UK Trip- Day 2: Arrive in London, Travel to Cardiff

Note: I’ll be posting my full photo albums when I have the thousands of photos processed. But for now, I’m focusing on the write-up. I’ll try to do one every day or every other day.

April 10, 2012:

It must have been the time of morning (6:30am) and lack of sleep, but when I got in the non-UK passport holder line at Heathrow customs, I completely missed the part of the instructions where you fill out a landing card. About half an hour later (still standing in line), I realized everyone had filled one out but me. I ducked out of line for two (I messed the first one up). But the wait was about an hour long so I had plenty of time left to fill it out. After explaining why I was there to the Border Agent, I was sent on my way and it suddenly struck me–I was in ENGLAND!

Just standing there, waiting for the little train to different parts of the airport, I fell in love with being there. it felt like I had stepped right through my television set into BBC America! I picked up my bag and headed out of the arrivals gate; my first thought was “OMG this is where that Welcome Back flash mob video was filmed!” LOL The second thing I thought was “wait, that can’t be for me, can it?” There was a long line of people/drivers holding signs with passenger names on them and the last man on the row, right by the exit, was holding a sign with just “Kate” on it. When I walked past, I did a double take and then said “I’m Kate, but I don’t think you’re here for me.” I wish I’d thought to get a photo. The guy smiled and said “Aw, have a great visit here anyway, Kate.” Super nice.

I made it through the rest of the very long day by putting everything I had to do in a list and doing them one at a time. And first on the list was ‘find a place that sells SIM cards so that I can use my cell phone.’ I’m a young woman traveling alone–I needed a working cell phone just in case. My dad had mentioned a place that looked like an info desk that actually sold phones. I looked around and couldn’t find it and then doubled back and suddenly, I saw the exact place he had mentioned. I bought a SIM card and 100 minutes from them, stuck the card in my phone, and found that my phone was locked. Dad had forgotten to tell me that my phone had to be unlocked in order for this strategy to work. So, in the list, I inserted ‘find a place to unlock my phone.’

But next up was ‘find an ATM.’ I found one and got out some cash. Then there was ‘figure out how to get to Cardiff.’ I had a BritRail pass, but I’d heard just before leaving that the train required changing trains and the coaches went straight there. Still, BritRail pass was already paid for and a coach was not. So I made my way over to the trains and they activated/stamped my pass. I ended up taking the Heathrow Express into London in order to take a train back OUT of London. Seemed a bit counter-productive, but it was nice to see a little more of England before heading to Wales. I just wish I’d been able to see the Paddington statue at Paddington Station. Paddington Bear was a big figure in my childhood :-)

What I DID find at Paddington Station, however, was a phone store. I set ‘get to Cardiff’ aside and bumped ‘get phone unlocked’ up. Except the guy at the store didn’t do unlocking. He did do selling new phones, though. Which I didn’t really want until he offered to take off the cost of the SIM card I’d already purchased. So the phone really only cost me about $25 and it would have been about that much to have my phone unlocked somewhere anyway plus I still would have had to find a place that did it. And the guy threw in 60 free international minutes so I could call home as well. It was a good deal in the end. Plus I had a spiffy UK phone charger.

Okay, so back to the ‘get to Cardiff’ item. All I could find were ticket machines (which weren’t going to take a BritRail pass), and finally I found an info desk to point me to the ticket counter. They re-validated the pass for some reason (I suspect the person at the desk just liked using the stamp there) and told me where to catch the train. I thought I needed an actual ticket to get through the turnstiles, but apparently all I needed to know was the platform. I made my way back through the station and wandered onto the 9:15 train to Cardiff with about 3 minutes to spare. I wrote in my journal “This is actually happening!” I think I was just super proud that I had actually managed to figure out the transportation thing, which was my biggest worry before leaving the states. I would be doing so many hops from place to place, after all.

Train at Paddington Station

I was STARVING on the train, so I went to the cafe car and bought something that had mushrooms and cheese and was hot and had a really long name I couldn’t pronounce. I chatted with the guy behind the counter, whose only visit to the states was a visit to Chicago (where I’d just been with work, a couple months back). I headed back to my seat and ate and swiftly learned that my body had absolutely NO idea what time it was. All it wanted was food and sleep constantly, and I knew I wasn’t really supposed to sleep, in order to get it on a proper schedule. I did nap a little bit on the train, but mostly I just enjoyed the scenery as we zoomed through England and Wales.

When I got off the train, my list kicked back in again. Next up was ‘find the hotel.’ I was totally turned around and needed a map, so I asked for directions to Cardiff Castle, knowing my hotel was a block short of there. It turned out to be a less than 10 minute walk, even with my pack and suitcase. And I kind of fell in love with the town during that walk.

The Pierhead Clock

Cardiff (at least, Central Cardiff) is wonderful–a big town with a small town feel. My room wasn’t ready when I arrived at the Sandringham Hotel, so I left my bags and went exploring. It wasn’t even noon yet.

Obviously, I went to Cardiff Castle. I can’t resist a castle and it was right by the hotel and practically calling out to me. In retrospect, climbing up hundreds of rather steep stairs to the tops of castle towers after only an hour and a half of sleep was probably a bad idea. But I’d run out of items on my list and my objective was just to stay awake and enjoy every second I could while I was on vacation. So up the steep stairs it was!

I bought an “Essential Adult” pass to the castle (the cheaper of the two options) but it also came with a free map and an audio tour. I sat through the intro video, which was artistic and completely wordless, apparently appealing to visitors who speak any language. Then I explored the castle, which had such history! It was used in Roman times, Norman, Medieval, Victorian, even World War II as a shelter. So different parts of the castle reflected those different ages–from gas masks (“Are you my mummy?”) to a gorgeous old library. There were even some owls & falcons tethered there, so I got to see my owls, despite not being able to fit in a stay at the reserve in the Lake District I’d contemplated. There were lots of snarfs to be had as well. I had a small bite to eat, realizing that once again I was STARVING. Yay for meal bars.

The keep

WWII air-raid shelters


Mr. Owl

From one of the towers, I caught sight of a park with a stone circle in it. So after I’d had my fill of the castle, I went exploring in that direction. I found a wall of animals and then found a park and a stone circle that had been relocated there and that some teenagers were just hanging out on. Wow. Back in the US in my day, we just hung out in malls. Things are definitely different in the UK :-)

Animal Wall


It was mid-afternoon by then, so I went back to my room (decent but certainly not impressive). Then I took the bus to Cardiff Bay. I just couldn’t wait any longer to be close to the Hub. LOL I took the bus there, feeling quite victorious when I found the right bus stop, had the right change, and got off at the right stop.

The bay is a lovely place, but I got there just as a huge group of squeeing young girls (looked like they were in their early 20s) were fangirling the water tower. Kind of awesome. I took a TON of photos. Then I wild released my very first book ever in a country that wasn’t the United States: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl released in Roald Dahl Plass.

Water Tower & Centre

Book release

Bad photo is bad

I looked around for the memorial, but didn’t see it anywhere, so I figured it had been taken down. So I walked around the waterfront and found a little place to eat that had wi-fi. The first thing I did was google how to use my new phone and found out that I had to take the 0 off of the front of my phone number and put 0044 at the beginning instead in order for anyone to call me. Huh. I never would have figured that out! And I discovered how to make international calls (add 00 in front of the country code and then the number). So I called home and let Mom know I arrived safe & sound). Then I read some kickass Supernatural fic while eating a huge sandwich and sitting by the waterside. That was definitely the life. Such bliss!

However, this afternoon was definitely a case of “I really should have done my research before going.” I’ll explain that in Day 3’s recap.

When I passed the tower again, the water was on! I stood and watched for a long while as cold wings sent the spray away at an angle, sparkling in the sunlight. Beautiful and something that will most definitely show up in a Torchwood fic of mine in the future–just one of those details you only get from actually being there. So beautiful. I stopped into the Millennium Centre and there was basically no Doctor Who merch to be found… a bit of a disappointment, though not unsurprising. I did get a crushed “penny” and some postcards.

Then I stood around waiting for the bus and took the wrong one back, but it dropped me within walking distance of the hotel. For dinner, I went to Cafe Jazz (20% off for hotel guests). I had a pasta bake and salad and treated myself to a hot chocolate to warm up. My body literally had no idea what time it was. It was constantly hungry and exhausted the entire day.

There was a jazz group playing live–it was weird to hear American jazz music on my first night in Wales. But I sat and listened and ate and read NCIS Xanthefic (it’s kind of a tradition of mine to read Xanthefic when I’m on a trip on my own). The NCIS fic was great but shorter than expected so I started a Stargate: Atlantis Xanthefic after that (I’m making my way backward through the series for some reason, LOL). In fact, I ended up reading that novel for the remainder of my trip and finished it up on my first night back in the US.