London Calling – A Collection Of Memories
‘Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ – Samuel Johnson
Somewhere in the northern hemisphere, on a lump of rock situated away from the European mainland, lies a country which I had been yearning to visit for years. From the white cliffs of Dover, to the quaint countryside villages surrounded by rolling hills, the United Kingdom had always held a strange fascination to me. I’d heard lots of people complain about it though. The weather. The people. The food. The horrendous exchange rate. But none of those could dampen my curiosity to explore, and I was finally presented with that chance in mid-2010. A month to explore this faraway land, of which one week would be spent in one of the capital cities of the world – London.
I had previously had a glimpse of London way back in 2006. Having flown in under the cover of darkness, and leaving a few hours later on a flight bound for Switzerland, there was no chance to play tourist. After lifting off from one of the runways at Heathrow, I caught a sight of the sprawling metropolis basking in the wintery light of dawn. I knew one day I would be back to have a good look around…
Fast forward to 2010, and this time, we’re leaving Heathrow and heading towards Paddington Station. The following 7 days could be described as being quintessentially British. London cabs, tea and scones, red phone booths, and Buckingham Palace. I visited museums, wandered through the markets in Camden, watched fellow tourists take excessive amounts of photos of Big Ben, and eat the “full English breakfast” everyday. Hell, I even saw the entire royal family within a few hours on my first ever day in London. That’s something some long time residents have never even done.
The idea from this post stemmed from the excessive amount of London photos that I have lying around. I’ve revisited this city multiple times following my initial 2010 visit, and each time I’ve scraped away another layer of what the city has to offer. Going off the beaten track a bit, so to say. And each photo would bring back a shimmer of a memory that may have fluttered away from my mind over time.
To begin with, everyone knows the major tourist attractions. You have the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, to name a few. But if you look past the glimmering shine of the monarchy and a glorified carnival wheel, you’ll start to spot the smaller gems that were possibly averted from your eyes the first time around. The protesters camping outside the Houses of Parliament. The performance artists on Westminister Bridge. Speakers Corner in Hyde Park.
And what a gem Speakers Corner is. A huge park, with one small corner dedicated to climbing up on your soapbox and speaking your mind. While I was hoping to see some rotten fruit being thrown at the maniac bellowing about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, this was not the case. However, I did contribute to the inane shouting. While doing this, a man standing next to me turned and asked me “that’s a South African accent. Are you from South Africa?”. Our conversation flowed a bit more, and it turns out he went to the same school as I did, and used to live a few roads down from my house (albeit about 20 years before me). About two years later, I was hanging out at the local bar down the road from my house, when one of my friends came running in and said he was just speaking to the best English guy outside. Now in a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, I stroll outside, and who do I see there? Yep. John from Speakers Corner. He recognized me, and we had a quick catch up chat. He gave me his business card and offered a free bus tour of London next time I visit.
However, this happy go lucky attitude can sometimes lead to interesting situations. I once caught the Northern Line of the tube, and decided to depart at Belsize Park. What did I know about Belsize Park? Well, nothing much. I knew that one of the Gallagher brothers (of Oasis fame) lived there, and that I was apparently now in Zone 2 of London. Following the flow of passengers departing the station, I noticed that virtually everyone turned right when leaving the station and walked up the road. Not wanting to be the one person who decided to walk the opposite way, I decided to mingle in with the crowd, who were making steady progress up the road. Another right turn was made, and my journey ground to an abrupt halt. Everyone was heading towards…a hospital? Well, shit. Guess it’s time to stop, pretend to check my phone, and slowly walk back down the road to a coffee shop. Following the crowd isn’t always the best idea.
The one exception to this rule though can be found at Hampstead Heath – which was the highest natural point in the county of London. When approaching from a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that its a mere ridge on the horizon. Finding the vantage point at the top of this hill proved to be something of a challenge, since it’s somewhat…flat (when compared to the hills around my South African abode). In this case, I just followed the general flow of people heading up one of the many laughably shallow inclines. And a few minutes later, the panorama of London lay before my eyes. Viewed from Hampstead Heath, London retains none of the hustle and bustle atmosphere that many people speak in varying tones of approval about. Here, looking across one of the largest cities on earth, I spotted no skyscrapers. I spotted no factories belching out smoke to the ozone layer. What I saw was a city that had been around for hundreds of years, and was still thriving after some extraordinary events. Looking up to the sky, it was difficult to imagine German V2 rockets screaming their way across the blue abyss to a final destination. With the thoughts of history in my head, it was time to source lunch.
If you’re a foodie, then you’re spoilt for choice in London. Every country has a culinary input at some point in the city, and these fusions can sometimes make for interesting results. There’s a man in the Camden Market who sells one of the most incredible falafels I’ve ever tasted. Who he is or where he’s from remains a mystery, but I thank him for his sacrifice to the world of food. When not feeling so daring, the majority of my lunch times were spent sitting in Trafalgar Square, with a nuclear concoction of energy drink and sandwich (there used to be a £1.99 special at The Co-Operative Food Market opposite the square. I had this everyday for about two weeks). I would sit on the awkward concrete benches and eat my sandwich at a speed only rivaled by continental drift, while watching tourists attempt to climb the lions flanking Nelsons Column. Occasionally one of the tourists would fall off, which made for great entertainment. I’m very surprised that Health And Safety have had nothing to say about climbing there.
Eventually, I may have blended into the London atmosphere a bit too well, as I had a person on a train ask me if I knew whether it would be stopping at Kings Cross. But I digress. London has something for everyone, and wherever you look, there will be something new. Thats the great thing about London. You can be anyone and do anything, and you’re accepted. However, maybe try not look like you’re part of some extremist religion.