Sometimes it just all comes together. You make some plans, the transport links are kind to you, the events deliver more than you expected, the food is good, and you go back to wherever you’re staying with a glowing view of the city you’re visiting. That was London for me on a recent weekend trip.
The back story: I’m in lovely Crystal Palace
I was staying with a friend in Crystal Palace, a far-south area bordering on Kent and London. My favourite three things about Crystal Palace:
- The park where the exhibition hall (The Crystal Palace) used to be before it burnt down in 1936. (It still has remnants such as stone sphinxes and huge scale dinosaurs in the lakes.)
- The hilltop location, which gives you an amazing panoramic view over London including St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye and the gherkin building.
- The village feel of the place. Crystal Palace is based around a triangle of streets full of local shops, a bit of a rarity in London where every high street is these days filled with the same chain stores.
I highly recommend a visit if you have time to spare; it is a bit of a hike from central London and requires a bit of negotiation of the London transport system. Easiest way is from Victoria or London Bridge stations on an overland train to Gipsy Hill Station, then walk up the big hill and you are in the triangle: look over your shoulder and see St Paul’s etc. Nice!
The place has a bit of way to go in terms of capitalising on that view. Only one or two bars actually utilise the view – try the Black Sheep on Westow Hill. One day I expect I’ll find it full of chain stores and picture windows looking down on the world. Sigh.
London, Sunday, 11.30am
One of the reasons for timing my visit to London for this particular weekend was that one of my literary idols was giving a talk. Geoff Dyer, author of such fabulous books as Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage, was talking for The School of Life near Russell Square at 11.30am on Sunday.
Now, you might think it rather pedantic of me to mention the time, but the topic of his talk was Punctuality. And given that he is one of my idols and I was staying in south London needing to get to central London on a Sunday, the topic was weighing heavily on my mind.
I left Crystal Palace ridiculously early. And all the transport ran like clockwork. Three trains, one overland, two underground, all running on time. So I got there ridiculously early also. Thankfully. In true London fashion I had arranged to meet a friend outside Russell Square tube station. Which seems like a good idea, no? But with London you have to realise that you are never the only one having an idea. Most tube stations, especially on weekends, have many many people hanging around outside them and not all of them are there to give you a free newspaper or pick your pockets. But we found each other: it was only 10.30am on a Sunday after all!
The School of Life is a fabulous, fairly new London institution put together by writers and thinkers aiming to approach the world from a slightly different mindset. They have a shop front in Marchmont Street near Russell Square tube, and sell books, posters and small philosophers in jars – every home needs one. They also run courses and these monthly Sunday sermons.
This one was held at the Horse Hospital, a great alternative arts venue. The whole event was wonderfully idiosyncratic. The sound of ticking clocks and metronomes bounced off the beige walls. The tallest man I have ever seen was roaming in a skintight red lycra suit complete with tail and hood with devil horns, daring people to sell him their souls, and girls in dresses with clocks on the front roamed asking people to confess their sins on Guatemalan worry dolls. All this amongst tightly packed mismatched chairs, capacity a couple of hundred. Oh, they also had three vintage-dressed ladies serving tea and homemade cup cakes – some with clock faces on them in icing. Delicious.
London proves its worth
So, the talk was great. My idol retained his status. I am rereading his books.
Again I became aware of all that London has to offer. The diversity a city this size can provide is amazing. Every time I go there now I will do my research on the walks, talks, and events that might be happening. London is so much more than just galleries, shopping, and dinner and a show.
One tip: booking early might be necessary sometimes to ensure a ticket, but for theatre shows, especially long-running ones, it can pay to leave it to the last minute and buy a ticket on the day for much, much less. I have seen great shows for ten pounds, front row seats, bought just before the show. But it is a risk and you need to have some flexibility in your plans.
End of a perfect day: Hampstead Heath
After sliding down the ramp out of the Horse Hospital, we headed to our next appointment: lunch at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. Ironically this is of course the exact opposite end of London to Crystal Palace – the journey home would be long and arduous. In fact, Hampstead Heath is on one hill overlooking London, Crystal Palace the other. As a very small boy my father stood in his home near Hampstead Heath and gazed over London watching the Crystal Palace burn down!
Having been to a talk on punctuality we were far too early for lunch, and then our friends were late anyway! But we took the opportunity to take a walk around the heath. This really is one of London’s jewels. The grassy open spaces and rolling hills. The trees and lakes. Swimming ponds for summer and, my favourite: Sham Bridge – yes, it looks like a bridge, it draws you towards it to cross the lake and… it is a wooden façade! I kid you not. Behind it the lake ends and you follow the road into woodlands.
Being winter, the paths were muddy and covered in rotting leaves. Wear appropriate shoes. Unlike me… But the air was so clean and crisp – something most of London cannot boast. In places, you really feel you have left the city and found yourself in the delightful English countryside of trees and brooks and stiles. Another great place to visit, just outside the heath, is Highgate Cemetery – resting place of Karl Marx and other luminaries. Check online because some parts can only be accessed with a guided tour.
After our walk, we (finally) met our friends at the Brew House, the restaurant/café in Kenwood House, a gorgeous well-preserved neo-classical house. In summer there is another café and you can sit outside, but in winter only the Brew House is open.
Then it was time to head back south. I was happy and determined not to be fazed by the myriad possibilities for London transport disaster. There is a bus stop very close to Kenwood and the bus goes to Archway Tube station or all the way to Finsbury Park, winding through pretty Highgate Village. From there I only actually had one tube journey and another bus. Easy. Time-consuming but you get used to that in London.
A great day out. London, I love you again.