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England Day 1 – London’s Burning

Below is one of a series of posts that document a week-long visit to England in 2006. “Lifebird” posts are published separately. This post’s bird-nerdy companion piece is Lifebirds #87-88 – England Day 1. Links to all England 2006 posts are found at the end of this one.

July 19, 2006: Hot off the plane

BBC headline on the day of our arrival. London's Burning!The day before Joann and I arrived in London was the hottest July day in England’s (recorded) history. We landed too early to check into our hotel, so after dropping off our luggage we escaped to a movie theater only to find that its air conditioner was on the fritz. Nevertheless, it got us off of our feet and we saw whichever Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was running at the time. After the swashbuckling was over we were able into get to our room on the fifth story of our hotel. We were not surprised to find it to be without air-conditioning. Who needs it in London anyway?

Our first day in the country consisted of landing at Gatwick, riding a train to Paddington Station, walking to our hotel (lugging our bags), catching the movie at a theatre inside of Whiteley’s shopping centre (a mall), napping, eating forgettable food at a small restaurant near our hotel, and strolling around Kensington Gardens. And, of course, complaining about the heat. But, London! A thrill for me at any temperature.

An overview of the week ahead

Joann and I arrived planning to see the sights in London and to take advantage of our BritRail passes to see some of the country outside of London. Shakespeare is always on our agenda, and the only two things that we knew for sure we would do was see Coriolanus in London, and visit the bardolatry center of the universe at Stratford-upon-Avon. I was determined to visit to Westminster Abbey, and Joann was keen to see Bath. Beyond that we had lots of ideas but too little time–eight days–to fit them all in. We were new and enthusiastic birders and we brought two pairs of binoculars and a 16-page map-sized foldout copy of The Birds of Great Britain. We figured we would be visiting parks and rivers, and since just about every bird we saw would be new to us, we’d want to keep our eyes open.

In London we saw Coriolanus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and loved it (the experience more than the production, I think). We toured the awe-inspiring Westminster Abbey and visited the Tower of London. We strolled the drought-dry Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park (just yards from our hotel), popped up out of the underground to stomp around Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Baker Street, Regent’s Park, and we crossed the Thames on foot on four different bridges. We enjoyed the lively community of Bayswater around our hotel and we ate and shopped close to our home base there.

AWe took four day-trips out of London. Against all odds, we managed to snag last-minute SRO tickets to see Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford, in a production starring Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter. We visited the playwright’s grave in Trinity Church and posed for a photograph in front of his birth home on Henley Street. As Shakespeare must have done many times, we walked along the famous River Avon and crossed it on Clopton’s Bridge. In the company of many Londoners on holiday, we relaxed on a pebbly beach in Brighton to take some sun. On Monday in Bath, we toured the famous nearly 2000-year-old Roman spa, took a guided walking tour of the town and a boat ride on another River Avon (England is lousy with rivers named “Avon”). We visited the beautiful university town of Cambridge, walked through the St. John’s College grounds, and over the River Cam on the Bridge of Sighs. We walked along the river and through the spectacular wooded gardens behind the colleges known as “the Backs.”

Birds? We had our binoculars with us on most occasions. The hour-and-a-half walk we took on Thursday morning (day two, July 20) in the vicinity of the Serpentine (a small lake) in Kensington Gardens really was a bird walk, where we set out expressly to see birds. Our time in Regent’s Park wasn’t a birding expedition, but we saw a dizzying array of waterfowl (most of which turned out to be non-native species and hybrids that don’t count as “sightings” but were interesting in any case). Most of our bird sightings were incidental to whatever we were doing at the time. The Peregrine Falcon we saw on the boat ride in Bath was a lucky bonus. The walk along the Backs in Cambridge was another time when we couldn’t help but see some birds, though we didn’t set out to do so. We saw a Great Cormorant sunning itself on the river Thames as we walked across the Millennium Bridge in London.

For some reason, the only surviving photo from our first day in London is this one. A photo of a women's bathroom in Kensington Gardens.But other than the hour-and-a-half in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, the only time we set out to “go birding” was when we joined members of the Marylebone Birdwatching Society for their regular Tuesday morning walk on Hampstead Heath. This turned out to be a wonderful experience, and definitely the highlight of our birdwatching activities in England.

England swings, 2006
Lifebirds #106-115 – England Day 7: MBS!
England Days 7-8 – Parks and the Tower
Lifebirds #101-105 – England Days 3-6
England Days 5-6 – Cambridge and Bath
England Days 3-4 – Brighton and Stratford
Lifebirds #89-100 – England Day 2
England Day 2 – A River and a Globe
Lifebirds #87-88 – England Day 1
England Day 1 – London’s Burning

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