Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An American Family in Europe: Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

(Previously: Day 15, British Museum and British Library)

We had only a few days left on our vacation and I was starting to fear that we might leave before experiencing one of the Europe's famous labor strikes, but at the last moment the London Underground workers came through for us. A 24-hour strike on this day by Tube employees completely shut down the subway system that is integral to London.

And it wasn't just any strike! This one, said a news story, was "the biggest in more than a decade, and left around four million passengers struggling to travel across the capital on buses, bikes and taxis."

Fortunately, the strike did not affect the National Rail trains, which was our way of getting into the city. Our family split this morning, with my son and I going to a cool playground he had spotted next to the London Eye, while my wife and daughter went to see the changing of the Queen's Horse Guards.

We reunited at the Churchill War Rooms, an underground museum that features the actual rooms from where Winston Churchill and British military leaders directed action during the early part of World War II. The site also features a large museum on the life of Churchill, which will likely take you more time to visit than the war rooms.

This was the one and only place where we used the 2-for-1 offers that are possible if you are carrying a paper Travelcard. I had researched this quite a bit before our trip, and while it does seem to offer some savings to travelers, it is something of a pain.

You have to go to the DaysOut website, find what attractions are covered for the time period you're visiting (London Eye and Tower of London were not valid for August), and print out a voucher and take it with you. You're supposed to show both the voucher and your Travelcard to get the discount, but at the Churchill War Rooms, the woman at ticket counter didn't ask to see my travel card.

The War Rooms are like an underground rabbit warren. Be warned: Make sure you see what you want along the way, because the hallways are so narrow that it's difficult to backtrack against the flow of visitors.

We had planned to eat in the War Rooms, but our plans got scuttled when our kids prematurely exited the museum. So we ended up getting food at The World's Narrowest Store. Well, that's what it seemed like.

This was a Tesco convenience store planted right across from Parliament in one of the busiest spots in London. You entered in one door into an aisle just barely wider than one person. First, there were sandwiches to choose from, then chips, then cookies, then drinks. Grab one of each and you have lunch. Pay at the end. It was immensely crowded, but also an efficient way to get a reasonably priced lunch. I was impressed.

Up to this point, the Tube strike hadn't affected us. It was about to.

We had tickets to a matinee play and needed to get to the Duchess Theatre near Covent Garden, but when we tried to catch a bus to get there, it was absolutely jammed with people. We couldn't get on, and that may have been a good thing, because traffic wasn't moving. With the subway not running, there were more buses and taxis on the road than usual and the roads just weren't big enough.

We started a hurried run/walk to our theater -- going faster than we would have been had we been on the bus -- and made it, slightly out of breath, about 15 minutes early.

The play was "The Play That Goes Wrong," at the Duchess Theatre and it was clever, inventive and simply hilarious. If you're going, I would recommend getting there early, because the play starts, in a way, before it actually starts.

After the play, we found a comfortable place in a wood-paneled pub for some drinks and grub. It was so comfortable that we forgot there was a Tube strike going on, even though we still had a walking tour to get to.

We emerged from the pub to find the buses just as crowded as before, and it was a longer distance to the walking tour meeting point near the Bank tube station. We caught a cab, but it didn't move much either, and we had to bail. It cost us 15 pounds to not even get that close to our destination.

For the second time that day we were walk-racing along the sidewalks of London. I took a gamble on a street crossing and got right in the way of a fast-moving cyclist, who fairly cursed me. ("Sorry," I shouted as he steamed away.) Once we reached the Bank Station area, it still took us a while to find our walking tour. The tour guide was standing rather unobtrusively amid many other tourists with the only clue to his status being that he held a couple walking tour brochures in front of his chest.

In the end, Peter, the guide did a lovely tour around the old City of London, showing us among other things, where the Great London Fire started, and some of the architecturally striking modern buildings, like The Gherkin.

When it was over, we caught a thankfully not-too-crowded bus to London Bridge station and then back home.

Next: Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  


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