Getting my family together in one place for more than half an hour is a work of art, so imagine how difficult it was to get us all together for a trip to London during the Olympic fortnight! Well, we achieved a whole day together, and without a cross word too!
The first problem was how to get there, now I’m not so keen on driving too far in my old car, or in sitting in the M25 car park for too long especially during the Olympics. My daughter was already in London, having come over from Canada for the Olympics on Aug 1st, so that made it slightly easier. It was her idea anyway, that I should join her down there. My son was actually working in England too for the duration of the Olympics, so could I use my persuasive powers to get him to come too? Maybe he could give me a lift down there on his motorbike? I knew what his answer would be to that though!
Not being a lover of public transport in the past, I had mentally dismissed the idea of travelling by train, expecting it to be extortionate, however just out of interest I had a look on National Rail website to see what the train prices were, and was very gratified to find that I could go down to St Pancras at 9.35am on Friday 3rd August for £17 and come back leaving at just after midnight for £11. I couldn’t drive there that cheaply.
Decision made, I got my daughter and her ever-loving Canadian partner looking for events where we could get last minute tickets that they had released, while I tried the difficult task of getting my son to leave his desk and his never-ending-very-important-that-he-was-never-going-to-get-finished-in-time assignment, to accompany me on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He’s usually quite tardy in responding to my communications when he’s at work, (well he’s supposed to be working not emailing or texting his mother, isn’t he?), but I was champing at the bit to get the train tickets bought and paid for, and my daughter needed to know whether to get two or three tickets for an event, so eventually I made an executive decision to buy two train tickets anyway, and accept the consequences. I instructed my daughter to look for two tickets to any event except boxing or wrestling, as my son had said he wouldn’t really be interested in anything except the athletics, which didn’t start until Saturday. By this time of course, the price of the 9.35 am train had gone up, as had the one home after midnight. Now the cheap ticket depart time was 10.35 am, and return home was 1 am on Saturday. I quickly bought 2 tickets there and three back (I was bringing my daughter home with me as well). Job done.
I just had a couple more things to do. Not content with Googling the station car park in street view mode to see how full it got, I had to drive down there to make sure I’d not have a problem parking and need to walk to the station from streets away. I had no idea they had built a huge extra car park since I used to travel down to London to work years ago. No need to order a taxi for us then. The tube ticket was another mystery to me. What zones was I going through? How would I know until we had event tickets? I decided to leave getting tube tickets until the morning of travel and ask advice at the booking office.
I nipped into Sainsbury’s on the way back from the station car park to buy three lots of meal deals and other edible items in sets of three to fill my over-sized rucksack (well, one never knows if one is going to be able to find food when one gets there, does one?). I couldn’t resist the navy and white striped T-shirt which I could slip under my red, white and blue check shirt I had bought for Queen E’s Diamond Jubilee and also bought a pack of Union Jacks to wave. All set for my Olympic adventure.
The day came. I hadn’t been this excited in years! My son arrived and we toddled off to the station from the car park. Him leading; me the regulation couple of steps behind; him trying to pretend he wasn’t really out with his stupid mother dressed like our British flag; me wondering why he was wearing a £90 designer shirt with scruffy old baggy jeans! He bought a paper to read on the train, in case I started speaking loudly about stupid things that might embarrass him in public, I suppose. Why else would he buy a paper? He could read all the news on his Iphone on the train anyway! We sat and waited for our train to arrive. I had left a precautionary extra half hour early, just in case…….well, you never know what might happen.
Our train arrived on time and we found our pre-reserved seats. Very civilized. Some fifty minutes or so later I was fumbling with the six identical looking tickets I had, trying to find which to shove in the slot in the turnstile, holding up half a trainload of people behind me, when some kindly station guy helped me out, much to my son’s embarrassment, and to my daughter’s who was waiting on the other side of the gates to greet us. Not the usual warm greeting we give each other when I pick her up from the airport, I have to say! Ah well, I can plead senility these days!
Our Olympic adventure started at St Pancras Station. To get us in the mood there were the Olympic rings prominently placed overhanging the end of the platforms. Then we spotted the statue. Paul Day’s “The Meeting Place” couldn’t be missed, and we had to photograph it from every angle. I almost wished I had more time to explore just this station – am I turning into a Railways freak? As our tour guide, my daughter led us down to King’s Cross tube station where we caught the tube to Green Park, so we could walk through the park to Buckingham Palace to take some photos and drink in the atmosphere. Having spent two full days in our capital city, my daughter now knew her way around, of course!
People were everywhere, and barricades. We couldn’t go down the Mall, there was an event earlier, and again later. We couldn’t go in the park opposite, there was an event….. We couldn’t go …….. So I covered the steps of the Victoria Monument with the large Union Jack I had brought with me and we sat on it watching the world go by, eating our lunch. See – no food outlets around there, were there? I wasn’t a Girl Scout for nothing! I had provisions. Umpteen photos later, the Horse Guards trooped by, but was my camera at the ready at that exact moment? No. And I couldn’t get up fast enough to catch them, however, they conveniently passed by again on their return along Birdcage Walk just as we were walking down it, so I managed a shot or two of them then.
Having eaten our fill, we made our way through part of St James Park, where we were allowed alongside the Serpentine, snapping away at the local flora and fauna. “That way is for ticket holders only…….”, we kept hearing. But never mind, the friendly squirrels entertained us. We were almost herded back out onto the road again.
Never have I felt so secure walking around London (not that I walk around it regularly, of course). There were armed police and soldiers around everywhere, and of course the usual security officers. As we approached Big Ben, we stopped for more photo shots, then more at Victoria Embankment and on Westminster Bridge where we could get good shots of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. But we were on a mission, and couldn’t dally long, much as I would have liked to. We were going for a trip on the Eye. If we couldn’t get an Olympic ticket, we’d at least do that.
Queueing for the London Eye is an experience in itself. I’ve done it twice. We’ve all done it twice. First you queue in a long zig-zag queue in the adjacent building to buy the ticket, then you queue in another long zig-zag queue to actually do the flight. The end of the queue is obscure. There seem to be several ends as people stand around in groups wondering what to do and where to go. Some French guy with a red, white and blue curly wig befriended us in the queue, joked with my daughter, then followed us into our pod. During the flight he chatted to my son about where he lived in France, then kindly took a family photo of us when we were on the Eye, and also posed for a photo with my cheeky daughter. We were having such a good chat with him that we missed the announcement that a BA photo would be taken on our descent, so weren’t in the official shot you could buy in the shop at the bottom. We were all so busy pointing out various landmarks we knew, and trying to work out the position of the various Olympic venues, so we didn’t notice others posing for their photos. Having spotted the Shard, the top of North Greenwich Arena and the arc of Wembley Stadium, I looked for Windsor Castle, but it obviously wasn’t a clear enough day to see it.
After our trip I wondered who was game for a ride on the giant blue whirligig nearby? Not I! But we had no time for that, we needed to make our way to the nearest tube station to travel to Stratford Olympic Park. Back to Westminster Bridge and onto the tube again.
We ignored all tannoyed advice to exit the tube at West Ham because Stratford Station approach to the Olympic Park was congested. We wanted to be involved in the whole experience. Besides, a guy standing next to us said his girlfriend had just texted him from Stratford end and said it wasn’t that bad. I think they were just trying to spread the load. We alighted at the end of the line – Stratford. “Keep walking….., keep walking…..”, from a loud hailer “Keep walking…., keep walking”.. I marched Russian army style. One walks or, in our case, marches out into Westfield shopping centre, with toilet facilities to die for, although the queue is long. We had no time to window shop in the tempting centre, but headed out towards the Olympic Park. “Keep walking……keep walking…..”, the security guys said, but we took no heed. We needed photos. What were those boat shaped things? And look at those bright pink telephone boxes!
My daughter had already reconnoitred the whole area, and had also ascertained that disappointingly we wouldn’t be able to buy tickets to the Olympic Park on the gate, so she led us in the opposite direction to everyone else and over the bridge to Stratford High Street, where it was almost empty. She knew where we could get a good shot of “the Orbit”. I have to say, I was pretty impressed with most of the area. I was expecting a really scruffy area, but either they had tarted it all up in preparation for the Olympics, or it wasn’t as bad around there as I had been led to believe. An interesting sculpture in the middle of a junction caught our eye, that looked like curly rhubarb sticks from a distance, but we found it was called “The Railway Tree” by Malcolm Robertson, constructed from steel girders made to look like railway lines, to commemorate the influence railways have had on Stratford’s industry. I still couldn’t believe the emptiness of the streets. Was everyone in the Olympic Park except us?
By this time we were ready for a beer, so were pleased to find a back street local watering hole called “The Carpenters’ Arms” where we stopped to watch on TV the cycling in the Velodrome which was not too far away from where we were, but oh so unreachable. There were only a handful of customers in there too, although the landlord said it had been very busy earlier.
Suitably refreshed, we continued on our way in search of the best vantage point to photograph “the Orbit”. This was eventually found in Wharton Road just by a block of attractive flats with multi-coloured balconies. I later discovered these are two bedroomed, two bathroomed apartments, with an air conditioned gymnasium for use by the residents costing in the region of £250k. Not bad if you don’t mind living opposite a to a block of dreary derelict flats. Why hadn’t someone revamped these before the Olympics? Surely other tourists would be wandering around the area like us. Also opposite were the search bays for vehicles entering the Olympic Park. Had we been more “innocently” bold, we could have probably slipped under the adjacent bridge and got closer to photograph it before being caught, but entry was verboten yet again, and my daughter had already been refused entry the previous day when she tried to go for a photo. We made our way back to Stratford Hight Street, where we could see in the distance the massive Olympic Torch Structure that my daughter had seen in her travels the evening before. She had captured a “Golden Shot” of this structure as it dazzled her in the evening sunlight.
Onwards and upwards. The next good vantage point was on a bridge on Greenway over the A11 Stratford High Street, the entrance approach from West Ham station. Wow what a view lay before us! My phone camera just does not do it justice in the photo at the top. But my daughter had taken a much better photo the evening before, which I have “borrowed”, as I did her zoomed photos of the pods on the London Eye above, and the zoomed photo of the Olympic Torch structure in Stratford High Street.
We captured our shots overlooking what we could see of the Olympic Park, with the Aquatic Centre on the right, and the Stadium and the Orbit in the centre. We had sampled the atmosphere, but the rest would just have to be got from TV and the internet. We turned our backs on the Olympic Park and made our way along Greenway towards West Ham station to catch yet another tube to North Greenwich Arena. Pity about the smell in that particular area of Greenway, but there has to be a water treatment plant somewhere, I suppose. We caught a glimpse of the golden Olympic Torch structure in Stratford High Street alongside the river. My daughter said that this had been a dazzling sight from the High Street with the reflections of the sun the previous day when she had been wandering around the area.
We continued on to West Ham station and caught the next tube to North Greenwich Arena. It was an awesome experience being so close to our old Millennium Dome and the sheer size of it was overwhelming but, of course, we could go no further without a ticket……….
Back we went to the tube platform with its glass platform doors that open in synchronization with the tube train’s doors. No one can commit suicide or murder in front of an approaching train here! But I didn’t have time to take a photo before our train arrived. Next stop Green Park again for some souvenir clothing for my daughter to take back to Canada from the stall we had seen there earlier, followed by a rest and another munch in the park on my picnic blanket. Well, I brought it in my rucksack, so I was damn well going to lie on it! The only thing I had brought with me in my ‘be prepared’ rucksack that we hadn’t needed was the umbrella! Now there’s a first this year!
Suitably rested and refreshed we made our way back to Buckingham Palace for some photos of it at dusk. The illuminations came out surprisingly well with my snapomatic phone camera. Unfortunately my daughter’s super duper camera had run out of battery by this time, so this is the best we could manage between us. Three phone cams at work! The Eye was enticingly flashing away at us in the distance with a variety of changing colours, and there was no-one with a decent camera to capture it!
It was getting dark rapidly, yet the night was still young. We had hours to kill before our train at 1pm. Time for the free concert in Hyde Park. We’d missed Amy MacDonald, of course, she had been on at 5.20pm, but I’m not averse to a bit of heavy rock now and again. We walked along Constitution Hill towards the Wellington Arch, across Hyde Park Corner and into Hyde Park. We could hear the music tantalising us, but the entrance was miles away, right at Marble Arch end. We arrived at the entrance at 9.55pm. They closed the entrance just as we approached. Last entries were supposed to be 10pm and there was a bit of a queue. Too late. We were destined not to gain entry to any event today!
Off then to Leicester Square and China Town to placate my son. He wanted a bowl of his favourite in Won Kei restaurant. Oh how I love our London Underground! One is never far away from anywhere one wants to be, and there is a train at least every minute. If you can cope with all the escalators and ticket turnstiles, you are soon there. Quickly we popped into Marble Arch station and were on our way to our great London nightlife.
I was looking forward to the unique Won Kei restaurant experience. I’d heard all about it from my son. ‘Upstairs! / Downstairs!’ is its nickname. You may wonder why? That is the curt greeting you get as you enter. If you are on your own you go downstairs (with a Chinese accent I can’t replicate here), in a party of two or more you go upstairs. They are quick, very quick. They chuck a pot of China tea and some bowls to drink it from on the table as soon as you walk in, and keep refilling it as you drain it dry. Food’s good and cheap. I had Singapore Chow Mein, my usual choice in any Chinese restaurant. It was so cheap I was expecting it to be in a little bowl, but my son had to finish mine off when I was halfway through it. After all the tea I was dying to use the loo, but there was only one, and after a ten minute wait outside its door, I decided I didn’t need the loo any more! I would go at my daughter’s hotel instead.
Suddenly we were running out of time. We had to get to Paddington, where my daughter’s hotel was, to pick up her suitcase, and meet the friend she had stayed with. The walk to the hotel from Paddington station wasn’t far, but after our hectic day, it seemed like miles! Thank goodness they had a loo in the reception area! A quick “Hello, aren’t you like your daughter? Nice to meet you, goodbye” with daughter’s friend, and we were rushing back towing a suitcase to Paddington station, then tube to King’s Cross and back up to St Pancras station with five minutes to spare before our train departed. Phew! That’s the closest I’ve come to running in years! Adrenaleine is a marvelous thing!
I think we had the train more or less to ourselves. Certainly there was no-one else in our compartment. Good old British Rail! £33 to run a train up to Wellingborough specially for the three of us! And they gave us a complimentary pack of goodies to take with us – water, Pretzels and a choccie bar. We sat back to enjoy our comfortable ride back home after our unique Olympic adventure. What a day!
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London town, but it was such a good day that I need to get down there again soon to explore it as a tourist some more. I don’t think the atmosphere there will be quite the same though ever again.
Submitted to Helium.com 14.08.12