Figuring Out Our New Home and First Adventures

Saturday, 18 January 2020. We open a bank account. While this may not sound like something to record in a travel blog, sometimes the most mundane tasks turn out to be most interesting inter-cultural comparisons. We had not planned to open a bank account while here, but after investigating possibilities for exercising, we decided to join the local gym. The only way to do this was to have a British account from which a monthly debit could be taken. It took four trips to four different branches of HSBC, a special letter written from Michael’s employer, and a 2.5 hour visit with a bank representative to accomplish the task. Even then, had we not had our Irish passports so that we could do it as EU citizens, we could not have accomplished the task. EU regulations about money laundering are so much stricter that the US, and the security measures they take with electronic banking are impressive.

Monday, 20 January 2020: Train Spotting in North West London and the Westminster Abbey Evensong service. In the morning boys and I (Kristen) headed up to Northwest London to see what that part of the city looked like. We discovered that the Bakerloo and Overground lines parallel the high speed lines heading to the northern cities of England. It was fantastic train spotting, but we had to hurry back to town so didn’t linger long. Samuel had his organ lesson and we met Michael at Westminster Abbey for the evensong 5:00 pm service. In addition to being a beautifully sung service, one can relax for forty minutes in the splendor of the abbey without the crowds of tourists. It takes place in the center of the church for the small crowd of gathered congregants, so you get a close-up view of the choristers and the elaborately carved choir seats.

Wednesday 22 January 2020: The London Transportation Museum and more train spotting. Since our Monday train spotting adventure was purely accidental, we returned today with proper cameras and the mission of finding the best spot to watch high speed trains heading north. At Kenton Station we found a pedestrian bridge that spanned four high-speed rails at once. The next station south was even more fun as it has a central platform where the trains pass right by you at full speed. We got see one at least every five minutes! Since Thatcher privatized the national rail service in the 80s and 90s, we were trying to figure out all of the different companies that now operate. We headed back into town and had our picnic lunch at the London Transportation Museum. This is a fun museum that documents the history of London public transport from horse drawn carriages to the newest, as of yet unbuilt, tube lines. Since London had the world’s first subway, it is a long history. One can even try one’s hand at controlling a subway car as it approaches a station on one of two subway simulators. Kids are free and once you purchase a ticket, it is good for a year, so I imagine this will be a regular hang-out.

Friday, 24 January 2020: Bath, England and Stonehenge. This the first of two outings that Ithaca College runs for its students. Our family is invited to attend for a small fee, and we happily climbed aboard two coach buses at 7:00am for the trip to the countryside of the southern Cotswolds. Our first stop was at Bath, the city that houses England’s only natural hot-springs. For this reason it has been an important city since the earliest of settlements, and the Romans adopted the Celtic God Sulis, when they built a large complex of bath houses there. These ruins were lost for many centuries and rediscovered 20′ below ground in the 1880s. In the meantime, the city had become a famous spot to drink the healing warm waters, and is only one of two whole cities to receive the United Nation’s designation of World Heritage Site (Venice being the other) because of its intact uniform Georgian architecture. In the days prior to central heating and warm showers, on a cold, dreary January day, I can only imagine how good these waters must have felt!

Jane Austen also spent 5 years in Bath, which is the setting for two of her novels–you can see Michael standing outside a house museum devoted to her time in Bath.

Finally, Stonehenge. One is likely to be a bit underwhelmed upon first seeing Stonehenge unless you consciously view this neolithic marvel for what it is: the most visible remnant of a many square miles ritualistic landscape built between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago by people who had only simple machines to do the work. On a cloudy, blustery, January day the mystical elements of that place are quite present.

Saturday, 25 January 2020: Local to English Premier League Soccer, uh, I mean football.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of football in English culture. It is a kind of secular religion (not to mention a multi-billion dollar a year business). For these reasons, it can be expensive (and for some games impossible) to buy single match tickets. The Evening Standard is now a free tabloid handed out in tube stations every weekday evening. We often get one to have something to read on the tube and to get a taste of middle-brow journalism in the UK. Lately, the royal family has dominated the front page, along with the coronavirus, hyberbolic headlines in each case.

On Monday we noticed a half page ad in the ES marketing reduced-price tickets for the West Ham United v. West Bromwich Albion FA Cup 4th round match. At £10 for adult tickets and £1 for kids 16 and under, we could get 4 tickets to a Premiership team’s game for less than half of what a single ticket often costs! And that is how we found ourselves walking from the Stratford underground station, onto the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Grounds, and into the 2012 Olympic stadium (now London Stadium) on Saturday. In 2016 West Ham left their historic grounds at Upton Park and became the primary tenant at London Stadium. The stadium primarily hosts football matches, but can also still serve as a track and field venue AND baseball field: the Yankees and Red Sox played two games there last summer and the Cardinals and Cubs will be there in June.

Despite being near the top and in a corner of the oval, the seats were actually quite good (the photo below is a bit deceptive). West Ham is not having a good season, and their uninspiring play was much in evidence in this FA Cup tie. They lost 1-0 to West Brom (who is top of the table in the Championship division–the second division–of English football), and it was clear that finishing is one of their greatest deficiencies. In the second half, West Ham missed several great scoring chances, especially after West Brom had a player sent off with about 10 minutes to go.

But the experience was fascinating in every respect, from the ritual of singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (we didn’t record it, but someone did, and it’s worth viewing–if you’re interested in the history of this tradition, check this out), to the carefully segregated West Brom fans at the east end of the stadium singing most of the game, to the running commentary of the quite foul-mouthed fans around us, who are suffering mightily this season. We observed that being at an English football game as neophytes is a bit like going to a religious service in an unfamiliar faith tradition. After the game 95% of the fans headed home on public transit, which made for a long, slow shuffle toward the station but so many fewer emissions that most U.S. sports fans produce when they leave games.

Finally, Isaiah is getting his own taste of English football–he’s playing with a Saturday rec league in the park at the end of our street. He’s going to write his own blog post about this soon!

Isaiah playing in the Colliers Wood Footie League on Saturdays in the park next to our house
About to see our first EPL game. In front of Olympic Stadium, home to the West Ham Hammerheads.
The view from our seats
The digital board reads: “St. Louis Cardinals v. Chicago Cubs, 13 & 14 June.”

Sunday, 26 January 2020: St. Andrew’s Church, Wimbledon. A new church with our new life. The suburb of Wimbledon is a 20 minute walk from our house and we have met some interesting people at St. Andrew’s Church. Built from funds raised by the community of railroad workers in the area during the 1890s, by last March the congregation was down to 9 members. A new, young, vicar was sent by the parish to try to revive the membership. He is very dynamic and the community is once again growing. He generously offered Samuel access to their organ and Michael and I have now attended two Church of England services the past two Sundays. The area is full of young families and the prospects seem good that Vicar Charlie will succeed in his mission to keep the congregation alive.

This is the first blog entry transferred from our original blog site (first week or so of our time here).

OUR NEW HOME (15 South Gardens, Colliers Wood)

The back garden.
Michael in the kitchen. Yes, that’s the washing machine!
The office room and laundry drying-space
Front hall from half-way up
of the stairs

Some adventures

10th January 2020 – Tour de EPL stadia. Isaiah created a tour of the city’s four English Premier League Football stadiums. Given that we hadn’t really yet grasped how big the city was, and how long it would take to do this, we accomplished two of the four –the brand new stadium where the Tottenham Hotspurs play and the Arsenal stadium about a half hour bus-ride away. These are both located on the Northeast side of the city in neighborhoods that are a fantastic mix of ethnicities – Caribbean of all sorts, Ghanaian, various middle-eastern countries, etc.

The old ticket booth.

11th January 2020: The Changing of the Guard at Wellington Barracks. Okay, so that’s not how the song goes, is it? It is actually quite difficult to see the exchange of guards at Buckingham Palace without waiting a few hours on the statue of Victoria outside the gates. We opted to watch the more accessible warm-up, inspection, and departure of the relieving guards at Wellington Barracks. We had recently read Bill Bryson’s description of the event in which he described their hats as “fur-lined upside-down trash bins” so our level of reverence was low.

Waiting for the guards to arrive. The men and women you see in suits here are guards in training.
The accompanying band. They were all individually inspected and had to stand at attention for more than 45 minutes before playing anything! Tough on the woodwinds.
The relief guards. The grey coats are worn in the winter over the traditional red ones.

13 January 2020 Plane spotting at Heathrow Airport. Isaiah was keen to see some more A380s landing, and we wanted to test how long it would take to get there via public transport so we could time our trips to pick up guests. It turns out it takes an hour and twenty minutes each way. Much of this is above ground through the western suburban sprawl of two-three story row houses. It has amazed me how many millions of houses of nearly the same model London has! We saw the Concorde sitting on the runway at Heathrow. You can tour it, but it never goes anywhere these days.

Selfie by Isaiah with a plane overhead.
You can stand right between the approach lights as planes land.

16th January 2020 Shakespeare at the Sam Wanamaker Theater. A modern interpretation of Richard III

The theater is a reconstruction of a Jacobean era theater taken from plans that were found, but never actually built until four years ago. The lighting is all done with candles, and a band sat in the balcony above the stage. It was very intimate, and we were in the last row of seats. Everyone behind us was standing. It was the best Shakespeare I have ever seen!

15th January 2020 The Docklands Museum. The docklands are the area of East London that was the receiving point for the spoils of the British Empire from all over the world. The museum is located in what used to be the largest warehouse in the world, over a quarter of a mile long. One end was bombed during WWII, as this part of the city was an obvious target for the Germans. One of the docents we spoke to said her childhood home was destroyed twice during the war. When the “containerization” of shipping took over in the 1980s, this part of the city fell into disuse. It is now unrecognizable as a former warehouse area, except for the numerous quays, each one named for it’s former company owner. It is now a center of high-end, high-rise apartments well connected to downtown via the Dockland Light Rail line.

The Docklands Museum and Docklands Light Railway at Canary Warf

A 1000 piece puzzle of the London Underground for those long dark evenings.

17th January 2020 London Tower and London Bridge. We took a brief visit to the London Bridge, but the day was cold and windy and the whole areas crowded with tourists. We took a pass on the castle and instead decided on a brief walk across the lower deck of the bridge. The view of the Thames is amazing and different from every bridge. We learned which buildings the locals affectionately call “the armadillo,” “the walkie-talkie,” and “the gherkin.” The Thames is tidal all the way inland to London. You can see in one of the photos that it is low tide.

19th January 2020 Greenwich, England. It was a beautiful sunny, day and we headed out to Greenwich to the observatory where the prime meridian runs. The observatory sits on one of the few hills in London, just to it’s southeast. There is a fantastic view of the city, as well as one of the historic pedestrian tunnels that travel under the Thames to allow workers to get back and forth from work. We walked through the one that leads to the dockland areas, 1200 meters long, and constructed in 1902.

The pedestrian tunnel, prime meridian, the Shepard’s 24 hour clock and old measurement standards from the Greenwich Observatory.

A view from the trains: council flats (public housing) with vegetable gardens, and house boats in the old shipping quays.

Around town.

Our tube stop! It has 75 steps to get to street level if you don’t take the escalator. I’ve vowed to always take the stairs and get an extra ten flights of stairs in a day.
Millenium Bridge at night. One of the two foot bridge across the Thames. The south side of the Thames has a great walkway along much of it’s length.
Care for tea? A cake shop near the Ithaca College London Center. And who says the Brits are understated?
A lesson in the coinage for everyone one of the first days we were here.

Music Lessons: from the Royal Guard’s Chapel to Supastorage. Both boys have a weekly music lesson – Samuel on the organ and Isaiah on the drumset. It is giving us glimpse into two very divergent London music scenes. The photos below are of the Royal Guard’s Chapel where Martin Ford, the music director, gives Samuel his lessons. It is the official chapel for the Queen’s Royal Guard. All but the apse was destroyed by a bomb during a Sunday service in 144, killing everyone attending church that morning. It was reconstructed in a very modernistic style, and houses the retired standards (flags) of the guarding regiments. The organ is not grand, but Martin is an excellent teacher. Isaiah’s lessons are a bit closer to home, given by a young musician named Nick Lowineski. He too is chatty and fun, but because it is so expensive to rent space where two drum sets could be appropriately played for hours a day, he has converted a self-storage unit into a mini-studio. So Isaiah’s lessons are in the Supastorage Unit 303 in an industrial park about a fifteen minute walk from our house in South Wimbledon.

20th January 2020 – Northwest London on the Overground. Kristen, Samuel and Isaiah took a train trip to Wembley Center Station, home of the National Team soccer stadium, but also the outer limits of Kristen’s Oyster card (Zone 4 of 9) When we got off to take a look around, we discovered that it was an excellent place to watch the high-speed trains heading north. We saw 7 trains in about 15 minutes! The Overground (orange circle) is an extensive network of trains that extend the reach of the Underground (red circle)system. The area south of the Thames River where we live is quite under served by the original Underground system. There is also a system of trams that networks with the Underground and Overground systems. All are accessed by the same Oyster Card, and you pay by the zone. Michael and I have cards that allow us travel anywhere within zones 1-4. The boys’ youth cards allow them to go to zone 6. The boys don’t pay more than 1.5 pounds per day if they travel off-peak. This means that we are sometimes hanging around in central London until 7:00pm to avoid the evening peak hours. But we have made some marvelous discoveries during these waits. The London Eye at night is quite beautiful, as are all of the bridges. Each one has it’s own unique illumination system.

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