London was considered to be one of the ‘must go’ places while we were in the UK, so, it was also one of the very first places we took time out to visit. We didn’t really have a long list of ‘must go’ places; after all, we were just a bunch of poor students on a strict budget. However, we could not bear coming home (to M’sia) and telling people that we have not been to London. We didn’t register with any tour agencies – they are not worth paying for, people said. London is easy to explore, just so as long as you have a map with you. Furthermore, if you speak English, there should be no worries at all getting lost. And since we were short of cash, we had to make do with the cheapest alternative.
Looking for a clean, comfortable and yet cheap accommodation proved to be rather difficult. In London, even the most basic youth hostels are costly. Of course, we didn’t want to just bunk in a seedy hostel, which made the whole issue turn into mission impossible. We did our own research and nearly booked ourselves into a youth hostel in Paddington. Somehow, following a friend’s suggestion, we managed to save quite a bit. It was quite simple. We would bunk in at her brother’s place in Oxford (thus saving on accommodation fees) and take the daily bus from Oxford to London, which costs only about £6. We considered – £6 for accommodation – well worth it! And so, to Oxford we went and we also managed to do some exploration there as well.
We travelled between Oxford and London for three consecutive days. It was tiring, especially having to wake up early to catch the bus. It did not, however, dampen us eager beavers’ excitement. At that time, we were a bunch of determined students, ready to conquer London. To us, it was like a dream come true – London! With a map in our hands, we were burning with desire to trawl each and every inch of the huge city.
London is a world-class cosmopolitan city. Although good ol’ KL is very much alike, it was certainly a different atmosphere altogether. Big Ben, open top double-decker busses, London Underground, red telephone booths and street names from Monopoly staring right at you will give you the overwhelming feeling of being in a foreign yet familiar place. Coupled with loads of walking in the freezing weather, there was no way we would want to exchange the experience with any other.
Day One – 4th February 1998
When we stepped down from the bus for the very first time, we were like a group of over-excited school girls. The bus dropped us off at Victoria Station, so, technically speaking, we are right in the heart of the city. We took out our map and started our so-called journey. Not long after, however, we four young ladies started arguing. We were walking a lot but ending up nowhere interesting. Fingers started to point and finally, we decided to walk back to the initial point to start all over again. (And they say you can explore London with a map) I wasn’t the best map reader in the world, nor was I very good with directions, so, I left everything to the others. But merely following others who were new to London wasn’t a very good idea either.
Anyway, me who disliked walking suggested that we buy ourselves tickets for a sightseeing tour. It will definitely save us a lot of time, as well as strength to walk. Furthermore, we can just bypass the ‘attractions’ that we were not interested in. Since no one was in the mood of disagreeing, we decided on one of the sightseeing buses in the city; The Original Tour. Although there were lots of other sightseeing tours as well, I presume most of them are the same as the route they take are not much different. A word of advice would be to choose the one with the bus that appeals to you the most.
We felt excited all over again when we boarded the bus. It has live commentaries in English and some other languages. We just need to plug our headphones – handed to us when we board – into an inlet on our seats, sit back and enjoy the fabulous views of London. Although the weather was extremely cold, we still opted to sit on the upper deck of the bus. No one else was up there, so, the four of us could snap loads of pictures without any interference. We even stood up to take pictures. (standing was not allowed on the upper deck on an open top double-decker bus – but who cares, we are Malaysians-lah!) It was undoubtedly fun all the way, feeling the cold air hitting your face continuously. At that time, I wished I could be on an open top bus every day.
The bus cruised along the busy roads of London and the very first attraction that we recognised was the Buckingham Palace. Eager to snap photos, we got off the bus, only to discover that the Changing of Guards will only take place on the day after next. Thus, we had to temporarily abandon our idea on visiting the Queen. Someone there told us to look out for the Royal Standard on the pole perched on top the Palace. If it is flying high, that would mean that the Queen is in and if we are lucky, she might just stand outside and wave at us. With nothing to see on the deserted Palace, we then hopped on the bus again to continue our tour.
With no particular place of interest in mind, I suggested that we stop at a museum which caught my attention. It was Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI). The place was some sort of like a cross-over of an indoor theme park (think Sunway Lagoon)and a science museum. It is, in actual fact, a museum on the history of TV and film, which I discovered after doing some research.
Note: The Museum, however, is no longer open. (Don’t ask why – I found out only when I was writing this, almost 10 years later!)
We walked leisurely around and tried to experiment with some of the displays. One of the most memorable (and embrassing!) experience that happened to me was when I innocently strolled into a small, deserted cubicle. I could still remember sitting down and discovering that I could try ‘reading’ the evening news. Sitting down on a rounded stool, I started to read aloud from the teleprompter but gave up half way (cos the thing was quite long) and walked out, wanting to ‘share’ this new found toy with my friends. To my horror, however, my stint was broadcasted in a gigantic screen right outside the room; much to the amusement of many visitors. Although embarassing, it was quite hilarious to see my face, on a TV screen, reading the news.
The four of us then chanced upon a make shift cowboy town, complete with props and crew members. We were coaxed into taking part in a ‘shooting’ of a cowboy movie by the enthusiastic staff. The four of us were required to stage a robbery at a bar, complete with shoot-outs and lots of running. Come to think of it, we were laughing our heads off more than attempting to shoot a good take. That would be an indication that we could never make it in the entertainment line. Tired, we finally rounded every thing up by taking a picture with our ‘director’. Luckily for us, the whole scene was not broadcasted live again.
We left the museum and soon hopped onto the bus to continue our journey. One of my friend commented that it was not worth paying the entry fee to the museum as it was not as interesting as it seems. I kept quiet, for I was the one who suggested visiting the place. We were lucky, however, as being students, we were entitled to student prices. Somehow, I do agree with them that the MOMI visit was not really worth our money, unless you are really interested in the history of TV and film.
Being driven further down the route, we reached River Thames. As it cruised slowly along, we were thrilled by the magnificent view. We were too lazy to get down the bus and walk, so, we made do with just snapping pictures of Big Ben and The Houses of Parliament on the moving bus. It was a shame, however, that we did not get to hear Big Ben chime. As first time visitors to London, we were extremely eager to see London Bridge. We could finally come face to face with every child’s favourite nursery rhyme. When our tour bus approached the Tower Bridge, we felt overwhelmed but the feeling was replaced by disappointment when we discovered that the Tower Bridge isn’t really the famed ‘falling’ London Bridge. We did get to see the latter, though, but it was just a small, nondescript road across River Thames (red arrow in photo).
Upon reaching the Tower Bridge ‘stop’, we got down of the bus to get something to eat. Strolling leisurely along River Thames, we continued to snap pictures of the River and Tower Bridge. Completed in the year of 1894, the Bridge is reported to raise approximately 900 times a year to let tall ships through. It was already late afternoon when we bought ourselves tickets for the ‘Tower Bridge Experience’, mostly because we were intrigued by the phrase. In my mind, I had this thought that we might just be able to experience the raising of the bridge.
Much to our disappointment, it had not been very interesting. I thought it to be even worse than the MOMI, unless you are very interested in machineries. We were taken on a ‘engine rooms’ walk-through, including those of the Victorian era where steam engines were used. The guide briefed us on how the machines had previously worked and the improvements in place at that time. Dragging myself along the tour and yawning non-stop, I tried hard to be interested but failed to absorb any of the information given. Even when we were ushered into a small cineplex and shown a documentary on the Bridge, I had just taken it as an opportunity to rest my legs on comfy seats.
The only thing we have learnt, though, was the complexity of ‘behind the scenes procedures’ on the simple action of raising the bridge. There were many pointers to be considered and too many rules to be adhered to — important to ensure the safety of all parties using passing thorugh the Bridge. One of the more ‘enjoyable’ part of the tour was when we get to stroll along the walkway of the Bridge. There were no views of a nice scenery plus exhilarating feeling, though. This walkway is just another ‘exhibition hall’ with pictures, holograms and lengthy descriptions on both sides of the wall. There were tightly shut windows that you can look through but the view wasn’t that great. We rounded up our trip by getting some Tower Bridge replicas as well as key chains from the gift shop.
It was getting dark after the Tower Bridge Experience. We hopped on to the bus again and headed back to the starting point. It was an extremely tired day for us and we were aching to go home, have a hot shower and then dinner. The Tower Bridge were lighted up when we were on the bus. The view was breathtaking, and we attempted to take a picture of it as the bus passed under the bridge. The photos, however, did not turn out well, most probably because no one in the group knew how to take pictures of a night view.
Day Two – 5th February 1998
Since we were here the day before, we felt more comfortable with London on day two. Instead of depending on the sightseeing bus, we happily purchased a one-day travel Tube pass which enabled us to have unlimited rides. And this time, we were armed with the Tube Map instead of the London map. It was a much easier map to read and all we had to do was to figure out the nearest Tube stops for each attraction we planned to visit. Much to my dismay, however, these attractions (although stated to be of walking distance away) are so much further than I thought. I had always hated walking, so, I had to drag my feet along.
It was the first time we had ridden on the Tube, one of London’s most popular transportation. Taking the Tube was an exhilarating experience as everything and everyone seemed to move in a very quick pace. While we were trying to figure out which line connects with which, commuters were jostling past, irritated that we were standing on their way. There was also an occasional busker here and there playing fantastic music. I felt like standing there and just listen to them play. The fact that it is underground had enabled it to travel very fast (a lot faster than our LRT)and if you are standing on a platform, you will definitely know the train is approaching by the sudden rush of air hitting your face. It might be a nice experience, though, but do remember to clean your face thoroughly before you retire to bed – for along with the gush of wind comes a vast amount of dust and dirt as well.
We already had an idea on the places we wanted to visit today, after having discussed our journey the night before. We first hopped off the Charing Cross station to walk around the area. We stopped at Trafalgar Square, one of the most popular tourist spots in London. We were greeted by hordes of pigeons, eager to be fed. Visions of travel documentaries with tourists being covered with them was worth getting our cameras ready. It seemed that these pigeons would go after people who had grains to feed them, so we had no choice but to spend some money to buy some.
There were a lot of individual ‘hawkers’ around selling cups of grains to tourists. To our surprise, none of the pigeons dared to perch on these stalls and feed on the grains. They will just go after those who had purchased the grains. We wondered what these hawkers had done to ‘train’ these pigeons so well. The four of us decided to buy just one cup of grain and share it among us. The cup had just enough grains to last us a photo each. We had to take turns feeding them as we did not want all the grains to be gone in a blink of an eye. It was certainly a fantastic experience. After finishing all the grains we had with us, the pigeons left us alone to more pictures of them feeding on some leftovers on the ground as well as the surrounding area. After that, we took a short walk towards the Piccadilly Market.
The marketplace was very much like our own night markets, with loads of little knick-knacks on sale. On closer look, however, it was just another normal tourist attraction boosting overpriced souvenirs. We walked off individually to look at stuff we had wanted to buy. I saw the shirts that I had made a mental note to buy on sale. However, upon closer examination of the material, I abandoned the idea. Instead, I just casually tried on some funny hats and snapped some photos. The only stuff worth buying were probably keychains and little figurines of Big Ben, Palace Guards and the Tower Bridge. They were not exactly cheap but each stall would offer the exact same price as another. T-shirts bearing London attractions were, in my opinion, not worth their price as their quality was awful.
It was near afternoon when we were done with browsing and buying souvenirs from the market. Our next destination was Mdm Tussauds, so, we had to hop on the Tube again for the stop nearest to the famed Museum. We managed to get something light for lunch (sandwiches – what else) on our way. Although the travel brochures warned us of long queues, we were surprised that the queue wasn’t exactly that long. The tourists were probably kept away by the cold December weather. Entry tickets were very expensive, even though we had our student cards with us. It was, however, essential for us to visit Madam Tussauds for its fame.
Once we entered, we were greeted by a huge, familiar looking ‘bouncer’, who was none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were ‘encouraged’ by some of his live, non-waxed, ‘colleagues’ to take a photo with him. This photograph turned out to be the only professional one we purchased at the end of the visit. And, obviously, the piece that looked the nicest. It’s quite a shame, actually, because it might have been better if they put the Royal Family there so that we could have a professional picture together with them. They are the ‘representative’ of London, anyway. I wonder if they change their ‘model’ daily/weekly/monthly/annually.
Some of the famous people we photographed were Mr Lee Kuan Yew (S’porean PM), the Dalai Lama, Deng Xiao Peng, Cher, Sylvester Stallone, the Beatles (we got someone else to hold the camera and the four of us had a mat-salleh ‘boyfriend’ each), Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Oprah, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. We were allowed to go near them to take pictures and my, oh, my, while I was standing still and trying to look as natural as possible, their ‘body odour’ (smell of wax) was overwhelming. And of course, how could we miss taking pictures of Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana and the Royal Family. We noted that Princess Diana’s waxed figure was put apart from the whole line of the Family. Wonder why. But this time, all these ‘waxed people’ were cordoned off, so, we could not have an up close and personal one with them. Sigh…
(P/S: At that time, the Princes were still very young, so, no sight of them)
After tiring ourselves visiting and taking loads of pictures of celebrities and famous people, we dragged ourselves onto the Tube again. Since it was already late afternoon and there wasn’t anywhere else that planned to visit, we decided to stop by Soho. But just walking down the streets seemed a stupid thing to do, so, we stopped by Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe, hoping to purchase some souvenirs again bearing the wordings ‘Planet Hollywood London’ or ‘Hard Rock Cafe London’. Much to our disappointment, most of the stuff there were expensive, so, we had to make do with a T-shirt each as well as ‘window-shopping’ around for others. We also managed to take some pictures of both Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock, but the pictures did not turn out nice. A good piece of advice would be to have a good camera – you wouldn’t want to miss taking beautiful night-life in London.
We rounded off our visit my shopping around in the Chinese shops. Another mate had requested us to get some VCDs for him, so, we went around individual shops looking at their wares. The street does not look extremely Chinese if you compare it to our PS boutique, probably because they are a bit Westernised. On the other hand, our PS boutique is probably Malaysianised as well. There was nothing much to see and buy, cos we were not really keen on anything Chinese, so, the only thing we did was to take pictures of the street lined with red tanglungs (lanterns), got the VCDs for the mate and headed home. Another tiring day in London gone by.
Day Three – 6th February 1998
We woke up really excited on day three. Although we were feeling exhausted after two days of intensive travelling, this was the day we really looked forward to. It was the day we could finally visit Buckingham Palace and watch the Changing of Guards. We departed Oxford real early so that we could get ourselves a nice spot in front of the Palace. And luckily enough for us, we managed to be at the very front of the crowd and stood directly opposite the gates of the Palace. Changing the Guard is one of the oldest and most familiar ceremonies associated with Buckingham Palace. The proper name of the ceremony known as ‘Changing the Guard’ is actually Guard Mounting, whereby a group of new guards changes shift with the old ones.
The whole ceremony had started with the Royal Band marching out from the Palace, making a round at a cleared area in front of the crowd and going back into the Palace. The ‘band members’ were dressed in long, navy blue overcoats with bearskin caps. There were lots of them and by the time they finish, I was getting a bit bored. I’m not exactly sure of their significance in the process, but perhaps they were just there to provide some entertainment to tourists. Next, another group – called the ‘Life Guards’ came into action. This group looked more serious. They were dressed in long, red oversoats and had this heavy looking triangular metal helmets on. In addition to that, they all carried swords.The ‘Life Guards’ all rode on horses, which was another amazing thing – the horses were all so well trained – they didn’t seem to be nervous at all even with a large crowd staring and taking pictures of them.
After the Changing of Guards, we walked leisurely up (or is it down?) the road towards Westminster. It was a cool day and after standing for quite some time observing the Guards, we thought that it would be better for to us stretch our legs and enjoy City of London by foot. On and off we still see some of these Guards riding their horses down the road. Even the police were seen riding horses instead of motorbikes. This was a bit of an experience for us at that time, being young adults who left home for the first time.We took our time admiring the Houses of Parliament(this time up close) and Big Ben.
Despite being non-Christians (except for one of us), we went to visit the magnificent Westminster Abbey as well. I strongly suggest everyone who visits the UK to put some historical churches/cathedrals into their itinerary. They look nothing like our churches and are extremely beautiful. Most of them dates back even before our grandparents were born. As for the Abbey, it ‘came into action’ circa 1065 and if you have seen on TV the Coronation of the Queen, this was the place where she was crowned. Certainly a place worth a visit.
We took the Tube shortly after back to London Bridge. We had planned to visit both London Dungeon and Tower of London. I do not have a lot to say about London Dungeon, except for it being a not so grisly place after all. In fact, I don’t even remember visiting this place if not for another professional photograph that we bought. The London Dungeon was actually a museum of horrors which lets visitors ‘experience the darker side of European history’. If you ask me, the whole Dungeon experience was not as terrifying as and shocking as they claimed to be. Apart from some interactive multi-media displays, there was only several staff dressed in various costumes trying to scare visitors as they walk pass.
One of the ‘horrors’ that we get to experience was The Great Plague, which happened around early 1665 in London. The displays in the Museum were just normal – gory, waxed beings arranged in a nicer way and cordoned off in several corners. The only thing that I liked about this was the smell they tried to emit through the whole display area, giving visitors a feeling of being around rotting corpses and contaminated air and water. The same was with our experience of The Great Fire of London. We learnt that good ol’ London was hit badly again towards the end of the same year as the Great Plague by a Great Fire which was noted down in history as another disaster. Again, we went through some displays on burning buildings, screaming men and devastation. This time round, we were greeted by the smell of fire and burnt wood.
Another ‘gory’ experience that we re-lived was the time when Jack the Ripper was on the prowl. This time, sound effects of women screaming and a man’s evil laughter was played over and over again while visitors walk down dimly lit streets looking at displays on corpses with slit throats and a dark figure lurking behind. In addition to all these events, visitors were also shown reenactment of instances where inhumane ways were adopted as capital punishments across Europe. Visuals and displyas on death by beheading, boiling and drowning were shown to appal visitors. At the end of our tour, we were invited by the Museum staff to have our photograph taken in one of their make-shift studio for remembrance. We ended up buying one each which had me carrying a heavy axe caught on film trying to behead my three friends, who had their heads hanging on this horizontal wooden plank.
After a quick lunch, we proceeded to the Tower of London. It was, to me, not a very interesting place either. Since it was listed as one of the ‘must visit’ places in London, we had no choice but to pay for the entrance fee. If we kept skipping places to visit, we would not have any ‘stories’ at all for everyone back home. According to a guide book write up, The Tower of London was founded by William the Conqueror and boasts a 900 year history. It had served as a royal palace, a prison and a place of execution, a mint, an arsenal, a zoo and a jewel house. It was initially built to safe guard London from invaders.
There was nothing much to see or do inside the Tower of London. If you are not one who are into historical buildings, just let this pass, although you might want to consider having your photographs taken with the ‘Yeoman Warders’ in the Tower. They are the official ‘tour guides’ in the Tower you could have guided tours. There are about 21 ‘Towers’ altogether and it is not impossible for visitors to stop by each and every one. (As usual, me who dislike walking had just dragged myself along while walking past each Tower as quickly as possible). The White Tower was dubbed to be the most popular, whereby some of history’s most prominent people were held prisoner and executed. It was also in this Tower that England’s medieval kings lived with their families.
As we walked along aimlessly, the occasional Yeoman Warder briefed us on the name of each Tower that we stopped by and its’ history. Although they were doing a great job, I was not interested at all. Some of the more significant Towers beside the White Tower were the Bell Tower – where Queen Elizabeth 1 was once imprisoned, the Bloody Tower – where most of the Tower’s prisoners were murdered and killed and the Tower Green – where ravens can be seen all the time. And of course, we had also visited the exhibition on the Crown Jewels, where most visitors to the Tower of London went to see. There were a lot of glittering crowns, orbs and swords; covered in priceless rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds. And of course there were some jewelleries on display as well, such as Queen Elizabeth’s pearl ear rings and other royalities’ rings and jewels. All these jewels are displayed in glass encasements, which surprisingly, allowed visitors to have a very close look at them.
We were dead tired; not to mention hungry, by the time we were done with the huge Tower. Since it was the last day we were spending in London, we had decided to treat ourselves with some decent food for dinner. We chose to go back to Chinatown and dine in one of the restaurants – it has been months since we’ve eaten good Chinese food. After a hearty dinner of rice and stir-fried vegetables, we discussed where to head to next. At that time, there an argument had ensued. Tired me wanted to go home while one of us wanted to head to another place which came highly recommended by her brother.
I could not remember the exact name of the place but it was one of the very last and furthest stop of our Tube pass’ zone. The other two had just kept quiet, which angered me more – they did not agree nor disagree, so, in the end, I had to give in and follow them. Once we had alighted the Tube after a long ride, we sensed that something was not right. The place was quite dirty and the people a bit rowdy. Walls on the Tube station were filled with graffiti. The first street we walked on was littered with broken beer bottles and cigarette butts. Fearing for our safety, we decided to head home even though we had set our foot there less than five minutes. (Who cares? We didn’t need to pay extra. It was within our Tube pass’ zone). Finally, we headed towards the bus station and took the bus home to Oxford.
Those who know London well might be wondering why our visit doesn’t seem right. Attractions that we had visited might be just very near to each other but we chose to visit them on a different day. There is only one possible explanation to this: We did not plan our journey. Can’t blame us, though, for we were newbies in travelling and did not know London or journey planning well. So, we had just gone to the place that we liked the sound of. For those who are planning to visit London by yourself, my advice is to plan really well, so that you can go to all the places that London boasts to be the best in and save precious time.
There were also many other famous London attractions that we did not stop by, due to various reasons. It would be either we were not interested (London Zoo, Aquarium and some of the Museums) or the attraction was not there at that time (such as the London Eye). There was also another reason that was too embarassing to admit – we did not know about those attractions (such as St Paul’s, Oxford Street, Harrods). Little that I know, however, in about 4 years time, I had a second chance to visit London again. And this time, with a group of colleagues who knew London well, I managed to cover some of the popular places I left out.