Nothing ever makes me so in worship of The Google as travel. Dear Googs, if I take you for granted, and I know I do, I am sorry, but I do love you, and you know my whole life, so I guess that makes us sort of even. Still, thanks to the benevolence of The Google and mod cons like online booking, it’s possible for seven people living in different time zones to plan an extensive trek in the United Kingdom, arrange accommodations and prebook outings without ever actually talking to each other or anyone else. It’s also possible to navigate the streets and transit systems of London pretty seamlessly.
Our biggest struggles came in passing each other while attempting to travel to each other on the Heathrow express trains and divining the exact location of our Airbnb when our experience of British addresses was negligible and jet lag was starting to set in. This prompted a bit of an awkward huddle on the middle of a (mercifully) very wide sidewalk, and an awkward message from our host that read, “I can see you, but you’ll need to walk farther down the street.” Probably I listen to too much My Favorite Murder, but that was a bit murdery. Like, this is how people get Taken, right? Fortunately not for us anyway, and our host’s adorable little flat complete with the bread, jam and tea essentials he provided us with signaled the start of London treating us very well indeed.
That first night was mostly and effort in following the sage advice we’d been given: stay up until at least 8 p.m., 9 if you can manage it. On the other side of an 8 a.m. wake up followed by a full day of travel prep, a mildly delayed redeye, immigration, Tube travel and on foot wayfinding with bulging backpacks, this did feel rather a daunting prospect.
Weary of going anywhere near a soft surface we dropped bags, hydrated and struck out for our neighboring Sainsbury’s. Now, I know a grocery story shouldn’t be worthy of mention, but listen, this place gave us access to fabled British snacks — Jaffe Cakes! Digestives! Jammy Dodgers! — and if you’ve followed our Great British Bake-Off inspired series, We Bake Things Off, you know that British recipes have thrown us some interesting curveballs. So obviously, we spent a few minutes staring in wonder at the extremely robust selection of flours that existed in this smaller-than-a-gas-station store front.
You might think a grocery store visit, pub food and the discovery of GBBO Series 7 episodes available on demand at our flat make for weak first day highlights, but you’d be wrong. If anything, it was the last real downtime we had in the city.
Next on the docket was a bike tour of London. We rose bright and early and headed to the Tube rush and a rendezvous at Waterloo station where we met our intrepid guides. Our numbers meant we seven were paired with a nice Australian family of four, so as you read what follows, just picture one Londoner, a family and seven twentysomethings pedaling around London and Westminster in a long string. Our trusty steeds came labeled with the names of great British ladies through the ages. Our group included Emma Watson, Emily Bronte and Nigella Lawson. Talk about your #SquadGoals.
Our loop snaked us around the heart of the city through a park, up the road to the Thames boardwalk for a view of Parliament, the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben. Back on our way we went and over a bridge to Cambridge, Queen Anne’s Footstool, Covent Gardens, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, Banksy’s Tunnel and any number of other sights, including the oldest wig shop and tailor around — if you ever wanted a handmade trial wig, they’re the ones to see, just come ready to make it rain.
Windblown and exhilarated from a ride that more than once had us on narrow bits of roads sandwiched between parked cars and a parade of busses and lorries, we decided a spot of a snack was in order and were kindly directed to Konditor & Cook, “the best cake shop in London,” according to one of our cycling guides. He didn’t do us wrong. Cakes, tarts, pies, brownies and the most massive meringues you’ve ever seen awaited us there. A short walk later we arrived at the Thames and sat munching sweets with the loveliest view you can imagine.
Among those nibbles were Beetroot Chocolate Cupcake Corks, and to steal a turn of phrase from Mary Berry, they were positively scrummy. America, more beetroot in baked goods, yeah?
We had a few hours before we were due at the Sky Garden, so we elected to take advantage of our proximity to a number of the city’s most notable sites and simply strolled roughly in the direction of The Tower of London. This path delivered us to the Tate Modern — the free floors had a rad feminist installation, a tower of radios that caused a major flashback to the TV tower Booth locks Marnie in during the cocaine episode of girls, and a room full of large, brown stuffed objects that alternately evoked seals or the timeless internet classic, Taters. So, onward we pressed until we reached a site that made my word nerd heart flutter: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. *sigh* It was a lit nerd’s dream, but to our dismay, we missed the last tour. So it was a few quick snaps and ever onward.
This walk actually reminded me quite a lot of walking the High Line in New York, in part because of the performers and little stands flaunting their wears, but mostly because to tell it, it doesn’t sound very exciting, but doing the thing is a blast. We pressed on the winding path passed the beautiful architecture and sight after sight, at one point finding ourselves in the position of having to dance our way through a Brazilian-themed party that had spilled out to cover the entire footpath. At the Tower Bridge we made our way across the river and explored the Tower of London. Now, as quite an old structure it’s very impressive, but nestled among the modern skyline it looks so wee that it is a bit adorable.
This brought us within striking distance of the Sky Garden, so we set to hoofing once again. The Sky Garden is nothing I’d ever heard of until we started planning, but it would seem I might have been the only one. You see, Sky Garden is an indoor garden-bar-restaurant set-up at the top of a skyscraper with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a 360-view of the surrounding city. If you just want to peep around there is no cost, but you do need reservations, and make no mistake, there will be queuing. And security. Such security. You might need identification and you will absolutely pass through a bag scanner and metal detector. The you’ll finally head for the elevator — the security bro who just screened your friend might get in your collective grill and suggest she skipped it and needs to go back through, you’ll shout him down with your collective lady rage and he’ll back off. Then, it’s into the elevator and rapidly up to drink in the views, which are pretty amazing, even if I am sniffing at the pomp and circumstance. Even tearing around the place on bike and foot for a good 10 hours that day and scarcely checking off the sites in one small section of the place, I didn’t really appreciate how absolutely sprawling London is until I got up to Sky Garden. Buildings faded into the horizon in every single side. It was breathtaking. And a bit brainmelting on stopping to consider the snaking streets that one must assume must be built on medieval plans.
Remember our cycling guides who knew about great cakes? Turns out they had their pulse on the killer Indian food too. We got back to our trudging ways and legged it over to Tayyabs, a massive and massively popular spot for savory, spicy, traditional Indian eats. An intimidating amount of papadums, samosas, naan, saag paneer and chicken tikka masala later we rolled out of there, back to our flat and the glories of some late night GBBO.
Show of hands if you’re impressed I made it this far without a single mention of Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling. Right. Well, that’s over now, because our final full day in London started with well, leaving London, for Leavesden and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. For the record, that jaunt was a couple of Tube changes, a switch to a different rail line and a bus during the Monday morning rush. If we thought we were blending reasonably well on the Tube, we lost it immediately at the second line when our anxious inquiries to confirm our line prompted the kind rail attendant to say, “going to Harry Potter, are you?” Our cover quite blown we rejoiced in taking some on the train snaps and broke into excited chatter, the cool reserve of the Tube was a distant memory by now. After the mildly harrowing bus ride (turns out front row on the double decker does nothing for the nerves on the eve of your collective maiden driving voyage where everything is backwards) we pulled up to the studio, or the House That Harry Built, a title I’m sure Warner’s would smilingly agree to while counting their gold. Immediately out front of the building were statues of the life-size Wizard Chessmen from Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone. These guys are an especially great photo op if you ditch vanity at the door and attempt to emulate their poses.
Immediately inside is a massive lobby surrounded by cast portraits in full costume. Off to the right is the wonderland of merch known as the gift shop and immediately ahead is the queue. When I went to Wizarding World Orlando i couldn’t help but marvel at how well they managed people and queues in that park. This wasn’t quite as impressive as the line size is more controlled, but they still came out blasting by having the line go directly past the set build of Harry’s Cupboard Under the Stairs from Number 4 Privet Drive. It’s smaller than you’d imagine even and in immaculate condition. It’s almost like the WB knew they could keep hold of everything they made and turn it into an endless cash cow of a studio tour. But, I don’t complain. If gold made them willing to make this place, they’re welcome to it. As has everything else J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. have collaborated on, this studio tour is all class and production value.
The place is absolutely sprawling. In the first of three guided rooms before you’re turned loose we learned that the record for most time spent was something like 13 hours. At the time, I was incredulous. I adore Harry Potter, but what could possibly demand that kind of time? Now I understand, if you took the time to read everything, study all of the details, give every inch of the place your fullest attention, it really would take that long. This was to be merely our first stop on the day, but we still spent the better part of four hours roaming around, including a stop for Butterbeer in liquid and soft serve form. I’ll resist going into absolute detail here, but you’re going to have to indulge me a bit of reverie.
The true start of the tour comes after a cute introduction video with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson who set the stage for all that you’re about to see and make their exit by walking through the doors to The Great Hall. The lights come up, the screen withdraws and there it is, looming large. The same doorway our heroes just disappeared through. Every inch of the iconic set has been reconstructed here and you get to walk through the damn doors to start your journey. 10/10. Oh, and the floors? Really stone. The Great Hall is as elaborately detailed as you could possibly wish and features a lot of costumes, notably for the Hogwarts staff, which are set up along the teacher’s table as if Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape and all the rest are there presiding over things. This gives way to a massive (probably American Football field) sized room that is the first of many tour takers are free to explore at their own pace. You remember the descriptions of the Room of Requirement when it was the Room of Lost Things? Well, there’s almost that much stuff in this room. Stations devoted to costuming, makeup and screenwriting lead unto rebuilt sets and massive displays full of props and structures lovingly crafted for the movies. All of the paintings in Dumbledore’s office? Real. Spellbooks? Real. The golden snitch? Real. Those ridiculous cat plates in Umbridge’s office? Real. We could go on like this for hours, so I’ll pump the breaks. But you’ll also see innumerable documents and products created for on screen use. Walk past structures and cars, across the trestle bridge, up Diagon Alley and go so far behind the scenes your mind might just get blown. Storyboards, concept sketches, blueprints, paper models, animatronics, masks, all of it has been lovingly preserved and displayed. Even the scale model of Hogwarts, which took 40 days to rebuild and has been given its own room. A ramp circles the entire structure giving you a breathtaking 360 degree view. The lights shift gradually so you can see it in every light, and of course, Potter music plays overhead the better to put you in the place. I cannot stress this enough, take your time in this room. There is so much to see. Let your eyes sweep over every inch. And, it’s the penultimate stop on the tour. You’ll go into a final room with a supremely well selected quote from J.K. Rowling that may or may not cause the tears you’ve been keeping at bay to rush forward. Not that that happened to me.
After our journey back to London we had a bit of time to spare before our next appointment and a Tube incident (read station closure due to an accidental death) prompted us to get off a stop later than we would have done. As luck would have it, our unintended stop was Green Park and the Underground opened up onto a gorgeous park. It was a fine day so we wandered around, took ridiculous photos and generally basked in the idyllic setting for some while before heading out and on to our afternoon tea reservation at Sketch. Now, Sketch was so classy that it merits its own retelling in loving detail. For now, I’ll just say this, I had heard it was delicious, but until our walk there led us to a neighborhood where the storefronts were large and emblazoned with signs like Burberry, Chenel, Tory Burch, Stella McCartney, Jimmy Choo and John Varvatos, I didn’t realize how posh we were going. Tea at Sketch is a two hour window to eat and drink as many culinary delights of theirs as you want, and even more impressively, it’s a spot that lives up to the pomp and circumstance. You know where to go for full details, but if you hear nothing else from me on the subject, know this, I didn’t know I liked scones until I had Sketch scones. America, we need to step up our game in this department.
We emerged from Sketch stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys and thinking to walk off a bit of the fullness we made for the London Eye. The sun disappeared as we headed to the top, so the city was all aglow and looking shiny for our ride. Again, the sheer size of the city was what was most striking. And seeing it all alight was mesmerizing, but for the price, the Sky Garden had just as much going for it. Still, exploring that area of the city by night was a great choice. We walked past the Elizabeth tower and Big Ben and I couldn’t help but be struck by how cinematic it all was, or to allow my mind to wander to thoughts of all of the people who must have stood on this spot over the years.
Our grand finale in the city was to spend one last night watching as much of The Great British Bake Off as we could before falling asleep, if not then, when? Next day we made for the train that would carry us out to Oxford and on to the next leg of our journey. Don’t you worry, a detailed account of my love affair with the countryside will be happening.