Last Full Day

During any normal week at home Friday is a day of celebration. Ready for the weekend and fun. Friday for us was our last full day in London so we weren’t nearly as excited about it as we normally would be. Saturday meant we’d be back on the plane and headed home. What to do on our last full day?


The Tower of London of course.

We got there early but decided not to race to see the crown jewels. We instead turned up Mint Street and got away from the early crowd. There were lots of educational displays that we had all to ourselves. Really interesting stuff. Once we’d been there for a bit we turned and headed back into the moat area to join up with a Yeoman Tour. If you’re there – take the Yeoman Tour. These guys are fascinating. While we were on the tour our guide told us that one of the former prisoners at the tower was a certain William Penn. I raised a little cheer (Pennsylvania and all that). The guide noticed me and called me out on it. “Just remember, that famous Pennsylvania man was English… and a criminal!” Everyone had a good laugh. Then he continued, “Where are my Australians?” A few folks raised there hands. He pointed one out and yelled to him, “You sir! Go and give that poor American some counseling on what it means to have a criminal background!” It was a really funny bit in the middle of a tour packed with crazy amounts of information.

The crown jewels had a massive line. We worked our way in and got to shuffle past the display. It was impressive. When we got out the line was massive. It was really good to go right from the tour to the jewels. Then it was off to see the famous ravens. The ravens have gotten quite used to being close to people.


We got some great pictures here. It was a really good tour. Totally necessary to see if you’re in London. That took about half of our day. We grabbed some lunch at a Pret and then headed for a lot more photos. It was time to ride the London Eye.


What a massive wheel. The supports were crazy big.


It was a long wait in line… to get tickets so we could go wait in line. That was the most difficult part of the whole thing – it was very crowded. It took a long time to get on. It was also a bit odd that they didn’t stop the wheel when it was time for you to get on. It just keeps slowly turning and you have to hop on as it goes past. That’s one of those little details I somehow doubt would ever work here in the states. It was a great view as expected. The whole ride was smooth and stable.

And somehow, suddenly it was Friday night. We’d had an entire week.

We cleaned up and packed up our room Friday night. We were up and out the door at 5 am on Saturday and headed back home. It was a grueling travel day, but nothing went wrong and I was thankful for that.

Going on this trip was just fantastic. We built memories that will last a lifetime. We saw things and did things together. We took a ton of pictures – despite only being able to post a handful of them here. I can only hope we can scrape together our pennies and save up for another grand adventure.

This must be Thursday…

Thursday of the big London trip we had plans for smaller, off the beaten path type things. We were planning on heading to the Royal College of Physicians to see a special exhibit on John Dee. After we’d finished with that we were headed off to the Silver Vaults. We decided that since one particular wizard was the origin of this trip idea that we’d stop along the way at King’s Cross rail station to see a particular platform where one might head off to a wizard’s school.

The “platform” isn’t really a platform anymore. They’ve moved it up to the concourse area next to a gift shop. There’s a line and a professional photographer. You can still snap your own picture for free – but you’ve got to wait through the line. I’m glad we got to stop here, but it was disappointing to see what the “magical platform” had become.

Not even an arch.

Not even an arch.

We decided it would be easier to grab a taxi to the exhibit. We didn’t have a clear understanding of what that meant from King’s Cross station. There was of course a line to get a taxi. There’s a line for everything.

We made it to the college and headed in. The exhibit itself was neat and quiet. There was a lot of cool stuff on display. There was a short film that we got to sit and watch. We found out they have a Twitter. I had to check it out despite doing my best to stay away from Twitter. You should check out some of the cool things there too.


One of the neat things the folks at the college did was set up a doodle contest (of sorts). One of the things Dee was known for was writing notes, annotating and doodling in his library collection. There were postcards out that one could doodle on and submit to their monthly contest. The kiddo and I both whipped one up to enter.


I particularly enjoyed the painting. It’s significantly larger than I thought it would be. I love that they’ve discovered part of the painting had been painted over to cover up certain aspects due to the offended sensibilities of the Victorians.


Once we’ve had our fill of the exhibit we headed off to the underground again and found our way over to the Silver Vaults. We stopped along the way in a little sandwich shop for a fantastic lunch. I know I sound like a bit of a broken record, but once we got away from the main tourist stuff we just had such an amazing time. It’s the little things – quiet lunches, finding our way along a new street – that really made this trip so excellent. We passed through private security to get in and headed down to the vault level. NO pictures were allowed. We spent a great deal of time wandering and staring at really expensive silver. A lot of it. One of the shop keepers said it was the world’s largest collection of silver under a single roof. We talked to a handful of the shop keepers. There’s all sorts of history and interesting stuff going on down there. We even got recommendations for other ‘out of the way’ places we should go and visit.

Unfortunately we were all but done in again. Lots of walking, constantly being on the go was starting to take its toll on us. We made every effort to avoid rush hour on the subway and headed back to the hotel. It was difficult to believe we were down to our last day already!

British Museum and Forbidden Planet

Our day in Cardiff was going to be a tough act to follow. We only had 2 items on the agenda for our Wednesday – going to the British Museum and stopping by Forbidden Planet.

Camera decided to auto-correct and I thought the result was cool.

Camera decided to auto-correct and I thought the result was cool.

The British Museum is a lot like the Smithsonian – all piled into one huge building. We headed in around opening time (ten-ish) and wandered around. There are some amazing things on display at the museum. I got to see THE Rosetta Stone, live and in person.


There were so many things I really lost track of it all. We did be sure to have a little fun along the way

Historic Fist Bump

Historic Fist Bump

but the sheer number of people there made for a less than perfect experience. I suspect if we hadn’t just had such a magnificent day in Cardiff I might have been more forgiving. I got very, very tired of people bumping into me, people crowding what I was trying to read, people swinging their selfie-stick around with wild abandon. IF we lived closer I suspect we’d go there in much the same way we return to Washington and the Smithsonian here in the states. It was impressive to be sure, but we all struggled with the crowd.

We actually stayed in the museum almost until closing time. When we did come out we wandered a few streets over and found our way to Forbidden Planet! A huge comic shop right in the middle of London. I had this odd notion that I’d be able to wander and chat with staffers and all the kinds of cool things I’d do at any shop like that here at home. I suppose if I were a local I’d probably have had more success – but it was super busy. There were tons and tons of things to see both upstairs and downstairs. I did manage to wander for a while. I even found some works I recognized – and I was sure to face out the books. I also took one moment in there to “hand sell” a friend’s title when I saw a couple of local guys looking for something to read.


I could have spent a lot of time (and likely a lot of money) in there, but it was late in the day and we were all worn out from so many hours of walking. We headed back to the underground and back to the hotel.

For those of you that have seen a certain movie – we hit a point not unlike that of a certain Wade Wilson hit with health care when considering what to eat for dinner. We said something like the same thing he did and headed to the Subway that was across the street….

They had apparently hit the same point. It looked like a trash bomb had gone off in there. They were out of about half of everything. Really one of the two worst dining experiences we had in London. We grabbed our sad and disappointing sandwiches and called it a night.

Thursday had more cool stuff in store!

The Doctor Who Experience!

Tuesday was our big day. We donned our Regeneration Who t-shirts, headed out of the hotel and hopped onto the underground. The underground is a very good way to get around London. It is however old and not necessarily laid out the way you might think. There were times when I thought we were caught in an old Family Circus newspaper comic where the kids took as long as possible to get back home. Up, down, through a tunnel, up and down in the same tunnel and across 2 more escalators and you’re there, no problems. It was a lot of underground walking to go with the train ride. We transferred to the national rail service and rode through the countryside out to Cardiff. I feel the need to say – this was expensive. The train ride itself I mean. I think if we had known before we showed up at the train station we would have balked at the cost. Since we didn’t know, we just forged on ahead.

Arriving at Cardiff was smooth and easy. We chatted with a couple of folks in the station and found that we needed to take the bus on the number 6 route and that would drop us off all but at the front door of our destination.

The bus was not nearly as easy to figure as the underground. We ended up paying more for the tickets to ride than we should have because the bus driver doesn’t make change and we didn’t have change on us. We did arrive all but on the doorstep as promised in just a few minutes.

Dr. Who Experience

We had pre-booked our tickets so we walked in with our printed pages and walked directly into the next available spot. I’m certain it was because it was a slow Tuesday, but the people at the desk greeted us by name. “Ah, you must be the Hardenbrook family…” It was very cool. Like I said – I suspect it was because it was a slow day and we booked ahead, but it was still a good feeling and a great way to start. Little extra bits like that make all the difference. All the folks going in head through an interactive… show? I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but it was a good time. I won’t give away any spoilers on what happens inside but they do make sure to get the “smaller humans” up front for the interactive bits of the show. The VIP tour badges with big crystals stuck on them glow at various times as you move through the whole thing. Sadly these were not for keeping. The kiddo got to be one of the participants while we were in the tour/show part and she was thrilled. I forgot to time how long this was, but it wasn’t overly long.

Don't Blink!

Once we got out of the show it was on to the exhibit itself. We got a ton of really good pictures in here. Every doctor’s costume, a handful of monsters from the show and all kinds of nifty stuff on display. There were props, sets, documents and even a video loop with the show choreographer. You could learn to march like a Cyberman or walk like one of the scarecrows from Family of Blood. I have no idea how long we spent wandering in there but it was long enough to connect with a couple of the other fans there. We spread the word about the convention and one of the folks we met (a middle school librarian from Texas) actually took down the name and looked up the web site on her phone right away. Everyone was super nice and really friendly. Did I mention a ton of pictures?

Adding my tally marks.

Adding my tally marks.

We wandered the exhibit reading and marching like Cybermen and generally having a good time. Like any good tour location, we exited by way of the gift shop. Everything Dr. Who was there. Clothing, key chains, patches, snow globes, DVDs, comics, art, knick-knacks – you name it, they had it (at least if it was still in stock). We had actually picked up a swag bag along with our pre-order tickets so we had a t-shirt and a guidebook and some other things (including a Tardis key) waiting for us.

We spent about 3 hours there from beginning to end. I had a smile on my face the entire time. Smiling and having a great time is exactly why we came on vacation. Today was a good day no matter what else came up – but it was still only around 2 in the afternoon. What else could there possibly be?

Did you know that they have a castle there in Cardiff? IF you’re a fan, you should know…

Cardiff Castle!

Once we had finished with our fantastic time at the Dr. Who Experience we hopped the bus back to the central station. We then attempted to figure out what bus to take to get to Cardiff Castle – because touring a castle would be cool, right? Oh how little we knew.

After strolling around and looking lost for a few minutes we were approached by a local. Chris introduced himself and we had a really lovely chat for about 5 minutes. We got all kinds of great tidbits including being pointed right to the castle gate.

It was still a slow Tuesday afternoon so when we got to the castle and wandered in it was very easy to grab a tour. IF you’re going to do this – there are stairs. There are lots of stairs. It’s a pre-medieval castle… no elevators. The kiddo and I jumped in with the tour and my lovely wife decided it was a good time for a sit down so she let us go on ahead. The castle itself is really excellent. There were only 5 of us on the tour so we got some really fantastic information. When the tour guide asked us what brought us to the area we told him about going to the Dr. Who Experience. He said, “OH, then you’ll really like what we’ve got coming up.”

I didn’t realize the show actually used Cardiff Castle for filming. We strolled right on into the library in the heart of the Tardis!

Digital edits to add multiple floors.

Digital edits to add multiple floors.

You can see this along one wall of the show's library shot.

You can see this along one wall of the show’s library shot.

attachment_id=598″ rel=”attachment wp-att-598″>IF by some chance you can actually read the titles, you'll see they're all Cardiff City records. IF by some chance you can actually read the titles, you’ll see they’re all Cardiff City records.[/caption]

Needless to say we were pretty happy with this. The other family wasn’t particularly interested and so they wandered on their own way once the tour was done. As soon as they were off the tour guide said, “IF you two have a few minutes, I’ll call my friend Dean over.” Well, we were on vacation – we had all kinds of time!

As it turns out Dean is a big time fan as well. We had a great conversation with him. He looked at us and said, “Would you like to travel the tunnel to Trenzalore? How about seeing the bath from Rebel Flesh?” SOLD!

He was fantastic! He’d actually worked with the guys on set for some of the show stuff and he took us back through all kinds of places and parts of the castle telling us all about where stuff was shot, who had been there, what other shows had been there, where the Tardis had landed… so much stuff that I lost track of it after a while. The kiddo was over the moon. She got to play like she was adding stuff into the acid bath and all kinds of cool stuff.

See the door there behind the actor?

See the door there behind the actor?

Can you see the door on the wall to the right?

Can you see the door on the wall to the right?

Fandom travels folks. WE got all kinds of cool scoop from our new friend. The 45 minute to hour tour was closer to two by the time we were done. We could not have been happier. It was awesome. If you are in Cardiff and you’re a Dr. Who fan – go to the castle. IF you’re not a fan? Go to the castle anyway. It’s an excellent tour and there are some unbelievably cool things in there NOT related to the show (who knew?).

Just to cap the day off we stopped for some dinner on the way out of the castle. We’d seen a couple of really neat shops along the road, but the PIEminister caught our eye. Boy am I ever glad it did. We had traditional pie and mash. It was amazing. I needed another mouth to eat it more. Combined with a cider that was just splendid we all had a meal we won’t soon forget.

Dinner with the PIEminister!

Dinner with the PIEminister!

We were happy, smiling and pretty wiped out – so the train ride back to London seemed to go by in a blur… and we’d only had 2 full days. The next day was off to the British museum!

English Breakfast and Harrod’s

Monday was our first full day and we had a preset tour arranged for the morning. Before we headed out though it was time for our English Breakfast! We actually had breakfast every day as part of the deal with the hotel so we’d get to try a little of everything! I started off with beans and sausage with black pudding. The black pudding was… OK. I had no idea what to expect. It seemed a little dry and salty but I ate it. I headed back for a hard boiled egg and some bacon. English bacon is different. Not my preference, but it was still bacon so I ate it. Off to the bus for the tour!

Our tour guide was fun and really well versed in all the history and sorts of questions tourists ask. She was very angry about the construction in the streets holding up her tour, the bike lanes the former mayor of London (that slightly orange fellow in the rumpled blue suit) installed and how the rental cycles everywhere were just an eyesore. We rode around past a number of places including embassies, actors’ homes, Picadily Circus, and Trafalger Square. We stopped and got out for a walking tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral was my favorite architecture of the entire tour. I tried to get some decent photos from the outside, but there was no photography allowed inside. I could have spent the entire day there. It was fantastic.

St. Paul's Cathedral

Back on the bus and off the see the changing of the guards. Our guide really knew her stuff. She had us there just in time to get a great spot right at the railing by the Australian gate. We were as close as we could be when the new troop of guards passed by. Once that was done she snuck us right back out and onto the bus before the crowd got really crazy. Since it was such a small group we decided that rather than going back to the hotel after the morning tour we’d just like to jump off at Harrod’s and do some shopping. The driver happily dropped us off and left us to our own devices.


As it turns out shopping was rather optimistic. We did some very inexpensive looking around at some crazy expensive stuff. I don’t know how to relate the expense in relative terms. There may be some folks reading here that understand that there was an entire section dedicated to Jimmy Choo shoes. Mostly I think people will understand that the one “lunch counter” that was in there was charging L4.50 (that’s pounds, not dollars) for a water. Even at the extremely favorable exchange rate we’ve got right now that was about $5.80 for a bottle of water. We decided the building itself was wonderful but we headed out and got lunch at a little Italian shop nearby.

We took our first black cab ride back to the hotel then. It was certainly an experience – the unplanned U-turn based on traffic and construction detours was really entertaining.

Once we made it back to the room the wife and kiddo decided a little nap was in order before dinner. I decided to explore. I went for a walk – and got all kinds of lost. I expected I’d go out a little way, turn left then left again and head back. London is OLD and the streets don’t necessarily work like that. It was a really interesting walk but after about 90 minutes I was really interested in finding my way back.

I eventually found my way into the Waterloo railway station – and promptly got lost in there. The rail and underground stations are really big at certain points. I really did appreciate the underground for getting where we needed to be – but at first take it can be quite overwhelming.

Once I actually found my way back I stopped to chat with the guys running the baggage. Some people might not be into the idea of chatting with these guys BUT what they did for me was give me a bunch of options for finding some real fish and chips – not the tourist trap stuff. We ended up strolling to a local place called Master Super Fish and had a fantastic meal. It’s very easy to understand why fish and chips is such a big deal.

A great first day, but we were really looking forward to Tuesday… and a trip to Cardiff!

Getting There

We actually used a travel agent for our trip. I know that’s not really “the thing” anymore with discount travel sites and special deals through AirBnB and places like that, but I wanted to deal with somebody that knew and understood international travel. We know a number of people that have traveled to London a number of times. We got a ton of advice and suggestions. We still went with a professional for our flight tickets and hotel reservations. As far as I can tell it didn’t have any real impact on the cost.

Our flight was scheduled to take off around 6:30 on Saturday evening. That gave us lots of time during the day to get our final bits together and take our time getting to the airport. The only real difficulty we had was some confusion with the actual flight number. It was a relatively new route (my understanding based on conversations with folks at the airport) so it was a Delta flight but sub-contracted and listed on the board as British Airways… or something. We knew our departure time and we found the gate based on the simple fact there was only one flight to Heathrow within hours on either side of our departure time. Kind of frustrating, but ultimately not a big deal. We go there and were ready to go… when they announced there was a problem with the plane’s engine. The called for a two hour delay. We all settled in to wait. I had a very interesting chat with a British gentleman that now lives in Detroit. He’s a retired automotive plant tool salesman. He had a lot of interesting opinions on current affairs and a bunch of suggestions about what to do and see in London. We also ended up talking to a really nice young lady that works at a college just down the road from us. She was on her way over to see former exchange students that had stayed with them. Lots of nice folks.

There I fixed it!

Thankfully they caught the problem on the ground and could actually get it taken care of in relatively short time. We were late, but only by an hour or so – not the two they called for. It was a good call on their part, under promise and over deliver. Made everyone feel better about being late. Once we got on the plane and into the air the pilot told us he was really sorry for the delay so he was going to go a little higher and a little faster to make up for lost time. The flight wasn’t even close to full so I got to slide up to an exit row seat and had a bunch of leg room.

The idea with the overnight flight was that we’d sleep a little while we were flying and then just be up and doing stuff on our first day there. We were scheduled to leave around 6:30 PM on Saturday and arrive around 6:30 AM on Sunday (their time). The problem was that we weren’t really ready to sleep on the flight. We got a small dinner and drinks. Then there was the entertainment. For anyone that hasn’t flown lately, there’s an tablet system in the headrest of the seat in front of you. Games, TV shows, movies, music – essentially an iPad fully connected to all the entertainment goodies you’d want for the flight. So the kiddo and I both ended up watching a movie after dinner. By the time we were ready to attempt sleep we were within an hour or two of landing and they were coming around with a series of snacks and drinks. We maybe got a nap of an hour or two. Maybe. And we paid for it.

Once we were on the ground Heathrow was actually relatively easy. I know a lot of people warned us about how bad it was going to be and how busy, but it was actually just as easy to navigate as Philly if not more so. There were some confusing bits due to the large amount of construction going on, but all in all pretty easy. We had a transfer all set up via our travel person so once we made it past the baggage area there was a guy there holding a sign with our name on it. Very fancy – we got our own car and driver to the hotel!

The driving in London was crowded even at 7 in the morning on a Sunday. There were lots of different car brands that we don’t really see over here, lots of different places to look at. Interestingly – I noticed right away that I just didn’t see any bumper stickers. I have no idea why that is – just didn’t see them. I expected a highway similar to our interstate system. What I got was more like one of the old neighborhoods in Maryland that have a high volume of traffic. For anyone nearby where we live here in PA, I was looking for something like 81 or 83 and got something more like 15 through Camp Hill – only they were all on the opposite side of the road. Opposite side driving took some getting used to. That was the outskirts of London – then we went right down through the middle and got to where we were staying.

We had a great hotel. We were right off the end of the Westminster Bridge. When we got in we actually got to upgrade our room to one with a view. We looked out our window right at Big Ben and the bridge. We couldn’t get into the room as we arrived so early so we stored our bags with the concierge and headed out for a walk to see what was in the immediate area.

The kiddo crashed hard after not sleeping. She was hungry and tired. We all were. We wandered and pushed through early crowds and finally gave up. We went to the stretch between the bridge and the Eye where all the tourist stuff is and got some McDonald’s for lunch. I now have the somewhat dubious distinction of having eaten at McDonald’s on 3 continents. It was pretty much exactly what you’d expect – loud, busy, small, crowded and utterly McDonald’s. There wasn’t even a huge taste difference – not nearly as much as the one I went to in Korea anyway.

We eventually got a text message from the hotel that our room was ready. We went and crashed for about a 4 hour nap right through the heart of the afternoon. Once we did wake up all we really could muster was the energy to walk across the street and grab dinner. One of the things we thought going over was that we would see curry shops all over the same way we have Chinese take-out places over here. Apparently those are not “in” anymore. What is “in” now is Italian restaurants. We couldn’t turn around without finding a place that served or specialized in Italian. We grabbed our dinner from the Italian restaurant in the courtyard area. They were crazy busy. We got in between a couple of reservations apparently. The food really was good – if a bit pricy. Everyone enjoyed their food, but after we were done it was all we could do to get back to the room and call it a night!

Our room was very sleek and modern. It also had some… odd decor. This was the closet door next to the bed:

Closet Door

Monday was our first tour – more on Monday!

London Calling

Union Jack

The family and I went to London for a vacation this past week. It was a really fantastic trip. It was long and tiring and expensive – and still fantastic. I’m going to publish a series of posts here about our trip because there was just so much that it simply won’t fit all in one post. In fact – one of our travel days was so excellent that I expect it will be split into two different posts.

I didn’t post much about this before we departed and didn’t post anything while we were away. It was a vacation – I stayed off the computer completely. I looked very briefly at message subject lines that updated when I had wi-fi a at the hotel and anything that wasn’t an emergency got skipped past. There were no emergencies.

I loved traveling to London and having a real, actual vacation with my family. I’m so glad that I was able to share this experience with my daughter. We did a fair amount of prep work before we left, but didn’t lock a bunch of stuff down and create some crazy rigid schedule. We wanted to go and relax and take things in rather than waking up and wondering what day it was and what place does that mean we’re rushing to see. One city, one hotel – the whole week. We walked, took black cabs, rode the national rail and the underground too. We went to a couple of really big and well known spots but also did some off the beaten track stuff. The off the beaten track stuff was the best – far and away.

IF you’re not a fan of travel stuff, I get it. Some people aren’t interested in knowing where other people went. I’m going to try to sneak in some stuff related to fandom – because it’s everywhere and it definitely made a difference in our trip.