We arrived in London around 6.20am local time, 20 minutes later than expected. The icy wind was a shock after the warm plane flight, but it was only a moment before we had our luggage and were winding our way towards the Immigration desks. Surprisingly, we were lined up in front of the same lady who was behind us back in Singapore. Despite claiming she was “not very sociable”, she recognised and chatted to 3 people in addition to us while we waited – one of whom apparently mistimed their sleeping tablet, falling asleep in the middle of dinner.
We got to enjoy the full immigrant experience, being carefully compared to our passport photos and quizzed about the details of our trip. Even Sarah was questioned:
Immigration officer: “And what’s your name?”
Sarah: “Little Witch.”
Me: (Don’t sound like you’re coaching her, don’t sound like you’re coaching her) “No, your real name!” (Dammit, I’m coaching her!)
Gotta love her imagination.
Once we were admitted into the country, we went about finding our way to our AirBNB flat in Camden Town. Although we probably could have worked out the ‘Tube’, we opted for a London cab due to what felt like our excessive amount of luggage. Never again.
Due to traffic, we ended up paying £100 (rounded down from £107 because the cabbie felt bad for us. To compare, the Tube would have cost under £20 and taken the same amount of time). On the upside, we can officially cross off ‘ride in a London cab’ from our bucket lists, if it ever made it on there. The driver even wore the same cap as the one in BBC Sherlock’s ‘A Study in Pink’ which was weird at first, but he was nice enough. Also weird (but apparently legal) was letting Sarah sit in the car without a child seat.
Once we arrived at our destination, we were greeted by our friendly host who showed us around the second-storey flat. It was small, but it was cheap for London and had 3 beds so we left our bags and headed out to do some grocery shopping.
The short walk to the shops was a little disappointing for me. I didn’t realise how much my idea of other countries had been shaped by movies and TV. There was rubbish everywhere – literally – both in and out of bags. Apparently London (or at least, that part of Camden Town) doesn’t do rubbish bins, so the bags were just left out on peoples’ doorsteps. Nice.
On our return to the apartment, we had some lunch and I started washing the clothes. The washing machine wasn’t plugged into the wall, which I thought was odd, but it was easy enough to plug it back in.
Taking a minute to sit down after my shower, I noticed a rather loud splashing sound coming from the kitchen. On exploring, I saw that the washing machine, located in the kitchen, had leaked into the kitchen cupboard and through to the floor. At this point, I called the owner (a different guy to the one who welcomed us) to inform him of the situation. Apparently, I was supposed to have been informed that the washing machine was out-of-order. Really out-of-order. As in, any liquid drawn into the machine would end up in the hallway downstairs, out-of-order. The guy was understandably unhappy, and had no qualms about telling me so. Repeatedly.
At this point, I feel like I should add that I am not trying to make out like I’m at all innocent. I plugged the machine in; I turned it on. However, I was not willing to shoulder all of the blame. While I could have spent more time considering why it had been unplugged in the first place (I just assumed a dodgy / lack of power point behind the machine), a simple communication from our hosts could have averted this whole crisis. And it was a crisis.
As soon as we discovered the leak, Ben started looking for a new place to stay. A preliminary search on AirBNB came up empty, so we booked a hotel for the night (it was just after lunch at this point) to buy us more time to look. The Park Plaza London Waterloo was way over budget but available and – as it turned out – quite nice.
By this point we were feeling pretty shell-shocked. It felt like we had started our first family trip rather literally, stumbling from one obstacle to the next. Fortunately for us, my (super-awesome) cousin John and his fiancée had been living in London for a few months already, and were more than happy to help. (“Pro” tip: if you know anyone who lives or has lived in the place you are visiting, talk to them. They will make your lives 1000% easier). John dropped by the hotel with cashed-up Oyster cards, sight-seeing recommendations, a travel guide, and a local Three SIM card which he set up for us. He then took us out to dinner, showing us Big Ben along the way. Did I mention that he’s super awesome?
This much-appreciated assistance allowed Ben and I to take a breath and realise that we needed a little more time before taking our next step, so we extended our stay at the hotel for another night and passed out.
The next day we caught a double-decker bus to St James Park, next to Buckingham Palace. With the time it took for the bus to fight the London traffic it probably would have been quicker to walk, but it was exciting. We didn’t actually hit anything (or anyone), but it was close. The park itself was nice, if a bit crowded. We saw our first squirrel, our delight only drawing a few sidelong glances from other park visitors. After a little wandering we found ourselves close to the palace, so we decided to go take a look. While it wasn’t exactly on the ‘must-see’ list, we found ourselves excited (and for me, even proud) after we realised that the Queen was, technically, our queen too.
Despite the crowds, we managed to find an open spot by the fence and stare at the guards for a while. For some reason I thought that they were going to be still and quiet (too much TV, maybe?), but these guys were patrolling around pretty regularly, and even screamed at some idiot to “GET OFF THE FENCE!” a few times.
Not wanting to leave immediately, we wandered around to the left of the Palace, admiring the general ‘English-ness’ of the area: a horse-and-carriage clip-clopped by. Some weird-looking bees were chilling in the garden. Sarah took a great interest in the Queen’s role, particularly in regard to land ownership:
“Whose tree is that?”
“Well, it’s on the Palace grounds, so I guess it’s the Queen’s.”
“What about the grass there?”
“That’s on the grounds too, so it’s probably the Queen’s too.”
“What about the fence? Is that the Queen’s?”
“And the flowers?”
and so forth. One day I may confirm whether this is in fact true, but for now I don’t think it’s going to hurt for Sarah to believe that the Queen owns pretty much everything in Great Britain. We can’t let her grow up without at least one misconception.
After that, it was back to the hotel to find some longer-term accommodation. Upon our arrival at the hotel, we had given our soaking, half-washed clothes to housekeeping to sort out. £60! We needed a place with a washing machine, fast. AirBNB had treated us well after the Camden Town debacle, giving us a full refund plus a $200AUD credit for re-booking and even some suggestions of other places to stay, so we decided to give them another chance. After a painful 45 minutes of sifting through expensive or dodgy listings, I checked out Edinburgh, Scotland on a whim. It worked out cheaper to book a return train trip and stay in a pretty little cottage in Tranent, Scotland than to stay anywhere in the London area. To top it all off, it was an instant-book listing, so in 10 minutes we booked accommodation, paid for train tickets, and called the host to let her know we’d be there tomorrow afternoon. She took it really well, considering. Actually, she was rather wonderful – but more on that later.
The next morning we enjoyed our second very English breakfast, which was really tasty except the bacon was served (drowned) in melted butter which I found rather disgusting. There was a wide assortment of other food on offer though, so I wasn’t unhappy for long. Well-fortified for the day ahead, we set off on our northern adventure. We arrived at Kings Cross station a little early for our 10.20 train, which was lucky because we found a Paperchase store (they produce my favourite notebooks which I haven’t been able to source since Borders closed down circa. 2011) and an ACTUAL PLATFORM 9 3/4!! (Sort of.) There was also a Harry Potter shop, but by this point we were in a bit of a rush to find a real platform, so we vowed to check it out upon our return.
The train was quite impressive compared to what we were used to. It was clean and didn’t stink, the seats were comfy and we could have had free wifi had we booked through the right website. As it turned out, the wifi only cost about £5, so Ben logged in and got a few solid hours of work done. Sarah and I did some colouring, played I-Spy, and when she got too bored we pulled out the tablet and headphones and she played games while I stared out the window or jotted things in my notebook. The only thing I would have changed was when we visited the dining cart: by the time we went to buy something, all the hot food was sold out and the sandwiches left something to be desired. Still, the 4.5 hour trip passed quickly, and we soon arrived in Scotland, birthplace of our ancestors – or at least, some of them.