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Wednesday, 19 March 2014

London levelled up


summer london bus

Tourists in London have it rough, I think. In addition to the overwhelming number of overpriced ‘must see’ attractions of the city, they have to navigate a vast underground train system with no numbered routes, more different bus routes than seems necessary, and a sprawling network of streets populated by busy, disinterested commuters who find them a nuisance. Of course, it’s the same in most big cities – But tourists who come to London are also confronted with the stark disparity between the London presented by the worldwide media, and the London of reality.

look up in london

Personally, I like real live London a whole lot more than the London presented in Doctor Who, Sherlock and even EastEnders. Probably the most obvious thing about real live London is that Londoners aren’t this homogenous group of white, tea-drinking socialites and cockney fruit-salesmen. On any London bus, you’ll encounter a range of spoken languages and accents.
London isn’t Big Ben, London isn’t Trafalgar Square, London isn’t £6 pints of beer in a ‘traditional English pub’. Sure, all of those things are integral parts of London’s culture and history, but so is linguistic and cultural diversity! London has a rich (and troubling) history just like any other economic hub in the world. In my opinion, London does itself a disservice by marketing itself the way it does. London has some well-known, historical architecture, but it is only if you turn around, look down, or look up, that you’ll find London’s uniqueness.

glass buildings in london

I’m definitely guilty of seeking out the well-known monuments and landmarks of a place, only to take a disappointing photograph that didn’t look as good as the postcard I purchased to send home. It’s an attractive notion, to see something famous for yourself and to take your own photograph of it, but these days I’m much more interested in preserving the bits of a place that speak to me the most directly. I love photographing London because it’s stuffed full of little corners that someone crafted, or built, or where someone lives.

waterloo sunset

Now, I’m not saying you should abandon central London and head to the nearest council estate for some sick photo opportunities – what I’m saying is that the grey estates, the polished office blocks, the graffiti on the wall, the greasy kebab shop… these are just as much London as the Natural History Museum and Oxford Street. They have beauty and relevance, and shouldn’t be maligned. You don’t need to head to Peckham, or sample a Chicken Cottage dinner if you don’t want to – you can find London’s hidden treasures everywhere. The photo above is actually Waterloo station. I love how the sun shines through that weird frosted glass – what is behind the glass?
london estate at night

So I’ll leave you with my tips for visiting London:

- Set aside two full days to “see the sights”. Book your tickets to things in advance, and use a map to help you work out the order in which you’ll visit various attractions. Research how much time each thing will take. For example, the Globe Theatre is right next to the Tate Modern, and depending on how long it takes you to look at each piece of modern art, you could do both of those things in a morning.

- Get some kind of travelcard or Oystercard to cover your whole stay in London. It takes a lot of the stress off when you realise you can hop on and off of tubes and buses at your leisure, and if you get it wrong, you don’t have to pay to fix your mistake and end up back where you were.

- Most of central London is actually accessible on foot. It's not as big as people think! You can walk from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden in about ten minutes, and you get to see a tonne of great cafes and little shops along the way. If walking is something you're able to do, definitely give it a chance in London.

- Take the bus. Yeah, the tube is faster, but you don’t get to see anything and you never get sense of where things are located in relation to one another. Get on a bus, go onto the top deck, and travel for a few stops or until you see something you like the look of – get off at the next stop and walk around a bit. Usually, you can find the bus stop that gets you back to where you came from just across the road! Oh, and another thing - the buses in London are a heck of a lot more accessible than the tube if you're disabled or need assistance with mobility.

- Central London has all of these great information boards planted on street corners, with big ‘You Are Here’ signs marked on the map. They are very useful and even born and bred Londoners use them all the time.

- Ask people questions! If you see someone waiting at a bus stop who looks approachable, ask them their favourite spot in London! Ask them whether they have a favourite café, or what their favourite thing about the city is. People in London are often startled to have someone talking to them – we keep to ourselves on public transport and mostly avoid eye contact, but with a friendly manner and an open mind, you’ll definitely find someone with some pro tips, and you might make a friend!

south london at night
If you have any inside tips for London-novices, please leave them in the comments. Or if you’ve never visited London, feel free to ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer. Let’s start a conversation, guys!
You may also want to see some London attractions I've blogged about before. The Seoul Bakery Korean restaurant, The House Gallery Cafe in Camberwell, and The Electric Elephant Cafe in Elephant and Castle.

3 comments:

  1. Hi. I was in London for about six weeks across Christmas. I still find it just so overwhelming, way too big for me. Coming from New Zealand, I'm just not used at all to things being to close together, and just a mashup so many different architectures and so much culture, it makes my brain explode!

    I find most of the tips useful (in hindsight). Having an Oyster card was amazing. But also, what is great about London is how close it is to everything. It cost me 20 pounds to get the train to Edinburgh, or 10 pounds to get to Brighton (if booked in advance a month or so in advance). It's so fantastically close to everything.

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  2. I know exactly what you mean - London is definitely an assault on the senses! A lot of noise, culture, architecture, all pressed so close together. I've never been to New Zealand but I've spent a lot of time on that side of the globe since my family is Australian. There is so much more SPACE there! The sky seems somehow bigger in Aus than it does in England, and certainly in London. Is it the same in NZ?

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  3. One thing a lot of people don't realise is how heterogenous London is. London formed from a whole lot of villages which were somewhat close together, and eventually started overspilling into each other. You can walk 100m down a road, and end up in a totally different area with a totally different feel. Which is super cool, and super interesting, but also pretty important to know safety-wise :)

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