- The Spell of London - H.V. Morton
It's known that I am an ex-resident of London, that I regularly return to the city, and that I'm passionate about being there in a way that no other mere physical location could ever touch upon, and I was asked a little while ago to offer up some advice for people visiting London – what to do for the “real” experience, not the “touristy” stuff. My London is not necessarily the same as anyone else's, and that's okay, but for those who have expressed interest in the way I see this city, I've put this together. I'm going to attempt to write about the London that I know – a bit of north, south, east and west, where I like to eat, what I like to do, the things that mean something to me, and the places I would take someone. I did consider constructing this entire post out of Doherty/Barat lyrics captioning selfies of me sobbing, but they may be a little contextless, so here we go...
(disclaimer - this entire piece ended up being well over 12,000 words, so I'm posting it in three or four shorter parts. This first update deals with the practicalities of visiting London, me getting emotional about Pizza Express and the Tube, a little about food, and a bit about accessing entertainment, particularly theatre, as well as exploring South Bank. The next parts will focus specifically on various areas of London, and various subjects like museums and unusual streets. So, here's part one. Stay tuned, if you can bear it!)
While I can (and am about to) rattle off fifty or more things genuinely worth seeing or doing off of top of my head, the first thing that you need to understand – the most important thing, is that the London is not Ye Olde Theme Park. It is not a Land at Disney World. It is not quaint or cute or precious. It is a survivor. It is unlikely. It is authentic. It grew from the ideas and hopes and horrors and smoke and stone and mud and greenery and of the thoughts and the dreams of every man and woman who has ever come through there and made their mark, of people throughout history and all over the globe who heard the word London and it sounded like a promise. Like a spell. It draws you in, and if it chooses you, then you belong to London, and London keeps its own.
I recently read a “Imagined London: A Tour of The World's Greatest Fictional City,” a wonderful book which I purchased after coming across this quote online:
“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”
For this reason, very few of what are considered London's attractions are actually stereotypically “touristy.” The Eye, Madame Tussauds... maybe the London Dungeon, since they've re-done it. These are the only things that come to mind as genuine “tourist traps,” things that have very little objective value. Everything else that might make up the Top Ten Things to Do in your guidebook – the palaces, Trafalgar Square, the Globe, Westminster Abbey, and of course, the Tower – these things are important. The stories they contain will never not be relevant. They may be visited by thousands of people every day who go sheerly to tick an “experience” off a list, but if you have a slight understanding of what occurred in these places, of why they have become attractions, of whose blood was spilt here, whose bones encased there, who fell in love, what proclamation happened, what this particular spot means to history... it's enough. That's the attitude you need. So visit these places. Pick ones you know about. If you know the story of Lady Jane Grey, go to the Tower and think about her, really think about her. Feel it. Don't look at Tower Green and think “oh, how twee, look at all the cottages.” Know what you're experiencing, and let it haunt you.
Perhaps it is something more recent – this is where Oscar Wilde bought his cigarettes, this is the Abbey Road crossing, or perhaps it's even fictional. Perhaps it's Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden, or Hugh Grant spilling orange juice on Julia Roberts, or figuring out where the Leaky Cauldron should be, or the Turner painting Bond and Q meet under in Skyfall. It doesn't matter if it happened or not – it is real, and it contributes to the fabric and the legend of the city and the reason why it remains, to me, the only place in the world with its own life force. So that is my primary advice. Don't coo over how Pretty and Old everything is. Don't go staring at carved stone walls and nod, knowing you're not really understanding why you've paid £12 to get in. Find the things that chill you, find the places where you can say to yourself “this happened here” and have that simple idea overwhelm you. That's what London is for.
Right. Now that that's out of the way, here's the first practical tip: upon arrival, you need to immediately obtain two things – an Oyster card and a London A-Z. Oyster Cards, you will quickly discover, are a tap-on/tap-off system for buses, Tubes and trains in the Transport For London network. Yes, you can buy paper day tickets or even, LOL, singles. Don't. You're stupid. Just don't do that. Get the Oyster right now. If you are in town for more than a week – or even slightly less, but you plan to use transport a lot – get the 7-day unlimited top-up, which is, I think, £30. You can also just feed as much money as you please into the card and use it as you go – it will hit an “unlimited day pass” limit at around £6 or £7 and won't charge you more than that per day. Oysters are cheaper – each trip, when not part of an unlimited pass – is still a cheaper fare than buying a paper ticket, by nearly half – and they're quicker. You need Oyster. It is not negotiable.
The London A-Z is a street directory. Yeah, yeah, we have smartphones and GPS now, look at all the fucks I give. Get the A-Z. You might not have a UK phone plan, don't waste your roaming data on Google Maps. The A-Z comes in pocket-sized, paperback-novel sized and bigger. I have the novel-sized one. It's a detailed street atlas of the entire Greater London area, showing major landmarks and Underground stations as well. No, you will not look like a tourist if you are carrying one of these. Nearly every London resident I know has one. London is a very old, very random and very complicated city. It grew. It does not make sense, until you know it well. You will get names and places mixed up. Carry the A-Z. Do not get a tourist guide book or a big fold out map. Use the A-Z. Trust me on this.
The two next things you need to know are interconnected: a) the Tube is easy to use, and b) you don't need to use it within zone 1 unless you're in a hurry. When you're in a Tube station, there will be little fold up maps of the Underground network. You can take one of these, everyone does. That's not touristy. No one knows the Tube map off by heart (though I've got a lot of it down.) Basically, though – once you're in Central London, all those stations on all those different lines – they're all approximately 5 minutes walk on actual land, in actual air, on the actual London streets. Say you're staying in Paddington and you have to meet someone so you can go see We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre outside Tottenham Court Road station. Look at your Tube map. You get the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and then change onto the Central line to Tottenham Court Road, right? FUCKING WRONG. You are clearly a chump, because you've chosen to see We Will Rock You, the worst show on the West End, the worst jukebox musical ever made, despite the wonderful source material. Freddie Mercury hates you. I hate you. Shut up and listen to me.
You get the fuck out at Oxford Circus and you walk in a straight line up for five minutes up Oxford St to Tottenham Court Road. Seriously. This is a rule. If you are in zone 1, and your destination is one stop along after a line change, do not make the line change. Get off at the end of your first line, get out of the station, and walk. I love walking around in London, but this isn't why I'm saying this – we'll have a whole section on walking in a little bit. I am telling you this because you'll quickly notice that Tube stops within zone 1 are only around 60 to 90 seconds apart when you're riding the train. The trains go fairly slowly within zone 1 because they're so frequent – there will be another one only two minutes behind whatever one you're on, so they have to be paced properly and be able to brake quickly. The point is, the tube stops are all very close together. Stop looking at the spacing on your Tube map – it isn't accurate. That's why I told you to buy the fucking A-Z. Check the route while on the Tube - you can do it in the book, even if you lose phone signal.
But it isn't just that the stations are all near enough to each other. My reasoning doesn't stop there, oh, no. I am actually trying to save you energy and effort here. If the line change is easy – like, just across the platform or whatever, or if I know it's only down one set of stairs – I take it, of course I do. I'm not a chump, and I want to save my legs for when I actually want to walk all day. The thing is, a lot of the line changes are not easy. The lines were built at different times, and so although they've built tunnels and dug in in order to connect several lines to one station, some of the connections are a real bitch, and it's very hard to remember which ones are super-easy and which ones are insanely long. Most tube stations don't have lifts – some have escalators – most just have a lot of stairs. So. Would you rather just get off at the end of your first line, walk for 5 to 7 minutes while observing London at its finest, and reach your destination, or do you want to go up a set of stairs, down another, through a tunnel that may or may not be one of the ones that makes you feel dizzy or makes you feel like you will be trapped walking in this tunnel looking for the Victoria line for the rest of your days, wait 2 minutes for another tube, go ONE STOP, get out, find your way out of that station, probably through more stairs and tunnels, just so you can arrive at the very tube stop your shitty guidebook says is the closest to the landmark of your choosing? No. Exactly. Just.. don't do that.
That rant kind of makes me sound like I hate the Underground, when nothing could be further from the truth. I am in love with the Tube. Sometimes, I can be sitting on the Tube and be overcome with emotion and tears purely because I love the fact that I'm in London, on a Tube. It is so bloody convenient – best public transportation system in the world. Every time I come back to Sydney, it's like returning to a special hell, with our train systems. “17 minutes until the next North Shore Line train? Is this some sort of sick joke?” The Tube has constant, almost instantaneous arrivals, it goes everywhere, it's fast, and it's got a good vibe. It's not perfect – I'm sure other places have a faster, more accessible, more clinical system, with elevators everywhere, and god, luggage on the Tube can be a bitch depending on your route – but it's just really lovely to me. But if cycling is more your thing, London is relatively flat and has, in recent years, developed a HUGE public bike hire system. You'll see banks of the Barclays/"Boris Johnson" bikes absolutely everywhere, and you can pick one up and park it anywhere else.
I love the London Underground's design and branding. I love the fonts and the colours and the symbols. I love the pre-set station announcements and I can recite nearly all of them along with the recording, in the exact tone. (“The next station is Green Park. Doors will open on the right-hand side. Change for the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines. Exit for Buckingham Palace.”) I love all the references to it in British rock songs. I can stare at a Tube map for literally hours, travelling on mental journeys – I have a poster-sized one above my desk. I remember, as a child, stealing a Mind The Gap Underground symbol t-shirt from my father. I cannot remember if it was before my first trip to London, or afterwards, but I still have the shirt. The Tube is my fucking favourite and riding it “gives me a sense of enormous well-being,” to quote a classic.
Now. Food. I'm not the best person for food recommendations, as I have eating problems which mean I prepare most of my food myself (god bless Tesco Express and Marks and Spencer Food Hall, both of which have much nicer, fresher and cheaper easy-to-grab foodstuffs than convenience supermarkets at home. A snack-sized packet of sugar snap peas and an individual chunk of strong cheddar, yes please, I'll take that for my train ride lunch over a McDonalds any day.) But here's a few little things, just from my experience.
For vegetarians: the Taylor Walker chain of pubs (not many pubs in London are still independently owned: to a foreigner, they won't look like a chain - they'll have individual names and just look like good old fashioned British pubs, however their business, including their menu, is part of a bigger company/franchise) does a “vegetarian fish and chips” meal that is actually a slab of battered and deep fried haloumi instead of fish, which is ingenious. However, one thing that I can and really do enjoy going out to purchase and stuff into my face is pizza.
The UK is home to a miraculous invention called Pizza Express. It's not a fast-food place, despite the name sounding tacky as fuck. They make hand-tossed Italian style pizza, they're licensed, they're fairly cheap and everyone goes there – it's never seen as childish or unclassy option, as, say, the eat-in Pizza Hut restaurant might be seen elsewhere. It's a legitimate restaurant, like somewhere that wouldn't be weird to go on a date, not that that's my priority... and it's a chain – there's probably somewhere between 50 to 100 of them in London. There are not words to express how happy I would be if a pizza restaurant chain of this quality and environment and this price range existed in Australia. It's just really good and really easy, which is really important to me as someone who has both physical trouble and extreme anxiety about going out to eat.
There's a takeaway/delivery chain called Red Planet which is some of the cheapest and yummiest junk-food style pizza I've ever had, though Domino's in the UK is also a million times nicer than Domino's in Australia or the USA. A couple of other nice eat-in restaurants I really fancy include Soho Joe's – a very cool/trendy not-just-pizza restaurant and bar in Dean St, right next to the Soho Theatre, which has a lot of great comedy and fringe theatre, definitely check out what's playing there – and the Gourmet Pizza Co in Gabriel's Wharf. Gabriel's Wharf is a redeveloped area on the South Bank, containing a lot of independent/artisan design and art shops, bars and restaurants. The pizza place is right on the riverside edge of the little enclave, and you can sit on the balcony looking straight out at the river.
South Bank is an area that I always like to spend a day in. It's one of the more modern parts of central London, but it still manages to be charming – the view of the more majestic buildings on the north side of the river is cool at either day or night, but the long pedestrian walk along the river is also always filled with street artists, living statues, film crews, food trucks, joggers, businesspeople, tourists and life in general. The stretch I focus on is between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges, or in my language, between the National Theatre and the Globe.
The National Theatre and the BFI – which share the same complex, known as the Southbank Centre - both host amazing events and content, obviously. If you haven't watched the National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala, you're missing out, and I've attended events at the BFI ranging from the season premiere of BBC's Merlin, with the cast in attendance, to one of Joseph Gordon Levitt's HitRecord events. It's definitely worth looking up if either the National Theatre or the BFI is showing anything relevant to your interests, but if you're just passing by, even the gift shops are worth a visit. They're full of books and DVDs about film/theatre in general – they stock a lot of obscure things that you'd usually have to order online, including recordings of past productions. Outside the complex, outdoors underneath Waterloo Bridge, is another rather special shopping experience. There's a daily market for second hand books - just a few rows of long tables, packed with old books. Some sellers carry random paperbacks, some have speciality collections in wooden crates, but it's charming and unpretentious and one of the coolest things to ever randomly come across.
As you walk east along the Thames, you can enjoy the view of the river or get a little closer by doing some mudlarking - foraging the shoreline for treasures, somewhat like beachcombing. You're kind of not meant to do it unless you're with an organised tour, but simply walking along the river bank is allowed, and while doing this with a friend last summer, within about 5 minutes he'd picked up a clay pipe stem (these are really common from Elizabethan times onwards, because the pipes were sold as a disposable, one-smoke thing and then just chucked away) and a purple crystal from some sort of chandelier. People find Roman coins, ship's nails, medieval roof tiles, and even older artifacts. If you're not with a Londoner who is familiar with mudlarking, do go on the tour because you will learn a lot more.
Shakespeare's Globe – a replica of the open Elizabethan theatre where most of Shakespeare's great works premiered – is not quite on, but very close, to the site of the original structure, and hosts a long season each year of several shows including Shakespeare's own, of course, but also other Elizabethan works, like Marlowe's Faustus, and even brand new plays as well. As a throwback to the original peasant audiences, the theatre sells “groundling” tickets for £5; this gets you a standing place on the floor around the stage, like at a gig. It also has three tiers of rather uncomfortable wooden seating for a bit more, and you can rent the use of a cushion or a backrest. You can usually get at least a groundling ticket to a performance just by wandering past on the day, unless the current show features a big name - Stephen Fry recently played Malvolio in Twelfth Night there, in a production that later transferred to the West End and now New York.
Nearly every show, though, features both veteran and young actors that, if you are a fan of the British entertainment industry and follow the BBC/theatre community, you'll know. I saw Faustas with Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, and Henry IV with Olivier-winning Roger Allam as Falstaff and The History Boys' Jamie Parker as Hal. The productions go on in all weather, rain or shine, and they are usually traditional and simple, done in the style of the theatre's original era, the music is live from period instruments.
It's definitely an all-around “experience” – just don't start throwing rotting vegetables at the stars. The Globe was also used in the Tennant-era Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code, so if you can't make a production, maybe you can do their behind the stage tour and shout EXPELLIARMUS from the empty stage. Like the National, the Globe's shop is 100% worth visiting all on its own – it's full of really cool merchandise, like stylised quote t-shirts, leather journals, quill and ink sets, and live DVDs of past shows. The Globe, as a company, has a really great ethic in what they are doing – sending productions worldwide for education, and they're an official Trust, and generally it's just a place really worth supporting. They're very active on social media and I get sad every time they advertise job openings because I want to work there.
London's obviously home to a lot of amazing theatre, though, and the actual West End is one of my favourite places in the world. This little website is the best for looking through everything playing, from huge shows to tiny ones. You can look them up via genre, opening date, celebrity stars... I always read through the entire list of what's playing whenever I'm there and make a short-list of what I want to see.
If you're not booking online for a full price seat to something specific, visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to get cheap tickets for shows that evening. They won't have everything, but they have a lot, with discounts of up to half price. There are a lot of little tourist stalls advertising West End tickets – try to avoid them. They will rip you off and TKTS is a not-for-profit company that donates money back into the theatre community. If you want to see something big – like something short-running with a massive name in it – you'll need to book in advance, like while you are planning your trip. Sometimes these shows do release last-minute rush tickets on the day of, so look out for that. The long-running popular shows like Wicked or Les Mis will sell out for weekends, but you can usually get tickets for stuff like that on a weeknight.
Don't pick your shows based on the theatre they're housed in, but, that being said, if you happen to see something at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the Old Vic, the Noel Coward or Wyndham's – these last two are back to back and their stage doors face each other in a little pedestrian cobbled alley with a few cute restaurants – these are some of the prettiest that I have been to. The Old Vic has an important history and the inside looks like a Faberge egg or something, Haymarket is a landmark for Oscar Wilde fans – two of his plays premiered here, and the other theatre he used – the St James – is no longer standing, so this one actually contains an “Oscar Wilde room” and tributes to him. If you are interested in ballet or classical concerts, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is also one of the most surreally beautiful places in London.
Right at the other end of the grandeur scale is the Battersea Barge, a tiny little gorgeous venue which literally takes place on a permanently moored boat, on the south side of the river just along from my number one fave building in the entire world, the Battersea Power Station. I saw a musical theatre cabaret at the barge, featuring six performers who have played major West End shows, just doing a review of their favourite songs for an audience of about 30. Totally fantastic. They do all sorts of events, comedy, trivia nights - be sure to check it out.
London has a million things “to do,” in every sort of industry you can think of – theatre and music and sport and food and history and whatever... but if you're the kind of person that enjoys the media, check out Applause Store or SRO Tickets for free audience passes to a shitload of television tapings. Also, keep an eye on London's flagship Apple Store, in Regent St – they have free events pretty much weekly with celebrity guests being interviewed about their current project. I find this kind of thing really enjoyable and have seen lots of great actors, writers, comedians and musicians at free appearances like this. Another basic tip is following @SkintLondon - an update account that has news about cheap events and opportunities every day, all for under a tenner. They're good people.
For music – London is obviously a huge player on the world stage, hosting some of the biggest events and raising up some of the most underground scenes. Like the theatres, I can't recommend gigs based on venues, but some of my favourites, if you happen to see someone you like playing there, include the Union Chapel in Highbury and Islington, which is literally a converted church where you sit on pews and can get tea or hot chocolate in real mugs, or ice cream during the show; Brixton Academy, which has been the Carling Academy and the O2 Academy or whatever, but remains just Brixton to most, and it's a legendary place; the tiny Borderline just across from the old Foyles building in Soho (this amazing, iconic bookstore just moved a few properties down Charing Cross Road!,) and the Camden Underworld, which is the most intimate and sweatiest of rock venues, where a lot of big artists do small one-off shows. Some of my other faves – the Astoria and the Hammersmith Palais – have, in the last few years, unfortunately been closed and demolished, despite their historical significance.
As far as movies go, besides looking up special events at the BFI, there are a few rad options for the whole cinema experience. London has a huge IMAX if that's your thing – it's not really mine. It also has a bunch of normal cinema chains and a lot – like, a lot - of independent cinemas showing ~arty things. Obviously, all the major chains in Leicester Square will be showing anything current that you could ever want to see, but just around the corner, in Leicester Place, is the Prince Charles Cinema, an old red-velvet theatre that shows cult, arthouse and classic films, as well as a couple of current ones. It's pretty cheap – ridiculously cheap if you're a member – and it does sing-along musical events, themed marathons, pizza nights, Mean Girls “quote-a-thons” - seriously, it does so much and it is all so cool. Definitely check their schedule in advance.
Another special experience is the West End Film Club, an organisation that does a monthly screening of a special film – often a musical - held in the lounge of the Century Club on Shaftsbury Avenue, a private club for the arts and entertainment industry. You know those private members clubs that Harry Styles falls out of at two in the morning, that are just a mysterious door leading to nowhere and are filled with celebrities just looking to sit around in a bar or lounge chilling out or networking without being annoyed by random passers-by with cameras? It's one of those. You'll rarely get a chance to get inside one of them, but for West End Film Club – the screening tickets are only £5!!! - you get a look inside the Century, and you're invited to stay for the whole evening, to eat there or hang out in the bar. The staff are completely unpretentious and kind, even to total noobs just there for the monthly film night.
I've also been a frequent visitor of the two independent cinemas at Notting Hill Gate – the Gate and the Coronet. The Coronet is a 19th century historic theatre which now shows a pretty big range of films. Fun fact: I once went on a date to this cinema to see a film we'd both really been looking forward to based on a bunch of Tube posters. We did not realise until we sat down and it started that the film we came to see was in French. It had subtitles, so you know, whatever, but it's an amusing memory. But it does show all sorts of things, including blockbusters. The Gate, a slightly more modern building with a bar, right across the street, mainly shows arthouse.
We'll hit pause on extremely excessive London bloggage here. We've entered Notting Hill, and in the next edition we'll go for a long walk around West London and talk about some museums and parks.
Mmmm... should I go back and put pictures in this?