London: A City of Contrasts

By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times

LONDON ~ This was my first trip to this city of lords and chimney sweeps. As I was raising four children, everyone else seemed to slip away to London except me. The London I finally discovered was as rumpled and comfy as old corduroy (which I like) and as stylish and smug as the sassiest fashionistas (which I don’t).

But what a buzz fest. London is a city on the verge of a nervous breakdown yet so sated on its own glories that nothing seems to bloody bother it. At this European crossroads, my 25-year-old daughter Jessica and I found the mad pace and the musty masterpieces a perfect contrast. Just when you can’t take another minute of London’s twitchy streets, you can slip into some spectacular ancient hall and, like Sherlock Holmes himself, spend an afternoon seeking Anne Boleyn’s bones.

Or, more festively, you can take a day and just sample the pubs, which are everywhere, a drinker’s dream. If they are fading away, as some suggest, it wasn’t apparent to us. Pubs, Britain’s version of Starbucks, are like chatty little lighthouses placed strategically around the city, drawing folks together.

Sorry to gush, but there is much to recommend here to those who haven’t been. You can ride the river, admire the views from that crazy-slow Ferris wheel, wander the markets till your knee bones click – how British.

Pick your passion. Indulge your pleasure centres. Take a million photos. Around every corner in London, it seems we found another intriguing attraction. During the changing of the guard, for example, the regimental band suddenly broke into Dancing Queen by Abba. I kid you not.

It was whimsical, odd and wonderful.

My maiden voyage to the motherland in late April was filled with such moments. I liked how unconventional everything seemed, the authenticity of most sights, the lilt in the locals’ voices.

I can’t wait to go back.

Till then, here is a first-timer’s guide to many of the things a wide-eyed American traveller needs to know to enjoy an initial visit here, based on my full and very switched-on week:

Hello, You

This city, we learned quickly, moves elbow to elbow, jowl to jowl. It’s about 2,000 years old, so its interior streets are best suited to bony supermodels and sleek Italian scooters, of which I am neither.

There is, fortunately, great mass transit above and below the pavement. To rent a car here would be a form of self-torture. If you take one thing from this piece, let it be this: Never, ever rent a car in London.

To get our bearings, we started with a basic half-day tour aboard a lumbering Evan Evans coach bus. Sounds like hell, I know, and on occasion it could be – all crunched in there, a sea of strange after-shaves. But for a quick London briefing, the four-hour tour proved worthwhile.

Our half-day tour passed quickly, hitting many of the major sites and monuments – Piccadilly, Parliament, Westminster, Downing Street, Wellington Arch, Trafalgar Square – and finishing at the mall that leads to Buckingham Palace.

Better yet and more dynamic was the next day’s hop-on, hop-off trip, the Original London Sightseeing Tour. This was more free-form. The Original London buses make dozens of stops on a circuit around the city’s sights, and a two-hour Thames cruise is included in the price (US$36).

The guides made the tours. One told us Lord Nelson’s body was brought back from battle in a barrel of rum. Another told us it was a cask of brandy. But the punch line was the same: Much of the rum (or brandy) was missing by the time the ship returned, the sailors having dipped into it on the way back to port.

Some say it was a sign of how much they revered their leader. I say it was a sign of thirst.

In any case, here’s to you, admiral.

Getting Around

The first time you look at the map for the London Underground, or Tube, you’ll think you are studying the wiring grid for a fax machine. The colour-coded subway routes have few reference points. Where’s Big Ben? Where is that Thai place in Soho?

No worries. London has subways instead of freeways. They reach almost everywhere and can make getting around relatively easy. And like freeways, you start with a few main ones, then branch out. By the second or third day, we felt like locals.

Several things newcomers should know about the Tube:
– The Piccadilly line takes you to and from Heathrow, although on a virgin visit with lots of luggage, it might be best to take a shuttle ($30) or a cab ($60 and up).
– The Circle line, which dates to 1884, is the main line to most tourist sights. Once you learn the Circle line, you can get anywhere.
– A pay-in-advance Oyster card allows you to hop on and off the subway and buses and is cheaper than paying cash each time. Put $30 on the card in advance and you won’t have to think about it for days.

Lessons Learned

To appreciate London, you have to soak up more than just its malty beers and spicy curries. Here is a primer on the city’s history, in 200 or so words (because to a Brit, 100 words is merely a dependent clause).

Romans founded London between the years 50 and 200. It quickly grew as a trading post along the Thames and also was the target of horrific raids by Vikings and Saxons (Germans).

In 1066 William the Conqueror led an epic French takeover, known as the Battle of Hastings, a key date you might retrieve from that little attic in your head where you store birthdays and huge historical events.

A series of odd monarchies would follow, led by piggy-eyed folks with a weakness for adultery and several Hitchcockian tendencies. After beheadings, for instance, they would occasionally sew the head back on (Charles I, for one).

Other stuff: In 1215, the Magna Carta was signed, a precursor to the US Declaration of Independence. In 1815, Wellington stopped Napoleon in his tracks, preserving the empire. In the 1940s, German bombers torched much of the city, particularly along the river, which glowed with moonlight and beckoned the pilots. The 50s-era buildings you see today are replacements for those destroyed.

Oh, I suppose I’ve left out a few things. There was this guy Shakespeare, who changed the language, and Charles Dickens, also walked these damp, wonderful streets – as did London’s most famous creep, Jack the Ripper. To this day, London is a restless troupe of actors and writers, wits and anarchists.

One last note: Every church seems to have a dozen geniuses buried in the basement.

What to See

To me, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London are “musts,” as is a day prowling the streets around Leicester Square.

Where to start? Grab one of the free maps (the best we found) at the information booth adjacent to the TKTS ticket outlet in Leicester Square and head off in any direction.

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Here’s one daylong stroll, along bustling Charing Cross, that will offer a big, heaping dose of London attractions. Start at the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where the Tudor wing will help you brush up on Henry VIII. Next door is the National Gallery, less stirring but a must for art lovers.

At Leicester Square, you can pick up half-price theatre tickets the day of the performance. For lunch, grab a beer at Harp’s, a friendly little boozer brimming with locals (at William IV Street and Chandos Place, just off Charing Cross). Order a half-pint and an O’Hagan’s sausage sandwich and head upstairs to the pub’s Victorian sitting room. Take a table next to the window and watch London pass.

From Harp’s, take the 20-minute walk to Oxford Street, a dense, jittery shopping district, then go left on Oxford to Regent Street, which leads down to Piccadilly Circus – more great shopping. Don’t miss the huge Hamleys toy shop (188 Regent St.) or the Ferrari store across the way, where you can pick up a Ferrari lawn mower.

If shopping’s not your bag, head two blocks east to Carnaby Street, a touristy pedestrian mall that has pubs on almost every corner. Start at Shakespeare’s Head (look for the Bard in the second-floor window) and then take 50 wobbly steps on to O’Neill’s, where hundreds of patrons spill out on the sidewalk telling stories loud enough to wake William Blake.

By now, it’s 6:30 and you ought to think about a quick bite before the theatre, for which you purchased tickets earlier.

After a day of walking, treat yourself to a taxi. There’s something right about arriving at a London theatre in one of those little black cabs, a bobby’s helmet with wheels.

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Class Warfare

Note that the exchange rate is much better than last summer: $1.60 to the pound versus $2. That means London is now discounted 20 percent, although that’s relative. It’s still one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Witness our grand feast at the Cinnamon Club, which turned out to be a highlight of our trip, even as it devoured my AmEx. Vivek Singh’s formal but festive restaurant (30-32 Great Smith St.), in an old library near Parliament, draws political types and few apparent tourists. Despite its name, there were no pole dancers.

The food was outrageously good, and for the dinner bill – almost the equivalent of my plane fare – it ought to have been. If you’re able to indulge, chef Hari Nagaraj’s tasting menu of grilled prawns, venison, salmon and spiced beef is a food lover’s fairytale.

I mention it only because it was one of the best meals of my life. It was also the priciest, and I expect my expense report to come winging back to me at any moment, slapping me in the forehead and reminding me about where I came from, which was … which was … oh, yes, America – that little experiment to the west.

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