - DH wanted to finish the V&A, and 16YO wanted to join him. I wanted to do some shopping and 14YO wanted a rest so I got us back to our hotel. I headed out to Kentish Town to find an Oxfam Used Bookshop - the kids were out of books by now - and went back to Sainsbury to pick up tea for a British neighbor at home who had helped me with the trip, and a Boots to pick up hand cream. My plan was to meet up with DH for a 7:00 walking tour, started raining. Oh well, we had to pack anyways. So it was a short day, I didn't cover as much as I wanted, but DH closed down the V&A and he was very happy. I do better with museums in the mornings, he can go all day.

Day Eight: Out of London. During the week, when I was walking to/from Sainsbury with our daily water/breakfast rations, I noticed a minicab (taxi) kiosk at the back of the store. I was having trouble reaching Justairports for our trip back to Heathrow to pick up a rental car, so for a lark, I asked how much it would cost for a family of four with a little luggage. He quoted 35 pounds and I set the appointment. DH was happy to take the tube at this point but I said we would then have to shuttle it to the Car rental stations and I thought that might be too much time. Although our car rental time was 9:00, I told him we needed to be there at 8:30, and the owner suggested 7:00 pick up time - figure 45 minutes with no problems, double that for unexpected delays. Driver showed up five minutes early. I thought it was a bit of overkill on planning, but by the time we got to National car rental it was 8:00, we waited on line for 45 minutes, and we got into the car just after 9:00. Talk about timing. I told DH we had to be in Salisbury for a 4:15 tower tour, and we had the morning, so I suggested Kew Gardens (he really wanted to go). Time to learn how to drive on the left side of the road. I had insisted DH, the driver, sit up with the minicab driver to start figuring it out. We got through the roundabouts just fine, white knuckles, and he has the hang of it, for now. The Sat-Nav GPS got us there, mostly, (he put in Kew Rail, next try was Royal Botanical Gardens, better) and we got a perfect parking spot in front of the facility. Kew was beautiful, I was planning that we would have visited it earlier in the week after Hampton Court, but this worked out well since we had a morning to kill and Windsor Castle didn't have a changing of the guard on Sundays. I used the last of my 2for1 discount coupons (glad I didn't throw out my rail tickets, we were asked). By the time we finished it was lunchtime, I wanted to grab fast sandwiches on the premises, DH wanted a real lunch. We programmed Salisbury Cathedral into the Sat-Nav and it took us through Richmond (think: Laguna Beach, crowded, no Sunday afternoon parking) and we waited to clear out of town. We asked the Sat-Nav to get us to a restaurant - picked KFC (ugh) but it was getting late and I wanted fast and filling. It got us to a KFC next to a pub, Alexandra's in Farnborough. Better choice. Not a tourist in sight. Since it was Sunday, their lunch was

- a HUGE meal of beef/chicken/lamb with mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, twoYorkshire puddings, cabbage, peas, and carrots. Full stomachs for five pounds, much better prices than London! We made one mistake in this small town, hopefully our last - made a right turn and got into the right lane. The other driver was not amused...but I made apology signs and showed him our map through the window. I knew we should have brought an American car flag! Made Salisbury in good time, singing Peter Gabriel's 'Salisbury Hill' and secured a nice parking spot next to the Cathedral. Wow. Makes me want to go reread FollettÂs 'Pillars of the Earth' which is a historical fiction account of the cathedral's construction. We saw the Magna Carta, the best of the four remaining copies, and I read a little of the translation - lawyers haven't changed much since 1215, grin. We met at the spot for the Tower Tour - maximum 12 per group - I had booked it in May and I noticed we were the first on the list, whoo hooo. 300 steps up, and not for the faint of heights. Our guide tried to time it so we wouldn't be on the bell level when the clock struck any quarter hour, but on the way down I got lucky and saw the action. A bit loud, but pretty cool. We checked into our hotel, The Rose and Crown (not recommended for more than one night) and hiked into town back past the Cathedral for dinner at the pub Haunch of Venison - apparently the ghost of a cheating card player haunts the place, looking for his severed hand. I didn't find it in my dinner. We headed back to the hotel to download camera photos and bed.

Day Nine: Stonehenge, Lacock, Bath. Weather: sunny, no rain. Once we figured out some electrical peculiarities in the hotel - like bathroom fan switches outside the bathroom, located near the ceiling (who would have thought to look up, way beyond my reach?) we went for the hotel's included breakfast, in a sun room right next to a duck filled river. We packed up and started out for Stonehenge, after a bit of Salisbury morning rush hour traffic trying to find and park for a Tesco to refill supplies. We got to Stonehenge 10:15 and stayed an hour and a half. I tried hurrying the family but there is no budging photography bugs. I gave DH a lecture about choices, grin. Stonehenge is good for 45 minutes, IMHO! We then decided to go for Lacock and Bath. We pulled into Lacock at 1:00, which has a pretty abbey and was used to film parts of the first two Harry Potter movies.. It was warm but not terrible, apparently this was a huge heat wave for the Brits, about 30 degrees. It was here that I found I had made a mistake (not a bad one, the money goes to a good cause) with the National Trust one week family Overseas passes for GPB40 - I thought I could pick one up at any of their sites. Nope, one has to buy it online ahead of time or at places like the Tourist Info Center in London that I had just visited. If we had been near an internet we could have done it on the spot but we were short for time anyways. Grrr, live, learn, and post for others to benefit. We enjoyed the abbey for a bit. I was amused by the 'pine cones' on the abbey chairs to tell visitors 'please don't sit'. Very polite and effective. We walked and bought Cornish pasties from the village bakery to walk and eat. Then we took off for Bath. Congested Bath has park and rides which I intended to use - but the online maps are sketchy at best and we ended up driving through town (by now, second day, DH is getting comfortable with scary traffic and round-abouts - tomorrow he'll be eating while driving on two lane roads) using the first pay parking lot (covered!), called Riverside I think. Turns out we got one of the closest parking lots in town itself, right next to the town square. By now it was 3:00 and I knew things started closing at 5:00. We went to the tourist info center to get a map and tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus tour, and somehow my brain went dead and I forgot that I had made a mental note to not do the Roman Bath tour (long story short we've done tons of Roman stuff. Give me back the Tudors, I don't know enough about that era! DH muttered 'British Museum is better'. I'm not dissing it for everyone, it was a good museum, just not our area of interest). I did learn something in the baths, the source of the word 'curses' - when the local Romans were angry with someone for a wrongdoing, they wrote a nasty missive in a quick shorthand, or 'cursive', on a small thin sheet of lead, rolled up and tossed into the bath. Made for interesting translation for the archaeologists, I'm sure. The bus tour was perfect, covered the highlights. I learned that the Peter Gabriel song I had been humming the day before was written about Salisbury Hill in and learn. For those readers with young kids, please note that Bath has a playground that looked like so much fun, my teens, who haven't been in a park in YEARS, wanted to stop and play. We made a quick stop in front of

, home of the original Sally Lunn bread, for the 'where am I photo' for my foodie friends, and then on to visit the abbey. I liked the angels going up and down Jacob's ladder on either side of the front. Dinner at TilleyÂs, and then a short drive on to Bristol, 12 miles, for the night. I had booked a one night apartment with the intent of doing a bit of mid-trip laundry, but there was a note on the counter that the machine was broken. Not a happy camper, especially because every correspondence I had with the place indicated that all I needed was a washer and two separate beds for my kids. Grrr. I dealt with it, won't go into details. Once again we found bathroom switches and fuses on the top of walls, outside bathrooms. I used a shoe to turn them on/ do short people manage?

Day Ten: South Wales, long drive, a teeny sprinkle of rain. The next day, we headed out of Bristol towards South Wales. I had planned a choice of Cardiff or Abergavenney and environs, but not both. We picked the latter since I had read there was a good market and I wanted to buy some Welsh handcrafts. We were impressed by the bridge over the Severn (had correct change for the toll) and we stopped at Raglan Castle, a ruin, and we had the run of the place save one or two other people. Very pretty and we all enjoyed it. This time DH managed his time better and we were out of there in a 1/2 hour. We fumbled our way into and quickly out of Abergavveny - the market was a bit of a bust, more household modern goods. Should have done a bit more research. Never daunted, we made our way a few miles to our next stop, the Big Pit museum, which was a closed coal mine with miners giving underground tours. We had to turn in our watches and cell phones in case of electrical sparks - gases in the mine, since coal gives off methane. I was saddened to hear they had kids as young as seven working, whole families in fact, for 12 hour days, and ponies went down at age three, and stayed there for years, some of them blind by the time they were retired and brought up. They were well taken care of, but still. There was a well done exhibit about the mine and miner's lives. By the time we got back to the car, it was 3:00PM and we knew that things started closing down. We could have made a dash to St. FaganÂs, a (free so no big $ lost) recreated village by Cardiff, sounded interesting, but DH was antsy for his driving fix. I had bought 'Britain's Best Loved Driving Tour' and wouldn't you know we were on Route 10. We sat in the car for a bit, I had a highlighter so we marked out an ambitious drive in the atlas based on the book (it was South Wales castles, but we didn't stop at any), ending up in Bourton on the Water (eastwards) for the night. We left the parking lot at 3:30, stopped for a lengthy dinner and chat with the locals in a small town (Kentchurch) pub (16YO had a good long play with the pub dog), and were at our accommodations by 9:15. 141 miles. Only traffic we encountered was a tractor, which pulled over to let us pass. We went on roads as narrow as one lane and we were appreciative of how people pull over and flash their headlights to indicate 'you first'. We always tried to pull over first but were usually waved on to proceed ahead. Polite drivers everywhere, barely a honk, even in the congestion. Everyone seems to manage and be patient (but FAST!!!) Two of the highlights of the drive, outside of the beautiful countryside, was how many sheep there were. One place we stopped had a field full of them, we opened the window and all we heard was bleating. We also sadly drove through Hay-On-Wye, the bookshop town of the world, I had never for a moment dreamed we would have been that far north. It was 5:40 by then and I knew the town was closed up. Ah well, can't do everything. Besides I had reading materials from London. We checked into our place, Broadlands Guest House, a quaint budget place in Bourton on the Water, one street away from the center of town. I had booked us into a family suite for three nights - a bit cramped for the four of us, but we'll manage. DH and I walked to a nearby pub, left the kids on the computer, and I introduced the two of us to British cider. DH loves beers/ales, in fact he long ago read the books, bought the equipment, made some beer, became certified as a judge, never used it, but he does know his fermented stuff, and he has really been enjoying drafted libations as much as he can (but not while driving UK roads until later in the week!).

Day Eleven: Cotswolds - Bourton on the Water, Hidcote Manor, Snowshill, Rollright Stones, a walk between the Slaughters. Weather: warm day, sunny, humid, not unbearable by our standards and would certainly qualify as doable by Texas to Florida folks - but the locals are all saying this is the worst heat wave they have had in years. Would have been nice to have AC in our place, especially since DH and I are upstairs in the 'sauna' loft. Beats having it rain! We got up and had breakfast at the hotel and I trundled the family into the car. We had yet to explore our village but I knew we could always catch it later. Off to Stow on the Wold down the road to pick up a few maps, visit the Barclays ATM, and get some tourist information. This is the second time I have walked into the Info centers and been disappointed. 'Where exactly are the Rollright Stones? Where can we find the most thatched roofs? Do you have (good) maps?' All were met with a shrug. What are these centers for? I'll find a local who knows the area. We made it up to Hidcote Gardens in good time, and we were suitable impressed (except 14YO who promptly found the croquet court but could not talk us into a game, so he wandered for a bit then found a place to sit and relax/read). We covered pretty much most of the gardens. I saw the Lacock Abbey 'pine cones' - turns out they are thistles, and they were in bloom! DH said it was the best garden he has ever seen - on par with Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC. Did I do well for him? Should I have taken him to Stourhead instead? Hidcote, and other places, it seems, have used book sales, good to know. DH picked up a Jane Austen book, Sense and Sensibility, appropriate after Bath, LOL. From there we hightailed it over to Snowshill Manor/Gardens, we got there at 12:15 just after opening times. I had been pronouncing this place 'Snow-shill' but was corrected to 'Snows-hill' and even one other variation. The timed tickets queue was already up to 1:00, no problem. I booked us for a 2:40 entry time and called The Mount Inn - phone number written down ahead of time - in nearby Stanton (five miles) and asked that they hold us a table for lunch. Beautiful view across the valley, and DH was VERY impressed with the quality of the food and HUGE portions. I mean HUGE. He said it was the best lunch he had had yet during the trip and we loved the

. Two scores in one day! We got back to the manor in the nick of time - the receptionist said we would have to 'leg it' as the manor itself was a walk away. I power walked it and arrived in time - dragging my DH who just cannot NOT stop for photos. We all enjoyed every room in Snowshill. I think I was most impressed with one of the first things I saw - a collection of small carvings - perfect, detailed, tiny little things - carved by English prisoners of war by the French during Napoleonic times, out of their chicken bones from their meals. We couldn't take pictures. I saw a Yeoman Warders uniform. One thing I had seen all over, mostly on the Tower of London Warders (Beefeaters), is the large initials 'E R' - assuming that meant 'Elizabeth Regina' or variation of regal - but this uniform, probably collected in the first half of the century, had what looked like 'G R' and I wondered if that meant 'George Regine'. I found out that the initials change with the monarch. Snowshill is a hoot and it was the only place I bought a guidebook. The bone pictures weren't in it but still. DH had a good long linger in the beautiful garden, and took photos of benches and flowers to his hearts content. On the way out we tried visiting Broadway Tower - looked like a good viewpoint, we passed it on the way up and made a note to backtrack after Snowshill. The sign said it was closing in 20 minutes so we marked it on the GPS for possible revisiting. Since it was still early, we made a lengthy but ultimately successful trip to the Rollright stones - not well marked at all - well, not when you are whizzing by at British speeds - we must have passed it three times before a kind soul told us exactly where to go. The Rollright stones is a small Stonehenge - worn stones are shorter than me, and it is only one circle, not Stonehenge's complex pattern - but it is older and more accessible. We didn't go across to the Whispering Knights but that's what telephoto lenses are for . We headed back to Bourton, dropped the kids off to watch Wimbledon, and DH and I drove across to Lower Slaughter for a quick walk to/from Upper Slaughter. By then it was 7:30, we were still stuffed from lunch, and the Slaughter crowds were all gone, park anywhere we like. We took the public footpath behind the mill, scattering sheep in the fields as we went. One looked upset with us...I told it to behave or it would be dinner. We collected the kids at about 8:45 and headed to the pub for a bite, then off to sleep.

Day Twelve: Warwick Castle, Stratford upon Avon. Weather: Sunscreen and sweat again, not a cloud in sight. How could today compare to yesterday? Anything else would be a let-down. We made our way up to Warwick Castle, which is said to be one of the finest medieval castles in the UK. I found half-off discount coupons for Warwick on We paid the six pound parking and entrance fee and two steps in, the group started giving me grief about 'you took us to Disneyland?' because of the signage and bright colors, and obvious juvenile slant. I gave them a lecture about me doing ALL the planning despite having asked for input, and everyone was offered to look through a guidebook, and if they didn't appreciate my work and wanted to take control of the trip, to be my guest, etc. That quieted them down. We explored the castle, managed to avoid the school groups in the small corridors. There was the wax people displays, very nice, I had never seen one before (Warwick Castle is owned by Madame Tussad's, so it made sense they had wax exhibits). Up and down the embattlements, enjoying the views. We didn't go for the Dungeon. Watched the trebuchet demonstration, and called it a day. I'd recommend Warwick only if you have younger kids. There are other castles, just as beautiful, for far less a price. We then drove down to Stratford and caught lunch at The One Elm pub. We toured Shakespeare's home, very nice, and proceeded through the Croft and Nash house. We knew we couldn't do all five properties, no worries. We wandered around a bit more and paid homage to the bard in his church burial site and wandered back, snapping this shot on a plaza statue of my favorite quote from

. I think there was more to do in this town, I read something about Falstaff's experience, but the Tourist Info Center was mobbed and I didn't bring my guidebook with me. We took off to the Broadway Tower - marked it on our SatNav because it wasn't one of the destinations in the system, and the roads weren't marked - I had also read on the internet that it was open until 9:00PM in July (not marked on the sign or we would have gone in the previous day!). It is a pretty little tower, I think two pounds per person, with nice displays about its history on each floor, and a gift shop (I finally realized we were at the end of our trip and needed a few gift items - bought two Cotswold 2010 calendars). On one of the floors there was a topographical map that showed the hills/valleys of the surrounding area which is always of interest to me. Apparently the tower site is on the second highest Cotswold location. If it had been a clear day it would have been magnificent, but even with the bit of haze it was beautiful nonetheless and I recommend this place to everyone when they have Snowshill on their itinerary! We headed home as I wanted to see the Bourton-on-the-Water model village. I had tried finding info on the net about what time they were open, nothing, my Google skills failed me, and we walked in at 5:50. The place closes at 5:45 and no begging or explaining would deter the man. So we would have to lose time the next morning to wait until it opened at 10:00 and I hope itÂs worth it. We had dinner at the town pub again and watched Wimbledon until it was time for bed.

Day Thirteen: Burford, Minster Lovell, Oxford, London. Weather: threatened rain, but ended up needing sunscreen again....Our last full day in England. By the time we packed up to leave Bourton-on-the-Water it was 10:00 and we made a quick visit to the very cute model village. 14YO and I posed like 'Godzilla' devouring the town for the camera, I bet every one does. We then moseyed over to Burford for an ATM stop and to see the church - I was interested in it because of what Cromwell did there to the Levellers and wanted to pay respects to the three who were executed. We then did a nice stop at Minster Lovell. I stopped in to see the dovecote - very cool you CAN go inside, I thought you couldn't. We got to Oxford right after - got a parking spot in the middle of the town, in a car park - I figured we couldn't, but DH by now can navigate congested cities AND get the car in tight spots. It was 1:30 by the time we finished messing with pay-and-display permits (it was about the same cost as using the park and ride, but we were able to spend more time in town). We booked a 2:15 city tour and grabbed lunch next to the Tourist Office. Once again, I encountered folks who couldn't answer - what time does the Carfax Tower and Covered Markets close? Sigh. We had a fantastic guide - Dr. Eva Wagner - retired Oxford professor, I don't remember which college. She was Scottish/German and moved at a fast clip. I think Oxford is perfect for high schoolers, gets them thinking about possibilities, grin. I loved seeing the 'City of Dreaming Spires' on which Pullman based his 'Dark Materials' trilogy. The city was covered in teenagers, apparently Americans are over there for summer programs. Our guide suggested we climb St. Mary's tower instead of Carfax and I'm glad we took her advice. Unfortunately Christ Church College was closed so I couldn't see the filming site of Hogwart's dining hall. We all loved Oxford and I wished I could have spent a full day there, next time, live and learn! By the time the tour ended (3:45) things were starting to wind down and we could only get so much in. The Pitt River Museum is something I think we should have done. We found a T-mobile to top up our USB dongle and have the age restrictions lifted. We couldn't do it online because apparently TMobile requires UK credit cards and our American ones were rejected. We grabbed Cornish pasties at a counter, got breakfast supplies (and chocolate) at the town Sainsbury, and headed back to London. I was concerned about traffic at 6:30 at night but it wasn't horrific. I booked us near Kew Gardens in case we wanted to make that our final stop in the morning before heading back to Heathrow for our flight, but since we had seen it earlier in the week, I used the opportunity to see something else I had really wanted to see.

Last day - Day Fourteen....St. Mary Magdalen's Church. We took a long slow morning since we didn't have to be at Heathrow until 11:00 - flight at 3:00, allowing time to return the car. I told DH that I really really really wanted to see

nearby in Mortlake. The kids and I have read (14YO is reading it now) Phillip Jose Farmer's Riverworld science fiction series which features this under recognized Victorian explorer as a main character. He explored Africa and helped discover the source of the Nile River, explore/survey the African great lakes, lived amongst the Arabs, spoke about 20-30 languages and was the first Westerner (disguised) to visit Mecca and see the Kaaba. He translated the 1,001 Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. His wife burned most of his memoirs, such a loss. He wanted to be interred at Westminster Abbey but he was considered a bit too scandalous for his day. His mausoleum, in which both he and his wife lie, is a stone Bedouin tent. You can go behind it and
. It is in sad disrepair. I also missed his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery! After the visit I decided to get us back to Heathrow, it was 10:30, and I didn't like the traffic around the area. Our SatNav took us over Hammersmith Bridge - beautiful! and we pulled into the car rental return at about 11:15. Our duffels passed through as carry-on luggage - insert innocent whistling about the weight - a couple of kilos over each, we were lucky - but I lost the Branston pickle at security. Ah well, I'm sure I'll find it and Elderflower sodas in the States. At least I have the two boxes of Persil detergent. Our flight was thankfully on time, and I'm in the middle of my flight typing as we return home, so I'm at the end of our journey, with all our pounds spent, our mobile minutes down to the last few pence. Home to try and stay awake for fireworks and relax the next day, cheering on Roddick in Wimbledon.

Time to start cooking again!

(If you have made it this far, congrats!)

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