london

Three Days In London

I get asked the question sometimes. By people I know or by readers of my blog. What to do and see when visiting London. Every time I run up a suggested itinerary. Wouldn’t it be easier to just write a blog post? Well, yes it would. So here it is. A three day whirlwind tour of London, focussed on the budget conscious. This can be a phenomenally expensive city. On the other hand, it can be done pretty cheaply.

But how to devise a three day guide? I’ve given this some thought I’ve come up with a map on Google with a load of great destinations,  a suggested itinerary and I’ve included a few recommended eating spots and suggestions about what is worth paying for and what is perhaps best appreciated from the exterior. It’s a tough ask to come up with a three day guide. Because, quite frankly, even three weeks is insufficient to do much more than scratch the surface of this metropolis.

Google Maps are excellent. I started out using Bing Maps. But they have been left behind by Google’s latest mapping product. The map below really is a very integral part of this post. By clicking on the link (or on the image below) you’ll not only be able to see what is where, but by also clicking on the pins you can go on to the  Google+ page and/or website of each destination.

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 First Evening

Most people will find themselves with an evening to explore after they’ve arrived. So why not take a walk starting from Oxford Circus all the way to Big Ben to kick things off. Stop en route at trendy Carnaby Street, window shop down Regent Street, take photos of Eros an the illuminations at Piccadilly Circus before heading into Leicester Square.  And then just keep walking. Trafalgar Square isn’t far now. Then a stroll down Whitehall and, if it’s open, pop into Banqueting House. It’s only a fiver, doesn’t take long and has some great bean bags to lie on whilst you stare at Reuben’s masterpiece on the ceiling. The audio guide is actually very interesting too. Then on we go again, and before you know it you’ll be standing under Big Ben. You know full well that’s what you came here to see. Timing is key. You want to hear the bells chime on the hour.

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Plus, if it’s dark enough, then you’ll not only get great photos of the Palace of Westminster, but also of the river and the London Eye that sits on the other side of it. But don’t head off to the London Eye just yet. That’s for another time. Round the corner from your current location is Westminster Abbey, one of London’s most famous, and oldest, landmarks. Inside you’d find the last resting places of kings and queens going back centuries. But truth be told, it’s expensive to visit, the queues are often long and you’re constrained by both time and budget. So unless this is something you absolutely feel you must do, I suggest keeping your cash in your pocket and saving it for St Pauls.

Day One

Hungry? You need a Full English Breakfast. Garfunkels serves a pretty decent plateful at a reasonable price with unlimited coffee. There are branches all over the place, but the one in the Gloucester Arcade is my favourite. But let’s start the morning proper at Trafalgar Square. If you fancy taking in a West End show this evening, then look around for some cheap tickets – outlets are all over the place especially around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Then have a quick nose through the National Gallery. Some of the countries finest art collections are inside and it’s free to enter. Once your thirst for paint and canvas has been sated, stroll down the Mall through Admiralty Arch and on to see Buckingham Palace. During certain times of the year you can, for a hefty fee, go inside to marvel at how royalty live. Most people settle for the Changing of the Guard. Make sure you have the day and time right – it’s not performed every day, all year round. Let’s get on though. So much to see, so little time. You can cut through Green Park to return to Westminster. Because seeing Big Ben just the once, just isn’t enough.

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Stroll across the river and have a ride on the London Eye. It’s not cheap but it’s worth it for the photographic opportunity. Now for a stroll along the river to explore the South Bank. If you’re really missing Mexico, then across Hungerford Bridge is a tasty and authentic taqueria called Lupitas. Alternatively, cross further down at Waterloo Bridge and see Somerset House. It’s a great piece of architecture and always has an interesting exhibition or three going on. Just a little further down the road is St Clement Danes church, which has the best set of bells in town. You might also recognise it as the starting point for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral procession.

Double back now, and head to Covent Garden. Have you got tickets booked for a performance at the Royal Opera House? They can be had pretty cheaply sometimes, it’s worth looking and booking in advance. Have a wander through Covent Garden, enjoy the market, watch the street performers and find a nice restaurant – there’s an abundance of options. Then either go into the Opera House or head off to Theatre Land and watch the show you bought tickets for earlier this morning.

Day Two

Catch the Number 9 bus from Trafalgar Square. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the most famous bus in the world. Ride for a little way until you get to Knightsbridge and jump off the back to go have a wander around Harrods. Don’t miss the food court. Back on the next number 9, which will give you a mini tour of London until you arrive at the Royal Albert Hall. Again, have you got tickets?? During the summer from July through to September, the BBC Proms are held here and tickets can be cheap. Just try and book in advance, although you can turn up on the day. Although you’ll be mightily lucky to get in to the Last Night of the Proms. There’s plenty to see nearby the Royal Albert Hall too.

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The Albert Memorial is just over the road, and a short walk away are the fabulous Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums. Both of which are free and both of which are well worth a quick tour. South Kensington itself is a lovely part of London – my favourite. Definitely stop for a coffee. If you’re looking to scrimp and save where you can, and providing the weather is up for it, why not go into a Tesco supermarket and buy a picnic? Stroll back to the Albert Memorial, find a nice sunny or shaded spot in the park and eat and drink your fill before Prom time. Although there is a small, and I do mean small, little restaurant called the Oriental Canteen in South Kensington which serves up generous portions for very little dinero.

Day Three

Catch the tube to St Pauls and prepare to lose the best part of one of those crisp £20 notes you got at a currency exchange. It’s well worth it. The Cathedral interior is glorious. Princess Diana got wed here. Winston Churchill’s funeral service was here. You can go up into the giant dome and practise your whispering skills. You’ll see lots of people trying, and failing to be heard by friends across the other side of the dome.  Most people just start talking into the wall. The trick is to put your cheek against the side of the wall and then just whisper. Try a few rude words in your own language to see if there are any other people from your part of the world around.

You then plough on up to the top of the dome where there are two exterior viewing platforms. They are, I’m afraid, the worst views in London. Because they are the only views where you cannot see St Pauls Cathedral. Such is life. Once you’ve had all the fresh air London can give you, head back down. Down and further down. To the crypt. Where you will find the resting places of some of the most important people in our history, including the Duke of Wellington and the legendary Admiral Nelson.

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Once you’ve had enough, head to the river, across the Wibbly Wobbly bridge, more properly known as the Millenium Footbridge, and into the Tate Modern. It’s another art gallery, but we’re not here for the art. We’re here for a cup of coffee, or maybe a glass of wine in the cafe. Take the escalator up. The views are wonderful. If you’re a fan of St Pauls, then they’re the best views in London. Next door, almost, to the Tate Modern is the Globe Theatre. If you have the legs for it, you can buy really cheap standing tickets. But you do need to have the legs for it – the shows can go on a bit. This call will come down to just how tight your budget is!

Let’s walk now along the river to London Bridge Station. Forget about the bridge though. It’s not the bridge you think it is. If you’re feeling rich then perhaps you’ve got tickets to go up the Shard, Europe’s tallest building. The views are spectacular. You can even see Wembley Stadium. If not then jump back on the tube. We’re heading to another of London’s oldest and most famous landmarks. The Tower of London. You’ve another call to make. Do you pay a King’s ransom to go inside the Tower of London?  The worlds biggest diamonds are inside. Beefeaters too. And a thousand years of history.

Or do you part with a much more reasonable sum to see the Tower Bridge exhibition? This is the bridge you wanted to see. I’ve done both and preferred the Tower Bridge exhibition. But that’s just me. It’s quicker though, and as I mentioned, cheaper. Whichever you decide, have a wander around. There is a spot which I like to call the Plaza de las Cuatro Culturos. Mexican visitors will know what I’m on about. I see your three cultures and raise you one. You will be able to see four very distinct cultures in a single frame. The Romans with a bit of their wall. The Norman with their castle. The Victorians with their bridge. And modern Londoners, with their glass and steel buildings. It’s not, of course, officially known as the Plaza of Four Cultures. But I just thought I’d point it out.

The Liberty Bounds pub is just a little way along the road from the Tower of London and is a great place to have a reasonably priced dinner of fish and chips. With a traditional English beer, of course.

The Final Morning.

Do you have a few hours to kill before you fly out? Why not head to Portabello Market. You’ll recognise the scenes from the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts film, Notting Hill. You’ll find plenty of cheap eats and antique stalls, but this is something to do on a weekend, not a weekday. In which case, perhaps Camden Market will make do. Or a flying visit to the British Museum. Perhaps you always really, really wanted to cross a Zebra Crossing? There’s only one place to do that, outside the Abbey Road studios following in the footsteps of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Did you enjoy your whirlwind tour of the world’s greatest city? Of course you did. Yet there is still so much to see. The British Museum, Greenwich, numerous galleries and other museums, landmarks, stations, architecture. You simply can’t fit it all into just three days. Perhaps you need to extend your trip here. Speak to your bank manager about increasing that overdraft. Or better still, come back again. London’s been around for a long time, and will no doubt still be here when you have the time and money to get here.

Places To Stay

London is full of reasonably priced meal deals. Even getting around isn’t really expensive. A London Transport Travelcard gives you unlimited use of the Underground and bus service. A lot of museums and churches are free. Walking is always free. Accommodation, though, can be pricey and is not always top quality. You don’t have to pay a ridiculous fortune though. Tune Hotels are a bargain given their locations. They’re quite new too. I’ve stayed at the Paddington hotel which is the best located of the bunch. There’s also EasyHotels, with the Gloucester Road, Victoria and Earls Court hotels all being handily placed for a tourist. But….don’t expect luxury, or space. You get a bed, clean sheets, a shower and a toilet. That’s it.

 

British Socialism in the 21st Century

I must confess that when reading through Forbes list of the worlds richest people, you have to head quite a long way down the list before you find a Brit. There’s no need for a person to have tens of billions of pounds. Or dollars, for that matter. Here in the UK, we are strong believers of wealth distribution, and the idea of having a handful of mega billionaires is something we find rather distasteful. Instead, we have lots and lots of plain old fashioned normal billionaires.

Lots and lots of them. Over a hundred now, which is more billionaires per capita than any where else on the planet. London is home to the majority of them, unsurprisingly. A total of 72, more than any other city on the planet.  I’ve read repeatedly how London is reclaiming it’s title of Capital of the World. It sure does have the capital. And that loot is coming in from all four corners of the globe. You see, of the 25 richest people in Britain, only seven of them are actually British. And one of those has a bit of a question mark over his nationality. Just two of them are in the top ten.  Here’s a little chart I created, totalling up the cash per country. For convenience, I included the Ukrainian chap in the ‘Russia’ tab. He soon will be, anyway.

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To be clear, I’m not anti-rich people. I’m a fan of Bill Gates, and they don’t come any richer than him. But, am I really being controversial by stating the opinion that if the majority of the wealth that exists on this planet is concentrated in the possession of an incredibly tiny proportion of the population then something has gone wrong? Economics is a complicated subject, I know. But surely the status quo is not the perfecta ratio?

I imagine most people, of whatever political persuasion, do not wish to see fellow citizens who are prepared to do a fair days work but have no work to do, made homeless or starve. That is why we have a social safety net. But my little rant today are for those are actually do complete a fair days work. The Minimum Wage was one of the better policies introduced by Tony Blair’s government. The ratification of the European Working Time Directive in 1999 was also an important step forward.

If we’re not paying people a living wage, then they end up picking up benefits to keep their head above water. In other words, the tax payer is subsidising the employers, be they corporations or smaller enterprises. There are a few policies that I would like to see implemented by the next UK government. Assuming that the incumbent one is removed….crossed fingers.

I’d like to see the minimum wage increased to a living wage. I’d like to see the Tax Allowance increased to the amount set as the minimum wage. I’d like to see employers obliged to pay 1.5x the hourly rate for every hour that PAYE employees works over their contracted hours. I’ll wager that the Zero Hours contracts will disappear pretty quickly. I’d also like to see pay at 1.5x the hourly rate for all hours worked on Saturdays, and 2x the hourly rate for work done at night or on Sundays.

I’d like to see a couple of pieces of Mexican employment legislation introduced too. Particularly, a minimum of a three month pay off for all employees fired, let go or otherwise released from employment contracts, on top of any redundancy pay out that already exists in British law. Just to put a bit more onus on employers to choose their employees carefully, to ensure they give them a fair opportunity and to ease any period of unemployment for the employee. Lastly, a Christmas bonus. Two weeks salary, to be paid prior to Jesus’ big day in December.

Which of the main UK political parties will take these ideas up and run with them? I’d give them my vote. Alas, I’ll probably have to run for parliament myself…

 

 

Happy New Year

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year. A prosperous one too.  May 2014 be fun, different, safe and everything you wish it to be. And may we read all about it on your blogs. This is how I celebrated the turning of 2013 into 2014. No, not on the Embankment. Tucked up in bed watching it on television. You get the best view of it this way, although I’m sure the atmosphere riverside is worth standing in the rain for.

I hope you enjoyed the video. The New Years fireworks in London used to be pretty third rate. Then, as 2011 turned into 2012 and the Olympics beckoned, someone with a bit of clout in the government decided we must do better and financed a proper fireworks display. I feared that it would be a one year only deal, but last years show piece was the equal of its immediate predecessor.

As you can see from the video above, the trend has continued. Albeit this year with a freaking awful soundtrack. There was a bit of Pink Floyd, which is always appreciated. But they picked the wrong song. I’d have picked Brain Damage, and I’d have put it as the final track for that incredible, sustained and almost senseless barrage of rockets and bangers.

But anyway. Happy New Year!

Christmas Home Videos

Christmas is the time of year when families gather together  get drunk, fight and remember why they don’t bother keeping touch the rest of the year  get merry, fatten themselves of turkey and sausage meat and go through photo albums and old video movies. Or cine movies, if I were writing this blog thirty years ago. To be honest, we don’t always do the photos and videos bit. But this year we did. I’ve cut away considerably at the 25 or so minutes of the original.

Some of the video is really just family stuff. But if you’ve been following along with me awhile, maybe you’d like to join me on a trip down memory lane. Other parts of the video might interest you for other reasons. Let’s see. Take a seat and get yourself comfortable. I may have cut the video, but it’s still over five minutes…

We start off one summer at least 30 years ago. Probably in Bayhurst Woods, north London. We often went there for a picnic. This clip features mum, brother, sister, aunts and cousins. And grandad. I’m wearing the grey top with a big red stripe down the middle. Just after the 45 second mark we jump to our back garden. It’s shot on another day, but with the same cast. Plus two new members. Sadie, our German Shepherd. She didn’t take any nonsense. A true GSD. With her younger buddy, a collie called Charno. He and I were good buddies. But he died of a broken heart just weeks after Sadie departed for Dog Heaven.

At the 1 minute 40 second mark we jump back in time. A long way back. I was minus 4 years at this stage, or somewhere thereabouts. Meet my grandfather, grandmother and uncle. My mum was about 18 and cooking up dinner. The dinner table still exists. I’m using it now, as my computer workstation. On to the 2 minutes 40 seconds, and another collie dog. I always assumed that our dog Charno was named after our house, Charnwood. I have now discovered that this wasn’t the case. Here is the original Charno, who lived in Italy.

Now the video gets a little more interesting. It is the late sixties and my grandfather is blazing a trail. Package holidays by air had started in the 1950s, but remained prohibitively expensive for most people until the 70s and 80s. Only the wealthy took package holidays by air in the 60s. The wealthy and employees of British Airways. Or British Overseas Airways Corporation as it was at the time.

He worked for them for more than thirty years. The benefits were great by todays standards. Generous pension and lots of free flights. Alas, my grandmother had a terrible fear of flying, and despite some early trips to Italy and Prague and elsewhere, he never got to make the most of those flights. Shame. Still, how does Pisa look to you?

I know the quality of the video isn’t too spectacular. But there really isn’t much in the way of amateur tourist video from the 60s, so don’t grumble. Grandad has on a shirt and tie. You can’t see his shoes, but you can bet they were polished good enough to use as a mirror. He was in the army in WW2. Some habits die hard. Straight tie, check. Starched shirt collar, check. Polished boots, check. Fly into fascist country and start shooting, check. Luckily, it was just video this time…

On to 4 minutes and 17 seconds. Who hasn’t been through London Heathrow? Seriously. If you haven’t landed at LHR, then your credentials as a traveller are laughable. Maybe. It’s long been the worlds busiest international airport. But you probably won’t recognise this Heathrow. This Heathrow has an awful lot of green and much less grey concrete than you’re used to. It wasn’t even in London proper back in the day. Of course, it wasn’t long before it was swallowed up by the growing metropolis.

Finally, we approach the end of this video. Are you still watching? Excellent! This is the best bit. We are back to a family shot. I can give you a fairly precise date for these few seconds. This video was shot on the 29th October 1972 by my grandmother. She records my grandfather pulling his car up the driveway. He jumps out and goes to open the back door, to let the lady out. It was how things were done back then. Out gets my mum, after a 10 day stay in Perivale hospital. And, for just a fleeting second or two, is me. The reason for her hospital stay.

In Defence of Money

My recent post urging (meh – suggesting) my fellow Brits to vote Labour at the next election was a twisted piece. Twisted, because I am a contrary fellow, who appreciates both sides of every argument and would rather like to both have my cake and eat it. Twisted, because I am apt to change my mind at the drop of a hat at the best of times. Twisted, because I am in a constant state of political conflict. The latter is the most difficult issue and quite impossible to resolve.

I gave a longish list of principles that I’d like to see the country run by. But in truth, I could have summarised my position more concisely and more accurately. I think I may have done so in the comments section. I very simply believe that people in Britain shouldn’t go hungry, go without shelter, go without heating, go without medical treatment or be otherwise unfairly treated. Because, as a society, we should be better than that.

But how dull would a society be if we were all equal? We are not born equal. We’re all born different. That we should be born with equal opportunity is another thing entirely. But it’s natural that some rise to the top in their professions. It’s natural that some will earns riches beyond their wildest dreams. It’s natural that some sportsmen will earn medals. And it’s equally natural some will have to satisfy themselves with middling jobs, normal salaries and a pat on the back for taking part. Many would say it’s also natural that some people will be shunted to the sidelines, fail to make ends meet and be social misfits. If that is true, let’s try to be unnatural.

I love how Americans admire and applaud those who get to the top of the ladder, and instead of plotting to bring them down to earth, they plan on how they will get to join them there. Us Brits are rather reserved when it comes to wealth. No one likes a show off. It’s ok to be rich. Just don’t let anyone know about it. And besides, no amount of money will buy class. Because class most definitely still opens doors. Just make sure you’re wearing the right school tie.

I rather despair at the fact that the ladder is held a little too high from the ground for far too many people to even get on, but that’s another story. My admiration or contempt for a person isn’t determined by how rich he is, but by who he is. I’m a big fan of Bill Gates. I’d not shed a tear if the Kochs were to be come to a sticky, public end. I’d frankly be tempted to push Donald Trump in front of a train, given the opportunity.

I am, sad to say, one of those with a middling job, a very normal salary and the occasional pat on the back when I complete a 10km run. But I benefit from the wealth of others. Not in the ‘trickle down’ sense. Nor because I have any genuine belief in getting some of that for myself. No, I receive the benefit of wealth in a different way entirely. Every time I go to London and see the grand architecture, palaces and fabulous shops. Every time I go visit a beautiful old castle in the countryside. Every time I enjoy a trip to a museum. Or see a priceless work of art, commissioned at ridiculous cost.

My senses are brought to life and stimulated by other peoples wealth. And if I work hard enough, maybe, just maybe I can be part of that impossible dream. If only temporarily. Afternoon tea at the Ritz, perhaps. For a moment, I can pretend to be at home amongst my surroundings. Or I can walk around a car showroom and make my choice. Not any old showroom. If you’re going to dream, do it properly!

London is a fabulous place to be if you like cars. You won’t have to wait long in Westminster or Chelsea to see the latest Ferrari, Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls or Lamborghini. There are some choice showrooms on Park Lane. Paganis and McLarens can both be found there. But we strolled around some fine motors in a dealership on Berkeley Square. Mostly Bentleys.

But there was one shiny blue beast of Italian descent, now based in Germany. A Bugatti. I know I’ll never drive this Bugatti, let alone own it. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that I’ll ever get to ride in one, even as a humble passenger. I may even be chased away by an irate salesman if I dare get too close. But, nonetheless, I’m glad it exists. The world is a better place because of this Bugatti. My spirits are lifted every time I see such a creature. My socialist sentiments are put back in their box for another day. Viva dinero!

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Restless Nights

I absolutely love this video. I keep promising to get out one of these days and do something similar. It’s really not that hard to create a decent timelapse video. The two most important ingredients are time and patience. Two things I lack. But I have a plan. And a resolution for the New Year. I think I may have a couple of spare weeks to do a little something…

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The London Taxi

The London taxi, properly known as a Hackney Carriage, is the best in the world. Really. It has no rival. Is this news surprising? It is news. Not my opinion. From comments I’ve read around the world, it appears so. Which I found surprising. Unlike most taxis around the world, the Hackney Carriage is a purpose built vehicle. Unlike most cities around the world, the drivers know every nook and cranny of the city they serve. Their training course, the Knowledge, is thorough. The charges come from a regulated meter, and aren’t too outrageous. And the cars are comfortable.

I tip my invisible hat to ye, Hackney Carriage drivers of London. Never was a taxi so easy to get into and out of, nor swallow so many bags, nor sit so many people comfortably. It also looks fantastic. Along with soldiers wearing bearskin hats, red post and phone boxes, double decker buses and Big Ben, the Hackney Carriage is an instantly recognised London icon.

Where did Mexico come? Tied fifth, a great result. I don’t know whether to be surprised at this result or not. Taxis in Mexico City have the worst reputation ever! And yet, providing you’re not going too far (it’s a big city, and I’ve been in more than one taxi where the driver got lost on a south to north jaunt) then it’s cheap, cheerful and there’s a plentiful supply of taxis to choose from. You do need a choice though. Some times the ‘meter isn’t working’. Which is taxilingo for ‘it’s a gringo, he’s got the cash, why not milk him of as much of it as possible’. Which didn’t work on me. It shouldn’t work on anyone….just take the next damned taxi that will come along in about…oh, say about fifteen seconds?

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Tory Tribute

At the centre of London sits Trafalgar Square. If you’ve visited London, you’ve been there. Surrounding Nelson’s column are four plinths. Upon three of them are statues to heroes of the past. The fourth, until recently (as in the 1990s) was empty. But now it hosts temporary displays of various art works and tributes. The current piece that sits on top is clearly in honour of the incumbent prime minister. Decked out in finest Conservative Blue, the statue gazes directly towards Downing Street, the home of ministerial power in the UK.

I’m hoping that the obvious pun can remain unspoken, and that I won’t need to elaborate and point out that there’s a massive cock up there on that plinth. Oh darn it, I’ve gone and said it anyway…

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Banqueting House

London hosts a treasure trove of hidden secrets. As do most cities. Let me introduce you to one of them. It’s far better hidden that most of the capitals secrets. It’s hidden in plain view. If you’ve been to London, you’ve almost certainly walked past it. You almost certainly glanced at it. It’s name might even ring a bell. But unless you’ve really been through the depths of your guidebook, or have an especially deep interest in the history of Londinium, then that first glance probably isn’t followed up by a second glance.

I’m talking about Banqueting House. It’s on Whitehall between Trafalgar Square and Westminster. But it’s on the wrong side of Whitehall. Tourists march down to the Thames with ‘eyes right’ to see the curiously helmeted soldiers outside Horseguards and to see Downing Street. Else they are looking behind at Horatio atop his lofty perch, aka Nelson’s Column. Or are looking forward, perhaps with starstruck eyes as the Elizabeth Tower, aka Big Ben, looms into view.

Poor Banqueting Hall. No one looks to the left. Not for long. Yet this imposing building isn’t simply on Whitehall. It is Whitehall. Well, the last remaining piece of the Palace of Whitehall. The Palace was, at its height, the largest in Europe, overtaking both Versailles and the Vatican. The origins of the Palace date back to the thirteenth century, but it was the infamous Henry VII who took it on (or rather took it from – Cardinal Wolseley was the victim) and developed it to a state of unrivalled grandeur. He married two wives there, and eventually died there. For more than a century and a half it was the official residence of the English monarch. Until one day, just before the end of the 1600s, a fire broke out and reduced almost the entire structure of the palace to ashes. But Banqueting Hall survived.

 And still survives. There’s a massive Reuben on the ceiling commissioned by Charles I, which is still in situ. It cost three thousand pounds, an extortionate amount in those days. Was it worth it? You could have asked Charles I himself. Maybe someone did, but perhaps we’ll never know. It was the last piece of art he saw, we do know that. Or at least, can safely assume so.  He was lead through Banqueting House, pushed out one of the windows onto a temporary scaffold and beheaded one cold January day. He probably had a lot of things on his mind, other than that pricey Reuben of his.

Visiting Banqueting House today is a less traumatic event. At just £5 per person it doesn’t exactly cost an arm and a leg, let alone your head. If you’re up in London and travelled by train or coach, you can get a two fer one, making it even more of a bargain. The audio guide is genuinely interesting (as opposed to the dreary monotone monologues that most places pass off as audioguides) and best of all, the hall has a half dozen bean bags littered on the floors. You can lie back and admire than Reuben and listen to the audioguide at your leisure. And let’s face it. A morning of walking through the streets of London is tiring work. This is a nice opportunity to grab forty winks.

Photos? Of course. But just a few. My preferred photo viewing experience, 500px, is here and my traditional host, Flickr, is here. Criminally, I neglected to take a photo of the outside of the building. This is truly poor form, and I apologise most sincerely. The outside of this building is so important. It was the fruit of the great Inigo Jones loins. Not as famous as Christopher Wren, but every bit as important, if not more so. You may have seen countless British stately homes and mansions and marvelled at the architecture. The designs of which were all inspired by the fabulous architects of Italy. Inigo Jones, however, was the first.

He went to Italy. He saw Italy. He came back and copied Italy. And Banquesting House was the first of those creations, inspiring countless recreations across these green miserable, drizzlely grey and pleasant lands. He pioneered this large scale theft of continental design and engineering. He was rewarded handsomely for it, I’m sure. These days, he’d probably get a Cease and Desist writ.

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Be a Culture Vulture: Top 3 Museums in London

Visiting London is an absolute must at some point – whether you’re a local who wants to spend a couple of days appreciating everything that a city so familiar has on offer to those living further afield in search of a rewarding city break, London has so much going on that it’d be a shame not to see it. With plenty of cheap hotels in London available from Hotels4U, you have no excuse this year – head to the big smoke and see what all the fuss is about!

Whilst you’re there, be sure to check out some of the museum offerings. London is famed for its museums and art galleries and the selection is phenomenal. Here are our top three that are not to be missed.

Natural History Museum

If it’s only to see the colossal dinosaur skeleton replica looming above you in the main foyer, a trip to the NHM is totally worth it. Add to that plenty of exhibitions and displays that cover all elements of natural history, you will be able to while away many an hour. Pop by the café before you leave too – the food is delicious!

Science Museum

Popular with kids and the young at heart, the Science Museum has a plethora of interactive displays and artefacts, meticulously strewn across eight floors, including a 3D IMAX cinema and the Wellcome Wing, dedicated to digital technology.

As one of the three main museums on Exhibition Road, it can’t be missed because of its vast size and shouldn’t be missed due to what it has in store.

Victoria & Albert Museum

The third of the Exhibition Road offerings, the V&A Museum focuses largely on art and design through the ages and with over 4.5million permanent artefacts, there’s plenty to feast your eyes on. Despite its 145 galleries, only a small percentage of their collection is ever on display at one given time.

The great thing about museum visits in London is that, unless you want to pay to see the special exhibitions, entry is completely free to most of them – perfect if you’re visiting the city on a shoestring. Start planning your break in the English capital, today.

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The Urban Bumpkin

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was born in a big city called London. I grew up there, and even though it’s cracking on for 20 years since I left, I can still say that I’ve spent more than half my life in that huge metropolis. I am a city person. It’s where I prefer to be. Where I belong. It’s what I still call home. And if I can’t be in London, then any other city will do. Ok, well almost any other city. Maybe not Glasgow. Or Detroit. Or Belfast. Baghdad isn’t too hot at the moment. Perhaps, after giving this a little thought, there may be quite a few cities I’d rather not be. But you should have gotten the idea by now. I’m a city slicker, not a country bumpkin.

Having said that, I do like the countryside. I’m surrounded by heathlands, woodlands and other areas of relative wilderness. The New Forest, the UK’s biggest National Park,  is but a short drive/long walk/pleasant bike ride away. The coast is not much further in the opposite direction. The world famous Jurassic Coast of Dorset isn’t terribly far away either. We have deer, woodpeckers, badgers, foxes, squirrels, slow worms, vipers and countless species of birds that pass through our garden from time to time. On a sunny afternoon, buzzards can be seen soaring and circling over head, their screeching cries piercing the calm and tranquil rural life we live.

I got a reasonable shot of one of the buzzards yesterday. I got some nice shots of Ashley Heath, just a five minute walk from home. It is a pleasant place to live. The air is clean, the grass is green and the roads sparsely populated by cars. But best of all, it’s right on a main artery into London. Just an hour or so up the motorway and you’re there. I’m never far away from home, where I can leave all the rural tranquility for someone else to enjoy, and get back to all the smoke, dust and noise I love. Click here to see the set of photos up close.

London Summer

Summer is my favourite time of year anywhere. Autumn isn’t far behind, providing that the autumn in question is an Indian Summer sort of autumn, rather than an early winter sort of autumn. But summer rules supreme in my book. Especially in London. Some may disagree, and declare it to be a sticky, muggy and dusty time of year to be in a heaving metropolis. But those are small prices to pay for weather than allows you to go for ridiculously long walks through ancient winding street, manicured parks and along the river, old Father Thames.  Who doesn’t love to sip a cold drink out front of a trendy establishment in a chic part of town and watch the world go by?

Alas, in London during the summer, the stickiness and dust are the only small prices you will generally pay. The city gears up for a huge influx of visitors, ready to relieve them of every hard earned dollar, euro, yen or (these days) yuan that they possess. Tourism is big business, and London is an international magnet. If you include business visitors then the UK capital sees more overseas visitors than any other city in the world.

But London doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive to visit, if you plan things properly. Ideally, you wouldn’t come in summer. Many visitors have kids though, and even domestic visitors like myself and Mrs P don’t want to be excluded from the capital for the three best months of the year. There are four big costs to any visit. Accommodation, transport, food and entry charges. For a family of three or four, they add up really quickly.

First tip – instead of seeking out bargain hotels outside the centre (which are still rarely cheap!) try and look for hotels near the London Eye.  There are some very central hotels to be had at reasonable prices. But best of all, you’ll be so close to centre that for at least a couple of days of a five day vacation, you’ll be able to save on London Underground tickets. There’s so much close by. The houses of parliament, Somerset House, the South Bank, the Tate Modern, Trafalgar Square, Banqueting Hall, Churchill’s War Rooms, the National Gallery and so much more.

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A lot of ‘doing London cheaply’ guides will now direct you to lots of alternative venues that, although good, aren’t really what you came to London for. Unnecessarily so. Besides all the main museums which are usually free of charge to enter (the British Museum and the Natural History Museum are absolute musts) there are some ever so traditionally British events that can be done on a shoestring.

Let’s start with the Proms, a musical extravaganza put on in the Royal Albert Hall every evening from the middle of July into early September. Standing tickets can be had for five pounds each, and it’s the perfect way to end a day. Don’t like standing so much? Go mid week, and there’s usually plenty of room to sit down on the floor. Or lie down. I’ve seen some people get  themselves pretty comfortable.

Then there’s the Globe Theatre, with standing tickets again available for as little as a fiver, although it does get packed and the shows do go on a while. So plan something for after the performance that’s easy on the back. A lot of people might head to the Shard. I’ve done it. It’s an impressive view up there, as it should be for £25 a pop . But the restaurant at the Tate Modern has pretty decent views of St Paul’s and the cost is whatever drink you buy.

The last big cost is eating. It might also be the one side of London you aren’t looking forward to, given the UK’s rather poor reputation for cuisine. It’s a false reputation. London has more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris and cuisine from every corner of the globe. Hit Brick Lane for a decent curry at a sensible price. Good old fish and chips, pies, bangers and mash and other traditional English food can be had at excellent prices from many pubs. But if it’s a nice day, find a local supermarket. Food off the shelves isn’t expensive, and what is more traditional than a feast of a picnic in one of London’s glorious, green and pleasant parks?

London 1927

A few years ago I posted some old colour videos of Mexico City in the 1940s and 1950s. They were fascinating glimpses into the past of the city, and the colour reproduction just made them so much more…je ne sais pas quoi. But you probably know what I mean. I haven’t ever posted any videos of London. Partly because there isn’t an awful lot available in colour. Partly because there something of a proliferation of London videos. Partly because London, when colour film became more common, was a bombed out war zone.

A few days ago a friend emailed me a link to an old London video that’s somewhat unique. It’s old. Real old. As the title of the post suggests, it’s 1927 old. But it is colour film. All of the most famous sites are covered. It’s an awesome video. Fancy a trip back to 1927? Here we go then. Check out just how filthy all those monuments and buildings are though!

Shard and the Skies of London

If you’ve been to these parts before, you might remember my rather scathing post regards the pricing of the Shard for a ride up its elevator, the Shark of Glass. If you’ve been reading my blog for long enough, you might have guessed that eventually my contempt would wilt and I’d cough up. I do like going up things, whether it’s a tower, a monument, a mountain or anything else that offers a view.

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So what’s the ride up the Shard’s elevator like? It’s as ear-popping as the price is eye-popping. It’s a two lift ride that climbs into the sky at 14 miles per hour. It’s a slickly organised ride as well, I might add, with an attractive foyer and well managed queues. Before you know it, you’re climbing a few wooden steps and out onto an enclosed gallery with 360 degree panoramic views across London.

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But the best view is yet to come. There’s another staircase that leads on to a higher viewing gallery, which is partly open to the atmosphere. It was a nice day, not too much wind. But at this height, the winds are that much more fierce, and it’s quite a noise. The video I took, which is below, was shot from a compact camera. So noise is easily picked up. But don’t be fooled into thinking what you can hear is just down to cheap mics. It really does blow a right racket up there.

So. Was it worth £25? It’s a tough call. I don’t think it offers value for money, that’s for sure. But they do seem to be selling plenty of tickets easily enough, for the moment at least. I guess it just comes down to how much you want to see that view. It is a very special view. Unique. On a nice day, perhaps it’s just about worth the entrance fee if you’ve got plenty of time to spare and have seen everything else you wanted to see. I pity those who book well ahead and get nothing but a view of the clouds that regularly inhabit this capital city extraordinaire.

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If you don’t want to pony up quite that much money? There’s always the London Eye. I did that this weekend too. Or St Paul’s Cathedral. Oh yes, I really did treat myself. Thank you Auroras Encore. The London Eye isn’t much cheaper at about £18, and you only get half an hour in a capsule, once you’ve battled through the queues. Although we got an hour long ride this weekend, because we’re special it broke down. Whilst we were at the top. Bonus.

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St Paul’s Cathedral is the shortest building in this trio, but still offers a fairly lofty perch to shoot a photo or two from. Of the three it is the only one where you don’t have to shoot through tinted glass, which helps. Although truth be told, the view from St Paul’s isn’t quite as dramatic. Not least because it’s the one place where you can’t see the most beautiful building in the whole of the city….St Paul’s. But you can’t have it all.

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Rather disappointingly, photography is no longer allowed inside the cathedral, due to crowds gathering under the dome to get their snaps. That’s such a shame. It’d be nice if they’d operate a more friendly photography policy. Perhaps allow people to shoot on weekdays when it’s not so busy. Or place a charge for photography, like many European venues do. I’d have paid a few pounds extra. It;s a win-win situation, for both the visitor and the treasurer.

I did however, take a whole bunch of photos from the three venues. Some of the shots are just so-so. Others are a bit meh. But it’s tough shooting through tinted glass at full zoom to pick out distant objects like Wembley Stadium. Still, the Shard photos are here, the London Eye photos here and the Cathedral photos are here.

Londonscape

I had been thinking of going up the Shard tomorrow. But as one of my previous posts suggested, I was having second thoughts. The pricing, you see. Extortionate. I can confirm, I am not going to go. It turns out that the forecast for tomorrow is cloud. I’m not terribly keen to spend £25 per person to have a close up encounter with cloud. I’m not that fond of seeing cloud from ground level, to be completely frank. I’m not a cloud fan. So no Shard tomorrow. Perhaps another time? Perhaps. The urge to see that view is in strong competition with the urge to boycott the place on principle. But then just look at that photo below. That really is one hell of a view. The Guardian have an interactive 360 degree panorama taken from the Shard. The word spectacular doesn’t come close to serving it justice. This doesn’t surprise me. Views from tall buildings are always spectacular.

London is an incredible city in so many ways. The wealth on show in this snapshot is beyond comprehension. Riverside apartments cost millions. But you can pan left and right and see many different Londons. You don’t have to walk far from Tower Bridge to find yourself in dirt poor London. In a walk of just seven minutes you can go to an area where average life expectancy decreases by seven years compared to that of residents at your starting point. That’s pretty dramatic.

The view from the top of the Shard  London panorama of sights and sounds – interactive

Gentrification has been going on a long time. Notting Hill and areas of West London became hip in the 60’s and 70’s. The view points east, down the river. That started to get the treatment in the 1980’s. All those towers of Canary Wharf didn’t exist when I was a child. It was all wasteland, abandoned warehouses and rotting docks. Further away from the river, in the East End stood horrific, crime ridden concrete blocks, built in post war London for the masses. Just a few short years ago this view housed hundreds of thousands of hard up families struggling to stay afloat, browsing the Sun or Mirror in between reading about debt management terms.

‘Genuine’ East Londoners aren’t there in such numbers these days. I’d like to report that the well being and wealth of Londoners is improving. Sadly, the truth is that Londoners are simply being moved out. If the poor were a race, we’d call this ethnic cleansing by economic means. There are a huge number of options for people in debt to utilise these days, plenty of new rights and a lot more support. But that’s come too late for most of them. These days, the view houses people reading the Times or Guardian and writing up debt management plans, ready to sell on the market.  East End apartments are actually excellent value as far as London goes. You can rent a pretty nice, modern one bed for little more than £1000 a month. But a grand is still mightily expensive.

Realistically, for the most basic place, you’re going to need an income of £30,000 as an absolute minimum. The average income in the UK is £26,000. It definitely pays to be a couple. I do wonder if the tightening economy might be the best tool in reducing the divorce rate? Want to see that panorama and go look at the view yourself? Click here, and have a look to see what you can spy hiding behind the palaces, towers and Victorian grandeur along the river.