Whenever I visit London, I feel slightly guilty. As only a mother can, London makes me feel as if I should visit more regularly, call more often and let her know how I am. However, she also always opens her sooty, noisy arms to welcome home her prodigal son and I return her love a hundred fold. She understands I need to travel, I have other things to do, people to see and that my life is, for now, outside her embrace. However, she does insist I share her with the world and think of her often, so I intend to do just that, returning her love for me in the best way I can and writing about the delights of London- the mother of all cities.
London can be expensive and your wallet considerably lighter when you return than when you arrive. However, in these days of credit crunch, when many of us are watching the pennies there are ways and means to enjoy London without breaking the bank.
First, arm yourself with a travel card covering zones 1-4 and the days you are there. If you intend to stick to the central areas, get just zones 1-2 but if you intend to go a bit further East or West, it is cheaper to get a single travel card covering all the zones you will need.
Now you have the freedom of the city, enjoy it to the full. Be a visitor, not a tourist. A tourist is someone who does not know how to see London cheaply, who pays for the open bus tours, who eats at the chain restaurants and pays far more than they should to travel. A visitor is one who is welcome, drinks in the noises, smells and sights yet pays very little in the way of cash (though not in the way of the heart) for the privilege.
First, go to London Bridge and walk across to Borough Market if you are there on A Saturday or Tuesday. You can taste various samples of food, buy cheap snacks and hear the hustle and bustle of a working market, though one which also caters for the diverse tastes of visitors from all over the world. Here you will see, in the tumbly, crushed together but organized tangles of stalls, makers and creators from all over the UK selling the very best in meat, veg, drunks and home made treats . You won’t find trinkets or London gifts here however – these are for ransom near the bridge itself.
Sit in the churchyard of Southwark cathedral which is right by the market, and enjoy lunch of a simple roll, piece of cheese and a drink for around three pounds – along with all the tempting tasters you can try in the market, you should find you need nothing more for a while.
Then, take the Thames Path West – this starts just behind the main market by the cathedral- along the banks of the river Thames the artery which breathes life into the city. Watch the London Eye slowly turn, skirt the Golden Hind in her dry dock and walk along to Tate Modern on your left. This huge ex power plant now houses some of the most wonderful art collections in the world and at its center is the turbine hall where the latest installation will be. Today, it is a silent film shown on a massive screen using original celluloid film, showing domestic images simply to reflect on the demise of proper film techniques. Use the lavatories there which are free ( the ones in Borough Market are also free but you will queue). Public loos are 30 p a go in London so take advantage when you can.
Cross the Millennium bridge and you will see St Paul’s Cathedral ahead. Currently, the front square is occupied by a tent village of protestors who offer banter about the capitalist state as you wander past. They are largely good natured and have become an attraction in themselves. Wonder at St Paul’s but do not pay the entrance fee (I am taking you to a free church later).
Take the number 15,8 or 11 bus and forget about the paying bus tours. These public buses all offer a brilliant way to see the sights including Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Whitehall, Downing Street, The Mall itself and central Parliament areas for a fraction of the cost of a tour. You also avoid that interminable delivery of the tour guide, who has seen the sights a thousand times before.
An even better bus but one which takes a while is the number 24, starting at Victoria and going all the way to Hampstead Heath, passing all the sights plus Camden Town and several interesting quarters in London like the Greek area of Chalk Farm, sights like Camden Market, The Electric Ballroom venue, World’s End pub (famous as pre-gig drinks venues for bands) and many other places of note.
Get off in Trafalgar Square and see the fountains and lions for free. Now, for something to eat. The cafes and restaurants here are expensive but there is a little island amongst the chic and trendy and that is St Martin’s in the Fields Crypt Cafe.
Not only can you get a very decent lunch including drinks , sandwiches, soups and rolls for under five pounds but you get free water, ice and loos thrown in. It is rarely crowded and sometimes they have jazz concerts going on or other musical interludes whilst you eat. It is a hidden gem in the bustle and noise and is found on the East side of Trafalgar Square. The Church itself is also worth a visit.
Across the square you will see Westminster Abbey and snuggled at its base the parliament church of St Margarets. Westminster Abbey costs around £13 to enter but there is a small sign which says the church will never charge worshipers so aim to get there around 3pm and go to evensong, entered via the West door. This is such a gift and you get to attend a short service where the world famous choir sing, the organists plays sublimely and the acoustics within the chapel are simply amazing. The Church is welcoming and visitors can enter the service for free. Get their early because it is limited seating although they try to accommodate as many as possible. You also get to view many of the attractions on your way out like tombs of many poets, prime ministers and kings and queens and, the coronation chair and the famous tomb of the unknown warrior by the entrance.
For a few hours to spare, aim for The National Portrait gallery or any of the galleries dotted around the square. Entry to these and museum is free, though donations are expected but the range suits anybody’s tastes so they are worth a visit.
If you have had the chance to book beforehand you can take a (free) guided tour to Big Ben. Book through your parliamentary office in your locality (UK residents) and they will escort you along with around 20 others right to the top of Big Ben.You can see the bells, put the ear plugs in as they chime, feel the reverberation of the ‘Big Ben’ bell itself and see London from a really high viewpoint.
If you come in the first weekend of November the Lord Mayor’s Show is an amazing carnival and floats pass by from every part of London life including the masonic lodges, the guilds, various arts, crafts and districts and many many organizations have floats, all to celebrate the inauguration of the new mayor of London.
If you have time and energy left, get on the tube and go to Hampstead Heath. Though you really need a day to see the heath (and there is another article on this place coming up), Hampstead provides a real breath of fresh air in London, walks in the woods, open meadows, parakeets flying free and lakes. It is a quick tube trip and fifteen minute walk to the Heath the other end but Hampstead itself is a wonderful place for an evening.
If you stay in the heart of London, for a cheap meal, go to Leicester Square by tube and then walk to George Street and China Town. Buffet meals costs around 6 pounds and you will be more than satisfied. You can choose from all you can eat buffets for around6 pounds plus drinks or a slightly more diverse platter for about 15 pounds. One to try is Won Quai’s whose waiters offer the rudest service in London bv the most delicious Chinese food. Chinese people hold bowls up for refills of rice but if you try it, your hand will tire unless you look oriental. One particular place for a cheap feast, Mr Woos, sits on a corner and you can sit in the window, stuffing your face for £6.50 and see Shaftsbury Avenue with its many theaters on one side and Wardour Street the other.
After your meal, wander up Wardour Street and see how many nationalities you can hear, see in the shops and restaurants and in the people you pass. This has to be one of the most interesting and diverse streets in London and is crammed full of interesting shops, tiny boutiques, stalls and larger shops selling a range of goods originating from every corner of the globe. If you can, wander back to Covent Garden for free flow shows (buskers) and stalls , crafts and many characters. Buskers have to undergo strict rules and be of a certain standard so you get a far better show then elsewhere and, if you can bear not to give, it costs nothing.
Find a bus stop and take the number 8 or 15 to Liverpool Street Station or Bank Junction for the city at night. This is a surreal experiencer and you can see the normally bustling, busy and noisy city of London (all one Square mile of her) at its best. Gone now are the bankers, the finance dealers and traders and instead comes a sort of peace, through traffic only and the tallest buildings outside of docklands. Marvel at the lights of the massive 100 Bishopsgate as they soar into the sky, see the Shard as she nears completion and wonder at the propensity of the Lloyd Building. Watch the lift of the blue-lighted building opposite the nat West |tower (as was, now some other corporate name but you can’t miss it) and catch your breath at the speed of the ascent – outside the building.
Get a sense of the opulence at 110 Bishopsgate when you peek in the windows and see a reception area bigger than some airport lounges and the largest aquarium you can imagine, full of exotic fish at the back. The Credit Crunch seems to have missed The City somehow and the sense of affluence is palpable. However, you are also likely to see one or two people of the streets gleaning the leftovers of the rich and frivolous and behind the facades of some of the buildings lie glimpses into the less salubrious worlds of the back streets of the East End.
The trick in the City of London square mile is to look up – many of the modern looking buildings are facades and above the shops and arcades are signs of an older, historic London when people lived in the heart of the city rather than the suburbs. There may be the sign for an old school, there is an old fire station sign next door to the police station on Bishopsgate, over the KFC shop and the sign for Dirty Dicks pub is still there – a reminder that Jack The Ripper once stalked these streets.
London has so much to offer and you do not have to be rich to enjoy her delights. Here is but a glimpse of the gifts and delights she offers for free, There are so many more but you will find some for yourself and if in doubt – ask a Londoner! London is made oup of many villages, all clumped around Tech City and each area is special , has its own character and the people generally friendly. The rules are to know where you are, how to get home and open your heart.
Simply take yourself, the cost of your train ticket and a couple of simple meals and London will embrace, welcome and revive your spirits. One final word of warning – never underestimate the power of London. In a couple of days you will see but a glimpse of her diverse and full life. You will ever, ever visit without wanting to go back – guaranteed!!