All Around the Town

We woke on Friday morning to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine…the weather couldn’t have been nicer. We started with a quick breakfast at the hotel, and were happy to finally meet Cathy and Bob who were going to be on our cruise. Cathy and I had been e-mailing and planning for months, and it was great to put faces with names.

I’ll tell you right up front that both of the tours we took on Friday were a bit of a mixed bag. Our first activity of the day was a walking tour of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market with Discover Walks.

It was a short, easy trip on the Tube to Notting Hill Gate Station where we were to meet our guide (in a distinctive pink vest) outside Exit 1. Let’s start with the fact the directions were wrong…Exit 1 brought us up from the Tube on the wrong side of the street. Then let’s talk about the distinctive pink vest our guide was wearing. Wait! You guessed it…there was nobody in a pink vest anywhere in the area.

We had been asked to be at the meeting place at 9:50. Finally at about 10:10 I called the emergency number. The person who answered was very concerned that she couldn’t get in touch with her guide and not at all concerned that we were standing on a street corner waiting for a prepaid tour and didn’t seem to have a guide. Looking back, I think the office dropped the ball on communication, because just after the conversation ended our guide (without a vest or any other identifying garment) approached us.

We had a nice stroll, but I don’t feel like we really learned anything about the area. Our guide was more of a companion than a guide — he largely left us to our own devices unless we asked about something. The conversation was pleasant, but not particularly informative.

Portobello Road Market probably came the closest to my memories of any of the things we saw in London. As a teenager, I loved Saturday outings to Portobello Road for embroidered shirts and armloads of cheap bangles. That part hasn’t changed! You can still purchase all kinds of embroidered clothing and inexpensive jewelry. The only things that really seemed different to me were the houses behind the stalls have been fixed up, and the market stalls now line the sides of the street instead of filling it.

Portobello Road Market in the mid 1970s:

Portobello Road Market today:

Street art near the market…

From my trips to Portobello Road as a teenager in the 1970s, I remember Notting Hill as being fairly run down. Like many other parts of London it’s been cleaned up, the homes have been renovated, and it is now very trendy and expensive. I know the movie had something to do with Notting Hill’s popularity, but given the location and beautiful old townhomes the revitalization would have happened anyway.

Walking through the area today, you would never guess Notting Hill was the scene of a race riot in the late 1950s and the carefully restored, colorful townhomes were once run down multi-family dwellings that were considered to be some of the worst slums in London.

Our guide took us to see the Grenfell Tower…the scene of the horrendous high rise apartment fire that killed 71 people in June of 2017. I’m not sure how I feel about the inclusion of that site on our tour. While it was a tragic event, the description of events turned to tales of ethnic cleansing and murder, putting a damper on the morning.

Shortly after we visited Grenfells we made our way back to Notting Hill Gate Station where we ended the tour. As I said earlier, it was a pleasant morning, but we could have done the same thing on our own with a little time on the internet to get some background information. I highly recommend touring the area, but I don’t think Discover Walks enhanced our experience at all.

We got back on the Tube headed to Embankment for lunch and our afternoon tour. We ate at Gordon’s Wine Bar, an ancient establishment on Villiers Street near Embankment Tube Station. It was a great choice! Gordon’s has a large outside seating area, so while the inside was so dark and dreary I could barely see where I was going, outside it was warm and sunny and perfect! I thought the food was great…a big hunk of bread, a slab of English Cheddar, Parma ham, butter, olives, marinated tomatoes…yum! I’d choose that for lunch every day if I could!

Our afternoon tour was with London Walks. They offer a wide variety of tours every day, with no advance booking required. You just show up at the designated location a few minutes before the scheduled time, pay £10 per person, and off you go. Our meeting place was just outside Embankment Tube Station.

We had chosen the Sherlock Holmes tour, and for me this was also a mixed bag. I had taken a Sherlock Holmes tour 5 years ago when I was in London on a Tauck Tour, but I didn’t realize Tauck had made special arrangements to turn the tour into a game just for our group. I had something like that in mind when we decided on the tour, but ours was just a regular walking tour.

Don’t get me wrong. Our guide Richard was very knowledgeable and a fantastic story teller. I enjoyed listening to him. There were just too many people for me to really enjoy the tour. I think we ended up with about 40 in our group, which can be kind of hard to manage walking through the streets of London. Richard was excellent about making sure everyone could hear his main talking points, but we didn’t get any of the side conversation we’re accustomed to on smaller walking tours.

I witnessed something interesting and a little scary during our walk. We were on The Strand not too far from Covent Garden…standing in a big half circle around Richard. A pick-pocket(?) dressed as a little old lady started trying to mingle with our group, which was loaded with people oblivious to their surroundings. I think the woman thought she had hit the jackpot, because the number of ladies in our group with open bags was astounding. I spotted her and immediately walked to the other side of the circle, making sure the potential thief saw me and knew I was on to her. She kept moving, but I kept her in view until Richard was done and we moved on. I told the would-be victims about it as we walked to our next stop, and they were shocked to think they had almost been robbed.

I don’t walk around cities paranoid, but I always try to be aware of my surroundings and take reasonable precautions like a secure bag that’s difficult to get into in a hurry. London is probably hardest for me, because I’m so comfortable there and I always feel safe, but I still keep my bag zipped and carry it so things like cash and credit cards are extremely difficult to get to. These ladies who were almost robbed had no clue…bags wide open with contents plainly visible. It’s no wonder I hear so many stories about people being pick-pocketed. They make it easy!

After our tour we went straight back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.

Six of us walked to the Kensington Hotel and had a leisurely, relaxing dinner at the Town House Restaurant. The pictures of the restaurant are from the website. I only remembered to photograph dessert!

As much as we were tempted to stay out and have fun, we didn’t finish dinner until after 9:00, and we needed to get back to the hotel and re-pack. Why does it seem like even though I work hard to keep things neat and do minimal unpacking, getting ready to board a ship after a few days away is always a chore? I finally finished getting everything ready to go long after Jim was asleep. I joined him in Dreamland so that I could get at least a few hours of rest before our Saturday morning 8:00 departure.

Up next…on to Stonehenge, Salisbury, and our ship!

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