Consistently at or near the top of the ‘world’s most visited cities’ list (England’s capital has hosted some 20 million visitors this year), London is renowned not only for its iconic landmarks, but also for offering a veritable melting pot of different cultures and cuisines, with seemingly something for everyone.
After arriving via the Channel Tunnel from Brussels, we found ourselves at a sleek, modern loft in Brixton, an up-and-coming neighborhood in south London with a somewhat industrial feel, a sprawling daily market, and an assortment of pubs and clubs inspired by the neighborhood’s large Caribbean community (the district is often referred to as ‘Little Jamaica’). Because the area is several miles south of London City, we relied on the world-famous Underground to get us back and forth (London was home to the world’s first rapid-transit subway). We found the ‘Tube’ quite a convenient way to navigate the sprawling area (albeit more expensive than other metros), with travel made even easier using the rechargeable Oyster Card.
We hit up many of the major sights around the city – Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and the House of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) – as I, all the while, sang ‘God Save the Queen’ to myself, feeling very absorbed in London’s distinguished atmosphere. I took an immediate liking to Big Ben’s (more appropriately, Queen Elizabeth Tower’s) majestic clock face, shimmering in its gilded surround and soaring proudly above the banks of the Thames. We crisscrossed the bridges that intermittently spanned the muddy waters of the Thames – Westminster Bridge, Millennium Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, London Bridge – stopping along either side to admire the many churches and historic buildings. We especially enjoyed St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose lofty dome and ornate paintings and inlays were somewhat reminiscent of the much larger St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Also particularly striking was the historic Tower of London, the notorious complex whose construction began at the end of the 11th century (c. 1080) by William the Conqueror, and was then expanded gradually by successive monarchs. Despite its gruesome reputation, the building actually served in many capacities over the centuries – as a palace, a fortress, a prison, a treasury, an aristocratic menagerie, a storehouse, and even a royal observatory. In fact, only some ten individuals were executed on the grounds of the Tower of London; executions were far more common at neighboring Tower Hill. However, during its peak period as a prison (in the 16th and 17th centuries), two of Henry VIII’s wives did meet their fate on the Tower Green – Anne Boleyn first in 1536, and Catherine Howard later in 1542. The executions took place here to provide a more private and dignified place of death, rather than the public spectacles that were held on Tower Hill.
As we’ve seen previously, I seem to be developing a heightened obsession with bridges, and my infatuation with the Tower Bridge was no exception. It’s been a celebrated London landmark since its opening in 1894, eight years after construction commenced. Surprisingly, hidden beneath the hefty, decorative (and protective) granite façade is more than 11,000 tons of steel framework, including a hydraulic system to raise and lower the immense bascules. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing story involving the bridge, though, was Frank McClean’s 1912 stunt flight between the bridge’s two pillars. The intrepid pilot took off from the River Thames and flew his rickety seaplane under the upper walkway and above the street-level bascules. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, he then continued to steer under the subsequent spans of the London, Blackfriars, and Waterloo Bridges (all with significantly less clearance). A daredevil and aviation enthusiast, McClean actually flew a balloon in France with Wilbur Wright in 1907 and, after performing some of his more daring stunts, went on to serve his country with the Royal Naval Air Service (and later the Royal Air Force). He generously allocated some of his property in Kent for naval flight operations, and provided financial assistance to the Short brothers (who developed some of the earliest production aircraft). He even went on to pioneer aviation in Egypt (a short, interesting read for anyone that enjoys aviation history: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21518157). Aside from its interesting place in some of the city’s more unusual history, though, the Tower Bridge really is a strikingly photogenic structure… and when the late afternoon sun washes over its western face just before sundown, it’s just lovely.
For us, one of the ultimate highlights of London was the British Museum, an absolute gem in the heart of the city’s Bloomsbury neighborhood. One morning, as we were exploring some of the city’s more notable landmarks, a sudden downpour blew in. We quickly took shelter from the cold rain in a nearby metro station, and pulled out our trusty Google map to search for an alternative indoor activity (clearly, we didn’t plan ahead). Stephan quickly suggested the British Museum, just a couple of metro stops away and home to the famed Rosetta Stone. It sounded great, but we had to wonder what the admission price could possibly be to get a glimpse at the iconic object (many of London’s other landmarks seemed to run at least 12–20 € per person). While we don’t completely abstain from visiting museums and monuments, we do try to be quite judicious when making our selections, as the prices can really start to add up after months of sight-seeing. We were stunned, however, when the museum’s website stated that admission to the permanent exhibits was free. Super excited about the fortuitous find, we all but sprinted down the stairs towards the Jubilee line.
We arrived at the museum to find floor after floor featuring breathtaking exhibits of historic human cultures – Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek & Roman, African, European… all beautifully arranged and labeled with fastidious detail. While the entire museum was brilliantly done, we especially enjoyed the Egyptian and Assyrian collections. The Egyptian artifacts were exquisite, with millennia-old papyrus scrolls (some from various Books of the Dead) that looked as if they’d been drawn last week, colorful sarcophagi and funerary amulets that showcased the importance of the civilization’s burial practices, and giant stelae that were meticulously inscribed with flawless hieroglyphs. I was particularly taken with a set of calcite canopic jars (used to store the internal organs of the deceased) from the 21st Dynasty, whose carefully-painted, wooden lids featured portraits of four of the sacred deities important to the afterlife.
The Assyrian collection was equally incredible, and featured an enormous corridor covered with stone panels dating from 883–859 BC. The panels were part of the interior decoration of the Palace at Nimrud (modern-day Iraq), originally founded in the middle of the 13th century BC, and established as the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th century BC. As if the detailed relief images (depicting the king in both military and ceremonial engagements) weren’t impressive enough, the artists/authors then topped the designs with perfect rows of cuneiform inscriptions, arranged in wide bands running the lengths of the panels. Not only does the technique create a visually-stunning masterpiece, it also gives a profound appreciation for the complex written language – one of the first writing systems. It’s mindboggling to imagine either interpreting the wedged script or painstakingly carving the symbols by the thousands into a hunk of rock – just incredible.
In total, the museum boasts over eight million historic objects for visitors to investigate and enjoy, perhaps none more famous than the Rosetta Stone. Dating to 196 BC, the granodiorite (a black rock related to granite) stone features a decree honoring King Ptolemy V that is inscribed in three texts – hieroglyphics, Demotic (the predecessor to Egypt’s modern Coptic language), and Greek. When the stone was eventually discovered in 1799, the trilingual inscription proved to be a critical tool for helping linguists to interpret Egypt’s ancient hieroglyphs. Needless to say, we were totally blown away by the museum, and actually ended up returning for a second afternoon. If you’re ever in London and have even a modest interest in cultural history, you should definitely make time for a visit to the British Museum.
In addition to the museum, we also tremendously enjoyed strolling through the city’s expansive Hyde Park. With 350 acres of greenspace and walking trails, set around lakelets abounding with bird life, the contiguous grounds of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens offer a beautiful retreat from the bustling streets and squares. We spent several hours enjoying the sunlit serenity of a morning in the park, and naturally stopped about every hundred meters to socialize with all of our feathered friends, who were thoroughly enjoying the ponds’ crisp waters.
After ten months on the road, I was still pining for my typical Saturday lunch from Udupi, an amazing South Indian restaurant (all vegetarian and an all-you-can-eat buffet) back home in Cary. Thus, we just had to check out London’s acclaimed Indian food scene. Much to my delight, we found some delicious (albeit undocumented) dosas from a little place in Tooting called Dosa n Chutney (seriously, a prize will go to the person who can successfully photograph a dosa before I shove it in my face). The food was awesome, the staff was friendly… it was as close as I can imagine getting to my coveted Udupi delights. Of course, Stephan was in search of a good old basket of fish and chips, so we headed to Golden Union in trendy SOHO. With fish cooked fresh to order and a generous portion of fries doused in malt vinegar, he seemed quite satisfied with his selection.
With such a diverse assortment of global cuisines available, we also checked out Koshari Street, a little place near Trafalgar Square offering traditional Egyptian street food. Their specialty is (fittingly) koshari, one of Egypt’s beloved national dishes (bonus: the classic prep is vegan). The tasty bowl contains a mixture of lentils, vermicelli, rice and macaroni noodles tossed with chickpeas, a spicy tomato sauce, a splash of lemon juice, and topped with fried caramelized onions and a traditional spice blend (coriander, mint, sesame, peanuts, and salt). Although I had no doubt I’d be enamored with the dish, the friendly gentleman running the small restaurant insisted we sample a portion first, to make sure we liked it before ordering. He then proceeded to assemble a perfect, miniature bowl for us to try, probably a quarter the size of a regular serving. We were shocked that he handed over samples that size, just to ensure his customers were satisfied with the food ahead of time. The verdict on Koshari Street – great food and great service… I’d definitely return.
As we were really enjoying London’s dining scene, I continued my never-ending quest for more great vegan food. After doing a quick online search, one of the results immediately caught my eye – Mildred’s. Having just lost our good friend Mildred a week earlier, we thought we’d partake in a special lunch in her honor. Apparently quite the SOHO establishment, Mildred’s is strictly vegetarian, with an emphasis on vegan dishes and desserts. The exterior is washed in an inviting shade of robin’s egg blue, and the interior design reflects the natural world – plants tucked around skylights and artwork featuring birds and animals; I know Mildred would have adored her charming, namesake, English restaurant. We immensely enjoyed Mildred’s as well, both for the food and the atmosphere. Stephan was a fan of his saffron mac and cheese topped with a basil crumble, and my Sri Lankan sweet potato and green bean curry bowl (served with pea basmati rice) was delicious. And because Mildred would never have passed on dessert, neither did we. Stephan indulged in a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a coffee-caramel sauce, while I opted for a vegan chocolate cake with beetroot-coconut cream, drizzled with a chocolate-orange sauce. I suppose my fudgy selection was more Paul than Mildred, but I know she was still beaming with approval.
For one of our last outings in London, before hopping the ferry over to Ireland, we headed to the London Gin Club. When I do occasionally indulge in a beverage, my drink of choice is typically a gin and tonic – a decisive favorite in my family (I guess it’s engrained in those old English genes of ours). Of course, as my G&Ts are typically made with cheap swill (also a dominant trait in the family), I thought I’d treat myself to a real gin tasting. With three set tasting menus, the London Gin club offers a great selection that allows you to become familiar with the gin three ways: neat, with good tonic (also expectedly unfamiliar to this girl), and, finally, with a paired garnish. While it’s not particularly cheap (the course of four cost £25), I thought the experience was great fun. I figured I’d never be able taste a difference between the gins, but I was able to pick out some of the flavors, and it was amazing to discover how the different garnishes played up the essences of the gin.
After finishing the tasting, I happened to notice a selection of ‘Navy Strength’ Gins on the extensive menu (they offer more than 270 gins). I thought to myself, ‘Dar (my Navy vet grandfather) would totally approve of this!’ After doing a little research at the table, we learned the amusing history of Navy Strength Gin. A few hundred years ago, gin was a staple aboard the ships of the British Royal Navy, and the beverage was widely regarded as a cure for both scurvy and malaria. Some of the naval officers, however, suspected that their gin was being watered down, either by dishonest merchants or thieving shipmates. To test the purity of their beloved gin, the beverage was poured onto gunpowder on the ship’s deck and ignited. If the mixture burned a clear, blue flame, the gin was proven to be unadulterated. If the gunpowder failed to ignite or did not burn cleanly, however, the sailors had reason to question the quality of their gin. Eventually, it was established that the gin aboard naval ships was required to be at least 57% alcohol (114 proof), as gunpowder would still light if the concentrated gin was spilled on it (the two were often stored next to each other onboard). Today, the 57% standard is still maintained for a gin to be considered Navy Strength. And with that, let’s all raise a hearty G&T to the Navy, to Dar, and to the fine scientific experiments performed aboard ship!
With its incredible array of top-notch restaurants, bars, and museums, as well as all of its impressive landmarks, London is certainly a fun city to explore. Lucky for us, we’ll probably return for a couple days at the end of our five-week tour of the U.K. and Ireland. So for now… until next time, London!