How A Walking Tour I Couldn’t Take Helped Me Learn How to Get More Out Of Travel

In 1988 when I was 18 years old and fairly naïve, I went on a school trip to London and Paris, graciously financed by my parents. Leading up to this trip, I had done little to no pre-planning, figuring, without any concrete evidence to support it, that « The school chaperone knew London and Paris, and would no doubt be an excellent tour guide. »

These were famous last words.

The school chaperone’s familiarity with London and Paris was probably at best that of a seasoned traveller who had passed through these two cities a few times, and who had done a bit of pre-planning for this trip; in reality, in my no doubt clouded view, she came across to me as hardly the enthusiastic, tireless tour guide with a boundless, intimate knowledge of the locales I somehow expected her to have been. This of course is not her fault; one can hardly ever live up to being as good as the expectations hoisted upon them.

Don’t get me wrong; the trip was great, and the school chaperone was effective at chaperoning a small group of 17 to 19 year olds, and dare I say even moderately effective at being a tour guide. In fact, I’m probably being ungrateful, and she was no doubt a fairly good tour guide.

I did nonetheless have a rather enjoyable tour, having visited various museums and attractions in London such as The London Dungeon (a favourite for me), the Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and the War Cabinet Rooms. Speaker’s Corner one Sunday morning was a highlight of the trip.

I also found it curious though memorable one day when a number of us in the group decided to visit a London pub at roughly 3:30pm, only to find the doors locked; the publican did eventually open the doors for us. This was in the day when English pubs still closed for a time in the afternoon, due to a law from the First World War meant to curb excessive drinking by munitions production workers.

In Paris, we visited the Champs Élysées, l’Arc de Triomphe, and, if I recall correctly, Le Rond Point du Champs Élysées.

I remember a person in our group being rather almost obsessed with the crêpes street vendors were selling; as I recall, he favoured the Nutella spread. I myself indulged in bringing to life a French stereotype, that of walking down a Parisian street eating a baguette. On one of Paris’ bridges over the Seine River, I haggled with a street artist for a charcoal drawing of myself, shown here. I remember being fascinated by the abundance of chestnuts littering the ground and streets in some neighbourhoods.

The charcoal drawing of myself drawn by a street artist in Paris on a bridge over the Seine River in 1988

A critical point in the trip came on the day before we returned home, when we were crossing the English Channel from France back to London to stay the night before going to the airport the following day, and ultimately returning home back to Canada. There was a dock strike, as I recall on the Dover side, which delayed us by a good six or eight hours while waiting in Calais for limited space on the minimal ferry service which was operating. We were lucky when we finally arrived in Dover; the bus driver for the charter to take us to London had patiently waited through the delay for us, aware that our absence at the appointed hour was no doubt directly as a result of the dock strike.

Upon arrival at the hostel (which was different from the first hostel at which we had stayed earlier when in London) at roughly 18:00 or thereabouts, I noted a promotional tourist pamphlet at the reception desk for a « Jack the Ripper Walking Tour » which began at about 19:30. The timing was such that I figured I could quickly place my bag in the room and then travel over to the meeting point for the walking tour. However, I quietly and somewhat reluctantly, though probably wisely, realized that in a group setting on the night before returning home, this would be logistically less than perfectly easy to arrange for several in the group. Perhaps – probably – it was something that the chaperone would frown upon, having already had choice words about some innocent but clearly gullible behaviour of mine several days earlier at an attraction, at which I also managed to get separated from the group for about an hour.

I went home disappointed that had I known in advance about this walking tour, I probably would have keenly tried to insert it into the group schedule when we would have had the time to do it, or on an evening when a small willing party from the group could have gone. I did not resent the dock strike for having deprived me of the opportunity, even though all things being equal, had the dock strike not occurred and we’d made it back across to London several hours earlier as had been originally scheduled, there would have been a good chance that participation could have been arranged, or at least realistically considered. Certainly, had I done some pre-planning, the disappointment of missing out on this activity may have been somewhat less.

I went home regretting not being able to go on the walking tour, squarely placing the blame on myself for having assumed that « The school chaperone knew London and Paris, and would no doubt be an excellent tour guide. »

About two years later, my parents went to London on a trip of their own; I was envious, wanting to correct my prior travel errors. The next year when they repeated their trip, I even listened for the first time to the walking tour cassette tapes I’d received three years earlier on my trip, and I became really envious of my parents, and I wanted to return to London.

Almost four years after the London and Paris trip, my parents brought my older brother and I to New York City over the Christmas holidays, and, as you can imagine, I planned out some attractions I would have liked to visit. My brother and I went to a winemaking shop I’d sought out (since I had recently taken up the hobby), taking the famed New York Subway; we visited the ConEdison Museum; and we patronized an electronics store to purchase a CD player for a home stereo I had. Passing by Rockefeller Plaza, we even decided on the spur of the moment to take a tour of the New York NBC studios, where we visited the studio for Saturday Night Live, as well as the studio for Late Night with David Letterman. This latter studio was surprisingly small, which on TV benefited from special camera lenses which made the studio appear larger. While hardly all trip defining or even noteworthy attractions, my brother later confided in me that he was glad that I’d planned out a few attractions to visit since he hadn’t done any such planning; I related to him having been disappointed in myself over not having done any research for the above-mentioned London and Paris trip and had as a result done some planning for this trip.

In the intervening years, I went on a couple more smaller trips, each time researching in advance to various degrees the various sites and attractions that I could visit.

One fateful day at the beginning of August, 2003, a bit over fifteen years after the school trip to London and Paris, my mother, now recently widowed, made an offhanded remark, perhaps just idly speaking aloud a passing thought without really being too serious. « I think I’d like to go to London in October. »

Without losing a beat, I replied « May I join you? »

And so began the trip of a lifetime for me.

I began planning my trip, while my mother planned hers. Plane tickets were purchased, and a bachelor apartment rented by the week was reserved, which we shared during the trip. I hit the internet, at a time when it was just beginning to grow and be useful as a means to plan such a holiday. I searched for festivals, museums, shows, recommendations, landmarks, tourist attractions, and the like. After I had spent several weeks researching a wide variety of museums and attractions, I felt satisfied with my research. At this point, a hunch lurked in my head, which fortunately didn’t backfire the way it had in 1988: I knew that while I had found a good variety of things to do and see, I also knew that I had found roughly only enough for about half the trip; however, I decided that I would leave the other half to chance findings once in London, something that fortunately worked well for me during the trip.

My trip brought me to several museums and local attractions, such as:

  • The changing of The Guard at Buckingham Palace, but I was disappointed because it was ultimately either cancelled or severely curtailed due to the rain;
  • The London Science Museum;
  • The Charles Dickens museum, located in one of the homes occupied by the writer;
  • “The Mouse Trap” at St. Martin’s Theatre;
Me at the London Dungeon in 2003
  • The London Dungeon, whose layout and exhibits had been changed enough from those in 1988, and which in 2003, had a greater emphasis on Jack the Ripper, as well as an indoor slow roller coaster type ride to bring visitors through a portion of the various exhibits;
  • The Medieval Banquet, which was good fun albeit slightly contrived and overly florid, with actors and animators costumed in what I would describe as 1940’s to 1960’s historical and period Hollywood movie attire (think Robin Hood movies prior to Kevin Costner in 1991.)
  • The Museum of London, which seemed to grow larger and larger through every door and passage I went, and in which I found a fully constructed house. I was fascinated by the presence of this house in general, but particularly because there was a toilet room separate from the main bathroom, a characteristic I found curious and very interesting, especially since I had only ever seen it before or since in my grandparents’ house;
  • Covent Gardens, which I visited a few times, including one spectacular Saturday with the clearest blue skies and beautiful mild weather one could ask for;
  • Pollock Toy Museum, which was spread over two neighbouring Victorian-era houses, each of which were similarly high, but one having one more floor than the other as a result of shorter ceilings;
  • The Imperial War Museum;
  • The HMS Belfast, a World War II era ship-turned-into-a-museum;
  • The Victoria and Albert Museum at which I recall having seen a good amount of iron works which were saved from being melted down for their iron value during World War II;
  • The Clink Museum, located in London’s oldest prison;
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral;
  • Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, which was rebuilt on a site 400 metres away from the site where the original had burned down, and the “new” buildings on that site were listed historical buildings which could not be demolished for when the current Globe Theatre project was being built.

Unplanned visits included:

  • The London Eye, which I did not actually ride in;
  • Southwark Cathedral;
  • The Swiss Bells in Leicester Square, visited twice;
  • The Sherlock Holmes Museum, yes, at 221B Baker Street (resulting from having taken a Sherlock Holmes themed walking tour);
  • Three walking tours.

This is not an exhaustive list; there are several more museums and tourist attractions that I visited.

Having been an avid geocacher at the time, I also researched in advance a small handful of geocaches to find if and when an empty afternoon were to present itself; this proved useful, since at the time, Zone 1 in London on Sundays appeared to virtually shut down, and there were few activities, attractions, and the like open for tourists, or just about anyone else. (But I do recall having found a walking tour, and having gone to Speaker’s corner, on the Sunday morning.)

This activity led me to finding geocaches at The London Stone; Postman’s Park beside the London City Presbyterian Church, across from the Museum of London; and St. John’s Garden, a short walk over from Farringdon Tube Station. As I recall, all three were fairly easily walk-able each from the others within the afternoon, and that I indeed had planned out the route in advance as a function of being able to walk from one to the next to the next.

Another highlight of the trip was the ubiquitous presence of pubs in Zone 1. I generally avoided well known restaurants – in fact, I don’t recall having gone to a chain restaurant, or at least one I recognized as being part of a chain, at all during the trip. Certainly, besides the ubiquitous presence of Starbucks and a few Krispy Kreme Donuts franchises (the latter of which I was obsessed with at the time, but which I did not consume while on the trip), I don’t even recall having seen any other well known chains, including McDonald’s. Eating at pubs was a pleasant way to eat for me: In Zone 1, it seemed to me that when I wanted to have a meal, all I had to do was stop where I was, and if there wasn’t a pub more or less in front of me, all I had to do was walk a block or two either to the left or the right, and I was bound to find a pub that served food. It was a wonderful dining experience for me! Interestingly, it did not occur to me until writing this post that, assuming that at some point I tried to enter a pub mid-afternoon, that I never dealt with a mid-afternoon pub closing hours.

In between, my vacation and my mother’s coincided on a daily basis. It was not unusual for her to show me the occasional attraction, and of course often enough we dined together, as well as of course having shared an apartment during the trip.

And, having done my research in advance, I had found information on the “Jack the Ripper Walking Tour”, in which I participated early on during my trip.

During my research prior to leaving on the trip, I found the website for “London Walks”, and it announced that a well known expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, would be leading the walk one evening while I was to be in London.

Leading up to my trip and on the advice of a friend, I bought a book on the subject of one of the various theories as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. I read much of the book in the time leading up to the trip, and indeed in the time leading up to when I took the walking tour once already in London.

I made a point of showing up at the appointed time and place on the evening that the walk was advertised to be lead by the well known expert. The walk was entertaining, visiting several of the key places surrounding the stories, evidence, and legends and lore of the Jack the Ripper story. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and listening to the stories. One of the more amusingly memorable parts of the walk was when the group was brought through an area known as a gathering spot for skateboarders, and we had been warned in advance by the tour guide “Whenever I bring a group through here, I never know what to expect.” Indeed, we were not disappointed: One of the skateboarders saw our group, took his shirt off, and called out to us “I’m Jack the Stripper!”, much to our collective bemusement, giggles, and guffaws.

I asked the tour guide what he thought about the particular theory presented in the book I’d read. He politely dismissed it as just another author unfamiliar with Ripperology trying to capitalize on the subject. He went on to state that in his opinion, it consisted of connecting circumstantial evidence together insufficiently well, and that it lacked sufficiently substantial proof to connect the person in question above all others, given the available (and sometimes lack of) evidence in the case. As I see it, ultimately, the Jack the Ripper case is at its core indeed so fraught with insufficient and conflicting evidence, and in the meantime so much legend, lore and a certain romantic notion surrounding the mystery have been created around it, that it will continue for a long time to be ripe for many to capitalize on the subject – in an indirect sense, myself included here. But I digress.

The defining raîson d’être for my trip having been fulfilled, I continued with my trip as described above, thoroughly enjoying the various attractions I visited, and was enthralled by the vacation. Here are my pictures from the trip.

For many seasoned travellers, the above seems to be an easily compiled list of obvious and easy to implement options that so many tourists visit in London. Yet, in a lot of ways, it was the kind of trip that I’d wished my first trip fifteen years earlier in 1988 had been, and which I thoroughly enjoyed in 2003.

There was a key difference, however: I became personally invested in planning out the trip, and planned it out accordingly, in advance. I of course enjoyed myself due to the inherent value of the various sights and attractions; however, it was also due to how well it was being executed and the extensive planning I’d done.

As a result, in 2003, I managed to go full circle and participate in the walking tour that I would have loved to go on but missed out on in 1988, because of my lack of planning and engagement, not because of a dock strike, and certainly not for any rational basis to be disappointed in the school chaperone as a tour guide.

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