Friday, September 24, 2010

Into the (London) Woods and to the Queen's Castle We Go

When I told a colleague about some vacation plans in a few weeks, she emailed back "Another vacation?" I was initially a bit annoyed because we actually haven't taken a real (week or more) vacation all year, and I have more than half my vacation days left. But I understood why she made the comment. KT and I have become good at exploiting work trips to visit new places, even if we just have a day or two free, and we've regularly taken long weekend vacations. A few weeks ago offers a good example of how much fun that can be. KT had a work conference in London on Friday and Saturday, so we decided to make a London weekend of it. And since we didn't want to spend a lot to do it, we tried something different for housing--we booked a room at one of Imperial College's new dormitories. Many English universities rent out summer room whiles students are away and Imperial's dorms are located in one of our favorite spots, South Kensington, right next to the V&A, Science and Natural History museums and Hyde park.

We also made this London visit a bit different by bringing our bikes. We initially planned to take part in London's Skyride--a day when the city closes some main roads and thousands pedal through the auto-free streets. But we then noticed that that there was charity London to Windsor bike ride the same day--and we had not yet seen Windsor castle. That's why on friday night after work I was on the train to London with my bike. KT had come down in the morning, with her bike, for her conference and we met outside the British Library. We then summoned up our courage and began our first bike ride in London. It was much easier than we expected--the city has carved out a good number of bike lanes and put up good routing signs. We pedaled west in more or less a straight line for about 15 minutes, before diving down south into Hyde park and looping around it to reach South Kensington. Seeing the dorm room was a relief--it was a nice, if not better, than some London/European hotel rooms, particularly its bathroom. And amusingly, there was a university bar at the bottom of the neighboring dorm wing--it felt like we were back in college! That evening we strolled the area and found a rare Portuguese restaurant that offered some tasty food and wines.

The start line of the Richmond to Windsor bike ride
Chorizo pizza!
The next morning, after marching over to the university's cafeteria to get a Full English breakfast (The room was a B&B!), KT went off to the last day of her conference and I went off to explore. It didn't take long to find a farmer's market and a cupcake store, where I had an Elvis--a banana cupcake with peanut butter frosting, and saved a chocolate one for later. That's because I had more food to find.

I crossed town on a bus to brixton market for the much-celebrated Franco Manca  sourdough pizza, sold in a chaotic little stall/restaurant in the middle of the market. Completely stuffed at this point I...went to another food market. It wasn't planned, honestly. I hopped on the subway and realized I would soon reach one of our favorite London spots, Borough Market. I must admit to sampling a few things but I mainly picked up provisions for planned picnic that evening. I also stumbled upon a colorful wedding party--the bride was African and her side of the family were decked our in traditional attire (picture). By that point, it was time to rush off to the British Library, where I was able to speed through its impressive Maps exhibit before KT was done with her meeting.

We encountered Hampton Court Palace along the Thames path
The evening's plan emerged when we realized the weekend weather looked promising and I noticed that Regent Park was hosting an open-air production of Into the Woods. I knew nothing about the musical, which marries a bunch of classic fairy tales (Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) into a single narrative about a baker and wife trying to remove a witch's curse so they can have a baby. KT, however, had seen it decades ago and loved it. So I snapped up tickets. It was magical, one of the best performances I've seen. (check out a video montage here). It's hard to imagine a better location for the show as the backdrop was tall trees swaying in the night wind.

I like to be visible from outer space.
We went to bed so late Saturday that we weren't sure we would actually do the Sunday ride to Windsor. But we got ourselves moving and after an adventuresome hour ride along the Thames, we found our way to the starting line in Richmond and signed up just before registration ended. We were soon off with the crowd, mostly following the Thames along a delightful path. It was great to see how populated the path and the river were--everyone was enjoying themselves. At one point, we suddenly came across a palatial looking mansion--indeed, it was the Hampton court palace. About halfway on the 28 mile ride, we stopped for a delicious hog roast at a village pub, the delightful Royal Marine; everyone was abuzz because the pub had 4 pairs of baby twins in it. The parents had all met at the hospital while giving birth and decided to make getting together a regular occurrence. KT thought they really wouldn't miss one baby, so I got us out of there quickly. After slogging up a few tough hills, we finally made it into Windsor, speeding past the Queen's castle (she was apparently in residence as the Union Jack flag was flying) to the finish line in a nearby park. After celebrating our accomplishment for a while, we pedaled a bit around Windsor and crossed the Thames to visit the famous boy's school Eton. A train fortunately sped us back to London and we wearily cycled home the short distance to our room.

An amusing sign along the ride - "Stop feeding the horse - to[o] fat"
Monday morning saw us over at the Natural History Museum for a few hours before we packed up our bikes and sped back across town to catch an afternoon train back to Cambridge. A busy, fun-filled London weekend--and it only cost me one vacation day.

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