“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” – Dr Samuel Johnson
It’s the 10 year anniversary of my move to London this year, so I thought a post celebrating our wonderful capital was in order! I remember arriving in 2003, having previously visited only a handful of times, and feeling quite lost. Having been at university in Durham for 4 years – a city where you quickly come to know every bar and restaurant intimately and can’t fail to walk around without bumping into people you know – I couldn’t imagine ever feeling at home here.
10 years on, I still feel like a tourist. I don’t know how you can’t. But I love London now and can’t imagine living anywhere else. And there are pockets of the city that I do now feel I know; parts that are intimate and homely to me. I’m particularly fond of the corner of the south-east where I live, an area comprising Dulwich (West, North and East – as an aside, does anyone know where South Dulwich disappeared to?), Forest Hill, Crystal Palace, Herne Hill and Brixton. There’s the fascinating and eccentric Horniman Museum, large parks (some featuring dinosaurs!), Dulwich Village with its grand houses and picture gallery, and one of the oldest (and best) cinemas in the country: the Ritzy in Brixton. Some of my favourite places to eat are here: Number 22 in Herne Hill (Spanish); Mediterranea and Yak & Yeti in Crystal Palace (Sardinian and Nepalese respectively); The Begging Bowl (Thai) in Peckham; Bukowski (burgers and ribs), KaoSarn (Thai), Franco Manca (pizza) and pretty much anywhere else in Brixton Village and Market Row… I could go on and on! Drinks-wise, there’s no shortage of nice pubs either, with Westow House and The White Hart in Crysal Palace; The Commerical in Herne Hill; the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village; the East Dulwich Tavern on Lordship Lane; and the Trinity Arms and Crown and Anchor in Brixton being my favourites.
I adore Greenwich as well. Not the place to go on a weekend to escape feeling like a tourist, of course, given the constant throng of guidebook-wielders, but I never fail to be in awe of how beautiful it is. A World Heritage Site, there’s a lot crammed into a small space: the Maritime Museum; the Old Naval College, with its stunningly impressive buildings designed by Sir Christoper Wren; the newly-restored Cutty Sark and riverside walk; the Royal Observatory (isn’t space amazing?); the Prime Meridian (Longitude 0º, in relation to which we measure every place on the planet); and a lookout point with the best vista of the city. Further, Greenwich has an amazing weekend food and craft market (my favourite stalls selling fresh sushi, pulled pork baps, and Portuguese stews) and a gorgeous park, with a Rose Garden, elusive deer and glimpses of famous landmarks over each hill. You can walk up and through the park to meet Blackheath Common and dip down into the village, another of my favourite places in London, with its cute coffee shops, pretty village green and beautiful houses. Between them, they have some great pubs too: the Cutty Sark and Trafalgar Tavern on the bank of the Thames, with their views across to Canary Wharf and the Dome; the Gipsy Moth with its big summer beer garden; and the Princess of Wales, which has the feel of a ‘proper country pub’. And I recently discovered that the best fish and chips in the capital are to be found at The Guildford Arms.
I work in Westminster, so I also have some of the best history and architecture in the country on my doorstep. I once had a conversation with a guy from Rome who told me that as a child he had walked passed the Colosseum every day en route to school and had pretty much tuned it out, not even noticing it most of the time. I worry that I’m getting like that, complacent about passing the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as I walk to the office from the tube every day. Sometimes I deliberately force myself to stop and look, reminding myself how lucky I am. I’ve been fortunate that, as a Civil Servant, I’ve been able to go into Parliament on numerous occasions to support Ministers during the passage of Bills, and I regularly eat lunch in the cloistered Cellarium Cafe behind the Abbey. I similarly have to pinch myself when, in summer, I take a sandwich to St James’ Park and sit by the lake, watching the ducks and pelicans.
It’s not far to walk from work up the Mall, past Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. There you’ll find the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, just two of the numerous free museums and galleries in the city. I particularly like the NPG – it always has a good exhibition on and the annual photographic portrait prize is worth a visit. Trafalgar Square itself is a nice place to sit in the summer with an ice-cream, watching people excitedly jump in the fountains at the first sign of sun. And from there it’s not far to theatre-land and Soho with its array of restaurants. My current favourite city-centre places are Yalla Yalla (Lebanese) and Spuntino (American sliders and cocktails). And for a cheap bite, I still really like the ubiquitous Tas (Anatolian), particularly the Bloomsbury Branch which is handily just a stone’s throw from the British Museum (see what I did there?). There are lots of nice, small, quirky museums to discover in London – The Sir John Soane’s Museum, a grand town house with its unique picture terrace, the Wallis Collection, with its eclectic armour and antique weaponry, and the Wellcome Collection, with its curious medical implements – but the large, busy British Museum remains my favourite. I love the round Reading Room with its domed ceiling and the Great Court designed by Norman Foster. I love the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia collections, the Samurai armour, the Parthenon sculptures, the mosaics, the Rosetta Stone, the Easter Island statue, and Saxon masks. There’s even a stone tablet on which the clues to the origins of the universe are inscribed…unfortunately, someone later used it as an anvil and most of the text is now obscured. So close!
I’ll have to be permitted some licence now, as I skip to Shoreditch. I suppose you could walk there from Bloomsbury, but given I’ve already made it this far from Westminster, it’s a big ask. I won’t pretend to know Shoreditch all that well, but I’ve spent a lot more time there of late and really love taking my camera on walks to see the ever-changing street art. Works by Eine, Banksy, Roa, Stik and others adorn Fashion, Redchurch, Hanbury, Grimsby, Sclater and Rivington Streets. Plus there are some nice caffs to stop and rest your feet in. I’ll do a blog sometime with photos of the artwork.
The last bit of town I have to mention is the stretch from London Bridge to Southbank. First off, if it’s not clear by now, I really quite like the Shard. What an amazing piece of architecture! I’m thinking of getting Renzo Piano to do me a water feature for our garden. I love the way the light bounces off its glass slopes and how you can see if from miles around, like a sentinel guiding you home. And the area has a lot more to offer besides. Borough Market is packed full of amazing fruit and veg traders, cheese stalls, wine shops, game birds, fish and seafood. And if you go on Thursday-Saturday, you have all the hot food stalls to pick from. On the edge of the market there’s Tapas Brindisa, a brilliant restaurant (and with sentimental value for me, hosting one of my first dates with Paul). Try the gordal olives with orange and the arroz negro with squid: delicious! There are some great restaurants on nearby Bermondsey Street too, like the Garrison Arms – very ‘now’ with its shabby chic décor – and Pizarro – owned by José Pizarro from Brindisa and serving some of the best sherry and tapas in London (after Number 22).
A walk along the river next, past the Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge, with its photogenic view across to St Paul’s Cathedral, and past Gabriel’s Wharf, with its great boutique shops (and chocolate crepes), to the Southbank Centre. This stretch comprises three main buildings: the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, which together form Europe’s biggest arts complex. I usually find concrete buildings really ugly, but these are different somehow – possibly as a result of the great experiences I’ve had there and possibly because they look so pretty illuminated at night. And the Hayward is a great gallery, with fabulous installations and exhibitions. Along that stretch of river, you can also find the BFI (British Film Institute), which has great screening rooms and a nice bar, as well as the National Theatre, Aquarium and – of course – the London Eye. I’ve been on the Eye a couple of times (never in the sun), but think it’s more impressive to look at than ride actually. It makes a great addition to the skyline.
Right, that’s a whistle-stop tour of my favourite bits of London. And here are some snaps of some of the great landmarks…
Wheel of Fortune
A Tale of Two Cities
Outside In/Inside Out
Down By the Docks