Reading the first part of The Habitual Runaway’s visit to London has inspired me to write about the first time I went there. Like her, I have since visited many times but that first one, for me, was most definitely memorable. I have always been interested in British history and culture and always knew that the first time I could afford to take a proper trip, it would be to London and the U.K. In 1993, I was ready.
I planned a trip with a woman I was friendly with at work. She’d been there once or twice and she’d traveled a bit so at least one of us would know where to go and what to do and how to navigate Heathrow Airport! We decided to take a bus tour around England, Wales and Scotland with a couple of days in London at the beginning and at the end. I had not undertaken a big trip like this since high school when I went on the French department trip to Rome and Paris. This was big. This was an adult dream come true. We planned, and decided on a tour and booked it. We were going near the end of August and we were both quite excited. Maybe a little too excited? Add on to that, some work stress in the weeks leading up to it and we were more than ready to get away.
The overnight flight felt very long and there was a child near where we were sitting who wouldn’t settle down, poor kid so we didn’t get any sleep at all. On top of the excitement and recent job stress, can we add sheer exhaustion to the mix? Right. We met with the tour director and with many others on the tour, were bussed to the hotel. We had vouchers for the theatre which had to be exchanged for tickets so we decided to go to Covent Garden to the agent office and do that. My friend was anxious about getting that sorted out.
After that was done, we stopped for lunch but she wasn’t very hungry. She was quiet, but I put that down to being tired. I was excited and buzzed and past tired by this point. She wanted to go back to the hotel for a nap so we did but she was restless and finally sat up and announced she was homesick.
Yes, she said she was homesick and wanted to go home. She explained that she’d had that sort of feeling in the past while traveling but it hadn’t happened until later in a trip and if she sat in the bar with her book and a beer for a couple of hours, she’d soon be ok. (Why can’t you do that now? was my first thought). She had never had this feeling on arrival and was worried. What if the feeling didn’t go away and we were out in the middle of the country on the bus tour? What would she do? And what will she do if she can’t get home tomorrow? But she also worried because she didn’t want to ruin my trip. The more she talked, the more I realized it wasn’t “homesick”, but she was probably having “nerves” or something out of her control because it didn’t really sound rational.
I told her that if she stayed and couldn’t shake whatever this was, it *would* ruin my trip more than if she left. I was in an English-speaking country, I’d be on a bus tour with others, I’d be fine. I suggested that even if she couldn’t fly back to our city, she could probably get a flight to Toronto or Montreal and she thought that would be ok, she could get home from there. She’d not thought of that, which convinced me even more that there was something not right. You don’t spend that kind of money on a holiday to dump it 24 hours after you get there. Travel insurance isn’t going to cover you for this kind of interruption. She called Air Canada and got a flight for the next day without a problem (which costs her even more!) and she actually started to settle a bit but she was still intent on leaving.
Me? I’m freaking out a bit. Yes, I knew I would be ok, but it’s still a bit overwhelming and the exhaustion and jet lag are kicking in hard. We tried to have a meal in the hotel restaurant but it was my turn to have no appetite. She was fine, I was feeling very off. I think I was also dehydrated because this half-ill feeling hung on for a couple of days past getting a few nights’ sleep. Later in the evening, she did go to the bar with her book and I tried to sleep. I tossed and turned, I found it too warm, then cold, and my skin felt like it was crawling. I think that was probably wayyyy over-tired on top of the anxiety.
Then, around 11 or 12 o’clock, I heard a deep resonant sound, the sound of a bell sounding the hour. A kind of thrill went through me. Big Ben!!!! I’m in LONDON! Oh. My. God. My dream come true! That realization calmed me down a bit. I got excited again but eventually I was able to fall asleep.
I realized much later, it couldn’t possibly have been Big Ben that I heard because we were far west of Westminster near Islington and the Angel tube stop. It might, however, have been St. Paul’s which wasn’t all that far from there. It was a bloody big bell, that’s all I know.
She left the next day after breakfast. I walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral that morning for a look round and took a taxi back to the hotel, had a quick lunch and joined the bus tour I’d signed up for that drove around the City and herded us through the Tower of London.
The day after that, I met up with the tour group and told them my friend had a family emergency and had to go home. I really enjoyed the tour and hung out with a number of other singles and a few couples. Lovely people and the tour was amazing! I saw so much that I’d always read about and I knew I’d find a way to return.
After the tour, I had another couple of days in London. I changed hotels and there was a bit of trouble because my friend had left with the voucher but it was sorted out. I met up with one couple from the tour and we walked around and down to Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. I had given my friend’s theatre ticket to another lady from the tour who was traveling on her own. I didn’t pay for it, why would I sell it to her? We saw Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
The other day that I had on my own found me back down by Westminster Abbey for another look. Later, I wandered through the National Gallery, gazing at famous paintings and saw some really wonderful Turners and Constables. I even took the tube over to Harrods to see the fantastic food halls and buy some teabags so that I could say I purchased something there!
My first visit to London started off with a big hiccup but, to use today’s vernacular, I wore my big girl panties and just got on with it. My friend felt very bad for leaving but she did what she had to do and I never held it against her. She later discovered that what she had was an anxiety attack and learned that it would have settled itself down had she stayed. Live and learn.
I’ve been back to London a lot since then, both alone and with a traveling partner and have had adventures, and enjoyed so much of the city. I’ve made friends who live there and try to touch base with them when we stay over. My partner and I have been revisiting some of London’s sights, things he’s never seen and most of which I haven’t for quite awhile so it’s nice to see them again with a fresh perspective and get updated photos. We may try to get to London again this fall.
The photos here are scans of the ones I took on that first visit so they aren’t as good as more recent photos. To read more about that trip and the tour, go here.