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

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.


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.


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.


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!

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.


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.


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