London: A Tale of Three Cities
If the presence of a cathedral maketh a city, then it follows that London is not one city, but three. Westminster — which most people think of as the capital — the City, with St Paul’s Cathedral and, across the river, Southwark, also with its cathedral, and the Tabard Inn, whence Chaucer’s pilgrims set off at the start of the Canterbury Tales.
So when the editor of this magazine said, “I’ve had a great idea. Three cities for the price of one — and spending as little money as possible!” my initial excitement (Paris/Dubai/New York — and all expenses paid!) cooled only a little when he explained he meant a weekend in London. The city in which I grew up. And live. And know inside out.
At least, I thought I did. In fact, London is the gift that keeps on giving, with so many facets that it is impossible to know them all, as I was to learn. Dr Johnson was right; “When a man [or woman, thanks very much, Doc] is tired of London, he [or she, without being repetitive] is tired of life”…
So, challenge accepted. The first thing I would say is, if you’re on a budget, eschew the main tourist attractions such as the Shard or the London Eye. Fine attractions indeed, but with prices to match. Keep your costs down and at the same time, learn far more about this great city, not from on high, but at street level. With specialist equipment, much neglected these days, your feet.
First stop, Whitechapel…
Being a native west Londoner, I confess that this is a part of the city with which I was quite unfamiliar. You could sum it up thus:
Things I Know About Whitechapel
It’s where Jack the Ripper despatched his victims
It’s the cheapest property on a Monopoly board
Actually, that’s your lot.
So I girded my loins, jumped on the train to Waterloo and wended my way to Aldgate East on the Tube. A word of advice; invest in an Oystercard for unlimited all-day travel, capped at just £7 for the central zones, and allowing unlimited travel on the Tube, all buses and trams, the Docklands Light Railway (tremendous fun — sit at the very front and pretend you are in control of the train), and most Overground and National Rail suburban routes in London.
From Aldgate East, the first spot to head for is the Whitechapel Art Gallery, an eclectic mix of modern art (though, in fairness, I would use the word ‘art’ loosely on some of the more outlandish displays…)
www.whitechapgallery.org; 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX; 020 7522 7888; admission, free
After all that culture, it is practically legislation enshrined in the Magna Carta (I might have made that up) that one is entitled to coffee and cake. Luckily, next door, you’ll find the wonderful Exmouth Coffee Company www.exmouthcoffee.co.uk; 83 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX; 0207 377 1010
If coffee and cakes aren’t really your thing or you just don’t snack between meals how about trying something considered to be a truly British institution… go for an Indian meal. We went to Tayyabs, an east London institution that has been serving up chops, kebabs and kokte (spicy minced sausages) for more than 40 years. A Punjabi restaurant, it’s renowned for their grilled lamb chops but if you don’t eat meat you could try a delicious dhal. Watch out though — the price you really pay is queuing up outside and this can sometimes take up to an hour on a busy day. (www.tayyabs.co.uk); 83-89 Fieldgate Street, London E1 1JU; 0207 247 9543; bring your own bottle.
There is an alternative to this — you could wander down Brick Lane, a small road bustling with bars, restaurants, galleries, shops and market stalls., Here you will be hustled by restaurants trying to lure you in and you can decide which one looks the most tempting.
Don’t forget, with all this wandering around, to keep your eyes open for the amazing street art which is all around you. Karim Samuels from Street Art London, helped us discover it on shutters, walls, lampposts and paving stones. Who knew there was more to street art than just graffiti? This is a great tour for those of us who have trouble weaning our teenagers out of bed and/or off their screens. Karim brings it all alive and the added bonus is that you are outside in the open. www.streetartlondon.co.uk; 07708 323 731 – Karim Samuels.
We stayed at the Ibis Budget Whitechape,l which is a short walk from Whitechapel and Aldgate East tube stations. This is a no-frills budget hotel that is modern, clean and simple, with air conditioning. It serves an all-you-can-eat breakfast, but there is no restaurant. It houses free wifi throughout and flat screen TVs in all the rooms. Showers are in the bedrooms and are spacious (more so than the rooms), you can even see well enough to shave in there with an LED light in the actual shower…easier than home! It’s a 20-minute walk from the Tower of London and the City of London.
The following morning, it was back onto the Tube and on to Southwark. This is another area that is so easy to miss as you pass from station to station, or are racing in and out of the Tate Modern…so busy? No time to stop? This time, stop and take the time to explore. Hungry again? Or just a gourmand? Makes no difference, head over to Borough Market. Welcome to a foodies’ paradise and one of the oldest food markets in London encompassing a variety of stalls and street food from all over the world. From cheeses and oysters to curries and paella there is something for everybody, and it would be rude not to wash it all down with a glass of wine or two. www.boroughmarket.org.uk; 8 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TL; 0207 407 1002; Openings hours for the full market are Wednesday/Thursday 10am- 5pm, Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 8am-5pm.
Once you have finished feasting, you will probably benefit from a constitutional walk. The Southwark Cathedral is on the side of the market. It’s rather nice to slip in here, get out of the hustle and bustle of the market and have a few moments of quiet. Did you know that Southwark Cathedral is mentioned in the Doomsday Book? www.cathedral.southwark.anglican.org; London Bridge, London SE1 9DA; 0207 367 6700.
I wish my children were still young enough to enjoy a visit to the Golden Hinde II. This is a must if you have young children who love pirates. It is a reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon. They run all sorts of events that would appeal to those who fancy an afternoon of marauding, young and old. Golden Hinde II; www.goldenhinde.com; Units 1 & 2 Pickfords Wharf, Clink Street, London SE1 9DG; 0207 403 0123.
Walking along the river toward Waterloo you pass Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. If the thought of Shakespeare puts you into a coma, just pass by and enjoy looking at the reconstructed building. However, if you fancy going to see a production, tickets are just £5 on the day. Much as it was in the Bard’s day, when people simply turned up for a good bawdy evening at the theatre. www.shakespearesglobe.com; 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT; 0207 401 9919.
Tate Modern, the world-famous cathedral to modern art is just beyond this theatre in an imposing industrial edifice, formerly the Bankside Power Station. Entrance is free except for the special exhibitions. Take a wander just to admire the brickwork. You could always just pop in to the shop to buy yourself a Tate mug, which might impress your friends at home. www.tate.org.uk; Bankside, London SE1 9TG; 0207 887 8888. Opening hours: Daily 10am-6pm apart from Friday and Saturday when it remains open until 10pm.
On a Saturday afternoon people congregate on the grass outside to play football, dance or just people-watch. It’s a great London experience. You could even try and join if you like.
Right, back to food, a subject never far from my heart. The Founders Arms is a lovely pub with stunning views across the river to St Paul’s Cathedral among other things. You can eat inside or out and the menu is reasonably priced. www.foundersarms.co.uk; 52 Hopton Street, Bankside, London SE1 9JH; 0207 928 1899.
Tempted by the view over the Thames after eating, a walk across the Millenium Bridge over to St Paul’s Cathedral seemed only fitting. Sir Christopher Wren designed the cathedral after the Fire of London in 1666 (one of the few dates I can remember from school). Amazing that it only took 35 years to build which seems like no time, all things considered. They certainly can’t have used my builders, or they’d still be at it…
We took refuge inside from the rain and attended choral matins, which was beautiful to listen to, and relaxing to ponder all the magnificent artwork. And possibly due to divine intervention to show godly approval at our brief spiritual sojourn, by the time the service had finished, the weather had cleared. Result! www.stpauls.co.uk; St Paul’s Cathedral, St Paul’s Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD; 0207 246 8350.
We spent a night at the Ibis Southwark Styles Hotel, which is very well located between Waterloo, Southwark and London Bridge stations. It has a car park behind it that backs onto Borough Market. The hotel is great as a business or leisure hotel. The rooms, which are on the small side, are well thought out in terms of space and facilities. You can get an adjoining room with a sofa bed if you come with your children. They have tea- and coffee-making facilities, flat-screen TV and an iron and ironing board, a nice touch. The disco-lights shower was definitely fun. The restaurant looks a bit quiet in the evening but is bustling in the morning with an all-you-can-eat breakfast included in the price. It also has air conditioning. There are plenty of restaurants in the neighbourhood to eat out in. All in all, I would say this is a very good value-for-money hotel.
Right, back on the Tube again, destination – Euston. Euston is a funny part of London, much overlooked by… most other parts of central London. Arriving on a dreary grey day doesn’t really help but I head off to The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. This is a strange mix of medical artefacts and art. Their soundbite is “the free destination for the incurably curious”. It’s definitely a place to take your teens but it isn’t huge so you won’t be there for hours. www.wellcomecollection.org; 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE; 0207 611 2222.
Five mintues’ walk along the traffic-choked Euston Road will bring you to the British Library. Don’t be put off by the façade, which looks like a dull 1970s piece of architecture. Oh, that’s because it is a dull 1970s piece of architecture! Inside, though, the beauty is in the collections. The British Library houses a treasure trove of books and documents. There are two copies of the Magna Carta currently in the Museum but in 2015 they are planning to reunite all four remaining copies for a few days. Currently, there is a comic exhibition being held featuring lots of new comics but also comics that we grew up on. Definitely worth a visit for a trip down Memory Lane. www.bl.uk; 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB; 0843 208 1144.
A trip to Regent’s Park is a very worthwhile experience. If you happen to be there over the summer months, try and get tickets for the open-air theatre, which has a few different plays performing over this period. There are also bird tours you can take, allotment gardens and a wildlife garden to visit. Pick up a sandwich and eat it on a bench in Queen Mary’s Gardens. Walk past the John Nash white, stucco-fronted houses, up to the northern end of the park by the Regent’s Canal. It really is one of London’s loveliest parks. 0300 061 2300.
The Ibis Euston is very accessible to the side of Euston station with a small entrance almost opposite the hotel. The use of modern art and bright colours really makes it a fun place to sit at the bar and restaurant, which are located just to the side of the reception. The food and snacks are exceptional with an international slant. The rooms are quite small and it feels more like a business hotel than a family hotel. It has a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. Definitely in a very convenient location.