Friday, February 14, 2014

LONDONBABY: Part II

As I mentioned before in my first post about London, our hostel was absolutely not conducive to sound sleep. Therefore, on Saturday morning I woke up at 5 AM, almost an hour and a half before my alarm was scheduled to start singing. I used my extra time to Whatsapp Tyler, considering it was only 11 PM in Oklahoma. We weren't even in the same day yet! Eventually I crawled out of bed and located my clothes by flashlight, trying desperately to not wake up Kiera. Today was our split up day, bringing out our equally nerdy tendencies with different tours. I booked a 10 hour bus tour to Windsor, Oxford, and Stonehenge, while she was jetting off to Warner Bros. Harry Potter tour later in the afternoon. I didn't see a single sign of the continental breakfast that was promised on the hostel website so I headed straight to the tube station. I took the DLR to Tower Hill before I transferred to the Circle Line and landed at Victoria Station. The entire travel time took about an hour. I snagged an egg and bacon baguette at a place called Uppercrust (NOT like the upscale pizza place in Oklahoma) and desperately tried to find Victoria Coach Station. Even after asking for directions it took me longer than I anticipated so it was a really good thing I had left so early! 
I finally found the right gate and waited until Phil, the tour guide, rounded up the group and escorted us to our home for the day, a large bus. I took a window seat near the front and settled in for the journey to our first stop: Windsor Castle. An hour and a small nap later, we arrived at the historic city, home of Eton, where the princes attended school, and Windsor Castle, the weekend getaway for the Queen. It is the oldest and largest inhabited castle and if her royal crest was flying, she was in residence. However, the plain old Union flag flew on this particular Saturday so she was away. We were given strict instructions to be back at the coach in approximately 2 hours, or risk spending the entire day in Windsor. I got a dud audio tour, so instead of pressing a small device to my ear like the rest of the tourists, I focused on taking sneaky pictures of things I wasn't supposed to. Queen Mary's dollhouse was the stuff of my childhood dreams and the staterooms looked like something straight out of Princess Diaries. My favorite room was the Crimson room, draped with rich red which contrasted with the gold detailing on the ceiling and wall. These rooms are still used today for state functions and ceremonies. 
I would consider St. George's Chapel more of a cathedral. Henry VIII is buried just before the back altar. The sly pics of the ceiling and stained glass did not do the real thing justice so I purchased a postcard at the gift shop, along with a Christmas ornament for my future very own Christmas tree. 
I checked my watch and realized I was running low on time so I made a mad dash for a nearby bakery (my secret dream was that Duchess Kate goes there when she brings baby George to visit Grandma) and snagged a cookie before perusing a souvenir shop and agonizing over which London shotglass to purchase. 
After everyone got back on the bus, Dave-the-driver turned us toward Stonehenge. Phil pointed out Windsor Great Park as we drove through, which contains Ascot, where the horse racing takes place.  In Dave's capable driving hands, I drifted off to for another power nap. After awakening, I reflected on my solo status for this adventure. Nearly every other person on the bus had at least one person with them, and I knew I had Kiera back in London, but it was really special to me to be traveling by myself for the day in a completely unfamiliar country. It's one thing to explore Dundee on my own; I consider it home. But to be out experiencing this history and processing what it means to me alone is an experience I recommend to everyone at least once. The feeling was strangely liberating. 
Sarah, a middle school friend from St. David's who studied in London last year, had warned me not to underestimate the frigidity of Stonehenge. She was SO RIGHT. 75 miles west of London, set in the English countryside, the wind was absolutely biting and threatened to propel me straight into the stones themselves. 
After a tiny tour through the exhibition at the visitor center, trams took us out to the attraction itself. Built between 3000 and 2200 BC, it is the only stone circle in the world with the stones laid horizontally across the top, which is why it is so unique. It's ancient use is still very much a mystery and I can sill hardly believe that I stood only a few feet away from something I learned about in a middle school history class. 
After collecting everyone from Stonehenge, the tour continued to Oxford, where the oldest university in the English speaking world was founded in 1231. According to archeology, people have been living in Oxford the city for at least 4,000 years. The prestigious university has given birth to 47 noble prize winning authors, including CS Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), JRR Tolkien (The Lord of the Ring), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and has the second largest library in Britain (second only to the British Library in London). The oldest book in the library is from the Iron Age and the oldest building in the city itself was built in 1040 by the Saxons, even before William the Conqueror started on the Tower of London. 
After our trusty guide Phil gave us a short walking tour of parts of campus, I had about 30 free minutes before I needed to be back on the bus. I headed straight for a pub Phil had pointed out on our way into the city, past the X marking the spot where Bloody Mary had three bishops burned at the stake, straight to The Eagle and Child where I ordered the smallest glass of Chardonnay available (student budget probs) and relished sitting in the same establishment frequented by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. If I was a student at Oxford I would write all of my papers in that pub, spurred on by literary spirits. The menu looked delicious, but I didn't have the time so I quickly bought a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos from Tesco Metro and traipsed back to the bus, armed for the long ride back to Victoria Station. 
From Victoria Station I navigated the tube home to Woolwich Arsenal and Hostel Ordnance, where I waited for Kiera to arrive. She came shortly after and we found dinner at one of the only pubs serving food past 8 PM, The Great Harry. I ordered a panini and chips, one of which a total stranger asked for. His insistence made me nervous so I handed him a chip in order to end our conversation. He then asked me if I wanted to split it with him. I refused and wished Kiera would hurry back from the bathroom. She ordered a beer with her meal, but I have been reluctant to drink during my travels. I am trying to stay away from even the slightest hint of a hangover that might impede on any sightseeing plans. We left the pub close to 11 PM and came home to a horrible sight. At the top of the stairs, just outside the door of the hostel, a young man was on his stomach, surrounded by vomit. I'm assuming the gentleman helping him was a friend and the office attendant was calling for an ambulance as the friend revealed that the young man was unconscious and struggling to breathe. There was nothing Kiera and I could do since the ambulance was on its way so we went to our room and soberly got ready for bed. In the morning we would learn that the young man died due to drinking in excess. I cannot even imagine if that happened to me or someone else I was traveling with and I was reminded to take care of myself and my friends because, as much as we might think we are, we are not invincible. A Very Lucky Girl is not immune to danger. 

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