My first visit to the Queen’s country was in December 1999 and the only images that stayed with me were of the dull grey skies and chilly-wet weather. It was also a rushed trip as I had succumbed to the temptation of a spouse-travels-free offer from SAS.
This summer, after 17 years, we decided to visit England to catch up with some family and friends. It was also a holiday all three of us were taking after a very long time.
My aunt (Boroma) who lives in Oxford was about to turn 86 and her son had never met his niece, my 15 year old. Boroma very sweetly decided to celebrate her birthday a week in advance so that we could all attend it together.
We assembled at her favourite restaurant, Thai Orchid, where my cousin had managed to organise a gluten-free birthday cake for her. Boroma was quite overwhelmed by this huge celebration and became a bit sentimental at the end.
In between, we had planned to catch up with Tete’s nephew, also based in London, for a quick meal/drink. However, his twin sons got impatient to see the world and arrived 2 weeks earlier, sending the new and excited dad rushing to Sussex, kickstarting his paternity leave. He however remembered to Whatsapp me their adorable pictures later. We still went and explored his interesting neighbourhood, Whitechapel, close to the famous Bangladeshi area Brick Lane.
The weather was perfect when we landed in London, on a late afternoon in end July. The next day, the plan was to catch a play and explore parts of the city with my cousin. We had agreed to meet her in front of Foyle’s bookshop at Southbank around 11 am. After getting off at Waterloo station, we discovered an interesting place on our way.
As we walked on, we soaked in some more eye-catching sights on the way. London in summer is such a vibrant city – my previous gloomy and wintry images were already beginning to get washed away by these more gay and brighter ones. The holiday mood had started to set in…
I learnt an interesting fact about the Waterloo Bridge – it is also called the Ladies Bridge as it was built by women during WWII. The role of women has now been officially recognised due to the efforts of historian Christine Wall, who discovered new evidence of their major contribution and brought it back to public attention.
We reached there an hour early and quickly decided to grab a bite. Coming from Africa, we automatically gravitated towards this place.
Soon after that, we set off to look for Temple Church off Fleet Street. It has a very interesting history but has come to public attention only after being used as a setting in Da Vinci Code.
Our next stop was another offbeat place: Horniman Museum and Gardens.
Frederick John Horniman, Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860. His overarching mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community.
His travels took him to far flung destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States collecting objects which ‘either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands’. Mr Horniman’s interest as a collector was well known and many travellers approached him with specimens and curiosities.
By the late nineteenth century, these ‘natural, industrial and artistic spoils had accumulated to such an extent that he gave up the whole house to the collections’.
His wife is reported to have said ‘either the collection goes or we do’. With that, the family moved to Surrey Mount the grounds of which adjoined those of the former residence.
Tete wanted a relaxing holiday and had no wish to scurry around with a been-there-done-that list. So for the first time, I went on a holiday without any fixed plans. We decided to take each day as it comes and left it to my other cousin in Reading to plan our tour, which she happily did. They wanted to take us to Henley, Windsor, Bath, Stratford, and Brighton during our stay with them and had also allotted a day for a shopping spree. Unfortunately, we had time only for the first two.
Tete’s unforeseen work problems got in the way and we had to dash back to London after only two and a half days, to be near his head office. Luckily, we found a wonderful apartment through Airbnb – central yet quiet, green and lovely. Now I had to start planning the remaining part of our vacation in the city. More on that later.
Rain decided to play spoilsport for a day in Reading, but we spent a beautiful and relaxing afternoon at Henley. Strolling along the river banks, having a lazy coffee, looking at the boathouses and watching their dog Snoopy have a fun day out.
No trip to England is complete without experiencing the rains but they do add quite a bit of magic to the atmosphere. The beautiful outing ended with a quintessentially English fish and chips dinner.
The next day was thankfully sunny and we went to Windsor to see how lavishly the royals lived. We also visited the Doll’s House and St George’s chapel with its stunning stained glass panels. But alas, photography is not allowed inside.
On our way back, we went for a stroll in one of the many beautiful parks in Reading.
Our London Airbnb neighbourhood, Maida Vale, was very close to a not-so-well-known place called Little Venice. It also had a beautiful park next door, which I later discovered was the legendary Roger Bannister’s training grounds.
Little Venice had been on my wish list and we quickly found our way there only to be informed that we had just missed the last boat. We explored the area a bit and bought some groceries for breakfast before heading home with a short stop at Paddington Greens where we serendipitously found the exciting plaque shown above.
We decided to do the London Dungeon tour that evening but sadly, it proved to be very touristy and a tad corny though it did have its small share of thrills.
Our next day started with a scenic boat ride along Regent’s canal. It stopped at Camden Lock where we watched the locks open to let boats pass. It was fun to see how the operation is still done manually. The market also had great character.
On the way to the tube station, we saw wall after wall filled with graffiti. This was Amy Winehouse country after all!
After that we were off to Greenwich. Tete went to inspect the Cutty Sark while we went to the Fan Museum. Unfortunately, we could not visit the Maritime Museum or the Observatory due to time constraint.
The only thing we had planned on this trip was a “pilgrimage” tour of The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers studio. Thank god we bought the tickets online a month before as the tickets get sold out weeks in advance.
I had reconnected with an old childhood friend before our London trip and he insisted that we must stay with them for a few days. Luckily, he also happened to stay very close to the WB studio. Tete was a bit iffy as he had not met him for 30 years (we are all from the same locality or para) but I assured him that it will be okay. My aunt and cousins also know him and his family very well. We did not know his wife but she turned out to be a beautiful person one gets to like more and more with every passing day.
They drove us to Oxford to visit Boroma (they were part of her birthday celebration too) but first we stopped at a pretty wildlife park in Cotswold since we also had to keep the kids’ entertainment in mind. We drove through the picturesque town of Cotswold and the pretty university town of Oxford, admiring all the colleges. We were more than half in love with this wonderful family by the time it was time to leave for Reading.
Next morning, Tete took the kids to Madame Tussauds while I went to Westminister Abbey with my friend’s wife. The stunning architecture and stained glass blew me away but here again, photography was not allowed.
Those 4 days spent with our friends were such an enjoyable part of our trip. Complete relaxation coupled with catching up on our “wonder years” of growing up together in Calcutta filled with fun and mischief, secret crushes and dalliances, and all things nostalgic. We laughed and ate and drank and chatted (adda as we Bengalis call it) till late in the night – going off to sleep in a very happy frame of mind. Thankfully, they had a daughter and the kids had a super rollicking time too. The outcome was 2 sets of completely guilt-free parents.
His older sister and husband (also old friends) drove down from Wimbledon one day and that day was an even greater riot! And when 4 doctors (the siblings are both doctors married to doctors) get together, the conversation can never get dull. We had lunch at The Royal Standard, presumably the oldest pub in England.
Tete thanked me later for persuading him to stay with them. He was even more delighted to discover that their home in Ickenham had a secret leafy passage behind it, which led to 3 huge fields (amazingly maintained by the local county), where one could jog or walk. Summers also saw youngsters play club level cricket there. On one of his jogs, he also discovered a hidden bicycle trail that glided into the woods from the other side. Their adjacent house was on sale and I could almost sense his wishful thinking. A perfect setting for his retirement home!
The last few days, we shamelessly immersed ourselves in doing the touristy things, including the “mandatory” Hop on Hop off bus tours. We visited many museums, took the Thames river cruise, walked along Southbank and visited Oxford Street. We did not do too many palaces (only Windsor) as we are not particularly enamoured with royalty.
Here are some pictures that capture our holiday spirit. All these sights have been much written about and so I will not add more clutter to cyberspace.
Next stop was Tate Modern.
I also loved the poignant memorial in Whitehall (below), dedicated to commemorate the efforts of over 7 million women “who served our country and the cause of freedom in uniform and on the home front” during World War II. The 22ft-high bronze sculpture depicts the uniforms and working clothes worn by women during the war. Military helicopters flown by all-female crews flew past the memorial to mark the occasion in July 2005.
Ripley’s museum at Piccadilly Circus was slotted towards the evening as it is open till midnight. It was an interesting museum with various “kitschy oddities on display.” Watch this video to have a better idea.
We briefly stepped into Chinatown as it was right next door.
We also decided to do a night tour of London (included in the ticket) as it was our last evening in the city. It was a beautiful ride but we were ready to drop off dead at the end of a very long day.
We did not have time for V & A Museum on our last day but we did not miss the Museum of Natural History. It was still a rushed tour as we had a flight to catch later that afternoon.
We were happy to come home but unlike last time, we wanted to come back soon to explore more of this beautiful city. I must also add that we were a bit apprehensive about the mood of the country towards us post Brexit. We were warned that we would have a bitter taste of racism this time but were very pleasantly surprised by the warmth, friendliness and helpful nature of each and every stranger we encountered on this trip. Most went out of their way to help us. I suppose they too must have been touched by the magic of summer to feel any animosity towards foreigners. And I don’t want to return in winter to test the veracity of this little theory.
Some Nice To Know-s
- If you want a VAT refund, please make sure you go to the desk before checking in your luggage as you have to show all that you bought along with the receipts and price tags. So keep all your purchases together. I learnt it the hard way.
- Buses are much much cheaper than tubes, and a better way to experience the city. You can travel as much as you want to, on the same fare, although I hear that is to change soon. However, they are much slower.
- Buy your Oyster cards if you want to use the public transport system. There is a Zip Oyster card for younger children. You can buy them at stations and any shops that display the Oyster sign outside. But tubes are quite expensive, despite this card. A lot of stations are not manned nowadays. So either buy the cards online and ask them to deliver at a local London address or buy them from the dispensing machine. They cost 5 pounds.
- The Hop-on Hop-off buses are a good way to see the city as you can see the city completely by mixing their red, blue and yellow tours. However, they are expensive (£23 – you can use the London Pass to avail a cheaper price but you have to wisely use the pass to reap its benefits). There are some public bus routes which can be used to tour the city cheaply. Check these useful links for more information on public transport.
- Buy the entries of ALL attractions online. That will save you valuable time and money.
- The London Pass is a very good option if you want to see 3 or more attractions in a day. If you carefully plan your day according to specific areas, you will save a lot of time and money. Their website has information about the nearby attractions. However, do keep in mind that the pass is valid for CONSECUTIVE days only. If you buy a 3-day pass, you have to use it on 3 consecutive days. So planning is very essential.
- If you want to watch a play or visit the Harry Potter studio, buy your tickets online, months in advance. Better to give a London address where it can be mailed to.
- Evan & Evans and Golden Tours offer good day trips to Bath, Stratford etc.
- The Original Tours, Big Bus Company and Golden Tours are the more popular hop-on-hop-off bus companies. The last one has free wifi on board and is the cheapest and probably the best value-for-money option. On weekends, you sometimes get deals for 2 days tour for a 1 day payment. The red and blue line tours end at 5.30 pm but there is a night tour offered as well within the ticket price.
- There is free wifi almost at all attractions, restaurants and cafes.
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not is the only museum that is open till 12 midnight. All other museums and churches close between 5 and 6 pm depending on the season. So plan your day wisely.
- All functional churches like St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey are closed for services on Sundays. Photography is also not allowed.
- Most museums are free although some exhibits have a charge.
- MAKE SURE YOU LIVE CLOSE TO A TUBE STATION – preferably one with many interchanges. It helps if you are near the Bakerloo/Central/Circle line. If money is a constraint, CHOOSE AN ACCOMODATION NEAR A well connected BUS STOP.
- Check out these 2 links for comprehensive tourist information on London.
Some offbeat attractions
I have mentioned Little Venice, Fan Museum, Horniman Museum and Brick Lane in my blog. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for the Maritime Museum and Observatory in Greenwich, both of which are a must-see. Here is a list of some other things not on the usual tourist map.
- London Walks is a fabulous way to explore London. Check out their calendar to see what suits you. Please note that this is totally different from the “free walks” included in the London Pass.
- Hampton Court (use London Walks for this, if possible, to get the real taste)
- Camden Market (can be clubbed with Little Venice cruise)
- Columbia Flower Market (only on Sundays)
- Portobello Road Market
- Museum of Brands (can be done with 5)
- Transport Museum (near Trafalgar Square)
- The London Film Museum (behind Transport Museum)
- Cartoon Museum
- Pollock’s Toy Museum (near London Zoo and so can be done with Little Venice cruise)
- Sir John Soane’s Museum
- The Old Operating Theatre
- Fullham Palace
- The Tintin Shop
- Kyoto Garden in Holland Park
- Kenwood House
- Chelsea Physic Garden
- Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel
- London Wetland Centre
Here is a link for the best museums for children. There is so much to do in this city, depending on your interests that no list can be truly exhaustive. I have left the pub and nightclub scene out altogether as that information is quite easily available. And also because I will not be the best judge in that area.