London; All Done
Stories from my trip to the UK
A little bit about me — I’d always wanted to visit the United Kingdom (particularly London) since I was in high school. Probably because it was the hot vacation spot for some of my classmates during summer holidays. I grew up in a modest household where my parents provided what we kids needed and spending money on a vacation trip abroad would have been a luxury. So, my summers were mostly spent either staying home, watching movies, and doing summer lessons or visiting cousins within and outside Lagos, the city I grew up in. Once school resumed after the summer, you could tell apart people like me who spent their holidays within the area, and those that traveled abroad. This is one of the manifestations of attending a boarding house. I, especially loved hearing the London vacation stories from those friends and looking at printouts of the pictures, usually from Kodak as my high school era predated Instagram, Facebook, or any social media. From these friends, I heard tales about Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, and riding the Underground stations. I soaked up all of the stories and vicariously lived through them hoping that one day, I too, could have the London experience. I was always the child who knew that there was so much of the world yet to be explored and believe me when I say that I couldn’t wait to travel the world around me. My dream to visit London became a reality; one that was achieved 17 years later.
If you read my previous post about Austin, you may remember how much I gushed about my friend, Poojee Sudhapalli (PS). She was (in Austin), and still remains, one of my most adventurous friends. Unfortunately, Poojee relocated to London last year, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I went visiting her again. The opportunity presented itself through work, and I seized it. I was to spend about 11 days in the UK, and I wanted to make every moment count. Before I even knew when I was going to the UK, Poojee and I created a running tab of to-dos in London; yeah, we are that proactive. The plan was that she would explore London and its environs and test their waters before I arrive. The list was growing steadily, and I was looking forward to not only making one of my dreams come true but to reunite with my friend again for another adventure. So the following is an attempt to immortalize the times I spent in London with my friend. I had a wonderful experience with the exception of relapsing on my drinking issues (see end of post to know what this was about).
Before you visit London or the UK, make sure you have a valid and unexpired visa (if applicable), here’s why. I had a colleague from the US who had to be turned back at the airport as she didn’t realize that her visa had expired because the time/date system stamped on her visa was different from the one she was used to in the US. It was a situation where she decided to travel to the UK in February with a visa with an expiration date of 7/1/2014 (which in UK-speak means January 1), but she misread this as July 1st. Anyways, she was sent back home and missed out on the conference.
Seeing as I had a limited period of time to spend in the UK, Poojee had asked me if there were any specific things I wanted to see or do from our running tab. So, I told Poojee that I wanted to see London through her eyes and if that entailed watching paint dry together, I was ready and on-board. My dear friend, Poojee, took my words literally — the first part and thank God, not the last. My flight was a long one, and I arrived at Heathrow on a late night in June, and I can’t quite put into words seeing a familiar face as my friend’s welcoming me at the airport. We hugged and exchanged pleasantries; it was a joyful reunion and I couldn’t wait to behold what the next few days had in store for me and even for us.
Before conquering London, I had to make a short stop at Oxford first to get the business side of my trip done with. Even though I had only just spent a night in London, I could sense that Oxford was different. I arrived in Oxford via the Great Western Railway and stepping into Oxford was like stepping into one of the storybook worlds I imagined as a child, Enid Blyton is largely to be blamed for this.
Walking the cobbled streets of Oxford and soaking in all of its histories was refreshing and at the same time, nostalgic. I got off at the Oxford Station and took a bus to St. Anne’s College, where I would end up spending the next two days. I walked past the Radcliffe’s Observatory, the University of Oxford, and the Oxford University Press. Oxford is a dreamy city, full of magic and poetry, love songs and much-preserved history. I just wanted to keep walking everywhere and feast my eyes as much as possible.
In Oxford, I was able to meet up with one of my friends from high school and even spent a night with her wonderful family. She was kind enough to tell me about the historical landmarks we encountered on our way to and from her house.
Once my business was done in Oxford, I said my goodbyes and headed back to London for the remainder of my trip.
My first night back in London, I went out with my friend and her husband, and they treated me to dinner at a lovely Japanese restaurant near Chiswick called Oishii. I ordered the chicken ramen (which was ramen served with ramen noodle, egg, mema, wakame, bean sprout, spring onion, and sesame seeds). It was a pleasant meal, and I enjoyed every bit it.
The next day, we went to Hyde Park and Grosvenor Square and from there took a walk down to Caffé Fratelli for some lunch. The coffee was great, but the company was greater and exceptional:-D.
From there, we went window-shopping at Selfridges where my friend updated me on the history of the store. Poojee and I are both history buffs and every now and then I’d raise up the argument of socialism vs. capitalism, with her playing devil’s advocate arguing for the former and I staunchly representing my host country with the latter.
One of the fascinating things about London is how very connected it is. You are usually just a bus-stop or two away from the nearest Underground station. My friend lives in West London, and it was especially easy to connect to most places we needed to go. I should also mention that for the kindness and proactiveness of my friend, I may have remained in London as road sushi as it was hard for my brain to ‘switch’ to walking on the ‘right’ side of the road. There were quite a number of times that she had to yank me out of harm’s way when crossing the road. So make sure you remember to look first to the right, then around the corner to the right for any turning cars, and then finally to the left. To move around London, my friend suggested that I got the Oyster card which was very convenient to use for the subways and buses too. You can load as much as you want on the card. You will be charged a £5 deposit when you purchase the card and this deposit (and any unused credit) will be refunded to you when you return the card back to any tube station before leaving London.The fares are capped daily, and there are spikes in charges for peak periods and special zones — (London is divided into eight zones).
On the weekend, I went with Poojee to Camden market, and it was there that I’d say marked the beginning of my adventures. Camden is known for shopping and also for artisan works. You can even wander purposefully around it without actually shopping; indeed, there are so many things to feast your eyes on in Camden.
I purchased several postcards, fridge magnets, and a kitchen clock from here.
There were so many shops and so many places to eat. For the latter, I settled for good ol’ fish and chips with mushy peas and vinegar dressing. As I haven’t had enough portions of fish and chips to compare this experience to, I can say that I loved what I ate.
We walked around Camden market for quite a while,and I purchased some souvenirs. Another notable thing about Camden market is that there is a statue of Amy Winehouse located at the entrance area. Amy Winehouse was from Camden, and she is well celebrated here.
As a graduation gift to me, Poojee made reservations at the tea shop owned by the world-renowned Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. I must confess that I didn’t have an idea what to expect from having afternoon tea.
Not only was my lack of expectation surpassed by the quality of the experience I had, but I was positively overwhelmed by the opulence surrounding me.
It was a mighty fine treat that had all the delicateness (without the snobbery) of the English people.
The assortment of snacks we had was filling, and they started with the savory kinds, culminating with the sweet ones. Apparently, Fortnum and Mason is about one of the very few places in London where there are a lot more savory options than other places. If you intend going here, make it a point to make reservations as the slots fill up pretty quickly plus it’s just a polite thing to do (you know how big the English people can be about manners #MannersMakythMan [Kingsman]). I don’t remember the package I chose, but it arrived in a three-tiered presentation with all kinds of nibbles; mini sandwiches, perfectly cracked eggs (how do they do that?!) with asparagus wrapped in a thin sheath, fruit preserves, scones, and other items I don’t quite know the words for.
I had snubbed the idea that I could get fully satiated from an afternoon tea but boy, was I wrong? No sooner were you done inhaling those finger-like foods before they were replaced swiftly. It then dawned on me that these guys were going to keep feeding us until we told them otherwise. In retrospect, it made sense that the supply of snacks and tea was bottomless especially considering how steep the price was per person.
You also get the chance to ask for a different tea than you initially started with. I began with the Jubilee tea, which was a blend of black tea of select varieties from India, Ceylon, and China, created in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (1952–2012) and ended with the Apricot, Honey, & Lavender Infusion which was a floral and mellow infusion. After having the latter, I decided that it deserved to come to the US with me, all expenses (including flight and boarding) paid; it tasted like honeydew and is likely nothing I have had before. Each tea bag is delicately wrapped in silky bags. If you want to read more about how Fortnum and Mason started, check here for some light reading as I think this history is compelling.
After tea, Poojee and I took time exploring all the four publicly accessible floors of the store. If you think there isn’t any business to be made from selling tea or any of its paraphernalia, I suggest that you take a trip to this store in London. Every floor had lots and lots of different items for sale. My favorite so far was the first floor as it had not only the things I could afford on my state employee salary but the nice confections and profiteroles. I purchased coffee, loose tea bags, and colossal cookies. This store holds a lot of good memories of my time in London.
From there on, we walked over to Piccadilly Circus to see the Eros statue. There’s a lot of history about this place! The hustle and bustle reminded me of Times Square. They were many buskers there and so many things vying for your attention; I almost had a whiplash. Did you know that Coca-Cola has had a sign there since 1954?! And also that the value of advertising on the electronic billboards could run into many millions of dollars? Read more here.
The next day, we made our way to see the Queen. Well, we only made it as far as the gate. As we were too late to see the changing of the guards, we had to settle for selfies and jump shots by the statues — and those were a treat! Might I also add here that I got an eyeful of the tastefully-manicured gardens? The roses were in full bloom and ornate.
We took a walk from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square through St. James Park. Now, this place was supposed to be one of the highlights of my London trip, but it turned out to be a downer. The Square was named in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson who led Britain to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. There’s a long column in the Square also named after him, which is guarded by four huge bronze lions. Every year, Norway sends a huge Christmas tree (usually about 70 ft tall) as a token of gratitude for Britain’s help during WW2. This tree is then decorated and lit with approximately 500 white lights.
When I imagine visiting London, Trafalgar Square was the quintessential spot to visit. I imagined throwing some coins in the fountain and feeding the feral pigeons, and maybe luckily have one of them poop on my head for good luck or whatever. Now, imagine my shock when upon getting there to find that not only was the fountain dry but you were no longer allowed to feed the birds! Wait what?! Actually, in 2003, the Mayor of London placed this ban to reduce the pigeon population, and I heard that a hawk was ‘employed’ to keep the birds away. So I just settled for some pictures instead with some random strangers who asked to be in them; I thought this was pretty cute.
We made our way then to Downing Street only to find it really heavily guarded, obviously :-D. I heard there was a time you could actually take up-close pictures right in front of №10. Now you might have guessed that was probably a really long time ago, so we settled for what we could get.
From Downing Street, we walked to Westminster Abbey where you could see Big Ben, the River Thames, and the London Eye. It was a gorgeous day, and we came across a guy playing the bagpipe. So naturally, I danced a while with him and let his lullaby take me away. There’s just something about the sound of a bagpipe that gets me. It’s as if something’s calling me out to a place that I don’t know of yet. Pending when I do figure that out, I will do a hop and a skip and a gallop till I get there.
We took a ferry from the London Eye to the Tower of London and took a walk around Southbank. Southbank has a lot to offer and one prominent feature there is the Southbank Centre - a world-famous arts center located on the South Bank of the Thames. They have a lot of free activities and events, as well as a wide range of shopping outlets, cafes, and restaurants. It is one of the most popular cultural destinations in London.
After a long day of adventure, we took a bus to Shoryu Ramen where we had dinner. I forgot the names of all that I ordered, but I do remember that the ramen was probably one of the best I have ever had. The stout was rich, and the meal was flavorful.
The next day, we got tickets to go see Broadway in London at the Lyceum Theater located in the affluent neighborhood of West End. Accordingly, “the Lyceum Theatre in London is a long and complex tale of success, downfall, and rebirth. It all started in 1772 when the Society of Arts founded a room for exhibitions and concerts near the site of the current building. Since this beginning the Lyceum has displayed a chameleon tendency, adapting to changing fashions and needs admirably.” And what better show to see than Lion King! “ The Lion King has become one of the most loved and popular London classics of all time. Walt Disney’s long-running and multi-award winning musical The Lion King is delighting theater lovers across the world. The show made its grand debut on Broadway in 1997 and has become one of the most successful London shows.” I must tell you that watching Lion King in a British accent was definitely an alluring experience. The cast and stage were visually pleasing. It was also a bit nostalgic for me as I probably watched the animation more than 100 times growing up as it was the ONLY thing my baby brother would watch non-stop.
Later that day, Poojee and I met up with my very old friend, Liv, who runs a popular Lifestyle & Fashion blog. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in almost 10 years, we took off like time hadn’t passed. We spent most of the night talking a lot and cracking each other up. This was also another highlight of my trip.
The weekend I was to head back to the US, Poojee and I took a walk to Osterley Park. Osterley park is one of the largest open spaces in West London, and it used to serve as country retreats for wealthy families. There is a main mansion there, with a farmland (where you can see some cows), and stables (which have been converted to a cafe). I was really amazed at the expanse of the land, especially if you think how compact London can be.
Every good thing comes to an end and eventually, I would have to return from whence I came. So, after spending a few winks in London, I bade it goodbye and made my way slowly back to the US.
I made sure to stock up on some London goodies, especially the brands that I grew up with (another extra point for colonialism :-D). Like the body sprays from Brut and Boots, Palmolive and Imperial Leather soaps. I also got some teas and biscuits so I can have always have a piece of London with (and inside) me.
I miss everything about this place — especially the way it appealed to the spontaneous part of me. I miss Tesco’s £3 meal deals where you can get a sandwich or a meal, with a pudding and a crisp! And speaking of puddings, I, especially, miss the Mango Bircher with Chia Seeds — I had this probably everyday for breakfast.
There are also some things I won’t miss about London. First, I developed a drinking problem while there and came back to the US parched and constipated. You won’t find a lot of water fountains in London, and not even in most of their public facilities. You are expected to have your own water with you at most times or purchase them. Having gotten accustomed to accessible water fountains here in the US, this was one of the most difficult things I had to adjust to in London. Thank God, it was only for a short period. Second, if you are looking for free WiFi, you might not readily get it here in London, especially when you visit restaurants and cafes, or even train stations. It was also almost impossible to charge any of my devices in those places, so make sure to bring your power bank along if you think you might need to power your devices.
All in all, London is a wonderful place to visit and enjoy. It also helps to find a native who can show you the lay of the land. I am glad to have had the opportunity to explore this great place, especially in company of some of the finest people I know. I can’t wait for my next big adventure but for now, I am mostly glad to be able to say “London; all done!”
PS: PS, I love you! Thanks for working with me on this one and ensuring that the contents were accurate.
With brio, 모 (Mo)!