London has evolved into a huge city, but it is made up from lots of villages that have fused together. And these areas still have very distinct characters.
For those visiting London for more than a few days, or for those who have been before but want to expand their knowledge of it, why not get the bus or tube out to some of the characterful areas that lie beyond the central West End? In these parts you see more of real London, areas that have fascinating histories yet are places where Londoners live and work. For the purposes of this article, the areas discussed are in north London, within very easy reach of central London.
Regent’s Park is one of London’s finest royal parks and it is very close to Camden and Primrose Hill. It is easy to get to the park from the West End. From the top of Regent’s Street, take the C2 bus to Camden and get off by Regent’s Park. Or if there is time, walk up Regent’s Street, carry on up Portland Place, past BBC Broadcasting House, and on to where it reaches the main arterial Marylebone Road. Cross the road into the Outer Circle and straight ahead lie the delicious green acres of Regent’s Park. Walk up through the park until you come to a right turning into Camden. But it is advisable to give Regent’s Park plenty of time because it is lovely. It is flat, with acres of grass on which children can kick a ball to their heart’s content without bothering anyone. There are boating lakes, three cafes, magnificent flower borders, a bandstand, an open-air theater, fountains, adventure playgrounds. It also has the charming gated Queen Mary’s Rose Garden. Regent’s Park has a genteel sophistication. It is a clean, fresh, very smart public park ,where people seem to behave well. It is rare to see yobbish behavior here. Indeed, it is the park equivalent of cucumber sandwiches at the Ritz.
Oh, and London Zoo (entrance to which is, be warned, prohibitively expensive) is also on the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park. (Regent’s Park has a big circular road all around it, called the Outer Circle. It also has an inner road, called..yes, the Inner Circle..think of a small wheel without a larger wheel). London Zoo has lost its larger animals to out -of-town wildlife parks, but it does have a komodo dragon and plenty of reptiles..in cages, thank heavens. Visitors will also see flamingos, camels, and lots of apes. But as with all zoos, the question is raised… why are these poor creatures cooped up here?
Camden is not terribly exciting in the week, indeed the high street is downright dreary. But at the top end, near the canal, is the area known as Camden Market and at weekends this place is pulsating with people. Older people are not so enamoured with Camden Market but young people seem to adore it. The stalls seem decidedly old-fashioned in their choice of merchandise…punk rock gear, hippie gear, chunky Latin American knits, cheap and tacky clothing, and the look of the place has not changed in 30 years. But it is thronging with life and it is fun for those in the mood to move with the crowds.
A mere half a km from Camden lies Primrose Hill. Walk to the top of the hill and a fabulous view of London awaits. Many film scenes have been shot here, so it will seem familiar. At the bottom of the hill is Primrose Hill village, which has huge and lovely houses painted in myriad pastel shades, and a shopping street with small boutique shops. Shoe lovers must visit Spice Shoes, which has very idiosyncratic footwear. There are excellent clothes shops and lots of cafes. Charming, expensive, it is part of London everyone would love to live in.
Hampstead and Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Village is about two kms up from Primrose Hill. Take the Northern Line tube to Hampstead or get a bus up either Fitzjohn’s Avenue or Haverstock Hill, depending on which direction the visitor is coming from. Hampstead is a busy shopping area, with ritzy clothes shops, cafes and restaurants. It is upmarket, with Georgian and Victorian and Modernist architecture. It is on a hill, Freud lived there, it has the Keat’s Museum.
And it is close to Hampstead Heath, a very large area of heathland. Hampstead Heath is described as the lungs of London. Parts of it are wild, it has the Kenwood House estate (with summer music concerts on the lawns), and its highest point is the top of Parliament Hill, which affords expansive views. It is easy to wile away two or three hours on the heath. There is also a big swimming lido on the heath and several ponds which are fine for swimming in. If you don’t mind brown water. And the thought of rodents scuttling in the undergrowth…
Moving west from the West End is Little Venice, known for its colourful barges on the canal. Get on a barge and enjoy a trip down the Regent’s Canal to London Zoo, or on to Camden Market. Huge houses, some boutique shops. Very pretty.
Hugely trendy. The new British Prime Minister David Cameron lived here before moving to Downing Street. Wonderful houses, very fashionable shops. Portobello Market. Spend a day here.
Heading east from the West End is Islington. It used to be grotty but is now very smart. Upper Street is its main and very long shopping street, with excellent shops. It runs from Angel to Highbury Corner and it takes about 40 minutes to walk along it. Also home to the Business Design Centre and the Almeida Theatre. Not to mention the popular Ottolenghi cafe/restaurant. Prepare to queue, but it’s worth it.
In the East End, Columbia Road is a more working class area, famous for its glorious weekend flower market. Close to Spitalfields, Brick Lane, and the City.