You are now / In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow / At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore / Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more / Yet in its depth what treasures!
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Treasures, no doubt, everywhere one looks, hugging the banks of the River Thames, round every street corner another surprise and yet one more delightful encounter with history. I’ll confess to having made it around the world before stepping foot in Great Britain. One might wonder why not and then why now? Simply because I never had a real desire other than vaguely thinking I’d eventually like to meander through the Romantic poet’s Lake District and perhaps rugged, stoic Scotland. Unexpectedly, very recently I received an invitation to visit London and although somewhat hesitant by the late autumn timing and the British Isles reputation for dismal rain and fog, I agreed and a very good thing too. As it turned out I was blessed (it’s the appropriate word) with sumptuous weather, daily sunshine and temperatures in the high teens (Celsius, of course) and encountered a hitherto unsuspected English ‘charm’, is that too much to say? The city core itself is a vast repository of historic buildings, great cathedrals and churches, world class museums and art galleries, wide avenues with lively squares and of course loud, friendly pubs.
(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
The storied River Thames provides a watery highway through a cultural landscape of scope and splendour where the modern cohabits with ancient pride.
My friend was a delightful companion on some forays but by unavoidable circumstances I was left to fend on my own for the most part and found the transportation system efficient, clean and thanks to the clever ‘Oyster Pass’, easy on the pocket (take note Vancouver). In the centre background, the unmistakeable Horatio Nelson statue dominates Trafalgar Square
From Blackheath Village (neighbouring Greenwich Village) where I was graciously hosted, Charring Cross Station became my daily destination, once there I could decide on where I might transfer to take the ‘tube’ (subway) or stroll to one of the numerous great sites within an eye-pleasing stroll. A look at the front entrance facing The Strand and one from the bridge side over The Thames, quite a contrast in architectural style over the years of wartime bomb damage and modern needs.
Let me take you on a visual tour of what London has to offer and what I can offer is by no means exhaustive. As a matter of fact, I’ll admit to already planning a second visit perhaps next spring just so I can see and experience what time constraints this time around made impossible. In fact, my first good look at London came five minutes from the station when I discovered double-deck buses were the norm in London and not a tourist conveyance. Notice too I’m still wearing the same clothes as on the airplane; I long ago discovered that dressing up just a touch always, but always gets you better service when you need it from airline staff. Naturally, that was the last time I was so sartorial until the return flight. Sure, it’s not as comfortable as wearing a t-shirt and loose jeans but the small discomfort is worth a lot more including once being up-graded to business class when the economy class seats had been over-booked only because I looked like I might belong. When I explained, with a glint in her eyes my hostess (a voracious book consumer) piped up it was proof the cover didn’t make the book. Cynical but true.
As my first full day in town was bright and sunny we decided, rather my guide did, that we’d visit an authentic area in East London, specifically the Columbia Road Flower Market and in the same vicinity amble on to Brick Lane Road where we could lunch on fast but tasty international foods.
A word to the wise; here as elsewhere extreme caution must be exercised in crowded urban venues as pickpockets prey on wide-eyed tourists and relaxed locals. Unfortunately, the pleasure of the flower market was marred by the realization my companion had had her smart phone expertly filched out of her coat pocket. Upon discovering this, perhaps within five minutes, we managed to make a phone call to her phone but already it had been ‘disabled’, thus proving it had not been inadvertently dropped but stolen and a new chip already inserted. Of course, the next twenty minutes were frantic as Ara had to cancel several sites, including email address and bank account from her device. To date, a month later, nothing untoward has happened other than the cost of replacement and the sour taste left behind to having been literally ripped-off directly from her pocket.
I’ll hasten to say that London is not any worse than other large cities. I’ve been targeted just outside the Vatican, up a famed mosque minaret in India (the low-lifes do not respect sacred places), at the Hong Kong airport and the Paris ‘métro’ station to the famed ‘Marché aux Puces’ (Flea Market) and each time was spared the loss of money and my pride too since I was well prepared for the eventuality of such contemptible encounters. A pox on those who ruin people’s holidays by stealing rather than earning an honest living in one fashion or other.
Let me offer a bit of advice here. First of all I was warned in Rome and in Paris about the very real threat I might encounter around these places, so take seriously a local’s word of caution; and in Asia I was clever enough to wear a thin belly belt my mother had made and insisted I wear, and thank God I did too. I’ll further admit that I now always wear one on any foreign trip and feel much better for knowing my passport, my wallet with vital documents and money as well are basically stored in an unassailable fortress. If a reprobate was bold enough to try to forage in there I’d rip his hands off! So now you’ve been advised – don’t leave home and behave like a ‘never-been-anywhere cluck’, it really is easy to avoid such misery even if in the case of a man it’s a little less than macho. As for women, you all know about the perils of a handbag being ripped off your shoulders or the insecurity of shallow pockets in fashionable coats – I need not belabour the point anymore, right?
This fellow’s shirt was in keeping with the general ambiance, you’ll agree.
At any rate it had been a pleasure to check out the fragrant array of potted flowers and varieties of tropical plants; perhaps more fun was the incessant sales patter of the ruddy-faced hawkers. I’m always on the look-out for interesting faces and I had a field day here. This jolly chap was happy to oblige when I politely asked to take his pic. See for yourself. Wouldn’t you like to hoist a mug or two with this friendly fellow? I would.
And this clever fellow while selling tons of flowers kept a large audience laughing loudly at his non-stop witty chatter. It was almost an obligation to buy after being entertained so well.
Okay, I admit to being tickled pink to encounter an English ‘Bobby’ wearing the classic, authentic Custodian helmet with his elegant partner, notice the spiffy hat and tie. I had to have my pic taken with the obliging duo at the entrance to cheery Brick Lane Road who I’m sure must pose countless times throughout the day. True enough as soon as they indulged me several others lined up for the same and they submitted with a smile every time. Lovely!
Hot Malay dishes for a really skinny price. I could spend every day there for a week and not run out of appetizing choices.
I must comment on the double-decker bus – while the vehicle was moving getting on and climbing to the top deck was problematic while the vehicle was moving and once sitting down I still felt as if aboard a small boat riding atop rough waves. Still, from above you get a great view, as good as taking one of the multitude of tour buses for a fraction the cos; moreover I liked the idea of spending time with Londoners doing their thing, more often than not texting on smart-phones and not gawking out the window.
Riding a bus in London and simply looking out the window is a great way to see what there is to see, fast, easy and cheaply! Numerous cranes are a sure indication of how vibrant and thriving a city is while building and renewing itself.
If you can get yourself seated at the front of the bus its much like being in the front seat of a balcony in the theatre.
The London Eye is a giant observation Ferris Wheel centrally erected on the South Bank of the Thames to celebrate the second Millenium. The structure is 135 metres (443 ft) tall and the wheel has a diameter of 120 metres (394 ft). The project was a complex undertaking with components built in six European countries and then assembled in a most unusual fashion, section by section barged in, set flat on pontoons in the river and when complete then raised standing by degrees. (It’s a fascinating story, check it out on the web.) Dominating from almost every angle it is very much like the Tour Eiffel in Paris. The idea is simple enough; provide a spectacular view of the city from the vantage point of a spacious gondola that accommodates 25 people, either sitting or walking around. Each revolution takes 30 minutes and I’m told the view is a spectacular 360 degree panorama as far as the eye can see or weather permits, sometimes a challenge in ‘foggy old London’. I didn’t see for myself as impatient (as always) the three times I checked there was at the very least an hour-long waiting queue. Oh well, next time. It took me about 2 dozen semi-serious attempts to go up the Eiffel Tower and finally some years ago on a clear day surprisingly there was no line-up; the opportunity was too good to miss. I admired the unrestricted view of the great sites, near and far, but contrary to my enthusiasm my companion wasn’t impressed: “I’m not thrilled,” Hélène stated. When I foolishly asked why she seriously answered: “I can’t see the Eiffel Tower!” That was good for a laugh but since she always associated Paris with the tower’s omnipresence it also strangely made sense, maybe.
When I say it’s seen from every angle of London, I’m not exaggerating. Here it’s seen from as far away as near Buckingham Palace, (taken with a 12x zoom lens) but still it’s there, the appropriately named ‘Eye’; as well as beyond Trafalgar Square.
Two different angles depicts the immense wheel’s ‘Mécano-like’ construction.
Let me introduce you to self-styled ‘Mister England’. A friendly sort who danced, mimed and chatted up tourists to entice them inside the indoor shopping emporium. I rather fancied his patter and general bonhomie and asked how he liked his job, “Luvvv it mate! Best job in the world.” I wish I could reproduce the priceless accent but how in writing?
I told you he was genuinely friendly and I had no doubt he indeed luvved his job. I’d like to recall the name of the street somewhere near Piccadilly Circus (or perhaps not) so that you too could wish him well.
What is more symbolic of London than Big Ben? Other than one’s favourite pub, I can’t think of anything else. I’ll take my leave for now but there’s so much more to share with you that I’ll return with another post in a week or two. I don’t want to overburden you with too much and London certainly has a lot of that quality. In many respects it really is, “Too, too much!” OY! I’ll leave you for now. See you soon – Ta Ta and Tallyho!