Note – photo gallery at the end of this post. It’s also quite a long post, so I’ve put in some skip links to different sections for those interested!
There was a time in my life when I seriously considered moving to London. It was at a time when most young people are considering their next step in life – right after I finished my undergraduate degree. Without a graduate job lined up, I was a bit of a loss as to what to do next. After a short visit to the UK, I convinced myself that moving to London and finding work would be the answer to all my problems.
This obviously never happened. While I was formulating my plans, other things happened in life. I got accepted into a postgraduate course, I bought an apartment, I started working full-time…suddenly, more and more tangible commitments began to tie me down to Australia and moving to the UK became nothing more than a distant dream.
Is that dream over? Possibly. The employment market in Europe is difficult at the moment, the political situation is unstable, and K and I would never move across the world unless we both had decently-paid jobs lined up beforehand. Still, if the opportunity ever presented itself…I think we’d move ourselves and our future family over to London in a heartbeat, at least for five years to really dip our toe into the English waters.
That is probably a pretty strong indicator of how we both felt about our time in London! There’s just so much to love about the city, and below I attempt to group all the different elements that we love about London under five main categories.
London’s museums and galleries are unparalleled – both in sheer quantity and quality. Best of all, they’re all completely free to enter! We visited the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and my personal favourite, the National Portrait Gallery, during our week in London. Our visits were very quick, and cursory at best. If we were to live in London, I think we could spent a half day every weekend at a museum for a whole year, and still not be able to view and appreciate all that they have to offer.
And the thing is, the very fact that they’re free of charge for visitors makes them all the more enticing! At home in Australia, we may only visit our museums once or twice a year – generally only if we have visitors staying with us, and generally only if we have a voucher entitling us to discounted entry. We’d love to patronise our cultural institutions more often – we simply don’t have the budget to do so.
There’s other cultural entertainments that are much more affordable to enjoy in London – theatre performances for example. We managed to get tickets to two large performances for just 100 pounds ($200) – essentially half the price of theatre tickets in Australia. There are also many more smaller or amateur productions on around the city when compared to the arts scene in Australia. You could see a different performance somewhere in Greater London three times a week, and never pay more than 20 pounds a ticket.
We saw two performances – Billy Elliott the musical which I had missed during its Australian run, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, based on the novel by Mark Haddon which I had read and enjoyed a few years ago. K isn’t often a fan of the stage productions I love (he hates musicals), but even he had to admit that both shows were absolutely superb. The child performers in Billy Elliott were astounding, the humour in the script was on point, and the dancing breath-taking. The stage direction and set design in Curious Incident were far superior to any production I’d ever encountered before – a thoroughly modern design that enhances the whole story.
Obviously museums, galleries, and theatre makes up only one small part of what London has to offer culturally. For instance if pop culture is more to your liking, you’ll probably enjoy guided tours of the city based on famous film locations (one on every corner essentially!) – or do as we did, and go on the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Warner Brothers studios in Leavesden, just outside of London.
For a Harry Potter fan like myself, it was an absolutely unmissable experience. Having grown up with the books and then the movies, visiting the studios and seeing how the magic was created was very emotional – there were more than a few occasions when I teared up when the emotion was just too strong! Even non-fans will find it interesting…and everyone always loves trying Butterbeer, or Butterbeer ice-cream as we did! I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves.
One of my favourite book genres is romanticised historical fiction, specifically when it comes to accounts of individuals within English royal history. If there’s a Lancaster, York, Tudor or Stuart in the book, I’m pretty much guaranteed to have read it. What this means is that every time K and I walked around different parts of London, or went into a museum or gallery or other notable site, I would regale him with my own versions of English royal history and how it was relevant to where we were or what we were looking at.
The actual historical accuracy of my enthusiastic accounts is tenuous at best, but it does make for a good story. Simplifying the historical events with a more colourful retelling also seemed to help bring the history alive – K even admitted that as time passed, he began to fit names to families, dates to events, and events to places.
The thing about London is that you can’t escape this history. Every street you walk down has played its role in history and if you were to read and research everything, you could be around for hours. For example, K became fascinated by the number of “ER” and “GR” monograms that he saw on postboxes around the city and in looking up what they meant, fell into a Wikipedia black hole of reading about the history of the Royal Mail.
Royal history aside, there are other things to consider about the more questionable side of Britain’s history when exploring London. There are shameful elements of imperial and colonial history that still have repercussions today and it’s worth keeping your eyes open while spending time in the city.
For instance, I felt particularly uncomfortable about exploring certain areas of the British Museum with the knowledge that many of its priceless displays had been effectively stolen from their countries of origin and never returned. There are obviously arguments on either side of this ethical dilemma but I side with those who believe that stolen artefacts should be returned to their place of origin – with the proviso of course, that the location is safe and secure!
The more time you spend in the city, the more you realise that each postcode in London has its own very distinct character. From suits in the City, souvenir shops in Westminster, moneyed in Kensington, hip in the East and alternative in the North, there’s a different London waiting to be explored around every street corner.
We stayed at a B’n’B south of the Thames, between Vauxhall and Stockwell tube stations. The area was largely very quiet and residential with a mix of terrace houses and apartment blocks which suited us well – after a full day’s sightseeing amongst the crowds in central London, we needed a bit of quiet and relaxation at home at night! Considering that the average price of hotels in London are about $240/night, we definitely didn’t mind staying in our $120/night B’n’B located a little further out…the London Underground is so well serviced that travelling two extra stops on the Tube is barely an issue!
When it comes to where you should spend your time though, I have to say that I love the area stretching from South Kensington (museums!), to Knightsbridge (fancy shopping at Harrods!), through Hyde Park and Piccadilly (green space and palaces!), up to the West End (theatre!) and Soho (pubs, bars, nightlife!). We must have walked that path a million times over during our time in London, and I would swear that it’s one of the routes that takes you past some of the best and most interesting neighborhoods that Central London has to offer.
Note that I haven’t really talked about the areas of Westminster and Southbank, where most tourists tend to spend their time in ticking off areas such as the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye…it’s a pretty area along the waterfront, but the problem is that it is extremely touristy. We just spent half a day in the area taking in the sights (and a few photos) before moving on to other neighbourhoods in London that felt more local and friendly.
Another area that I think all tourists have to visit is Camden Town. I’m not just saying this because my friend Maren is twisting my arm – she’s lived in Camden all her life and loves the area. It’s actually a wonderfully diverse and lively area. The Camden markets are wonderful (as I’ve mentioned before on this blog), the food options are numerous, the people are interesting, and there’s just so much to see and do.
However, if crowded neighbourhoods aren’t your thing, you can always explore the great outdoors! For a city that’s such a heaving metropolis of people, there’s a remarkable dedication to green space both within and outside the city. We spent our first afternoon and evening in London walking through Hyde and Green Parks, wandering down to Buckingham Palace before meandering back up to Kensington Palace – taking over 25k steps that day according to my Fitbit! There’s certainly no lack of parklands to be found for those who are more outdoorsy.
It’s just so easy to get around London and the UK in general. From local buses to the Tube, to regional rail and National Express coaches – there’s a million different modes of transport, all of which are scheduled regularly so customers never have to wait too long for their bus or train.
Granted, they have the population to sustain such services, but Australia really could learn a few lessons from English transport efficiency – I shouldn’t have to wait on a train platform for up to twenty minutes on a weekend in order to catch a train into the city. The Tube runs almost every two minutes – why can’t Australian public transport run at least every ten minutes?
The pricing is hard to beat as well, with regional travel particularly affordable. We bought two Megabus tickets from London to Cardiff for nine pounds – barely $18 AUD. Return train tickets from Manchester to Liverpool were about 15 pounds ($30 AUD), and train tickets from Manchester to Edinburgh were 33 pounds ($65 AUD).
If you calculate that by distance, it’s about 300km from Manchester to Edinburgh, or 5km travelled per dollar paid. By comparison, taking the train from Sydney to Canberra would cost $112 AUD for two tickets. With 288km between the two cities, it works out to be 2.5km travelled per dollar paid. Essentially, we pay double the price to travel in Australia.
Basically if I were to live in London, I would be spending every second weekend in a different city in the UK, taking advantage of the cheap travel costs to explore more of the country!
We obviously ate out quite a lot while in London! Here’s just a few of the places we went to, which I’ve covered in previous blog entries:
- New Fortune Cookie, Queensway
- Hot Stuff, Vauxhall
- High Tea at the Ritz London
- Jamie’s Italian, Gatwick Airport
- Canton Arms, Stockwell
- Dinner by Heston, Knightsbridge
- The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside
- Cereal Killer Café, Camden
- Shake Shack, New Oxford St
There were many other snacks and meals had which I haven’t covered in full reviews. Sausage rolls and pasties from Cornish Pasty Shops for example. Morning tea at The Muffin Man. Lunch at Muriel’s. Dinner at Mildred’s. Rainbow bagels. Chocolates, coffees and teas. And one of my favourite destinations after a long day’s sightseeing to pick up a simple dinner to eat at home – the Marks and Spencer Food Hall for ready-made soups, salads, and sandwiches.
And yet…there’s still so much ground to cover. With pubs, restaurants, cafes, and take-away shops on every street in the city, there’s a million places we didn’t get to try, but would have loved to try. If we lived in London…well, we’d have to re-evaluate our ‘dining out’ budget!
I miss London. I would say that I want to go back…but to be honest, I think it’s more of a need than a want. I need to go back to London – and this time, I don’t want to wait another seven years until my next visit!