Thursday, April 30, 2009

destination london?

Going to London? It's now possible to enjoy the city even more. The tourist board published an excellent free booklet (Go Further in London) that tells us exactly how to how to make our budget go further. The booklet is available in many places and information is also on the website

London's made up of many villages each with their own character and style. It's one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world and I've been taste-testing the food of different ethnic groups. Try Lebanese delights in Edgware Road, Chinese food right next to Soho and Indian food in Brick Road, and Brixton for some Caribbean or African flavours - whatever your tastes, it’s available.

You know the big tourist destinations (see side bar) but what about places and events that are less well known: many free. For me it’s the green spaces that make London wonderful: large swathes of uncut grasses are left to flower and seed - attracting butterflies, insects, birds and other wildlife - these contrast with the manicured parts and the 'keep off the lawn' signs. Wandering around these parks is a real treat - it's hard to believe one is in one of the world's largest cities. Take a picnic lunch and spend time in Greenwich Park that has the meridian time-line, observatory and Maritime Museum, and superb views over much of London and the Thames.

Experience nature in the city at Barnes in West London - home to the Wetlands Centre - both resident and migratory birds are easily seen.  Check the website or phone for special activities.

Within the city there self guided walks - with free maps –around well-known icons of London and other fascinating places along the way. London is a good walking city and the tube also gets you around easily.

Markets are another superb way of seeing Londoners at work and play.  With more than three hundred to chose from there is something for all tastes - Greenwich for arts and crafts, Petticoat Lane for a variety of goodies, Spitalfields for flower lovers and Covent Garden for British made articles. Brixton even has a guided walking tour around the area and markets  Camden's my favourite for its alternative-lifestyle atmosphere and Borough is the place for fabulous food. Open on Fridays and Saturdays you can buy anything from organic food through to black bean chilli, oils and olives, ostrich burgers, cheeses and chocolates - a veritable cornucopia.

Explore Hampstead and its cemetery (Archway Station Northern Line) - one of London's most celebrated literary and intelligentsia suburbs. This area has more 'blue plaques' celebrating its residents than any other London borough: these range from John Keats, Boy George, AA Milne, and Agatha Christie through to Richard Burton, George Orwell, Freud, Twiggy and many others.

The Highgate cemetery (guided tours daily) is divided into two; the West Side is sentimental Victorian - when people didn't die but were merely sleeping. The East part is still being used: buried within its walls are Karl Marx, George Elliot, Christine Rossetti and Michael Faraday, to name a few. The headstones make interesting reading and are wonderful for atmospheric or spooky, black and white photography.

And finally, on my small list of hidden London gems, is the fabulous St Pancras Chambers. This Victorian, Gothic style building was originally a hotel, which closed in 1935 when it became railway offices. It is being restored to its former glory and will soon become a luxury hotel (Marriott) and apartment block.

The prestigious Art and Design Show is held twice yearly and the unrestored backdrop of its interior is a great foil to the pieces on display. Michael Czerwinski, artist in residence, is responsible for developing the systems that have made the visual art exhibitions, opera and other performances possible. Guided tours take place on most weekends.

So once you have seen some shows, once you have done the museums (mostly free) and art galleries, and once you have completed the top ten sights, buy a travel card and explore the many unheralded jewels in this ancient city.

London's top ten attractions  (by ticket sales)

1 London Eye

2 Dali Universe

3 London Dungeon

4 Tower of London

5 The Original London Tour (Open top double decker bus)

6 Madame Tussaurds

7 Hampton Court Palace

8 Westminster Abbey tour

9 Banqueting House

10 Kensington Palace

 (Source: www.

·        30% of London is green open space

·        London has 1,800 parks and open spaces

·        Richmond Park has 2,000 acres of landscape

·        Greenwich Park was created in 1433 and is the oldest royal park

·        Hyde Park has been a royal park since 1536

·        Hyde parks riding track - Rotten Row - was the first public road to be lit at night in England

·        Hyde Park has 4 miles of horse rides

·        Kew gardens has 40,000 varieties of plants and grows more species than any other garden in the world

·        Kew's Victorian Palm House is 2248 square metres and houses banana, coffee and paw-paw plants


Other gems

BBC TV centre

Brahma Tea & Coffee museum

Ride a canal boat from Camden


Physic gardens

Bank of England museum

Theatre Museum

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