Red Door Soho – holga
(This blog post prompted by conversations with C & R regarding how to have a good time in London – please note this is a partial and prejudiced view – so there. TH White said that learning something was a cure for sadness. My friend Rachel who died suddenly just after New Year believed that travel was the cure for sadness I’m going to take up her example)
First of all travel by train if you possibly can. Flying is morally dubious, hideous experience, coach is morally superior but a hideous experience. Either get your train ticket via the internet thingy at least 12 weeks in advance – then one can get a really good deal ie I’ve travelled for £50 and due to a super good deal a friend told me about in November I’m going down for £10 return on Thursday! I often buy my tickets face to face at my local station – requested to find the cheapest deals they are very obliging and often get me a seat on the coastal side of the Edinburgh-London route.
At the station obtain an uptodate London Time Out for reading matter on train. Plus whatever glossy essential you need for a long journey. If not flush buy something from M&S for the journey. If flush and it is a weekday make a dash for the restaurant car as soon as they say its open. This gives you a) the pleasure of travelling first class while paying standard fare for a few hours and b) have a leisurely meal with dinky bottles of wine as the British countryside zips by. Be warned breakfast is about £13 and lunch or dinner about £25.
After breakfast/dinner/lunch take out the Time Out and read from cover to cover. Note any interesting exhibitions, events, talks, films, building openings and start planning an itinerary. I found a note that 19 Princlet St a Huguenot Weavers House / Synagogue was open on one trip I was in London for one day in the year and was able to go and see it in the East End. Another time I saw an ad for Leighton House and had the pleasure of our bus driving through a naked bicycle protest on our way back. I’ve visited places in London just because the name fascinated me – Little Venice anyone. Primrose Hill was more of a stalking expedition to see where all the famous people lived but I found a fantastic independent bookshop at the same time. Distances are vast in London and transport … variable so don’t expect to do a lot in a day – one thing in a morning one in the afternoon and something in the evening is plenty. Also leave space in-between stuff for serendipity. Enough time to walk between museums or shops seeing unexpected pleasures or just plopping into a café for coffee to rest feet and perhaps dash off a few postcards. I often find my most interesting photos in-between places. Tubes are easy to learn how to work with the marvellous famous map but avoid at rush hour. Buses if you can get the hang of them are wonderful and faster with the congestion charge and I like seeing where I’m going.
I rarely if ever visit the known tourist sites of London – I’ve been to the Tower as a child – never seen Buckingham Palace, and thought Harrods the place that taste forgot when I was a teenager.
London is expensive. I rarely think you can get away with spending less than £30 per day on tea, coffee, lunch etc not including accommodation and exhibitions are often £10 or more for entry and quelle horreur the time I went to a film in Leicester Square and was charged £12.50! Even in Camden the tickets are £10 (and I was so horrified I had an argument with the man at the counter and that was when tickets in Camden Odeon were still only £8.99). I have however got standing tickets at the National Theatre very cheaply in the past. I’ve even got tickets for sold out shows by going to the theatre on a rainy night and queuing. The best time to get tickets rainy nights according to my theatre mad uncle who lived in London for many years.
Free and fabulous is walking in London buy an A-Z at the WH Smiths in Kings Cross the small book kind that can fit in a pocket and take long meandering walks between places. Along the river is good too both sides. The British Museum, British Library, Tate Modern and Britain (special shout out for the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain) all are free or mostly free. My secret pleasure – the National Portrait Gallery off Charing Cross Road. Again mostly free except for special exhibitions, good place to meet up with friends and a fantastic restaurant on the roof with a wonderful view across the roof tops. Really do go there even for a coffee – just for the view.
Photographers Gallery Ramilles St just off Oxford St great shop for photo people, great postcards and really interesting exhibitions also free.
Foyles Bookshop – Charing Cross Rd famed now somewhat cleaned up and the strange buying system reformed. The Jazz Café is a nice almost reasonably priced café in London. Gluten free and vegan options.
For shopping if that is your bag you must must go to Liberty’s of London ‘Nothing bad can ever happen at Liberty’s’ Started by Arthur Liberty at the height of the Aesthetic movement it is a wonderful Arts and Crafts revival building. I’d leave an hour or two to walk around the entire shop. Delights include, bags, scarves, jewellery, the liberty print fabrics, wool dept, (very helpful), chocolate, soap, kitchen, rugs. Filled with the unusual. I eye shop the entire place even the designer clothes which will never come in my size! They also have a very expensive tearoom and café.
Otherwise I’d look out for unusual non-chain places. Like the London Review of Books Shop, (I shall hunt for the cakeshop they are apparently opening ) and a few doors down a photographic shop I can’t remember its name.
One of my favourite things to do is to go on a London Walk. These are guided tours of London done by Blue Guides. I love learning things anyway but these tours are great because they can take you down a seemingly ordinary street and bring the past alive. Tours last two hours and are only £8 which is great value. I’ve done, A Shetel Called Whitechapel, Clerkenwell, Old Westminster, Shakespeare’s London and one on Christopher Wren. I’ve found that Londoners enjoy them as well.
When leaving London over estimate the time needed to get to Kings Cross. If you do arrive with an hour or two to spare you can wander around the British Library 5 mins up the road or be a tourist in the new Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras but do NOT leave it too fine. One of the most horrible return journeys I had back home involved being on a tube train which suddenly stopped outside Kings Cross Station roosted for 20 mins – I missed my train back to Edinburgh and had to take the overnight coach home.