Where I live, we’re lucky enough to have a direct train service so in just three hours you’re there. I arrived at lunch time which meant I still had plenty of time to fit in some sight-seeing before heading back to my cousin’s place.
As an added bonus, having had a light lunch with said cousin at Patisserie Valerie near Old Spitalfields Market, she took my suitcase back to work with her so I wasn’t lumbered with it for the afternoon!
I didn’t investigate the Market this time as I’d had a look round on my previous trip, but if you’re in the area it’s well worth checking out. Full of vintage goods as well as new items, and surrounded by boutiques and famous brand stores – Barber, Dr Marten and Fred Perry to name a few – there’s something for everyone.
London Travel Tip 1: Get An Oyster Card
You can buy them online in advance of your trip, and have credit on there ready to activate as soon as you “tap in” at your nominated station. There are various options, including a visitor’s Oyster Card which is ideal for a one-off trip. If, like me, you know you’ll be going back, just get the regular Oyster Card and choose the best ticket type for your trip. I opted for pay-as-you-go, but might choose the automatic top-up next time as it adds credit to your Card whenever the existing credit dips below £10 so is hassle-free. That said, checking your credit and/or topping up is really easy, with machines available at most tube stations (probably at ALL stations, but I’m not certain). You can also top up online.
Oyster Cards are also used on the route buses, i.e. the normal local services, not the dedicated tour buses. Bus travel is cheaper than the tube, but the tube is generally quicker and less prone to delays, e.g. traffic jams, roadworks.
You can also use a contactless debit card in place of an Oyster Card, but I’d much rather leave mine safely in my purse rather than risk losing it or having it snatched.
First stop for me was the British Library. Specifically, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures gallery. As the name suggests, there are some real gems in here, including Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook. My personal favourites, and the reason for calling in, are the original hand-written score of Handel’s Messiah, Jane Austen’s writing desk and the newly-acquired diaries of Kenneth Williams. Disappointingly, they only have one diary on display here. The rest, along with the full archive of letters and other documents, are currently being catalogued and will become part of the permanent resources within the main Library.
After a quick visit to the shop, because it’s the law, I set off on the next leg of my geeky afternoon.
You may already know this about me, but I love the BBC series Sherlock so thought I’d go and have a look at “Baker Street” and, yes, that’s in speech marks for a reason. The location is actually N. Gower Street, near Euston Square tube station. Knowing that series 4 is currently in production, I was a bit disappointed not to accidentally walk through the back of a take, or have Benedict Cumberbatch run into me while chasing a runaway murder suspect, but nevertheless it was fun to imagine him and Martin Freeman on the pavement opposite to where I was standing, and think that our feet might now have traversed the same paving slabs! Hey, I did say it was geeky!! And speaking of geeks, I was surprised to have the place to myself apart from a little family of three a few yards further along. I had genuinely expected at least a small crowd to be gathered there, and I can’t help feeling that there were probably a few confused fangirls over in Baker Street muttering about how it looks different on TV. Do your research, people!
Next, I hopped on the tube to Kensington to go and visit Leighton House Museum. Having eventually found it, and been taken back a little – although why, I’m not sure – at the £10 entry fee, I have to admit I was a teensy bit disappointed. I’d gone to see the Pre-Raphaelites on Paper exhibition (now ended) which is an array of preparatory sketches and outlines which would go on to become the paintings we are familiar with, and although these were very interesting I had anticipated at least a few of the actual paintings as well, which were significant by their absence.
London Travel Tip 2: Get A Tube Map
Chances are you’ll want to use the tube for at least some of your around-London journeys. After all, it’s a tourist attraction in itself! In which case, it’s a good idea to get a tube map.
I think I spotted some paper ones at the stations, but if you have a smartphone or tablet you might prefer an app. There are plenty to choose from. I use one by MapWay and as well as the map itself it can show you the level of service on each line and has a route planner, amongst other things. A godsend if you don’t have a tame Londoner with you!
There are maps on the walls in all the stations too, but there’s often a crowd in front of it so having one in your pocket is much easier and means you can plan your trips while sipping a well-earned hot chocolate or standing in front of Winston Churchill’s statue. The station staff are also very knowledgeable and very used to pointing people in the right direction, so don’t be afraid to ask if you’re unsure.
The next day saw me and my cousin making a beeline for the Kensington Creperie. Located in one of the swankier parts of London this is a great little place to call in on between museum visits – three of the big London museums are in Kensington – or just as a pit stop before or after a day’s sight-seeing. I heartily recommend the peanut butter crepe!
Bellies full, it was back on the tube to Somerset House to visit the Courtauld Gallery – an absolute must for art lovers, particularly if like me you are a fan of the Impressionists. They have a vast array of art on display, including one of my favourite Monet works, Antibes.
The Gallery also boasts gems by Manet, Van Gogh and Degas in the Impressionist & Post-Impressionist sections, and has sections for other periods which includes Gainsborough and Modigliani, for example. I found myself saying “oh it’s THAT one” or “ooh they’ve got THIS” quite a lot!
It also has an excellent shop which helpfully sells – in a variety of languages – a souvenir book of the particularly famous pieces in the Gallery.
If you’re on a budget then be aware there is an entry fee which ranges from £7 to £9.50 for adults depending on when you visit. See the website for concessions etc.
We then had to rush over to Palm Court Brasserie in Covent Garden where we were booked in to eat before heading to the theatre (more on that later). Something worth knowing about this place is that they only hold a reserved table for fifteen minutes after the time, so if you arrive after that as we did then you will be greeted by huffing and puffing and comments such as “we can try and fit you in, but it will be difficult”. They did manage to squeeze us in and the food, which seemed to take ages to arrive but that’s probably because we were pushed for time, was delicious! The waitress who dealt with us – and that’s what it felt like – could have done with some customer service training, though, as her attitude was a bit offhand and there was a definite air of “I’m very busy and would prefer not to be waylaid” about her.
After a quick scoff, it was off to St Martin’s Theatre to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Britain’s longest-running play! We weren’t quite sure what to expect from the play but I’d say that if you’ve seen an episode of Poirot or Miss Marple that gives you a fair idea. I was surprised that there was so much humour in it, and can smugly say that I latched on to who the killer was just before it was revealed! And no, I’m not telling you. As an audience, you are sworn to secrecy – by the killer, of all people! – and the fact that people happily go along with that is, I think, the reason it has endured for as long as it has.
London Travel Tip 3 – Avoid The Crush On The Tube
The temptation is to try and squeeze yourself onto an already crowded train. Unless you’re on a very tight schedule, there’s really no need. The trains are so frequent – every couple of minutes – that if the train is already jam-packed just stand back and wait for the next one. When you arrive on the platform it’s worth making your way to either end as the crowd tends to thin out there.
Some stations are busier than others – Waterloo, Kings Cross St Pancras and Oxford Circus are the top three, according to Wikipedia – so if the tube really stresses you out you might want to skip these entirely if your journey will let you.
Where possible, avoid the peak commuter times altogether as the crush can be crazy and intimidating, especially if you’re not sure where you need to be within the station. I was tempted to jump into the air and go with the flow!
But if you do manage the hat-trick of arriving on the platform, seeing a non-stuffed train with the doors open and walking straight on board without stopping, it’s a great feeling!
Sunday took us to South Bank for a general look around. On our way, we spotted a Kerb street food festival but as we had food plans for later – which I’ll talk about shortly – we didn’t stop and promised ourselves we’d go back the next day.
The main attraction for us here was the second-hand/antique book market, under Waterloo Bridge. If you’re going to check this one out, allow plenty of time. There are several large stalls with a whole host of used books to rummage through, as well as vintage magazine and old art prints. I was particularly pleased with my purchase of two vintage railway magazines which will form part of my Dad’s birthday present.
Afternoon Tea was next. We were booked in at Sketch – which is in Mayfair, darling – and we were really impressed. Sketch itself has several sections, and Afternoon Tea is in The Gallery. There is no dress code in there but beware of booking for the other areas as some dress codes do apply.
All the items in the Tea were fantastic, and I even had my first taste of caviar! Particular favourites were the mozzarella and pesto panini, and the raspberry and hibiscus choux.
The service was excellent, managing to be both attentive and unobtrusive. Empty plates were whisked away without a word, tea was topped up and the only time we were actually interrupted was when being asked which pastry we would like, or if we needed more tea.
Be aware when booking that they do have seasonal Afternoon Teas which are more expensive, and during which time the normal Tea is not available.
Our real reason for visiting, though, was the toilets! As you can see, these are no ordinary loos. Each egg/pod is an individual unisex toilet which looks somewhat forbidding and space-age, but is actually bog standard – pun intended. Thank you very much – once you’re inside.
Under that mound is a small bar and seating area. I’m all for using your available space but this seemed like an odd combination and made for some vague awkwardness. As you walk through the door into the toilet room you look straight into this bar area, and the people in there look straight back at you!
London Travel Tip 4 – Be Prepared To Walk
Pretty much everything in central London is within walking distance of a tube station. However, I always find that things are just that little bit further than it looks on the map.
Most of the attractions, and particularly the galleries and museums, are large and take a lot of walking to get around if you want to make the most of them.
Also deceptive are the tube stations. You might be expecting to walk in through the barriers and straight onto a platform as with normal train stations, but this isn’t the case. Depending on the station, there will be flights of stairs and/or escalators to take you to and from platform level (some have lifts) and lengths of corridors leading to the various platforms. For some of the larger stations, it could easily be half a mile from pavement to platform.
If you want to avoid some of the walking you could decide to use the bus rather than the tube, as these will generally result in a more door-to-door trip, although it will likely take longer as mentioned earlier. Other advantages of the bus are that (if you manage to get a seat) you will be able to face forwards and you also get a glimpse of London as you move through it. Worth bearing in mind if you suffer from travel sickness, for instance.
If you are a wheelchair user or have limited mobility, check here for access information.
On the final day of the visit, we decided to be “proper” tourists and go on an open top bus tour. Ironically, it was the coolest and breeziest day of the entire long weekend, but in true Brits-on-holiday style, we weren’t put off. Our only concession after a while was to move from the back of the upper storey to the sheltered front section when some seats became available.
There are several operators. We went with Big Bus and chose the Orientation Tour. All the available routes have the very useful hop-on-hop-off feature so make for an ideal combination of being an attraction in itself, and an easy – but pricey, compared to the normal bus fares – way of getting to the sights. I’d recommend doing a bus tour at the start of your visit to London as it’s a great way, as the name suggests, to get a sense of where things are in relation to each other so you can better plan the rest of your days.
Of particular interest to us is the world famous department store, Harrods. Of course, it’s a highlight for many, but we have a personal connection as our Grandmother used to work in the stationery department and would always give us Harrods gifts at Christmas. I still have a triangular pencil which is the iconic dusky green with “Harrods” in gold lettering.
We decided to do the whole tour in one go – about three hours – and only “hopped” once for a toilet/coffee/defrost break. In doing so we discovered a nice little cafe called Crown Café Bar, on Strand. The drinks were great and although we didn’t eat while we were there, the sandwiches and sweet treats on the counter looked amazing! The staff were helpful and friendly too. A lovely little gem if you’re bored of the big name chains.
Having arrived back where we started, we dropped down to the tube again to head back over to South Bank to take advantage of the Kerb street food festival we’d seen the day before. Once we’d stocked up at the Chocolatier stall – again! – we went our separate ways to find lunch. If you happen to pass such a festival, they make for great food-on-the-go opportunities.
We already have a list of things we’d like to do next time!