London’s Barbican has been something of an enigma to me. I’ve walked through it in the past on the way to some other destination and formed some hasty conclusions. Over a weekend in May I got to spent some time there and it turns out that I was wrong about just about everything…
On face value the Barbican is a large scale experiment in inner city living, consisting of chunky slabs of tower blocks raised on stilts, surrounding a large arts and entertainment venue. It occupies a prime location in the City Of London and yet, dwarfed by a vertical forest of steel and glass neighbours you could pass close by without noticing it.
First impressions of this 60’s development are that it was designed using duplo lego bricks and then brutally assembled in the kind of depressing mottled concrete that has attracted derision and wrecking balls in towns across the land. Derby’s Assembly Rooms sits firmly in this unfashionable bracket and there is little sentiment for it. Much of my student life in Sheffield was played out to a backdrop of harsh concrete flats spawned in the same era that garnered an unenviable reputation. If you have watched The Full Monty you can picture the scene.
The Barbican may share many design elements of other berated projects but – it is a resounding success. Yes, a one bedroom flat here costs 700k and plenty of high profile names call it home but money alone cannot explain why this 60’s vision of the future works on so many levels
I’m feeling a little self conscious today, not because I am taking photos in a residential area but because I have seen 2 large groups of photographers with the same idea. A little intrusive, no?
Like these other photographers I can’t help being drawn to the lines and shadows cast by such a regulated structure. It’s bordering on the hypnotic and amidst all this starkness shafts of sunlight and well tended beds of greenery become amplified in effect. The centrepiece is a marvelous lake that serves as an oasis in this unlikely estate. Almost everything looks like it has been designed in Minecraft. It’s a surprise that the ducks are not rectangular.
If you have found the lake then you have been successful in navigating the labarynthine walkways that defy any logic. You have also found your way to the jewel in the crown – the Barbican Centre.
I first visited on a quiet Friday with few people around and was seduced by an interior that has the nerve to stick to the design principles of the exterior. Great open spaces are sparsely furnished with flat communal sofas. There are bold ramps and unnecessarily angular stairways that lead to over sized balconies and walkways. The floors are carpetted, fittings are brass and – well that’s about it for fineries and fittings.
The ceilings and lighting are some gloriously imagined 1960’s Stanley Kubrick vision of a future spaceport. I mean, just look at this!
I love the way in which there is simultaneously a huge amount of open communal space and yet numerous little intimate enclaves in which you can sit quietly doing something smug on your iPad. The interior – like the exterior – succeeds in making you feel welcome and included, despite the daunting scale of this endeavour. There can be no more relaxing space in London.
The Barbican Centre is not without its frustrations however. Getting lost is only fun for a while. There are emaciated people in some dead-end corner right now praying for their dying cell-phone to connect so they can be located and rescued after 15 days of solice.
I’m on the first floor balcony and I can almost touch the music library which is also on the first floor just yards away, except there is no walkway there. In any action film chase sequence this would be a jumpable gap. It takes me 20 minutes to find a route, involving going downstairs, walking across the large atrium, taking a lift and then walking down some steps. The helpful staff here are used to requests for directions.
It’s the weekend and I’m back to check out a free classical musical festival. My knowledge of classical music is fleeting but it’s never too late to learn. There’s a different vibe to the Barbican Centre today with many hundreds of people here to enjoy the concerts. My first encounter is at St Lukes Church – built 250 years before the Barbican and now subsumed by it. It’s very satisfying to find a 16th Century building within the grounds of a 1960’s estate, which in itself is shadowed by a 21st century skyline.
The 12 Ensemble – only numbering 8 today – deliver an hour of unadulterated joy. They are vibrant and yet sensitive in their delivery and with my eyes closed their live performance takes me to another place. I’m so impressed that I watch their next performance (eyes open) in the Barbican Centre later on.
This time they are fronted by guest star Miloš – an internationally acclaimed classical guitarist. He lives up to his lofty reputation with a supremely charismatic performance that has everyone on the edge of their seats. Even the fractious younger in row 1 shuts her gob for the duration, absorbed by the show.
On Sunday I’ve the pick of London but how can I not return to the Barbican? At noon the events kick off in the main hall. What a beautifully presented and illuminated stage. This is clearly a fabulous venue for the arts.
None other than Stephen Fry introduces the Britten Sinphonia Orchestra by reading a remarkably personal letter – the famed Heiligenstadt Testament (do click the link!) – penned by Beethoven to his brothers. The stage is packed with musicians whose international standing is only eclipsed by rock star conductor Thomas Adès who fronts their ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Seriously though, what do conductors actually do? They’re just air drumming aren’t they?
I can’t remember the last time I saw a full sized orchestra at close quarters. It’s an experience I want to repeat soon and regularly. How do you adequately describe music through writing? Every musician here is a richly talented individual, recognised and feted in their industry. Together they produce magic, beauty and raw emotion.
The middle sections are grand and rich in texture, the crescendos are, almost overwhelming, and then a soloist punctuates the vast hall with a raw and gentle honesty that humbles everything before it.
To think that I only decided to check out the programme on a whim. I can’t get enough of this and so, with the clock ticking down to my train home I leg it over to a nearby venue for one final gig. Pianist Jayson Gillham has attracted his fair share of fans. I’ve never heard of him. I’m an ignoramus.
Honestly, I don’t know what he played. It wouldn’t even matter. He delivered the most sublime, intimate interpretation of his set. I have never witnessed a musician of any genre commit themselves more fully to expressing a work of music. If that wasn’t enough his dialogue between pieces bristled with humanity. With an artist of Jayson’s pedigree delivery of even the most technically challenging piece is a given and all energy is focused on expression. I think I have a man crush.
And with the end of that performance the bubble is broken and I’m back in the concrete realm of the Barbican.
I’ve been struggling with a question over the last few days: Why does a complex versed in architectural language that has failed elsewhere succeed so impressively here?
I think there are a number of reasons. Location for sure. The generous scale such a vision demands. The accentuation of light and nature against this regulated urban backdrop. And there is a sense of identity and relevance that a vibrant arts venue can bring to any setting.
The Barbican may not have the loudest voice in London but it has a lot to shout about. I’ll be back. With a map.
If you really know me then you will know that I am rather obsessed by Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. If you have read HHGTTG then you will also realise that everybody who has read HHGTTG is in fact obsessed by HHGTTG. If you haven’t read it then you should. The radio series is compulsory listening. The TV series is fun and suitably quirky. The film is mostly harmless. I think that covers all the bases.
Anyway, my reason for bringing this up is that a central plot line revolves around galactic refugee Arthur Dent’s epic struggle to get his hands on a decent cup of tea following the unfortunate destruction of planet earth by a Vogon constructor fleet. Today I am Arthur Dent. The tea is coffee.
I’m in London. It’s my first visit for a few years following a 6 month stint in which I blogged the hell out of the capital. So I have my finger on the pulse and I’m not going to settle for any lame ass tourism as I’ve loftier ideas today:
10am: A photo exhibition at British Museum, another
11am: Another photo exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (free before noon)
PM: A Scandinavian market in Rotherhithe where I’m going to luxuriate in a decadent chocolate brownie and velvety smooth coffee
Life’s simple pleasures and all that. Truth is that today is all about the coffee and cake.
It goes wrong pretty much from the start. A pre-museum tea fails to materialise. 80 percent of cafes around Holborn don’t open on a Saturday. So it’s onto the British Museum where a long queue for entry takes me a little by surprise. They are checking bags today and there’s a branch of Currys in my rucksack. I finally make it into this magnificent building but there’s no mention of the exhibition. I ask at the information desk. They know nothing about this. Huh?
Regardless, it’s a beautiful building so I take half an hour to absorb the place and nip up to the top floor to take in a couple of exhibitions – one on postcards which is nothing to write home about and another on Captain Cook which is a little short of discovery.
Onto the Photographers Gallery which is a favourite drop-in of mine. With my organised schedule today I’ve only half an hour to spare before my next move so I’ve come at opening time because entry is free until noon. Except that it’s not. The management decided to move free entry from 11-12 to 5-6pm. They changed their policy last night. Like you do. Fine – I pay to glance around the gallery for 30 minutes and then it’s time for a dash across town for the much hyped Scandinavian coffee that will make everything alright.
As I leave the gallery it dawns on me that today’s massive anti-Brexit rally may have a bearing on my travel plans. Oxford Street is awash with protestors who are all headed towards the march. As an enthusiastic Europhile it’s heartening to see such a turnout but the fate of our country must wait seeing as there’s coffee to think about. I descend into Oxford Street tube station to begin a complicated journey to Rotherhithe.
At Green Park events take a sharp turn for the worse as I alight for a change onto the Jubilee Line. Huge mistake. The escalators down to the platform are all dedicated to churning an endless stream of protestor up from the Victoria Line. After 15 minutes I give up waiting and head back to the Victoria line in order to continue onto Stockwell where I can change lines. Except now the congestion is so severe that trains are no longer stopping here.
It takes another 20 minutes to leave the station as an endless throng of people overwhelm the station on their way to the march. The full scale of the demonstration becomes apparent at street level. Over a million people have brought this part of London to a standstill. There’s a part of me that wants to repurpose my day, join the march and seize the moment. But I NEED that coffee and cake now. Resistance is futile.
Tired and decaffeinated the options for motorised travel appear to be pretty much zero. The tube is out of bounds. There are road closures in all directions and every bus is stationary with its engine turned off as every route has become overwhelmed by human traffic. There’s no point in continuing south as that’s where the action is. The only option is to jump on a rental bike and pedal anywhere north. It turns out that bike is the only way to get across town right now.
It’s getting late. I’m tired. If I was an RPG character my health would be near zero and the puniest of trolls would be circling with their cudgels ready to bring my quest to a premature end. Time for Plan B: Cycle up to King’s Cross, jump on the Northern Line a few stops down to London Bridge and pillage Borough Market for coffee and cake.
Borough Market – once trendy destination for hipster vendors and bearded instagrammers – has long been usurped by the ever-present tide of change in the London food scene. Until 3:30pm on November 15th when it once again became acceptably popular for reasons nobody fully comprehends.
This is my first visit for several years and I’m understandably cautious about returning, lest the gurning face of Gregg Wallace should cross my path. The market is still every bit as popular as it once was. Now give me the coffee and cake dammit! Obviously it’s not that simple. There is a sea of dawdling foreign tourists to swim through. Here’s the thing. I love Europe. I am European. I am a citizen of the world. Theresa May would hate me if she got around to acknowledging my existence. But today the fruits of the EU have conspired to deny me the coffee fix that I so desperately need. That’s about as anti freedom of movement as it gets with me.
But there is no freedom of movement at Borough Market today. It’s packed, and it’s not like anybody is buying much. The tourists are taking photos of artisan honeycomb with their iPhones. The instagrammers are shoving their zoom lenses up the nostrils of the stall holders. It’s like some kind of participatory art installation.
In the last 4 hours I have been squashed by strangers, baked in the subterranean depths of Green Park and cycled like fury across West London, all without refreshment. There’s a delicious aroma of apples from a cider stall. Maybe that will take the pain away. It’s a fresh and wondrous liquid. It’s what cider should be, not what it tends to be. But it’s not coffee.
In a hallucinatory state I shove old couples to the ground and trample across their prone bodies to make headway. I apologise. I’m still English after all. Chocolate brownie procured. Just need to get my hands on some sodding coffee now, except the stalls have either disappeared or become so niche that I wouldn’t know what to ask for. Glucose free Andalucian matcha tea? No – just a bloody coffee!
Monmouth coffee looms ahead – a friendly and reliable port in this storm. Except that there’s an escheresque queue of people waiting to be served. I’ll bet they are just here because of some review. They are probably going to order tea and water. Damn them.
I’m writing this as a broken spirit from some chain coffee shop across the road from Borough Market. My cup contains a liquid that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike coffee. The moment is gone. It departed several hours ago, yet I kept chasing it like some fool. There’s a metaphor for Brexit in there somewhere. You work it out.
Given the weighty number of famous attractions in London and the sheer volume of information telling us where to go and what to see you might be forgiven for thinking no major spectacle could fly under the collective what’s-on radar of the city. Not so.
There’s a constantly evolving show to be witnessed 52 weeks a year all over the city. I am of course referring to the 18+ million tourists who flock in from around the globe and bring the place alive.
As my 6 months working in London comes to an end I have given the tourist question some thought. Why do they come? What do they enjoy? Why aren’t Londoners having this much fun? Duh, forget that last question…
There is no better place to start off than Westminster where a seething mass of people swarm around the landmarks like MPs around an expense claim form. It’s so busy that I’m immediately suspicious of a solitary photographer – what has he seen that nobody else has?
Standing with my back turned on Westminster Abbey to face a wall of snappers I wonder if this is what it feels like to be famous. Perhaps I will be soon as holidaymakers share their vacation pictures and wonder why I had to intrude on their field of view. They may even mistake me for somebody famous – Martin Freeman, Hugh Laurie, Beaker off the muppets…
Needless to say almost everybody is carrying at least one camera whether it’s a DSLR, bridge camera, compact, phone or tablet and it is their set pieces that unfailingly amuse me…
A statue of Mandela is one of several notable historic figures lining Parliament Square. Nelson stands hands out embracing peace, or perhaps he’s just trying to strangle Big Ben. It’s only natural that a group line up below to do the same.
I love witnessing scenes that, despite their clichéd predictability, are genuine and heart warming for those concerned.
To counter the predictable there is always something unexpected to see. A swanky photo shoot looks destined to make the pages of some Japanese wedding magazine. Will a Tokyo bride set her heart on a London ceremony?
No sooner have they moved on then a selfie opportunity arises for somebody else. A camera pole makes perfect sense for the solo traveller. We don’t always realise how strong the UK brand is and few icons set the visiting heart aflutter more than a good old red phone box. Alternatively it’s not hard to spot people pretending to post a letter or board a double decker bus as a friend or relative lines them up in the viewfinder.
Needless to say this is fertile ground for merchants of tourist tat. Who seriously buys the “I [heart] London” T-shirts for themselves? Who actually wears the plastic bobby’s helmets? Mind you at £2 I’m tempted myself.
It appears that the tourists are having too much fun elsewhere to get sucked into buying novelty nonsense. Downing Street is portrayed in a sober light on the TV news but right now it’s all smiles as PCs take it in turns to pose for photos.
Smiles are strictly forbidden at Horse Guard’s a short stroll further along Whitehall but that doesn’t stop families queuing up to take photos alongside an impassive cavalryman. I have always felt a pang of sympathy for the young men who have to stand for hours in full regalia in all weather while they are photographed. Are they laughing inside at some of the antics or are they a pin drop away from creating a diplomatic incident with their bayonet…
Trafalgar Square is a tourist mecca so if you are into street photography this is a turkey shoot. An American family takes a break. The boys are hyper, mom has stopped to take bearings (again) and dad has this resigned look that says “I’m keeping out of this”.
You see lots of groups here. What memories will members of this school party take home with them? Whether it is the treasures of the National Gallery (as envisioned by parents and teachers) or an induction to the “unique” fish and chips experience I like to think their adventure will live long in the mind.
With so much of the world now on the tourist map I suspect that Britain still offers something a little different to the seasoned traveller. Where else can you queue up to clamber onto a national monument without even a sideways look from the authorities?
Let’s not kid ourselves you could witness some of the street performances in any continent but it feels like there’s less wariness here. People seem uninhibited and are eager to be drawn into the action.
Leicester Square plants the biggest smile on my face. As I bask in the strong afternoon sun a South American couple settle on the adjacent bench and their young children go to play in the fountain that encircles William Shakespeare. The little girl is having the time of her life playing in the water, mum is laughing along and dad is capturing it all on camera for future enjoyment.
A street party on Regent Street means that it is closed for traffic on this hot summers day. I grasp the sense of adventure visitors must feel as they walk across what amounts to a virtual monopoly board. So many familiar names and places and now the real thing.
Covent Garden seems to be crammed full of visitors at any time of day. They are lapping up the entertainment and who can blame them? This wasn’t in the tourist guide.
Downstairs tourists are serenaded by an ensemble of professional musicians who perform with infectious spirit. An enthusiastic applause echoes around the chamber and it’s clear that people want to be involved with what they are seeing. It also appears that Americans are the best tippers.
Outside it goes on and on. The day is starting to catch up with me but there’s an endless wave of energy bouncing off people having a great time. Do they ever tire? Well I do and it’s time to catch the 87 bus and take in many of today’s sights from the top deck on my way home.
Of course, it’s never over. I have loved the melting pot of nationalities, languages and cultures on my walk – a cosmopolitan sea of humanity. I have loved watching people take such joy from performances, places and objects that would fail to stir a glance from so many residents. And I have loved individuals like this gentleman for providing me with such visual entertainment. Gawd bless you guvnor!
Does anybody have more fun in London than the tourists?
Can I really have worked 10 weeks of my 6 month London contract already? When I signed on the dotted line I committed not only to do work style things for my employer but I committed to myself to make the most of my tenure in the heart of the city.
So far I’ve not done too badly. I ticked off all the major landmarks in one crazy day, have visited multiple food markets (surprise), explored Greenwich, enjoyed a cable car journey from the O2 to Docklands and taken in a show (Spamalot). Now it’s time for something completely different.
My commutes have mostly been on foot and it’s clear that nobody enjoys the rush-hour ordeal of crossing London on the tube or by bus. Now though there’s another option and I have to give it a go even though it means intentionally lodging further from work
The Thames river bus service consists of three core routes running between Putney in the west to Woolwich in the east. There’s a stopping point at St Georges Wharf near my work so I have chosen to stay over at Wandsworth 4 miles away where there’s also a stopping point on the RB6 commuter service. On my first morning I stroll down to Wandsworth Pier which sits on a pretty arc of the river. It’s a peaceful haven by London standards with no high rise buildings in the vicinity, alien green things that I’m going to call “trees” and the welcome sound of – well – nothing really.
The inevitable chrome and steel of riverside living behind me holds no appeal but a small community of house boat dwellers clings limpet-like to the pier and I can’t help thinking that if you really must live in the capital this has to be one of the better ways to do it.
I wonder if the assembled commuters are sharing my enjoyment of a duck formation skimming along some 18 inches above the waterline or whether they are mentally preparing for their first meeting of the day within some crass corporate edifice in Moorgate.
The rumble of twin turbines reaches a crescendo before tailing off as the RB6 commuter service from Putney to Embankment coasts into the landing pier against the flow of the tide. Meanwhile the tide of grey files down the wooden gangway, and we’re off. My compatriots bought tickets on shore but I am paying by Oyster card and pop inside to get a ticket.
It’s clear that others aren’t appreciating the romance of this journey. Stony faces are glued to smart phones or buried deep in the FT. I head out back to the covered deck to feel the wind on my face and watch west London recede in the wash.
The glamorously named Smugglers Way solid waste transfer station disfigures the view towards Wandsworth, but at least it clears up a question I had been mulling over for some time.
Now I know the content and purpose of the container laden barges seen repeatedly wending their way past Westminster in the preceding weeks. Perhaps they are loaded with shredded MPs expenses, Iraq war dossiers or some evidence of the next scandal we haven’t yet heard about.
After the passing of Wandsworth bridge I’m almost hurled overboard as the catamaran surges forward at pace. When passing moored boats or beneath bridges the boat calmly tootles along but in clear stretches the skipper opens up to perhaps 30 knots. These vessels are packed with power but I’m seeing a trend here…
All London transport drivers (boat, bus, tube) are obliged to only drive fast or drive slowly with no gap in between. Have they all been trained on Scalextric? Are we skittles in a game of human ten-pin-bowling? This could explain why you see so few older people in the capital.
Our first stop is at Chelsea harbour and it’s good to see stereotypes being enforced as the Royal Barge is moored here, without any security it seems. I didn’t watch any of the Queen’s diamond jubilee but if I had tuned into her Thames pageant then I expect to have heard Nicholas Witchell smarmily describing this regal runabout in squirmingly detailed terms.
A terrace of houseboats lines the Chelsea waterfront. My research suggests they are no cheaper than the bricks and mortar (and marble) around these parts plus the mooring fees are likely to be stratospheric.
Battersea bridge comes and goes before we moor again under the attractive iron Albert Bridge. Anchored here is my favourite vessel on this route. Mouette sits so gracefully and it’s easy to imagine some evocative former life for this retired lady. It’s satisfying to discover that Mouette is French for sea gull – most appropriate.
Eastwards into the morning sun and once we have passed Chelsea Bridge the entrance to the Grosvenor Canal glides by to port. These days this entrance only serves the parking (ego) needs of yacht owning flat dwellers but once it extended through Pimlico and onto Victoria and was used to transport waste out of the city.
The familiar reaches of Nine Elms hove into view. The stretch around Battersea is either being transformed into a much needed densely populated centre for key-worker accommodation or a ghost town for land-banking foreign investors depending on your view. The issue of wealthy investors buying property off-plan, leaving it empty and then selling at a 20% profit a year later is fuelling a crazy rise in property prices and the question isn’t if the property bubble will burst but when.
More striking are the few remnants of the industrial underpinnings of this stretch of the river. Another strata of social history is about to be replaced it seems.
I’m off at the next stop. St George’s Wharf at Vauxhall was opening in 2011 by bungling Boris Johnson. He probably fell in. As I alight the disease prevention notice seems more suited to a coastal port than the deep reaches of the Thames.
A steep climb up to terra firma and my commute is finished. It has been a blast, stress-free and invigorating.
…nothing that a day at work can’t change
Roll on 10 hours and I’m back at the wharf for my return trip. The failing sun is in the west and my mind awash with matters of the day. How will the journey home stack up for a tired office worker who just wants to get home?
There’s a brisk post-work trade in coffee, beer and cocktails at the waterside café.
Tempting though that is I’ve an evening to enjoy so I wait cocktailess for my service.
The outward trip was on the RB6 service but this return leg is on RB5.
That’s important because unlike RB6 the RB5 boat hasn’t got an outside deck so you have to sit inside and watch the world go by through dirty perspex windows.
The crew seem to be very international, rather like you might expect on some south pacific merchant ship. Should one worry about the threat of Somali pirates in these waters? An entertaining game is to watch the deck hand lassoing a bollard when drifting in to moor. Usually they are John Wayne accurate but occasionally the rope ends up in the water and there’s probably some laughing and point deductions going on in the cabin.
A journey inside RB5 isn’t as fun as on the deck of RB6 – something to bear in mind if you want to enjoy the full experience – but when I set foot back onto Wandsworth pier it all makes sense.
I notice the difference in tidal height. The floating walkway is fairly level whereas the morning descent was markedly steeper.
If you want a stress free commute in London and the river boat stops either end of your commute then this is an experience I would thoroughly recommend. There is something about the river that anchors this brash self-obsessed city. It also attracts a quality of light that draws your eye in any weather at any time of day or night. Only this can explain why, after stepping on shore, I walked in precisely the opposite direction of my lodgings to capture a full moon from Wandsworth bridge.
And that’s the magic of the river: when you commute by boat you are thinking about the journey and not the destination. Unless you are wearing a suit…
You have doubtless heard the saying “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life” (Samuel Johnson – deceased). Now, as a part time resident of London, I feel the obligation to test this assertion. (One of) the troubles with London is that there is so much to do that it’s hard to know where to start. If you read my blog you will know that I’m drawn not by the bright lights but by the shady alleyways. However if you surf the numerous tourist guides they are all top-heavy with mainstream attractions.
Yesterday I decided to on a drastic course of action – to clear the decks of the standard “when in London” tick list. Today I’m going to do the whole bloody lot and get the proverbial monkey off my back. Then it’s done and I can move up a gear, touristically speaking. And gears are apt because on this untypically warm Sunday morning in early March I’m going to traverse the city under my own steam on a Barclays Bike.
I’m not a Barclays Bike virgin (a former blog muse) so I know the ropes but I check out my initial bike from Vauxhall Cross with a shred of apprehension. Will I get lost? Will I become yet another cyclist casualty on some of London’s busiest roads. Worst of all will I make an arse of myself?!
The answer to the third question is “yes” as I pull over half way across Vauxhall bridge barely 60 seconds into the tour for a “look at me I’m a tourist” photo. It’s going to be that kind of day. Arteries that would be clogged with crawling metal on week days are mercifully quiet today yet I still contrive to take a decidedly long route to my first docking station at Buckingham Gate.
Barclays Bike Primer: It costs £2 to check out a bike. So long as you check it back into another of the 720 docking stations within 30 minutes there is no further charge – otherwise there is a sliding scale of time based charges. Crucially you can continue to check out bikes for spells of up to 30 minutes for the next 24 hours without further charge. My aim will be to use bikes for short hops between attractions and not incur any time based fees unless necessary. At least that’s the plan…
My first attraction for the day is a biggie. There are clues everywhere even from this side street. Passing tourist busses. A café selling “royal breakfasts”. Horse poo in the road. A short walk north and there it is – Buckingham Palace. Let’s be honest – I feel dirty being here.
Throngs of tourists are posing in front of the royal gates to take photos that will become memories of the highlight of their year. How can I stand apart as a London resident who just happens to be passing through? It’s not going to be easy without a bowler hat, umbrella and copy of The Times under one arm. Instead I opt for reverse psychology and snap a selfie. Ironically you understand…
Think I got away with that. With my first landmark ticked off I’m heading back to the docking station when some kind of equine kerfufle breaks out of The Mall. A clatter of hooves signals the arrival of Horse Guards and much excitement amongst a crowd that had been audibly disgruntled by a sign informing them that The Guard had been deemed worthy of a second day and would not need changing.
Returned to my own metal steed I canter down Birdcage Walk bordering St James’s Park. This may be the first Sunday in March but the sun is beating down, people are milling around in short sleeves and it’s a joy to be outdoors.
In no time I’m at Horse Guards Parade (their commute to the palace is to be envied) and there’s time for a photo or three.
For some reason over the many years of coming to London for business of leisure I’ve rarely made it over here. People pouring out of open top tourist buses aren’t going to be disappointed – wow there is a lot happening!
In one of those badly timed arrivals I hear a large crowd of onlookers applauding and dispersing to leave this chap exposed. What did he do to entertain them?!
Nelsons Column looks spectacular in the low strong sunlight and it’s easy to understand why so many people have found a stair to sit on in front of the National Gallery.
Almost incidental is the curious sight of a huge blue cock to one side of the square. Is this really the result of too much feeding?
Another bird has caught my attention – a deadlier if less smutty predator. All becomes clearer when the hawk I spotted on a lamp post floats over to its handler to tear off a section of rodent for elevenses.
It’s all going on here. An entertainer has plucked some young boy from a cheering crowd to do something silly. There’s an acoustic busker to one side and a bag piper to the other to further confuse jet lagged American tourists who already think that London resident Shakespeare wrote Harry Potter into thinking that Scotland is a park in London.
One could easily spend longer here but with more tourist boxes to tick it’s time to remount and head to another iconic London landmark…
Leicester Square has never looked so peaceful and green in all of my visits, although I tend to visit nocturnally.
Today it’s so quiet I can hear the birds tweeting. Couples and families sit on benches around the central fountain while young children playfully zig-zag betwixt the ankle high fountains that I’ve failed to notice on my previous visits. Luscious green freshly laid turf demands to be laid upon while signs demand this doesn’t happen.
My next stop is but a few pedal turns away. Covent Garden has always felt classier than its neighbour Leicester Square and today is no exception as an up-beat classical quartet hop and kick their way through a Vivaldi classic in front of an improbably multinational spectrum of visitors, united only in their gullibility for paying so much for tourist food.
The old Covent Garden market next door hums with milling visitors intent on viewing more than on buying. I’ve poked my head in here many times before and the stall holders are a seasoned bunch who all seem to know each other.
Just time to cast an eye over one more charisma-heavy act in the main hall prior to my escape. His promise of a death defying act will remain empty to me unless he features on the news tonight…
At this point I’m going to share a classic photo with you. There’s just something intensely satisfying about a fully occupied stall of colourful bikes don’t you think?
Now for a proper run after the stops and starts of this mornings itinerary. The arc of Aldwych runs red and black with buses and taxis and so it remains into the trunk route of Fleet Street that arrows eastwards towards “the city”. My next pit-stop is one of the easier ones to navigate towards because it’s straight ahead of me.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Once dominant on the skyline St Paul’s is now but an old oak amongst rampant redwoods as the financial houses of corporate London have stolen all the light. Consequently it’s quite hard to pull off a decent photo since you are too close to get it into frame by the time you see actually it.
I have never been inside St Paul’s before and I have to admit it is spectacular. A mass of tourists watch from a distance as a much smaller religious mass takes place, the choristers echoing their voices beautifully around the lofty recesses of the cathedral. In contravention of the signage I reel of a quick photo in the knowledge I’ll be fine if I repent my sins later.
Back in the saddle once again the “Sunday in the city” streets are predictably void of life. I have hotelled here in previous years and know that when the square mile shuts down for the weekend so do the shops, restaurants and pubs.
Passing Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” I wonder how long it will be until you can photograph that without capturing a crane in the frame.
On past Liverpool Street Station and I have to think on my feet (wheels) as the relentless programme of reconstruction has closed roads I intended to use. Nevertheless Spitalfields is not hard to find. Now gentrified and trendy this market was once a “proper” market but now you will find accupuncturists and designer lighting shops instead of butchers and grocers.
It’s a pleasant enough distraction on a quiet day but my stomach keeps reminding me I’ve a date with lunch at my next stop and so on I must go to a place that exerts its own gravitational pull upon me.
It comes as no surprise that the sun has sucked thousands of funky young people into this Sunday mecca. The Hipsters in particular are out in force and my retinas are assaulted by these pale faced wannabees with their ill-fitting suits, loser hats, sockless brogues and facial hair crimes. One über tragico saunters past me wearing a bugsy malone suit and a painted on moustache. Let me repeat that – a moustache composed not of hair but of some product.
Shoreditch is the fashion Mordor of the east end.
My mood is improved by the Kravitz style licks of a busker dude humorously knocking out his rhythm on a pixie sized drum kit. “Normality” is restored by this and the appearance of Brick-Lane style vandalism that sets standards other streets can only aspire to.
Time to eat. As ever there’s too much choice but eventually I opt for corn bread and a combination of black beans, avocado puree and pulled pork that typifies the national dish of a place as yet unfound (but worth finding). Formal dining arrangements are predictably eschewed in favour of the Brick Lane protocol of curb-side dining…
The planned route hits a snag. What looked like a traffic resistant route on the map turns out to be fertile territory for a Sunday market. My 30 minute timer is imperiled by stall holders and tanker hipped ladies of a certain age crawling along the packed thoroughfare at glacial speed. I don’t suppose cries of “Let me through, I’m a tourist!” are going to impress anyone.
We should be grateful there’s a community here busily making ends meet on a Sunday. When I’m through and back onto the main road I find the desertification of arterial streets in the face of big business to be a depressing affair. Presumably the city boys aren’t spending their bonuses on the high street.
The Tower Of London
There’s only one way to put all of this behind me and at my next stop I set about doing just that. After some discussion with the serving fellow I opt for a scoop of chocolate and another of fudge flavour…
Boy, he wasn’t wrong, this is the good stuff! There’s almost but not quite literally nothing worse in life than deliberating over ice cream flavours only to be disappointed with your choice. Another cheery distraction here is the number of doggies which in itself is a sign that people actually live nearby, unless they are allowed on tour buses now. This fellow was getting a lot of attention.
Oh yes, the Tower Of London was quite popular with the tourists also. Tick. Time to cross the river again and this is a section of the journey I have been looking forward to…
This may be sad but for me cycling over Tower Bridge is a cool thing to do.
Apparently you can go on a mechanical tour of the bridge – something I rather like the sound of. The lower section can be raised allowing tall ships to pass beneath and this is a site I would love to see one day. The south bank is rammed with people strolling along the river path of laid out on the grass and it’s all I can do to find an uninterrupted view for a photo.
So packed is the route that I tire of mowing down slow walkers beneath my wheels and use the main road for a stretch. The quiet surrounding streets are not without interest. Who wouldn’t want to live in Bear Gardens…
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has always interested me. Apart from on TV I have only even seen it from the outside. It must provide a fabulous raw and intimate setting for productions.
Next door the Tate Modern is starting to steal the afternoon sunlight. It’s a big ugly old place…
…but what an exhibition space!
My tour starts in the top floor café where peppermint tea helps me to digest some spectacular views over the Thames.
But what about the art? There doesn’t appear to be any so far as I can make out. There are some rooms with coiled up wire and angular blocks stacked up carelessly – perhaps this building work is in preparation for some new exhibits.
Here instead is some art what I made. In this piece the glass reflection poses the question as to the substance of contemporary living when set against the organic medium of wood.
My second piece is an interactive medium designed to transport the participant from a psychological framework of self-important vacuousity into a sunny riverside setting evoking feelings of relief.
The riverside journey west soon becomes unmanageable by bike. Wide paths that were largely empty on recent cool dark evenings fizz with rambling sun-seekers and another minor road detour is called for. Lesser known sights provide compensation once again.
Besides I’m soon back on the riverside path once the crowds have thinned a little. The setting sun casts the city in a favourable light though I’m left to wonder whether the view of St Pauls is under threat from the forest of cranes in the city.
The OXO tower flashes by and the National Theatre hoves into view. That’s a tourist landmark I hadn’t even listed but it gets a tick all the same.
Beneath Waterloo Bridge the used book market is proving popular but nobody appears to be buying anything. Maybe it started out as a new book market but now the stock has been thumbed to disintegration.
After the briefest pause to watch skaters in action at the undercroft I tick off the London Eye (see my last blog) before crossing Westminster Bridge for my final acts of tourism today on the north bank.
My arrival is greeted by a quarter past Big Ben bong…
On the first stroke my luck runs out. For the first time I’m unable to dock my bike as the Abingdon Green station is fully occupied. Not to worry, I register this fact on the console and am granted an additional 15 minutes to dock the bike elsewhere. But what’s this? Three streets away Smith Square is also fully booked! Another hop to John Islet Street and I’m released from my shackles albeit quarter of a mile away from Westminster.
Houses Of Parliament
The Houses Of Parliament seem to glow with a reddish hue in the receding light. It’s quiet on the green square across the road. Any protestors have gone home and any parliamentary correspondents have filmed their pieces and cleared off to the pub with their camera crews.
In contrast to the perma-tanned façade of the HOP Westminster Abbey is looking a little crusty, pale and pock-marked from the side so I mooch around to the find the “TV entrance” better maintained. And what a perfect tourist snapshot with a proper black cab in the foreground…
A solitary family of Polish tourists stand looking at this great British icon although you sense they have already taken in too much today. And so perhaps have I. For the final time today I key in the release code and lift the rear wheel (so many people don’t do this and wonder why they can’t extract the bike) before crossing Millbank and posing for a final landmark photo of the day…
My fourth crossing of the Thames today and my fourth bridge – this time Lambeth Bridge before zooming down Albert Embankment past my offices in a race to get home before gloam.
In fact the Barclays Bikes now have flashing dynamo powered lights so night travel is feasible but it is probably best to be avoided if possible.
Barely sixty seconds later and my work is done! Bike number 8 (I counted the release codes) is safely tucked up in bed, the curse is lifted and a proverbial monkey roams the streets of London free to jump on the next tourist’s back! I feel that I can now hold my head up high and steadfastly ignore the major tourist landmarks for the remainder of my stay here. There are side streets to discover – let the weirdness begin…
In my last blog I claimed that “job hunting is a full time job”. Who was I kidding? My NEW JOB is a full time job. Here I am one month on from that life of leisure and I find myself lodging in London near The Oval. Prior to landing the 6 month contract my forays south of the river have been limited to brief darts into the Tate Modern. Now my office overlooks the Thames and I’m learning about life betwixt The Oxo Tower and Battersea.
24 days ago I paid my first speculative visit to Vauxhall for an interview and I remember standing by the river in the freezing night air as I took a call saying the job was mine. I resolved to immerse myself in the locale, if not the river. Here’s a pictorial account of my journey downstream starting from my lodgings on a bright sunny morning.
My journey to work is less than spectacular it has to be said – a polluted walk through the arteries of Kennington clogged with crawling traffic and grim faced cyclists. I’m still the odd one out, taking a moment to enjoy the irregular old building subsumed by young upstarts devoid of architectural merit. Am I the only walker not babbling into bluetooth, wired for sound or gawping into a phone screen?
Even in this low-rise the leviathons of the city command the skyline – a reminder to mere street level folk of their subservience to those in a different fiscal plain. Until, in a game of one-upmanship, the sun emerges and decisively puts to bed any notion of superiority. My early start lends me the opportunity to swan around with my camera on the 7th floor of my Albert Embankment coal-face without fear of any odd looks.
To the south I can see Battersea and a swathe or real-estate whose value transcends monopoly board parlance. To the north – with a little zoom – Westminster and beyond.
And that’s where the fun stops, until lunchtime at least. One of the curious facets of the post-industrial urban oddity known as Vauxhall is the city farm squeezed into a pocket of land behind the elevated railway. There’s something delightfully reassuring about finding pigs in such a location.
Barely yards from the surrounding carmaggedon a horse rider nonchalantly trotts their steed across a side road into a small grassy enclosure for an early afternoon’s canter. Who would have thunk it?
And so passes 6 hours that feel like 6 days. Everyone else has headed for the weekend 2 hours ago and I take advantage of my finance directors abandoned office to capture a view that leaves me wondering how he gets any work done.
The lift arrives on demand – unheard of at rush hour when it’s the stairs or an interminable wait – and a chill night air greets me. The joggers have thinned out and I’ve time to capture a tower that Google Maps has yet to tag.
This is the business end of the South Bank and I’m the only person pointing a camera at the Vauxhall Bridge as buses file over carrying the last commuters of the day. There’s no hurry but I pick up the pace to keep warm and in no time Lambeth Bridge passes overhead.
Albert Embankment runs alongside the river and at this hour there are scant few pedestrians, leaving me in as much peace as an urban walk in London is likely to afford. To my right Lambeth Palace stands watch in the dark, barely heralded, perhaps worthy of a dedicated visit some other time.
The path dips beneath Lambeth Bridge and as Westminster hoves into view there are more people to be found – professional types, loners sat on benches and the young Japanese couples taking fruitless selfies on their iPhones with the Houses Of Parliament as backdrop. Planes fly over on descent to Heathrow and I like to think arriving visitors are enjoying views of iconic landmarks.
Everything changes upon exiting the underpass. The quiet dimly lit path is replaced by throngs of tourists groups drawn to the neon of some of London’s top tourist attractions. Shoals of visitors flit around the incongruously positioned London Aquarium (why come to London to see fish?). But the main draw here is the beautiful London Eye – lit up attractively against the night sky and visible from so many vantage points in the city.
The best position for a photo is from Jubilee Gardens set back from the Thames. My walk is energised by the bright-eyed enthusiasm of young school groups from Italy, France and beyond for whom this represents night-time adventure with friends! Memories are being made…
Next beneath the Hungerford footbridge – a structure I find very attractive at night. Originally constructed by Brunel (he gets everywhere) it was revamped in 2002 but 150 years on it still provides southern trains with access to Charing Cross station north of the river.
The final stretch of my walk tonight leads past numerous waterside eateries of varying standard and soon I’m upon one of my favourite Thames-side attractions. The Undercroft is an oddly conceived warren of angular concrete ramps and steps beneath the South Bank Centre that has drawn in skaters, stunt cyclists and grafitti artists for decades. Now under threat of expulsion for a proposed redevelopment the Undercroft community has been buoyed by a mass show of public support. Personally I can’t imagine a better advert for the south bank than one that organically attracts young people to express themselves in a safe and fun environment.
My riverside walk ends at Waterloo Bridge tonight. Beyond it the expansive National Theatre casts the mother of concrete shadows over the skyline although subtle coloured illumination takes the edge off its harsh design. I wish something similar could be achieved with the grotesque grey block of Westfield that hangs over the whole of Derby like some cuboid ash cloud…
I climb the stairs to street level and consider it time to find some hostelry in which to round off the evening. My instinct to walk to the north bank is curtailed by a policeman cordoning of the deserted bridge and I figure there’s probably some accident on the north bank. He’s concentrating on traffic so I’m able to sneak along part way and reel off a picture downstream of the magnificent light show in which banking skyscrapers reach the heights but St Paul’s takes the breath. Once the highest building in the capital I wonder what this panorama would have looked like in the days before chrome and steel.
Later, ensconced in a traditional London boozer tending a pint of Greenwich Meantime Pale Ale and reading the Evening Standard, I overhear a geezer at the bar moaning about the Waterloo Bridge closure. “Missed my bus I did. Waited for the next one but then they blocked it off cos of some drive-by shooting. It’s always the commuters that suffer ain’t it”. And that’s Londoners in a nutshell – always head-down and self-absorbed. They would do well to slow down and enjoy the show…
London has a new transport icon. The traditional black cab is recognised across the globe while red Route Master double decker buses draw in tourists from the beyond the outer reaches of the galaxy – at least based on a personal assessment of passengers during my last trip. It was late on a Friday evening not far from Shoreditch…
The “newcomer” has in fact been around for a while but if you haven’t ventured down to The Smoke since July 2010 you might not have encountered a growing population of rental bikes. Officially they are called Barclays Bikes but everyone calls them Boris Bikes in reference to their spiritual patron, mayor Boris Johnson. I can’t decide which tag I find more objectionable.
The scheme aims to encourage people to rent a bike for short journeys across central London. I’m not going into the detail but the official TFL website and Wikipedia entry are each worth a read. In a nutshell there are over 400 on-street “hubs” which are essentially unmanned bike stalls where you can hire one of over 6000 bikes.
On previous visits to London I witnessed the sprouting of these strangely captivating bike hubs but nobody seemed to be riding them. On my latest visit the number of hub vacancies alludes to the growing popularity of the scheme and in order to keep up with the Johnsons I conclude it’s time to put shoe leather to pedal. I’m going to give it a go!
There are a variety of rental options and I opt for “casual hire” which is ideal for the visitor. This involves a £1 payment by credit card at the hub console and it entitles you to bike rental for up to one day. The machine spews out a receipt incorporating a 5 digit release code – so far so good…
…and next I have to select one of the docked bikes and type this code into a keypad incorporated into the stand. The docking light turns from red to green and the bike can be released. In fact anyone who has got this far will realise the release action requires a little bit of manipulation, whereby you have to lift the back wheel and give it a good old yank.
And so I find myself in City Road on a Sunday morning with a bike in my grasp wondering what to do next. So far so surreal. It never occurred to me that I would get this far and there’s something counter-intuitive about standing in the fast-paced soulless heart of the City with something as organic as a bike at my bipedal command. After due consideration a thought comes to me and I decide I’m going to ride it. More specifically I’m going to cycle east to Spitalfields where I know there’s another bike hub or two.
I mount my decidedly sturdy steed (think Pit Pony rather than Race Horse) and pedal. It has those. It also has gears and brakes. No bell though. Hey – this is OK!
In no time at all I’m in Spitalfields, and – I GET IT!!!! All the years I’ve been visiting London I thought that the underground was pretty neat, until I discovered that buses were quicker for short to medium journeys and less hassle. And now the Boris Bike has just blown the bus out of the water! The traditional forms of transport skew your perception of distance and time but on a bike you can go a long way in a short time.
There’s a time based charging structure on top of the daily rental fee but with journeys less than 30 minutes free you can easily travel across central London in that time. If you want to go further (or slower) simply find a hub, dock your bike and then take another out immediately.
If all of this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea think again – the terrain is generally flat, there are plenty of cycle lanes and you are unlikely to be in the saddle for long. As an added bonus for geeks there’s an official mobile phone app you can download to enrichen the whole experience – I wrote about it three months ago.
Clearly I’m sold on the whole bike thing and will be doing it all again next time around for sure, with a spin across London Bridge a distinct possibility. Because I can. The only question I can’t get out of my mind is, what do we call the bikes if Boris gets booted out of mayoral office? Ken’s Knee benders? Livingstone’s Leg stretchers? Oh no – please no! I think I’ve just found a reason to keep Boris in the saddle…