Feet on the Ground in London
On a few occasions, my bicontinental trail has taken me through London, “through” being the operative word. The driver of Electric-Blue has no qualms with inner-city driving, but all too often I am on the point-and-glimpse tour en route to some other destination. See that building? Westminster Abbey. Over to your left – quick! The Tower! Aw, you missed it. Hold on you’ll get a glimpse of the Eye as we cross London Bridge… Suffice it to say; I had yet to stop and explore on my terms.
When I found myself with a week to spare, I left the Netherlands behind and flew to Gatwick to meet my friend Shannon, who flew in from Canada on one of those budget airlines that don’t serve food. We scrounged up some greasy fries, bought Oyster Cards, and boarded a train to the city. No time to waste!
Oyster Cards, London’s version of a transit pass, put us in the same league as the locals. With a tap, we could board busses, trains, river-boats, and the metro. This was the first step in effectively shrinking London to a very manageable size.
Tap! First stop Hyde Park. The park was out in the boonies until a couple of centuries ago when London flowed around it filling up the gaps between the small boroughs and neighbourhoods, claiming them for her own. The result? It is now rather central. Once, a hunting ground for King Henry VIII, it was opened to the gentry about 400 years ago by James I. While I’m not technically gentry, I walked through the iron gates with confidence and looked around for my mount.
The Santander Cycles, bikes for public use are lined up in rows like soldiers at docking stations all over the city. Cycling would get us around above ground quicker than walking, and it sounded like fun! Hyde Park was the perfect place to get us started with miles of pathways for us to practice our “peddle on the left” mantra before heading out into the busy London traffic. I pushed in my credit card into the station and pulled a bike from the rack. We were both sold the concept immediately. We peddled off toward Marble Arch (peddle on the left, peddle on the left) to find a bus tour.
Our first splurge was the hop-on-hop-off bus. I know, touristy, right? I hear you; it’s not usually my thing either. But this was my first trip to London, and I wanted to get oriented both verbally and geographically for the coming week. While the theory is to jump on and off, our guide was funny and informative, so we opted to stay aboard for a whole circuit. Looking back on the week, we agreed this was the best way to start our adventure.
It didn’t take us long to realize that dining out on a budget in London is disappointingly mediocre. This was a problem; we both love good food. We called an emergency meeting and changed our tact. Saving our dining-out bucks for the occasional top-notch restaurant splurge (our fave, Ottolengi’s in Islington), we turned to the neighbourhood markets for our main food focus. Borough Market became our favourite haunt, and we were always close by using the speedy London tube. “We can be at the Borough in 15 minutes – let’s go!” Tap. It’s a lovely old and atmospheric place, chalk full of artisan booths serving an array of international ready-to-eat takeaway breads, cheeses, cooked meats and sweets, alongside several street-food style kiosks serving tasty hot meals at a fraction of the cost of restaurants. We frequented other markets too; Camden Market has a busy and rustic atmosphere with mingling aromas that tempted us ever deeper into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds lining up at the mishmash of stalls serving irresistible meals from huge pans and hot grills; The Portobello Road market is perfect for some impromptu grocery shopping. We wandered along the market stalls weighing fresh tomatoes in our hands and tasting olives and cheeses from faraway places as we gathered up the ingredients for a picnic. Hunting down our next market-meal became a highlight of our trip, it was fun! And, it was the most satisfying way to eat our way through London.
With transport and food organized, we jotted down our list of must-sees and freebies; Show tickets, a few historical sights, Harrods food floor, the changing of the guard, a guided walk through the West End and Soho, and not the least of our goals, experience some local culture. Right, off to the pub to think this through. The pub is the backbone of London neighbourhood culture, and we wanted to experience as many of the diverse "neighbourhoods" as possible. And, we quickly realized pubs are the best place to spend those few minutes between docking one bike, and the system allowing you to take another. Local culture was easy. Check! Next, the ticket booth in Leicester Square, where the expert staff talked us through our possibilities for shows in the West End, helping us to drill-down to something that would suit our mood and our budget. Tickets in hand, we began to weave our coming week around our new commitments, balancing our budget and our pace, and keeping an open mind to unexpected experiences.
London in a week, feasible or frustrating? Here’s the thing. The list of what I didn’t see and do is long, that's true! But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that London is no longer an enigma for me. I have a favourite British cider-on-tap and I might be able to tell you which pub serves the best meat pies in town. I know how to find my way from Notting Hill to Buckingham Palace by bicycle in 20 minutes flat, and I’d choose the art-deco oyster bar in Harrods over a walk-through of the dingy rooftop terrace at Selfridges any day. I can confirm that there are no bad seats in the Criterion theatre, that I don’t ever have to see another codpiece that belonged to King Henry the VIII, and that the quiet overseers in the rooms of Kensington Palace are a wealth of knowledge, but you have to ask. Using a few tools, we shrunk London to a size that worked for us in the time frame that we had, so London wasn't just feasible in a week, it was fantastic!
Hover over the pictures (or choose landscape on mobile) for more on my week in London.