I arrived in London absolutely determined not to enjoy myself.
I know this sounds ridiculous – and it is – but I’d just spent eight hours on a bus sitting behind perhaps the world’s rudest travelling companions, enduring a baffling ordeal of over-reclined seats and noisy, sleep-preventing hyena screeches. Add to that the brutal cold and being forced to wait outside for the tube station to open, and I was not a happy man.
Sometimes, however, the best laid plans have a way of going awry – upon arriving in Victoria Station, Alex and I were greeted by perhaps the world’s friendliest public transport official – his name was Tony – who helped us to buy Oyster Cards, found the quickest way for us to get where we were going and even gave us some sage advice on which were the best pubs to visit in London, unironically using the expression “cheap as chips”. I couldn’t help but smile. Okay London, you win this round.
We had arrived in London in the very early hours of New Year’s Eve, and by the time we reached our accommodation, took a brief break to cleanse ourselves of road scum and rested, the city had already started to armour itself for the inevitable bloodbath following the famed Central London Fireworks on the banks of the Thames. Despite all the fuss in the city centre, we – admittedly still exhausted from the bus trip – decided to take a long walk around London to get our bearings and see the sights.
This walk also included my very first encounter with squirrels, in St. James Park. London’s squirrel population is ridiculously tame, and evidence suggests they have no trouble at all getting fed by the innumerable tourists wandering through the parks. I don’t blame them – the damned things are adorable.
2014 was the first year where the Mayor’s Office of London had decided to issue tickets for watching the fireworks along the Thames. Predictably, this scheme didn’t work all that well from the perspective of ordinary folks, since the tickets sold out in around four seconds every time a batch were released, meaning our chances of getting down there were pretty slim. Instead, we decided to go to Primrose Hill, an elevated park just outside of the city with a beautiful panorama of the London skyline.
I admit that I was a little dubious about this at first, but it turned out to be perfect. The atmosphere among the gathered thousands was friendly and convivial, a good mix of tourists and locals. At 23h00, all the French people made themselves known by yelling “Bonne Année!“ – Paris time is an hour ahead – and we all cheered when some cheeky clandestine pyrotechnicians set off some (highly illegal, strictly forbidden) fireworks over the hill itself.
Then came the countdown out on the Shard. Then, the fireworks in East London started, then to the West, then Central London. Every direction we looked more fireworks shows were bursting into life. It was freezing, damp and crowded, but I’m happy to call this another wonderful New Year’s Eve spent together.
One of the things that very quickly becomes apparent in London is that it is extremely expensive – some reports suggest it is the priciest city in the world. To give you an idea, we discovered that some museums had entry prices as high as £25, which is a whopping $50 AUD. Fortunately, quite a few of London’s many attractions are free, including the Queen of Museums; The British Museum.
Unsurprisingly, the museum itself was absolutely packed with people. However, if you’ve ever been to a museum of this sort – The Louvre is the same – you’ll know that they get packed in a very particular way: the so-called “key attractions” grow absurd beards of shoving tourists, foaming at the mouth to get a holiday selfie with (for example) Cleopatra’s mummy – although many probably don’t realise that it’s actually not the famous Cleopatra. A new development since my last time travelling is that many of these people now carry selfie sticks, which are sometimes re-purposed as clubs when the need arises.
Of course, there are certain things one must see in the British Museum. Cleopatra’s mummy and the other ‘recovered’ mummies do form a core part of this, but there’s also the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon gallery. It is absolutely undeniable that these things are amazing – seeing the real Rosetta Stone was a pretty cool experience – but I do despair a little of the people who fill these rooms to bursting and then ignore the vast vaults of priceless treasures in – for example – the Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece galleries. A particular highlight for me was the Enlightenment Gallery, most of which was donated by King George III – it’s in a beautifully decorated wing of the museum and has a huge range of books and artefacts which, among other things, tell the story of the museum itself. Definitely worth visiting. Ditto for the temporary exhibition of clocks, watches and clockwork in general, which was as educational as it was awesome.
The museum buildings themselves are also worthy of some note, being a really interesting mix of old and new that I actually find very visually appealing.
Completely on the other side of things – both literally and figuratively – we spent most of one of our days at the Camden Lock Markets, a vast indoor-outdoor marketplace that attracts tens of thousands of people every weekend. The range of things available at these enormous markets is dizzying, as are the aromas from the innumerable street food stalls that pop up every place you look. The atmosphere as you zigzag through the warren of shop-lined tunnels is pretty cool, and it’s easy to get a little lost among the hundreds of identical looking stores, many of which only sell tourist fluff. There’s lots of good stuff as well, however, and we frittered some of our precious pounds at the markets without delay.
After all that, we made our way to the British Library. Here, we discovered still more of King George III’s generous donations, in the form of a vast, illuminated column of thousands of books. The Library, like most buildings in London, also houses a gallery of priceless treasures from antiquity, including beautiful, hand-written religious texts, original and first-editions of famous and infamous books, and several very precious historical letters and telegrams. It also has free Wi-Fi, a café and a good place to sit, all of which we took advantage of.
London, like Paris, is the sort of place where you often end up being spoiled for choice – there really is a lot to do there. As such, our last free day was a hard one to allocate. In the end, we spent most of our morning going for a long walk in Hyde Park, then back up to Oxford Street and along the Strand. We also visited the Tate Modern, which was okay, and happily was also free – I’m generally no great lover of modern art, and I’m the first to admit it’s because I often don’t understand it. I’ve outgrown the urge to criticise it – just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad – but I’ve also learnt to own the fact that it’s not for me, and not be ashamed of it. Art is like that, I guess.
On our way home, we also made a pilgrimage to Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross. Any residual shame we may have felt quickly evaporated upon seeing that plenty of people do just that, and there’s even a Harry Potter paraphernalia store set up in a little alcove. We went, we laughed, we enjoyed ourselves.
On our very last night before leaving London, we went out for a Sunday Roast at a local pub. The pub we chose – or that chose us, by virtue of being the local – to turned out to be great – it had a wonderfully welcoming ambiance, especially when we sat down right next to the crackling fire among the fairylights and candles. Once the couple sitting across from us – who were arguing about the death penalty – left the pub, this improved even further, and then when our food came it reached maximal improvement. I cannot rate highly enough the experience of eating a delicious roast by the fire in a British pub – it was a great way to finish up both our time in London, and our holiday.
Coming up next time on the blogograph – day-to-day life in France. Exciting!