The first thing I had to do was waking up for a 6:30 flight – though considering I did not sleep very much that night due to the heat, I’m not sure if that it counts as waking up. The previous day, the airline had sent warning emails about arriving at the airport early – three hours before the flight would have meant being there at 3:30, so… not really. I arrived at the airport around 5:10, and I was at the gate by… 5:20, I’m not even kidding. While I normally do not queue to enter planes – the advantages of backpacks, I just kick them under the seat – I had been assigned seat 1A, which meant I had to put my luggage into the overhead compartment. I had decided to take a small backpack too, because I would be carrying it around for a while, and it would get searched in a couple of places.
Surprisingly, despite Brexit, the Ryanair strikes, airport chaos, and the fact that apparently the automatic passport reader cannot cope with my new look, I made it into the United Kingdom first and straight to London without a glitch. Not only that, I managed to get my Oyster recharged without any problems, and as soon as I had bought some food, I was on my way to the first stop of the day: Crystal Palace Park, for which I got to ride the shiny new underground line, the Elizabeth Line, then the Overground. Even though there are another couple of landmarks (that might warrant a visit when / if the restoration project finally goes through), what interested me in Crystal Palace was a collection of Victorian sculptures – the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.
Though Ancient Greek already knew about fossils before the current era, it was in the 19th century when it hatched as a “science”, according to some spurred by Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Fossil hunters ran amok, excavating and spoiling the North American badlands. In England itself, Mary Anning kept discovering cool things. There was a sort of a “Dinosaur fever” – the Victorians became fascinated with all things prehistoric. In 1852, a number of extinct animal reconstructions were commissioned to be erected in the gardens of the Crystal Palace, after the World Exhibition. Using the knowledge available at the time, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings, a natural history illustrator and sculptor, who did his best according to scientific knowledge at the time.
Not all the animals represented are real dinosaurs, but the nickname stuck. From today’s standards, most of the reproductions are extremely inaccurate, with some exceptions, such as the ichthyosaur (discovered by Mary Anning around 1811), and the plesiosaur (of which Mary Anning also found a skeleton in 1823, and then another in 1830 – I love that woman). Today, the park is organised in several “islands” where you can see the sculptures, though the water was a bit down due to the heatwaves:
- Amphibians and therapsids: Dicynodon and Labyrinthodon
- Marine reptiles: Ichthyosaur, Mosasaurus, Plesiosaur and Teleosaurus
- Dinosaurs and pterosaurs: Hylaeosaurus, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Pterosaur
- Mammals: Palaeotherium, Anoplotherium, Megaloceros and Megatherium
I have been aware of these sculptures for a long time – since I was a child and started liking dinosaurs. However, only recently did I find out that they really existed, and where they were. I arrived at Crystal Palace station a little after ten (making whole travel from the airport about two hours). I walked by a small farm with typical fauna such as… an alpaca, then I ate my sandwich overseeing the first island.
I walked around for about an hour and then I set on my way back. Though I had planned to have a relaxed day at first, I had to adjust due to cancellations and train strikes. It was around that time that I calculated that I could actually cram my original Thursday and Saturday plans onto Thursday, plus the alternative plans I had made if I tweaked the time a little. So I back-rode for another hour towards the city.
Near Tower Hill stands the Sky Garden, on the 35th floor of the 20 Fenchurch Street building, designed by Rafael Viñoly. Sky Garden is considered the highest garden in London, and a fantastic viewpoint of the city. I almost accidentally came across the option to book a free access ticket for this – while I had not wanted to pay for any morning / early afternoon activities in case my plane was delayed, I figured out that I could book this for free, especially as they go stupidly fast! I made my 12:30 timeslot with a few minutes to spare, but I was let in after a queue, ID check, X rays and metal detection.
The Sky Garden features two terraces full of plants (landscaped by Gillespies), a couple of restaurants and bars, and an “open” gallery which has glass above your head so the feeling of opening dissipates – the glass is stained and scratched. It was one of the “must-do’s” in London I had never visited before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity. Fortunately, they have relaxed the rules on no bottles because of the unusual high temperatures.
After wandering around for a bit, I continued onto Saint Dunstan in the East Church Garden, the ruins of an old Wren church destroyed by The Great Fire of London and destroyed again during the Blitz (World War II bombings). Dating back to the 1100s, it was opened as a public park in 1970. Aside from being a very cute building park I wanted to see for a while, a music video by the band VAMPS was filmed there.
As it was lunchtime, the park was bustling with people, so I just had to move on rather quickly, and went back to the underground to get to the area of Westminster. I had originally booked tickets for Saturday (back in May) but then they were cancelled due to “repair work” going on that day (I do wonder if it was a security measure related to the strikes though).
But of course, first I feasted my eyes on the very new Elizabeth Tower clock tower aka Big Ben – though Big Ben is one of the bells in the tower, but nobody really cares about that any more.
The Palace of Westminster or Houses of Parliament is the centre of the United Kingdom’s turbulent political life. The current palace was built after the previous one was destroyed by a fire in 1834. The new palace was erected in the Neo-Gothic style, and it was mostly finished by 1860, although it did open to be used in 1835. There was a competition regarding the design, which was won by sir Charles Barry. The Palace of Westminster holds the two chambers where the British government meets – the House of Lords and the House of Commons – alongside the Norman Porch, St. Stephen’s chapel, and the different corridors where the MPs vote or discuss state matters. I’ll forever be amused that “for security reasons, photography is not permitted in these chambers with dozens of cameras for TV broadcasting and Internet streaming”, but alas. The woodwork on the Norman Porch ceiling is fantastic, and some of the decoration choices, such as Churchill’s sculpture are… interesting. It is noteworthy that it is part of the Unesco Heritage Site “Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church”.
Afterwards, I just found my way to the hotel – though I had to wander a little to find the nearby supermarket, bugger those never-ending attached-house neighbourhoods, rested for a little and then went to the station to go to the theatre – I wanted some extra time to check out where my airport coach would leave, so I gave myself 45 minutes for a 22-minute trip. It turns out there was train trouble and I was barely on time, taking an alternative route instead of the direct one.
When I realised my flight timing would give a free evening in London, I booked tickets for the Apollo Victoria Theatre to watch the “Wicked”. This musical tells the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from the point of view of the witches, and somehow gives the “Wicked Witch from the West”, Elphaba, an amazing personality and backstory that resonates a lot with me. For the same price as the ticket I was eyeing back in the day, I found a VIP upgrade just one seat over, so I was entitled to a drink and “snacks”, an early entry, along with access to the “Ambassador Lounge”, a tiny reception hall with access to a private restroom.
“Wicked” was great. The actress who plays the main character, Elphaba (Lucie Jones) came out a little yelly though in her solos. The duets with the other female singer (Glinda, Helen Woolf) were fantastic, and the male love interest’s (Fiyero, Ryan Reid) song was absolutely great, even though he is a character I have never cared for.
By the time I was out, the trains were running again, and one-to-three-minute delay on a line that runs every five minutes or so, and I was at the hotel by 23:00, absolutely beat. The room was extremely hot, because London is absolutely not ready for heat, so I had a snack in front of the fan, took a shower and then got some sleep – 21 hours on the go were over. Funnily enough, by the time I went to bed, I had that wobbly-world jet-lag feeling I have after my first day in Japan. It must have been the barely sleeping the night before. I fell asleep very fast.
Walking distance: 30.52 km / 46192 steps