London is amazing.
I won’t go into detail about the train trip (because no one really needs to hear about me eating far too many Oreos or being scared I wouldn’t make it to the train station on time) but I glided into St-Pancras on Thursday at half-past noon. Despite being absolutely knackered, I was ready for my British adventure.
Even though, for the first time, I had been organised and wrote down the instructions to my hostel ahead of time, I still ended up getting lost and walking for an extra twenty minutes with a huge hiking bag on my back. Soon, however, I arrived, checked in, and was walking back down Grosvenor Road to the British Museum.
My subsequent adventure was just a little bit stupid, but entirely fun.
The long walk
I really underestimated how big London is.
When I looked at a map, I thought, “Hey, it’s not too far. I can make it in less than an hour.” However, I didn’t factor in the swarms of people littering the streets of London, turning in the wrong direction 3000 times, getting distracted by anything and everything, and just the sheer distance from my hostel to the museum. I ended up arriving there three and a half hours after I set out.
It was such a fun walk, really, and a tourist tour in its own right, as I accidentally stumbled upon all of the great sites with a slack-jawed mouth.
Everywhere I walked in London, I felt like was on a Monopoly board. It was immensely exciting to wander through the not-very-red Trafalgar Square or down the definitely-not-green Oxford Street, thinking of all the times I’d played (and lost) over the years. Next time I play with an original board, I’m going to be that completely irritating person who points at a square and says, “I’ve been there,” while smiling smugly.
I think it was at Trafalgar Square that I noticed a sign in a huge bookshop labelled: “Languages. Get your language books here!” or something similarly appealing to a traveller about to spend three months in a country where she can only speak a few words of its native tongue. It was, in itself, a magical place for me – and a special, must-see destination in London – because, with six levels, it still is the biggest bookshop I have ever seen. I ended up spending $80 and over an hour of my time there. Oops.
After much wandering, I managed to reach the museum with only twenty minutes before the doors closed. It was enough time to take a photo of the Rosetta Stone:
It was so cool seeing it in the flesh, especially considering I’m becoming a bit of a language nerd.
as well as strolling around looking at some seriously cool Greek artefacts and statues. I didn’t mind, however, because I’d seen plenty of stuff at the Louvre the day before, the trip there was a ton of fun, and I bought a working catapult sharpener. Uni is going to be so entertaining.
After I got kicked out of the museum, I was a loss for things to do. My carefully planned itinerary had essentially been ripped to shreds by my underestimation of London’s size, and there’s not much to do, tourist-wise, after 6pm (unless you want to hit the clubs and get blind drunk, of course). I pulled out my map, then, and traced a path down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, deciding it would make a nice stroll.
Thing is, you don’t just “stroll,” down Oxford Street. Instead, you’re caught up in a flood of busy Londoners trying to take full advantage of late-night shopping and tired workers grabbing a bite to eat for dinner before heading home for dinner, and are sucked into every second stop by the inviting window displays. It was probably the worst place for me, because I couldn’t spend money on anything, but I wanted everything. It was a tempting street.
Even just walking down the busy, shop-lined street led to some interesting experiences: a man – who appeared be three times my age – offered to give me a £200 leather jacket for free if I became his girlfriend (about three of my friends said I should have taken him up on it and dumped him as soon as I received the jacket, but I don’t think even I could be that mean) and I got lost in a clothing store with a cupcake shop, juice bar, bubble tea bar, restaurant, frozen yoghurt shop, hair salon, piercing/tattoo parlour, nail and waxing salon and six floors of clothing all inside. It was stupidly big, and I loved it. (When I stumbled in the next day, they were holding a fair, completely with free popcorn and carnival games. Stupid.)
I finally made it to Hyde Park, after grabbing a burger for dinner in one of the short alleys shooting off from Oxford Street. By that time, it was around 8pm, and I felt going deeper inside the park would be asking for trouble, so I just sat down on the grass and watched the mellow pinks and oranges of a London sunset creep across the sky.
Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, the London Gallery and, of course, more walking.
I woke up very tired and grumpy that morning. My hostel may have supplied free drinks at any time of the day and a fab free breakfast, but no number of pancakes could make up for the fact there was a sensitive alarm on the door that would beep every time someone left it open for more than five seconds. Combine that with someone packing their bag at 1am, and the result is not a happy Heather.
I decided to go along with a slightly modified version of the plan for the day, replacing the iconic yet extremely expensive Tower of London with the possibly more interesting and completely free London Gallery. Of course, I thought it would be feasible to walk the whole thing, mostly because the tube is ridiculously costly.
Remembering what my mother had said about the wonders of Westminster Abbey, I skipped St-Paul’s Cathedral entirely and organised to spend the entire morning at the grand church. It’s a good thing I did, because it ended up being incredibly interesting.
I meandered through the incredible Abbey for a couple of hours with an audioguide in hand, learning about the fascinating history of the church and the people who had been buried there. I walked over the bones of my I-don’t-know-how-many-greats grandfather, Dr Livingstone, and past the bodies of famous scientists like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. I stood only a few metres away from incredible authors such as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and brushed my hands over the graves of royalty. Looking back, I’m still awestruck.
While I was in the church, however, it started to pour. This is where the stupidity starts, because, as a person who never bothers looking at weather reports, I’d walked out that day with only a thin shirt and cardigan on. (My hands were toasty, though – I never leave my house/hostel/whatever without my gloves tucked in my bag. I can hear my parents breathe a collective sigh of relief from here.) Within only a few minutes of walking outside the church, the chill was truly setting in and I was in desperate need of a jacket.
I decided, then, to walk up to Oxford Street, via Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, to buy something warm to put on. This was an appalling idea.
If I hadn’t taken the wrong path in Hyde Park, I might have made it to Oxford Street in the early afternoon. Might have. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and a shivering Heather was still lost in the park at 3pm.
When I passed an international triathlon (why anybody thought that holding a competition that involves swimming in the middle London was a good idea, I’ll never know) the cold was just too much to bear. I had to find a place to eat and recuperate, so I ducked into the cheapest café I could find. This was a fairly impressive feat, as the fast food stands were offering hot dogs for £4.50 (about $9).
At the time, I was a bit bitter and angry at myself for my stupidity, but I had truly enjoyed the walk. It was nice to sit in the park with a cup of tea in one had and a book in the other, watching the day melt away into a drizzly afternoon. I liked the peace of it all.
After I gained the courage to ask the busy waitress for directions to the nearest tube station, I set out again on another adventure, hoping that I would eventually make it to the Gallery.
I think, in a way, I achieved something that day, walking through the rain. I was absolutely drenched and slightly lost, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I’d lost too much time to stick to my plan, or that it was very likely I would get sick (which I did). I made it all the way to England by myself. I am a solitary traveller who got to London without guidance. I’m still damn proud of that fact.
I did eventually reach the gallery, and had a blast roaming around the Impressionist exhibits. It’s a great art museum, by the way, and one definitely worth visiting if you’re ever in London. I then headed back to Oxford Street, grabbed some Chipotle and searched unsuccessfully for a jacket that didn’t cost more than £50.
Then, when the day had ended, I went back to my hostel and chatted with my lovely fellow travellers well into the night, with London’s sky glittering above me and its chill settling into my bones.
(If you haven’t guessed by the way I’m waxing lyrical, I really like London.)
Markets. Lots and lots of markets.
This day was definitely the riskiest for me.
I’m going to admit something a little crazy: the whole idea for my trip to London was born from the plan to meet an Internet-friend. The lovely Lydia, whom I met on writing website late last year, lives in the UK but has become a close friend of mine. Half-jokingly, I suggested we should meet while I was still somewhat close to England, and this little holiday away was thus created. Of course, I wanted to see London as well, but I never would have thought it possible if it weren’t for Lyd.
Saturday was the day we had planned our meeting, and I was, admittedly, a little nervous. What if we just didn’t click? What if we got stuck for words and our conversations were stilted and awkward, unlike on Kik? What is if just ended up being a disaster?
It was well worth the risk – I had a fabulous day with Lydia. It’s just upsetting that I probably won’t see her for another decade!
We met at the London Eye (which was a hilarious conversation-starter, because it is one of the worst places you could organise to meet someone in London due to its popularity) before heading over to these massive book markets along Southbank that I never would have thought of visiting.
Lyd picked up some books of amusingly questionable quality, but I felt that after spending so much money on books on Thursday, I probably didn’t need to buy anything. I’ve been planning on saving that cash to buy a French book or two, anyway.
My eternally chatty guide for the day (although she really didn’t know where she was going, either) then led me to Covent Gardens, which I was surprised to discover isn’t a patch of greenery filled with trees, but is instead a considerably large market full of far too expensive and delicious-smelling cafés and tea shops. Content with just talking and exploring, we didn’t buy anything, but instead just poked our noses about the markets. (You’ll soon discover this is a recurring theme of ours.)
I suggested the next port of call – Leceister Square – and we strolled over to its humongous M&Ms world. I’d thought that since M&Ms are so tiny, the store would be small and a hilariously pointless destination for a lactose intolerant person to visit, but I was so wrong. The massive store has four floors of anything and everything relating to the delicious chocolate brand. Lydia managed to accidentally buy a kilogram of M&Ms in varying shades of blue, as the dispensers were really difficult to use.
After grabbing some surprisingly cheap Chinese food – I had been craving salt and pepper chicken ever since arriving in France – we headed off to Camden markets, a.k.a the craziest, busiest markets filled with absolutely everything. It’s completely different to any other part of London, in a very hippyish kind of way.
All of the shopfronts leading up to the markets are like this. It’s as though when someone designed London, they said: “All right, let’s make the city stylish and posh, and concentrate all the crazy stuff in Camden.”
Almost immediately upon walking into the markets, we regretted eating earlier, as a sensual, sizzling mix of smells filled the air. The inner part is absolutely packed with every kind of food and bustling with people – everywhere you look, there is a new, brightly coloured cuisine or harried looking customer. You can find anything you want at the markets, whether it be art, clothing, jewellery or vegan biscuits, and is a must-go for any traveller with a bit of cash in their pockets. Hopefully, next time I come to London, I’ll have a bit more money to spend.
It was mid-afternoon by that time, and Lyd had to catch the train at six, so after stopping off at a café for a drink, we picked up the pace and took the tube to Borough markets. It’s one of the most famous food markets in London, and as an obsessive foodie, I had to go. I think I preferred Camden due to its craziness, but Borough markets had some really nice architecture:
and gems like this installation could be found hiding throughout the markets.
The food was also amazing. I bought a slab of dairy-free mandarin and chocolate cake, and it was honestly just scrummy. I found it really difficult to leave without buying everything with the remainder of my pounds.
We ended up missing her first train, but that didn’t matter, because we stayed at the station café and chatted for an extra hour. I was really sad to see her go – despite the potential for problems (don’t trust anyone you meet on the Internet, kids) and awkwardness, my day exploring London with Lydia was my favourite.
I decided to head to Nando’s for dinner, feeling as though having an iconic “Cheeky Nando’s,” in London would be the perfect way to end my stay there. As I was eating by myself, I was seated at the lonely-person’s table facing the window, next to a rather handsome man in a suit. In my own awkward way, I struck up a conversation with him (it was something about cutlery, I think) and he admitted that didn’t like eating alone. What went from being an average meal eaten alone (which is totally fine for me) became a nice dinner with entertaining, dapper, and very British company. I didn’t expect he would swoop in and kiss me on the cheek when he left, though.
Now, my London post should have stopped here, as all I was supposed to do the next day was fly back to Lyon and go home. However, I made a series of mistakes that day, and my stupidity definitely needs to be shared with the world.
I may have broken a world record.
This story starts with a very basic mistake, and ends with a lesson: always check your ticket before making transport plans for the next day.
For some reason, when I looked at “Departure time: 11:50am,” I thought of “Gates close at: 12:30pm.” I think this was because, when I was asking about how to get to the airport the day before, I couldn’t remember the time and gave an arbitrary number, but then didn’t correct myself. I’d planned to catch the 9am bus for arrival at 10am, leading me plenty of time to get my bags checked and myself through security.
However, I missed that bus, because I took far too long for breakfast, and instead caught the slightly late 9:30am bus, which took longer than an hour to get to the airport. This combination of time-related problems effectively reduced my waiting time at the airport by an hour and a half; as a consequence, I was a bundle of nerves the entire trip to the airport. The snobbish lady who told me I should have “just been organised,” while looking down at me along her bony nose did not help that situation at all.
When I arrived at 10:53am, just 27 minutes before the gates closed and 17 minutes before check-in stopped, I was a mess. I’d already made up many plans in my mind as to how to get back to Lyon, including buying new flights and bribing the airport workers. (I’m kidding about the last one – I have no idea how much money I’d have to give. Not to mention, of course, it’s illegal, immoral and all that.)
Somehow, however, I managed to make it through the entire process in 23 minutes. 23 minutes, from entering the airport doors to waiting for the plane at the terminal, has to be some kind of record.
I’m not willing to beat my personal best, however, so I’m going to make sure I arrive at CDG airport with three hours to spare when I fly out to Rijeka in July.
Featured photo is of the London Eye, the Thames River and Houses of Parliament as seen from the Golden Jubilee Bridge.