How time flies…its been a long time since my last blog!
The last time I blogged, we were newbies in London. As I write this, we are well on our travels (and yes, I have quite a few blogs to write to bring you up to speed!). But in many ways, I’m glad I hadn’t blogged whilst I was ‘in the thick’ of living in London because nothing gives you perspective about a place more than being in a different one. Ahh…the beauty of retrospect.
It would be totally misleading for me to start writing about my experience in London without being completely honest and saying that London wasn’t exactly an easy place for me. The primary reason being that I wasn’t able to work and earn the mighty pound due to my visa status as a tourist. For those of you who know me well, you would know that my career has always been a huge part of my identity and sense of independence. To know that I was missing out on professional opportunities and consequently the ability to financially contribute to our travel plan felt extremely daunting, especially given that London is one of the most prosperous and expensive cities in the world. Nevertheless, we certainly did the best we could with our time and budget.
If I could sum up London, it would be like this – London is like a girl who plays hard to get. She has a tough exterior that doesn’t really reveal all that she has to offer. It takes time and effort to get to know her and to find out what it is you like about her…and when you finally break through that barrier, the city has so much more to offer than what meets the eye.
The Tough Exterior
In an urban sense, London is not easy to understand at face-value. It doesn’t have the charm of Paris or the coastal setting of Sydney. There is no real city centre, nor is there a focal point – well, at least not in the way that Times Square is a hub in New York City or in the way that Sydney is focused around its beautiful harbour. London has the River Thames, which is not a picturesque as what I had expected – it is brown, very brown. I found the urban layout not as legible as other cities; owing to its organic growth perhaps and also because travelling through the city via the Tube is so convenient and efficient that you are forever arriving to a place like a mole emerging from a tunnel without appreciating what is really in between stations.
London is a melting pot of people from all corners of the globe. Before arriving, I didn’t quite appreciate how culturally diverse London would be. Walk down any high street or ride a double decker bus and you are guaranteed to hear a multitude of languages being spoken (Polish, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Tagalog, Albanian etc.) and it is very possible that English won’t one of them. I suppose since the UK opened its borders to EU countries, London has been the destination to seek a more prosperous life. There is a sense that people are trying hard, maybe even struggling, to make a better life for themselves and their families. In the more affordable parts of London where we stayed (Cricklewood / Willesden Green and Shepherds Bush), it seemed a lot of people were from elsewhere and in some cases, weren’t quite sure how to address others who didn’t speak their mother tongue. In Shepherds Bush, I remember walking into a Polish supermarket to buy some ham (how amazing is Polish ham!) and the lady at the counter blatantly walked away without so much as acknowledging me with a greeting or gesture that she would find someone who could speak English to serve me. Or the countless times I walked past a little corner cafe that was only ever full of middle aged African men conversing in Arabic whilst watching football – my friend Aisha and I conspired many times to go in to see what would happen, but we never ended up doing it. That being said, I did find that the vast majority of people were patient and polite, even if they weren’t exactly what you would call friendly.
People don’t greet you with “Hello, how are you?” – they ask “Are you alright?” (or more commonly “Ya righ’?”), which if you are Aussie, might mean that something is wrong with you and the person asking is giving you a chance to rectify yourself before you get into a fight. At first I found it to be jarring, but after constantly reminding myself not to reply with my habitual “Good thanks” but instead “Yes, I’m alright, and you?”, I got used to it.
I would say the toughest thing about London is the quality of life. Rent is expensive, like in most global cities. Most people I knew working in London would work an average 50 hours per week (at least) and would spend an hour commuting to work each way. During the winter months when the sun would rise closer to 9am and set by about 4:30pm, this made for a dreadful working week. It is certainly a work-hard, play-hard city.
But when you understand that the city is composed of many great and differing pockets of activity, when you find your social network, when the working week is over (or even once the work day is over), you realise there is a city to be explored, where something is always happening everywhere, where there is a pub on every corner.
Breaking Through The Barrier
Any foreigner who has ever lived and worked in London will tell you that it takes time and effort to settle in and find your feet. Most would say it takes at least two months. For Cam and I, it took us 4 months before we really started to enjoy London…ironically we began to enjoy London in the winter time, and I believe this had much to do with moving out of a shared living situation that was 1.5 hours (by bus) from Cam’s workplace in Ealing to having an ensuite studio room of our own that was only a 25 minute commute to Cam’s work and access to 2 tube stations.
Venessa, a old family friend of mine, and her boyfriend Adam were instrumental in opening our eyes to the amazing things London had to offer. They had been living in London for a number of years and had already found ‘their groove’ and were so enthusiastic to share their experiences with us. They knew all the ups and downs of London life and were able to offer us valuable tips and advice, far better than any Time Out or Tripadvisor review could ever express. We were fortunate to look after their amazing flat in Notting Hill for 3 weeks whilst they were back in Australia for holidays and took them up on recommendations such as burgers and live music at Acklam Village, brunch at E&O Restaurant, southern-fried chicken at The Globe and Ain’t Nothing but the Blues bar in Carnaby Street, none of which ever disappointed.
Some of our best days were discovering the city by foot – walking from Cricklewood to Little Venice with our friend Alex and her beautiful dog Whisky; walking from Shepherds Bush via Hammersmith, Fulham (Craven Cottage) and Chiswick to Kew Gardens; and from Shepherds Bush via Kensington Gardens to the West End.
Our weekends were filled with catching up with family and friends visiting London (so many of them!), watching the English Premier League, going to the pub and enjoying the beautiful parks. My favourite places to go in London were Notting Hill, Richmond and Shoreditch.
Time with the Extended Family
My first ‘guests’ in London were my Aunty Tessie and Uncle Perry, who were enroute to a whirlwind European tour, and my cousin Percival and his partner Wayne, who were attending a wedding in Scotland. Nothing makes you happier than seeing familiar faces in a new city, but even better that they are your family! They arrived in September so I purposely made sure I would save myself to do all the tourist attractions with them – London Eye, Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, Tower of London and Trafalgar Square. Percy and Wayne had been to London many times before, and pretty much knew how to maximise seeing the main attractions in a short few days so they ran the show pretty much, and it was really wonderful to see my Aunty and Uncle experience a new city together. On Aunty Tessie and Uncle Perry’s return journey, I took them to a couple of my favourite places – Portobello Road, Notting Hill and Richmond.
London Design Festival
London Design Festival provided me with the much-needed mental and creative stimulation I lacked from not working. With events all over the city across 4 days in mid September, it was also a way for me to get out and explore. There were so many design events to choose from, the most noteworthy ones I attended included the following:
- Artist Liam Connor’s open studio at Victoria & Albert Museum. His work sought to document the construction process of V&A’s Exhibition Road building site. His drawings captured the everyday activity of the various construction workers, scenes that are lost and forgotten once the building is built. His sculptures were composed of on-site ‘waste’ materials and captured the tactile nature of the construction process in a very human manner.
- Lecture on design for social impact, presented by Sevra Davis of RSA Student Design Awards. Her lecture discussed how architecture and urban design is at a cross-roads with social impact design, presenting examples of The Good (e.g. the great work of Architecture for Humanity), The Bad (using the example of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and The Ugly (the loss of local context in architecture and a global branding of architects such as Stark and Ghery).
- Co-Design Workshop run by Tilt Studio, which explored the use of co-design principles followed by a hands-on exploration of housing typologies based on end-user factors — people, planet, profit and place, and how these might apply in addressing the British housing crisis. Our studio exercise involved working in a group, during which I met some really interesting people namely Kassie, a concept-narrative student, and Fabio, a sociologist.
It is hard not to miss the pubs in London. They are on almost every corner, you can bring your dog and your baby, they are warm and comfortable in winter, and in summer you can take your drink out on the street. I was very pleased that the pub food exceeded my expectations and my favourite meal to order was definitely the fish and chips. And since we are talking about food, I must of course pay homage to the Sunday Roast – roast beef, pork, chicken or nuts served with all the trimmings (gravy, yorkshire puddings, peas, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc), served from noon until about 5pm every Sunday at almost every pub. Its an institution.
Perhaps the best pub meal I had was the fish and chips at The Castle in Notting Hill. Another notable pub was the Churchill Arms in Kensington, which is adorned with flowers on the exterior and in the interior is packed with Winston Churchill paraphernalia and has a Thai restaurant with good value, tasty meals (its just hard to find a table – be prepared to stand for the first 45 minutes or so).
I found the parks in London to be the best I’ve seen in my travels. Being so used to native vegetation species back in Sydney I really liked the lush, greenery of the British vegetation and the variety of trees and plants and the manner in which they were organised, structured and treated. The parks offered respite from the hard streetscape of our neighbourhood and were well used — people walking their dogs, training, casual exercising, picnicking, children playing.
On a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park, we came across a number of preachers trying to engage with the public – Agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Conspiracy Theorists…they were all there. It was one of the most interesting public displays we had ever seen, and the banter that came along with it from the crowd was for the most part light hearted, funny, and tongue-in-cheek for topics that most would find taboo in the public arena.
We spent most of our time in Gladstone Park when we were living in Cricklewood, either taking our friend’s dog Whisky for a walk or exercising. For a suburban park, I was impressed at what Gladstone Park offered.
My favourite parks would have to be Kew Gardens (which is really a Royal Botanical Garden) and Hampstead Heath. I highly recommend visiting all three if you ever find yourself in London when the weather is nice. Greenwich Park, which features the prime meridian and a deer sanctuary, is also a nice place to visit.
I started watching the English Premier League when I started dating Cam (almost 9 years ago!). And as all good girlfriends do, who are new to a sport, I chose to support Cam’s team, Arsenal. Before we had Foxtel (cable TV), we religiously found our way to a pub or the casino at whatever hour to watch each and every game – even if it meant being packed in with loud drunken British backpackers at 2am in Cheers Bar on George Street or getting up in the middle of the night to make a 4am Sunday game being screened at Star City (now known as The Star). How nice it was to finally be in the same time zone as the game!
When we first arrived, we looked up the price of tickets at Emirates Stadium through third-party websites. Expensive. Then we took a trip to Holloway Road on derby day to see if we could buy scalped tickets – at £180 each street value, we knew we had completely unrealistic expectations on how much football tickets actually were.
After a bit of research, I realised it would be much cheaper to become members — so for Cam’s birthday I bought him a membership and bought myself one too (as you can only ever buy one ticket per membership). It was the best decision ever, as we were able to get reasonably priced tickets for home games. Our first was a Champions League game against Anderlecht (disappointing 3-3 draw) and then an English Premier League game against Southampton. We felt like kids when we first entered the stadium – after the number of times we’d seen it on TV, it was truly surreal to be watching our team play! The atmosphere was fantastic, and it was so great to be part of all the chanting and singing, but most of all to see our team win a game!
Notting Hill Carnival
Undoubtedly my favourite event in London was the Notting Hill Carnival. It is the biggest street festival in Europe, taking over the entire neighbourhood of Notting Hill with Caribbean music, food, costumes and floats over two days (August Bank Holiday). It was absolute craziness — booming sound systems on every street, performers, people drinking and dancing, people sitting on the footpath eating jerk chicken. Venessa had invited us to her house party on the second day of the Carnival, which was the perfect place to experience it — in a comfortable environment, meeting really nice and interesting people, drinks flowing and views to the hot mess happening on the streets. Highly recommended and even better if you manage to get invited to a house party with great views of the action below.
Getting Out of London
London is the kind of place where there is so much happening all the time it is easy to get stuck. I think most people use London as a base to explore the rest of Europe, and with cheap flights and pounds in your pocket, why wouldn’t you go to Barcelona instead of Cornwall? We managed to do a few trips out of the city which gave us a broader sense of what the UK was about:
Fruit and vegetable picking at Peterley Manor Farm in Prestwood, Buckinghamshire
Great day out catching with a dear friend of Cam’s, with her son and nephew. We picked berries and beans and pulled carrots out of the ground before having some scones and tea at the Wild Strawberry Cafe, which is set inside a yurt.
Mount Snowdon, Wales
Weekend away with our friends Christie and Jimmy to tackle Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in wales at 1,085m above sea level. Best described by Jimmy as “slightly traumatic’, we did this trek via the Llanberis Path, which took us about 5 hours up and back, in freezing winter temperatures. The summit was all in clouds, so there were no views from the top, but the views on the way down were beautiful.
Seaford to Eastbourne White Cliffs Walk
Adam and Venessa invited us to join them on a 23km walk along the white cliffs between Seaford and Eastbourne. Clear blue skies, chilly winds, stunning landscape and expansive views to the ocean, it makes a perfect city break.
Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands
It had always been on my bucket list to experience New Years Eve in Edinburgh, so it was a perfect opportunity to spend the New Years break outside of London. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay 2015 was the best New Year’s event I’ve ever been to — the crowd was great and in good spirits, the music was excellent (countdown of top hits decade by decade from the 1960s to the 2000s, and then hits from every year up until 2015), we were able to bring our own alcohol and it was walking distance to our Airbnb apartment! After recovery day, we set off on one of the world’s most scenic train journeys – from Fort William to Mallaig, however we missed the most scenic part — from the Glenfinnan Viaduct to Mallaig — because by the time we reached Glenfinnan, the sun had already set! We stayed the night in Mallaig and crossed the Isle of Skye for our next train journey from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness.
Stonehenge and Bath Tour
This was an organised tour we arranged with Premier Tours, which I wrote a detailed review of on Tripadvisor. We took Venessa and Adam on this tour as a thank you for letting us stay in their flat in Notting Hill for three weeks while they were away. Stonehenge is a must, and if you are ever in Bath, a soak in the rooftop pool of the Bath Thermae Spa is a great way to see the town (from above).
If You’re Tired of London, You’re Tired of Life
“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson.
London is undeniably a great city, and I believe there is truth in Samuel Johnson’s quote in that London is a city best lived, explored and engaged with. It’s not the kind of place you can be perfectly happy doing nothing in. London has something for everyone, whether its drinking at the pub, watching a football match live, shopping on Oxford Street, bar hopping in Shoreditch, strolling down Portobello Road for antiques, or looking for Halloween costumes in Camden.
For me, a born and bred Sydney-sider, I was happy to leave London knowing that the place I call home has sunshine, gorgeous beaches and for me, a more comfortable quality of life.