After the successful hostel trip down the Mayo-Galway in 2010, me, A (from that trip) plus S and Shona decided to go further afield the next summer after our exams. So we started off in London and traveled up the UK by train; Oxford, York, Edinburgh, Fort William and Glasgow.
The flight to London took longer than usual. That would have been fine, except that it was due to flying through quite severe thunderstorms. I won’t say that A is a “nervous flyer” so much as she is a “white-knuckled wreck”. So the lights turning out and the plane rocking from side to side reminded my bruised right arm why we had stayed in Ireland the year before.
When we eventually found our way out of the teeming Victoria station via the right exit (behind the Cornish Pastry stand which distracted S completely) we began our nerve-wrecking journey of finding our hostel with only my printed out Google-map to guide us.
London is beautiful; the buildings, the atmosphere and the quirky little shops. It’s all great but it’s just so big. Even though you can’t actually see the size of the city standing on the street but you can feel how vast it is.
Well really it just turned out that the road that our hostel, the Astor Victoria, was on a long road with a very confusing numbering system. I called the front desk for directions.
‘Oh walk further down the road,’ a girl on the other end of the line told me.
I frowned at the handset. ‘Which way?’
‘Towards the river,’ she informed me as though that explained everything.
There was not a river in sight. ‘Which way is the river?’ I sighed, gritting my teeth.
‘Just keep walking.’
But in the end we found it.
Four flights of stairs later we were collapsing on our beds. A change of clothes and we made it to Camden Town.
My brother brought us to a fabulous vegetarian restaurant overlooking the Camden Canal, called ‘In Spiral’. It was gorgeous, willows drooping over the lock and painted barged roped up beside the stone walls. They even did vegan ice-cream, much to A’s delight.
We ate leisurely, sat drinking tea and watching the water flow past the window before getting the tube back to Victoria.
We picked up some food for a late dinner on the way back to the hostel. We sat around in the kitchens until they closed at half eleven because none of us had any inclination towards going out that night.
The lights were out when we got back to our room that had been empty when we arrived though there had been bags so we realised that our roommates were now there. I nearly tripped over them before turning the lights on.
The couple (well maybe they were a couple) were sitting right in the middle of the small floor talking to each other in the pitch black room. They had accents we couldn’t quite place though I guessed Austria though in hindsight I’m less sure.
‘Oh sorry,’ one of us muttered in confusion.
‘It’s okay,’ one of them replied. ‘We turned the lights out to keep the mosquitoes from coming in.’
We nodded in a pretense of understanding and climbed onto our bunks with our books (you can tell we were the wild bunch at school), polite but with no intention of sitting in the dark. Later when they had left the room for a minute we wondered why they hadn’t just closed the window if they were so worried. Not that I had ever met a mosquito that had been afraid to bite me in the dark. They did it all the time in Italy.
The next morning we remembered that there were no mosquitoes in London.
I love hostels.
We woke early the next morning by the sound of techno music and building work on the stairs.
Joy, I thought.
When I went for a shower three Polish workmen were fixing something and obviously didn’t realise I had enough pub-Polish to understand some rather inappropriate comments. But we managed to shower and dress and get ourselves breakfast without incident.
We got ourselves all day tube passes for six pounds (they only work in certain zones) and made our way to Kensington to the Natural History Museum.
I’ve always love natural history museums, especially old fashioned ones with things in glass cabinets and pickled in formaldehyde. One of my favourites is the ‘Galerie de Paléontologie’ á Paris. I don’t think they’ve redecorated that place since the Victorian era.
So I suppose you might say the London equivalent is a little modern for my taste. Also the dinosaur room was closed that day and when I was a little (and before I discovered how bad at science I was) I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I grew up so that was a massive disappointment.
But before I say anything else I have to tell you that the foyer of the London into the geological section of Natural History Museum was one of the coolest rooms I had ever been in. The walls are black and emblazed across them are the constellations.
But after that the museum is shiny, colourful and expensive looking but struggles to find its niche. There are areas that seem focused solely on school-groups that would bore any informed adult but there are other areas that seem incomprehensible to anyone but trained geologists. But I’d still recommend it. It only takes two hours to walk around and there are some spectacular highlights.
Next we went to the Science Museum next door.
This was more of an A and S thing than a me and Shona thing but it had some interesting points as well. My particular favourites were the exhibits almost relegated to the corner of the first floor, with no obvious connection to the rest of the exhibits, next to the nicest of the three cafes. There was a cabinet of religious icons including some very interesting statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
Beside that was an eighteenth century Turkish sword of Damascus steel, from which I learned many interest things about the swirling patterns in Damascus steel and they inexplicable nature which I won’t bore you with now but you should look it up.
Then there was a very attractive grandfather clock beside which was one of the weirdest things I’d ever seen attached to a wall.
Now this turned out to be what’s called a ‘Midsummer Chronophage clock’ or the ‘Time-Eating Clock’ was invited by a man name Dr John C Taylor to explore different perceptions of time. While it is a masterpiece of delicate engineering really the Chronophage is a piece of art that challenges of us to think about what “time” really is by showing us a huge time-eating beast that greedily chomps down every minute to show time racing away. When you standing watching the gold-coloured circle tick around into the mouth of the disturbing designed insect the speed can seem to speed up, slow down or even stop despite the fact that it remains completely constant.
There was another cafe at the back of the museum that served very piece time and a lovely brownie but I would recommend to everyone to stay completely away as its glowing tables may have seemed sciencey and cool to whomever put them in but anyone trying to sit at them gets a pounding headache. I didn’t that a picture because I spent half my cup of tea with my eyes shut so here’s a picture of some cool early space-travel prototype that made me think of Jules Verne or H G Wells.
So after the museums but before we got back on the tube we decided to go for a wander down the fashionable and famous streets of East Kensington until we got as far as Harrods.
Another landmark ticked off our list we descended back into the London Underground and got two trains to Camden. Just outside was the King of Falafel, which did not live up to its promise as the falafel was only so-so, I like my falafel.
We decided to pass the main Camden market and go in search of better food. Whole stalls overflowing with curries.
After filling up we head down to the Camden lock market which was much less busy. Not only that but it was home to the cleanest, nicest public bathrooms we had ever seen. Keep a close eye on how much you’re spending because you could easily empty your bank account for clever t-shirts, handmade jewellery and quirky dresses.
A little lighter of purse than we had wished to be we made our way back to Victoria station. As S went to buy a Cornish pasty we stared across the road at the Apollo-Victoria theatre, home to the musical ‘Wicked’. We were just mourning the fact we were all too broke to go to any London shows when A’s mother calls and offers to pay for our tickets if we can find cheap last minutes ones.
The show was great and we were able to get last minute tickets for only twenty-seven pounds. I highly recommend this is you have space in your budget.
So following all the excitement (and expense) of the day before we decided to do some from free, outdoor sightseeing on the Thursday. So we got the tube to Westminster and took our compulsory tourist photos of Big Ben.
But given we’d all met in Classical Civilisations class we were actually more interesting in the statue of Queen Boadicea who ruled the lands London grew on before the Roman invasion.
Then we strolled past parliament and the anti-war protesters who’ve been living outside for a few years (who got cleared out in time for the Olympics, heaven forbid people be distracted from sports by people dying and such).
Then we walked around the statues including the famously unflattering one of Churchill that really captures his inner alcoholic.
We didn’t go into Westminster Abbey because it was 16 pounds which we thought was a bit of a rip off. We did get some really nice tea and pastries from a van outside though. Fresh leaf tea on the side of the road and not that expensive either. I was well pleased.
I did go inside Westminster Abbey finally a few months ago when I returned to London but to be honest we didn’t miss much.
As we walked through the area of Westminster we came across bus load of machine-gun wielding police officers. I found it very intimidating and uncomfortable as they started to line the streets ahead of us. As we reached Trafalgar Square we found that the cause of the riot shields being up was one very tame, polite teachers protest defending their pensions against a recent budget decision. They even had special stewards in charge of picking up any litter left behind by the march.
I was so surprised and dismayed by the massive police over-reaction (being a frequent protest goer myself) and it made me very thankful of the Irish police force (the Garda Síochana) which I don’t remember to be often.
And began our collection of hilarious signs.
Then we began a proper explore. We went and got ice cream in Soho. We visited Regent Street in Mayfair because its the setting of one of my novels and I wanted to have a look around. We discovered that it was the only place we had seen with black telephone booths but no one we asked knew why so if you do let me know in comments.
We decided to walk back to Victoria from Mayfair through Hyde Park, got a bit lost and ended up at Buckingham Palace.
Which bore little to no resemblance to our hostel.