Fri. May 27, 2016:
Biscoff cookies dunked in coffee for breakfast were becoming a regular thing now. We transited to St. Paul’s cathedral, which was easy as we just had to go to the station stop called St. Paul’s. We got there soon after open therefore it was not yet crazy busy. The first order of business was to climb to the top of the dome. It hurt that I was not allowed to take pictures, the cathedral was incredible on the inside. And the views looking down into it from the dome were amazing. The only picture I managed to take was from the top of the dome, looking down into the centre of the cathedral via a little porthole window which gave me slight vertigo. The whispering gallery was not exactly as I had imagined it but it was still cool to vaguely hear the people at the other end talking. It sounded like they were behind me even though I was facing them. So much climbing, 119 steps, and we reached the edge of the dome exterior. Yet we were still not done, there was another 152 steps to climb to get to the top. We were well rewarded for the efforts. My legs and heart were dying, but the panoramic views of London and the River Thames were well worth it. Now that we had the stair-climb out of the way, we could explore the cathedral itself. The ceiling featured a gorgeous gold tiled mosaic. What it lacked however was a cathedral cat. Walking through the crypt, the sombreness of it got ruined by screaming children. The highlight was seeing a burnt tombstone that had survived the great fire of 1666.
It was tough to get the entire cathedral into one frame, the building was so big and I kept backing up until I was by a tree, and at this point the sun was behind the cathedral as well. We had enough time to walk, rather than transit, to The Ritz hotel for high tea at the Palm Court. Along the way we passed through the theatre district and Piccadilly Circus. It was a nightmare in the style of Times Square. So many tourists, walking so slowly and so many horrible places like TGI Friday’s (actually there were two within a block of each other). Then there was construction so we had to walk an extra block to get around it. I was glad to be out of there and once again able to enjoy the nice architecture without the gaudiness and tackiness. I saw a Twinnings Tea shop and I had to go in. There was no way I was not going and in coming out with armfuls of tea for everyone back home. I was immediately overwhelmed, so many choices! And nice boxes! I briefly considered buying the wooden box you get to fill with your choices of individually wrapped teas but I thought better of it, the idea of having to cram it into my luggage dissuaded me. I got a box of tea for each family member… and two for myself. One was a last minute impulse buy by the register.
As we walked we noticed a particularly nice looking building. We ducked down the alleyway to get a better view of it from the courtyard. Turns out we had found Courtald Gallery at Somerset, a part of the Art Institute. I wish I had known about this beforehand, the current exhibition featured one of my favourite paintings of all time, Bar at The Folies-Bergère by Manet. Outside of the hotel I changed into my heels, it was awkward as I was rushing because we were a few minutes late.
The name of the place did not lie. We were seated in a small section, which was atop a small set of stairs, a small court. And it was surrounded by potted palms. It was a literal palm court. Overhead was a domed ceiling and chandeliers. I had high expectations, as they were the ones who invented the afternoon tea tradition. My expectations were definitely met. Soon after we had ordered, Brent regretted not getting the champagne option. When the server brought our tea, Brent asked for the champagne as well. We were doing this all out of order. You are supposed to sip your champagne while they get your tea ready. Then while your tea steeps you finish it off and start on the food. Ah well, it worked out in the end because we did not end up scalding ourselves as the tea had time to cool down. The sandwiches, in order of best to worst were (surprisingly): ham with grainy mustard, egg salad, cucumber, cheese, smoked salmon and dead last was the chicken breast. No sooner were we done, they brought us another plate of sandwiches! But this time it was only one of each. It was easy to divide them up amongst ourselves as we had differing opinions of which sandwiches were good and which were not. Except the ham with grainy mustard. That was the clear winner.
The sandwiches were followed by scones with strawberry jam (it’s always strawberry) and clotted cream. Again the clotted cream was similar to butter. I was starting to realize that what I had been served at afternoon teas back home, more of a sweet cream, was not authentic. The scones were still warm and the clotted cream just melted. They got major bonus points as the scones were not covered in powdered sugar. This meant that I in turn was not covered in powdered sugar (an almost inevitable outcome whenever I tackle powdered-sugar scones). Finally it was time for the mini desserts. Except before we could dig in, a server came by with a trolley and offered us slices of chocolate hazelnut coffee cake and a rhubarb ginger cream pie. We split one of each and although it was close, I preferred the chocolate cake. As it turns out rhubarb is pretty darn good and I may have totally misjudged it in the past.
Now it was finally time for the mini dessert. Except I was already quite full. We each had our own lemon macaron with a lemon curd centre, but then the rest we had to split because we only got one of each: white chocolate coconut mango truffle with a mango centre, chocolate covered cinnamon cream puff. We sat there drinking cup after cup of tea. I had ordered the rose congou (rose sounds so fancy) and Brent had the traditional English. By the time we were on to the mini desserts we had about two cups left each. It was incredible, in total we must have had about 6 cups of tea each but damnit we finished the whole pot each. Looking at the bill it turned out they forgot to change it to champagne tea and charged us just for a regular afternoon tea- score! Even the bathrooms at The Ritz were ritzy. The womens bathroom had a couch, magazines and a pitcher of water. On the way out of the hotel I noticed some cufflinks in the hotel shop window, they were a whopping £3500, I could not believe it.
We walked back to the hotel via Oxford St. Brent continued on to the hotel, I got caught up in a last ditch attempt at finding my palm tree shirt, I had spotted another H&M. As was to be expected, I came up empty-handed. I went into what I thought was a mall, but turned out to be a few crappy shops and a subway entrance, not much of a “shopping centre” if you ask me. I was now on a mission to buy a FitBit. I don’t know why it had never occurred to us to get one to track how much we walk on vacations. Alas HMV didn’t have one. Debenham’s department store did, but for some reason it felt too expensive and I could not commit. I stopped in at Selfridge’s, reasoning that the FitBit could be my souvenir if I buy it from there.
In Selfridge’s I discovered the basement floor and it was amazing. There was a bar called Harry Gordon’s and next door they had a liquor shop. There was a Selfridge’s IPA, I saw it on the bar menu but they were sold out of bottles. They did have Bacchus Framboise but I was not sure if I would have time to drink it, we only had a few days of vacation left. In trying to figure out where to go to find the FitBit I found some store directory maps, these could count as souvenirs I thought. I went from one department to the next, getting closer to the electronics department (watches to electronic toys to electronics) and finally to a “FitBit expert” as he was called. It turned out that the warranty was regional and that was a deal-breaker for me.
I rushed back to the hotel because I could not remember for the life of me what time we were leaving for the Chelsea Flower show. I had just enough time to pack my teas in my luggage and write about the morning. We left a little bit early so we could check out Kensington Palace. It was just an old brick building with exhibits that we did not have time for anyway. As we got closer to the flower show we could see people with tote bags from it. There was a mass of people, it was unimaginable how many people were crammed into this outdoor exhibit space. We could barely move and the whole time we were shoulder to shoulder with strangers. More than once we had to push and shove. At the entrance I had noticed a booth that was giving away the tote bags, you had to buy a copy of The Telegraph to get the bag but it was less than a pound and so worth it as he only had a few left. There were beautiful sculptures made of flowers and shrubs and gorgeously designed garden spaces. The florist section was the best, it was the most interesting to look at. I was surprised at how many people were walking around drinking alcohol. This was the last place on earth I would dream of drinking: it was crowded and everything was making me sneeze. We did not last there very long, pretty soon I needed out, it was way too claustrophobic-feeling in there for me.
We headed back to the Victoria & Albert museum with the hopes of finishing it. First I needed a pit stop. My legs hurt and I was dehydrated and hungry. I chugged a cold Coke and ate some honey-roasted cashews. Now I was ready to tackle the rest of the museum. It was open late on Friday therefore we did not have to worry about running of time, only out of steam. There was set up going on throughout the museum, as it turned out on Friday nights they had live events throughout. My legs were so dead but we managed to get through it all. Well most it, parts were closed off so we could not see them. We saw some of Raphael’s giant paintings, and artists sketches in oil paints by John Constable. We saw a lot of great photographs, the V&A had an extensive collection (Weegee, Muybridge, Weston, Man Ray, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson). Towards the end we were in a room of silver items and I could not care less, I was so tired. There was a 3D projection on a costume for which you had to put on 3D glasses that was pretty cool, but the lights started giving me a headache.
In a rare turn of events, Brent took off for some shopping while I headed back to the hotel through Hyde Park. I was fairly certain I knew where I was going, I had to head straight north, in a straight line that was not actually a straight line. I was walking on the path and I saw a statue that I was trying to pass, rather than continue on my path and turn right and head to the statue, I cut diagonally through the grass. My legs were dead and I needed to sit. I knew I was trying to get to the Italian Fountains, and so rather than going “straight” I went a little bit to the left (barely), following the signs to the Italian Fountains. I passed an obelisk dedicated to Speke. I was very confused, I had never seen this before, where was I?? Turns out the sign led me to a path that said the Italian Fountains were to the right. That initial sign had misdirected me at the fork.
I stopped at the corner store for a Daim bar, some more Haribo mix and the prawn cocktail flavoured Walker’s crisps. We had been avoiding them for far too long now. They were actually not that bad. The No Brainer cider by the Cotswold Cider Co. was delicious. We were too tired to go out to a pub for dinner, so instead I cracked open the Sandford Orchards Devon Red, another delicious cider to go with my snacks for dinner. My legs were lifeless.