Well, I said that I would write my post on London once I got to Bangkok, and now, since I have some time to kill, I will honour what I said previously. Mind you, while I am writing this while in Bangkok when I get around to publishing it I certainly won’t be here namely because I always like to have my posts sit for a bit, and then come back to them and reread them (particularly for errors). Also, I generally upload photos and videos along with the post, and I certainly don’t have time to do that now. However, while you are reading this, just imagine that I am sitting in my hotel room in Bangkok writing it (even though at this point in time, that was over a year ago).
Well, what can I say about London. I guess the first thing is that London to me is very much like Bangkok. When I was first here I actually hated the place because the people were rather rude, and the hotel I was staying are was appalling. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice hotel it is just that the service was appalling, and there was definitely this class attitude among the staff. In fact, when I first arrived they told me that if I had any questions to go and ask to concierge, so I approached the concierge and asked him what the speed limit on the motorways was – his reply was basically ‘I don’t know’. In fact every question that I asked the concierge the reply was ‘I don’t know’ (and none of the questions happened to be ‘what is the speed of light in a vacuum’). I ended up crossing the road and going to the off license who ended up being much more helpful.
There are a couple of other things that come to mind as well – both London and Bangkok are cities criss-crossed by canals, the traffic in the inner city is absolutely horrendous, and London’s Mini-Cabs are similar to Bangkok’s Tut-Tuts. Mind you, Bangkok, like many of the other Asian cities, can be very cheap, or very expensive – London just has one category – expensive. Oh, and the weather in London is horrendous to the point that an umbrella is a fashion accessory, even in the middle of summer. As for Bangkok, it actually isn’t all that bad and the heat isn’t as stiffing as I expected.
The thing is that over time London has grown on me, and now has a special place in my heart. In a way it represents my heritage, once being the centre of the world, and the capital of one of the largest empires to have ever existed. The first time in London everywhere I looked I kept on seeing posters advertising Les Miserables (Les Mis, as we Australians call it), and the more I saw the poster the more I wanted to see it, but I simply didn’t have time that first time. However, a couple of years later the movie was released and I fell in love with the story so much that I booked tickets to fly over just to see the play (and then, six months later, it opened in Australia). That second time was nothing short of amazing.
You see, the first time in London I was in Barbican, at a hotel arranged by my travel agent, as useless as he was. The problem with travel agents is that they tend to only have a limited number of hotels to chose from, and they aren’t cheap. The other thing is that you never give them a budget because they will spend all of it, or at least that is what he did. These days I book my hotels on line, particularly since some of the sites (I use Expedia) have such a huge range that you are spoilt for choice. So, that second time I booked a small hotel in Bayswater which was nothing short of amazing. It was located in an old terrace house, and while the room was small, and breakfast expensive, it was conveniently located. In fact, every morning I would walk around to the stall just outside Queensbury Tube Station, buy a cup of tea, and then walk over the road and sit in front of the round pond drink my tea, read a book, and listen to either Pink Floyd or the Beatles.
Look, I’m not going to say that I am an expert on London, but I have at least one route in mind that will take you to the most famous sites if you have limited time to spare. You walk from Piccadilly Circus across to Leicester Square, down to Trafalgar Square, across to Embankment and check out Cleopatra’s needle. From there it is a short walk along the Thames to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, before heading to Buckingham Palace, St James Park, and finally Hyde Park and Marble Arch. That walk shouldn’t take you anytime at all (okay, maybe give yourself three hours or so). From there you can easily catch the tube to Tower Hill to see the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. By the way, Tower Bridge is the bridge that pretty much everybody who isn’t a Londoner calls London Bridge.
Yes, the Tube (or the Underground as it is properly known), is wonderful. Sure, it does get pretty crowded at peak times, but if all you need to do is travel around central London then it is incredibly convenient – there is literally a tube station within a short walking distance of practically everything (with the exception of Buckingham Palace, but then again I simply cannot imagine the Queen ever needing to catch the Tube, and even if she did, pretty much everybody on it would no doubt recognise her). Unless you are staying for an extended time all you need is a travel-card, which gives you unlimited trips (within a certain distance) all day.
I arrived in London on the Eurostar twice, namely because I have a thing for trains, especially fast trains, and two of the times I’ve been in Europe it was been an extended trip, which meant that before heading to London I would end up in Paris. The other time I arrived by plane, having flown out from Frankfurt. Mind you, I could have simply caught the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, and then to London, but I didn’t know that at the time. However, what was cool was that there is an Underground station at Heathrow on the Picadilly line, and as a friend once said, he loves catching the tube from Heathrow because it means that he is constantly reminded that the train terminates at ‘Cockfosters’. There is also the Heathrow Express, which is a tad pricey, but much faster. While I have never flown into Gatwick, I have been on one of the trains that passes through, and all I can say is good luck getting a seat. Then again, Gatwick is where all the low cost airlines fly into London. As for catching a taxi, don’t bother – they are really expensive. In all the times that I have been in London, I have caught a cab a grand total of thrice – twice to get from Kings Cross/St Pancras to the hotel (namely because I had my brother with me), and the third time because we needed to get to the Victoria Bus terminal in a hurry and some smart cookie decided to close down our local tube station.
Now, the wonderful thing about London is that pretty much all of the museums are free – The National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum – they are all free. Then again, the private museums, such as the Sherlock Holmes Museum among others, do have a cover charge (as does the Tower of London, but that is technically owned by the Queen as opposed to being public). As for the churches, well, they do want you to pay to go into them as well (they are also privately owned by the Church of England, which basically means that the Queen owns them, but come to think of it, I think that the Queen pretty much owns everything anyway). However, there is a way to get into them for free, and that is to simply go to one of the many worship services. Unfortunately, you won’t get to wander around them, and they also really don’t like you taking photographs inside either.
London is huge, and in fact you could come here and never get to see another part of England due to the number of things that you can do here. Two of the times I was here I did go for a trek out into the country side – once with a hire car and the third time by train to Brighton. The train isn’t cheap though, however having a car in London is a real hassle, especially since many of the hotels don’t have parking facilities. One of them I stayed at did, but they charged us for the privilege, and then proceeded to erect some scaffolding in that particular spot, causing me further annoyance (which is another reason why I hated that hotel). Oh, and there is also the congestion charge, which you have to pay if you happen to be driving in the inner city (as well as having to deal with some horrendous traffic).
Some people have suggested that London can be a little dangerous, but I never found that to be the case. Okay, I haven’t lived there, and my total exposure to the city could be something like two-and-a-half-weeks. I guess not being mugged or assaulted in that time is a good thing, but then again, like any big city there are some places that are best to be avoided – fortunately none of these places happen to be in central London. There was even a time when I was wandering around the city at 2:00 am in the morning, and in a way I felt safe. Well, the thing was that wandering around at that time of night in part made me feel like I was in Australia because, for some reason, us Anglos really don’t know how to handle our alcohol.
Accommodation can be pretty pricey though, but once again it is a pretty big city. On our third visit we ended up staying at a hotel near Paddington Station, namely because that is where the Heathrow Express terminates, and with my brother in tow, I’m not really all that keen on lugging bags around on the tube (or catching a cab). However, while this hotel was cheap, it was also pretty shocking. It was one of those hotels that while they advertised a bath, ended up not having one. Oh, and the wifi was non-existent, and their internet computers weren’t working. Oh well, I guess you get what you pay for.
Paddington was okay, but it was nowhere near as lovely as Bayswater. Praed Street, which runs just past the station, has a number of pubs on it, as well as a decent collection of restaurants. I’d stay away from Garfunkles though, because I went to check it out, found myself waiting for ten minutes for somebody to show me a seat, and when nobody came, decided to pick one of the many empty ones for myself. Upon calling over a waiter, namely because there was no menu on the table, I was then chastised for helping myself to a seat, to which my response was that I simply wanted to get something to eat, and it was clear that they weren’t interested in doing me that favour, and that there were plenty of other businesses within a short walk that would be more than happy to do so. So I ended up going and getting some good old English Fish and Chips, which I have to admit is nothing like what we get at home (the English are famous for being terrible cooks).
There is so much more that I could write about my experiences here, but I should look at winding this post up. However, there is always the Monopoly Board Pub Crawl (I did one pub on each of the streets, where possible since Vine Street is a back alley that is so small I still wonder how you can fit four houses and a hotel on it, and some of the roads simply don’t have pubs on them, so you have go to the nearest one), which I did over the five days we were there, even though British ale is pretty week and being an Australian I can drink an awful lot more of it than I can Australian beer (though I did have a Fosters, and that was pretty bad, which is why nobody in Australia drinks it). There is also our trek out to the suburbs, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Oh, and I have since discovered that the English actually aren’t all that rude, it was just the hotel that I was staying at, and a couple of ticket vendors that were upset that I wouldn’t buy theatre tickets from them (and I didn’t even get to mention the world class theatre scene, one of the main reasons I always end up in London).