Imagining London, I’d always imagined a very literary type of city. In my mind’s eye I would see soot-stained houses with little Oliver Twists running around, the genteel houses where Jane Bennet would have stayed or even perhaps the magnificent grand arched stations where Harry Potter boarded the train towards his true home.
Although London provided all of that, its architecture and (to my shame) people were fare more modern than anything I’d ever imagined. The city manages to beautifully blend the old with the very new and the subdued with the funkier grungy vibes that I’ve come to associate with Berlin. As such, it was the perfect background to our little wanderlust-cure.
4 a.m. wake-up call
About a month and a half before we left, both Erik and I were in the midst of a serious bout of wanderlust. With our summer holiday fully planned but still months away, the Dutch spring and summer being drab and rainy and our last holiday together some five months past, we needed to go on a little trip. We decided on London because I’d wanted to visit it for years, having gone once whilst I was sick and having since made friends living there while I travelled the world. So, London it would be.
That is why at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning, we were rudely awoken by my buzzing alarm. In order to save money on our rather expensive hotel and to still get the most out of our visit, we’d planned a 7 a.m. flight. Still half asleep but feeling excited we brush our teeth, put on comfy clothes, get our bags that we’d packed the night before and make our way to the train.
It always surprises me that no matter how early I get up (or how late I’m still up), there’s always other people around getting to work. This time was no different especially since our train was very full – turns out more people were going to the airport at such an early hour.
We kill time during the train ride and consecutive successive flight by listening to music (or podcasts) and reading the books we’d brought along. For me, this makes the time fly as I am just finishing Room and was already looking forward to shopping for a new book in one of the many bookshops I’d planned to visit!
Breakfast with a view
We arrive safe and sound, get through customs, board a train and in other words, do all the boring stuff that is as much a part of travelling as all the sightseeing and fancy food eating is. Food is the next thing on my mind as I haven’t had any in hours; plane food not being my cup of tea – but really, is it anyone’s? I’ve read that a decent breakfast can be had at the Sky Pod Bar or Sky Garden at the Millbank Tower.
We take a tube there, talk our way passed the very luxuriously dressed but cranky receptionist and arrive just before the big crowds to enjoy a massive muffin and a rather stale cookie with our coffee and the promised view. Through the windows and on an outside balcony we can see all of London and not even the fire drill – that we only find out is a drill after several minutes of the alarm going off, but nobody responding to the call to walk the 30 stories back down – can stop us from enjoying our first moments in London.
Walking and books
After breakfast we head down, make our way through the crowds that are just now arriving and start the walk we’ve planned. We walk past the Tower of London, cross Tower Bridge, enjoy the south bank and walk back to the north side crossing London Bridge where I have a happy moment feeling like Bridget Jones in one of her happy phases.
Looking at the map, we figure we can walk most of this day as most things we want to see are about a 30-minute walk apart. I sort of forgot what it means to walk all day, especially since we’ve both got backpacks we haven’t yet been able to drop off at the hotel, but walking this city should be worth it.
So, we make our way past St. Pauls Cathedral to Soho where we walk another of my trusty little Lonely Planet walks this time through Soho (I love Lonely Planet, even though I know it showcases the touristy stuff and not necessarily the “real” places). It’s fun to walk this part of town and be shocked about the prices to rent a house here. After a while, we come across some food stalls and eat one of the best wraps I have ever eaten!
After lunch, it’s time to do some shopping – because not shopping a little bit in a town like London is a shame. Or, more accurately, not shopping for books in a town I’ve always associated with literature would be a shame. We visit a few shops selling cameras first, but then I drag Erik with me to Foyles (apparently very well known), the biggest Waterstones in Europe (I love the multiple stories of books, but feel overwhelmed by the insane amount of choices) and the oldest bookshop in town: Hatchards. He patiently let’s me browse the stacks as long as I want until it really is time to head towards the hotel.
Westminster and double tree cookies
Our hotel is located near Westminster so we head in that direction via Buckingham Palace. Once we’ve spotted Big Ben I ask Erik how we are going to get to our hotel. At this point I find out that he has only a vague sense of where we are heading, but is full of certainty we’ll find it. Having walked some 20 kilometres and getting hungry, I am not so sure and crankily make him look up the address and street we are supposed to get to. Turns out he was right about our route and afterwards a apologize for being a hungry diva – something I am sure to do again at some point and something I really should work on.
We get to the hotel and the highly anticipated cookie. Apparently the Hilton Double Tree hotel has a policy that they’ll give you your room for free if they are not able to provide you with… a warm chocolate chip cookie! I wasn’t able to find any written confirmation of this policy, but am somewhat hoping they won’t have the cookie – I’d love to get our room refunded.
That is, until I actually get the cookie. Hands down, this is the best cookie in the world! I am not even exaggerating. The dough is perfectly crisp and warm and the chocolate chips are still slightly molten from the warming drawer. I have to suppress the urge to roll back my eyes and moan, that is how amazing this cookie is! Better yet, they’ll give you more cookies if you negate on room service! I’ll happily have my sheets go unwashed for two days for these babies!
Meeting friends part I
We rest our tired feet, read our (ok my) new book en check out the pictures we’ve taken so far for about an hour. After that, it’s time to make our way towards Greenwich (apparently pronounced as Gren- ich) to meet up with one of my travel friends Emily, and her fiancé Will. Two tube rides and a 15-minute walk later we are able to meat them at the Trafalgar pub.
I’m always a bit apprehensive about meeting up with friends I’ve met while travelling, because you never know how well you can get along in normal life. Thankfully, the four of us fall into the same easy banter I remember from when they came to visit us two years previous and the same fun Emily and I had five years ago in Cape Town.
After drinks and a lot of discussion – bemoaning really – of the recent vote for Brexit, we make our way to their house for dinner: a lasagne a la Nigella Lawson. We laugh and drink and eat and talk about everything from Game of Thrones to Brexit again until Emily’s sister comes home with news of a potential coup happening in Turkey. With the events of Nice just one day behind us we are all in shock. Really, at times I wonder what this world is coming to!
As it is getting quite late by now (and keeping in mind we haven’t slept since 4 a.m. this morning) we leave to make our way to our hotel and our beds, but not before we’ve agreed to meet up again on Sunday. It’s great to see how some friendships can last through 5 years of not seeing one another and staying in minimal contact. The only thing missing is meeting up with the third member of our no. 1 Ladies Book Agency: Lilly. Hopefully we’ll be able to reunite at one point though.
Elevators and Kensington Gardens
The next morning, we sleep in just long enough to catch some rest and then it is on again for another full day of city exploring. We try to head down, but the elevator is taking forever and so we go in search of some stairs. We find a staircase in a remote corner of our floor, but unsure if we’re allowed to use them we walk back to the elevator. The elevator still hasn’t come so screw it, we are taking the stairs.
With a small group we rebelliously walk down the stairs, only to find that we are unable to open any of the doors on other floors. At the ground floor, one of the staff happens to walk in and after an embarrassed telling of our tale she lets us out of what is apparently a back door. At least we are on our way now!
As we are looking for a place to eat breakfast in the sun that has finally begun to shine, we discover that London isn’t really a city for terraces. Even in this rather touristy part of town we can’t find a place to sit outside. In the end, we have to content ourselves with sitting on a small curb, under a small overhanging where window washers are washing the windows just above our heads. Far from the idyllic breakfast I’d imagined – and so far have had only in the Redwood National Forrest at the Requa Inn – but good enough to keeps us walking for a couple of hours.
Last night, we decided we would walk through the Kensington Gardens to Notting Hill and we set off accordingly. Today, the weather has become hot and humid – just the type of weather you’d expect visiting London – and so we make it a leisurely stroll. The park is nice enough, with a lot of people running and exercising and we have a great time people-watching along the way.
Around lunchtime we make it to Notting Hill. Of course, this being a Saturday, all the tourists have read the same thing I have: Notting Hill has a great market on Saturdays, so go visit is in throngs! Although it’s fun to see the famous coloured houses – and pick the one I will live in one day – the constant crush of people gets to me and I become somewhat cranky.
We decide to continue on for a little while, finding the actual market, which is great. There are many touristy stalls, but also many selling what looks like antiques, lovely fruit and hats that I just have to try on. We find a very (un)official Banksy-store and by then I’ve really had it with all the people around, so we had back to the park for some lunch and rest.
As I doze in the green grass, Erik – who being more introverted them I am always seems strangely unaffected by crowds – goes on to explore the park a bit more. Afterwards, we decide to take a bus back to our metro stop to continue on to our next meeting (though we take a bit of a detour along the Royal Albert Hall first).
Meeting friends part II
This time, we are meeting Emma and Emma. One of them I met during my overland trip from China to Bangkok – the other is her friend we’re also meeting. The image of Emma I remember most vividly is of us struggling up a Chinese mountain with somewhere close to 50 hairpin bends, cursing our heads off and coining the phrase “stress induced Tourret’s”.
We meet up just outside a tiny little festival and it’s great to see each other again. We manage to get some food, find a nice place to sit and enjoy the music and mostly to chat. It’s been ages since we’ve seen each other so there is plenty of catching up to do, not to mention the insane amount of reminiscing.
After a while we decide to go and explore the Southbank of the river Thames a bit more. Turns out there is plenty to see; from an open air book market and a city beach to lots of beautiful graffiti and funky food stalls. After our stroll we take the boat – no mode of transportation left unused this trip! – to the O2 theatre to enjoy a nice meaty meal.
Rodizio Rico serves meat on skewers that they cut for you upon arrival. So basically you just have to sit there and wait for tender meat to be served. It would be even better if semi-naked man put it directly into your mouth, but this was pretty awesome as well. The only downside was that a lot of the meat was rather salty and not always as rare as I love it.
We are still trying to decide whether or not the food was worth the boat ride, but at least we agree that the boat ride gave as a wonderful view of the Thames. And as long as it took to get to the O2, that is how amazingly short the metro trip back is. So, we get to relax a little before our next and final day.
This is the day we have to check-out of our hotel, which means this is also the day we get another cookie for using the same towels 3 days in a row. At the final instant I become somewhat embarrassed to actually ask for the cookie. As Erik has magically forgotten the word “cookie” we stand in front of the receptionist getting stuck in our words. Once she knows what we are after, she grins.
“How did I know that was what you were going to ask. You guys have cookie-faces!” she laughs and proceeds to give us a stack of these babies. Happy as a couple of kids in a candy-store, we walk out of the hotel with our candy and eat them while they’re still warm. Best breakfast ever – though maybe not the healthiest.
Regent’s Park and Camden
Both Emma and Emily told us East London would be fun to walk through, so after our sugary chocolaty breakfast we decide to take a metro towards Regent’s Park to have our official breakfast, before meandering through Camden.
We get off the tube at Baker street and just as I am trying to remember if this is indeed the street where the infamous literary hero Sherlock Holmes lived, I come upon his statue. We greet each other and smirk at the insane amount of people in front of Madame Tussaud’s waiting to take a picture with one of their favourite celebrities – or other persons who are known to the public. The line stretches around the corner and Erik and I are baffled as to why on earth anyone would want to spend the morning in the sweltering heat, standing in line to see a bunch of wax statues.
Happy to escape the crowds we walk into Regent’s Park. To me, this is the kind of park you imagine when going to a British park. It is well laid out, impeccably kept and full of places where you can sit and read a book. I actually become a little bit obsessed with a girl doing exactly that, dressed nonchalantly but stylishly and I really just want to be her in that moment. Erik had to tell me not to stare and eat my granola, but really, is there anything more perfect than to spend your Sunday morning reading a good book in the sun – or staring at someone doing just that?
After that serenity, Camden is a bit of a let-down. We stroll around, but to us it seems just like any other big city backwards neighbourhood. As such, we decide to just go to Whitechapel (via platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross that we happen to pass!) and from there make our way to Brick Lane where we can find a place to eat lunch and meet up with Emily and Will again.
Meeting friends part III
According to both Emily, both Emma’s and my Lonely Planet guide, Brick
lane is a multicultural eclectic vibrant street with amazing food and street-art. When we get there however, the first part of the street doesn’t look very inviting and after walking on for a bit, it doesn’t really get any better. We decide to go to a tiny French bistro – in London – for lunch as everything else looks decrepit.
We have our lunch at Chez Elles and wait for Emily and Will, determined to meet them and then go someplace else that they recommend. After we meet them, we are a bit shy in saying this – apparently we are shy today; not really our normal m.o. – and so we walk a bit further on.
Brick lane and the City
And this is when we discover the brilliance of Brick lane. Just a few minutes’ walk from where we had our o.k. lunch, we happen upon a food market that serves the best smelling curries and a myriad of other foods that make my mouth water in spite of the fact that my stomach is still full.
We walk past street-art of all kinds, past cloth stalls that make my wallet want to just jump in my hand and ever more food stalls. At one point, we go into a warehouse and in the back there is a summer party – complete with fake grass and everything. We consume a pitcher of Pimms – best summer drink ever I now discover! – and chill out in the sun. If only we could stay! I would love to discover more of the city with Emily and Will as clearly they know where to go!
Slowly we make our way from the old and until recently abandoned buildings via the actual historic buildings towards the City and all its modernity. We are shown a part of town that is buzzing during weekdays, but much more quite during the weekend and are told many regaling historical anecdotes.
We are thoroughly enjoying ourselves, but sadly the time has come for us to head to the airport and back home. We say our goodbyes with many promises of visits that will not be another two years in the making.
I am really hoping I am not starting a new tradition, but the journey back home is not without it’s (minor) issues. In Berlin it was the cabin crew, in London it’s the plane itself.
At first we are delayed by about 30 minutes and boarding commences about the time we should have left. Then, as we are standing on the runway, ready for take-off, we taxi back. The pilot announces that they got some sort of technical alarm when everything seemed fine and they are just checking it out to be sure. Later he announces that the mechanics say this happens all the time and we can just take off – really the kind of thing you wish to hear just before you travel the sky in an iron cylinder across the sea.
After a flight without any incidences we land at Schiphol Airport, miss our train and get home more than an hour after I’d thought. The next day at work would be survived with copious amounts of coffee, but this trip was worth every second of it.
London, I love you!