It’s hard to believe we were there just five weeks ago. We’ve gotten behind in our blogging during that time, but since we left London we’ve been to Paris, Versailles, Zurich, Bern, Lauterbrunnen (twice), Lucerne (twice), New York, Quito (twice) and the Galapagos Islands! Despite all that jetsetting, we both agree that our time in London is going to rank as one of the high points of this epic year of travel. It’s a city I could return to in a heartbeat, and I would even consider living there if the opportunity came about…
Some of the reasons why we loved London so much are as obvious as they were enjoyable. I have family living there, and we were able to catch up with my cousin Mark (who grew up in Sydney) several times during our eleven days in and around London. We got to know my uncle’s sister, Sonia, very well while she very kindly hosted us for most of our time there, as well as her children and grandchild. And we got to catch up again with Mike, a Londoner who we first met on that epic day in Penang near the start of our journey. Apart from spending wonderful time with Helga and JP in Graepel, dinner with CJ in Bangkok and a single day’s catchup with Andrew and Kara in Croatia, we have been starved of familiar company most of the year.
A less obvious but very real attraction of London is that English is its first language. We clearly love travelling to different countries – often the more different the better! – and usually make an effort to learn at least a bit of the local language while there. Even knowing just simple courtesies like hello and thank you can greatly enhance the travel experience, and in countries like Laos, Thailand, France and Germany we knew enough to get around fairly comfortably using the local lingo. But in all places we were a very long way from being able to hold a conversation or talk for more than 20 seconds, and it always took considerable thought and effort to remember the right words to use. In short it’s draining (though rewarding) to try and speak in foreign tongues, and after six continuous months of having to do so England shone like an oasis in the language desert. Imagine speaking without translating in your head first, being free to indulge in small talk and able to understand the conversations around you! We didn’t realise how much we would appreciate these simple pleasures until we got to England and started to live them.
London is also a city of endless possibilities, and we simply loved getting in amongst it and tasting what it has to offer. Below is a snapshot of some of the things we got up to:
- Visiting pubs in Russell Square, Angel and Southbank. What better place to meet up with Mark than at a pub (or three)? London is a city that knows how to drink, and you’re never far from a watering hole to quench your thirst. Our catch up with Mike was also a potted tour of some of the nicer pubs around Southbank, including one that dates back to the 1600s.
- Walking around Regent St, Carnaby St, Bond St, Oxford St, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. Window shopping in New Bond St was a walk down luxury lane, we stumbled across a great coffee shop off Carnaby St that was worthy of a return, and discovered that the deckchairs set up in Hyde Park are not free.
- Checking out Notting Hill Carnival with Mark, only to find that it’s more crowd than carnival. The whole suburb was a seething mass of people looking for somewhere to go, and it wasn’t long before we ditched it completely and headed off to Jashan’s. Located in a less salubrious part of north London, it’s an excellent Indian restaurant that is several cuts above the usual curry joint.
- Sonia took us on a very interesting tour of Hamstead Heath and Millionaire’s Row, and then contrasted the mega-rich properties of that area with a quick look at downtown Tottenham. The local school behind the huge Whitehart Lane football stadium is prison-like in ambiance, with solid bars topped with razor wire and a full-time on-site police officer (Sonia’s daughter, Carla, works there and can tell some hair-raising stories of life there). The point was to show how different in character yet how close in distance these two areas are, and it was a thoroughly illuminating (and at times depressing) experience. The day also included a wonderful visit to Kenwood House for morning tea and a stroll around its gardens.
- Op-shopping in Muswell Hill, the prosperous neighbourhood where Sonia lives. We also spent a great deal of time at the Sable D’Or café in Mussie, sampling its fine coffee and super-fast internet frequently on our way to or from the city.
- Visiting Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally”, which is also quite close to Sonia’s place and Muswell Hill. This is a monstrous building superbly located on a hill with sweeping views of London, and surrounded by extensive gardens that are open to the public. The views from the top of the hill are wonderful and highly recommended for any visitor, and the Palace was the site of the first television broadcast by the BBC in 1936. It remained London’s primary TV transmitting centre for the Beeb until 1956.
- Eating at Jashan’s again on one of our last nights in London. It’s a family favourite, and we shared a great meal with nearly all the Assirati clan 🙂
- Discovering the joys of the Harrods food hall – late! The treats on offer here make the David Jones food hall on Market Street look like a cut-rate corner deli. Needless to say we were in heaven, and we managed to have nearly every meal on our last two days in London catered courtesy of that fine establishment!
- Visiting the Imperial War Museum and strolling along Southbank. Even though nearly all of them are free, we didn’t do much in the way of museums while in London. However everyone we met said that the Imperial War Museum was a must-see, and we managed to visit it before leaving. It was quite overwhelming, in fact, and it’s a place that you could easily return to time and again to learn about different aspects of Britain’s wartime legacies. We followed it with a slow perambulation of the lengthy Southbank, which was thronged with people enjoying the evening.
The other major event we had planned for our time in London was outside of it: our pilgrimage to The Fat Duck. Kristen has already written extensively about that meal, so I will focus on the other aspects of the four day “holiday within a holiday” we took around our visit to that restaurant. It actually wasn’t meant to be four days, but we were enjoying ourselves so much that we tacked on a couple of days extra and simply relaxed in the wonderful environs of our hotel. The Oakley Court Hotel is a country estate near Windsor, conveniently located close to The Fat Duck and very prettily situated on the banks of the Thames. You can stroll along the water’s edge on manicured lawns, sit in the stately rooms of the main house or enjoy the sun on the outdoor terrace. All these things were fine attractions and we certainly did make use of them, but the clincher for our decision to stay there was that Oakley Court was used as the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter in the cult 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could we not take up the opportunity to stay in the Rocky Horror house??
Our two days at Oakley Court extended to three, then to four, and on the last day we went to nearby Windsor to visit the Queen. Well, almost: Windsor Castle is the home of the Monarch and open to visitors most of the time. It’s a splendid castle with commanding views of the surrounding countryside, and we also went on an optional “behind the scenes” tour of the Great Kitchen. This short journey to less-visited parts of the castle was more about the fire of 1992, and what the subsequent renovations revealed about the hitherto hidden history of the castle, than it was about the kitchen, but it was very interesting nonetheless and gave an insight into the below-stairs life of the castle. We spent several hours there in total, visiting all the key sights including the State Rooms, the Doll House and St George chapel. Highly recommended, and thanks to Mike for suggesting it.
There was so much more we could have seen and done in London, and we seriously considered or intended to see a West End show, visit the Tower of London, go to The Clink, check out Camden Town and see a live band, amongst other activities. These are things we will have to save for our next visit!