London Through Other Eyes
Last weekend I played host to two friends, one from Barcelona, one from Warsaw. They asked me if I would plan ‘a Londoners’ sort of weekend’ for them. It felt like a daunting prospect; I tend to make my plans subconsciously, drifting into alignment with others as the weekend unfolds. Like most central Londoners we go out more often during the week.
I remembered that some while ago I met a woman from New York at a concert and she explained how she had packed several events into one London weekend, so I decided to treat my own city as if I was planning a trip somewhere else. When my friends arrived I presented them with an itinerary. My main plan was to find them things to do that were fun and light (they can go around the museums by themselves) while spare them the sheer bamboozlement of London.
I’d bought them tube travel cards and explained how changing from the District & Circle line at Baker Street to the Jubilee line South involves traversing the entire station along platforms, up and down staircases, tunnels and bridges, and how, if you want to change exits at King’s Cross it’s quicker to go up by first going down to a nearer staircase and remembering that ‘North’ on the signs is in fact ‘West’.
My guests wanted to go to Camden Town market for the experience and at least got that, hating every second of it. Crowds, noodles, stalls selling anodyne trash, more noodles, endless retail commercialisation of every last thing, now including a celebration of its skankiest pubs – to me it was just a reminder of Camden Council’s outrageous obeisance to the tourist buck over local needs.
Ah, I thought, extemporising, my guests prefer fewer people, so we headed for the almost-as-crowded South Bank and walked to the Globe and the Swan. The latter, a pub-restaurant in plain sight of all the tourists, is possible to get into without a booking because tourists are wary of the entrance (which leads up a staircase). The staff of the Swan are great and do their best to seat you quickly.
Then, a walk through the Square Mile, and later off to the theatre. This last part should have been easy; it wasn’t. I couldn’t get tickets for anything deemed a hit by critics and didn’t want to see dead-eyed, robotic Disney franchises. I found a small transfer in preview, and it turned out to be a silly delight; a feminist woke/ gender-fluid reworking of Shakespeare plus glitter cannons and belted-out pop songs (‘& Juliet’).
Next challenge, dinner after the show. It’s easy in New York, semi-impossible in London, which may be a late night city if you’re a twentysomething clubber but is rubbish for post-theatre menus if you don’t want Chinese. I settled for Joe Allen, which originally being from New York knows all about late night hungries.
Through all of this was the threat of bad weather. Sunday dawned wet and gloomy, turned bright, and we walked through Little Venice and Notting Hill, ending up for a traditional pub lunch with an open fire and lots of roast potatoes at the Prince Alfred, Warwick Avenue. Total cost of weekend, surprisingly less than I’d expected.
My guests said they better understood the shape of London after, and could see how it all worked together. For me, that’s always been the hardest thing to explain to visitors. Had the weather been better, a walk through Regent’s Park or Greenwich Park would have rounded off the weekend nicely. All suggestions for future itineraries welcome.