Thursday, December 29, 2011

UK Christmas -The first four days of Christmas

As you know, today is Boxing Day -historically that meant that during the Christmas season, a box was available in the churches to collect money for the poor. The last day to contribute was on Christmas Day, and the following day the boxes were opened and distributed to the poor--hence, Boxing Day. In London, this is a national holiday, but the Sunday transportation schedule is supposed to exist. However, add to that the fact that the union of tube drivers called for a strike on that day - and the end result is absolute chaos! Fortunately, we did not know that before we took off--we knew the strike but didn't fully comprehend the chaos!
So off we wandered to our tube station, to find it closed, and nice attendant directed us to the bus to take to Leytonstone, where we would be able to catch the tube. We wanted to go to Leytonstone Station anyway--this is the birthplace of Alfred Hitchcock and we had been told about the terrific mosaics on the walls of the station. Sure enough - a mosaic depicting many different movies from the great master, and it was a great way to start the day. Now we are back on the tube and headed for Chancery Lane. This was our tube stop five years ago when we rented the flat..so we were in familiar territory walking to the Dickens Museum. This was wonderful..many restorations done on this brownstone - and we loved wandering through the rooms again, seeing all the Christmas decorations in the Victorian style. In one room in the basement, the original production of "A Christmas Carol" with Alastair Sims was showing on a video. In the Drawing Room, a biographer of Dickens did a reading every hour - and we listened to him read the opening scene of "A Christmas Carol". In the little cafe in the back, we were treated to hot mulled wine (not very good, IMHO-prefer Whittards, Carla!), little teas and breads. We walked back to Chancery Lane and decided to head for 221A Baker Street-Sherlock Holmes, of course. Five years ago, we picked the right time to do this and were about the only people inside when we arrived..not so this year - we joined the que to get in, took pics with the bobby guarding the door, and wandered in. Not much had changed in the last five years - it is so tiny - very narrow stairways going up four flights, only one-way traffic on them. Unfortunately "Dr. Watson" was not there this time..he was the highlight of our last visit and I am sorry for all those tourists that they didn't get that experience!
Now we are off to Starbucks for a delicious cuppa and sitting on the streetside tables watching the people go by--little dreaming what was ahead for us! After leisurely drinking our coffee, we headed back to the Baker Street underground, rode it for 2 stops to Oxford Circus, where we were to change for the Central Line. There were thousands upon thousands of folks waiting for tubes. I felt so sorry for the little ones who must have felt they were being suffocated down there around everyone elses knees! We were so crowded, we could not get in through the doorway to stand along the train tracks! We finally got that far...and one or two trains came by, already full, and a few people managed to crowd their way onto the train...and we decided we couldn't take this anymore..and somehow managed to worm our way OUT of the tube stop. Someone pointed us in the direction of a bus stop (the #25 is what we wanted) and we joined hundreds of folks waiting. In the next two hours, I would say that about 8 buses with #73 on them came by and stopped, and none of the other 6 buses that were to stop there ever showed up! Someone who looked official stopped and told us to go somewhere else if we could because there was a "detour" up the way that was holding up the buses. By now we are visiting with two young people from Lithuania who have just arrived at Gatwick and got this far with their roll-away luggage, and were heading for Stratford, also our destination. After two hours, Jerry had had it - so we set off for another bus stop, hoping that would work better. Jerry was ready to get on any bus that came by and get out of Oxford Circus to ANYWHERE, and I was about to agree with him. The cute young gal said to her male traveling companion (referring to us) "they are our only hope"--so off the four of us went. Again we tried the tube. The kids got in line to purchase their tickets, the board said a train would be by in 19 minutes, and we headed down the escalator--to find our Central Line gate shut and locked and a crude sign saying "closed." We boogied back up the stairs, caught the kids just as they were the next in line to purchase, and told them not to do it. Back to the street. Back to a different bus stop. Another wait with no buses showing up...and now we have had it. Its TAXI time. We walked to a busier street where we had seen taxis driving by. Jerry found a driver who had stopped to let folks out, and he told Jerry we needed to walk to the TAXI sign and que there, which we did. Oh dear...well, the young man with us managed to flag down a taxi, who said he would take us, gave us the approximate charge (gulp!) and we four loaded up! These kids were so cute - we told them how old we were..and they asked how old our kids were - and they said that was their parents' age..so they could be our grandchildren! Our drive took us by Kings Cross and St. Pancreas stations, and we told them that Platform 9 3/4 was in there - she looked puzzled, so I asked her if she knew Harry Potter. Her reply "well, of course"..but she seemed amazed that WE did! We suggested they go to that tube station during their stay and take their picture with the shopping cart. She said "You are very modern grandparents". Oh my..... FINALLY, we arrived at Stratford, bid goodby to our new kids, giving them a card telling them to come see us in Texas. She is 16 and in school, he is 20 and studying Economics at the University of Lithuania. They were going to visit an uncle, who lived in Stratford and she had never met..and then go to Paris for New Years Eve weekend. Bless them on their journey! Tomorrow will be a Banking Holiday, and we don't know what happened to the strike yet...so who knows what the day will bring? We are definitely in a wind-down mode! The pace of yesterday, the throngs of people on the streets, the crush of humanity in the tube stations on two different occasions, just really sapped our energy. It was off-set only by the chance meeting of the two young people from Lithuania, who made the time seem to pass faster! But we were not moving very fast at all on the second day of Christmas. So we are off to Wanstead, to our local Starbucks, for some breakfast coffee and a nice visit with 3 generations of a family at the table next to ours...awaiting the birth of a new baby boy. Delightful! Our conversations with folks like this have really been a highlight of our whole trip--because we have had time to sit, relax, strike up conversations, and become engaged with folks along the way. Now we are headed on the tube (which is running fine, by the way!) to Leicester Square and the discount ticket booth to see what might be in store for us today - and it is BILLY ELLIOTT! Oh joy! So hope another tube to Victoria Train Station (this was our first visit this trip to that magnificent enormous station - so much going on all around and an entire shopping center within the train station itself!) Our only disappointment is that the outside is under total remodeling, so everything is scaffolded..it will be very nice on another trip, I would imagine. Our seats for BE could not have been better...lowest row of the balcony, no one in front of us, you could lean in to the railing and be most comfortable and have a great view. What a thrilling play! The music is phenomenal, the story heart-wrenching, and the dancing was magnificent. There are 4 young men who play Billy - and he really carries the bulk of the show. The actors are all about 13 years of age, so we knew there had to be more than one in that part. I don't know which one we saw - but he was incredible. His energy and enthusiasm were boundless. We left the theatre energized ourselves, found a tube route home that was never full of people, (of course, it was still a Banking Holiday), returned home to make ourselves a grand dinner - and were entertained with BBCs first installment of a new presentation of Dickens' "Great Expectations" - and since we are really in a Dickens mode this trip, that was perfect! Wednesday dawns cooler and much windier, but we are off to Central London to see what play we can find for this afternoon. This time we tubed to Piccadilly Circus..how exciting! Thronging with people! Piccadilly, Oxford Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square just all run together -- and Tottenham Court as well, as we found out later. We chose to see "Jersey Boys" in the afternoon, and took off walking towards Trafalgar Square. We were right at noon - poor timing, as all the coffee shops were packed, but we eventually decided to go back to St. Martins-in-the-Fields, and had soup down in the Crypt Cafe..a delightful place to eat and people watch, plus the opportunity to browse through the church again. The play was such fun - music that was all so familiar for us, all around those times in our early married life..and we delighted in it. We walked from the theatre to Tottenham Court underground, which is in our Central Line, and headed for home,
As you can see - we are definitely winding down..our energy level is lower...and we are not filling our days so full. But we have done what we wanted to do, saw plays, museums, stores, and are quite ready to end our time in London!
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