This past summer, I spent two weeks traveling through quite a bit of southern England. Until now, I have been unable to write anything about my time there. All I can say is that it was wonderful, beautiful, exciting, happy…it was the right place for me to be at the right time in my life. I felt very still.
And then I came home and remembered that I had graduated from college. I had no job, I had no friends still in Boston, and I had no idea what to do. I spent about a month moping around, reading The Great Gatsby and feeling sorry for myself, and looking at pictures of where I had just been. Each day was filled with anxiety and existential lusting towards flights to anywhere. I couldn’t bear to focus long enough on anything, let alone on my own words.
And yet, time moves on, income comes in and settles anxiety, and while I still find myself googling flights weekly, here is a review of my two weeks in England, beginning with London.
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
My brother and I landed in London Gatwick. Bleary eyed, we shuffled down to the trains; before leaving, we had purchased tickets for the Gatwick Express, which runs throughout the day to Victoria Station in London. You can also take Southern Railway, which is slightly less expensive, but takes slightly longer. The train takes about 30 minutes and costs anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds. From the station, we ubered (sigh. I am a firm believer in public transportation when traveling, but it was too much for two jetlagged backpackers) to Kennington, where our air bnb was. Kennington is still in zone one on the Tube; while the area was more suburban and perhaps not the safest (we did pass by a murder scene), the price was right and for the most part, we felt safe. It took only ten minutes on the Tube to get into central London!
THE LONDON UNDERGROUND AND BUSES
To use the Tube/Underground, invest in an Oyster card! You can purchase one at most any convenience store for about five pounds. Then, top up on machines at any underground station and you’re all set! That being said, if you already have a contactless credit card, that will work fine. The tube is easy to use; lines are color coded and prices depend on how many zones you are traveling through. Tip: download the app “Citymapper.” If you are having a hard time reading the underground maps, or are just confused, the app will tell you exactly which line to get on. It will also tell you the times of the trains, where to sit, and how to get to stations. It is a lifesaver!
The buses on the other hand..are not so much lifesavers. Though iconic, those big red buses are difficult to figure out if you’re not a local. They meander through the roads and stops are hard to find. We rode one because it was half the cost of a tube ride. Just the once was enough.
Most museums in London are free! And have free wifi! Woohoo! Although we didn’t make it to all of them, we made it to The British Museum (great for archaeology buffs), The Natural History Museum (great for fossil buffs), and The National Gallery (great for art buffs). And for the price tag, how could you not go!
For more of an interactive museum, we went to the Tower of London. Expensive even with a student ID, this place was amazing. One could easily spend a whole day there. Although I chose not to wait in line to see the crown jewels, we took a Beefeater tour, which was jovial, informative, and a neat way to learn about the ongoing history of the tower. Walking through the cool stone halls of the tower will set you back hundred of years, as you imagine the lives and deaths of the tower’s inhabitants. Plus, it offers a great view of the tower bridge!
PARKS AND PALACES
For what is London without its parks? After stopping by Buckingham palace, we wandered through Hyde Park and the Kensington Gardens. Though packed with people, as all of London is in July, they were pleasant, full of flowers and greenery. Paddleboats floated around the Serpentine, available for rent. The gardens were so full of life, and yet, so very relaxed.
We also stopped at St. James Park in Westminster. Another lovely spot of green, St. James is a great way to walk from Buckingham Palace to Westminster. The park ends near the Abbey, the London Eye, and Big Ben.
Personally, I suggest going to Buckingham Palace in the evening, right as the sun is going down. There are practically no crowds, and the palace looks lovely in the evening glow.
To get out of the hectic central London, consider heading up to Greenwich for the day. You can take a commuter ferry up the Thames. The boat ride is a nice way to travel through the city; unlike on the tube, you can actually see what is around you.
Once there, consider heading up to the observatory. There, you can step on the prime meridian! You also get a lovely view of the city behind you. The area is home to several open air markets, as well as the Cuttysark, an old tea ship that has been hoisted ashore and turned into a museum.
JACK THE RIPPER, SHERLOCK HOLMES, HARRY POTTER
Ah yes, some of London’s most famous inhabitants. Tours have been created around each of these characters; while we couldn’t get to all, we decided to take a Jack the Ripper tour one evening. The tour was quite interesting—our guide was wonderful and a remarkable storyteller, but he was respectful too. He made it clear that his purpose was to educate and not to glorify. We walked around East London at sundown, and in addition to Jack, learned quite a bit about the area. It was also a nice way to meet other travelers.
For kicks, I also stopped by 221B Baker street. There’s a museum there, but I didn’t go inside. I just felt I ought to go to Baker street. In that same vein of thought, I also stopped by Kings Cross. I didn’t pay to pose as a character running through the wall, but I’m still glad I stopped by. It was wonderful just to be in the same places that inspired Rowling and Conan Doyle.
Portobello Road, Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are stowed…
Being big fans of Bedknobs and Broomsticks as well as antiques, my brother and I stopped by Portobello Road in Notting Hill. In addition to gazing at the pretty doors and pastel houses, we strolled down the road and peeked into all the knick knack shops. Quite fun, though we went on a weekday when the main market was closed. Still, a great place to pick up some unusual souvenirs.
FOOD: The two places I would recommend are The Anchor and Borough Markets. The Anchor sits right on the Thames, by the Globe Theatre. It’s classic pub food, and boasts classic decor. After, you can walk over to the Thames with a beer and people watch. Believe me, London is meant for people watching. The multitude of cultures and languages there is astounding.
Borough Markets is near the tower bridge and is filled with any kind of food imaginable. I got wonderful, gooey brownies, but you can also find spices, cheeses, meats, and cuisine from around the world.
NEALS YARD: Into instagram? Stop by the colorful Neal’s Yard in Covent Gardens. The little yard is squashed away behind storefronts, but opens up into the cutest little alley you ever did see. Once a normal courtyard, Neal’s Yard was redesigned and is now a collection of cafes and stores.
St PAUL’S CATHEDRAL: Go get your Mary Poppins on and feed the birds at this iconic cathedral in the heart of the financial district!
THE RIVER THAMES AND THE TOWER BRIDGE: This river feels vast, not only in sheer size, but in history. Walk along it, ride on it, or, if you are feeling brave, go mudlarking and look for treasures that have washed ashore. Mudlarking is technically illegal, but standing next to the Thames makes for quite a memory. I would also suggest the river walk; there are mosiacs detailing the history of London as it relates to the Thames all along the river.
Not to be confused with London Bridge, the Tower Bridge is the bridge that sits near..you guessed it..the Tower of London. Known for its iconic towers, the Tower Bridge is obviously a must see. At some point, you will probably pass over it, whether for convenience or for instagram.
LONDON EYE AREA: My brother and I spent our last night wandering around London Eye. We are both deathly afraid of heights and refused to ride it, but the area around it, at least in the summer, is full of open air beer gardens and a youthful energy. A wonderful place to have a pimms cup and enjoy London.
Coming up: Day trips from London!