I love London. In small doses, anyway. We tend to visit at least once a year for a short break, normally around this time of year. Of course, we didn’t make it to London last year thanks to everything that was going on. But this week we put that right by spending a couple of nights over in the city, and that’ll be the main feature in this episode of my weekly blog.
We didn’t push the boat out with hotel; we stayed in a Premier Inn in the Bank and Tower Hill area of the city. It’s not about being fancy, it’s about having a base from which to explore the city. We also didn’t spend much on our travel – we took a National Express Coach to Victoria Coach Station because it’s cheap and convenient. The good thing about city breaks is there is always lots to see and do when you’re there, whatever kind of transport or hotel you might choose.
London was Rammed
We did think that London might still be quiet in the big smoke. And during the day that was certainly true. We had space to move around and see things up close, even in the very touristy parts of the city. The area around Westminster and along the river can be heaving with people on a Saturday, and it wasn’t like that at all.
It wasn’t dead. There was still a buzz around the place. Our walk guide (more on that in a moment) commented that it was the first time she’d noticed the bagpiper playing in Parliament Square since the first lockdown, which is a sign of things getting more towards normal – he thought there would be enough people to make some money.
While it was reasonably quiet in the day, it was utterly rammed in the evening. I honestly don’t think I have seen so many people in China Town, or walking down the narrow streets of Soho, on a normal Friday or Saturday evening. It was crowded. So busy. Not only that, but there were queues for restaurants. Queues that would take an hour or more to clear.
Queuing for Food
It wasn’t just one or two restaurants, and not just in one or two streets, it was almost all of them. Carnaby Street, China Town, Leicester Square, Soho – all the same. People queueing for restaurants down the street for walk-in tables. We considered joining one of the queues in China Town, but a quick calculation and the line was at least 1.5 hours long… I didn’t need Peking Duck that much!
In an attempt to get away from the crowds, we wandered the back streets to Covent Garden, to see what it was like there. It was much less busy, which was a bit of a relief to be honest. We ended up in Byron Burgers, an old favourite – they know what they’re doing with a patty and bun. Seven Dials was also less packed, and the queue for Udderlicious on Earlham Street was reasonable enough to entice us to join. Their ice cream is so good, and it’s made on site, which is nice to know.
While I’m talking restaurants, let me also recommend Caravan City, on Cannon Street near Mansion House station. We had a great breakfast there on Sunday morning, the chorizo and potato hash was so good. Not cheap, London isn’t, but very nice indeed.
The other place we had a good meal was Stax Diner in Kingly Court, Carnaby Street. We’d actually booked a table here ahead of time, which was wise considering the melee that was London’s restaurant scene the next evening. Stax is somewhere to get no frills chicken and waffles; it’s not a big place, but it made good eating.
Oh, and the fish tacos and churros from DF Tacos at Market Halls Victoria were very good indeed, I would definitely go back there again. I would share photos of all this food we ate but, you know, I was too busy eating it to take nice photos!
By far my favourite way to spend time in London is by exploring the obvious and not so obvious places – seeing the big stuff, but also discovering the small. We are regular customers of London Walks, I’ve blogged about their Blue Badge Guide-led walks before (such as in this post).
We did two of their walks in one day this time around. The header is right – we walked over 32,000 steps on Saturday, which is more than a couple of Coast to Coast hiking days! Our first was Old Westminster, guided by Karen, who was apparently recently crowned “the world’s greatest guide” by Travel and Leisure – nice! This was a look at the history of Westminster, including the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the surrounding area.
I love on these walks you end up finding hidden gems. We walked down one street where the homeowners opened up their basements as bomb shelters, to a lovely square with a church-now-concert-hall in the middle, and then through an archway into the courtyard at the centre of Westminster School: Dean’s Yard. We were surrounded by secondary school pupils running between lessons – on a Saturday, and young choir boys playing football on the lawn in their break.
From there we tubed-it across London to join Judy for The Heart of the City, a wander through the streets and alleyways in the City of London. This is where the big glass and steel skyscrapers meet stone pillars and church spires. It’s a real labyrinth in all senses – there are no neat blocks here, and the stories that comes from this area match the random architecture. Judy is absolutely full of information; we’ve been on tours with her before (she guides the St Paul’s one we did) – it’s a real pleasure spending a couple of hours with someone who can bring this stuff to life.
I’ve said it before, but I mean it, next time you’re in London, be sure to join London Walks for one of their wanders. Absolutely well worth the money and time.
Saving London from The Syndicate
Have you done an escape room? You know, you and some friends get locked in a room and have to solve the puzzles to get out again? Well the other thing we got up to in London this time around was a kind-of escape room… but it was outdoors. We use a Buyagift voucher we received for Christmas last year to join Outscape Games for The Wren Code.
The premise was that we had two hours to prevent the greatest heist in the City’s history… but the criminals left behind a trail of clues and challenges that might help us stop them. Armed with an iPad containing geotagged puzzles and challenges, we ran around the St Paul’s area of London, playing games and, well, saving the world. You know the sort of thing!
But of course, unlike your standard escape room, this one had us marching around London. The whole thing was very clever and a lot of fun. We know this area of London a little bit, which helped with the first challenge (no spoilers, don’t worry!) – but even with that we were discovering new alleyways and back streets. Some of the challenges were reasonably simple, others really got our brains working, it was a good mix.
You’ll be pleased to know we did manage to save London from the Syndicate… completing the four set challenges in the allotted time. We did wonder towards the end whether we’d actually done very well at all, because we tried a couple of the optional challenges and were beaten by the system. But apparently we did well above average, according to Luke, our host, which made us feel good.
I won’t give any more away as I would definitely recommend this game to you if you’re heading to London and want something a bit different. It would be especially good for a group of friends where you can split up into teams and compete against each other, that would add an extra element of fun into the mix. They also do one inside the V&A Museum, which might be a good winter option.
In the Mail
While I’m a huge advocate for spending time outside even in the dark and damp months (how is One Hour Outside going for you?), I also think this time of year is perfect for browsing through lovely books. Yes, story books and personal development books are great, but I have a real love for travel books, guidebooks, and coffee table books which inspire the next thing.
I recently received a couple of such books in the mail which are most definitely worth mentioning to you.
England and Wales Island Bagging, Lisa Drewe
This lovely book, which arrived signed by fellow Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion Lisa (thanks!), is a guide to adventures on the islands of England and Wales. Featuring the big hitters such as Isle of Man and Jersey, familiar islands including Lundy and Lindisfarne, and a whole heap of lesser well-known examples, there are walks, swims, pubs, campsites and more.
So far I’ve only dipped in and out, but I’m already inspired to visit the handful of islands I didn’t know were (almost) on my doorstep. This would make a lovely gift for someone who likes to travel and explore, a great addition to any shelf of guidebooks.
Let’s Get Lost, Finn Beales
This hardback book is a collection of landscape photography from some of the remotest and most spectacular locations around the globe. And it is utterly stunning.
Curated by travel and lifestyle photographer Finn Beales, and featuring a collection of other landscape photographers, this lovely coffee table book is a wonderful piece of visual escapism. There are coastal views, mountain landscapes, forests and expansive wildernesses, and all of them make me want to go there.
I admit the first thing I did was flick through to see if I recognised any of the places as those I’ve visited myself, and there are a couple… I guess I’ll be adding to my to-travel-to list. Another great gift idea if you’re shopping for someone who loves travel photography at the moment.
This week I want to know… how do you most like spending time in London when you visit? And, if not London, where else makes for a most excellent UK city break?
And don’t forget to get your One Hour Outside today… whatever day you happen to be reading this on!
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