I arrive at London’s Victoria Bus Station, having just traveled from France through the Chunnel. I will be spending over a week in the UK in advance of my transatlantic crossing, so I have lots of time to explore the region. My first day in London, which I spend with my friend Alan, is very instructional on the British way of life.
Famous neighbours of London
I take the tube from Victoria Bus Station to my hotel near Old Street Station. The Old Street area used to be downtrodden, but now, thanks to the efforts (and cash) of hipsters, artists, and young professionals, the area has gentrified into a cool neighbourhood of cafés and communal creative workspaces. I have a quick dinner in a fancied-up pie shop, and then head into the city for a night on the town.
I meet Alan at the stage door of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Alan and I will be spending the next three weeks together, first in the UK, then on the Queen Mary 2 for our transatlantic crossing, then finally in New York. Alan’s friend John, who sings professionally in the chorus, joins us at the stage door. He promises to give us a tour of the neighbourhood and take us to some “fun places.”
As John walks us from Covent Garden to Soho, he nonchalantly points out the former homes of various luminaries who have lived in the neighbourhood. “William Blake lived there,” John says, waving at a row house as we pass. “Charles Dickens worked in there,” he comments. “Jane Austin used to stay somewhere around here,” he mentions as he looks about for a moment, trying to remember, but then shrugs and keeps going. “Mozart lived in that inn for a while as a kid,” he says of a place down the street. Really, I think? I look it up later—yes, really.
Pubbing in Soho
When we arrive at the pub, The Duke of Wellington, John tells us to wait while he gets us a beer. When we try to follow him inside, he turns around and says: “I told you to wait!” Perplexed, we stand around on the sidewalk. A minute later he reemerges with three pints of beer. Apparently, in nice weather, Londoners drink around the pub rather than inside it.
As the night goes on, more and more people congregate on the sidewalk, and before long there are two police officers wearing their iconic round-topped hats strolling up and down the street to remind people to stay off the road. I hear an unusual scraping noise, and then see a taxi rolling to a halt at the corner, its rear bumper dragging on the pavement. I watch with interest from across the street as the cabbie gives a report to the officers, who dutifully write it down in a little notebook. Then, to my amusement, two drunken young men approach the officers to give an eyewitness report, while simultaneously drinking gin and tonics from a plastic cup. As they describe whatever it was they witnessed, they wobble from side to side, their drinks sloshing about. After they’re finished, the boys give the police officers big sloppy hugs, and then stumble on their way. It’s only 11:00 p.m.
We make one more stop at a nearby pub, where a short and doughy man regales me with complaints about how most Britons don’t vote, which essentially makes the UK a tyranny of evil unelected thugs, no better than a dictatorship. When I try to argue the point, supported by my recent experience of actually visiting various countries under dictatorship, he shushes me with a drunken hand motion and continues his tirade. I inch away; he doesn’t notice.
Most pubs in London close at midnight (even on a Friday), so before long we’re back at our hotel. Having the pubs close early is a good system, really—it allows for a good night’s sleep, no matter how sodden the night. And a good thing, because tomorrow we’re getting up bright and early to catch a train to Cambridge.
Public transit in London
Warning! Only read this section is you’re a public transit nut.
London is a huge city, and the transportation options can be bewildering. Fortunately, the city has the Oyster Card, a genius device for accessing and paying for public transit. It’s a loaded-balance proxy card system pioneered over a decade ago, and it works so well that many other cities worldwide have copied it. A central computer automatically calculates the appropriate fare based on where you enter and exit the system, eliminating the frustrating exercise of fumbling for cash for fixed-fare cards or tokens. The city is still innovating, and now even the Oyster Card seems destined to become obsolete, in favour of the contactless payment chips built into many credit cards and phones. Soon, you will only need to wave your mobile phone at a sensor to gain hassle-free access to the transit system.
There are many different ways to get around the city by transit. Often the most convenient option is to take the Underground (or “the Tube”, as it’s often called). It is one of the largest subway systems in the world, currently with 11 lines and 270 stations, and also the oldest, having been established in the mid-1800s. The tunnels are small and cramped due to their age, making the system quite uncomfortable to ride compared with other cities with newer infrastructure. The system is deep underground, so there are lots of stairs to climb, and the pedestrian tunnels at interchanges are long and winding. To make up for these discomforts, the Underground is without a doubt the fastest way to get around the city, and so it is our go-to transportation option for the duration of our stay in London.
A parallel rail network runs aboveground, and is cutely named the Overground. This services destinations outside of Central London, but still well within the suction zone of the City. For destinations even further afield, such as the outer suburb of Greenwich, there are frequent commuter trains that depart from a number of London’s larger stations. Long distance trains to other parts of the UK depart from a handful of major stations, such as King’s Cross or Paddington Stations. And the Hogwarts Express departs from King’s Cross, of course.
Wheeling around on the streets themselves is a vast fleet of iconic red double decker buses. I find it to be the most fun way to get around London, although certainly not the fastest. On the top deck, large front windows give a terrifying perspective of the street below. Cyclists and small cars disappear into the bus’s shadow, seemingly squashed under its unstoppable bulk, only to reemerge moments later in a different place. Being on the top also enhances the swaying effect as we accelerate, break, and round corners.
The scariest way to get around London is to rent a Santander Cycles bicycle from any of the automated racks that are installed all over the city. For a flat rate of only £2 per day, you can borrow a bike from any kiosk in the city and return it to any other. They are lumbering 3-speed battle-scarred mechanical beasts, but they’re quite acceptable for getting from stoplight to stoplight on the flat streets of London. To make things a little less terrifying, the city has installed a halfway decent system of on-road bike lanes, but they don’t make it any less alarming to ride next to a hulking double-decker bus. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant and surprisingly fast way to get around the city, and I find myself quickly adapting to it.