A week in London

By Caitlin Kelly

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The last stop! (sob)

So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.

I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)

 

Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:

 

—  It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets

— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring

— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below

— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.

Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:

 

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Museums

 

The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.

The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.

I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.

Their cafe is a delight — huge, airy, filled with natural light. Be sure to make time for a cup of tea or lunch.

I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.

He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.

I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!)  — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.

Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.

Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.

I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.

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While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.

 

Exploring

 

If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.

Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each  ($51 each.)

Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.

I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.

London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.

Look up at the city’s 900 ceramic blue plaques commemorating famous people who’ve lived there. On one busy block of Argyll Street, there are plaques for the American writer Washington Irving and Brian Epstein, who once managed the Beatles; the latter’s is above Five Guys, whose burgers and fries are amazing.

Flea markets

I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.

I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.

Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.

My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)

If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the pricewhen it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.

Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.

We also visited Portobello market, where I got a gorgeous cashmere turtleneck for 10 pounds ($13) and splurged on fabric and ribbon at this amazing shop (who ship to the U.S.)

Here’s a comprehensive list of London’s flea and antiques markets.

I lived in London ages two to five and have been back many, many times since, enjoying everything from tea at the Ritz to shopping at Fortnum & Mason to an amazing show of photos at Tate Modern.

The city really offers something for every taste. Be sure to enjoy a few very British traditions, from a leisurely afternoon tea to a pint at a pub.

Make time to watch the river traffic on the Thames, with everything from small sailboats to coal barges.

 

Have you been there?

What did you enjoy the most?

 

 

24 thoughts on “A week in London

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed your time in London! I only had two days there at the start of my trip, but even that short visit was wonderful. I always make time for a walk along the South Bank (love watching the boats on the Thames!), and it was so good to catch up with friends and family, albeit briefly.

  2. I’ve loved reading about your trip to Europe and especially like the term mudlarking! If you haven’t seen it yet, I really enjoyed the show Detectorists (it’s British, on Netflix)… – G

    1. Thanks! It was also a good way for me to remember some of the details one always forgets later…

      I’ve heard good things about that show. I binged on Broadchurch and Peaky Blinders on Netflix on my solo evenings.

  3. aw, i know you’re sad to have it all end, but looking forward to home too, i’ll bet. i was there many years ago, and enjoy portobello market, a few of museums, local fish and chip shops, took a train to oxford and back to london again. i’d love to go back now, with more seasoned eyes and life experience. what a wondrous trip you’ve had )

    1. I also took the train to Dorset (about 2 hrs sw of London) to visit…a paint factory. Of course. I might blog about it.

      I am now back in NY and very glad of air conditioning, NO stairs, a full fridge of fruits and vegetables and access to my MDs — MUST treat my injured knee.

      And — Jose! 🙂

  4. Oh, well, you already know that I’m hooked on the place. In fact, my addiction to the city and repeated visits there prevent me from visiting all the other wonderful cities on my bucket list like Stockholm, Lisbon, Lubeck, Turin, etc.

    But to actually live in London is very expensive. Do you find it to be as expensive as NYC?

    1. I find it very expensive in terms of public transportation costs — 1.50 pounds every ride (?) with a daily maximum of 6 pounds — almost $8! That’s not what I call a “limit.” I had to keep re-upping my Oyster card at 10 pounds a pop because (?!) there are no free transfers — you pay a Tube fare then transfer to a bus within 20 or 30 minutes, at most, and have to pay again. That’s crazy…and NOT what happens in NYC. I also was really shocked at how badly that system accommodates (i.e. it doesn’t) the frail, elderly or those like me, who have pain walking — very few lifts or escalators. Are you kidding?!

      Taxis are also very costly and London is so large and has such slow-moving traffic, it’s also more expensive than NYC where, if you hit the right sequence of traffic lights, you can speed for miles/blocks unimpeded. I find Paris and Manhattan much easier to get around cheaply and quickly, so they are more appealing to me just on that alone. I don’t want to waste hours and hours getting to place once I am in a major city.

      So, I enjoyed London and would return…but I don’t find it an easy city. For me, vacations should not add stress! 🙂

  5. Densie

    Thank you for providing such a delicious description and fabulous pictures of your trip. Now, I want to visit London.

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