Two Weeks in the UK: Culmination at the Melting Pot- LONDON

 
“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford”– Samuel Johnson
 
“Nothing is certain in London, but expense”– William Shenstone
 
“The English Language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised too, common yet royal, vulgar yet professional, sacred yet profane”– Stephen Fry
 
All the three quotes above paint a different picture of London. And all are simultaneously true. It’s like there are many Londons, all vibrating at a different frequency in space and time; each choosing to reveal itself the moment you plant a gaze admiringly or admonishingly.
 
All through my blog posts on the various places I visited in the UK, I have simply penned down where I went, what I did and so on, almost chronologically. However, when writing about London, our last leg of the trip, in such a manner can be disorienting, underwhelming or plain a long bore. So I have divided my recount into three segments- sights, culture with subsections like food, shopping, nightlife, transport and my top 5 must dos in London.
 
SIGHTS
Nothing represents London the way Big Ben or The Tower Bridge do in popular imagery. Yet, they are just two of the scores of popular landmarks, some monumental, some cultural, some emotional.
 
 
 
We divided our London sojourn into two parts- a day and a half to witness the Notting Hill Carnival, post which we left for Edinburgh, and four days upon our return.
 
Here’s a interactive map-itinerary of places we visited. The placemarkers have been colour coded, with all places visited on the same day marked in the same colour. Clicking on a placemarker will reveal how we first saw the place
 
 
Our sightseeing started at the Buckingham Palace and ended at it, and we ended up crossing it every day, more than once. More than any magnetic quality, it was because we choose cycling as our primary mode of transport, and as per Santander London Cycle sharing scheme, the bicycles need to be returned every half an hour to any docking station, so that you do not incur extra charges, but more on that later. Turned out, Buckingham Palace would fall within 30 minutes cycling of our accommodation and midway to almost all the touristy places, especially within the city of Westminster. So we would dock our bicycles at the Hyde Park Corner dock point, and end up walking towards Buckingham Palace (or on another cycle once we had had our fill of the area) through the leafy corridors.
 

Right across the street from Hyde Park towards Buckingham, stands the Wellington Arch. It looks like an awkward cousin of Triumphe De Arch in Paris or closer home India Gate in New Delhi. It was originally built as an entrance to the Buckingham Palace, and was later converted to a Victory Arch to commemorate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon. On top of it stands a rather impressive bronze sculpture of the Angel of Peace on four horses. If you are lucky, you can see horse mounted guards going about once in a while.

 

 
All around the Wellington Arch stand various war memorials, commemorating the heroes who laid their lives in World War I. Right before the Arch is Australian War Memorial, while 500 meters after it towards your left is the Machine Gun Corps Memorial. Also in the vicinity are the New Zealand War Memorial, Wellington Memorial, and Bomber Squad Memorial. Further ahead near the palace is the Canada gate opening into the St James Park. What stands out sorely amid these old memorials for soldier allied with Britain in the wars, more so to the subcontinent eye, are rather fresh looking simple tower like Commonwealth Memorial Gates- wherein are inscribed thank yous to the soldiers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. A bit of an afterthought I suppose.
 
Nevertheless you reach the Buckingham Palace through leafy corridors, stopping over at the corner shop for some coffee or decadent waffles, and get ready to admire the Palace. The Palace itself is rather simple looking yet stately with the famed guards standing like Androids or marching about, and large iron gates. There are scores of people, some have umbrellas in hand, some don’t; but everybody with a camera- in phone or outside it. On alternate days in fall and winters and everyday in summers, there’s a change of Guards Ceremony at 11.30 AM, which is said to be quite a spectacle, but we couldn’t catch it.
 
 
Right in front of the Palace is the impressive Victoria Memorial up a flight of stairs, surrounded by teeny weeny water bodies. around which are impressive black marble statues. Completed in 1924, the memorial itself is in white marble and is topped by a magnificent bronze sculpture of Victory.
 
 
 
A gate flanked by rows of flower beds leads you into St James Park. It’s nice being in the midst of nature, with the fallen leaves at the dawn of autumn working their charm, while squirrels and well fed at that, engage you with their run-arounds and poses. Had you been in a movie, they would have been talking. The serpentine artificial lake adds gentleness and an avenue to sit on the corrugated chairs while you watch kids extending a playing hand to the scores of swans, ducks, geese and more. A nice wooden restaurant adds character. As you walk past the little paths, in sight come the St James Palace in the foreground and the famed London eye adorning the background.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A few steps to the right of the St James Palace and left, and you are mesmerized by the gleaming gold of the Big Ben, assuming the sunlight is just right. The walk till the giant clock tower, formally known as the Elizabeth Tower, is anything but swift, for you stop every now and then thinking every new spot can be that one spot which will win you the Nobel in Photography some day.
 
 
 
The Big Ben is a clock tower and part of the Westminster Palace which houses the UK Parliament. Commissioned in 1859, it’s the world’s 2nd largest four-faced chiming clock.
 
While at the Big Ben, its prudent to check out or actually ride the London Eye just across the river, if you so fancy; or you could just enjoy the view standing on the bridge letting the gushing winds feel the skin of your face.
 
 
 
While on the Westminster bridge, as we admired the classic Westminster Palace with the imposing Big Ben, and the modern sensation London Eye, amidst touristic frenzy cooled down by the wind from the Thames, we noticed boats with equally frenzy tourists and locals right beneath us. We quickly found that these boats ply on the Thames, and quickly made up our minds that we are going to go to Greenwich on a boat the next full day we would be in London post our Scottish sojourn. We quickly chucked the idea of doing the touristy, expensive but lame Thames River Cruise, and embraced the idea of the Water Taxi. When in London, do as the Londoners do. 
 
So the on the designated day, we reached the Victoria Embankment Boat station, tapped our oh so convenient Oyster cards to pay the 6.50 pounds fare each, and boarded the white, long boat, similar to the one pictured with the London Eye above.
 
Finding yourself in the midst of the Thames, with the roar of the engine, and the beauty of the banks on your right and left is ecstatic to say the least. As you whizz past the typical riverside attractions in London, you alternately admire the riverine city, and click pictures while committing everything to memory for vivid recall. Starting from the London Eye, we passed beneath the Westminster Bridge, gorging on the Westminster Palace and Big Ben, kept moving past the Waterloo Bridge, The Blackfriar’s Bridge, the pedestrian only Millenium Bridge, with the exquisite St Paul’s Cathedral in a not so far distance on one side and the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globes on the other. Moving ahead, we crossed the Southwark bridge and found ourselves under the London Bridge. Now was the time to take a decision, whether to admire the beautiful city staying farther behind us or feast our eyes on the gorgeous and the most famous Tower Bridge. It’s exquisite is an understatement. Near the Tower Bridge, we also had a peek at the Tower of London. Past the Tower Bridge, we kept moving, clicking some gleaming glass buildings, most notably the Gherkin in the distance on our left and the tallest building in Europe- the Shard on our right. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sailing past the sharp southward bend in the river, with the financial district of Canary Wharf to our left, we soon were at the Greenwich Pier. We had expected Greenwich to a solitary eponymous observatory. Little did we know that observatory is like the inner chambers of an elaborate royal palace. You have to pass through layers to reach the king. This meant our estimation of time to be spent here went for a full toss. However we didn’t regret it one bit. Right in front of the pier is the Old Royal Naval College. And it’s a treat with a little museum chronicling its history along with Greenwich’s. It also has interactive boards where you can enjoy some fun with the picture puzzle, or interactive screens where you can see the change in London’s skyline over the years and even vote for the new buildings which should come up, or not.
 
Right behind are two of the most gorgeous buildings- the Painted Hall and the Royal Naval College Chapel. They look like twins welcoming you to admire them from the outside and infinitely more so from the inside. The Painted Hall in particular takes your breath away with its exquisite, gasp inducing painted walls and ceiling. Words can’t describe the ethereal beauty of these interiors. Nor does the camera do any justice, rather it just offers a crude introduction. See it to believe it.
 
 
The Painted Hall’s Ceiling
 
The Painted Hall
 
The Chapel as seen from the Painted Hall
 
Inside the Royal Naval Chapel
 
Us flanked by the Painted Hall and the Royal Naval Chapel on either side
Soon we made our way towards the Greewich Hill Park- yes, it’s on top of a little hill, with lush green lawns all around and on the top. The stairway is pretty, flanked by trees and stray leaves. But what leaves you spellbound is the fantastic view of London from the top. Its so delightful that you almost forget why you climbed up the stairs.
 
 
 
Having seen the Greenwich mean line and admired London from a distance, we took the bus from Greenwich to the Tower Bridge. We hadn’t had our fill of the romantic Tower Bridge yet for sure. Crossing it, we stopped to click and commit views to memory and got down on the other side by the pretty river promenade. Had a good look at the Tower of London from the outside. The World Heritage site of the Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and the Fortress of the Tower of London was built in 1078 by William the Conquerer and has been a symbol of oppression as well as the crown of England through various times in its long History.
 
The Majestic Tower Bridge with the phallic Shard in the background
 
 
 
Old with the new- Ramparts of the Tower of London, with the modern Glass Towers in the background across the Thames
Meandering past the Tower, we set out to see the City of London- which is also the primary office district in the whole of London. However it doesn’t just house offices, there are landmarks galore- old and new. St Paul’s Cathedral is the most famous landmark this side of the town. And it’s really beautiful. As the sun sets, the dome is lit in fiery colours and is quite a sight from everywhere it can be seen.
 
St Paul’s Cathedral in its pristine glory
 
 
The fiery lit dome of St Paul’s as seen from the other side of the Thames Promenade near Southwark Bridge
 
The Fire Monument
 Also within the City of London is the Monument to the Great Fire of London of 1666. Situated near the London Bridge, it has stair leading to the top with a viewing gallery which costs 4 pounds a person. We really wanted to ascend to the top, however they have daily number of people restrictions and we happened to arrive a little late in the day.
 
The Shard as seen from the City of London
 
Walking and cycling past the quiet, yet appealing boulevards of the City of London, we had dinner at the Greek Restaurant on the Thames Promenade near the Southward Bridge, before cycling back to our pad, taking in the night view of the city.
 
 
 
 
While I could go on and on about the Tower Bridge and Greenwich, the day previous to this wasn’t any less fun. We did the lively Trafalgar Square, the serene yet teeming Leicester Square, the supremely happening Piccadilly Circus, and amidst all the sights and sounds, class of the masters of the bygone era at the National Gallery.
 
Trafalgar Square commemorates the British Naval victory during the Napoleonic wars, more specifically the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. It has fountains designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and the 169 foot tall Nelson Column flanked by four guard lions. These lions are quite popular as photo ops with people riding them, or sitting in their laps or simply happy posing in the front.
 
 
 
 
 
St Martin-in-the-fields Church
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Right in front is the National Gallery, a rich repository of Renaissance and medieval European art. It’s huge would be an understatement. You could spend hours and not finish it if you fancy the rich vivid colours by the likes of Van Gogh, Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Jan Van Eyck, Carvaggio, Turner and many more. There’s a nice coffee shop and two souvenir shops too. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A few steps away from the Trafalgar Square is the theatre district of London-the Leicester Square. It had started to rain when we reached there. With leaves strewn around, and leisurely strolling locals and tourists alike, it was picture-postcard-like. There were a few kiosks selling tickets to the shows. In general the shows are quite pricey. However, there are some last minute deals up for grabs, and people actually wait patiently to buy the same. It’s like brokers with their hawkish eyes on the fate of share market movements. There’s also a nice statue of Shakespeare in the middle of a park.
 
 
Shakespeare
Further still is the famous Piccadilly Circus and what a place it is! Be it day or night, this place is always buzzing. With restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping galore, your feet may get tired, but you can’t get tired of the place. There’s also the throbbing Chinatown in the vicinity with some great food options. At night the area including the adjoining Regent and Oxford streets dazzles with white light. This part of London never sleeps.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Last day of our London trip was reserved for the great British Museum and some shopping. However on our way, while cycling, we came across the Natural History Museum, and decided to have a quick dekko. There was a little queue to get in, with parents with their little ones dominating the scene.
The impressive building is built in a mix of Victorian and Romanesque styles and was completed in 1801.
 
Once inside, we were greeted by the enormity of the 105 foot replica/cast of the Diplodocus Carnegiie dinosaur. The original skeleton lies at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh USA. This cast was commissioned by the famous Scottish American Andrew Carnegie in 1905 at a cost of 2,000 pounds and gifted to the then Natural History wing of the British Museum.
 
Another huge attraction at the Museum is the skeleton of a Blue Whale and a parallel real life cast of the same.
 
Also notable is the Dinosaur section with many real skeletons as well as life size moving replicas.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Happy at spotting the humongous dinosaurs, whales and other beautiful creatures, we cycled towards the British Museum passing the famous but fallen vestige of the East India Company, which is no more than a small shop now. Time changes everything.
 
However, time stands still at the grand British Museum. Founded in 1753,  it was opened to the public in 1759 in the Montagu House, which is still the main building; however greatly expanded during the succeeding centuries primarily on account of British Colonialism. What this colonialism did however, is that it made the British Museum one of the very few places that chronicles human history from all continents, all major civilisations, in the most comprehensive way. Controversies on legality of occupation of a few exhibits, and feelings of National pride or hurt aside, it’s a fantastic place to be at. And like all National Museums in the UK, entry is free. It’s surely is a history connoisseur’s delight.
 
We took the 5 pound audio guide, which is basically a smart phone, with sections such as Most Visited, Must See, and Gallery wise. Not all exhibits are on the Audio Guide. However the most famous ones surely are. We tried using the Must See sections, but it’s too cumbersome moving back and forth between huge halls just to see one or two exhibits in each. Quickly abandoning the idea, we started on our journey through the various halls mostly one after the other. We would stop at whatever caught our fancy, have a good look, read about it on the adjacent plaque, or listen on the Audio Guide if that exhibit had a place on it. 
 
The highlights of our visit were the grand real Mummies in the Egyptian section, the Mesopotamian and Greek sections. We couldn’t cover the entire museum, but what we did will stay in our memories for a long time to come, and then we plan to revisit and redo the entire thing and more.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
London has many more attractions-major and minor, which would take weeks if not months to cover. We are quite happy with what we could do this time and may be, god willing, will cover more the next time we are there.
 
But London is not just about sights. It’s a complete city with loads of culture, day and night life, shopping and much more.
 
Culture
The British or rather the English culture is fairly formal, a la the stiff upper lip. Yet, people are courteous with generous doses of Sorrys and Thank Yous thrown in. London, being the cosmopolitan melting pot that it is, is more relaxed than elsewhere in England, yet more energetic, happening and delightful in its own way. There are people from all around the globe. In my limited travel experience, it’s next only to New York City when it comes to number of languages spoken, skin colours and accents on display per square foot of street space. People are chatty and there’s fun galore.
 
As I have mentioned before, we spent a day in London prior to our Scottish trip, for the Notting Hill Carnival. It has been held at and around Notting Hill in London since 1966, on the Monday and preceding Sunday of the August Bank Holiday. Led by the British Carribean community it symbolizes freedom, and equality of races; and is one of the most prominent British cultural events, attended by over 1 million visitors each year.
 
If there is fun and camaraderie in life, it’s on the street, and definitely on the streets of Notting Hill. People are dressed exquisitely as birds, animals and what not in dazzling colours. There’s music all around with large truck based bands moving about. It’s a large street party, opera for some, claustrophobic for others. It was once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for us, thoroughly enjoyable and immensely immersive. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It’s not just the festivals and events where London comes alive, rather its everywhere, none more notable than the Trafalgar Square. Within half an hour, we saw an amazing juggling show, a flags of the world game, a band playing, people masquerading as Batman, dancers, and the customary Statue people. It’s literally overflowing.
 
 
 
 
 
There’s much more including theatre, performances, sports and the like. Just look up online any time of the year, and you will find something to indulge in.
 
Food & Shopping
English food can be fairly bland, however the customary Burgers, Fish n’ Chips must be tried with some craft beer. But you are in London. No food from any part of the world is too difficult to find. 
Best places are strewn across London; however tourists would do well to stick to Piccadilly Circus, or after a days’ shopping around Oxford Street. Another great area would be the numerous restaurants and pubs on the promenades on both sides of the Thames. These come with some seriously good views. 
 
We would generally spend the day walking, cycling or simply sightseeing, with not enough time for elaborate spreads, which we reserved for evenings. During the day, the Wasabi chain of quick service Japanese restaurants really caught our fancy, with their sumptuous Bentos and Sushis. They are found everywhere in the city.
 
Like food, shopping is easy to find in London across preferences. Even budget ranges are not that big a problem if you plan well. Harrods, Regent street and the like are some of the pricier places, but definitely worth a dekko. More affordable options are strewn across Oxford and Bond streets with almost all the brands having a presence or more. For the budget conscious, there can’t be a better place than Primark stores. It’s huge, crowded to say the least, and has a great range of clothes, shoes and accessories. You can’t beat their prices when in the UK. Yet the stuff is pretty good. Not only Primark, you can go to a plethora of places like Zara, H&M, Mango, Forever21 and many more in the budget to semi-premium categories. If you fancy the even more upmarket stuff, stroll towards Regent street or queue up at Harrods.
 
Getting around in London
Cycling enthusiasts that we are, we found London’s Cycle sharing scheme tailor-made and a blessing. It really is outstanding, and fairly simple to use. You can go to any of the hundreds of docking stations liberally strewn across the city, swipe your bank card for a 2 pound fee, get a printed code receipt, enter the code on the particular cycle dock; and once the light flashes green, viola pull the bike out. If you plan to stay in London longer, a more convenient way is to download the Santander Cycle sharing app, pay online, and generate the code online on your phone each time. Even better is to get a key from the authorities if you become a long term member of the scheme.

 

Regular or not, the app really helps find the location of docking stations near you. It really comes in handy when you have to return the bike. And the way the scheme operates, you can’t afford to leisurely look for one to dock. Simply because, in one go you can’t cycle for more than half an hour. If you do, you get charged 2 Pounds per hour of extra usage. If you dock, within the half hour, all you have to do is simply wait for 5 minutes, and follow the same steps to take the same or another cycle for the next 30 minutes, without any extra charge. Simple, Effective, Mind blowing.
 
We did cycle a lot, and it became our primary mode of exploring the city, it’s hidden nooks and corners. However, we did take the famous red double-decker buses and the legendary tube more than once.  With the prepaid Oyster card that you can buy at any tube station, you can simply tap it while entering the tube station, tap out when exiting it, as well as use it to tap as you board a bus or a boat. London transport is really well integrated. Buses are actually cashless, you can’t do without an Oyster.

 

 
Ben Aronovitch wrote: “My dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. he says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus, they have become a Londoner”.
 
PS: Thank you for reading my series on our trip to the UK. Feedback and Comments are welcome; and so are any questions on the trip, planning, places to see, tips and more.. Happy Travelling!

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