London with Jen and The Doctor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy trip to London started on a very wet note. I was very diligent and looked up the bus routes to the airport and left in plenty of time to get to the stop and, by extension, make it in plenty of time for my flight.

Except for one thing – well, two really.

The bus stop for which I was looking actually had two places. And of course, I went to the wrong one. As the time for my bus came and went, I began to get a little panicked. I knew I could always take a cab but I didn’t want to. So I started looking around and, low and behold, I see my bus driving down the street. So I followed it backwards and found the correct stop where I could wait out the next twenty-five or so minutes. And did I mention it was pouring rain at the time? Thankfully, I had my trusty new umbrella so all was good.

I got the airport slightly before the two hour mark prior to departure. As soon as I did, though, I realized I was glad I had missed my first bus and learned a valuable lesson for flying out of Kaunas International Airport – Namely the check in counter doesn’t even open until two hours before the flight. So I waited patiently in queue, presented all my documents and then waited in holding pen until we were allowed to board. Kaunas is NOT a busy airport so the numbers of flights happening at any given time are relatively few, so there was only one waiting area. Finally we got called for the flight and the cattle call ensued. I was flying Ryan Air which is as low-rent as you can get for an airline. To say these guys are no frills gives “frills” some kind of lofty meaning. In order to get to the plane, we had to walk across the runway (again, thankful there weren’t a lot of flights) and could then board from either front or rear. Once on the plane, you could see the cheapness continue. The seats were jammed in, with no seat back compartments or tray tables. The luggage bins had bus-like advertising signs pasted on them and the flight attendants passed around menus and in flight magazines – one for each row (great way to meet your seat mates). Then, the sleep I was trying to get on my two and a half hour flight kept getting interrupted by intercom shilling for various products and please to buy in-flight lottery tickets. Seriously, it’s not a great flying experience at all. But unless I want to go to Riga, this is what I have available from here.

Eventually I landed at London Gatwick to be met by my friend Jen, who had been in London for a few days already. We hopped on the train to get get back to the center of town and decided to forego a trip back to the hostel since she had only her bag and I just had my backpack (Ryan Air charges for anything more than 1 – and 1 means 1, not 1 and a purse – carryon bag) and the hostel was a ways from where we wanted to end up. The train dropped us off at King’s Cross, which just happened to be right across from the British Library…which just happened to be having an exhibit of science-fiction books and manuscripts. Talk about a great way to start the trip. We wandered around the exhibit until it was almost closing time and then popped upstairs to the permanent exhibit of important literary works in the collection. I wanted to pay homage to Mr. Dodgson’s most famous piece but, unfortunately, it was currently off display. When we asked about it, we were told, by the head of security who was a bibliophile himself, that the book “was taking a rest” having been in two back to back exhibits. With a sigh of discontent we left the library and headed off to Soho.

See, the whole reason I was in London was because of David Tennant and Doctor Who. I had been chatting with Jen (who is a theatre geek like me, and who lives in SoCal) about various things and that I had discovered that Tennant, along with Catherine Tate (who was also in a season of Doctor Who) were appearing in a West End production of Much Ado About Nothing and wouldn’t it be fun to go see that. Jen, who happened to have the month of August off from her job, said she had been thinking of going to London to see it. I said if she went to London, I’d join her as a last hurrah before school started.

So here we were in London.

Of course, the play itself had been sold out for months so we weren’t even sure we could get tickets, but hey, we had to try, right? So off we traipsed to Soho to check out the ticket situation for that night’s performances. Our though was we’d try to get returns each night and if we didn’t get in at least we could say we tried. So we got in line around 6:30 for a 7:30 curtain and waited to see what would happen. As luck would have it, at just after 7 we were offered first row balcony, right in the middle. Someone couldn’t make it to the show and we were going to take full advantage of their misfortune. We quickly said yes and at 7:35 found ourselves cheering wildly as the curtain raised and Shakespeare’s words emerged. The production was really well done, given a modern setting and both Tennant and Tate acquitted themselves admirably.

After the show, we asked for a decent place to eat and, following the recommendation, found ourselves walking through the district in search of an Italian place. Of course, since Soho is known for gay bars and clubs the evening wouldn’t be complete without a girl yelling out “Another birthday, another night at the gay club! Where are the straight men?” So, naturally, I had to volunteer to give her a hug before we continued on our way. We eventually found the restaurant and it was indeed very good. Afterwards we made our way back to the hostel and started making plans for Friday. Not bad for my first night in London after an absence of nine years.

Friday started with shopping. We headed to Davenport’s, one of the oldest magic shops in London (it celebrated its centenary in ’08) to pick up some souvenirs for magician friends. Davenport’s is interesting in that for such a famous shop, it’s tiny and located in an underground plaza at Charing Cross Tube Station. And the staff wasn’t terribly friendly, but regardless, I got what I went for (and a great picture of a man and his dog sleeping out front) and we continued on our way. Above ground, we stopped in at a stationary store (I got blu-tack) and then walked down to Covent Garden. We did a lot of walking, so feel free to skip the phrase “we walked…” anytime you see it. It will continue to be included for clarity sake, but just assume almost everywhere we went, we walked, and you’ll be okay. And if you really want to have fun and plot this route on a map, you’ll see exactly how tired our feet and legs were by the time we left on Sunday.

Anyway, we walked to Covent Garden, which is an open air swap-meet style shopping arena, with performance space for street performers (we saw a few), overpriced souvenir stands and “original photographs” being sold by no less than four different stalls. It also hold a HUGE Apple store, where I popped in to get a bit of information from people who speak English as a native language and then it was off to lunch.

After walking for a bit (I told you!) we landed in the cozy little pub where the light fixtures were converted bowler hats and I ordered the traditional English fish and chips. Jen had Yorkshire pudding, which I’d never had before, but upon trying it found it was quite tasty. I will say, though, that as I’ve grown older, my adventurousness in terms of food has not grown the way I would have liked it to. Honestly, I’ve never been THAT adventurous when it comes to food and that’s one aspect of my life which hasn’t changed. So when I try something new, and like it, I like to mention it.

With our bellies full, we decided to walk to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s masterpiece on the Thames. We approached it from the back and hit the catacombs (and cafe area) first. Honestly, why would you put the cafe in with the dead bodies? Doesn’t make much sense to me, but what are ya gonna do? Well, we WERE gonna take teh tour and go to the top of the dome, but you know, for twenty pounds it really wasn’t worth it. So instead, we walked around the outside and found ourselves in front of the Millennium Bridge and not too far from Shakespeare’s Globe. Last time I was in London I hadn’t been able to get inside and Jen had seen a show there before I arrived and said there was another production or two she’d like to see, so again, we went off in search of return tickets. On the way, we stopped by the Tate Modern Gallery (an amazing art museum built inside a refurbished power plant) and while we didn’t go inside, we did get to see the Perigrine falcon that lives on top of it. There was a conservationist group set up to tell people about it, complete with a telescope so you could see the majestic creature perched well out of naked eye viewing. Very cool!

At the Globe, the show which was on that night wasn’t one we wanted to see and Faustas, starring Arthur Darvill (who plays Rory in the current series of Doctor Who – sensing a theme here?), which we DID want to see, was on Saturday night AND was sold out. Ah well. We went up to the gift shop anyway, picked up a few trinkets (and I got a really cool knit cap for the upcoming winter) then walked BACK across teh Millennium Bridge (stopped in a Starbucks for WAY too long trying to write postcards and figure out their wireless system) then back to Soho.

See, we had figured we’d see what shows were on that we could maybe get half-price tickets for. There were a number of interesting shows happening, any of which I would have loved to have seen. They had Wicked playing, Shrek, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, lots of good things. But then, as we were passing one of the discount shops, there was a poster for Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which has long been one of my favorites. Jen, who actually keeps up with these things, didn’t know there was a production happening so our first thought was it was an old playbill and the show had closed. Upon further examination, though, it was indeed playing (closing the 20th of August) and it looked like we could get 8th row, on the aisle seats for a ridiculously low price. How could we pass this up? Short answer? We couldn’t! So off we traipsed to the theatre where, it turns out, they were having a Trevor Nunn season (that is, every show they were doing this season was going to be directed by Nunn) and the show following this one is going to be The Tempest starring Ralph Fiennes. But this production was spectacular. The sets were awesome and the two leads (along with the Player) were great! I was a little nervous about the guy playing Ros. as it started but he turned out to really be able to capture things perfectly.

After the show, since we were already in Soho, we went to Ed’s Diner and had burgers and fries whilst discussing theatre and film. The discussion continued as the closed the restaurant around us, on the tube and back at the hostel. Again, a great day and the trip was only half way through.

Saturday involved a bit more logistical planning as we were going to be meeting up with my friend Sharon from my Groundlings days (she had been the stage manager then and had been living in London for the last twelve years). We were going to meet up to go to the Doctor Who Experience together.

This was the second reason I had come to London. The Doctor Who Experience was touted as having an interactive, multi-sensory adventure as well as a standing exhibition of various artifacts. It was also on a timed entry and we had left it too late to book tickets in advance so we were going to have to hope we could snag some same-day entries. We were supposed to meet Sharon at 11:00 in the morning and go from there.

I swear we left the hostel in plenty of time. But then, as the tube approached the stop which leads to Abbey Road, Jen asked me if I wanted to see it. Of course I did. We’d been talking about it every time we passed the stop. So I asked Jen how far it was from the station. “Just up the street,” she responded. Jen’s neighborhoods are huge! Up the street wasn’t far, really, only about 7 minutes walk, maybe 6 or 7 hundred meters, so no problem, we could go, see the studio, walk across the zebra crossing \ and make it back t the station and not be too late to meet Sharon.

But nothing ever goes as planned, does it? Nope, instead of a simple photo op there was an actual photo op happening! Four lookalikes were re-creating the famous scene, complete with parked VW, as we walked up. So instead of the 30 seconds we had been intending to spend, it was more like 10-15 minutes watching the four lads trying to get the foot movements right and snapping a few shots of our own before got out of there and back to the station. A tube stoppage delayed us even more so by the time we finally arrived, it was 11:45 and Sharon had been waiting. Introductions were made, hugs were exchanged and we headed in, hoping to get tickets.

This turned out to be no problem at all. We asked for tickets and got them. When we asked what time they were for, the guy slightly rolled his eyes and pointed towards the entrance “Whenever you want,” he seemed to say. No… that’s exactly what he said. So off we went to experience the Experience.

The first half was indeed an interactive show, with Matt Smith (the current Doctor) guiding us along as we rescued the TARDIS, then flew it to rescue him from inside the Pandorica (if this makes no sense to you, find Doctor Who on whatever DVD service you use and catch up!). It was a cheesy little show, but there were Daleks and Weeping Angels and in the end, we helped save the universe, and saving the universe is cool!

But the part after that… that was where the real fun began. They had costumes and props and monsters and The Face of Boe and all sorts of stuff to put all of us into geek heaven. Sharon thanked us for inviting her along since she had wanted to see it, but felt silly as a grown woman going by herself. No fear there, she was among friends! The gift shop was overpriced, but still made off with a good bit of our cash (I got a Van Gogh “The Tardis Explodes” print and a Tardis mug).

Lunch followed at the William Morris pub while we all talked and caught up generally enjoyed our afternoon. Eventually, Sharon had to get back to her puppies and we had more sightseeing to do so we said our good-byes and we headed back into town, not sure of what we wanted to see but knowing we wanted to see it! One of the things which had been on our radar was the Tower Bridge which had recently re-opened for tours so we decided to check it out. Sure enough, it was open AND it was on discount, so up we went into the tower, watched a short animated film about the building (which featured the world’s slowest boat heading down the river as the bridge was being completed) and then walked across the upper causeway. Great views of London and some pretty cool history of bridges awaited us. Down the other side we got to see the engine room (not actually in operation any longer, but how they USED to draw the bridge) and the gift shop (naturally!).

Of course, this put us back on the same side as The Globe, so again we walked down to see about returns for that night’s performance of Faustus. They had none at the moment, but we were invited to wait in line, just in case. As we took up our position, a guy approached us, asking if we wanted tickets for the show. He had groundling tickets (standing on the floor of the theatre) for five pounds (cover price). Naturally, we jumped on them and successfully acquired tickets for three shows in three nights of being there, and three shows we really wanted to see as well!

If you ever get the chance to see a production at Shakespeare’s Globe, I highly recommend it. More so, I recommend getting the groundling tickets. Not only are they cheap, but the experience is remarkable. We met a great family, who were celebrating a birthday, and ended up right in the middle of the action when the actors left the raised stage. Sure, you’re standing for 3 hours, but honestly, you’re so caught up in the action the time flies by. This production was really cleverly staged, with a minimalist set (when there was a set at all) and ended with a musical number. Honestly, this might have been my favorite show of the three… and I loved the other two! For theatre going, this trip scored a huge hit!

Dinner was a late night pizza place on the banks of the river and then the last train of the night back to the hostel. This was our last night in London.

Sunday morning we packed everything up, Jen dropped stuff in a locker in the hostel (she’d be back in a few days time) and we headed off into town before heading to the airport and back to Kaunas. We decided to have another look ’round the British Library before we left (it was right by the train station so why not). We got there as it was opening and decided to have a quick bite to eat before hitting the gift shop. Of course, as we were eating Jen pointed out that we were really close to Platform 9 ¾ (again, “really close” is a relative term) so we decided to go take a look at that first. And look is what we did. See, the station itself is under construction so they moved the site outside and there was a queue about 30-40 minutes long to put your hands on half a luggage trolley so we looked and went back to the library. We looked around a bit, I hemmed and hawed about buying things and we left in plenty of time to catch our train. Of course, our train wasn’t leaving from that station, not on Sundays. So instead, we had to find our way to another station, then find the train to Gatwick, then decide which if the two trains would get us there quickest AND was still served by our tickets. Always an adventure but we did, in fact, make it to the airport, and the airplane and back to Kaunas, where it was still raining. So we come full circle and a great trip was had by all. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing!

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