Travelling Hopefully

16 January

Almost feels odd to plan a trip within the UK which takes so little travelling time!

I dropped the parrot off with a friend before going home, finishing my packing, and being collected by a taxi at 11.30am. Ninety minutes later, I arrived in London Euston, where my friend was waiting for me. 

We made our way to our youth hostel, which is just off Oxford Street. Sadly, the lift was out of order, so we had to haul our cases up three sets of stairs. We’d both packed various bits of food to assist with our self-catering, so there was more weight to our bags than just clothing.

After checking in, we left food items in the kitchen and went up another two sets of steps to our room. We had a private, two bed room, and my friend very graciously agreed to have the top bunk. The toilets and showers were just a few steps outside our door. 

We went out just to wander around the local area. Carnaby Street is nearby, with its collection of expensive boutique shops and interesting restaurants. We looked in one window at beautifully displayed handbags. ‘They haven’t put prices on them,’ said my friend. ‘As my mother always said,’ I replied, ‘“If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”’


Our wanders led us to a grand church, St George’s, Hanover Square, and visited inside. Plaques listing the names of the churchwardens (people with special responsibility for the fabric and good running of the church) over the last three hundred years revealed the type of person who worshipped there.  Dukes, Earls, Lords (no women, it seemed!) have all taken their turn. 

Our continued wanderings brought us to an art gallery with modern (and expensive) paintings by people we’d never heard of. A bit further down, we found a wonderful shop full of old maps. The owner invited us to come inside, and proceeded to spend quite some time with us. I think he realised that there was no way we could afford to buy anything (prices started at £750), but we were truly fascinated by many of his wares and he seemed to enjoy showing us some of his favourites. I fell in love with a mappa mundi, although it cost £3500. 

A notice in the shop stated that ‘frames are for decorative purposes only and the map will be sold without a frame’. I asked why, and it appears this has to do with Value Added Tax. A map sold on its own does not attract any tax, as it is considered educational. However, if the map is in a frame, it is then a decorative object, and attracts VAT at 20%.

We headed back and found ourselves a traditional English pub. Ale was downed and crisps were eaten. Once refreshed, we went to the local Marks and Spencer’s to buy some milk and bits of food. Then it was back to the youth hostel to cook our dinner and settle in for the night. 

17 January

During the night, something decided to sting me on my cheek and neck. In the morning, I found my right eye was bothering me. Inspection in the mirror revealed a very swollen eyelid. We made a trip to Boots, and the pharmacist decided it was an allergic reaction and suggested some antihistamine. I downed a tablet and, as the day went on, the swelling did reduce.

We set off on the mile and half walk to the Postal Museum, taking this at a leisurely pace so we could admire the London streets. Once at the Postal Museum, we bought our entry tickets, and reported to the Mail Rail station. Until 2003, underground tunnels with an automated railcars delivered post across London. The tunnels and the trains have been preserved, and passengers (if not too large!) can take a fifteen-minute trip on the train through part of the tunnels. A pre-recorded audio commentary sounded through the train, and we stopped a couple of times for images, illustrating the heyday of operations, to be shown on the white walls.

After admiring the exhibits related to the trains, we returned to the other part of the museum to have a hot drink and to eat our lunch. Then we visited the main display area, which gave the history of the postal system in the UK. This included the efforts to keep the postal system running during two World Wars. 

The weather was still clear when we left, although the wind was cold. We found our way to a small place called ‘Novelty Automation’. The building is full of strange automated devices. You buy tokens which you feed into the machines. One held a plastic dog’s head, and the dog growls and drips saliva on the hand which you bravely hold underneath. Others were ‘Alien Probe’ and ‘Pet or Meat’ (spinning a wheel decided whether a lamb was cuddled or eaten by a human family). 

Our walk back to the hostel took us past the British Museum. I visited a small display about German Notgeld, special paper money issued by German towns during the Weimar Republic. The notes were meant to replace coins as small change, but quickly became collectable items. 

It was my turn to cook dinner. We stayed in the dining area for awhile afterwards to enjoy a drink from the hostel bar. 

18 January

Woke up to nearly normal right eyelid, and several new bug bites on face and hands. I don’t expect to be fighting insects in London in January! I now think it was a bug bite on my eyelid which caused the swelling.

We’d booked tickets for the Adventure Travel Show, which is held once a year in London. At the one and only time I’d been before, seven years ago, I’d entered a competition to win a free trip travelling around New Zealand—and I’d won! I went on the trip in early 2014. 

My other abiding memory from that visit to the Show was helping a woman plan how to use the underground to reach her destination. She spoke no English, and I didn’t speak whichever language she’d tried on me, so we pointed at her tube map and I drew little arrows. I had this strange fear that I’d bump into her today, and discover that she’d spent the last seven years wandering around the underground, hopelessly lost…

When we arrived at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, we were alarmed at the massive queues to go in. However, a few quick questions of the stewards nearby revealed that the queues were for ‘RuPauls Drag Con UK 2020’. (Signs did not include the possessive apostrophe!) Lots of people were dressed up for the occasion, including a good number of children.

Our event was around the side and in another part of the building. And there was no queue. We held out our tickets and took the lift to the exhibition floor. 

A number of larger tour operators were present, but the reason I like the show is that smaller companies are also featured. I picked up brochures, signed up to email lists (maybe I’ll win another competition?), and collected a number of free canvas bags. We went to a couple of presentations, one on how tourism is controlled in the Antarctic, and the other on modern Mongolia. 

Afterwards we made our way back to the hostel, dumping our stuff and having a hot drink before heading out to a local restaurant which makes its own pasta. After a nice meal and a glass of red wine, we returned to our accommodation to relax. 

19 January

My friend had expressed a desire to attend Solemn Mass at Westminster Cathedral on our Sunday in London, so this morning we duly made our way there. The day was cold but bright, not a single cloud in the sky. Outfitted with layers of clothing, as well as hats and gloves, we walked from tube station to the cathedral. We were early enough to have time to admire the ornate exterior before proceeding inside. 

The service was what we call ‘smells and bells’ in the Church of England. Incense was burned in a metal thurible, which was carried in at the start of the service. The priest swung the thurible as he paced around the altar. Sunlight streamed through the windows and smoke in the area above the altar, but the smell wasn’t particularly strong.

There was a lot of singing, but no hymns. Much of the service was in plainchant, often in Latin, sung sometimes by the priest, sometimes by the choir, and sometimes by the congregation. I found the plainchant notations hard to follow. They seemed far more intricate than those I’ve used in Anglican services. 

The homily was ten minutes long, pleasant enough but nothing stuck in my mind. The priest prepared the altar himself (I was a bit surprised that there was no deacon to do so) and two other priests concelebrated with him. (The other two stood at either end of the altar, also robed, and stretched out their hands at appropriate parts of the Eucharistic prayer). 

After the service ended, we took some photos, then went to the Cathedral Hall for a cup of tea. Afterwards, we walked down to the Houses of Parliament. I had a guidebook on my iPhone which offered a walk around Westminster, which we followed. This took us past Westminster Abbey (with the eye-watering entrance price of £23.00!), Whitehall, past Downing Street, and to Horseguards. People were making a nuisance of themselves to be photographed next to the horses, and part of me really wanted them to be nipped or kicked to teach them a lesson. I’ll repent later.

In need of a break, we found a lovely traditional pub (only 150 years old, though) and had a drink and a sit down. Thus refreshed, we went through to Horse Guards Parade and along St James’s Park. I was intrigued by the ivy-covered Citadel, which was built as a bomb-proof communications centre for the Navy in WWII. 

We continued on through Pall Mall and the rather grand buildings. Discreet plaques list the names of the gentlemen’s clubs which are housed therein. Sadly the gardens at St James’s square were shut, but I was excited to see a blue plaque stating that Ada Lovelace had lived in one of the houses there. 

The shops along Jermyn Street featured shirts, shoes, and other expensive items for the well-dressed gentleman. There was also a specialist cheese shop which offered, amongst other delicacies, 2013 parmesan for £75.00 a kilo. 

A small bit of US history is commemorated on the walk towards St James’s Palace. A plaque near an archway states that this was the base of the independent Texan Republic’s legation until Texas became part of the USA in 1845.

We headed into Green Park, and bought hot drinks to sip as we walked past Buckingham Palace. The Queen was not in residence, so the Union Flag clung to the flag pole. We headed towards Birdcage Walk (there used to be a royal aviary here) and to a delightful street, St Anne’s Gate. We fell in love with one building in particular, but as properties in the area cost around £17 million on average, there was no point in making an offer. 

Both the walk and the daylight were drawing to an end. We took the underground back to Oxford Street, and stopped in another traditional pub for a drink before heading back to our hostel. 

20 January

Today’s trip was to what is my favourite area in London, and in fact in all of the UK, Maritime Greenwich. The best way to travel there is by River Bus (actually a boat), and so after breakfast my friend and I headed out on the underground to Westminster, where we boarded the River Bus.

The skies were grey as the boat took us down the Thames. I think London is best seen from the river. Ancient buildings such as the Houses of Parliament (currently partially covered by scaffolding) and St Paul’s Cathedral still hold their own against modern office buildings. Ancient neighbourhoods have been renovated (and, sadly, made unaffordable to common workers) and new houses and flats built. Although it was a bit cold, I still remained outside to make the most of the trip. I do enjoy being on water and I don’t suffer from seasickness.

We exited at Greenwich and made our way to the Cutty Sark. I have often passed the ship, but this was the first time I actually visited her. She was built in 1869 for the tea trade, making eight trips to China before the arrival of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal meant that tea clippers were no longer needed. She moved on to transport cargo, in particular wool from Australia. Later on, she was used as a training ship for the Thames Nautical Training College. In 1954, she was towed to Greenwich, and opened to the public in 1957.

The interior is a museum, which I found fascinating. The audio guide took us through her history, and the history of the tea trade. Seems it was an annual race to be the first ship back to England with Chinese tea. The Cutty Sark never came first. 

We ate our lunch in the seating area under the ship. After looking at the last few of the exhibits, we visited the toilets. And this was my first awareness that something was not right with my bladder, as I was unable to urinate. This is a problem I’ve had a few times before, usually linked to bad constipation, and indeed I’d had an ‘interesting’ time the night before. 

Trying not to fret about it, my friend and I went on to the National Maritime Museum. I have a great interest in the history of polar exploration, and I was pleased that the museum has set up a new section about trips to the Arctic and Antarctic.  Whilst there, I made several more trips to the toilets, all unsuccessful. 

My friend and I had intended to take the Docklands Light Railway back to central London, but I asked to take the River Bus instead as the boat offers toilets. This we did, and despite my growing discomfort I still took photos of London Docklands and Tower Bridge as night fell. 

Although we had planned to have a meal out that evening, my friend agreed that it was best for us to return to the hostel so I could continue to wrestle with my digestive system. She cooked a meal for herself (food was the last thing on my mind) whilst I paced the hostel corridor and kept trying to use the loo. 

Finally at 8pm I gave up and phoned the NHS 111 service to seek help. The woman I spoke to told me to go direct to the nearest Accident and Emergency Department. As by this time I was too uncomfortable to contemplate using public transport, I ordered a taxi. My friend and I knew without having to discuss it that of course she’d be coming to the hospital with me. (Isn’t that the beauty of true friendship?)

I’ve never visited an A&E in the evening, and only twice have I even been in one even in the daytime. When I gave my name and address, the NHS computer system located my records and my NHS number. The computer record stated that my treatment was ‘free everywhere’ in the UK, which was comforting to note. I’ve certainly paid enough in taxes over the years!

Of course, although I was put into the priority area, people coming in with bleeding wounds or suspected heart attacks took precedence. So it was around 11pm when I was finally in a cubicle. Although readers might not want too many details, let’s just say that it doesn’t hurt to have a catheter inserted. In the end (by around 1.30am!) over a litre of liquid was drained. 

21 January

I was told that I was to wear a catheter for about a week, and I was fitted with a leg bag. During my long wait on the bed, I discovered a hard bump in my belly area. The A&E doctor told me that he would arrange for the ultrasound department to check me out, so I should return to the hospital later on in the morning. 

Another taxi took us back to the hostel, where we collapsed into bed at 2.30am. 

Later that day, I had my ultrasound, which revealed that I had fibroids! Quite common in women, alas. 

Not much more to write. The next day we were due to head back home anyway. I contacted my doctor, who referred me on to a gynaecologist to discuss treatment options. But that’s not really part of a travel blog, so I’ll finish here. 

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