No one can truly say they know London well. To know London completely is impossible.
London changes faster than pigeons descending into the fountains of Trafalgar
Square. Home to inhabitants for over 2,000 years now London has grown from the
protective circle of the Tower to a sprawling metropolis, the ideal platform for
constant illustrious activity.
Always where there is history there are tales to tell. Tourists are naturally drawn
to the regular tourist attractions, yet it is the true travellers that seek deeper
to find the gems of a 2,000 year-old town. It only takes a very small amount of
investigating to find something more rewarding, more interesting, more inspiring in
London, than the London Dungeons (although it must be said – is a damn good laugh if
you can bear the hour long queues!).
For instance, not even a minute’s walk from the London Dungeons is the Hay’s
Galleria. This gem is for some totally bizarre reason hidden from all guidebooks and
tourist information – no doubt to preserve its lack of thousands of tourists making
it a less exclusive haven. Please go there! It’s a beautiful indoor/outdoor
menagerie of a few select shops, with a vast concourse of cafes, market stalls,
bands, presentations, and of course, it overlooks a beautiful part of the Thames.
Turn right from Hays Galleria and you find yourself in a Thames-side walkway next to
the newest buildings in town. The architecture is phenomenal, and these lord-mayor
buildings are still so new that you can imagine that the cellophane has just freshly
been peeled off all the windows. You are welcome to enter the Lord Mayor’s building
(it’s the one shaped like a golf ball), go to the top and marvel at the
mind-boggling roundness of it all – plus of course see the spectacular views of the
HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge & the Tower of London. Continue strolling directly into
the I-Witness open-air gallery, before maybe snacking on a hot-dog in the
Walk past the green that previously hosted many Hollywood film premieres in giant
marquees, the David Blaine in-a-box episode, plus many other varied events, and you
are literally underneath Tower Bridge, keep walking and you are now in Shad Thames,
a true delight of traffic-free, cobbled streets full of people, giving you a precise
feeling of how the London streets felt hundreds of years ago. It is as if these
streets have been restored from long ago, thus delivering to the traveller a
wonderfully rich blend of old and new in the same vicinity. Circle around Shad
Thames, past the ever-changing Design-Museum, and find yourself in Butlers Wharf, a
charming quay-side collection of bars & restaurants all overlooking the Thames
opposite the equally picturesque St Katherine’s Dock. Trust me when I tell you that
Butlers Wharf is the ultimate in romantic settings.
Hays Galleria to Butlers Wharf is one walk of quite possibly hundreds to choose
from, in fact – that’s a whole day right there! There are equal delights even if you
turned left out of Hay’s Galleria instead, especially the Clink Street Prison
Museum, Vinopolis (Wine Museum), Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, I could go
Great streets, great walks, great museums (forget the big-ones – go to the
Children’s museum in Bethnal Green for a real treat). It is frustrating to think
that the bulk of visitors to London wind up staying in some of the least interesting
areas. Paddington & Bayswater are both great areas, being so close to Hyde Park &
Kensington Gardens (now home to the finally-completed Princess Diana shrine).
Kensington & Earls Court have their highlights too, but there is more to London than
the tried and tested tourist routes.
I recently stayed in a five star hotel in the middle of the city on the weekend for
less than one hundred pounds a night, and was amazed at exactly how completely empty
the city of London was. I was in heaven! There I was in the middle of one of the
oldest cities around, and I had it all to myself! City hotels are notorious for
being completely empty on weekends, hence the great rates. I am sure tourists pay
over the hundred pounds per night threshold to stay in ‘trendy’ Kensington etal,
when they could easily stay next to Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, Millennium Bridge etc,
for much less.
Needless to say that the City of London (the financial center) is absolutely
colored with history, everywhere you go there are buildings proclaiming their 16th
century origins, and they are in abundance.
I was recently taken to what is supposedly one of the oldest London pubs in
existence. Again, this pub is not only hidden from the guidebooks and the common
information sources, it is also hidden from the public! I had to be taken there, as
I would never have been able to find it unless accompanied. This pub is hidden from
the world. It is sandwiched between two narrow streets and therefore completely
obscured from any main thoroughfare. It has its own courtyard and as you stand
supping a pint outside, it is as if you are in Victorian London. Look down the
misty streets and it is easy to conjure up an old bobby on the beat blowing his
whistle, or Jack the Ripper lurking in the shadows. Oh - and there’s a 150 year old
tree growing through the building, to add to the oddity of the pub.
Hampstead is another great area waiting to be discovered. Covered in green spaces,
Hampstead (North London) is perfect for the idyllic setting combined with the close
proximity to the big-smoke. Steeped in its own folklore, Hampstead was home to Dick
Turpin (apparently he was born at the Spaniard’s Inn – hugely popular and famous pub
on the Heath) of which his ghost still roams Kenwood house, and the surrounding
woodlands. The high streets of Hampstead, Belsize Park, and the immaculately kept
Primrose Hill are possibly the last untouched-by-commercialism streets in London (no
Starbucks here!). If you want breath-taking views of the city, historical sites
detailing the ‘first entry point into London’, combined with al-fresco dining, and
an altogether more relaxed atmosphere, Hampstead is the place, and less than 15
minutes on the tube to the city center! Now do you see why it seems frustrating that
tourists stay in less desirable areas when they could stay in an altogether more
inspiring location, just as close to all the major attractions?
Of course, Hampstead is one of London’s many beauty spots, yet the city is not all
about beauty. As with any home to approximately 10 million people, varied activity
is rife. London events cannot help but affect all, every Londoner has an opinion on
the congestion zone, on the ill-fated Millennium Dome, on Tony Blair, in fact on any
topic you care to mention. Start a conversation with any London black-cab driver –
typically famous for their outspoken views, and you will find yourself immediately
thrown into the debate of the day.
So, when visiting London do not even attempt to see it all – you cannot.
In a city where already this year a Roman road has been uncovered a mile below
ground level dating back to 1 AD, and where Paddington workers uncovered Brunel’s
first iron-bridge – one they didn’t know existed - London is forever creating
wonders on a regular basis.