LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – After 7 years, I was able to get the chance of returning to Europe. The last time was with my previous company. I had spent about two months in Copenhagen to train with Maersk. I was also able to visit Sweden via a quick train ride.
For this trip, the original plan was for a training in our Gearbulk office in Bergen, Norway for a week. But since we will be in Europe anyway, it has been decided that we can also visit our Gearbulk London office.
We were given a weekend stay in London excluding our Friday office visit. I thought that I cannot see much of London with this kind of schedule but it turned out, with precision and detailed planning it is possible to have a London and Stonehenge weekend experience. Yes, including Stonehenge! As the Brits would say, “those pile of rocks!”
Getting a UK Visa in Manila
We had more or less a month to arrange for our visas to Norway and UK. I will discuss how we did it for the Schengen visa in another post.
Here is the step-by-step guide I did as far as what I can recall:
1. Check what kind of visa and the visa requirements you need here. Try to collect as much documents as you can for this. Prepare both originals and photocopies, just in case. If some of the documents are not yet at hand, adjust the appointment schedule you will choose accordingly.
2. You need to register an account in the Visa4UK website. Remember that the online part of the application is solely your responsibility. Details should be accurate and of course truthful. The online form itself is really exhaustive so be patient.
3. Pay the UK visa fee using a credit card. This includes the VFS processing fee.
4. Set a schedule with VFS UK Application Centre. The UK VFS has no contact centre that can answer any questions you may have in mind. This is due to the fact that the UK Border Agency has a centralised paid-per-minute contact centre and chat service. You can opt to inquire through email at the same website page. You get generic response though.
You can also amend the schedule of the appointment online just log in to your account and change it. Print another appointment letter. But no one is checking this in the VFS anyway.
5. Print the form and bring all the documents. VFS UK is located in Ecoplaza Building along Chino Roces/Pasong Tamo extension. The UK VFS has no proper waiting area outside their for people waiting for their turn to submit their applications. Get your bio-metrics capturing done.
6. Wait. VFS will offer an SMS service for you to get informed of the status of your application. This is worth the 150-peso cost. Listen well how long the visa application will be processed. Last time, it was 15 working days. Before summer and Christmas season in the UK, expect that there will be a huge volume of applications.
7. You will receive an email about the status of your application as well. The schedule of pick-up of the visa from the VFS centre will depend on the SMS message you will receive.
Flying to London
Skyscanner was very useful in finding the best flights out of Manila without wasting a lot of time in air travel and without being too expensive.
It would have been nice if we were able to purchase the Qatar Airways flight leaving Manila early in the morning. But due to my pending UK visa application, the price for this flight had skyrocket and we were not able to book it. However, not complaining flying with Singapore Airlines with a stop-over in Singapore.
Even with the nice food, in-flight entertainment system and friendly staffs of Singapore Airlines, I felt irritated throughout my flight to London. I tried my best to sleep and rest but my mind and body just cannot relax.
I was just so happy when we finally landed in Heathrow. Our London office has already arranged our transportation from the airport to the hotel. Despite my desire to see London while on the road, I was already falling asleep. It was not really the best time to be jet lagged.
Stayed in London Bridge Hotel
Other hotels/accommodations near the London Bridge/Tower Bridge:
Roaming the streets of London at night
I really wanted to sleep but decided to walk around the area to see some sights. Google Maps was really useful for this night stroll.
London City Hall and the Tower Bridge were just walking distance from the hotel.
From there, I walked along the Thames River seeing HMS Belfast, our office building, London Bridge, Southwark Cathedral, Golden Hinde II, The Clink Prison Museum, Southwark Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and Tate Modern.
If you walk towards Millennium Bridge, it was a picturesque scene with London skyline at night dominated by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Watching Miss Saigon at the West End
Our London office was just new. It used to be located in Weybridge. It was of course our intention to meet our colleagues in our London Office. We can see London Bridge from our office.
We had our lunch (and a beer) in The Barrowboy & Banker. Tried some English Pie. The beer was awesome.
After our office visit, we went back to the hotel to leave our laptop bags. It was time to experience the iconic London underground tubes.
We had not purchased an Oyster card so we had to buy the very expensive one-way ticket. It was surreal being inside the train. I always look forward in riding trains in any country I go to. We alighted in Leicester Square station.
We had our dinner first in Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant in Wardour Street. Well, being an Asian and having visited China and other major Asian cities, the food itself was not at par on what I expected Chinese food should taste like. But it was a good dinner nonetheless seeing the whole restaurant was patronised by mostly Asian visitors.
From London Chinatown, it was a short walk to Prince Edward Theater. I booked my ticket in advance. I was able to get a nice seat using the online booking system of Miss Saigon. Main consideration for this was my desire to see Filipino artists perform live.
The play was 3-hour long. The set and the production value were worth the ticket price. I have just recently been to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City hence I can still make the connection of this story to the people of Vietnam.
It was a bit overcrowded when I went back the tube to get to my hotel.
Saturday visit to the Stonehenge
Again, I booked this in advance. I had chosen Golden Tours since I have read better reviews of their tours. This was their ‘Simply Stonehenge Tour – Morning.’
There was a light drizzle when we stepped out of Victoria station. Our hotel was not included in the free pick-up offered in our ticket price. I have to say it was quite a challenge navigating London while it is raining.
Our tour bus was almost full when we got in. We had no choice but to sit at the back of the bus.
It was a pleasant 2-hour drive away from the bustle of London. We had our stop-over in Welcome Break along M3 highway.
We were able to see some fields of flowers, pig farms, and suburban houses. Once on-site, our bus parked in the designated area about a 5-min walk to the Visitor Centre. We were given with a device (It looked like a small walkie-talkie.) to hear the audio tour of Stonehenge.
Another shuttle bus will bring the visitors to the Stonehenge. You can opt to do a 15-minute walk but would suggest to do this when going back to the Visitor Centre.
This experience was one of kind. I understand some people may feel differently about Stonehenge, however the main draw to this site is the fact that until now it is a mystery how they managed to built this monument and more importantly how they have used the site.
And of course, while checking out Stonehenge, Ylvis’ song was playing inside my head:
There could be a crowd here specially during the fall and summer season.
The audio guide was quite informative. Info and interviews were short and precise. It was a challenge to take a photograph without including other visitors though.
Going back to the Visitor Centre, we decided to walk through the fields. We passed by some burial mounds. We exited in a small strip of forest along the road.
There were a couple of exhibitions in the Visitor Centre itself. We checked them out quickly since we still needed to go to the loo, buy some souvenirs, order take-away food, and finally return to the bus before we got left behind.
Stonehenge/Salisbury hotels/accommodations options:
For me, this was a very memorable experience. Going back to London, I glanced back from the bus window and saw Stonehenge vanished from the horizon. It was an almost complete London and Stonehenge weekend, however, we still have time! Checking out city of London once more!
Walking Tour of London
We were dropped off in Kensington. In this area you can explore the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. These are all for free. From here, go straight to Constitution Hill and you will see the Buckingham Palace then proceed to The Mall road to Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery.
Our intention though was to visit The British Museum. This museum will close late that day. The nearest station we saw in Kensington was Gloucester Road. We alighted in Tottenham Court Road station.
The British Museum was really immense in size and the number of collections were many! However, I have narrowed down what I wanted to see: Rosetta’s Stone, the cat mummies and the Easter Island statue.
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court was an amazing sight. After taking some photos of the facade of the museum, we decided to move on. We walked through Russell Square and walked until we reached The British Library. The library was already closed for that day. I would have liked to see a Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and the sole surviving manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf.
We went ahead to King’s Cross station. We were there just for one thing of course: Platform 9 3/4
The queue to the “platform” was very long and aside from this, the cost of a photo taken with the props and all was just ridiculous. A souvenir shop beside the platform has very cool items. These were pricey as well.
We used the tube to go from King’s Cross St. Pancras station to Westminster station. We wanted to see Westminster Abbey, Palace of Westminster and Big Ben.
It was not a good idea to circle around the Abbey we found out; when you go to the road between the Palace and the Abbey. It was a long way around the Abbey exiting through the Dean’s Yard. But at least we were able to be back in the Parliament Square where you can see some statues (including Winston Churchill’s). At this square, we were at the back of Big Ben facing towards the Westminster Bridge.
We walked towards the bridge and took some photos of Big Ben at the other side of River Thames. You can also see from here the London Eye.
We had dinner in a not so good sushi place called Yo! Sushi with their colorful converyor-belt sushi concept. It was average. Nothing really special. The location though was fantastic. We wanted to wait for the sun to set in before we go back to see Big Ben and the London Eye.
It was only a little bit dark when we went back again to see Big Ben. We took only a couple of shots since it was already drizzling. The London Eye was gorgeous at night as well.
We called it a night. I still have stuff to pack and I wanted to catch some rest before our flight to Bergen, Norway the next day.
Getting out before the London Marathon
Our office also arranged for an airport transfer to our hotel. We needed to get out of the city before the start of the London Marathon. So it was quite early. Good thing I was well-rested however I was already hungry since I have not eaten anything.
We checked-in our luggage, passed through security and looked for a restaurant for our breakfast. I had a delicious full English breakfast.
This was a very memorable London and Stonehenge weekend travel experience for me. I am hoping to visit the place again someday soon!