Foreword – a brief note of how and how not to traverse London in summer. London is obscenely expensive. Beware.
8 July 2007 – Seeking to save money for more important things, I took Oasis Airlines from Hong Kong to Gatwick Airport in London costing $8,000 in total. Given the numerous changes to the itinerary, the price was acceptable. Since the plane was running a tight ship, we left twenty minutes early – quite a surprise given that most aircraft take off only on time if not later.
I met a British fellow called Sam, who sat next to me on the aft of the cabin. He had been traveling extensively without stopping – if you know what that means in tropical weather. The odours became more bearable only towards the end. He hailed from Shantou where he was teaching English and drinking beer. We used Chinese in a prolonged exchange lasting half a minute in which I reckoned his Chinese was excellent, almost as good as mine. He could easily order beer in a local restaurant. Coming from a background of education, he was returning to lead a group of kids from Europe to learn English. It seems that his life was most rewarding.
The Oasis aircraft itself was as expected – a refurbished Boeing 747 with low-quality per-seat LCD displays and no per-user movie choices. The food was acceptable and drinks were aplenty. Alcohol must be paid for but its no good anyway. After crying my eyes out watching “My Girlfriend is a Superwoman”, we touched down gently at 6.20 am. Don’t get me wrong, it was only the flickering LCD that caused the tears.
Gatwick is an old airport. As such, the baggage reclaim area was only designed for private jets carrying 20 passengers. Through the bags came out quickly, I had to squeeze inbetween the larger locals to haul my suitcase from the belt; most unpleasant. I was also pleasantly amused by the retina scanner available for select passport holders. It took a long time to scan the eyes and repeat-scans were common. Compared to the fast and reliable fingerprint scanners used at the Hong Kong airport and the LoWu checkpoint, the retina scanner can be classified as an experimental toy.
The trains had to be the most annoying feature yet. Trains coming into Gatwick each stopped at different platforms with different set-stops. Although there was a clear schedule, the fact that each train was different was a bummer. In fact, I missed a train queuing up for tickets and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one. One could of course take the Gatwick express but that cost twice the money and takes the same amount of time. It brings convenience to those unwilling or unable to figure out the erratic behaviour of each train.
After a train ride, a tube trip and a light rail transit, I managed to get to the place where I was to stay. All in a timely two hours. Canary Wharf is a newly developed financial district for well heeled bankers, and on Sunday morning, it is relatively quiet. In fact, so quiet that you could wait a few minutes before seeing people on the streets.
My place was some distance from South Quay and it was quite alright to tub my little case along the cool Sunday morning air. It was quite nice, my place – you could dance in the kitchen and wallow in the ensuite bathroom, but then, its lonesome for one person.
I immediately used the wireless to check up what markets were open on Sunday morning and discovered the Columbia Road Flower Market. Since that was the only one open, it wouldn’t hurt to go. I hopped on the DLR and headed towards Old Street. Emerging from the steamy tube, the bright fresh air was a blessing. As I walked on, I passed men and women carting back fresh flowers from the market on prams, together with their children. I approached the market and popped into a bakery for a rocket and brie cheese bagel with cranberry sauce. A lovely breakfast costing a whacking £2.75.
I wasn’t going to buy any pretty flowers, so I got some oysters too. For a quid each, they weren’t expensive but they tasted heavenly. Freshly shucked, they were soft and succulent, smelling of the sea off Scotland: mildly salty with a creamy finish. Normally, I would forget to take pictures of foods since I would finish them before remembering my camera, but as Tom had to shuck them, I patiently stood by.
Flower market shopping stands not as a solo experience, but a medley chorus that includes breakfast, trinket shopping and £1 bargain flowers. Breakfast was lovely, no trinkets for me but the flower-buying was enchanting, with stallowners selling their lillies at 50% of the ‘normal’ price. Of course, towards midday, stallowners were frantically shooting off their duller flowers at £1 each.
I turned back towards Old Street Station but I was continually distracted by the Victorian architecture that lined the streets. Inside, modern furniture adorned the lobbies with bright, beige lights. There were also churches here and there hosting Sunday services for the public. I was eventually lead into Liverpool Street. There, stood an eclectic mix of buildings ranging from the inspiring Swiss RE tower to Victorian terrace housing adjacent the roads. Sunday is also the time to see the central business district at its quietest. The two pictures below show the contrast.
Somehow, I met with an old Roman wall in the middle of the city that lead to St. Pauls Cathedral, several kilometers from Columbia Road. A place of worship, it was free for Sunday! Normally, entry would cost a hefty sum. No photos are allowed on Sunday, but that might be a worthy compromise.
From St. Pauls, I traveled South to the River Thames, a vast expanse of brown, torrid water that gave London its landmark character. I crossed the river on foot atop the Millennium Bridge. The bridge is a silvery strand that links St. Pauls with the Tate Modern Gallery and is a must-go if you’re around the Thames area.
The weather was wonderful now with glowing white clouds and clear blue sky. Who to share it with! I marched right past the Tate Modern and its 19th century power plant housing, past Southwark Cathedral and its zen garden, right up to Tower Bridge. Accepted after three initial drafts by the Cooperation of London, Tower Bridge was designed to match with the Tower of London on the Northern bank of the river. It has a drawbridge mechanism that allows larger ships to pass underneath. Supposedly, the drawbridge is only seen in action a few times a year.
Next to the river is a grand selection of waterside restaurants, pubs and cafés. The perfect spot to spend an afternoon if you don’t have too much on your todo list. It was now time to head back to Canary Wharf for dinner with a friend who helped me a lot. Argentinian beefsteak; can’t get much better than that.
Drank too much. Going to bed now.
9 July 2007 – the most refreshing way to start a day, it has been proven, is to get a bagel and a coffee. Especially if the winds are chilly as they were today. Stepping off at Tower Bridge, I grabbed breakfast and headed to the tower of London. At £13 (student price, £16 for normal people [sic]), the Tower of London is quite an attraction. You get the guidance of a Beefeater (Yeoman warden) and you also get to see the crown jewels, of which includes the 530 carat Star of Africa diamond; every man’s nightmare. I do not suggest couples to see it as it might lead to unnecessary conflict. Also contained in the tower are armories, weapon caches and bloody stories stained on the walls. This oldest castle in London City is definitely worth the visit if you haven’t done so before.
With the sun hovering vertically above, it was time for lunch. I walked to fish!, next to Southwark Cathedral. According to Lonely Planet (I only saw this after lunch), fish! serves “the freshest catch of the day”. But according to my experience, their steamed fish is purely just that. No soy-sauce or seasoning. So have it grilled, unless you’re a health freak. Even if you’re a health freak, your will would fade after a few days in London. Lunching alfresco, I watched people saunter past the cathedral and heard the bells toll one.
If you’re like me, you might save coffee for a busier street, for people-watching perhaps. So I left fish! and took a stroll in Southwark Cathedral. It has immaculate stained glass windows that splashed colour onto the cathedral floor. Italian checkered marble paved the graves of holy and great men and those lost at sea. Southwark is less rowdy than larger places of communion, for example St. Pauls and is perfect for that after-lunch reflection.
I grabbed a coffee on a pub facing the river next to the chicken place. It was interestingly good, especially since it was made by a bartender. Or was it a barrister… I then went on my way to the Tate Modern, which had an exhibition on sustainable living and modern living. A classmate of mine had gone to India in 2005 and consequentially, I watched a video of the teaching environment there. The sanitary conditions leave a great deal to thought. I always admire those willing to try new things, don’t I Strangely, although the exhibition featured dense cities such as Tokyo and Shanghai, it didn’t feature Hong Kong. i was quite dismayed.
It wasn’t until I saw Dali’s ‘Anonymous’ that it started raining. I also amused myself looking at their brollies. Most were black, small and badly made. Of those which were not black, they were absolutely humongous. I mentioned my observation to a fellow tourist and we shared a chuckle. After all, our umbrellas were at a height that put Caucasian eyes at risk!
Braving the winds across Blackfriars Bridge, I arrived at the Station with my umbrella and a few pictures of the parting clouds. Getting home through the tube was still easier than ordering a pizza though. I probably used more on roaming charges than on the £8 pizza set meal.
10 July 2007 – I got up a little later than usual today. After all, the changing of the guards was not until 11.30. I stepped off Waterloo Station and went across the wrong bridge. I ended up crossing Charring Rail Bridge and found myself next to White Hall. I continued walking though, and managed to get to Admiralty Gate, the entrance to the Mall. A few streets down, I managed to catch a squad of riders on their way to Buckingham Palace. Stark straight on their black stallions, and holding their swords to a point, they trotted along the Mall. It would also benefit the traveler to wait next to St. James Palace around 11.30 to catch the Redcoats march on to the Changing of the Guard at the palace gates. The crowd at Buckingham itself is generally to thick and stubborn to be charged into.
After a loo break in St. James Park, I headed down to Westminster. Generally, that place suffers from a lack of places to eat and the pubs are not too spectacular on the food side. Westminster Abbey, though a grand sight, cost a few pounds to enter. The adjacent St. Margaret’s Church, however, was free to visitors and I took that route instead. There is heavy security around the Houses of Parliament itself and St. Stephens’ Tower (Big Ben) can only be seen from the outside.
I remembered Harrods and its summer sale and so hurried over to Knightsbridge Station. Their café did a very nice apple pie though their coffee suffered a certain thinness.
I watched the time as I had booked tickets for Fiddler on the Roof at TKTS at the Canary Wharf DLR Station. I arrived at the theatre and was stunned at the good seats that were ordered for me. The stage was only a few rows away and I didn’t need to break by neck either way. £30 isn’t too bad considering the full price of £50. Little did I know too, that the musical would last a whopping 3 hours. A tad long, but then, every London show drags on for 3 hours.
11 July 2007 – my feet hurt a little from chasing the soldiers down the Mall but I still got myself out of bed in time for some bangers and mash at a Café Rouge downtown. They were quite lovely, them Cumberland sausages. I took some time to walk around the stalls of Covent Garden Market by decided that my primary mission was the British Museum, the large collection of mansions housing valuable artifacts such as Egyptian mummies, ancient jewellery and special stuff from time to time. I was going to miss out on the Japanese contemporary arts exhibition on the 19th, but then, I get to see it in Hong Kong all the time anyway at MoYuns. This place is exceptionally good for tracking ancient history and understanding cultures. As a law student, I thought that Fleet Street might be more instructive.
After the long hike at the Museum, I hopped on a £17 bus (ticket effective for 24 hours and inclusive of a boat tour) that encircles London. It took me on a spin around sights that I had already seen and some, for example Hyde Park and Fleet Street, that I had missed. The Big Bus Tour bus dropped me off at the Ritz, where the dress code was beyond my means and cocktails cost £12. I hustled away to Trafalgar Square to mingle with Lord Nelson on his column. I couldn’t reach him, so I climbed his lion instead.
Yummy dinner at Henry’s. So yummy that after a smooth gin & tonic, I missed the Thames sunset.
12 July 2007 – was walking down Oxford Street today, looking at food, old books and Chinatown when I passed by the pilgrimage monument that is the Apple Store. Simply a chance to check my email, post this picture and be refreshed. All ready for my trip back to the tropics,and back to work.