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Londontown: Pt. 3

June 22, 2010

London is one of my favorite cities, and part of London’s charm is what lies just beyond the city streets and slightly out of the public eye.  You could spend entire days enjoying the city center of London, with its many shops, theaters, and museums, but there are so many other destinations in London or just beyond its borders that are a must-see on any trip.  Part 3 of this city guide to London series is dedicated to three of the many day trips you can plan for your time in London. 

Read on to learn about: 

  • Hampstead, a town that boasts some of the UK’s most expensive real estate, endless celebrity homes, and Hampstead Heath, which was featured in the movie Notting Hill.
  • Cambridge, home to the historic and prestigious University of Cambridge.
  • Stonehenge, but not just any regular old experience of Stonehenge–you not only get to touch the stones (which is off-limits 363 days of the year!), but also get to camp out all night with druids, wiccans, witches, and other neopagans and see the sun align with the stones during the summer solstice.  This is hands-down one of THE coolest/wildest things I’ve ever seen in my life.



Hampstead is one of the most sought-after villages in the entire UK, and once you walk around you know why!  Some houses cost over 50 million pounds, and endless celebrities own houses here–Emma Thompson, Tim Burton, and Helena Bonham Carter are among a few of its notable residents. 

Touring the neighborhoods is a treat, and it’s not what you would expect with the price tags on the celebrity houses–these don’t look like anything like L.A. mansions.  All the houses that cost millions are cute homes that look more like cottages than anything else.  Most have flower pots on the doorsteps and gardens that are clearly taken care of by the residents and not a team of hired gardeners.  It is not the celebrity style of living you would expect.  I also loved all the front doors that were painted red, yellow, blue, and other bright colors. 

I would love to live in a town like this, where you can walk everywhere–to the grocery store, your favorite breakfast spots, shops, parks, everything–it’s all right there, and you never have to step foot in a car.  When you need to go into the city center, you just hop on the tube! 

This creperie is extremely popular and I’m sure anyone who lives here has trouble staying away from its delicious crepes, served piping hot and oh so good.  I had mine with nutella, which is basically peanut butter on crack.  Man it was good! 

Another famous part of Hampstead is Hampstead Heath–London’s largest open parkland that sits on one of the highest points in the city.  It makes for beautiful scenery and has been used in many films, including Notting Hill.  Recognize this building?  This is Kenwood House, which dates from the early 17th century and was bought by brewer Edward Cecil Guinness (note his last name), first Earl of Iveagh, in 1925. 

Cue Julia Roberts… 

Kenwood has a great collection of paintings and art, including a Rembrandt, and just outside and across from the house is this grassy estate that seems to go on forever.  Perfect for a day of laying out and lounging! 

Making our way from the village of Hampstead to the Heath was a wonderful walk with great views of the rolling hillside, and after touring the house and seeing all of the art, we all too gladly sat out on the Kenwood House property, played kickball, and took it easy.

Hampstead is a great day outing that is much more low-key and relaxed, and when you are constantly running around during your vacation in London, it’s nice to have calmer days like this. 


Experience Cambridge: 

I may be asked why I’m including Cambridge and not Oxford, and I don’t have a great reason, besides the fact that the program leader of my study abroad trip received his masters from Cambridge, so he is on Team Cambridge, and he was dying to take us there and relive his beloved school days.  I do hope to visit Oxford next time around, though! 

Cambridge is an amazing town, and just a few steps from the train station are streets like these that have a quaint, old feel because of the architecture, but are still full of the hustle and bustle of a true city. 

There are historic cathedrals, churches, and towers all over the place, and with an entrance fee of a few pounds, you can step inside and see the interiors.  The more you walk around, the more you can see how J.K. Rowling was inspired by this place (I wasn’t aware of this, but a few die-hard fans informed me of it)–the castles, the school traditions like the May Ball (like the Yule Ball), and the town itself has a Hogsmeade-like quality. 

Although it costs a few pounds (unless you’re an alumni!), climbing one of the towers gives you a great view of all of Cambridge, and you can really tell how unique of a town it is. 

This is a view of the market, where there were lots of goodies–food, arts and crafts, souvenirs, postcards, and lots more.  The streets are packed with shops as well, and I ended up finding most of my souvenirs from this outing (including a Cambridge hoodie and t-shirt.) 

And of course, if I’m going to talk about Cambridge, I have to talk about the gardens.  Around every corner there are flowers, fountains, ponds, perfect lawns, and in one garden there was even the King’s cow! 

This was one of my favorite entrances to the gardens.  And I thought UVA’s gardens were nice! 

I love these blue flowers–I was just using a simple Canon, so the blue you see here doesn’t even capture how bright they really were.  I’m dying to know what they were–any gardeners out there have an idea? 

Cambridge has endless fun traditions, but one of the most famous ones is punting.  Punts are similar to gondolas, except instead of using an oar, you use a pole.  Anyone gets to take a turn rowing and riding, and as you can tell from the below photograph, it is absolute chaos!  No one in my group fell out of their punts, but there were a few close calls, and one case of a rogue oar. 

It is a pastime to punt along the water, and because this was the day before the May Ball, it was extra rowdy and fun.  This is my favorite photo I took–note the dog on the boat!  Clearly a few people in this group were having quite a good time. 

I spied this chart in one of the student pubs that tracked the punting tournament–looks like rowing over is pretty common, so I’m impressed with my class’s skills.  

And of course, there was the exciting moment when we realized we were sitting in the restaurant where the Pink Floyd legacy began.  This was towards the end of the day when we were completely burned out and exhausted from walking, but sitting down to eat burgers and fries at this place was a great end to the day… 

…or, rather, it was a great end to a day at Cambridge and the start of night-time adventures at Stonehenge! 


A Whole New Perspective of Stonehenge: 

Stonehenge is a monument dating back to roughly 3100 BCE, and because it is one of the oldest structures that exists today, preservation is a must and tourists are no longer allowed to go up close to the stones. 

But check out this photo of Stonehenge…notice how it’s at night, and there are a tad more people than normal? 

For two days of the year–the summer and winter solstices–the ropes come down, and you can not only walk right up to the stones, but you can touch them.  This kind of thing just doesn’t happen at archaeological treasures of this magnitude.  My friends and I took the train to Stonehenge for the summer solstice and camped out the entire night, from dusk to dawn, with 35,000 other people.  That’s right–35 THOUSAND.  All on this tiny site, waiting for the sunrise on the longest day of the year, when the sun rises above the the Heel Stone and aligns with the massive stones of Stonehenge.  It was definitely one of the coolest and wildest things I have ever done. 

There was a perpetual drum beat throughout the night and everywhere you looked there were Druids, Wiccans, Witches, New Age people, Travelers, Morris dancers, students, scholars, and tourists, all waiting for the solstice. 

Recognize my Cambridge hoodie?  I’m glad I brought it because it was absolutely freezing sitting out all night without sleeping bags or anything to keep us warm (even with 12 or so of us there was no way we could have slept–while it was an amazing experience, it was not exactly a setting where you would want to let your guard down and drift to sleep!) 

But we survived the night, which was basically an all-night rage, and in the morning the 35,000 people quieted down and waited for that exact moment when the sky lights up above the Heel Stone, and one of the greatest mysteries of Stonehenge is revealed. 

This was definitely one of the wildest things I have ever done, and I still can’t believe I went!  But it was an unbelievable experience, and I think my friend might have been right when she said, “guys, you realize when you tell your future kids this story, they will either not believe you, or they will go, ‘dang, mom was cool!'”  Well, I’m not actually cool at all, and I’m sure my kids will realize that fairly quickly, but I have to say, this was a pretty cool thing I got to do. 

While Stonehenge is amazing to see no matter what, only at the solstice do you get such a good sense of how massive the stones are–each sarsen stone is roughly 30 feet tall and weighs nearly 50 tons!  Over 600 men would have been needed to move these stones from the quarry 20 miles away.  And seeing the sunrise over the landscape is spectacular in itself.  Just another reason why my summer in London was unlike anything else. 

If you skipped ahead to this London page and want to know more of the city basics, check out Part 1 of the London series (where to eat, what to see, what to do!), or read Part 2 to learn about theater, museums, celebrity sightings, and more.  If you are just beginning to plan your trip, check out the best guidebooks that are sure to help!

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