London Layover

Getting a taste of London on an 11 hour daytime layover is usually easy. But since the Heathrow Express and Tube were not running on Christmas day, transport from/to London Heathrow and around London was much more time consuming. But we still pulled it off!

We took National Express coach 481 from London Heathrow’s beautiful Terminal 5 to Victoria Coach Station. Coaches were scheduled every 30 minutes and the trip was scheduled to take 56 minutes.

After withdrawing 80£ for the day (60£ for buses alone) we used the ticket machine to buy two 8:30am tickets just before 8am (unfortunately tickets for the 8am bus were no longer available). We used this time to get coffee and snacks at the nearby BA Arrivals lounge (only available to business and first class). Not wanting to miss the bus, we went out to wait for the coach at 8:20am.

Outside, things were very disorganized. People had been waiting for a coach to Victoria Station since 7:30am. A 821 coach appeared at 8:43am, but we were prevented from boarding as this was supposed to be the 9:30am bus. People were peeved, but there was nothing to do but wait. Finally a bus showed up at 9:06am and we didn’t try to confirm that we should get on, we just did.

 The National Express 821 finally arrived

 We boarded and went to the Heathrow Central bus station (Terminal 2/3), where there was a very long line of people waiting to go to Victoria Station. Our bus was filled up, and we finally headed downtown.

There were two traffic circles near Heathrow that were packed with large advertisements – one for Emirates and one for Turkish. We saw neither one of these airlines’ planes at LHR while we were there, probably seeing around 75% British Airways planes. We guess these airlines are trying to pry passengers away from BA on the flights that these airlines do have.

We arrived in Victoria Coach Station around 10:10am. No bathrooms were open in Victoria coach station when we arrived, and in general it was very difficult to find open public bathrooms throughout the day – the only one we found was in Saint James’s Park.

 Katie reluctantly entered one of the traditional London phone booths
It was a drizzly day in London! We stopped for coffee at a Pret coffee shop on the way to Buckingham Palace. At the palace we watched the crowds watching the guards for a while and saw a group on horses ride through the area (10:45am, likely on the way to the horse parade grounds).

 Buckingham Palace

Then we walked through Green Park and Saint James’s Park attempting to find a public toilet that was open. We eventually found an open (and free “for Christmas”!) one in Saint James’s Park.

Around 11:30am, another group of horses paraded by towards the palace, leading everyone to scramble over to the palace expectantly. There was no changing of the guards on Christmas Day, although they were scheduled for odd days in December.

Horses parading

After enjoying the many birds – including a fascinating bird who could swim under water very quickly to very large pelicans to little songbirds – at Saint James’s Park we walked through the horse parade grounds, by the heavily fortified Downing Street, and over to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Bird that could swim quickly underwater
 Very large pelicans

The tourist crowds really increased in this area. We enjoyed a cup of caramelized nuts from a street vendor outside the abbey for 2£, and later stopped at an old pub in the shadow of Big Ben named St Stephens Tavern (est 1777).

Big Ben
 Caramelized nut street vendor
The pub knew that between its location and being one of the few places open Christmas day, it could easily charge 20£ for dishes on a special Christmas menu. Sure enough, the line was out the door.

Crowded St Stephens Tavern
We ordered a fish and chips plate as well as two beers. The fish was pretty good and the fries were edible, but the peas that came with the meal were too hard and cold to be good. The pub did have a bathroom though, which was certainly worth at least a few £s. The total ended up being 33.75£ after tip.

Beers at St Stephens Tavern
 Fish and chips at St Stephens Tavern
After eating at the pub and struggling to finish our pints (of Guinness and a cider), we walked to see the nearby Thames River before trekking 25-30 minutes back to Victoria Coach Station.

Big Ben from the bridge over the Thames River
On our way back, we passed the long line of people lining up for the 3pm evensong at Westminster Abbey.

We arrived shortly before 3pm and JT ran to get tickets from the machine but only 3:30pm tickets were being sold. He bought two, and then we used them with no problems to get on the 3pm bus to Heathrow.

Unlike the coach disorganization in the morning, things ran smoothly in the afternoon. The coach left at 3:02pm, made a very quick drop off at the main Heathrow bus center, and then continued on to Heathrow Terminal 5, dropping us off around 3:50pm.

Once back at Heathrow, we cleared security in about 5 minutes and went to the BA Terminal 5 Terraces South lounge. The lounge was expansive; had an extensive serve-yourself drink selection (JT had a 15 year old Glenlivet); good snacks, soups, and sandwiches; business centers with provided headphones; and even a cinema. However, the views of the tarmac were not as good as we hoped from the top-floor lounge.

JT loved the A380 model outside the lounge
We left the lounge around 5:15pm and headed to our C gate with what should have been plenty of time. As such, we were surprised when our Iberia flight was boarding all rows when we arrived at the gate just over an hour before departure! Still, we were the first to board business.

JT is writing a flight review for this flight as well, so we’ll say no more here. Keep an eye out on for the review.

JT in his business class Iberia seat
Full-day FitBit stats:
Steps: 26,659
Miles: 12.2
Flights of stairs: 20
Calories: 4,575

Leave a Reply