Travel By River

Are you quite ready to get back to London?  I know I am.

France was magnifique, but London Town is home!

Sadly, I only have a few more days in this beautiful city before I head back to America.  Consequently, the rose-coloured (yep) glasses are in full effect and I’m looking upon even the most mundane details of London life with soppy sentimentality.  I thought I’d take a break from big adventures to appreciate some of the little things.  So this, folks, is a post about my work commute!  Hooray, right?!  No?  I promise you’ll like it.

I’ve had a summer internship at a start-up in the City (the financial district), which meant an hour-long twice-daily commute on the packed tube during rush hour.  Despair, sweat, and death.  In that order.  Until societal expectations change and it is socially acceptable for me to rest my head on the back of the businessman wedged in front of me, this will never be a happy situation.  However, a couple of months ago, I made a life-changing discovery.

I could take the BOAT.


TfL (forever the gold standard for public transport systems in my heart) runs a River Bus service called the Thames Clippers which can zip you up and down the river in half the time that the tube takes.  There are only a handful of piers sprinkled along the Thames, but by a stroke of good fortune, I live nearly right on top of one.  It took me a few weeks of acclimatization before I could get up early enough to catch the boat in to work, so I started out just taking it home.

My office was a quick 15-minute walk to Blackfriars (above), through the City and past St. Paul’s.  Having the chance to walk past that beautiful cathedral every day is something that’s quickly become routine, but I want to remember how special it really is (a life exotic, ya know?).


I hop on there, and the boat rolls up to Embankment next (right by LSE… yup, I could have been doing this alllll year.  Kicking myself to the max!).


It’s kinda lovely.  I’ve had a couple of trips where it’s been cloudy or raining, but it’s still not too shabby when you get this view:


(I spy the London Eye!)

Let’s face it, Big Ben looks purdy in any light.  Even under an Eeyore-worthy little black rain cloud.


Moving right along.  I can’t even tell you what a difference it made to my general mood and peace of mind to breeze along the river in the fresh air (or cozied up inside) instead of shoving myself in to a Tetris puzzle of suits and hoping nobody sneezes on me.

You also get a completely different perspective on London by traveling by river.  It’s like when I started walking or taking the bus between by usual tube stops – I realized how everything was connected instead of just popping up from underground!


The futuristic flat buildings at St. George Wharf are pretty cool, and somehow remind me a little bit of Sydney.


The further west you get, the more things calm down.  Passing through Vauxhall on one side and Pimlico on the other, suddenly the bustle of Westminster seems far behind you.  There were times during the year when I lamented the fact that I lived so much further from the city center than some of my classmates, but truthfully,  it’s very refreshing to leave it all behind at the end of the day and head back to Zone 2.


Whenever we sailed past the lovely Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, I always knew I was getting close to home.


Then the lovely Albert Bridge would loom up out of the distance.  This is my neck of the woods (that phrase always makes me think of Al Roker… sorry Dad).


After a few more minutes, we’d dock up at my pier and a handful of us are unloaded a few steps from my front door (well, basically).

And look – eventually, I got my act together enough to catch the morning boat in to work, too.  I would pop into our local coffee shop (where I’m sitting right now, incidentally) and leisurely wander down to the pier with Americano in hand.  It’s been the epitome of the word “pleasant.”


I just can’t believe I didn’t figure this out sooner.  My commute became one of the things I looked forward to most – just a few calm, peaceful, precious minutes to relax and clear my head before heading in for a full workday or getting home to continue dissertation work.  I’m going to be the crazy lady who waxes poetic about her youth in the urban jungle by saying, “Oh, I miss commuting!”

Ah well.  I was always going to be crazy.

Green & Lovely Greenwich

One of the things I miss most about the Outer Banks is the community.

Despite being a happenin’ vacation destination from May to September, the number of people who actually lived there was relatively small, so everyone knew everyone else.  The bond of “local” runs deep.

This was evident in the most significant way after Hurricane Irene when everyone mobilized to help those whose homes had been ruined by the storm, but it’s also apparent in other ways.  No matter how far you travel, the label of OBXer keeps you connected.  Acquaintances who would otherwise be relative unknowns become friends through the beach bum bond.

One of my regular coffee customers has a granddaughter who just finished up a semester abroad in Ireland and was passing through London for a few days on her way back to the US, so she emailed me and asked if I wanted to get together.  She was staying on the opposite side of London from my flat, so we decided to meet in the middle and adventure south of the river to Greenwich.

Yet another neighborhood that I had yet to explore, Greenwich stole my heart almost instantly, and I’m mostly posting these photos to convince Amity that we should move there when our lease runs out in August.

First of all, you get to take the DLR to get there, and I love the DLR more than most things in this life.


If you resist the urge to hop off at the very appetizingly-named Mudchute station, you’ll emerge into sunny (well, sometimes) cobbled streets and perfect little shop fronts – including a Ben & Jerry’s!


This little alleyway spills on to the main street through town, which twists around and spits you out right at the river.

It’s a gorgeous, sunsoaked little road with plenty of cafés to caffeinate you up for your stroll along the Thames.  Just look at these perfect cottony clouds!



Greenwich has an amazingly rich maritime history and is a World Heritage Site.  The first thing you’ll stumble across along the waterfront is Cutty Sark, her masts and rigging towering above you and stamping silhouettes on the sky.


Cutty Sark was built in 1869 and is one of the fastest tea clippers ever constructed.  Kind of amazing to think that this actual ship sailed all around the world in the 1800s.  She’s been on voyages to Shanghai, Sydney, Indonesia, and Cape Town, among other exotic locales.

The ship has been moored here permanently since 1954 and is now open to the public as a museum.  Cuts quite the impressive figure, eh?  (Cuts.  Get it?)


I arrived a bit early to meet Sage, so I took my time walking along the river in the shade of all the lovely greenery.  I can’t believe what a difference it made when all the trees grew their leaves back this year – London’s a completely different place when it’s green!




I loved wandering through the grounds of the magnificent Old Royal Naval College.  You may recognize it as having been smashed to bits in Thor 2, but I assure you it’s quite intact in real life.




Eventually I went to meet Sage at The Old Brewery.  They describe it as “café by day, restaurant by evening, bar by night” – basically, you’d never have to leave.

They’re also part of the Meantime Brewing Company which makes some pretty good craft beer.  Big copper brewing tanks take up one corner of the dining room, and there’s even a chandelier made of brown beer bottles!




It was one of the first truly lovely days of the year, though, so we decided to take advantage of the weather and sit outside in the garden.  The whole place is surrounded by old brick walls and more leafy trees.  It was the perfect place to while away an afternoon, catching up on home turf and international adventures.


Pretty soon we decided we should see a bit more of the area in our limited time, so we took a quick pass past the National Maritime Museum (which Townes would LOVE!).


Sage hadn’t seen Cutty Sark on her way in, so we took a walk back down the high street and sat in the sun in front of the ship until she had to catch a train back to meet her hosts for the evening.



I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to Greenwich since we’d only just been introduced, so I decided to explore the other side of the town centre, including some cool old churches and cobbled alleyways.



I popped into Waterstone’s to find something to read and snapped this photo on the wall of their stairwell: particularly exciting as I was headed to a taping of QI to see Stephen Fry in the flesh purple suit later that evening!


I found a little café called Reddoor in an alley off of Greenwich Market and parked myself with a latte and my new book.



As much as I love wandering, exploring, and trying out everything a place has to offer, one of my favorite ways to experience somewhere new is just to sit and read a good book for a few hours with a tea or coffee.  There’s something very satisfying about a familiar activity in a novel environment – one of the nicest parts of our quick day in Oxford last fall was having tea in the garden while reading Jeeves & Wooster.

This view always makes for a happy girl:


Ah, Greenwich.  I think I love you.

Kew Gardens

Mum, you’re going to love this and be very mad at me.

When my family was here over New Year’s, I immediately dragged them to Stanford in Covent Garden so that they could ogle the maps and travel books with me.  It’s where I got almost all of their Christmas presents, and I think all four of us came away with a little something extra that day.

My dad gravitated to the pub guides and anything Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, while my mom wandered up to the top level to admire the huge framed photographs of locales all over the world.  She picked out her favorite print from across the room: an extra-long photo hanging right near the ceiling of a garden bursting with red and yellow tulips.  If she were a Liz Lemon fan, she would’ve said “I want to go to there.”

Upon closer inspection, we discovered it was a photo of Kew Gardens, also known as the Royal Botanic Gardens, in west London.  Sadly, it didn’t make it on to the agenda during their visit, but when Amity’s parents were here last month, they planned a day there and I tagged along.

Before we properly start, Mom, just remember that the gardens would NOT have looked the same during the first week of January as they did in the middle of April… so since we couldn’t have enjoyed them like this anyway, I thought you would appreciate the pictures.



To get to the gardens, we took the train out towards Richmond and hopped off in the cutest little village I’ve ever seen.  We walked through the square and down a wide shady street, and for a minute I was convinced I’d somehow wound up back on Park Ave in Rochester.  It was weirdly identical.


Just inside the brick walls is a nursery and a few tiny greenhouses where you can buy a little piece of the gardens to take home with you.




Next to the nursery there’s a big old pond with a handful of swans paddling around – and also there’s Pemberley.  I know I’ve said it before, but I think this was really it – I’m pretty sure I saw Mr. Darcy duck away from one of the windows.




I don’t actually know what the pseudo-Pemberley was, but I don’t think we were allowed in.  Instead, we decided to check out Palm House, a tropical greenhouse that looked like the galactic space fortress from a sci-fi special.



Inside, it was warm and muggy and full of the rustling of palm leaves.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can climb up the spiraling wrought iron staircases to take in the canopy view.





The curved roof, and the moss and mildew that was everywhere because of the warm temps and constant misting sprays, made the place look like an abandoned & overgrown railway station.


You might spot some wildlife, if you’re lucky!  This is my favorite specimen:


As an aspiring nature photographer, I was particularly pleased with this double-subject shot.


The plants and palm trees were organised in huge beds according to world region, so you could wander between continents in a matter of steps.





Having explored the majority of the flora, I ducked behind the giant bamboo and descended the stairs to the little underground aquarium.  Unfortunately, it was a little cement room with ceilings barely taller than I am, and honestly a bit depressing.

I did think these little garden eels were pretty cool – and I don’t think I’ve ever had anything positive to say about eels before.


We were all ready to head back in to the fresh air & sunshine after sweating it out in the gigantic greenhouse (and that wasn’t even the biggest one in the park!).

London has been bursting at the seams with cherry blossoms lately, and Kew was no exception.



I really liked the Asian-inspired rock garden, which was full of desert flowers, little waterfalls, and aquatic plants.



While Amity’s mom and I were standing by this little pond, a man came over, knelt down, and dropped something in to the water.  When he saw us watching him, he said, “They’re newts!  N-E-W-T!  Newts!”  Apparently, the little buggers kept getting sucked down the water circulation pipes, so this kindly worker spent his afternoon ferrying them back upstream by the handful.  I didn’t read his nametag, but I’m pretty sure if I’d gotten close enough to check it would’ve said “Gussie Finknottle.”


We’d already resigned ourselves to the fact that there was no way we’d see everything in a day – the gardens are just too big – so we just kept meandering around the perimeter and choosing paths as we went.  It made it much more pleasant, I think.



Are all botanic gardens required to have one tree that looks like Rafiki’s home?  I think probably.



This is a gingko tree (it’s not the Rafiki’s home one).  I’ve always liked that name.


However, in terms of trees, this weirdo takes the cake.  It’s called monkey puzzle, and from afar it looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book (actually, come to think of it, it would be good pals with Geneseo’s Seuss Spruce!).


Get a little closer, and you can see where it gets its name.  Even a clever little monkey couldn’t figure out how to climb these spiky suckers!  It was pretty, but also a bit sinister-looking.


Monkey puzzle is endangered, and native to South America.  I’ve also since found out that there’s a pub in London called The Monkey Puzzle.  I’m planning to visit it and wow the bartenders with my impressive knowledge of botany.


We made a midday pit stop for lunch in this charmingly-housed café.  Mom, this is where your tulips were!



We took a team approach to dessert and sampled just about everything they had.  The carrot cake was the unanimous winner (eat it, chocolate ganache! <—food joke) while the sad hazelnut cookie was all but forgotten.



After lunch, we visited the park’s main event: Kew Palace.  Kew is another of the Historic Royal Palaces, and even though Amity & I originally had high ambitions, we hadn’t made use of our joint membership since October.  It was high time to whip out that card again.

The palace is really more like a big house, set back along the river behind more beds of colorful blossoms.



These yellow double tulips may have been my favorite of the entire day!



I loved the vibrant burnt red brick color of the house against the blue sky.  Kew Palace has been rebuilt several times following fires or demolitions, and only recently underwent a ten-year period of refurbishment and historic preservation work, so it was looking especially spiffy.



Inside, they’d left the old original brick and wooden framing exposed, which I thought looked so neat.  It was more minimal in terms of furnishings and exhibits than other palaces and historic royal sites, but I actually preferred it that way.  It felt easier to just enjoy at your own pace and appreciate it for its actual history instead of its modern staging.



I only had about twenty minutes in the palace itself before I had to rush home to conduct a phone interview for my dissertation research.  I made my quick goodbyes before scampering outside and finding my way back through the park (I’d gotten almost as far from the entrance as possible).

I did stop to have a quick twirl around these larger-than-life thatched mushrooms, though.  It made me feel like I was Alice in Wonderland!


Finally I made it back to the train station and cast a last, longing glance around, wishing I could stay.  I mean, look at this place.  That guy on the left under the green umbrella was wearing a straw hat and pushing an ice cream cart around.


Kew Gardens are well worth a visit if you’re in London.  You might be able to see it all in one go if you make a very full day of it, but otherwise, just plan to go back – like me.  I hear Elvis Costello is playing there this summer…

And Mum, I promise I’ll take you next time!

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