“when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” Samuel Johnson 1777
What on earth would Johnson make of London now?
I used to work and live in London. My three children were born there. Then, because of Alan’s work, we moved to America. In the states we lived in Darien, a rather fabulous commuter town an hour from New York City. Since coming to Copenhagen a year ago (also Alan’s work) I have loved how easy it is to hop on a flight; I can be back in the UK in a matter of hours. When I return to London it is normally to visit my gorgeous friends in Wimbledon or my lovely sister who lives in Orpington.
However, this time, I came as a tourist.
My dear friend Felicia (the one from the Cape), called to tell me she was unexpectedly coming to London. I had already planned my trip to see her at the Cape. Now, only days later, I would have the chance to hang out with her in London. I had always promised that if she was ever visiting my old home town I would join her and show her around. On my return from America, I repacked my bags and flew to London. It’s a hard life!
I love London.
Sadly New York has never done it for me. (I know, I know!) Over the years Felicia has had to listen to me disparage one of her favourite cities on a regular basis. I was excited to be meeting my good mate in Great Britain. Finally I was going to have a chance to show her why the skyscrapers and buzz of a relatively new NYC would never match the history, majesty and beauty of my 2,000 year old capital city.
Like New York, London is a world cultural capital. It too leads the way in arts, commerce, education, entertainment, fashion, finance, healthcare and media. With almost 9 million people living in the greater London area, speaking 300 languages, the city has a diverse range of people and cultures.
However London and the Thames are inseparable in a way that NYC and the Hudson are not. So much of London centres around the water and the many gorgeous bridges that crisscross the Thames. There has been a London Bridge since 50 AD when the Romans founded Londinium, although the most recent incarnation dates only from 1973. Tower Bridge is probably the most fabulous. The newest is the Millennium Bridge, which was officially opened by the Queen and is also known as the wobbly bridge. It stared in ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’ and can be seen being destroyed by death eaters. Don’t worry, it is still there!
Travel in London
Before all the bridges were built, the most common way to travel in London was by boat. Felicia and I decided that our first adventure would be to catch the water bus at Westminster and take it as far as the Tower of London. The water bus is part of the excellent London Transport system and you can pay for it with your Oyster Card. Love my Oyster card. It is a credit card sized card that you can load with money then use to travel around all 6 London Zones and beyond. The total you pay for any one day of travel within the six zones is capped; the most I paid was £6 for a day of unlimited travel. You can preorder a card or just pick one up when you arrive at the airport. The water bus cost an additional £6.50 but was much cheaper than the tourist boats offering the same journey.
Tower of London
As the boat nears the Tower of London you see the words ‘Traitor’s Gate’ written on the walls. The Tower has a long and bloody history and it rarely ended well if you were brought to the tower through that gate. Anne Boleyn, Thomas Moore, Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh are probably among the Bloody Tower’s most famous guests, but many were taken to be tortured and beheaded during the centuries.
City of London
In all my years in London I had never visited the Tower of London. I had no idea that it was only about ten minutes from where I used to work in the City. You can see how close it is, as the Gerkin, one of the latest whacky buildings to appear in the city skyline , looms in the background . The City is the oldest part of London but has seen a lot of changes since I left the UK. It now has a Gerkin, a Cheese Grater, a Walkie Talkie and the Shard.
Tate Modern and the Globe
Day two we arranged to meet at the Tate Modern. It was chucking it down as I walked from the tube station and I will confess I had a slight sense of humour failure until I dried out. On the plus side I did get this amazing, no filter, photo of the Wobbly Bridge with St Paul’s in the background.
The Tate Modern is massive. It is slightly austere ,as befits an art gallery in a repurposed power station. In keeping with London’s no charge policy, entry is free but some of exhibits require you to buy a ticket. The Tate Modern is known for its often contentious take on ‘Art’, through its annual installation competition The Turner Prize. Winning entries have included an unmade bed and a pile of bricks and …. Other exhibits are less challenging.
Two minutes away, on the same side of the river, we found the Globe. It is a full size replica of Shakespeare’s famous open air theatre, which was built after many years of research. We took one of the tours and had a chance to watch a dress rehearsal for an upcoming play Boudica (its mostly Shakespeare, obviously, but they experiment with other plays ). We were thrilled to recognise Gina McKee from ‘Notting Hill; in the lead role. On the tour we learnt that the theatre was on the opposite side from the city of London as Shakespeare’s plays were regarded as too common and lowbrow to take place in the city itself.
Radio and STK
In the evening we met with some old friends and went for pre dinner drinks at the trendy rooftop bar Radio. It must have one of the best views in town. Sadly I was so busy talking I completely forgot to take any photographs until it was dark.
Afterwards we went for dinner at STK, the American steak restaurant in the same building. There was a fun party atmosphere in the restaurant but as we looked around we realised we were the oldest people in the room. I have been aware in Copenhagen that I am often the oldest. It seems London is no different, and that would be because sadly I am old! Obviously that did not stop me joining in the dancing and at one stage doing tequila shots with my new young friends. Those photographs are not for public consumption.
The next morning, after fortifying ourselves with some excellent bacon and sausages sandwiches and a cup of tea from Marks and Spencer’s, we set out to explore Hyde Park. At one end of the park we found Kensington Palace, the former home of Princess Diana. In the Palace there is an exhibition of Diana’s clothes. Tickets can be booked in advance although a limited number are available on the day.
The weekend of our visit marked the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. Flowers once again were being laid at the gates of the palace. I remember going and laying a bouquet 20 years ago. At that time the flowers covered a vast area of the park. (Whilst I remember I can thoroughly recommend the film ‘The Queen’ with the excellent Helen Mirren, which is about that terribly sad time and the extraordinary public reaction to the death of the People’s Princess.)
There is now a beautiful white garden there which has been created in Diana’s memory.
I dragged Alan and Robert my son all the way to the Diana Memorial Playground where I remember taking Robert when he was little. Sensibly the park is gated and only allows adults if they have children. At 23, Robert no longer qualifies. Outside there is a clock tower with the works ‘Time Flies’. As if I need any reminding!
We walked the length of Hyde Park and saw the preparations for the BBC 2’s Last Night of The Proms. The Concert itself was taking place that evening in the Royal Albert Hall but it is streamed live to large screens in Hyde Park. Early in the morning queues were already forming for the open air concert. As is traditional we saw lots of Union Jacks and people in fancy dress. We were promised at a party in Wimbledon otherwise I would have loved to experience the party atmosphere off the proms, especially the singing!
Houses of Parliament
Our next stop was the Houses of Parliament. For this I had booked for us and my American friends. I can thoroughly recommend the guided tour. Our rather excellent guide walked us though the procedures for the State Opening of Parliamentary by Her Majesty the Queen. She also explained how the Lords and the Commons worked to ensure there were checks on laws and policy making. We were surrounded by the history of Great Britain. Although most of the buildings only date back to Queen Victoria’s reign there were rooms based on the Tudors, famous battles and even Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I felt very proud of being British and delighted my friends could be there.
We also learned about the Division Bell. Every so often when it is hard to ascertain how the members are voting they are asked to divide and make their way to two separate corridors where they can be physically counted. The signal for this division is the ringing of a bell. It is rung throughout Parliament and members have eight minutes to get themselves to the right spot. It is also rung in various hostelries around parliament. We felt obliged to check the last part of the story and retired to have a late lunch in one of the division pubs.
I think Samuel Johnson would be impressed with London. For lack of time we did not visit Buckingham palace, Churchill’s War rooms, Leadenhall Market or any other number of things we had planned for our trip. I cannot imagine ever running out of museums, art galleries and restaurants no matter how long your stay. At every turn we were delighted by London. There were so many beautiful little parks, streets and alleys to admire.
Between the Tower of London and the City we stumbled upon Borough Market, the scene of one the last attacks by terrorists, now back to it’s bustling self. Since our visit there has been an attack on the Tube, and my sympathy goes out to all those affected. When I lived in London, the IRA were bombing us. We did not let it affect us then and today the same holds true. After the last attacks a sign, apparently seen at a Tube station, was widely quoted by MPs and the Prime Minister The sign turned out to be fake, but everyone agreed that, regardless, it spoke for the whole country.
“All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON. And whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.’’