I’ve been to London six times, five of those in the last decade. Usually these visits were “add-ons” to another trip, dropping into the UK to see friends. In New Zealand terms (many New Zealanders have lived and worked there on their OE), I don’t know the city very well at all. So on this trip, I was keen to spend some time there and discover it a bit more, do some touristy things and some not-so-touristy things, and simply explore. We were very indecisive, weighing up the not inconsiderable cost of accommodation in London, against the hassles of travelling around the UK or some other countries on the way to catching our flight home out of Heathrow, the draw of a great city and option to see some friends and family against the options of visiting one or two more “new” countries. But finally we settled on a week or so in London.
After four months in foreign language environments, it was an interesting transition. Our first ever visit to England was after 18 months living in Thailand. It felt then like going home – suddenly being surrounded by people who looked like us and sounded like us (well, sort of), and best of all, who understood us, and were raised a lot like we were. And this visit was similar. Yes, there are cultural differences between England and New Zealand. But there is an awful lot that is very similar.
So we arrived in London and settled in. We stayed near Oxford St, close to the Tottenham Court Road tube station, which meant we could walk to the shops, to Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and down to the river if we wanted to. Or if weather permitted. It was autumn in London, and so inevitably there was rain. And the most dangerous thing I did on the entire trip was walk down Oxford Street in the rain. All these people holding their umbrellas right at the level of my eyes. I dodged the umbrella points furiously. The danger was heightened by the chaotic way people walk down Oxford St, this bustling, busiest of shopping streets. I suspect it is because the footpath is wide, and filled with tourists. They walk all over the place – they neither stick to the left, nor the right. It’s confused, and maddening. I mean, I’m accustomed to Lambton Quay in Wellington, where we all stick to the left, and little lanes form up and down the street, especially at lunchtime. Pedestrian traffic moves quickly, smoothly, and there is little disruption. Oxford Street is the polar opposite. Walk it at your peril. Especially in the rain.
Still, Oxford Street is a good place to start shopping if you need to supplement your summer wardrobe with a few wintery items. Or if you’ve been on a four month shopping diet. Or if your favourite black jeans finally disintegrated in Poland. And so yes, we did a little shopping. But I’m not really a big shopper when I travel. My focus is on doing and seeing things, not acquiring more stuff. And besides, I had my Polish handbags. So we picked up a few items, then avoided Oxford Street if we could. There was plenty to do after all, and although our time in London seemed enormously generous when we were planning to go, suddenly once we were there we felt rushed. So much to do and see, and we were very keen to just take some time and relax too, to soak up some local life and habits, and to walk the streets.
It turned out that walking the streets was a delight. London though is not beautiful. It’s not like walking through the old towns of Warsaw or Krakow, or of Monopoli or Rome. There are of course beautiful old buildings, major monuments and cathedrals and landmarks. But there are also some hideous modern buildings, shapeless and dull and without architectural or aesthetic (same thing?) merit. Across the street from our hotel room was a modern-ish office building, filled with self-important people standing at the windows talking on their phones looking back at us. It was an ugly building. But on another corner was a charming old pub, bursting at the seams with people after work and on Friday night. There were dozens of beautiful old pubs in this area, some with old archways built through them, presumably for carriages in the old days, now providing access for cabs and cars and delivery vans. Across Oxford Street was Soho, and the most charming old ramshackle building. And just down the street we walked through the West End theatre district, through lantern-festooned Chinatown and all the Peking duck restaurants (and yes, we indulged one evening at the recommendation of my Malaysian Chinese sister-in-law), to Leicester Square and beyond to Trafalgar Square. The monuments and great buildings and museums of Trafalgar Square are always a delight, and the views down the Mall remind us of our royal neighbours in this great capital. Covent Garden too was an easy walk on a sunny warm Sunday morning (and my birthday). Bustling with markets and tourists and maybe even locals having a coffee and enjoying the free entertainment (jugglers, street performers, and a particularly enjoyable classical quartet) on a lazy Sunday, it was a delight to visit.
And of course, if our feet got sore we could always jump on the Tube. This wonderful London Underground transport system is incredibly convenient, but we also came to dread getting on it. We blame ourselves – we frequently found ourselves stranded after rush hour had begun, and the crush in the trains was unpleasant. Making it all more unbearable was the fact that the Tube (inside, and the carriages too) was, like the rest of London (the theatres, shops, restaurants, and museums), ridiculously over-heated. As soon as autumn arrives, the heating goes on. But it doesn’t go on to give a pleasant, ambient temperature. No, the heating is turned up so that you could quite happily walk around in summer t-shirts and shorts inside, and never be cold. (I estimate the average indoor temperature was around 24-25 degs C at least). It annoyed us both enormously, because a) we were sick of being hot after four months of summer in Italy and the Middle East, b) we were dressed for temperatures outside, and even if we shed our coats, we were still ridiculously overheated and hot and sticky, and c) this overt and indiscriminate profligacy of energy resources and money seemed to be accepted as the norm. (I will note that London is not alone in this. I have complained about it throughout Europe when we have visited in autumn/winter, and in the US.) I can only imagine the savings if the temperature was just turned down three or four degrees.
Complaints aside though, we revelled in being in London. One of the main treats for us was the availability of Asian food again. We eat Asian food at least once every week at home – usually Thai food that I cook, but often out at restaurants too. And we had felt starved of Asian food for the months in Europe. We were therefore overjoyed to see that there were excellent Asian restaurants surrounding our hotel, and indulged in Vietnamese spring rolls and Thai curries (Khao Soi noodles in a spicy curry is a favourite dish of mine and rarely found outside of Chiang Mai) at an Asian hawker’s stall style restaurant (several times), Indian curries and naan bread of course, more Thai, Chinese Peking Duck as already mentioned, and Japanese at Yo! Sushi! As you can guess, we avoided any and all Italian options, but did make an exception from Asian food visiting a small French bistro for my birthday. We rued our limited time, sadly eyeing the nearby Mexican and Peruvian and Korean restaurants that we simply didn’t have time to visit. This is what eating out in London is like. Any and all options, from all over the world, are available. You would be a fool not to indulge.
We had great fun playing tourist and visiting some new (for us) sights. We took a turn around the London Eye, and then plunged below the city into Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms for a fascinating insight over several hours into Britain’s WWII war command headquarters. Perfectly preserved, the maps in the Map Room still have visible pin pricks from tracking troop movements. And the adjacent and detailed Churchill Museum could have detained us for hours more. A day trip up (down?) the river to Greenwich to visit a myriad of attractions there saw us run out of time. There is so much to do there. The stunning Painted Hall in the Old Naval College was an unexpected delight , the Cutty Sark an interesting insight both into the tea trades and life of sailors, the beauty of Inigo Jones’ The Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum with Nelson’s coat complete with bullet hole, and of course the National Observatory and Longitude 0°0′ 0”. We were kicking ourselves for either not getting there several hours earlier, or not having a spare day when we could have gone back for more time at the museums. Of course, if we’d spent less time over our beer and fish and chips lunch in a small, charming pub we could have squeezed more sightseeing into the day. But fish and chips in a pub are compulsory at least once when you’re in London, surely?
In fact, there are plenty of traditional visitor activities that are compulsory when you visit London. A West End show for example. We didn’t have any “must-sees” on our list, so chose shows on the basis of what was available at the Leicester Square half-price ticket booth, and enjoyed a musical (Jersey Boys), and a slapstick but well-acted and averagely amusing comedy (One Man Two Guv’nors) for very reasonable prices. And of course, repeat visits to our favourite museums – the Victoria and Albert, the National Gallery, the British Museum, and (for the Husband when I was off visiting friends) the Natural History and Science Museums – were all essential. We could visit these museums weekly and still find new things to see and marvel over.
And then there’s the whole Afternoon Tea experience. An English friend took me for my first afternoon tea to Claridges a couple of years ago. So I knew I had to take the Husband too. Claridges turned out to be booked up weeks in advance, so we went to the lesser known, but highly recommended Lanesborough Hotel Afternoon Tea, winner of the UK Tea Council’s Award of Excellence for four years in a row. We sank into comfortable chairs in the elegant, glass-roofed dining room, sipped on bottomless tea, and nibbled our way progressively through dainty sandwiches, spicy buns, scones with delicious clotted cream, and tiny pastries and cakes. All to the strains of the pianist on the grand piano in the corner of the room. Had I not been to Claridges with Laura a few years earlier, we would have been too shy to say “yes please” when asked if we wanted more sandwiches. But I knew we wouldn’t be the only ones taking up the offer of “more, please” and I was right. Another plate was furnished quickly – all part of the excellent service (and price). When we rolled out two hours later at 6 pm, we knew dinner was not an option. In fact, we felt the need for exercise, and so took a refreshing walk across the top of Hyde Park, with all the office workers cycling and walking home, as night fell.
As our departure date loomed, we knew there were still plenty of things we wanted to do. But, maybe, there’ll be another time. It is always better to leave somewhere knowing you’d like to go back, than to feel bored when you’re there. And after all, this is London. To quote Samuel Johnson,
“when (you are) tired of London, (you are) tired of life.”