Saturday, 29 June 2013

Days 242 to 247: London

Last week, from Sunday to Friday, I was in one of the world's greatest cities. London.

It doesn't matter whether you like London or not, there can't be much dispute about calling it great. You might despise Mohammed Ali, you might hate everything Real Madrid stands for, but you'd be a fool to claim they were anything but among the greats of their disciplines. London likewise. Every time I go, no matter what I do, it's only ever dipping my toes into an ocean; even a full swim is nothing. Being given six days in London, and just four full days, is like putting a child in a Wonka-esque sweet factory and saying "You've got one hour: go!". Should the child try and sample as many flavours as possible, risking a binge-induced vomit? Or should they exercise control and simply suck on some strawberry laces and dabble with some sherbert?

Fortunately, in my case, London is only a five-hour train journey away rather than a rare one-off visit, so I was able to casually peruse the factory for tasty titbits. The reason for the visit was two-fold - to catch up with a variety of friends and family, some not seen for two years, and to visit some of my Wonders. London is not short of great buildings and structures, and three of my Wonders can be found there: Tower Bridge, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Houses of Parliament. Beyond just those three, it has a great number of other notable structures, from palaces to skyscraper to stadiums to railway stations to museums.

Danielle came with me, and we arrived in absolutely terrible shape on late Sunday afternoon. Friday and Saturday had involved some hard drinking - a wedding and then my sister's 30th birthday - and it is inescapable that I am a gradually inflating 34-year-old man and not a spritely young pumped-up 21-year-old buck in the prime of his life. Usually the train journey would have helped my recovery, but I was still exhausted upon arriving. Danielle had an even better excuse - she'd additionally crammed in a friend's hen night and some flower girl dress shopping - but wasn't quite as knackered as me. She is just 29, however.

That evening we were staying at some friends - Chris and JuHyeon, the latter I've known since my time in Korea in 2004 and 2005. They took us out for some drinks at a bar that was so great I wanted to weep. It was both achingly cool and achingly good, with terrific ales on tap, and great and varied decor that should have been pretentious but instead was genuinely quirky and interesting. The place reminded me a bit like an abandoned house, dressed up by art students with short attention spans. If I was providing a useful travel service in this blog I would have remembered the name, but you'll have to be content with the knowledge that it's out there, somewhere, in London. The ales pepped me up considerably.

Next day: Tower Bridge day. Chris and JuHyeon's flat is in Whitechapel, just a half hour's walk from Tower Bridge (and also, as it happens, a mere few minutes walk from the still-active bell foundry that was responsible  for the 13.5 ton bell of Big Ben). After a much-needed lie-in, Danielle and I walked to Tower Bridge, walked over it, then decided it was time for lunch, and ate at a nearby pub. Unfortunately, Danielle chose the salmon, and proceeded to be sick for the rest of the day. Travel service advice: don't eat the salmon at a pub near Tower Bridge, even if it tastes good.

The review of Tower Bridge is already up so you don't need many more words about it. Apart from the visit that day, we also passed by on the Wednesday when taking a tourist boat up the Thames. This passed under Tower Bridge - no need for the bascules to open up, alas - as well as loads of other London bridges. It reinforces, if needed, that Tower Bridge is the event of the Thames river. All the other bridges are just bridges (although the Millennium Bridge is nice) but Tower Bridge is the party piece.

The boat tour - together with some amusing and very flippant commentary from London geezers - went all the way up to Greenwich, passing all the famous sites on the way, such as the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, the Tate Modern, and Canary Wharf. But despite all these famous sights, the highlight was the motley collection of people sharing our tourist boat. At first it seemed like just a handful of guys, seemingly drunk - staggeringly drunk - gathered at the front. They were hard-bitten, munching crisps and making noise, and looked like Russian ex-gangsters (they were way too incapacitated to be functioning gangsters). One smoked copiously and continuously. Early on in the tour, the most vocal of the quartet was thrown off the boat by whom I presume was the guy in charge, for a money-related issue. He took it in good grace, as if being thrown off tourist boats was a regular part of his day.

Soon after, however, it became clear that there were many more of this weird bunch. Danielle observed it first - the most visible quartet-turned-trio were speaking to and getting more crisps from guys scattered across the boat. The group weren't sitting together, they were sitting in ones and twos, with plastic bags full of sandwiches and crisps. Some looked normal, some looked like they'd been drinking and fighting all their lives, and some looked like they'd stepped straight out of a cartoon. One guy, a thin and wiry black guy in ill-fitting clothes, definitely not Russian, wore clear safety glasses (i.e. the kind of glasses I wear offshore for protection) and was wearing a T-shirt - with a big picture of his own face! The rest of the group were white, except for an Asian guy, and so it's very possible they were all Londoners. Danielle had a theory that were all recently-released prisoners, and in the absence of anything else that makes sense, this is what I'll have to go with.

Greenwich made for a very pleasant couple of hours. Half of that time was spent sitting in a pub, looking at the reconstructed Cutty Sark, and the other half was spent wandering in the large park, which led to a great view across the Canary Wharf business district and the Millennium Dome/O2 Arena. I've visited the O2 Arena before, years ago to see Leonard Cohen play live, and found it a dreary, cheap-looking structure, like a tent with cranes sticking out of it. However, from a distance, I rather like it. It's obviously massive, and looks very different from the rest of the skyline. Perhaps I need to revisit it and give it another shot. It could fall under a new category of "Failed Wonders", that is, structures that were built with an eye on being wonderful and world-acclaimed but fell considerably short. In its favour, from an appalling start, it's now a thriving and terrific entertainment venue.

Wednesday morning, immediately prior to the boat trip, had been spent in active Wonder hunting, at the Houses of Parliament. This will be be described in far more detail at a later date, upon the review, but involved the official tour of the building. This is something that needs to planned in advance, via your local MP (I think foreigners can do it during off-season for parliament). Needless to say, it was a fascinating visit, a little like being part of a prestigious film from history, with the occasional famous person passing by. We'd hoped to get tickets for Prime Minister's Questions, but they are limited and it hadn't been possible. Very unfortunately, as I discovered much later by email, our MP - Tom Harris - had offered to meet us for a coffee, inside St Stephen's Hall of the Houses of Parliament. I'd forgotten to pass on my phonenumber, so his assistant had emailed in the hope I had a smartphone. Alas no. I've got to admit, both Danielle and I were fairly gutted about this. At least, unknowingly at the time, in place of that we enjoyed a terrific English breakfast on the opposite bank of the Thames, with a view across to the vast neo-Gothic complex.

I'm holding back on the review until I managed the Big Ben tour, not possible this time, but scheduled for October. Likewise, St Paul's Cathedral will have to wait another day. On Thursday, I met up with Burness, my epic and legendary travel partner across Asia, and a Wonder veteran. He's now living in London, near Brixton, and so Danielle and I stayed with him on our final night there. Danielle was very keen to go shopping on one of our days in London, so like a greyhound at the races, she was off at the first opportunity. Burness and I entertained ourselves by a meander through parts of London, including the Monument to the Great Fire of London.

This was designed by Christopher Wren, for reasons I think the name kind of hints at. It involves lots and lots steps in an ever-tightening spiral, until the small platform at the top offers surprisingly good views across London.

London is currently going through somewhat of a skyscraper explosion, with shiny towers appearing in certain districts like popcorn in a microwave. The Gherkin was one of the first, and certainly the most notable, and is a genuinely impressive and distinctive modern landmark. It's a Norman Foster creation, and I've got to say - I don't know how the hell he did it. On paper, it must have looked like a giant dildo. Seriously, if I'd drawn that, I'd have looked at it and laughed. But 200 metres tall, in the middle of London - by God, it works. Whether directly or not, it seems to have inspired a host of other quirky towers that are rapidly cropping up, changing the skyline forever. Of these, the recent Shard has been hitting most of the headlines for various reasons: it is the tallest building in the UK and the European Union (non-EU Russia has the tallest building in Europe itself), it costs a ridiculous £25 to go to the observation level, and it looks mental.

I've got very mixed feelings about it. It's daring and a very striking feature of London, but I have to admit, it looks unfinished. I get what they're doing with the top - it's meant to look like shards of glass - but to the untrained eye - just about all visitors to London - it simply looks like they forgot to put  the top on. Also, it looks like a poor cousin of the truly awesome Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang.

Overall, the Gherkin and the Shard and all the other buildings with names increasingly shoehorned upon them - the Toaster, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater - boost the skyline of London, but I hope they are contained within strict areas. London isn't New York or a modern Asian city. It shouldn't feel restricted by its history, as every city needs to move with the times and not remain frozen in a previous era, but it also shouldn't lose its character.

St Paul's Cathedral is a good example of what can happen if you lose respect for your heritage. It's a truly wonderful cathedral, but is very crowded out by surrounding offices and buildings. Sailing down the Thames, the huge dome is visible, but little else is. Burness and I continued on from the Monument for a passing visit to St Paul's, another construction by Christopher Wren and this time his masterpiece. Just prior to arriving, Burness had been questioning its inclusion on my list, but when it came into sight it all made perfect sense again. A recent, extensive renovation has renewed its glory, and it's a real gem within the city. At an obscene £16 entry however, we both said "no chance". Next time I visit London, I'll pay the money and have a good wander, including going right up into the dome (I did so years ago and it was fantastic), and I also intend going to a Sunday church service, for free thankfully. But this time, Burness and I were wanting a more casual day, so we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening drinking.

That was the rough outline of our handful of days in London. There was a little more socialising - with Chris and JuHyeon on Monday evening, catching up with family for most of Tuesday, and on Wednesday we met with one of Danielle's friends and I watched with dismay as the GDP of Scotland went on a few cocktails. On Friday, in far better health than when we'd arrived, it was goodbye to London, and back to Scotland. London part 1: one full Wonder visit, one half visit, and one recon trip. Next time I'll get it done.


  1. The last time I was in London was 2002 so I haven't seen many of the new towers that have gone up since. In fact back then they were still finishing some at Canary Wharf.

    I have mixed feelings about London in terms of its architecture and overall urban layout; like you say above, St Paul's as a monument was not meant to be hemmed in by taller but less imposing buildings (reminds me of St Patricks Cathedral in New York: by contrast to its surroundings it looks like a parish church). And while it undeniably has some very beautiful buildings, it also has an abundance of ugly ones. Of course it has been shaped by its history (Great Fire, Blitz, 1960s town planners...).

    I have to admit that each time I hear of a new oddly-shaped skyscraper going up in London I sort of think to myself "Well, it won't really make a difference now".

    Having said that I think that at ground level it is a fascinating city to explore. It just doesn't have that overall feel of urban harmony of cities that leave their most impressive monuments to be seen at their best without cluttering them with all sorts of architectural distractions.

    1. London wasn't a city I took to immediately, but it has really grown on me. There are few cities in the world, if any, that are as interesting. I agree that it doesn't have much in the way of urban harmony, but it has so much crammed into its sprawl it becomes like a crazy ice-cream of a hundred flavours (some great, some not) as compared to a smooth single-flavoured one.

      I actually think the new skyscrapers have the potential to add a little harmony to the city, so long as they are kept to the same area(s). But some of the historic stuff - St Paul's is the prime example - are not treated at all well, although the Millennium Bridge linking its riverside to that of the Tate Modern does help.


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