|King County's Link Light Rail: One line, 77k daily ridership|
|London Underground: 11 lines, 4.8M daily ridership|
London public transport, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
Stratford to London FieldsOur first day outing to London we decided to park and ride from Stratford station, which is located near the stadiums constructed for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Little did we know that it was the weekend of the World Athletic Championshps, where Usain Bolt was soon to run his last competitive race. Needless to say, the place was a zoo. In order to catch the tube to downtown London, we had to walk through one of the largest indoor/outdoor malls I have ever seen in my entire life: Westfield Stratford City.
We made our painfully slow way through the heart of the mall, shoulder to shoulder with the enormous and unending crowd. Bear in mind, we were with Naomi's family, and they have three small children, and had never been into the city before. When we got to the station, we had to get a couple floors underground to actually catch the tube--and unfortunately the lift was broken. So we lifted the double stroller and the children through a series of escalators and stairs (it really did feel like a labyrinth) to hop onto the Central Line.
One thing I learned about the tube is that they keep some lines up better than others. The Central Line is definitely not as well kept as others. It is physically small. Riders sit in rows facing each other with one aisle for people to stand. The seats are upholstered with a vibrant pattern that looks like it came out of the late 90s. Also, it has no air conditioning and since we were there in mid-August it was muggy, so all the windows were open. Thus, the whole way in, we could hear every scrape of metal and bump along the tracks. It was so un-glamorous. I loved it.
When we got to Bethnal Green, we ended up walking a little over a mile to get to Broadway Market and London Fields. I played "I spy" the entire way with Naomi's niece, though she says "My spy with my little eye," which is one of the cutest things ever.
London Fields where we met a lot of hilarious local kids on the playground
We ended up catching a bus from Hackney to get to Blackfriars, and like the tourists we are, the first thing we did was run up the stairs and sit in the very front, which, of course, is the best place to take photos and Snapchat selfies.
Being hella cheesy
I must say, the ride was exhilarating. Some "local youths" sat behind us, conversing loudly with much profanity and mentions of alcohol/drug use. And I saw a billboard for Jay-Z/Craig David, the gherkin and St. Paul's!
Epping to South BankOur second time into the city, we took the Central Line again, but this time decided to park and ride from Epping, which is further from the city than Stratford. Epping definitely felt more like a suburb, and I enjoyed the part of the ride looking out into neighborhoods and industrial zones before we plunged into the darkness of the underground tunnel.
One thing you need to know is that we were going to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe, and since I had no notion of what the dress code might be, I was in a sheath dress with 2" heels (turns out I was WAY overdressed; major fail). Well, we ended up having to transfer from the underground to a double-decker bus. However, when we got to the bus stop, it was not in operation due to construction! So we started walking up to the next stop and watched our bus peel off when we were less than half a block away.
"We still have time," I reasoned, as we waited for the next one to arrive. The show started at 19:00, so even though we weren't getting there right when the doors opened to get the best spot in the yard (we got tickets where you stand in front of the stage the entire time, kind of like a mosh pit without the lingering fear of getting trampled to death), I figured we'd be fine.
The bus dropped us off near the Thames, and then we had another 10 minute walk. When we got to the venue, the lobby was entirely empty. I should have known then that something was off, but in my mind we still had time to spare. When I gave my name to the guy at the box office, he said, "The first act started about 15 minutes ago but if you go through those doors and to the left there should still be plenty of room." I blinked several times. "Wait, you mean it already started? I thought it started at 19:00 and that doors opened at 18:30!" He explained to me that the play started at 18:30; the doors had opened at 18:00. We had missed the beginning of the play! "I was wondering why you were so chill," he added, and I gave him my best self-deprecating shrug as we ran up the stairs to catch what was left of the play. "Americans," I'm sure he muttered to himself.
Slightly frazzled from the lengthy commute, I nonetheless greatly enjoyed the play. It was pretty funny, if a bit absurd. Next time, though, I'm wearing Keds.
Heathrow to Stepney GreenMy last public transport story is my first solo trip in the city on my way back from Madrid. Flying from Madrid to Heathrow was kind of fun, actually. I had tons of time to kill at the airport, which worked out because the line for passport control was huge. It was an unexpected blessing to be able to speak to a couple of ladies next to me in line (who were from Central America) in my Mexican accent. They understood me (I was getting tired of the funny looks I kept getting in Spain because of the verbs and idioms I use) and their accents felt like home.
(Another aside that has nothing to do with public transportation: Spanish vending machines are on a whole other level! I purchased a smoked salmon sandwich on poppyseed bread... from a vending machine. Is there some way we can get these kinds of boutique offerings in the U.S.???)
When I touched down at Heathrow I followed the signs for the Heathrow Express, which is more or less a bullet train that gets you to London in less than half the time it might take through traditional routes. The first thing that was strange to me, was that they didn't ask for my fare; I just hopped onto the train, stowed my luggage on the rack and chilled. I kept waiting for some security guard to escort me off the train and arrest me. Turns out that they check your fare partway through the ride, kind of like they do on the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter. Apparently they're really trusting!
Heathrow Express is NOT paying me to say this but it was honestly one of the most luxurious mass transit rides I've ever experienced. You can watch the news on a small flatscreen, charge your phone, connect to complimentary WiFi and enjoy the smooth as silk ride. I think my dad would like the Heathrow Express. It's like the Cadillac of trains.
From there I transferred at Paddington station to the Hammersmith & City Line to Stepney Green to get to 40 Winks, a very unique and memorable B&B. Paddington station is HUGE. It's also hugely under construction. The first thing I noticed when I got off the train was there were tons of staff people just standing there, waiting to help clueless travelers like me. A man greeted me, then looked at me with some pity. He had to break the bad news that there was no working lift to the platform, so I would need to lug my rolling check-in, rolling carry-on and a backpack up a couple flights' worth of stairs. "It's okay!" I assured him as I walked away. "I'm strong!" I lied.
Dear reader, may I share a word of advice with you? If you travel in London, pack light. When entering an underground station, you place your oyster card on a sensor that opens gates swinging inward. Well, when I tried to go through with all my luggage, I wasn't fast enough because the gates closed on my check-in bag. I yelped, trying to pull the surprisingly strong gates apart so I could extricate it. A man behind me immediately tried to help; trying to push the luggage through but it just seemed to make the gates close even harder. As I was frantically working with him on this, my check-in luggage and backpack fell over onto the ground with a dramatic crash. By then the man had waved over a transport staff, who used her card to open the gates. I scrambled to pick up my other bag and guy with a European accent asked, "Are you all right?" I must have looked distraught. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I insisted, more embarrassed than anything as I headed to the lift to the platform.
Another reason to pack light: When I got on the tube, I had to stand at first and it was a nightmare. Spinner luggage is great for getting around in airports with smooth, pristine, polished stone floors, but my bags rolled around with a mind of their own at every stop along the tube route, much to my chagrin. When I managed to get a seat, I assumed an assortment of different positions to keep my luggage stationary with marginal success. Thankfully, the Hammersmith & City Line is much more spacious and better kept than the District Line so I didn't feel like I was being too annoying with all my luggage.
As we neared the downtown stations, a Chinese British couple (or so I assumed based on their appearance and accents) stepped onto the train and sat down next to me. They were smartly dressed and had their Starbucks in hand. The guy pulled out an enormous iPad and started fiddling with it.
At some point during the journey, one of them spilled their latte, creating an ever-growing pool of light brown liquid right in the middle of the train. The guy seemed pretty pained and embarrassed about it, so I dug through my backpack and handed them half of the travel-size pack of tissues that my mom had given me (thanks, Mom). He scrambled to mop up what he could as she kept insisting that it wasn't a big deal. When the train arrived at their stop, I noticed the guy hanging around near the door. He paused briefly. "Thank you," he said in his British accent. "Oh yeah, no prob," I replied.
When I finally got to Stepney Green I made my way to the exit only to find... they didn't have a lift. As I sighed, preparing myself mentally for the climb with my bags, which at this point felt like they were full of literal rocks, a guy stopped and offered to carry the largest one for me! It ended up being three flights up to the street surface level, so I was so grateful for his help.
I then rolled my way through Mile End another 15 minutes as the sun was going down. I really appreciated the paint at every sidewalk intersection with guidance for out of towners like me: "LOOK RIGHT."
After such a long day of travel, it was wonderful to come home to 40 Winks, change my clothes and charge my phone. My exhaustion, however, didn't keep me from venturing out again to get a little something sweet. :)