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Posts Tagged ‘London’

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…

Different point of view

Different point of view

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?

When will I be famous?

When will I be famous?

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…

Mandela - a giant of a man

Mandela – a giant of a man

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.

It's the law

It’s the law

I love witnessing scenes that, despite their clichéd predictability, are genuine and heart warming for those concerned.

Phone Box - looks better than it smells...

Phone Box – looks better than it smells…

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?

Guessing he's a Pole

Guessing he’s a Pole

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.

Stay calm and don't buy anything

Stay calm and don’t buy anything

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.

Pizza delivery for number 10

Pizza delivery for number 10

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.

Dad gets to play horse

Dad gets to play horse

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…

The Griswold family vacation

The Griswold family vacation

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”.

School's out

School’s out

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.

Don't make it angry

Don’t make it angry

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?

Silver Ghost

Silver Ghost

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.

Much ado about bathing

Much ado about bathing

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.

Copping an ice cream

Copping an ice cream

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.

Keeping them in suspense

Keeping them in suspense

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.

Serenaded to the collection hat

Serenaded to the collection hat

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.

Painted lady

Painted lady

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.

No caption required

No caption required

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?

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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.

Bike Hub: City Road

Bike Hub: City Road

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…

Ticket to ride

Ticket to ride

…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.

Commence docking sequence

Commence docking sequence

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!

Two wheels good

Two wheels good

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…

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Every town has at least one market and London, being a rather sizeable town, has, erm, well how many exactly? Being the lazy researcher that I am I asked Wikipedia how many markets there are in London and it’s around 60. Except it’s not – there are many more. But you get the drift.

The names of some slip off the tongue and I have previously written about the Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane markets, plus the foodie Borough market but famous doesn’t always mean good. This week for example, I visited Portabello Market which despite calling itself one of the top London tourist destinations was almost completely full of overpriced tat and patronised exclusively by hundreds of Italian tourists. Somebody is doing a good job of marketing the place in Rome.

Via Potabello

Via Potabello

So I don’t want to inflict Portabello Market on you when there’s a new and exciting market developing around Maltby Street on the South bank beneath the railway arches that extend westward into London Bridge station. I picked up on this place thanks to a London Evening Standard article a few months ago and it sounded worth a visit.

When you think of business operating beneath railway arches you expect them to be dodgy, dirty places trading cars or knock-off goods but that’s not the case here. For starters the arches have been spotlessly cleaned and there’s a new wave of clientele here – young foodie businesses selling things that are organic or home made.

Going underground

Going underground

There’s artisanship here and most of the customers have walked or cycled from home to pick up something special for the weekend.

Lets have a butchers

Lets have a butchers

Say cheese

Say cheese

Perhaps 20 percent of the arches are occupied but there are signs of ongoing renovation in some and I can’t help thinking take-up here is going to rocket. That’s one of the nice thing about London – it’s so big that if a small number of people start something then like-minded folk will swell the ranks and before you know it there’s a whole community.

Fruit and veg

Fruit and veg

I love the fact that there’s a very genuine, homely feel about the stall-holders an their produce.

Squashtastic!

Squashtastic!

This is an antidote to the cynical merchandising of the Portabello Road Market.

Give us our daily bread

Give us our daily bread

Perhaps most exciting for me is the discovery of The Kernel brewery under one of the arches on Druid Street. I had never heard of this outfit despite my well documented interest in real ale & pubs. I learn that The Kernel has but a week ago been named “Brewer Of The Year” by the British Guild of Beer Writers and take it from me – they deserve it. Admittedly they tend towards the stronger darker brews that I favour but just their range of ales is mouthwatering…

The Kernels recipe

The Kernels recipe

I’m not a heavy drinker and certainly not one for a jar at lunchtime but… oh go-on then. I chose their weakest – the Pale Ale on tap at 5.3% and it was just divine!

Oh go on then

Oh go on then

We’re going to hear a lot more about The Kernel, I’m sure. Let’s hope the Derby beer festival organisers are reading this blog. There’s good looking coffee down the road, but wouldn’t an Imperial Brown Stout (9.8% !) be more fun?

...or you could have had this

...or you could have had this

And that’s Maltby Street, but I’m already looking forward to my next visit. Afterwards I strolled west to Borough Market which – despite its huge popularity – has retained a level of integrity. The South Bank just gets better.

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It’s hard to believe that I have only had a smart phone for 9 months. Looking back this was a pivotal point in my evolution, akin to man’s discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel or realisation that my hair looks ridiculous without taming gel.

Discovery of fire – in a tuba in Leicester Square

Discovery of fire – in a tuba in Leicester Square

Last Year I wrote a guide to London. Now I’m back for my annual period of restoration and discovery but this time I’m armed with this ultimate guidebook. It even makes phone calls. With all of this firepower at my disposal I‘m understandably keen to find out how my HTC can improve the London experience.

My pocket advisor is already on the case as I make the journey south. The National Rail Enquiries journey planner live departure board informs me my train will arrive on time (surprisingly). It also tells me how the journey is progressing against schedule more accurately than the on-board train announcer’s updates.

Getting there

Getting there

Once in the capital I find two Android travel apps to be indispensable. The Tube Map by MX Data is brilliantly simple. It displays an interactive tube map (nice) and if you enter a departure and arrival station it tells you the most efficient route and likely duration. This proved enlightening when I had more than one route option as you can’t infer distance or duration from the tube map. Additionally if you register your Oyster card details the app will tell you your balance.

The other travel app called PubTran from App Brain is less satisfying to look at but a more comprehensive beast altogether. It looks at all transport options including tube, over-ground train, bus and even boat. You enter start and end locations (plus departure time if not imminent) and you get a full travel itinerary plus timings, with respect to life traffic updates. The maps are static and a little bulky but that’s a minor criticism. Overall, this is a superb app.

View better from the top deck of a bus

View better from the top deck of a bus

They say the best way to get around London is by foot. The ubiquitous Google Maps (for Android) is slick and powerful although you are always reliant on a decent GPS signal in order for it to work out exactly where you are. At one point while on the South Bank the Google map positioned me in the middle of the Thames, which was amusing but unhelpful. The latest version now enables map displays including 3D profiles, so a high rise looks different to a bungalow. I just found this a hindrance but you can easily switch to 2D mode. For me the most useful features – above and beyond general mapping – were:

  • Landmark labelling – you can see what’s around the corner and this aids discovery
  • Navigation – if you give it a destination it plots a pedestrian sat-nav route
  • Direction – simple though it may seem the basic compass feature is great when you are at a crossroads but aren’t sure which is north and which is south

An example of discovery – I’ve been staying at the City Road Travelodge for 3 years now and only now with an aerial map did I realise there’s a cricket pitch slap-bang right opposite the hotel on the border of the financial district.

Artillery Company Museum: Behind this...

Artillery Company Museum: Behind this...

...is this: Bunhill Fields

...is this: Bunhill Fields

I went for a browse and it was gated off which seemed a shame given the shortage of green space in the city.

What to do when in London? I usually cast an eye at TimeOut but this year I have the TimeOut for Android app. It allows you to search by location and entertainment category but for me there were some niggles. It was admirably simple to use but perhaps a little light on features, while crucially it didn’t seem to pick up on my GPS location. It’s a new app and I’m sure improved versions will be on the way.

If you’ve been to London in the past 3 years you can’t fail to have noticed the propagation of Barclays bikes – better known as Boris Bikes after the frothing mayor of London Boris Johnson. Under this scheme anyone can rent one of the 6000 bikes (soon to be 8000) from any of the unmanned rental hubs that dot the city. If you want to know what I thought of the bikes themselves you’ll have to read my next blog as I’m sticking to the tech here. I downloaded the official Barclays Bike app which aims to:

  • explain the scheme
  • tell you where the bike hubs are
  • tell you how many bikes and free bike docks there are at each hub
  • provide navigation between hubs

I already understood the scheme having visiting the TFL website but the app included usage videos for the uninitiated. The facility to find maps was very poor. You just get a crowded map of London on the screen with countless hub icons overlayed in one confusing continuous mass. There are no zoom controls and it took me a while to realise I had to “pinch” the screen to control zoom levels. Furthermore when I downloaded the app in Derby a few weeks ago the map unhelpfully centred in on Derby and I couldn’t easily move to a London view to see the hubs there. Very poor.

Thankfully the hub consoles are better conceived than the smartphone app

Thankfully the hub consoles are better conceived than the smartphone app

The route planning capability was also flawed as it plotted out against main roads where there were quieter and more direct cut-throughs. Also, why not incorporate audible sat-nav instructions to make navigation a hands-free affair? Searching for a destination by text was flaky and once you had your route it was lost and forgotten if you navigated away from the screen.

The only positive things I have to say about the app are that it does tell you where the hubs are and also provides indicative numbers of bikes and empty docks at other stations. This app needs a lot more work and I’m convinced some independent developer can or has written a better app, assuming that there’s a half decent API available.

So far the apps have been all about planning and organisation but here are some softer angles. When you travel somewhere how do you find out what is happening at a local level out of the gaze of guidebooks and travel review websites? As a twitter user my social network extends beyond my home area, although I don’t have any regular London correspondence. A simple word search however (with or without Hashtags) soon enables you to find out what local people are up to. I searched for tweets including the words “Shoreditch” or “Hoxton” and soon found out what people were talking about and where they were going. I even exchanged tweets with a local about venues.

Twitter: Immediately share that spontaneous picture with the world

Twitter: Immediately share that spontaneous picture with the world

Another app I use is Four Square which enables you to check into places in a rather sad and pointless way. One benefit (possibly the only one) is that you can read the comments that other 4sq users have made about locations. Check into Derby railway station for instance and somebody points out that a radio cab firm 50m away is cheaper than the stand right outside the station (I paid £4 vs probably £6 in a yellow cab). At Borough Market I was overwhelmed with eating choices but so many people on 4sq raved about the chorizo, pepper and rocket ciabattas from the Brindisa stall that I followed their advice. They were not wrong!

Chorizo, pepper & rocket in ciabatta. Yes please!

Chorizo, pepper & rocket in ciabatta. Yes please!

My final app isn’t really a travel app as such but I used it on a few occasions so it gets a mention. On first appearances Shazam is something of a gimmick. This app claims to be able to identify any music by recording 20 seconds of it. I’ve grown quite fond of Shazam because it’s such a clever and impressive app. If I find myself in a shop or a pub and there’s music that I like I can find out the track and artist. What’s more it seems to work even in poor conditions when there’s background noise.

In summary there can be no doubt that the use of a range of apps on a smart phone has enabled me to travel more effectively and opened up opportunities I would otherwise have missed out on. Of course you can spend far too long staring into your phone rather than taking in your surroundings. The trick is to familiarise yourself with the apps before you go so you’re not trying to suss them out later, and to rapidly dispense with the ones that don’t deliver.

Applications and connectivity will only improve and once they combine ease of use and quality of information with speed of delivery we will find ourselves reaping the full benefits of them with the minimum imposition on our valuable travel time. I suspect that there’s a lot more to come…

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Tonight I tackle the residual flotsam from my recent encounter with London. There’s unpacking and laundry to deal with – a mere 2 weeks after my return – and travel things to file in the places where I file my travel things. Amidst this paraphernalia – a tourist guide that I picked up on impulse. On the whole it delivered the goods but I’ve had many over the years and they are a mixed bag sometimes stating the head-bashingly obvious, other times insightful and on occasion just plain lacking.

Aside from being instantly out of date, one of the problems with guide books is that they try (and fail) to be all things to all people. With a 3G phone in hand you can get personalised travel information on the fly and I wonder whether the printed article has any future when it’s up against the continuously updated, google-map-toting reference called the Internet. Want to know what’s on this week – go to an events website. Need a hotel recommendation, check out TripAdvisor. Want a local up-to-the-minute view on what’s going on in your postcode – check out a Twitter feed.

So time is running out for static reference guides and I reckon that once augmented reality kicks in and becomes as ubiquitous as Google Street View then it’s all over. The death of the guide book is nigh – AARRRGGHHHH!!!

Actually this is a GOOD thing for number of reasons:

  • Rather then join a queue of American tourists all holding the same book as they wait to be ripped off by a restaurant that became a pastiche just after it got a good review 2 years ago, you might instead find yourself acting on impulse and discovering somewhere genuine, fresh and exciting.
  • All of those smug types that landed “jobs” on TV travel shows testing 5 star hotels in Sydney will have to find proper employment. I can live with the thought of Judith Chalmers, Eamonn Holmes and Carol “but what exactly do you do?” Smillie having to pay for their next holiday.
  • Real time mobile phone based travel advice is marginally cheaper than the printed alternatives.

All of which makes my personal travel guide to London truly pointless I think you will agree…

 
 About London

London – it’s huge. I mean you may think it’s a long way to the shops but that’s nothing. Look, there’s a lot of stuff there. Here are some photo’s that tell you everything and nothing about this great city.

One City – Many Outlooks
 
 Climate

Rainy, with occasional breaks for fog, interspersed with fake cockney accented chimney sweeps.

I can vouch for the rain. During my visit there were times when it was unclear where the land started and the Thames ended.
 
 When to go

The City of London blooms perennially, except for an awkward shifty week in the new year after the sales have finished. Festive debris awaits collection on so many street corners, cultural attractions close for refurbishment and it’s a period of introspection before Chinese New Year brings the party back to life.

On the 13th day of Christmas...

On the 13th day of Christmas...

Guess when I went…
 
 Getting There

The train remains the least objectionable mode of arrival unless you have left it late to book, in which case prepare to extend your mortgage. Book long enough in advance and first class fares are well worth the extra, but only on weekdays when you can enjoy complimentary coffee and biscuits while you surf via the free WiFi connection. At weekends a surly attendant points out that “nothing is free today mate”, “there’s no WiFi on this service” and “the toilets are blocked, you’ll have to try the next carriage”.

If you are unlucky you also may find yourself opposite a middle aged woman from Sheffield who, incapable of not verbalising every sodding trivial thought that enters her head for over 2 hours, will either drive you to violence or – as in the case of her lobotomised husband – subdued resignation.
 
 Getting Around

They key to travel in this metropolis is the Oyster Card. It’s not just for locals and with it you can swipe your way across the entire transport network and even buy goods in some corner stores. An added bonus – you look less of a tourist.

That'll do nicely

That'll do nicely

The Tube is usually the best way to cover longer distances quickly, outside peak hours at least.

Curiously I discovered that many regular commuters are unaware of other travel options in the capital when our train broke down and we were forced to leave at Monument and make alternative travel arrangements. Some of these suit clad clones emerged from their native subterranea for the first time, rubbing their eyes in the virgin light like some escapees from The Matrix.

They looked lost and bewildered as they jabbered final goodbye messages into mobile phones to loved ones in the certain knowledge that their intended destination (Bank – 600 yards away) must be 5 days walk overground and they would surely not survive.

Underground movement

Underground movement

Travel on the London Underground provides the opportunity to look out for some of the personalities encountered therein, including:

  • The “first time in London, or indeed out of the village“. This wide eyed traveller will check the route map every 20 seconds, try to leave from the wrong side and perhaps offer one of their party as human sacrifice to the great underground serpent god. They may even break the golden rule and TALK TO A STRANGER, for which the consequences are unimaginable…
  • The “My commute is so long I have no idea where I am”, typified by an epic thumb worn novel that will transfix them until their regional train guides them home to St Albans in 3 hours time.
  • The “DO NOT INVADE MY PERSONAL SPACE” lady who clutches her handbag on her lap, stares jaw tensed at an empty space and flinches involuntarily as another human being sits next to her in the packed compartment. Once home she will sob while scrubbing herself clean for 90 minutes in the bath.

For shorter distances the bus service is almost certainly a better bet. You are never far from a bus stop and clear signage tells you which services go where and there are local street maps to help you when you get to your destination. Some buses even serve food.

Queuing for the bus was never this good

Queuing for the bus was never this good

Did somebody mention walking? It remains the best way to get around this city if you want the journey to be as educational as the destination. Despite rumours to the contrary the streets are not paved with gold.

On a final note a network of bicycle hire hubs has mushroomed up around the city. You can hire a bike for peanuts if you only need it for short periods of time.

Rent-a-bike

Rent-a-bike

 
 Accommodation

London hotels come in three classes:

  • Expensive and shockingly poor
  • Reassuringly expensive and anger inducingly mediocre
  • Eye wateringly expensive and plush, but you could have flown to California for the same money

Never pay the advertised room rate and use every online resource to take the fight back to these complacent behemoth hotel chains.

Once you have found your room, realised that your key card doesn’t worked, got the lift back to reception, queued up at reception to get it fixed and returned to your room again the first thing you need to do is liberate the bed sheets. They will have been surgically welded into the mattress and if you don’t free them now your drunken return later will degenerate into a losing tussle as you wriggle around in bed trying to escape the straightjacket.

Speaking of lifts if you are staying in a Travelodge like I did you will notice that they are made out of kitchen foil. I’m not making this up, when you press a button the whole side panel crinkles. This probably explains why only 1 of the 3 lifts in my hotel were working during my 5 night stay.

This is in keeping with their Ryanair style bare basics approach to “service”. For instance there is a self check-in booth at reception. Breakfast is not included in the room rate. Nor for that matter is soap, a hairdryer or any of the frippery one normally finds in a hotel room. I would be entirely happy with this except that the room is no cheaper and you are surrounded by posters trying to put a positive spin on the tight fistedness. The ability to pick up an iron and ironing board at reception, perhaps en-route to the cocktail bar, is presented as some kind of groundbreaking service.

 
 Money

You are going to need this. There’s clubs, pubs, restaurants, theatres all just waiting to drag you off the streets and relieve you of your hard earned cash. And did I mention the shops? They’re the worst.

This way please

This way please

Resistance is not only futile but also dull.

 
 Eating

Avoid the large chains. JUST DON’T DO IT! If you get a bad meal in London you really have got it wrong. There’s a huge variety of fresh international food on offer to cater for office workers who won’t accept getting fleeced for a poor lunch. If it’s somewhere fancy you want to go in the evening check out TripAdvisor and then hit a recommended venue for the fixed price early evening menu.

And don’t judge a book by its cover. I had a fabulous and cheap Mexican wrap at this innocuous place about 50 yards from a packed and expensive looking Jamie’s Fifteen in Moorgate. I would not have swapped on this particular occasion.

El Pukka!

El Pukka!

 
 Drinking

This really isn’t as easy as it might sound, at least not if you enjoy Real Ale. Expensive fizzy lager froths uncontrollably out of the over-stylised bars to be found in every street but there’s a distinct lack of substance. Many of the pubs that begrudgingly concede counter space for real ale only do so for some predictable or average weasle brew. You are on Fullers home turf and the ubiquitous London Pride is quality but no substitute for variety. There are traditional old boozers serving real ale to real punters but you have to hunt them out.

The Old Fountain in Moorgate is one such gem. Nobody wearing a suit, no tourists (apart from me) and Art Brew Blackcurrant Stout. The balance restored.

Blackcurrant Stout!

Blackcurrant Stout!

Also don’t rule out alternative venues. I stumbled upon a wonderful place called The Camp

Camping it up

Camping it up

…with funky people, music, WiFi, comfy sofas and a damn fine mug of tea. This venue is in stark contrast to the nearby city pubs and cafes that buzzed with corporate type during the week but literally closed up at the weekend since their clientele weren’t around. Confusing for visitors like me but a great time to film that zombie movie.

 
 Attractions

Whatever you are into this city has it in great abundance and variety. The numbers are hard to fathom. There are a staggering 50 theatres in the West End and another 50 in London as a whole. If museums are your thing there are 250 and that’s not including the smaller galleries. Professional Football clubs – 13, Markets – over 60, music venues – who knows?

One common theme wherever you go is the precession of tourists fumbling ineffectually with expensive cameras. Altitudinous megapixels, state of the art sensor arrays, high quality optics and specialised picture modes all nullified at the hands of clueless point and clickers. On no account accept an invitation to a friends house to see photos from their London visit. Disappointment awaits.

With so much going on at any time London presents many opportunities for those turning up without a set plan, not just those with a clear itinerary in mind. Here for instance is a timeline of my Saturday evening that pretty much unfolded before me…

A twitter announcement tells me of an impromptu Thomas Truax appearance in Dalston so I book a ticket for the event online.

  • Arrival at the venue: The very wonderful Old Boys Club in a Dalston side street.
  • Thomas plays a great set to a variously startled/dumbfounded audience of media student types that are here for the main event (see below). I just love the reaction of an unfamiliar crowd!
  • Future Shorts entails the screening of 9 engrossing short films. There’s humour, pathos, drama, nerdiness and pain old entertainment. Personal favourites Heartland Transport, Kitchen and Homemade Spacecraft.
  • After meeting some great people and a good long chat with Thomas (he offers me a lift home – you don’t get that from Dave Grohl after a gig) I tag along with Guilia and Tajona who are headed for a very different club
  • Guilia arranges entry to the illicit venue by phone in advance – no entry unless you are on the list. It’s all distinctly dodgy but once inside the anonymous warehouse there’s the nicest bunch of people you could hope to meet chatting, chilling and getting down.
  • When my batteries are empty the regular N76 night bus picks me up and deposits me back in Finsbury square without any fuss or drama.
The future is bright

The future is bright

My old club

My old club

Make a wish...

Make a wish...

The ceiling's the limit

The ceiling's the limit

My new club

My new club

Tonight offers proof (if proof were needed) that you have the most fun when you go with the moment – and take the guide books with a pinch of salt.

 
 Summary

So there you have it – an already obsolete guide to London. Now ignore it and go and do your own thing.

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When my visit to London was at a formative stage one of the hotels I was looking at was situated in Greenwich so I did a little surfing to find out about the locale. In the end I opted for a scandalously cheap deal in the heart of the city but a seed of interest had been planted in Greenwich so I availed myself of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to find out more. It’s almost worth it for a trip on the fabulous DLR – a driverless transit system first conceptualised in meccano by my uncle in 1962.

Docklands Light Railway

Docklands Light Railway

Sometimes you visit a new place with some expectations in mind. Greenwich with its prestigious World Heritage Site status is the home of the Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark not to mention the small matter of the Prime Meridian. How typical of my travels then to spend a highly fulfilling day in the town without seeing any of the aforementioned. My intention was to visit each of these in turn but the bloody incessant rain and preservation work on the historic vessel led me towards some drier alternatives.

Greenwich has a long established maritime and royal history. The Danes sailed up the Thames in the 11th century and moored in the deep waters here before, understandably, invading Kent. Henry VII chose to site his throne here at the Palace of Placentia and Queens Mary and Elizabeth were born here. When this was eventually demolished the replacement buildings were intended to provide Charles II with his new palace but plan that fell through (the builders blamed the architect, who blamed the client, who blamed Kevin McCloud) and instead a royal naval college was established.

Royal Naval College

Royal Naval College

A University and a music college occupy some of the imposing waterfront buildings while two magnificent domed structures remain open to the public.

Domes of the Chapel and Painted Hall

Domes of the Chapel and Painted Hall

The interior of the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul surprised me with it’s extensive intricate detailing. Almost every surface seemed to be sculpted by master craftsmen and I would imagine it had fine accoustics.

Chapel interior

Chapel interior

I was equally impressed by the interior of the Painted Hall. This beautiful chamber with its huge painted walls, where Nelson’s body lay in state 200 years ago, was deemed too opulent for use as a seaman’s refectory as originally envisaged.

Top Table at the Painted Hall

Top Table at the Painted Hall

It served as naval art gallery for some time but today it is primarily a (free) tourist attraction although I can’t help thinking it would make a fine filming location for some posh period banqueting sequence. A little research reveals that the site has indeed served as a film set on numerous occasions.

Hogwarts banquet hall

Hogwarts banquet hall

A peek outside tells me it’s still raining cats and dogs. Any excuse then to visit the Old Brewery, bolted onto Tourist Information centre and home to the ingeniously named Meantime brewery. The poor weather has advantages after all.

Old Brewhouse

Old Brewhouse

The main draw for me today was always going to be the National Maritime Museum. I felt that there was a fairly good balance of display items and information covering a wide range of topics. Themes included the evolution of military ship design, historical navigation aides and nautical exploration above and below the waves.

The displays I found most engrossing were the nostalgic toy boat exhibition, the gloriously evocative 1960’s cruise liner promotional videos and the all-encompassing ship simulator where you could take the helm of a large vessel and gleefully ram it at full speed into the jetty.

Implacable, 1800

Implacable, 1800

A massive section of the Implacable dominates one of the ground floor walls. Launched by the French navy in 1800 she was captured by the British navy and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. At the end of her active military service she served as a training vessel for 80 years until the 1940s.

Another eye catching highlight was Miss Britain III – sadly just a boat. But not just any boat – she was the first single engined power boat to exceed 100mph, reaching 111mph in 1933.

Miss Britain III, 1933

Miss Britain III, 1933

The museum has a lot more to offer and I could probably have spent half a day there. I won’t begrudge the basic catering facilities as an extensive new wing is due to open next year with radically improved facilities but I do question the total failure to mention two of Britain’s greatest seafaring captains. Perhaps this omission will be rectified by the new extension with dedicated galleries to Pugwash and Birdseye.

With my time in Greenwich drawing to a close I wanted to visit one last “attraction”. Perhaps this is common knowledge but I previously had no idea you could still walk under the Thames. In Greenwich in 2011 you can do just this in the space of 5 minutes via the Greenwich foot tunnel. For some reason the idea of walking under a river really appeals to me.

Greenwich foot tunnel

Greenwich foot tunnel

By the time I re-emerge from my riverside burrow the feeble sun has slunk beyond the horizon and a damp haze hangs moodily over Canary Wharf, dominating the skyline beyond the Isle Of Dogs on the far bank.

Docklands

Docklands

Greenwich has seen these days on many occasions and sailors of yore would head down the cobbled gas-lit streets towards welcoming hostelries like The Trafalgar Tavern, The Spanish Galleon or The Gipsy Moth. Tonight that’s not for me – I’m catching an automated glass space age ship towards that city of lights 3 miles and 300 years to the north.

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I’m back. London has become an annual pilgrimage for me though in truth it deserves more regular attention being just a couple of hours away. The problem and joy of this city is the sheer size and diversity of it. Sure you can just turn up with a guide book and aim to “do the top 10” but over the years I have done a lot of it and there’s other places to go. That’s most of the reason why I decided to head up the Northern Line to the bleeding edge of zone 2 to find out what Hampstead and Highgate had to offer.

Apparently Hampstead is home to more millionaires than any other comparable area in the UK and it’s obvious why. Situated just a few miles from central London this district has the feel of a large village with old streets, plenty of green open space and a slower pace about it. It’s where you would want to have your family home if you were working in the furnace of the city.

Leafy suburbs

Leafy suburbs

An estate agent’s window bears out the wealth of the area. The cheapest property I can see is £275k for a distinctly small one bed flat. Heaven only knows what one of the houses above would fetch on the open market. Yet these digs are mere servants quarters in comparison to the many custom built homes I spy beyond gated driveways on the roads out of town. Wikipedia tells me that homes here have sold for as much as £50m!!

A moderately hilly road takes me beyond the former home of Keats to Hampstead Heath. It is a bitterly cold morning and the dog walkers are out in force (mostly retired or paid to do the job) and there are no shortage of joggers, mostly female. One blond famous looking type (barely) jogs past in conversation with her personal trainer. It’s safe to conclude that residents of Hampstead are money rich and time poor.

The heath, unspectacular by UK standards, represents a large swathe of greenery by London standards and in Parliament Hill has the highest open space this close to the city. The views attract plenty of walkers.

Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill

In the distance I can clearly make out Canary Wharf, the “gherkin” (quarter of a mile from my hotel), St Pauls and the Telecom Tower.

City view from Hampstead Heath

City view from Hampstead Heath

I can’t understate how cold it is today not only with the near freezing temperature but the cutting winter wind. In fact it would be too cold to take my hat off to the pensioner I spotted taking to the waters of the outdoor men’s bathing pond. Sheer madness!

Hampstead mens bathing pond

Hampstead mens bathing pond

A short walk through the park brings me out in neighbouring Highgate. Here there is clearly a population problem as they have been forced to build vertically! I have never seen mock tudor flats before (what next, mock tudor satellite dishes?) but at least the style is in keeping with the locale.

High rise in Highgate

High rise in Highgate

And so to the main draw of this part of town. For here the dead hold sway. Highgate Cemetery became the burial site of choice for wealthy Victorians wishing to leave behind a final mark on the earth. The sprawling plot is divided between an East and West section, each predominantly gothic in appearance and each overgrown with trees and ivy. Nature has been allowed to run it’s course here and I see numerous squirrels and an adult fox brazenly sauntering between headstones just 20 yards ahead of me.

Gothic east cemetery

Gothic east cemetery

Given the bold public statements made by many of the plots I don’t see anything insensitive or mawkish about sharing a few pictures with you.

Family reunion

Family reunion

You could shoot a great music video here, though perhaps that does overstep the mark. Speaking of marks the most famous incumbent here is Karl Marx. Nothing shy about this grave…

No Marx for style

No Marx for style

By contrast some memorials cannot fail to touch your heart

A touching rememberance

A touching rememberance

Even today people are still buried here although quite where they find any vacant plots is beyond me.

Beadle is still about

Beadle is still about

And just to prove that some people take a sense of humour to the grave…

Having the last laugh

Having the last laugh

The one grave I regret being unable to find was that of Douglas Adams. Perhaps his headstone is somewhere in a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “beware of the leopard”. At least I think that’s what he would have wanted.

As I walk back across the heath the rain clouds are gathering and I will learn to hate them over the next 3 days as they indeed will hate me. There’s just time to take a furtive photo of (allegedly) Hampstead’s biggest night time draw.

Hampstead Heath gents WC

Hampstead Heath gents WC

Strangely this cottaging industry isn’t mentioned in their tourist information…

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