Seven Days Out in London

I’ve lived in London for more than thirty years. Here are my suggestions for cheap days out in the city, based on my own interests and aimed at independent travellers curious to discover some of the less obvious London attractions.

Day One. Holborn

From Holborn Station, head for Lincoln’s Inn Fields to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum  and the Hunterian Museum then explore the green spaces of the Inns of Court. Carry a copy of Bleak House (1853) and call in at the Dickens Museum afterwards. The October Gallery is also worth a visit, not least for the ladies toilets! Finally walk to Judd Street to the Patisserie Deux Amis where you can pretend to be a character in a French film – Thérèse Desqueyroux works well.

Day Two. Hampstead Village

Turn left out of the station and stroll down Flask Walk. Call into Keith Fawkes second-hand bookshop and pick out a cheap paperback. Get completely lost in the back streets before heading to the Heath for a picnic. If it’s rainy you can visit the Freud Museum or Keats House Museum or pop into the Flask or the Holly Bush for a port and lemon as though you’re in a Patrick Hamilton novel.

Photo by author (August 2015).
Photograph by author (August 2015).

Day Three. Deptford (market days are Wednesday and Saturday)

Take a Docklands Light Railway train from Bank or Tower Gateway to Deptford Bridge. Sit at the front and imagine you’re the driver. Enjoy the glass and water dockland views out of the train window. Walk from Deptford Bridge station to the High Street and spend the day hunting out pop-up art projects or looking for bargains in the market stalls or independent shops. Peter and Joan’s at number 119 is an Aladdin’s Cave of colourful wools, cute buttons and gorgeous fabrics. Call in at Cafe Selecta for a mug of instant coffee (90p) and two slices of toast and marmite (90p) served by friendly staff then make your way to St Paul’s Church to admire the beautiful Baroque architecture of this landmark structure.

Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).
Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).

Day Four. From Kensington to Covent Garden

Start the day with a breakfast tea in Benugo’s at the Victoria and Albert Museum. If it’s sunny you can sit in the courtyard. Otherwise stay inside to enjoy the mirrored and tiled beauty of the Morris room. Then you might go mainstream and explore the museums at South Kensington – or you might head directly to the tube station to take a train to Covent Garden. From here it’s a short walk along Long Acre to Freemason’s Hall where you can join a tour of the grand art deco building (free, advance booking recommended). Afterwards walk back along Long Acre until you get to the Rose Street turning where you will find Bageriet. It’s worth awkwardly sharing a table to enjoy the delicious coffee and cinnamon buns in this small Swedish bakery.

Day Five. West End

From Great Portland Street tube station walk to the Royal Institute of British Architects where there is a varied programme of talks and temporary exhibitions. Next get completely lost wandering through the back streets of Fitzrovia and the West End. Head vaguely south and go into as many pubs and cafes as you like. Clutch a copy of Roland Camberton’s Scamp (1950) to read in quiet moments. The eventual aim is to reach the National Portrait Gallery and make your way up to the café – not for the food but for the amazing view across slate city rooftops and Trafalgar Square. Go at a quiet time when you only need to order a drink rather than an expensive meal. End the day by strolling to the Thames to watch the sun go down from Westminster Bridge, in a Whistler-ish style.

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Look out for attractive design details inside RIBA. Photograph by author (May 2015).

Day Six. East End (vintage market at Spitalfields takes place on Thursdays)

From Liverpool Street station, cross the road to the Bishopsgate Institute to look over the daily papers under the glass dome in the atmospheric Bishopsgate Institute library. Or bring along a copy of Alexander Baron’s King Dido (1969, set in 1911) to read. Leave the building by the side entrance then enjoy a slow stroll around Spitalfields Market’s vintage stalls before calling in at the Town House on Fournier Street for tea in the basement. Next wander through the back streets of Spitalfields towards Whitechapel. You’re on the leisurely lookout for Victoria Cottages near Deal Street. Once you’ve discovered them, return to Brick Lane for a bargain-price filled bagel from the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. If you can set it up in advance, arrange a visit to Dennis Severs’ House as part of your East End excursion.

Day Seven. Greenwich and the River (vintage market on Saturdays and Sundays)

Take the river bus to Greenwich. Read Howard Clewes The Long Memory (1951) ahead of the trip to add an element of mild peril as you travel past re-purposed warehouses and battered old barges. On arrival at Greenwich, visit the Clocktower outdoor market to rummage through boxes of twentieth-century musical scores or crates of crockery, brooches and badges. Next, make your way to the curious Fan Museum before striding up the steep slopes of Greenwich Park to take in the panoramic views of London and the Thames from outside the Royal Observatory. For afternoon tea and cakes, Royal Teas Café is recommended.

Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).
Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to spending seven days in London but I hope it will provide some ideas for new and old visitors to the city. Feel free to add your own suggestions below!

Big Bow Day Out

Visiting London this summer and fancy doing something different? What about a big day out in Bow in east London? Begin your visit with a ride on the Docklands Light Railway to Stratford where you can explore the recently opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Bring your swimming things to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy an Olympic-quality swimming experience at municipal pool prices in the Aquatics Centre. Then hop back on the DLR to Bow Church station. If the weather is kind you might picnic in the peaceful and pretty Memorial Garden alongside Grove Hall Park.

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From there, slip into the Nunnery to view the East London Group of Artists Exhibition (on until Sunday 13 July). Many of the paintings displayed depict a curiously soft-focus inter-war East London. Railways, wharves, roads and bridges are popular themes – and the surrounding streets are often eerily deserted.

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Detail from Bow Bridge (Walter Steggles), undated.
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928.

Some half a dozen works exhibited feature localities that lie beyond East London – but invariably these possess an East End link. Canvey Island in Essex, for example, has long been a popular destination for day trippers from the city.

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Detail from Canvey Island (Walter Steggles) c.1933

On leaving the exhibition, call in at the neighbouring Carmelite Cafe for slices of home-made cake served on cute bone china plates. Or, for a more gritty or traditional east London experience, visit the Bow Bells pub on Bow Road (keeping an eye out for the lurid paintwork on the walls as you head up the stairs to the toilets). Make time to appreciate some of the smaller historic details as you wander between station, park, gallery, pub and tube, such as this beautifully-worked wrought-iron SALOON LOUNGE sign over the doorway of the former Kings Arms pub on Bow Road.

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If you have time afterwards, you might like to view the spot where peace activist Mohandas Gandhi stayed when he visited London in 1931. Kingsley Hall is situated just off the Bow Road and offers meals in its 3 Bees Cafe every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.

The London Fiction #Shelfie

For your reading pleasure, I’ve assembled some extracts from a few of my favourite London-based novels (1887–1960). No real attempt at a system has been made. I simply transcribed scenes in each story that seemed to capture the spirit or atmosphere of the city at a particular time in the past. I hope you find these descriptive extracts evocative. Maybe they will send you running to your own #shelfies to revisit London authors or novels I’ve inevitably overlooked; or perhaps you will be inspired to add to your own fiction collections as a result of one or more new discoveries from the passages below.*

The short-list of London novels used to compile this post.

‘a negligent November London’

H.G.Wells Ann Veronica (1909) [1993 edition, p.94]

She went about in a negligent November London that had become very dark and foggy and greasy and forbidding indeed…Her little bed-sitting room was like a lair, and she went out from it into this vast, dun world, with its smoke-grey houses, its glaring streets of shops, its dark streets of homes, its orange-lit windows, under skies of dull copper or muddy grey or black, much as an animal goes out to seek food. She would come back and write letters, carefully planned and written letters, or read some book she had fetched from Mudie’s [circulating library]…or sit over her fire and think.

‘a band was playing’

Barbara Comyns The Vet’s Daughter (1959, set in c.1910) [1981 edition, pp. 3-4]

‘We walked in Battersea Park. Lucy’s hair fell down her back like water from a tap, very straight and long. Mine was like a pale yellow bell. We talked on our hands because Lucy was a deaf mute; her mother was turning her into a dressmaker because she considered it a suitable trade for those that were deaf and dumb. We were both seventeen. Mothers sat on dark green benches watching their children playing on the sooty grass, bowling bright hoops and balls. We went to see the birds, and in the distance a band was playing. Soldiers tried to speak to us until they noticed that we used our hands to speak with. Then we watched the pleasure-steamers and barges on the river. Great bales of different-coloured paper and boats loaded with straw went past very quickly, and a man with a black face in a coal-barge waved to us, and we waved back because we knew he couldn’t stop. It was lovely by the water; but too soon it was time to return home through the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses.’

‘walking on the Common’

Graham Greene The End of the Affair (1951) [1975 edition, pp. 34-5]

What a summer it was. I’m not going to try and name the month exactly – I should have to go back to it through so much pain, but I remember leaving the hot and crowded room, after drinking too much bad sherry, and walking on the Common with Henry. The sun was falling flat across the Common and the grass was pale with it. In the distance the houses were the houses in a Victorian print, small and precisely drawn and quiet; only one child cried a long way off. The eighteenth-century church stood like a toy in an island of grass – the toy could be left outside in the dark, in the dry unbreakable weather. It was the hour when you make confidences to a stranger.

‘watch the big life’

Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (1956) [2006 edition, pp.72-3]

Many nights he went there…and see them fellars and girls waiting, looking at they wristwatch, watching the people coming up the escalator from the tube. You could tell that they waiting for somebody, the way how they getting on. Leaning up there, reading the Evening News, or smoking a cigarette, or walking round the circle looking at clothes in the glasscase, and every time people come up the escalator, they watching to see, and if the person not there, they relaxing to wait till the next tube come. All these people there, standing up waiting for somebody. And then you would see a sharp piece of skin come up the escalator, in a sharp coat, and she give the ticket collector she ticket and look around, and same time the fellar who waiting throw away his cigarette and you could see a happy look in his face, and the girl come and hold his arm and laugh, and he look at his wristwatch. Then the two of them walk up the steps and gone to the Circus, gone somewhere, to the theatre, or the cinema, or just to walk around and watch the big life in the Circus.

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‘small, senseless sounds’

Alexander Baron King Dido (1969, set in 1911) [2009 edition, p.91]

He was talking, talking, and she gave him answers. People thronged in the foggy dusk, hurrying bowed, in flight from the chill mist, jostling past, vanishing into it. Great shire horses loomed out of the fog, sparkles of moisture on their backs and manes, high-laden wagons from docks and rail depots rumbled behind them, carters huddled, grotesquely wrapped, on their perches. The clash of the great hooves on cobbles, the iron rims of wheels mingling their noise in a thunder, the wide road a jam of wagons, here and there the gawky, coloured upper deck of a bus among them, all in a pale yellow cavern of light that blurred away into fog [on the City Road]. Her voice and his were small, senseless sounds among all the noise and movement.

‘dissolved in mist’

H.G.Wells Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) [1993 edition, pp.79-80]

They lunched on cutlets…and little crisp brown potatoes, and they drank between them a whole half bottle of – some white wine or other…Then, very warm and comfortable, they went down by the Tower, and the Tower Bridge with its crest of snow, huge pendant icicles, and the ice blocks choked in its side arches, was seasonable seeing. And as they had had enough of shops and crowds they set off resolutely along the desolate Embankment homeward.
But indeed the Thames was a wonderful sight that year! Ice-fringed along either shore, and with drift-ice in the middle reflecting a luminous scarlet from the broad red setting sun, and moving steadily, incessantly seaward. A swarm of mewing gulls went to and fro, and with them mingled pigeons and crows. The buildings on the Surrey side were dim and grey and very mysterious, the moored, ice-blocked barges silent and deserted, and here and there a lit window shone warm. The sun sank right out of sight into a bank of blue, and the Surrey side dissolved in mist save for a few insoluble spots of yellow light, that presently became many. And after our lovers had come under Charing Cross Bridge the Houses of Parliament rose before them at the end of a great crescent of golden lamps, blue and faint, half-way between the earth and sky. And the clock on the Tower was like a November sun. It was a day without a flaw…

1906

‘Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth

Christina Stead For Love Alone (1945) [1986 edition, pp.313-4]

They climbed up to the top [of the bus] and saw London; Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth, got out and walked in some of the little streets behind Piccadilly, saw some of the taverns…Jonathan had friends among Oxford and Cambridge aesthetes; one undergrad had a room painted in black with a row of silver skulls…one had purchased a tavern and others frequented taverns near the East India Docks; all went to low dives, which was considered the romantic thing to do. He asked her, passing one pub, whether she would take a gin and lime juice, for they could go in and take one in the company of men with painted cheeks and hair dyed yellow.

‘into the West End’

Roland Camberton Scamp (1950) [2010 edition, p.94]

His parents were wealthy, had a large house in Golders Green…and gave him a couple of shillings pocket money each day for his jaunts into the West End, where he had discovered that cosy, steamy little cafe behind Foyles, frequented by art-students, film extras, bums, and several very pretty girls. A couple of shillings was not a lot but it was enough to buy a packet of cigarettes and a cup of tea. And what more did one want, when one was eighteen, not entirely repulsive (though far from brilliantly handsome), and potentially the greatest lawyer, doctor, painter, actor, and lover in the world?

‘footfalls numberless’ 

George Gissing In the Year of Jubilee (1894, set in 1887) [1994 edition, p.58]

No one observed her solitary state; she was one of millions walking about the streets because it was Jubilee Day, and every moment packed her more tightly among the tramping populace. A procession, this, greatly more significant that that of Royal personages earlier in the day. Along the main thoroughfares of mid-London, wheel-traffic was now suspended; between the houses moved a double current of humanity, this way and that, filling the whole space, so that no vehicle could possibly have made its way on the wonted track. At junctions, pickets of police directed progress; the slowly advancing masses wheeled to the left or right at word of command, carelessly obedient…there was little noise; only a thud, thud of footfalls numberless.

‘peering into the murk’

Lynne Reid Banks The L-Shaped Room (1960) [2004 edition, p.143]

At last I got on a bus, which trundled quite briskly to the far end of the King’s Road, but after World’s End, where the streets were darker, the fog seemed to close in and the bus was forced to nose its way cautiously along in first gear. The journey went on and on – before long we were travelling at a walking pace, and I and the few other passengers were anxiously clearing the condensation from the windows and peering into the murk in an effort to see where we were. Passing a street-light came to seem quite an event; one watched their brave little smudges receding with a feeling akin to despair, as if we might never find another.

‘the show’s never, never twice the same’

Colin MacInnes Absolute Beginners (1959) p.85

Whoever thought up the Thames embankment was a genius…If the tide’s in, the river’s like the ocean, and you look across the great wide bend and see the fairy advertising palaces on the south side beaming in the water, and that great white bridge that floats across it gracefully, like a string of leaves. If you’re fortunate, the cab gets all the green [lights], and keeps up the same steady speed, and looking out from the upholstery it’s like your own private Cinemarama, except that in this one the show’s never, never twice the same. And weather makes no difference, or season, it’s always wonderful – the magic always works.

‘a melancholy and futile star-shine’

Norman Collins London Belongs to Me (1945) [2008 edition, pp.609-10]

Bill had got embarkation leave. That was why Doris was there at King’s Cross waiting for him. The train was late. Very late…it was after ten o’clock already. Outside, the light had faded from the evening sky and King’s Cross was settling down to its nightly black-out. The platform lamps, like so many blue inverted night-lights had been turned on by the stationmaster and made a melancholy and futile star-shine of their own. Through the murk, the word ‘BUFFET’ on the tea-room door showed up magically in 6-inch letters cut out of cardboard. Every ten seconds or so the word would disappear altogether as a soldier, carrying the war on his back, pulled the door open and went inside. It was the same wherever you looked. Tired, thirsty soldiers. Soldiers going, soldiers coming. The tramp of their boots mingled with the smell of train oil and the hiss of high pressure steam. It might have been the Tottenham Court Road and not the Siegfried Line that they were going to storm at any moment.

‘at dusk it glitters’

Patrick Hamilton Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) [1998 edition, p.41]

He spent over an hour in [the crowded Lyons in the Hampstead Road], smoking three cigarettes, and strangely enjoying the electric-lit, spoon-clinking liveliness of the place; and when he came out the world was transfigured by dusk. Bob identified and adored this transfiguration. All day long the Hampstead Road is a thing of sluggish grey litter and rumbling trams. But at dusk it glitters. Glitters, and gleams, and twinkles, and is phosphorescent – and the very noises of the trams are like romantic thunders from the hoofs of approaching night. In exultant spirits he strolled down towards the West End.

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*To discover more about how London has been portrayed in novels past and present, the London Fictions website is well worth a visit.

London Amusements

On Saturday 26 October, I visited the Eykyn MacLean gallery for the Van Gogh in Paris exhibition – free until the end of November. What a privilege to see such beautiful paintings at close quarters. The Blute-fin Windmill (1886) by Van Gogh; View of Montmartre (1887) by Maximilien Luce; Fields at Thierceville (1888) by Lucien Pisarro; and Avenue de Clichy (1887) by Louis Anquetin were particular favourites. Trying to shake off a curious sensation of being an extra in Midnight in Paris I walked through rainy Soho towards the Swedish café Bageriet. Small details caught my i-pad eye.

West End in Detail 544537_609136865794864_1683026991_n 560011_609137155794835_1343956549_n 1379509_609137685794782_186076308_n 1383276_609137059128178_1831766281_n 1383744_609137799128104_1346852277_n German 1901013

I like photographing fragments of street furniture and shop fronts for my own interest. There is some amazing work being done to document London’s shops more systematically and professionally elsewhere. Next, a river bus to Greenwich to see The Selfish Giant at the cinema. The young leads Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas were incredible and the film stayed in my mind for hours afterwards. From fin-de-siècle Parisian art to a scrapyard in Bradford via a high-tide Thames boat ride and a Scandinavian sandwich – in one leisurely London day out.