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Monday, May 23, 2016

London, UK! 25th Apr to 1st May 2016!

When my manager broke the news that I was going to attend meetings in London, it was a no-brainer to make a workvacation out of it! This was especially cool since it was my first time visiting Europe. Coupled with the fact that Jenn is Uncle Rich's (her mom's brother) designated travel companion, meaning she had awesome traveling privileges, the decision for her to come along was an easy one!

Day 1 (4/25)

I departed a day before Jennifer and arrived on Monday, Apr 25. My co-worker arrived at the same time and so we shared a cab together. Cabbing was probably not the best idea! Super expensive to get into the city!

For next time, we are either taking Uber or the tube. However, I quickly crossed out riding a London black cab off my list!

 Spacious interior of the ubiquitous London black cab

 Grange Tower Bridge Hotel 

 First stop was to find some Fish & Chips for lunch!

After that, I decided to head over to Aon's headquarter in London for a visit. The Brits have a very strict dress code. Suit and tie are a must when working there. 

All see through elevator taking you up.

 The London office has adopted what's called an agile working environment. Seats are not assigned to individuals. Instead, a general area is designated to a team. Seats are on a first-come-first-serve basis. The wrinkle is that if you have meetings elsewhere for more than a certain number of hours (maybe 1 or 2 hours), you need to pack up and the seat where you started the day may not be the same seat that you end the day with! Very interesting concept.

 Did you know that Fish & Chips have been replaced by Indian food as Britain's most popular food? For dinner, we met up with a local client team for a meal at Dishoom.

While all of this was happening in the UK, Jenn was embarking on her first-class plane ride over. 

 Selfie in the first class cabin!

 Champagne, pajamas and toiletry kit provided 

 For meals, they convert your tray table into a dining table look-alike.

Variety of food served throughout the flight! Highlight is probably the steak in the top left corner!

Day 2 (4/26)

No pictures were taken together because I was in meetings all day and upon arrival, Jenn too had to work.

Day 3 (4/27)

Today was a meeting day for me. Jenn had some time to explore London on her own. She found a Cath Kidston store and then ended up at King's Cross Station!

 Jenn has not yet read the Harry Potter series but stumbled into Platform 9 3/4! 
Stopped at the Harry Potter store next door.

 Jenn's croissant for lunch

When my meetings were over, it was only about 4pm. We decided to head out and do more exploration!

 The namesake of our hotel, The Tower Bridge was a few blocks away, right next to the Tower of London (pictured) and the Tower Bridge tube stop.

 The tubes in London were super convenient and easy! It's honestly the only way to get about in London (besides walking)!

 Our first stop was Trafalgar Square! A landmark of London and one of the properties in Monopoly! It was fun visiting places from one of my favorite childhood games!

 Since Chinatown was nearby, we could not resist checking it out. 

 Stopped at a few places. Jenn in front of one of the restaurants we stopped at, Jen Cafe 

The food we sampled, from left to right: 

Baiwei Restaurant
  • "Twice cooked pork" Sichuan-Style
  • Aubergine (British word of eggplant) with mince pork

Jen Cafe

  • Crispy Roast Pork
  • Beijing Dumpling

Baozi Inn

  • Pork baozi - stuffed with juicy minced pork and onion

 Since I really wanted a picture at Platform 9 3/4, we went back to King's Cross! 
Picture op even came equipped with a wand and a scarf!

 Jenn also took a picture! Trying to get her to read the books as well so we can visit Harry Potter world in Universal Studios! Definitely the better looking witch/wizard

 I thought the books would be cheaper here (and considered picking up the complete set) but no discounts were to be had! Bought a small mini-mug for my shot glass/mini-cup/mini-mug collection!

After that, went to the Minories, a pub close by our hotel for some drinks. The servers pump beer from somewhere! 

 Sampling some warm British beer. Apparently, the Brits like their beer warm. Funnily enough, my co-worker also ended up in this pub! What I found odd was that the pub closed at 11pm, due to an apparent curfew. Not sure why it applied only to the one pub?

So, we took the party back to our hotel and had some drinks at the lobby, instead. 

Day 4 (4/28)

Today was our first full day of exploration! There are various options of saving money while doing touristy activities. Here are some examples:

After many hours of research, we came to the conclusion that if we wanted flexibility and were certain that there were only a few things we would visit (due to time constraints), you get the best bang for your buck with the 2 For 1 option!

This website laid out step by step instruction on how this works. Check it out!

 Our first stop was the Tower of London. It's situated right next to the Tower Bridge (often mistaken to be the famous London Bridge). The Tower of London has so much history! It was a castle, fortress, a home for the Royal Mint, zoo, records office, an armory and barracks for troops and, of course, a notorious prison.

Today it is one of London's most popular tourist attraction and part of that is fueled by the fact that the Crown Jewels are stored here. I think that was just to justify the exorbitant entrance fee but hey, we got to see the Crown Jewels!

 At least the entrance fee allowed you to join the Yeomen Warders aka Beefeater guided tour! On paper, the beefeater's responsibility is to guard the Crown Jewels. However, they are really tour guides and photograph opportunities!

 British Redcoat marching around!

 Nobody knows why they are called Beefeaters! Rumor has it that beef used to be an expensive food item but given their elevated status, they were allowed to eat a lot of beef. Seems silly but who knows??

According to the beefeater, there's a belief that if there are no ravens within the castle grounds, the kingdom will fall. Appropriately, there are at least 6 ravens housed within the Tower grounds, since there's no desire to prove or disprove this old wives' tale.

 The actual castle of the Tower of London. Everything else around it were add-ons following the construction of this building. A lot of the insides were from the original construction. I could not help but feel a sense reverence walking through such a historically-rich building!

 Many spiral stairs inside!

Right outside the Tower of London was the iconic Tower Bridge. Confusingly, this is not the same London Bridge mentioned in nursery songs! 

 Walking across the Tower Bridge en route to Borough Market for lunch! As you can see, the London red buses are a common sight!

Borough Market is one of the largest and oldest markets in London, selling fresh and ready-made food. From my research, I found out that it first appeared because traders would set up shop due to the proximity to London Bridge, a popular meeting point because of its location next to the Thames river!

 Some of the retail shops, which we obviously flew by, so not many pictures!

We were more interested in actual food (already made)!

 Roast Hog Roll where a whole roast pig was on display. How can you not want to try one??

Ciabtta buns filled with roast pork marinated with fennel, spices, garlic and rosemary served with rocket and apple sauce.  

We saw a sign for La Tua Pasta, which literally caught the corner of Jennifer's eye (who is a pasta lover)!  

We settled on Tortelloni Black Truffle. Very delicious!

 And then we suddenly saw this store! No Malaysians in sight but they were serving Traditional Malaysian Chicken Curry!! Had an internal debate on whether or not to get it but the hotel we were moving to for the rest of our time in London apparently had a Malaysian chef!

 So we held out and got the Paella instead, from the same store. This was just OK. 

 There was a healthy portion of the store dedicated to desserts (pun intended). 

 Settled for a macaroon! 

 And then we had to take the tube to our next hotel - Corus Hyde Hotel! 

We took a short rest and then went out to dinner! Per Julian's recommendation, we had already made reservations at Dinner by Heston!

Coincidentally, it was close to Harrod's! Jenn's grandfather had worked there before so we really wanted to check it out! Plus, it is arguably London's most famous shopping store!

Apparently, they sell everything! Ronald Reagan bought an elephant there before, back in 1967! This was supposedly used in his bid to be President, running under the Republican party banner.  The story has it that when Reagan rang Harrods to ask if they sold elephants – the symbol of the party – he received the reply: “Would that be African or Indian, sir?”  (Story from the Telegraph)

Here's some Caviar for sale!

 Pyramids of chocolate for sale

We headed over to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where Dinner was at.

Dinner is owned by Chef Heston Blumenthal, known for making good British food with a focus on its origins and history! 

Our a la carte selection for the evening:

  • Powdered Duck Breast (c.1670) - Smoked confit fennel, smoked beetroot & umbles
  • Roast Turbot (c.1830) - Mussel & seaweed ketchup, salmon roe & sea rosemary
  • Savoury Porridge (c.1660) - Frog's legs, girolles, garlic, parsley & fennel
  • Meat Fruit (c.1500) - Mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread
  • Triple Fried Fries
  • Tipsy Cake (c.1810) - Spit roast pineapple

Day 5 (4/29)

Today was another day of sight-seeing!

First up, was Big Ben, a visual landmark of London. I observed that this was used as the backdrop by many local news station while we were there! During the world wars, the Big Ben was largely left unscathed and came to represent the symbol of UK's resilience!

The Palace of Westminster - Parliament of the UK was right next door. Beautiful Gothic architecture in full display.

Obligatory picture together in front of Big Ben!

I also appreciated how there were many warnings on the streets to clarify for visitors where cars are coming from! 

Right next door was Westminster Abbey, a Gothic church that also is a burial site for many famous people! The architecture was beautiful and intricate, but its history was even more intricate! It's also no longer an "Abbey" but the common name has stuck.

Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church for the British Monarch since 1066.  In fact, 39 coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey with the most recent on 2 June 1953.  This coronation was for the current monarch –  her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who is the eldest daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Prince William of Wales most recently in 2011, got married to Miss Catherine Middleton here as well.   

No pictures were allowed inside so this is a picture of the entrance. There is really nothing quite like this in the world! Worth a visit for sure!

The London red telephone booth! No longer used but still very popular among tourists!

It is very common to see police officers patrolling the streets on a horse. We saw a guard on a horse en route to the Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth.

It was raining on and off when we were there! We-fie in front of the palace!

We decided to head back to Borough Market for lunch. Jenn had unfinished business with one of the stores serving cheese sandwich, so we made our way back! 

Standing in line to get her cheese sandwich! 

I'm surprised I got half but I was told that she would have happily ate the whole thing herself.

Toasted Cheese Sandwich - a mixture of cheese (Montgomery's cheddar, Ogleshield, Comté, Bermondsey Hard Pressed) with leeks, onions on Poilâne Sourdough bread

Probably Jenn's fav Borough Market snack!

I had my own unfinished business in the form of the Malaysian Chicken Curry! 

We also got a calamari dish and found the same spot we had lunch yesterday empty! 

Given our limited stomach capacity and seeing that there were still so many other items we wanted to try, we made a decision to pick up a few items for dinner at the hotel later. 

From Brindisa, we got some Spanish Bellota Ham - Bellota hams come from pigs reared in the open air and nourished by foraging for acorns, grasses and other wild plants. Here's the "butcher" slicing off meat straight from the pork leg!

Saucissons des Alpes also caught our eye. They had a variety of sausages such as Bull, Wild boar, Stag, Duck, Donkey. We settled on Rabbit Armagnac (a type of brandy).

And this was Mr. Luigi's cheese stall! 

Picked up some Basajo cheese matured in dessert wine - raw sheep's milk blue cheese aged in fine Passito di Pantelleria wine

Other items we bought included French baguette & mushroom pate.

Following Borough Market, we made our way to another market - Camden Market. Jenn collects masks from every country we go to so I knew this was the perfect place to find one. After walking around, we found the perfect mask to add to our collection! 

Stopped at a pub which served local Camden Ales. The waitresses were dressed up as "Alice" from Alice in Wonderland! Also good live music!

After Camden Market, we headed over to  Piccadilly Circus, known for its flashing bright neon lights, similar to New York's Times Square. Jenn had an ulterior motive to also visit the Cath Kidston store here but ultimately didn't find any good buys! 

We decided to take the red double-decker bus back to our hotel. Thank goodness for Google Maps making navigation SO easy!

Dinner date at the hotel with our haul from Borough Market earlier! Delicious!

Day 6 (4/30)

For the remainder of the trip, we rented a car to explore the countryside! It has been a while since I drove a manual transmission and so doing it on other side of the road was quite tricky! Fortunately, I still remembered how to do it from learning it in Malaysia!

This was a picture of the car we rented (taken later)! We also decided to rent a GPS which was a clever decision because the physical Google maps we printed who not have been sufficient. Driving in the countryside is like going through an elaborate maze! 

Amazingly, the navigation system is quite advanced in the UK! A "zip-code" brings you to the exact location you need. There's no need to type in lengthy addresses, just a few letters and numbers and you are off!

Our first stop was the Stonehenge! Yes, it really is a pile of rocks today, but what's the meaning of Stone Henge? Why was it built? Who built it? How was it constructed with no machinery? 

All these remain largely unknown. There are speculations and guesses but for the most part, no written document has been found to provide any type of confirmation. 

Some of the stones have fallen off now but here are some pictures of the remains: 

Stonehenge tip: You may choose to pay for an audio tour upon arrival OR you can download the free Stonehenge app to your phone! It's essentially the same thing and as long as you play it once while you have Internet connection, it will "download" itself and work afterwards without any connections.

We left for the Cotswolds afterwards and drove through many English villages.

Brick homes are a common sight in England!

We had planned to stop at Bibury, known for its English charm. Found it with no issues and minimal number of stalled engines!

Bibury's main sight is the picturesque Arlington Row, featuring traditional cottages.

Making our way to Arlington Row!

Swans swimming in a nearby creek.

This is Arlington Row! Also featured is the infamous yellow car. Rumor has it that the owner purposefully parks it there and picked bright yellow so it will stand out in visitors' pictures!

Selfie of us at Arlington Row!

We had initially thought of spending the night here but since it was a holiday weekend, the only accommodation in town was fully booked. 

Fortunately, we found this gem - The Plough, Kelmscott, Lechlade. In movies/shows, weary travelers would often walk into a pub and ask the innkeeper if they had rooms. There were no lobbies or people to check you in. Well, this was exactly how we got our room key. The bar tender brought us up to our room!

Lovely view from our room. 

Really charming decor.

Despite its rustic charm from the outside, the room were completely remodeled, complete with a modern looking bath tub! Felt like a 4 or 5 star stay!

For dinner, Jenn found The Five Alls. This might have been our favorite meal in all of UK (yes, beating even Dinner by Heston)! 

Clockwise from top left

  • Skillet Roast Foie Gras with a fried hen's egg, brioche and balsamic reduction
  • Wild mushroom and herb gnocchi
  • Cracked Kelmscott Pork Belly with Fricassee of Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms & mids
  • Osso Buco with a Milanese risotto

Day 7 (5/1)

The pub/restaurant on the ground floor. Very quaint design.

Breakfast was included. They don't skimp out!

Typical English breakfast on the left (sausage, beans, eggs) and a Smoked Salmon option for Jenn

That's Jenn looking out of the window in our room! 

Mailing off postcards!

We had some time to kill so we drove around to visit the other villages in the Cotswolds area.

Sheeps hanging out!

An old water wheel that still seems to be working!

Our final few pictures of England!

Overall, a very fun trip! London is expensive so budget accordingly when visiting!

Random Fact: Jenn flew on standby and they usually only confirm your ticket a few minutes before the flight takes off. When the flight attendant paged for "Jennifer Cheang", she went up to the front of the queue and the flight attendants asked her to wait there because they needed to sort something out. Among themselves, the flight attendants wondered out loud where this Asian lady was and paged for "Jennifer Cheang" again! Needless to say, they felt bad when they found out who "Jennifer Cheang" was! Funny story but can't say it was a surprise!

Random Fact 2: One of my favorite English practice is when waiters/waitresses say "Yes Please" to indicate that they are waiting for your to make a selection!