I thought today would kill us.
We had “done” two touristy things per day for the previous three days, and we were all pretty shattered. Today we would be “doing” three – and commuting into London from Sussex, not just pootling down the Northern line from Hampstead.
Sigh. It’s hard being a middle-class traveller.
Seriously, though – out first obstacle was the fact the trains were up the creek and we would have to get a lift 14 miles to Three Bridges and pick up our London train from there.
The adrenaline kicked in as we struggled to get our shoes on and into Dad’s car for the lift to Three Bridges. (We actually got Dad out of bed to give us the lift. I have never known him so patient and forgiving.) On arrival at Three Bridges we had to queue to buy tickets, and had a mere 10 minutes in which to do so. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweaty. Would we make it? Would we catch the train? This was stressful stuff.
On arrival at London Bridge we had only 15 minutes in which to get to the London Eye, our first tourist destination of the day, in time for our booked ride. We conceded that we didn’t have enough time to walk, so shoved a woman with a baby papoosed on her front out of the way to get into a cab1. And then we instructed the driver to PUT HIS FOOT DOWN AND DRIVE!2
It turns out the time on our London Eye tickets didn’t really have much meaning. We were directed to just join the queue – where I abandoned husband and children because there was no way that claustrophobic me was going to be confined in an airless pod for 35 minutes with no chance of escape.
As my loved ones weaved their way rapidly along the queue, I went for a walk along the South Bank, passing Charlie Chaplin staring at his smartphone as I did so. The bikers and skateboarders of the Southbank Undercroft caught my attention for a while, and when I asked one of them if it was okay to take photos, he nonchalantly shrugged his consent.
I was delighted to find the second-hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge still existed, and bought myself a copy of Diary of a Nobody.
I know, I thought, I’ll go and buy myself a cuppa and sit down and read until the fam are off the London Eye.
Word of warning – don’t, whatever you do, buy your coffee from the Wasabi coffee stall on the South Bank. I am not a coffee aficionado by any means but if a latte tastes like cocoa burnt at the stake, it is not a decent cuppa. It was the first time I have ever left a coffee unfinished after only two sips. Rubbish.
I didn’t get to read Diary of a Nobody because I was too busy people-watching. And then husband and children materialised from the London Eye and we wandered back along the South Bank, past Charlie Chaplin and a woman painted entirely gold, for lunch at Wagamama’s.
“Can I have an ice-cream?” asked daughter, whose addiction to sugar and sweet stuff is starting to worry me.
“No,” I said.
“Can I have a slushy?”
“No! I’m really worried about all the sugar you’re eating! You must stop eating so much sweet stuff!”
“Can I have a balloon?”
After an hour and a half or so of rest and refuelling at Wagamama’s, we set off for tourist destination number two of the day (and eight of the week) – the Palace of Westminster. Daughter is in an ongoing process of differentiating between the British and Scottish governments.
Her: Which government is this?
Me: The British government.
Her: But who’s the person in charge?
Me: Theresa May.
Her: Is she the good one?
I had booked tickets for the family-friendly tour, and we were all pretty excited about learning more about our great British democracy. That’s such a lie. Husband and I were excited, son was vaguely interested and daughter was pretty nonplussed.
Our tour guide was a gent called Ralph Spencer, a thoroughly amusing character who not only knew his subject but was also very much in love with it, imparting his enthusiasm in such a way that was quite infectious.
His love of the subject did not, however, preclude him from being occasionally irreverently amusing – pointing at a painting of Queen Elizabeth II, he said: “The Imperial State Crown is so heavy, the Queen practises wearing it before the State Opening of Parliament while having breakfast, a cup of tea and a fag.”
However, Mr Spencer’s narrative occasionally wandered into territory that was politically incorrect enough to make me uncomfortable if not, on occasion, annoyed. Talking about Winston Churchill and World War II he interchanged “Germans” and “Nazis” without thinking; and he displayed a laughable cognitive dissonance on the subject of the suffragettes. When he talked of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, it was with pride that they had sought to defend democracy, freedom and equal rights; but when he mentioned the suffragettes, he criticised their use of violence in their campaigning.
“The suffragists campaigned peacefully, writing letters and marching for equal rights,” he said, “but the suffragettes were violent, and actually started fires!”
Yeah, Ralph, they did that to defend democracy, freedom and equal rights. And they still didn’t kill as many people as Cromwell and Churchill.
I last visited the Houses of Parliament as an 18-year-old, on a school trip when I was studying politics. I remember thinking that the Houses of Commons and Lords were smaller than I expected. This time what hit me was the almost obscene opulence of the place – the 23-carat gold throne in the House of Lords, the leather seats, the priceless paintings of royalty…; also the combative atmosphere of the seating, with government and opposition facing one another in an adversarial set-up. I prefer the Scottish and French environments of co-operation and dialogue.
Walking through the voting lobby, we were invited to sit down on the leather bench while Mr Spencer addressed us. I made myself comfortable at the end of the bench, and Mr Spencer pointed at me.
“You are seated exactly where Mrs Thatcher sat when she was waiting to vote No,” he said.
“Christ,” I exclaimed, and shot up off the chair. I felt tainted.
In spite of my many criticisms of the British parliament, this was a tour we all very much enjoyed. It was absolutely fascinating, and highly amusing.
Making our way to destination number three of the day – the Sea Life Aquarium – required an elbows-out navigation of a tsunami of tourists. I have never known London so teeming with humanity. Remind me never again to go there at Easter. I felt like a salmon battling against a waterfall to get upstream.
Oh – ha! A salmon!
The best thing about the Sea Life Aquarium was… wait, there were two things I loved: the enormous tank full of sharks and rays, which visitors were returned to with every bend and on every floor (which made the scrum for photos at the first window into said tank a bit pointless); and the jellyfish section, which set its peculiar inhabitants against a lightshow of neon colours, making it spectacularly beautiful.
Unfortunately, the aquarium sort of peters out towards the end, almost losing interest in itself, and degenerating into boring corridors that were finally adorned by nothing more than a vending machine of drinks and crisps. If only they could be persuaded to invest in maintaining the magic and beauty all the way to the end of the journey, the Aquarium would be quite outstanding.
Our day ended3 at Wahaca Mexican restaurant for dinner, which I can thoroughly recommend. Fantastic, efficient and cheerful service, plus a delicious and quickly prepared variety of food to share. Oh, and possibly the best tequila margaritas I have ever tasted. And I’ve tasted 472.
1 Of course we didn’t. We got the next cab.
2 We didn’t.
3 It didn’t. The journey back to Sussex – which involved a rail replacement bus and some unusually aggressive Scouts – from Three Bridges to our destination extended the sense of adventure.