My 9-week solo trip around Europe began as I landed at Heathrow Airport. The 11+ hour plane ride had done all it could to deplete my energy, but I was too excited to be tired. I had finally made it, after years of longing to visit the land of Jane Austen, Harry Potter, tea and scones, Shakespeare, and the monarchy, and I was not about to let jet lag spoil my fun.
The non-EU passport line was insanely long and there was no air conditioning, so I fanned myself with my entry card as I tried to connect to wi-fi. I let my friend Jenni know I had arrived and she was on the other side waiting for me. I met Jenni during my first year of JET in Fukuoka. We were both doing NaNoWriMo and met on the online forums. We hit it off from the beginning, bonding over books and video games. She’d moved back to her hometown of London not long after I moved to Korea.
After snaking through the never-ending line, I finally approached a customs officer, expecting him to stamp my passport and let me through. Instead, he drilled me for a while, asking my reason for visiting (travel, seeing friends), how long I’d be in the EU (less than the maximum of 90 days), what my occupation was (teacher, usually, but at the time I wasn’t technically employed). He kept asking me his round of 20 questions: “What does your husband do? Will you be alone the rest of your trip?” and I felt my heart racing. I wanted to exclaim, “Look, I’m not trying to sneak in and live here, okay? People do solo trips all the time, don’t they?”
He wasn’t mean-spirited or anything, and he actually sounded more curious than anything. It was actually pretty funny and once he stamped my passport and let me leave, I laughed my way through the exit doors. Jenni was there to greet me and the air was cooler outside, thankfully. We grabbed a cab and headed to her neck of the woods.
Just passing by all the houses and buildings was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually in England. I’d dreamt of going since I was in middle school. All my bridesmaids studied abroad in Europe – three in London and one in France – but I’d spent most of my life taking trips to Japan. I’d only been to Europe once, on a bus tour of Ireland with my dad. That was awesome, too, but I was stoked about striking out on my own, gallivanting around an entire continent by myself.
It was great staying with Jenni the first week or so of my trip because she helped me get a metro card and took me shopping. Every morning we had breakfast in her cozy home – cereal, fruit, toast, and – of course – tea. That first night, we had Indian food and discussed our plans for the week. She had errands and family outings planned but was able to carve out some time to hang out with me, which was perfect because I wanted to spend time with her but also get my bearings as a solo traveler, too.
The first morning, I woke up at around 3 or 4am. I opened my windows and stared outside as the cool air circulated my room. I unpacked and put all my clothes into drawers. I’d heard this is a good way to make yourself feel more at home, especially on a trip where you move around a lot. I loved the view of her back garden and the other houses. One of my favorite times of the day was dawn, when everything was quiet and serene.
Jenni took me to her Cantonese class in Chinatown near Covent Garden. It was cool meeting other people my age. The teacher was amazed that I was married to a Korean man. I managed to learn a few Cantonese phrases, and then it was time for lunch. We went to a popular Chinese restaurant, Four Seasons. Then we went shopping! At Primark we stocked up on Harry Potter merch. We also found a delectable chocolate shop where we bought brownies and tiny chocolates.
The next day, Sunday, I got up early and took the Tube alone for the first time. It was my first official solo travel day and I was ready. I got off at Monument station and walked a few feet to find the Monument of the Great Fire of London. It’s a massive stone pillar with a plaque at the base. I heard a nearby onlooker explain to his friend that if you tip the pillar over, the tip of it would mark the place where the fire started (on Pudding Lane). I remember doing a history assignment about the London Fire, and it was cool to see the monument. However, I didn’t have the time (or courage) to climb the 311 steps to the narrow top. I’m afraid of heights. You’ll see this as a recurring theme in my travels (although I do sort of conquer my fear in Switzerland!).
I marched on to my real target of the day: The Tower of London.
I had no idea what to expect, but I put it on my list after seeing Ariel Bisset, a YouTuber I follow, visit and equate it to A Knight’s Tale, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. Also, parts of the BBC’s Sherlock were filmed there, so I had to go.
I had a timed entry ticket to the Tower but the queue (as I began to call it) was long and at a halt. I got in line behind a group of American tourists and chatted with them as the line slowly began to crawl up towards the entrance. Once I was through, I realized I had done no research about the Tower of London and had no idea what to do first. I decided The Crown Jewels would be a good first stop, so I headed over there, stopping to take dozens of pictures.
Right outside the entrance, guards in red coats and those furry black hats paced around, prompting tourists (like me) to take pictures and videos. It was kind of freeing to be among other tourists because I didn’t feel as strange for taking pictures.
I’d heard many complaints online when planning for my trip about certain cities/places that are “too crowded” and I read lots of things warning me not to dress like a tourist or stick out too much, etc. However, I wasn’t that concerned on my trip about “blending in” so much as I was about managing my time well, adapting to local customs, being polite, and trying to speak the language as much as I could. I mean, I went to Europe in the summer, mostly on a big-city tour, so I couldn’t have avoided people all that much. But I digress.
The Tower of London was really cool – seeing the royal crowns and jewels was really fascinating. I also loved learning about the history of the Tower, the superstitions about the crows that live on the property, etc. There’s a whole museum full of armor (for men and horses!) and I walked through the Royal Beasts exhibit, where animals like lions and bears were kept. I also watched a performance of the beheading of Anne Boleyn!
After the Tower, I got some wi-fi and a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger and made my way to Leadenhall Market, which many Potter fans visit as it inspired Diagon Alley. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and everything was closed, including Waterstones, a bookstore I’d been dying to go to. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, visiting St. Paul’s, The Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge (featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie) and the Tate Modern.
Actually, I wanted to go over the Millennium Bridge, but as I’m terrified of heights and especially of bridges, I walked about two steps before I got sweaty palms and heart palpitations and had to get off. I had to cross the Thames, though, to get to the Globe and the Tate Modern, so I ended up waiting ages for a bus that took me two stops over the bridge to my destination. I had no other choice, really, but I felt kind of dumb spending all that time avoiding my fear.
The next morning, I had a very early start. I had booked a bus tour of Stonehenge and Bath and the tour pick-up was at a downtown hotel. Since the pick-up time was around 5am, I had to take an Uber there. My Uber driver and I chatted about where I was from and why I was up so early. He was from Poland, so I asked him how to say “thank you” in Polish and he smiled.
I got on the bus and it was a two-hour ride up to Stonehenge, through fields and thick fog. It was the perfect way to approach the stone circle, in this mystical and eery haze. The tour consisted of about 40 people but we split up into two groups and were allowed to go inside the circle to take pictures and get the full experience. Normal tourists aren’t allowed to approach the stones, so you have to book an early sunrise tour or get tickets from the Stonehenge website, lottery style. I did actually get tickets through the website at first, but then quickly realized that, without a car, it would be impossible to get to Stonehenge on time, since no buses or trains ran that early.
The whole feeling of Stonehenge that early in the morning reminded me of the Raven Boys series, and lo and behold, there was a whole murder of crows there that day. Lots of crows perched themselves on top of some of the stones, which made for really cool shots.
I made a few friends on my bus tour – two other solo travelers, a Belgian couple, an American family, and a group of Canadian girl scouts. We helped each other take pictures with the massive, ancient rocks that have mystified scientists and scholars for decades. Then we loaded back up on the bus to head to Lacock for breakfast.
Lacock is a beautiful small town with old, well-preserved houses and lots of greenery. Many movies have been filmed there, including Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. For instance, we drove past the house that was used as Professor Slughorn’s house in the Half-Blood Prince. We ate breakfast (toast, sausage, beans, and eggs) at a cute little pub and then walked over to a mansion where the first photograph was taken. Then, back on the bus it was.
Our next stop was the city of Bath, known for its hot springs, adored by the Romans. Jane Austen and her father George even lived in Bath for a time. We were guided to the baths for a tour and then we were allowed some free time to explore the city. I walked around the baths for a bit and then I went out in search of some gelato. I walked around and wandered into bookshops and a tiny art museum until it was time to go. Then I realized that I had 10 minutes to be back on the bus and I had no idea where I was.
I frantically tried to find a town map to get my bearings, and I was disoriented because I couldn’t see the church spire, even though I knew I wasn’t far from the church and the spire should have been tall enough to see even from far away. I think I almost got hit by a car running across the street once, too, but I was not about to be left in Bath to my own devices. Finally, I found the square where we were supposed to meet and found my fellow tour members and breathed a sigh of relief. Actually, we did end up leaving a girl because she was 15 minutes late and we couldn’t find her and the rule was, if you’re late, you’ll get left. Glad it wasn’t me!
On the way back, we passed gorgeous rolling hills, and the sun shone through the clouds, making patterns on the mowed fields. It was like something out of a storybook. The two other solo travelers and I went to dinner together and then it was the end of another day in England.