It was hard not to pack my Norton Anthology. Following my mother’s retirement from teaching as a Special Education English specialist for 20 years, we decided to make our pilgrimage to London, England, to experience many of the sights related to works we taught over the years. My cousin Wendy, who is the third English major in our family, was living outside London at the time and joined us for some of our trip. Here are some of our experiences and tips on how to travel like an English teacher.
- Shakespeare’s Globe–We saw a three hours traffic upon the reconstructed stage of Antony and Cleopatra. Tickets range from £5 for groundlings to £45 for seats. Plan to rent cushions. The acting was exceptional and the environment was everything I had built it up to be since I began teaching Shakespeare. (Read to the end to see what happens when you overdose on Shakespeare.)
- Stratford-upon-Avon–The Brits pronounce Avon as it rhymes with raven, so I will henceforth. We took a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon on the train and saw the Bard’s birthplace, Holy Trinity Church, and three other locations significant to Shakespeare’s life. Outside of his birthplace, actors were performing scenes upon request. We requested a scene from Antony and Cleopatra and a sonnet which they sung.
- Westminster Abbey–In addition to the beautiful stained glass windows, intricate tombs, and vaulted ceilings, Poet’s Corner is awe-inspiring. The tombs, memorials, and sculptures, are full of the names in the index of your favorite Brit Lit textbook.
- The British Library–From a Shakespeare First Folio to Beatles lyrics scrawled on the back of a birthday card, this free stop is a must. We saw original drafts of works by Sylvia Plath, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and others with whole passages marked out and notes in the margins. It was as if we were able to see the writer’s thought process at work.
- Double-Decker Bus Tour–The double-decker bus is such an iconic image of London and a hop-on, hop-off tour can help you get acclimated to the layout of the city. We were planning to do this on our first day, but the Queen was addressing Parliament. We learned that the best transit is on foot when the Queen is moving around London.
- Tower of London–The tours provided by the Yeoman Warder’s, or Beefeaters, are fact-filled and entertaining. Famous prisoners here include Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lady Jane Grey, Guy Fawkes, and (in the 20th century) Rudolph Hess.
- National Gallery–Donation requested–A self-guided audio tour is a great way to see some of the vast collection at the National Gallery. We saw works by Rembrandt, Degas, and Monet. My mother’s favorites were Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “Vincent’s Chair.” I particularly liked Ruben’s use of light in painting such as “Sampson and Delilah” and Delaroche’s “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.”
- Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace–Free–You can wait near the gate to view the full spectacle or show up later and see the parade leaving the palace. We caught bits and pieces of the change each time we were near “Buck House.”
- Musicals on the West End–This is London’s Broadway. We were able to see Billy Elliot, which was a great choice since the story was set in England. We also saw Wicked, and, yes, they do sing and perform with British accents. Both shows were incredible.
$ saving travel tips
- Get a great travel book–We used Rick Steves’ London and never left the hotel without it. It is a great size and full of money and time saving travel tips.
- Take the red-eye–If you are able to travel through the night and arrive early the next morning then you give yourself another day of sight-seeing. Most hotels will store your luggage until your room is ready.
- Location–We chose to stay in the annex of a chain hotel near Victoria Station. By being in the annex we were right around the corner from the main building, but had a reduced rate and did not have to pay for the full English breakfast provided each morning. Our room was tiny with two twin beds, but we were so rarely there it was perfect for us. We walked to lots of sights or had easy access to the rail, bus, and underground systems in Victoria station.
- Sainsbury’s and M & S Simply Foods–We used the small grocery stores which are all throughout London to grab a quick breakfast and bottled water for the day.
- Take the Underground–The “tube” system in London is clean, comprehensive, and efficient. You will grow fond of the British accent telling you to “Mind the Gap” as you step from the platform onto the tube. We had the added benefit of having my cousin help us understand the system the first day; however, it is a very user-friendly system the most people can easily navigate.
Learn from our mistakes
- An expensive black cab ride–We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel and the meter just kept going up, up, up. Better planning would have saved us a lot of money. We could’ve taken the tube or a hotel van service, but after a long flight from JFK (which we nearly missed) and losing my luggage (which was delivered four days later) the black cab seemed like the easiest option. We arranged much more reasonable transportation when returning to the airport.
- St. Thomas’ hospital–A severe combination of jet lag, lack of food, and heat made me violently ill following the play at the Globe. I was finally taken by ambulance to St. Thomas’s hospital where I spent many hours being treated by a nurse who was originally from West Virginia and a doctor who looked no older than 16. The hospital had no air conditioning, no ice (the nurse actually laughed at me when I asked for ice chips), and a mentally ill patient in the waiting area loudly asking for an audience with the Queen. After IV fluids, pain meds, and a thorough physical exam which included checking my reflexes, I was finally diagnosed as “generally unwell” and sent on my way. I like to think of it more as a Shakespearen overdose.
We had 8 full days and still only scratched the surface of the things that we wanted to do in and around London. We have a full list for next time (which does not include St. Thomas’ hospital).