North Bank Show

Mesmerising detail

In my imaginatively titled blog Show Bank Show I described my attraction to London’s celebrated South Bank, from Vauxhall to Waterloo and beyond. It occurred to me that you never hear anything about the North Bank and so, in another leap of originality, I hope to persuade you that the unfashionable side of the Thames is worth a little of anybody’s time.

On this unseasonally tropical September Friday I chose Lambeth Bridge as my starting point purely because this is the point from which I expected things to get interesting. I have always found Victoria Tower Gardens to be a peaceful haven away from the madness of Central London and today is no different. With a backdrop of Westminster’s Victoria Tower I see a handful of joggers, the odd morning sun worshiper, kids playing together, a man dressed in a white suit and white bowler hat urinating against a tree – a familiar and comforting snapshot of the England we know and love.

Sauron's tower
The tower of Sauron

I hadn’t previously taken a close look around this park so the Buxton Monument – a fabulously ornate memorial to the end of the slave trade – was new to me. The ancient ensemble of parliamentary buildings forces the walker away from the riverside at this point and over to Parliament Square, which is fine for me as there is always some show to enjoy here. Except today there are no protests or film crews as Parliament has been prorogued by the disgraced and incarcerated Boris Johnson (at the time of writing he’s still PM can you believe).

Keep off the grass. Man.
Keep off the grass. Man.

With so much recent activism outside parliament the square is cordened off in order to allow the incessantly trampled grass to recover. A casualty of democracy. The towering stone mass of Westminster is all but obscured by scaffolding as exorbitantly expensive renovations take place. This could all have been avoided if Guy Fawkes had been better at project management.

With little architecture to point the camera at a scattering of tourists are gravitating towards the various Statues that surround the square.

Churchill - larger then life
Churchill – larger then life

I resume my walk heading back towards Westminster Bridge. A conglomeration of tourist tat stalls are engulfed by visitors this morning. Crudely molded metal models of Big Ben, Queen masks, postcards of Buckingham Palace and much worse will soon be shuffled off to the darkest corners of the homes of friends and family of today’s visitors.

Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models
Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models

The lamest Darth Vader impersonator stands precariously atop a speaker pumping out Star Wars music while people take photos and chip in with a few coins. Nobody appears to take the slightest interest in the kick-ass statue of Boudicca above. Welcome to London.

Feel the force
Feel the force

Also attracting no attention is an adjacent line of cycle taxis. This is hardly a suprise when you see their rates. A couple of fares and their day has been a success.

The waiting game
The waiting game

The commotion soon fizzles out as I head east along the Victoria Embankment. Bazalgette’s mammoth 19th century construction project created a much needed sewage system upgrade and new transport links – robust victorian architecture that has stood the test of time. This fascinating Museum Of London piece describes the scale and ambition of Bazalgette’s work – a truly big job.

A couple of suits are speaking to camera outside New Scotland Yard. It’s less dramatic than it looks in TV crime thrillers. I’m disappointed that the famous rotating New Scotland Yard sign is not moving. Perhaps justice does take a day off. Here’s a YouTube video of it rotating, which shows that some people have too much time on their hands.

The next substantial building is home to the Ministry of Defence. A simple garden is decorated with statues remembering various military campaigns and characters. It would be easy to miss this space because the dramatic riverside memorial to those lost in the Battle of Britain inevitably draws your attention.

So many stories
So many stories

London and the Thames corridor particularly are dotted with numerous statues and memorials but few can be so effective in telling a story.

Mesmerising detail
Mesmerising detail

I pause to sit on one of the benches that look out across the Thames. The river is busy today with pleasure cruises, passenger ferries and disconcertingly massive waste barges being towed out to some disposal point beyond the city. The London Eye rotates imperceptibly and swarms of people enjoy the full South Bank sun. It’s much quieter here on the North Bank and there is merciful shade from trees along the embankment.

Under the gaze of the eye
Under the gaze of the eye

Beyond this point there are few uninterrupted views across the river due to piers and moored boats, which is fine because I’m heading into Whitechapel Gardens – a favourite place of mine. I stumbled upon this by accident while working in the city and today it is just as I remember it.

This lunchtime it is an oasis of calm. The colourful planting in these well maintained gardens is a delight.

And breathe...
And breathe…

Heading beneath Hungerford Bridge I emerge outside the entrance to Embankment tube station which looks unexpectedly quaint and as pretty as any tube station could reasonably aspire to be.

Is this really central London?
Is this really central London?

The station adjoins yet another green space – Victoria Embankment Gardens. More colourful borders and numerous statues (I’m a bit statued out now) attract the lunchtime office crowd and this gathering look disinclined to return to work for the afternoon. At least productivity levels are going to be zero if they do.

This is nice
This is nice

The hypnotic pitter patter of a cooling fountain completes the illusion that I am at some rural retreat a world away from central London. Only my need for refreshment forces me to leave. Seriously, where are all these people buying their lunches?

Can I just stay here?
Can I just stay here?

Somerset House is next up on the left. They operate an ice skating rink in the winter months but I have never visited. Temple tube station probably only serves office workers during the week. I had hoped to check out Temple Gardens which look lush and inviting on Google Maps but it turns out that one can only gain admittance by getting a law degree and an internship at the judiciary. I am reduced to glancing through the railings at smart law firm employees relaxing on the grass, ties loosened a touch in concession to the heat. This is where my North Bank oddessy ends. The river front east of here becomes polluted and industrial for some distance until Tower Bridge.

Royal Courts Of Justice - the least popular bar in town this afternoon
Royal Courts Of Justice – the least popular bar in town this afternoon

Instead I head uphill towards the Royal Courts Of Justice on Fleet Street where an array of wine bars already lubricates an exodus of legal types as they conduct their final “meetings” of the week.

Postscript…

It’s the next day. Against my better judgement I find myself on the sunny South Bank jostling through a tide of corpulent sharp elbowed tourists. To think I could have been lying in the cool grass of Whitechapel Gardens listening to the cricket. There’s a time for everything.

Don’t Panic

Out of service

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?

The rather impressive British Museum
The rather impressive British Museum

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.

A sign of things to come
A sign of things to come

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.

Streets packed to a stand-still
Streets packed to a stand-still

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.

Out of service
Out of service

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.

Phew, no Gregg Wallace
Phew, no Gregg Wallace

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.

Instagram generation
Instagram generation

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.

Lovely. But not coffee.
Lovely. But 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!

Coffee. But not coffee.
Coffee. But not 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.

Tourist Attraction

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.

Gawd bless you!
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?

On Your Bike

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…

Underneath The Arches

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.

The Virtual Tourist

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…
...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…

An Obsolete Guide To London

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.