My personal belief is that one should visit London at least once in a lifetime. If you think that it is just another European capital, traveling there will demonstrate you the contrary…. Just a two-hours ride with the Eurostar from Brussels, you leave the old continent and get into a slightly different world. At first, everything seems the other way around here: centimeters turn into inches, euros into pounds and instead of looking left, you need to watch right. But then, everything falls in place and when you are at ease, you can finally enjoy the classic breeze that surround you. Welcome to London!
Thousands of websites out there are recommending the best places to visit and thousands others where to shop, how to get the best passes for different events, where to get the best view… As for myself, I played my second visit to London by the ear. It was indeed my second visit there, so I did not rush to see the landmarks (been there, done that). Therefore, I had the liberty of losing time, sit in cafés, eat caloric brownies and drink half-liter cappuccinos. However, I did the mistake of walking instead of taking the tube (which brought me to exhaustion), but I’ve also seen places and did things that caught me by surprise.
A classy breeze
Friends that lived in London tell me that they are discovering another part of the city every time they go back. Friends that live there tell me the same. It is true, it is about rush, infinite tube connections and long commuting time, about hoards of people on the street, crowded pubs and unaffordable restaurants. But what got to me in London is the very simple, very classic atmosphere that you simply cannot find anywhere else. Somehow I felt in another universe, totally foreign to my roots. I noticed an almost Shakespearian smell in the air. And I have to say: I loved all those dark raincoats, the colorful umbrellas and the wellington boots.
As a literature and autumn lover, here are few things I loved and discovered in London. You might, you might not find them in the guidebooks, but this is what I enjoyed the most there. I am positive other amazing things can be added.
A visit in the royal Hyde Park
One exceptionally sunny morning, I found myself walking in the yellow and rusty leaves of Hyde Park. Hyde Park is one of the eight Royal Parks in London. Though it has millions of visitors per year, it is big enough (hey, at the end of the day, we are talking about London) for you to have your own physical and mental space. It is a very beautiful stroll and autumn seems to have made it even better. Coffee in one hand and picking rusty leaves with the other: that is what my dream autumn looks like. So don’t hesitate: take your walking shoes, warm cloths and gloves and spend few hours in Hyde Park.
Speak up: the Speakers’ Corner
On one side of Hyde Park you will find the Speakers’ Corner, a very interesting “scene” (I found). This is a traditional site for public speeches and debates since mid 1800’s, when protests and demonstrations took place here. You will always find few people speaking on a Sunday (generally on a bit weird or unpopular causes, but it is still quite an interesting exercise to watch). Anyone can turn up unannounced to speak on any topic, as long as the police consider their speeches lawful. To also give a historical incentive, figures such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell were known to often use the area to demonstrate free speech.
The British Library: original fragments of our history
Though I had no idea this can be so interested, I ended up in the British Library. Located quite close to Saint Pancras, on Euston Road, the place hosts some of the most amazing pieces from our far or recent history. One amazing thing about the place is that the library has a free exhibition called: Treasures of the British Library.
Here, in a very dar and cozy atmosphere, you can see Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455 (first ever printed Bible), the original Magna Carta, Handel’s handwriting, Jane Austin’s manuscripts, the original notes of Leonardo da Vinci or the handwritten lyrics of the Beattles. A very overwhelming experience to face all these originals, which are part of our humanity, part of our history. The visit doesn’t take too long, but it is a very enriching exercise.
If in London and you love art, culture, history, you will find yourself somehow or another in this place, I can guarantee you.
Back in time: the Cheshire Cheese pub & the literature associations
Cheshire Pub is a place that strikes you with a weird mix of mold and inspiration. It is hidden on a small street, but you can easily find it from the sound of cheers and laughters that comes from inside. What is special about this place?! Well, here the literary figures of London would meet and would share beers and thoughts. Charles Dickens had been known to use the establishment frequently, and due to the pub’s feeling, it is easy to imagine that Dickens modelled some of his dark characters there. The pub is composed from many little and gloomy rooms, with wooden tables and loud acoustic. A very English experience and a nice way to go back in time. A total go for it for those that love the air of old books and legends about literature. But also if you just love the English style and beer.
Fleet street: about printing and journalism
I was a journalist so when I heard about Fleet Street, I was very happy to go and see what is that area all about. Publishing started in Fleet Street around 1500 and it is still a landmark for journalists. London’s first daily newspaper saw the light around 1700 on this street as well. By the 20th century, Fleet Street and the surrounding area was dominated by the national press and related industries. Although many newspapers moved since then from this area, it is still associated with the ink of the mass media.
Just for trivia: Fleet Street is also a square on the British Monopoly board. One of the Chance cards in the game, “You Have Won A Crossword Competition, collect £100” was inspired by rival competitions and promotions between Fleet Street-based newspapers in 1930s, particularly the Daily Mail and Daily Express.
For cat lovers: Samuel Johnson, Hodge the cat and the oysters
Walking for a whole day in London got me pretty tired. But then I discovered the story of Samuel Johnson and Hodge. For cat lovers, Hodge is a very famous British cat. Samuel Johnson, writer and very famous character of Britain’s XVIII century, was very fond on his cat. And, as you can imagine, this was not too normal at that time (people did not have pets). Dr. Johnson did love his cat with such an ardor that he fed him with oysters. Well, this sounds fancy, but actually oysters at that time were the food for poor. Now, wouldn’t we like to live in that century and be Johnson’s cat?! Today Hodge is remembered in London by a bronze statue just outside Johnson’s house in Gough Square. The statue shows Hodge sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary, with the inscription “a very fine cat indeed”.
Saint Paul’s Neighbourhood
If nothing of Hodge’s history interests you, this doesn’t mean that you should not cross that neighborhood. It is indeed a “very fine” area, with little streets, gardens and squares that surprise you at every step. What has also caught my attention was the combination between old and new. Between huge buildings of steel and glass, you could find these amazing corners full of stories and secrets. A real treat for urban and photography lovers.
Nightlife in London: go out early and targeted
I found London quite different from Paris, Brussels or any other big city I’ve seen until now when it comes to its nightlife. While you generally expect to find an area packed with bars, restos, pubs…. Well, this is not how it is. Ok, you do have Soho, but Soho is so huge, that you can walk for hours without finding a place with an empty chair. In London, it is better to know exactly where you go and what time. You need to target and reserve in advance. Otherwise, you can end up wandering the streets for hours and by the time you realize, everything is closed.
One other thing that surprised me is that all pubs close at midnight. I asked why. Well, that is because the last tubes is scheduled around midnight. And because a taxi could cost a fortune and as most of people live far away from the center, everyone uses the last metro.
So left with no other alternative, the only thing to do at midnight is going in a club. Which would require an entry fee and some very-very high Louboutin heels. As I did not have those with me (joke, joke!), I decided to call it a night and indulge in a huge portion of Vietnamese noodles from a corner in Soho. But they were oh-so-delicious!!!!
Coffee beats tea…
A stereotype might suggest that in London you will only find black, strong, traditional tea, Which is totally wrong, because UK has now one of the most vibrant coffee cultures. If it would be to measure how much do I fit in a town by the number of pretty caffees per square meter, London would be a winner. Cappuccinos in London come in huge sizes and the taste of coffee is absolutely delicious. Sorry, but here I really need to bitch about the horrible coffee that you get served in Brussels (unless you know the right places). I am not (anymore) a big fan of Starbucks. I prefer discovering the little corner caffees with creative menus and smiley faces. And London is just perfect for that.
All in all, London was quite an experience. Thanks to the people that guided me. I have to say, I found it different from any other capital on our continent. And although slightly messy and very exhausting, it definitely has a charm which I couldn’t find anywhere else. The Christmas lights at the beginning of November were not my favorite thing, but then, well, it looked quite pretty, so let’s leave it there. You need to look right, rather than left when you cross the street and you need to sometimes to ask people to repeat the question (their accent might be strong). But you definitely need to put your eyes on London at least once in a lifetime.
Because as Dr Johnson said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”.
Oh: one last thing: London taxies. They are so different than any other car you have seen. Silly, I know, but it’s worth a ride. Go for it!