Today I woke up around 8am and began getting ready for my first solo exploration of London. It was a beautiful day outside. The skies were blue and the temperature was around 21C. I showered, put on my Mickey Mouse shirt, and packed my maps, camera and iPod and headed for the lobby.

There’s a shuttle service from the hotel to Heathrow. For 4GPB I got a ride to Terminal 2 where I bought a return ticket on the Heathrow Express. Off I went, to Paddington Station!

I had a good map, and my intention was to see how far I could go on foot before I started aching. I decided to head to Hyde Park first. It was only a few blocks away, and it has some sentimental meaning to me because one of my favourite pictures of me as a child was taken there. It’s an incredibly scenic park, and given that today is Good Friday, there were thousands of people out enjoying the great weather.

As I strolled, I realize I was walking on the Princess Diana Memorial Walk. A fitting tribute to one of Britain’s most loved.

Hyde Park is quite large, and it hosts a long lake called “The Serpentine” which I assume is because of it’s snake-like shape. On this lake are lots of different birds, including swans and Canada geese. Man, Canada geese are everywhere. There were flowers and trees starting to blossom, and I’m too ignorant to classify them as anything other than “pretty”. Maybe you can identify it for me. There were many families out enjoying the park, and I took several pictures for those dads who were clearly taking a picture of their family. Doing that makes me feel good, because I know some of those pictures are going to be very meaningful to people for years to come. And everyone loves to have vacation pictures with the whole family in them. It made me think of my family too.

I continued my walk, and left Hyde Park through the Albert Gate. On either side of this gate you walk between the Embassies of Kuwait and France. I turned right onto Brompton and was headed to trendy Knightsbridge, home of Harrods. I thought I would tour around Harrods, because the last time I went there with my wife, we went inside, but I didn’t get a chance to survey the exotic cars that would be parked in the VIP area. As I approached, I stumbled into a Starbucks, realizing I haven’t had breakfast. So I continued with Grande Mocha in hand, and did a lap of Harrods. Not great hunting though, a MB SL500, Porsche Carrera S and a Ferrari 599 GTB. I decided to tour inside Harrods but was tossed out due to their prohibition on food inside the store. My mocha was verbotin. Oh well, for the best given the prices I saw the last time I was in there.

When you’re in a big city, you tend to see things that you wouldn’t see at home. There were people from all over the world gathered for what I would soon learn was the famous Changing of the Guard. I saw this particular man walking next to me dragging something attached to his waste by a rope. I looked back, and saw a tire. Well, I guess he’s training for something. It’s that or he’s making his way back to his car with a new spare.

I reached the home of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Her official residence is close to Heathrow at Windsor Castle, but Buckingham Palace is where lots of important things happen. The balcony is where the royals usually gather to wave and offer a photo op for us peasants. I managed to squeeze my way into the crowd. I don’t like crowds. It’s not a fear or an anxiety, I just don’t like other people in my space. Europe is different in that regard, and the notion of personal space isn’t well understood here. It could be that everything is smaller in Europe. (snicker, snicker)

Alas, when I turned off my iPod, I could hear (but not see) the Guard Band playing some music. I could of sworn I heard them playing that big song from the Phantom of the Opera, but I must have been wrong. How could the Royal Guard get away with playing showtunes during the changing of the guard? At exactly 1210PM, the main gates opened, and … no, the peasants didn’t storm the castle, rather, the nicely dressed gents with trumpets and machine guns came marching out in a most impressive manner. Brits can march quite smartly.

After the “pomp and circumstance” was finished, I followed the crowd away from the Queen Victoria Memorial, and headed towards Birdcage Walk. This would take me towards 10 Downing Street. I wanted to see it from all sides, because the last time I was here with my wife, we saw the back and that’s about it. The security there is quite remarkable. It’s no different a threat than for the White House I suppose, but this kind of security just feels out of place to me for some reason. Who would want to hurt Tony Blair. He’s got such a great speaking voice. Anyhow, there are things in other countries that make me laugh. They’re stupid, and silly but still. If you take something that’s perfectly normal in one country, and place it in another, you’d get an interesting response. Here’s a good example. It could be a bumpy road, an area frequented by sidekicks to mad scientists, or even a red light district. Who knows.

So I made it to 10 Downing Street, and walked around the perimeter. At the back, there’s a statue of Lord Kitchener (who I believe is the namesake of Kitchener, Ontario). I walked towards it to take a picture. The statue is immediately outside the large brick wall that surrounds the PM’s residence. I took my picture, and then walked further down along the perimeter. I saw a policeman standing guard, with machine gun in hand. I considered keeping my trajectory, but that would put me behind him, and common sense told me that guys with machine guns don’t like tourists wandering behind their back. So, course change, and off to the “front side” of 10 Downing.

Well, security around the front was just as intense. I chatted with one of the guards, and he told me that 20 years ago there was 1 policeman, no fences, and anyone could wander around. Changed days indeed. Every car that was allowed in was searched top to bottom before being permitted into the inner sanctuary. I knew that my chances of getting a meeting with Tony were pretty remote. That’s strike 2 since HRH also declined my offer of Tea .

I looked at my trusty map, and was amazed to see how far I’d walked. I was only a few blocks from Westminster Palace, and the Abbey. This was great news because I have wanted to visit the Abbey for a long time, but fortune never favoured me during my previous trips. I felt like today would be my day. I wanted to see the tombs of Newton, Darwin, Chaucer, Dickens, Kipling, Tennyson, Kelvin, Rutherford and many monarchs. Plus, it’s part of that great story by Dan Brown. But, fortune again stuck it’s thumb in my eye. Today is Good Friday, and the Abbey is closed for tourist visits, and only open for worship. Next trip, I suppose.

It was now past 130PM, and I was getting hungry. I thought it would be cool to eat in the West End around Piccadilly Circus. That would be about a 20 minute walk. I thought about grabbing a taxi, but it was such a wonderful day, and I was enjoying the exercise. As I walked, I realized that my wife and kids would be awake now, and I decided to call. That was the highpoint of my day. I wished they were with me because we could have had a fantastic picnic. I was imagining my son and I kicking around a soccer ball, and playing tickle tag with my daughter. Hyde Park is definitely on the list of places to return with the whole family.

As I finished my call, I was arriving at Piccadilly Circus. I don’t know why it’s called that, but I’m sure that’s just 1 Google away. It’s an interesting people watching place, but I wasn’t overly impressed with it. Lots of lame tourist shops, and tons of people. I spotted a Japanese restaurant and headed there for a sushi fix. The food was mediocre and served in small portions. And no Toro. Well, it hit the spot anyway. At the centre of “the circus” is a statue of Eros, the Greek God of Love etc.

I wandered around and found the district called SoHo. It’s got lots of pubs. I did some souvenir shopping and decided that I would head back to my hotel. It had been a good day considering I started the day wishing I was home. I’ve ended the day with some decent pictures, some trinkets for my family, and about 5 miles of exercise.

I jumped on the Tube for the first time, and now consider myself an expert on the mass transit systems of Tokyo and London. The Tube is old but very good. It’s not as efficient in the ticketing and layout as Tokyo, but I’m pretty sure it’s old enough to be the Tokyo system’s granddad. I arrived back at Paddington Station and sought out the Paddington Bear statue because I wanted to get a picture of that for my kids. The bear was named for the station in case you’re wondering. One thing I wasn’t sure of is whether this is the station that Harry Potter began his adventures in. I’m sure my wife will let me know! (update: I Googled this, and it was King’s Cross Station, which was also one of the sites of the London terrorist bombings)