Brit wit on a bus
As you are taken on a tour of London, the guides have a memorable way of mixing historical information with slapstick comedy.
AROUND LONDON: The official tour bus.
"WHEN in London, mind your Ps and Qs," wisecracked the guide in our tourist bus. I suspect it was a subtle warning to those of us who love rushing up to counters, or quietly slithering up a queue when we think no one is looking.
But then I'd come prepared to be a legitimate queue-jumper! More than a fortnight before my London holiday, I had, sitting in front of my computer in Chennai, already reached several counters for London's attractions... from touring passes to even the Lion King live musical, printing out e-tickets at bargain prices.
A highly practical tip passed on by a friend who'd suffered queue-fatigue recently in London, and heard of Visit Britain's new online booking facility only later. Pre-booked tickets in hand, I would be able to smugly sail past the crowds, through special "fast track" entrances at London, rather than grow old, waiting in queues.
London Bridge at sunset.
My first queue-jumping trick was at the Open Top Bus Tour of London, swarming with the jabber of different languages: German, Russian, Japanese... my e- ticket (at a discounted $33) took me right past them to the best seat on top of the bus without a wait.
London in a day
"This bus comes with free air-conditioning. Enjoy!" began Andy, our guide, as our busload happily set off along Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park.
And while you too are enjoying such a ride some day, try not to start a long-term relationship, or even a holiday romance, with the cute stranger across the aisle. Because you never know when you are going to suddenly hop off the bus.
With centuries of wonders waiting at every turn of the head, the Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour is the finest way to get a complete overview of the city, in one fell swoop. Only I didn't feel like hopping off at all, as I was laughing so much at Andy's running commentary that laced all historical information with typical Brit wit. Till I discovered that every single bus had a sit-down comic just like Andy so that no matter which Big Bus I'd get onto again (there was one coming along every 10 minutes) I'd still feel we'd got the funniest guide in the city.
Well, one thing wasn't very funny in this fabulous city of a thousand sights: The entrance fees at many stops. Even though many of the big museums were all free, some rough math I'd done with my guide book in the plane had shown that to get inside even seven or eight out of my list of absolute must-dos in my book would have cost me a cool $130 in just one day. Aha! God bless my little London Pass: the best piece of plastic I'd ever bought. I had booked it online for just $46 and not only was I jumping queues to get in quicker, the London Pass made it all free.
Meanwhile back at the bus, I was wondering if the other exhilarated sightseers felt as I did that a first-time visit to London seemed like the second visit to London. Everything was so wonderfully familiar. I knew from many Wodehouse books that Regent Street was that one going off Piccadilly Circus. That after cutting across Oxford Street, I'd soon be at Hyde Park, just like Sherlock Holmes had, following a suspect. Or if I went past Trafalgar Square under Napoleon's majestic gaze and onto Charing Cross, I'd find myself near Covent Garden, where young Eliza Doolittle had sold flowers with her brazen accent. And where the Dickens was Charles' Old Curiosity Shop?
But now it was time for real history, not just beloved fictional characters from books. I noted with some glee that people were paying $28 to get into the Tower of London, while my London Pass waved me in free. Treachery, torture, murder our Beefeater guide gave us a commanding performance of the derring-dos over the past 900 years. We saw the last thing that Queen Anne Boleyn saw, before a knife sliced off her slender neck; the tower where Lady Jane Grey came as a girl of 16 to place a crown on her head, but instead had her head itself chopped off by a jealous Mary I.
Back inside yet another big red bus and driving over the Thames, our new guide Steve warned those of us who might be over seven feet tall not to suddenly stand up in the bus, lest we get beheaded too by the girders of the Tower Bridge overhead. "`You're looking rather detached today, darling'... " your wife may say to you, warned Steve. Soon we were in a boat for a free Thames cruise, and coming into sight was London's best-known clock, named after one Mr. Benjamin the Big Ben. Thank goodness his name wasn't Richard, with a pet name Dick, said our guide. We guffawed at this joke that had no takers except us as the huge gang of Japanese on board were more intent on click-clicking this most enduring picture postcard image of Great Britain.
Cathedrals, castles and abbeys went by each enticing us to jump off, even as the sheer fun of staying on board the bus kept pulling us back in. After the awe-inspiring St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, we wondered about some of the newfangled buildings near the Thames, one shaped like a giant gherkin, another curiously tapering off sideways... oh, that one there is the Leaning Tower of Pizza Boxes, explained our deadpan guide, adding that this was probably the worst ever joke of his career. "And that evil building on your left has far more gruesome cutting going on inside right now, than even the Tower of London." It turned out he was pointing us to the Department of Income Tax!
The royals-obsessed in the bus got off en masse at the Buckingham Palace and the Kensington Palace stops. After all those tales of palace intrigue, crown jewels and coronations, it felt incredible to think a real-life Queen was wandering somewhere within. An added bonus at Kensington Palace was an exhibition of rare pictures of Diana. Gooseflesh stuff.
Suddenly it was party time in London and we were right in the bustle of London rushing out of offices and into the streets many in gay abandon, as our guide thoughtfully pointed out. A pair of superbly made-up men in identical tomahawk-styled green hair caught our eye we were in the notorious Compton Street in Soho. As reputed for its sleaze as for its eclectic dining and shopping, it's expected that you flaunt your sexual preferences here, in audacious London style.
Back at the bustle of Piccadilly Circus, we saw the fine art of Just Sitting being practised by hundreds of tourists and locals alike. We looked in alarm at our wish list: only about 50 more things to see and do! Well we'd squeezed the maximum out of the London Pass freebies for one day; the next few days would have to fit in all the no-fees museums, from the massive Tate to the quaint Pollock Doll's Museum, the British Museum, the National History Museum... museums ad nauseam to some; but incredible free bargains for the diehard sight-seer.
Meanwhile it was time to say "toodle-oo pip pip" to the last of our guides. I got off the bus last, hoping for an end line from him. I wasn't disappointed. "Got to rush to a pub meself now" he said with a wink. "I keep missing my ex-wife, but my aim is improving!"
Pre-book your tickets at:
Treat yourself to an open-top bus guided tour of London ($33)
Get the London Pass for free entrance to scores of attractions, plus `fast track' entry advantage ($46)
Get a Travel Card for unlimited travel by tube, train or bus anywhere in London ($9)
More details at: www.visitbritain.com
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