It would be arrogant to claim one can discover the soul of a city in three days. Less so London.
Rather, take bite sizes of the metropolitan, don’t try to see everything or go everywhere. Less can be more.
I was able to get a peek at what makes London’s heart beat, during a brief visit in March 2016.
The fastest way to lay a finger on the pulse of any place is to go by foot. Walk. Then use public transportation. You will immediately get a feel of the surroundings. This is impossible if you sit inside a taxi. Keep in mind, you will likely climb numerous stairs throughout the day—stiletto’s and dress shoes look grand—but rather dress accordingly and carry water with you. Stay at a bed and breakfast—chances are you’ll meet lovely people—locals who will “immerse you,” enlighten, and even spoil you. By doing this, you’ll come on eye-level (and heart-level) with the people who actually live there. Walking will “slow you down” (compared to using a rental car or taxi), it is good exercise, and enables you to pause, to mingle, to listen, to inhale, to observe, to see, to experience, and to enjoy more profoundly.
I arrived on a drab Wednesday morning. The grey skies poured its endless supply of wetness over the city with a nipping wind pushing the temperature below zero. I was returning to Canada from a conference in balmy South Africa, and my light Spring-jacket was one hundred percent ill-suited. I wasn’t even halfway through breakfast when self-pity took over.
The seal on my dreary mood was the £65 the licensed London cab charged me from Heathrow to Hurlingham. Save yourself £35 next time and contact Double-O car hire in advance: they will come and pick you up at the airport. (Or better still—take the tube or bus. It would even outsmart Uber. My one bag was too large and heavy to comfortably jump on public transport with.)
The dismal morning brightened upon my arrival at Gilly Belfrage’s bed and breakfast on Grimston road in Hurlingham. What a lovely place! Grateful to escape the drizzle, I found comfort in her warm hospitality. Over the course of the next three days, the sweet establishment, with its cottage-style decorations became a home away from home. This B & B was perfect: only a five-minute walk from the Thames river at the Putney bridge, from the Underground tube system and the major bus routes, and a mere 5-10 minute walk to the Fulham town center, with its variety of restaurants, coffee shops, pubs and specialty shops.
Armed with a small map of the city, a scarf, and gloves, my Spring jacket buttoned up high, as well as an extra layer of determination, I set off from Gilly’s place an hour later, in ever-widening circles. I first went east, then west, to find my bearings and locate the whereabouts of the private members’ Hurlingham club, the river, the Putney Bridge and the location of the ticket office for the underground tube train and the various stops for the famous red buses. I shied away from venturing into the city on its well-oiled public transportation system the first day—my head still throbbed from jetlag and my collapsible umbrella was intimidated by the ominous weather.
The rain held back as I headed down the glistening wet New King’s Rd, past the Thomas’s Academy with its sand-colored brick face, past a scooter dealership, a nail salon, and several restaurants until I saw something familiar: a Starbucks. (Oh, glorious day! I knew then, the British were indeed civilized.) Nothing takes care of the creeping cold like an extra-hot peppermint hot chocolate. (It was too early for a pint.) Magnolia trees, squeezed into tiny front yards—in full bloom—added splashes of pink to the streets.
I remained in the coffee shop until well after the noon hour. My B & B hostess recommended the White Horse on Parson’s Green: it was a revered local establishment to eat, drink and meet. That’s where I headed to for a late lunch, at a more respectable time of the day. The dark interior with wood-clad finish, shining tables, leather sofas and burning wood fireplace, was all a drizzled-upon visitor could wish for. I waited patiently until the leather-upholstered armchairs in front of the fireplace vacated. Sunk deep into the chair, the fire and the cider worked its magic to thaw my chilled limbs. Who in his right mind would ever want to leave such warmth?
Where ever I went around the neighborhood, everybody seemed to be active. People walked. Young and old, in leisure dress and business suits: students, professionals, housewives with strollers, office workers, laborers, retirees, and tourists. The vehicles on the streets consisted of delivery trucks, taxis, and buses, with only the occasional private vehicle. No wonder everybody was slim. Even the smallest children were on small, three-wheel push-scooters, running alongside their parents. And the cyclists, dressed in spandex, zoomed past in dedicated cycling lanes, at all hours of the day and evening.
Following Gilly’s famous hot breakfast the next morning, my host insisted on driving me to her beloved Hurlingham club. We wandered through the stately grounds and expansive meeting rooms, the reading room, the shop and lounges, with its twenty-foot ceilings throughout. Oil paintings adorned the walls: in one lounge, overlooking the greens, a young Queen Elizabeth, and her prince took up the entire wall. Against another wall, polo players were at full gallop, and opposite, rowers glided down a fog-covered river.
From the club, I found my way to the transport ticket office and purchased an oyster card, which, for a maximum of £6.50 a day, granted me limitless access to the underground train as well as the bus services. I chose the bus that morning. The # 14 took me to Piccadilly Circus, which was a bit of a let-down. All the fanfare and this was it?
I strolled down to Buckingham palace when I realized my mistake. I didn’t do my homework. Thousands of tourists swarmed outside the gates and fences, waving cameras and cellphones on selfie-sticks. The visible policing and security was impressive. It was close to 11:30—the change of the guard was taking place! If you wish to get a reasonable vantage point, and not be reprimanded, as I was—“that man with the camera, get behind the barriers, please!”—go early. The colorful spectacle lasts about 45 minutes.
It remained overcast and bone-chilling cold, and there were only so many photos one could take, that it wasn’t many hours, before I bunkered down in my seat on the upper deck of a red London bus, back to Fulham. It was time to explore more local restaurants and watering holes. I dropped in at Hally’s and Primavera; they both come highly recommended, the food and service were outstanding.
By day three it was time to venture on the underground tube-train. The organization is straight forward: the city is divided into zones, and every 2-4 minutes a train runs past. If you take the wrong train, simply jump off and go back. I went as far as the Tower Hill station. The train cars were jam packed with travelers first thing in the morning, and I got to rub shoulders with Londoners going to work. Once I stepped off, I circled the Tower of London, taking pictures, then crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge, following the back alleys in search of interesting things to capture on film.
Having had my fill after several hours I headed back with the tube and got off at Westminster station: it was time for Big Ben and the Westminster Abby. In time for the noon hour chime, I leaned against the ten feet cast-iron fence, drinking in the intricate design. I wandered outside these majestic buildings, then all along the river walkway, being more fascinated by the multitudes of people, than with the architectural wonders. I clicked away at a few stray gulls, at tourists, laborers, business people and a homeless man, as the day and the city warmed up around me. I regretted my decision to layer-clothe following the previous two days of near-freezing. It was steaming.
After heading back to Fulham, it was only appropriate to end the day at a different establishment and test my palate. Boma Green, bar, and restaurant, did not disappoint. I could never tire listening to the Queen’s tongue, spoken by the locals. Beautiful, good old English!
There remained enough daylight for a brisk stroll along the Thames river walkway at Putney Bridge. Afterward, I sat on a bench and watched two stray Canadian geese frolic in the water. Along the distant shore, a sweep boat with eight rowers slid on the surface, shrouded by the failing light.
Seventy-two hours is not a long time. I did not visit any of the museums or entered any of the majestic buildings I passed. I know, I missed much. But I also found so much more. I will enjoy the paintings and art work another time. For now, it was good to walk the streets of small parts of London, getting on “eye-level” with the locals, being able to pause, mingle, listen, feel, taste, and experience the place and its people.
For a brief period, I felt its heartbeat—and it was strong. Vibrant. Alive.
Thank you, London!
When we dare to do something different, our eyes open to new perspectives, to new possibilities. Whether we visit a foreign city or revisit our own lives, this remains true.
A new perspective, a new insight becomes possible. We can change things. We can change. Growth, (and adventure), then becomes possible.
But we have to open our eyes. And dare. Then do.
What is one thing you can do differently, whether visiting a foreign city or in your own life?