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?
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…
It’s Sunday. No – it’s Saturday! This is one of the recognised downsides of my rebranding of Friday as “#AlmostSaturday”. Yesterday while out and about a grim realisation dawned upon me that my jeans may self destruct at any moment. Luckily I’m 50 yards from Next on Oxford Street so I’m able to rescue myself from one of those impromptu ripped clothing crisis that the Incredible Hulk would be all too familiar with.
Things of Leon
It’s Chinese new year and I want to do something appropriate. The Time Out website says that there are some oriental things going on at the London Docklands Museum and so a plan is formed. I’ve never been that far east of Tower Bridge so it’s an opportunity to experience something new. Apparently there is a branch of Leon there and having been to the marvellous branch at Spitalfields and experienced some lovely things it’s a prime candidate for lunch. Docklands turns out to be very impressive.
It’s toytown stuff with huge office blocks, the Docklands Light Railway and a shopping centre boasting some quality names. This must be the only retail centre in the UK with no pound shops or empty units. It turns out that there is also a great range of lunch choices and the lure of Japanese takeaway Wasabi is sufficiently strong to relegate Leon into second place on this occasion. Why don’t we get this quality and range of eateries in the Midlands? There’s not a McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut or KFC in sight here, just a great range of healthy fresh food outlets.
The museum is free to enter and charts the history of the dockland area from Roman times through the middle ages and upto the present day. The content is well presented and sections on the slave trade, wartime and transformation into a financial district in the 1980s are most engaging. My favourite annecdote concerns the firemen that doused sugar warehouses set alight in the blitz – they would salvage items entombed in molten and resolidified sugar to take home and break up as a sweet toffee treat. They weren’t too bothered about any health risks of such actions since other events presented a much higher risk to their wellbeing. I emerge after a couple of hours wondering where the Chinese exhibition got to since I never saw it. Oh well…
Beer of the Tiger
What to do in London on a Saturday night? Whatever I want, of course! And what I want is a top ale in a local pub followed by interesting eats. Beer In The Evening website informs me that the Carpenters Arms is not only a stones throw from my hotel in Marble Arch but serves real ale house and is popular with the locals. And so it is. A pint of award winning Betty Stogs bitter sinks agreeably in a bar where most voices sport a London accent and there is a darts match going on in the back room. My window view of the side street I also interesting. There’s an Iraqi restaurant across the road hosting some family party. In the street a cycle rickshaw passes having come all the way from Covent Garden and later I double take as I thought I saw a sushi delivery van drive by. I’m moving in around here!
It’s only a short tube hop to Leicester Square but it might as well be a trip to the moon. The streets are packed with people of every description and purpose but all attracted like fireflies to the shiny lights. Chinatown is aglow with red lanterns and bunting even though official celebrations take place next weekend. I opt for a Cantonese restaurant that looks a little shabby around the edges but is popular with young Chinese people so can’t be too bad. It’s a soap opera. I’m led to a table where I order Udon noodles and Tiger beer.
A senior gentleman who has been directing the waiters comes over with a dish of food and asks in broken English whether I mind him serving it at my table. I’m not quite sure what he’s asking me but reply that this will be fine. He then sits down opposite and embarks on what I now understand to be his dinner break. He eats with a spoon which surprises me. Then after 3 minutes he shouts an order at a waiter who produces a fork and gives it to me. I thought I had been using chopsticks happily and successfully up until now but perhaps I’m being told otherwise. It’s not the first odd behaviour – I was presented with the bill immediately after ordering before actually receiving anything. To cap it off my dinner date grabs a rice bowl, pours some of his green tea into it and dunks pieces of pork from his meal into it. I’m not falling for this because I know if I do this next time I’m in Hong Kong in the pretence of pretending to know what I’m doing everyone will stop and laugh. They do things differently here.