Excursions: England, Part I

Ok, so this isn’t exactly a day trip (although I suppose you could do a day trip to London, if you felt like having the longest day ever…). My university was closed for All Saints and All Souls Days, and then my department was closed for the rest of the week, so I was effectively free from 29 October – 8 November. If you’re flying from Krakow to the UK on the cheap, there are three airline options: EasyJet, RyanAir, and WizzAir. I chose to fly WizzAir because the flights were cheaper than EasyJet, and I’m slightly afraid of RyanAir after hearing horror stories. Unfortunately, this meant that I actually had to fly out of Katowice, which wasn’t bad at all since WizzAir runs a bus from the Krakow main bus station to the Katowice Airport. This worked out quite well, but next time, I would consider trying RyanAir out of Krakow simply for convenience. EasyJet doesn’t fly to as many destinations from Krakow as the other two airlines, although I think its standards of service might be slightly higher (WizzAir was fine, though).


I started off my trip in Newcastle, where I was visiting a friend from home who goes to medical school there. This meant that I flew into Doncaster-Sheffield Airport, since the train from there to Newcastle was a bit shorter and a lot cheaper than from London. By the time I actually arrived in Newcastle, it was about 1AM – too late to actually do much aside from observing the Geordies (wild Newcastle natives) on a Friday night. I must admit, I had heard that the Geordies were a rowdy populace, and my expectations were certainly met.

On Saturday, my friend took me to lunch at a seafood restaurant called Big Mussel. It was great to have real seafood again after so long! The mussels that we had as a starter were really good, as was my crab cake entree, and the portions were large enough that I had leftovers (people who know English restaurants know that the portion sizes can be stingy!). We spent the rest of the day wandering around Newcastle’s shopping area on Northumberland Street, where I noticed that a bit of Poland seemed to have migrated with me to the UK:

What?! I guess the large number of Polish immigrants currently in the UK is starting to have an influence on local cuisine…

We also hit up Marks & Spencer, where I got a Bakewell tart and some custard to introduce the med students to the excellence of British cuisine, and the famous Fenwick department store, which was huge and wonderful. They also had a good food section, and, more importantly, pick ‘n’ mix!!!

I can’t resist pick ‘n’ mix (indeed, I got some later in the trip, as well!), so I got a bit. Ok, I got a lot! What can I say, British sweets are incomparable.

I was initially supposed to go down to London on Sunday night (October 31), but my friend was going to a Halloween party, which seemed like a more fun alternative than taking the train to London for an Apple Genius Bar appointment and spending the night in a hostel. I was able to switch my train ticket to a 7:20am one for Monday morning so that I’d still be able to visit my rather daunting list of favourite places in London. My friend was going to a Newcastle v Sunderland football match on Sunday afternoon, which meant that I had time to go to the Genius Bar in Newcastle and also hit up the AllSaints Spitalfields fall sale (I have a thing for their leather jackets. Now I own one. And it was half the price that I would’ve paid in the U.S.). Unfortunately, the Genius Bar gave me bad news – they had to take my laptop in to replace the entire screen! But they offered some of the best customer service I’ve received from Apple recently. They agreed to ship my laptop to my uncle’s house since I was travelling – a totally out-of-ordinary-policy, kind move. Props to you, Apple Store in Eldon Square.

All ready for the football match, complete with Newcastle Brown Ale!

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very interesting day! Here’s the good part. As we were walking home from dinner near the Eldon Square mall, all of a sudden, there was a stampede of football hooligans in Newcastle gear running towards us! In the distance, I could see police in riot gear chasing after them. I am well aware of the history of stampeding + hooliganism (and the scene in The Lion King with the stampeding gazelles), so I decided the best course of action would be to turn and run away from the riot police and up a side street. Thankfully, I managed to quickly persuade my friends to do the same, and we watched the crowd run by us. When we finally poked our heads out again, we could see the police in full riot gear lined up across the street, blocking the fastest way home. Other bystanders were saying that there wasn’t actually any victory rioting, but the police were just flexing their muscles a bit – I suspect that they were trying to pre-emptively disperse the crowd to prevent things getting out of hand, but I’m not sure forcing a stampede was the way to do it.


When I go to London, I typically stay in South Kensington, but I couldn’t find a free hostel in that area. Instead, I stayed in Victoria in Astor Hostels (I would link it but the site seems to be down) in a quad room which was £20 per night. To briefly review the hostel: clean, absolutely no hot water, relatively quiet, super-tiny rooms, and of course, it’s like staying in a hotel run by the Thenardiers – “everything has got a little price”. You don’t get any extras for free (or hot water at all). I’ve only ever stayed in a hostel once before, in Zakopane, and I must say, I think the hostels here are a good deal nicer – but it was only for one night, so whatever.

My London Agenda was, in this order: Churchill War Rooms, National Gallery, British Museum, tea/shopping at Fortnum and Mason, and the Victoria & Albert (sadly, I did not make it here and ended up wandering around Mayfair instead).

Note: I don’t have many pictures because I forgot to put the memory card into my camera. Oops.

Churchill War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms are a division of the Imperial War Museum (there’s the main one in London, and also another at Duxford, a major U.S. Air Force base during World War II, with an emphasis on aviation). I love military history, so I’m a bit biased, but they’re all really well-done museums, and I highly recommend each of them. Anyway, the Churchill War Rooms, originally known as the Cabinet War Rooms, are a large suite of rooms constructed beneath the Office of Works just prior to World War II. The idea was that they would be a secure site where the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet could continue to conduct business in the event that London was being bombed. Once the Blitz commenced, the War Rooms, which are complete with living quarters, came in handy for the British government. The exhibit shows how Churchill and his Cabinet continued to function during the war, complete with excellent visuals and an audio guide. As of 2003, there is also an exhibition about Churchill’s life – it’s a good display, but some of the more technological audio-visual stuff doesn’t work quite as it should.

Winston Churchill's toy soldiers

National Gallery

The National Gallery is located right on Trafalgar Square, which is known in my family as the place where Jill falls into the fountains. Thankfully, that didn’t happen this trip (although I did dip my hand in, for old time’s sake!). The National Gallery is home to my favourite painting, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), by Henri Rousseau. Rousseau was a French customs employee, and since he’d never actually left France, his impressions of jungles and wild animals were derived chiefly from visits to the botanical gardens and picture books. This lends a slightly primitive, naive style to his jungle paintings. However, this is what I love about them. Plus, the simple depictions hide the complexity of the painting. If you look closely, you can see how Rousseau depicts the lush jungle using many shades of green, and how the silver paint on top of the windswept jungle scene creates the impression of rain. Finally, I love the crazed expression on the tiger’s face.

My other must-see at the National Gallery is the 13-15th century religious collection, especially the triptychs. More than anything, the factor that attracts me to a painting is the colour used, and these paintings use incredibly vibrant blues and reds and greens with gold accenting. I always find that I cannot take my eyes off of the gorgeous colours.

British Museum

The British Museum is the kind of place where you could spend a week and still only see a fraction of the collections. They have things from Ancient Egypt, and Rome, and Greece – vast amounts of artefacts. Some of the highlights include the Elgin Marbles (whose ownership is the subject of much debate between the British and Greek governments) and the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. I like things with interesting stories attached, and so, I always like to pay a visit to the Mildenhall Treasure. The Mildenhall Treasure is a vast Roman hoard of high-quality silver tableware, found in a field by a farmer in 1942. At the time, it was the largest Roman hoard ever found in Britain, and academics were shocked at the quality of workmanship of the tableware, which indicated that Roman society in Britain was much more highly evolved than thought at the time. I initially learned of Treasure through a Roald Dahl story of the same name, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy online, but I highly recommend reading it – it’s captivating.

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum’s is iconic grocery and tea shop on Picadilly with seriously excellent tea. I make a point of stopping there each time I’m in London to stock up on provisions (namely loose leaf tea). They have the basic stuff, of course, but they also carry more exotic versions as well. I managed to obtain an elderflower green tea this time around (which I’m drinking as I type this, in fact). The bottom level has a wine bar and grocery, the ground floor has the tea, coffee, jams/preserves, and bakery, as well as two restaurants, the first floor has some home goods and an ice cream shop, the second and third floors are more non-edible shopping, and the top level contains the St. James’s Restaurant, which does a famous high tea. I wanted this famous high tea, but I was quite miffed to find that they wouldn’t take me without a reservation. I mean, really, they were at most 30% full, and I was one person. Anyway, I ended up at the The Gallery restaurant on the ground floor for tea. It was good, although not nearly as satisfying as the expansive/expensive one I was looking forward to.

There was also a smoked salmon sandwich, but I ate it before I remembered to take a photo.

Anyway, it was quite good, regardless, although I think the full high tea is a better deal (neither is cheap, and if you’re going to spend the money, you might as well go all out).

After tea, which was really my linner, I did a bit of shopping on the grocery level, mostly for good cheese, something I sorely miss in Poland, and then wandered around Mayfair, where they already had the Christmas decorations up on Regent Street.

I also made a stop at Liberty to look at the wild fabric patterns. It’s like an exhibit of amazing textiles (but you can buy them).

So, that concludes my time in London. Part II on the rest of my trip tomorrow.

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