Until 10 months ago London was my home for 30 years…and I love it. I’ve temporarily relocated to New York but welcome a trip back to home turf. London is a glorious city; culturally, architecturally and creatively. An easy city; great public transport, safe, friendly…more affordable than New York. Incredible buildings, museums and galleries; a visual feast. History embedded in the cobbled mews of alleyways and the scuffed stone slabs of pub doorsteps, memories of the historical figures who crossed them. The street markets are some of the best in the world…and there are many of them. For those on a retail fix, it’s still one of the best shopping cities. Even in the days of gentrification and rampant homogenization, London still offers a choice and inventiveness that most cities can’t compete with.
London never dips to the bone-crunching arctic temperatures of some of its neighbours. Aside from the top 10 things to do in London listed across the internet, take time to wander the neighbourhoods to see Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses. Decorative brickwork, elegantly curved crescents, long sash windows; rows of redbrick terraces shaded by soaring London Plane trees. I tagged on to my husband’s work trip, staying at The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington High Street; an easy location to catch up on friends and favourite places. The Churchill Arms pub is around the corner, covered in plants and flagpoles, cascades of blooms from hundreds of window boxes. (photo credit: Trip Savvy).
Kensington is walking distance from Notting Hill, location of the Hugh Grant/Julie Roberts movie of the same name. Houses with colourful front doors and Portobello Market which spreads down under the bridge to Ladbroke Grove. On Saturdays it’s crammed with traders selling vintage clothing, antiques and global food. Look for the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland setting up a street-side tea party.
The stalls are backed by rows of small shops; Rag Yard make fabulous peacock sleeved sweatshirts as modelled here by one of their super friendly shop assistants. A small branch of Rough Trade Records is packed with vinyl and knowledgeable staff…they can sometimes be a bit like Rob from ‘High Fidelity’ but just chuckle and go with it. The shop often has live music.
The antiques peter out further down, replaced by food stalls; from fruit and veg to meat cooked on the spit. Look out for the Olive Stall where my friends Max, Pete and Joe serve up around 40 different types of olives from wooden tubs… tapenades, delicious fried halloumi rolls and bunches of heavily scented lavender brought directly from the fields of France. Cafes, cake shops, shoe shops and boutiques share space with English pubs like the recently refurbished Portobello Gin Hotel. Under the rail bridge is a vintage clothing and jewellery market. You are now in Ladbroke Grove/Goldbourne Road. More quirky shops and two Portuguese cafes Lisboa and O Porto where locals come to share tables, eat sandwiches and Portuguese pastries.
The following day; I met up with my old friend Vicki at London Bridge tube station, a proud born and bred South Londoner. We walked the cobbled streets to the River Thames walkway looking out over HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. Grabbed some food at Nandos in one of the refurbished Victorian railway arches.
Tower Bridge (built circa 1886) is a beautiful blue painted suspension bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge) spanning the river close to the Tower of London. The two towers of the bridge house the machinations and the bascule pivots used to open the bridge, allowing tall masted river traffic to pass. It’s a great bridge to walk across linking The Tower of London, Whitechapel and Spitalfields on one side and The Fashion and Textile Museum, Borough Market (locals call it Boro), The Golden Hind, Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern on the other. You can stroll from Tate Modern along the riverside until you reach Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
The flat where fictional character Bridget Jones lived in Bridget Jones Diary, is above the Globe pub on Bedale Street in Borough.
A bustling food market sprawls under the Victorian railway bridges and around Southwark Cathedral, crowded on Saturdays but worth it. Great places to buy hot roast or halloumi sandwiches and huge paella dishes cooked in front of you. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from coffee to fresh cooked Japanese dumplings, vegetables, fruit, homemade pickles and jams, amazing bread and cake stalls, a huge variety of farm produced cheeses, venison sausages; buy to eat on the spot or to take away, it’s one of the best food markets in the world.
Back to Kensington the following day; home to some of the most beautiful museums in London along Exhibition Road/Cromwell road… and they’re FREE! The extraordinary Natural History Museum, its gorgeous facade; inside look for carved stone monkeys climbing the carved vines which reach across the stone arches. Botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology; a centre of research specialising in taxonomy, identification and conservation. Specimens collected by Charles Darwin, look for his marble statue on the stone staircase, a skeleton of a Blue Whale hangs from the entrance hall ceiling, easily held in this cavernous space often referred to as ‘a cathedral of nature’. I met my friend Max to take him to my favourite London museum, The Victoria and Albert, also on Exhibition Road. It’s beautiful inner courtyard, the Victorian brick glows in the sun. In spring and summer it is filled with the heavily blossomed heads of bruised purple hydrangeas.
You can sit at the cafe’s outdoor tables but the main cafe inside is stunning. William Morris tiles and wallpaper, huge ball shaped lights, mosaics and gorgeous stained glass windows. A piano or harp player regularly play in this space; enjoy all of this for the average price of a cup of coffee because entrance is free to all of the major museums in London. The only fees are for access to one of the specialist exhibitions that come and go throughout the year. Standards are high; David Bowie, Frida Kahlo and Alexander McQueen were all shown here. I venture to the museum shop to stock up on beautiful cards, looking at the silk scarves, unique jewellery, art prints…unique gifts.The V&A as locals call it is the largest museum in the world of decorative arts and design, housing over 2 million objects. Among my favourite things on display here are the Morlaix French wooden staircase from 1522-1530, Sir Paul Pindar’s wooden housefront from Bishopsgate in London which survived the Great Fire of London and the towering plastercast replica of the original marble Trajan’s Column in the breathtaking room called the Cast Courts.
Back outside and a walk around the area will reward you with wonderful views of the Royal Albert Hall, the world famous concert hall home to The Proms. Hosting everything from classical music to rock gigs.
Red brick mansion blocks of privately owned apartments curve around the streets mirroring the curves of the Royal Albert Hall. North of the RAH on the other side of the road is the gold leafed Albert Memorial; commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband Prince Albert who died in 1861.
For serious shopping in London head to Oxford Street. Just over a mile long it runs from Marble Arch tube station opposite Hyde Park down to Tottenham Court Road tube station at the other end. London red double decker buses run the length of Oxford Street and just off it at Oxford Circus on Great Marlborough Street, is one of London’s longest established department stores named after Arthur Lasenby Liberty; Liberty the brand, was first established in 1875. This Grade II Tudor Revival building was built circa 1924, constructed from the timbers of two ships; HMS Impregnable (formerly HMS Howe) and HMS Hindustan. The front of the building is said to be the same length as the Hindustan.
Known for its Liberty prints and scarves, the store sells luxury brands, exotic imports and gifts. It’s worth a visit simply to experience the building; walk up the oak staircases and look down through the tiered levels. Their seasonal Christmas windows are elaborately decorated and it was the subject of a 3 episode TV series called ‘Liberty of London’ aired in 2013.
For fun fashion with designs inspired by the world’s catwalks, visit the huge 3-storey Top Shop on Oxford Circus, midway along Oxford Street. Fashionistas, fashion editors and sartorial kids worldwide visit the flagship London store.
Another day another fantastic London market. Brick Lane has become the stomping ground for eccentrics, artists and hispters. Easily my favourite market in London, the best days to visit are Saturday and Sunday. Fridays are fun but only the shops are open; market stalls aren’t here until the weekend. Don’t come early, it won’t be in full swing. Arrive around 11.30am, go for a coffee and watch the madness expand around you. Liverpool Street tube station is nearby and Spitalfields Market is the first stop towards Brick Lane market, 5 minutes walk further along. Exit at the Bishopsgate side cross to the opposite side of the road where you’ll see a pub called Dirty Dicks. Cross Bishopsgate and walk up Middlesex Street next to Dirty Dicks and where the street forks, walk to the left until you are on a beautiful narrow street called Artillery Passage. This area is full of history; it was allegedly an old military training ground and famous for the notorious Jack The Ripper who was said to have killed his last victim here. At the end of Artillery Passage cross over to Gun Street. There are plenty of routes to the markets but this is my favourite; walking on cobblestones by old Georgian shopfronts. Look out for the preserved building front on Gun Street with the new building behind. At the end of Gun Street take a right on Bushfield Street and you’ll see the entrance to Spitalfields Market with its shield emblem above.
Spitalfields is a covered market with different themes in the week. My favourite is Thursday when it specialises in secondhand curios, vintage clothing, antiques. On Saturday it has clothes, jewellery stalls, vinyl records, blankets from Nepal and shops scatter the periphery. Lots of affordable chain restaurants like Wagamama and Giraffe and great food stalls with communal tables to eat at. My favourites are the Turkish Gozleme wraps followed by a visit to Crosstown Doughnuts at the back of the market. Check out the hat stall run by the wonderful besuited Dandy, Colin. Lovely bloke and fabulous hats.
Brick Lane Market is less than a 10 minute walk from Spitalfields. Exit the market on to Commercial Street and head across the road to the looming Hawksmoor Church (Christ Church Spitalfields/Anglican) built between 1714 and 1729 by Nicholas Hawksmoor. On the opposite corner is the Ten Bells pub, existing in one form or another since the 18th century, linked with Jack Ripper. Allegedly one of his victims drank here and another, a prostitute, picked up clients outside. The film ‘From Hell’ based on The Ripper has a scene where Johnny Depp as the Detective is drinking in the pub with Mary Kelly, one of the Ripper’s victims.
Between the church and pub is Fournier Street, a cobbled East End Street lined with Georgian houses dating to 1720 originally built for wealthy French Huguenots. Many were silk weavers from Nantes, Lyon and other French cities…several of these domestic houses would have been occupied by silk weavers.
The English artists Gilbert & George own two townhouses on Fournier Street with their artist studios running behind. Photo credit of the artists below on Fournier Street by Jooney Woodward (New York Times Style Magazine 2014).
I love street markets, graffiti, vintage clothing and music; Brick Lane Market has it all. It surpassed Camden Market as the coolest market in the city. Originally famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi food there are now pop up shops, bars, indoor golf and a heady mix of London street culture which will pretty much hook anyone in of any age group. Try out the Bangladeshi sweet shops trading here long before it became cool.
I visited the indoor Brick Lane Vintage Market, a black doorway with black and white signs outside and steps leading down to a huge warren of stalls featuring vintage finds from all eras and customised vintage by individual designers.
Just under the Truman Brewery down a small street cornered by food stands, you’ll find Rough Trade Records with a huge selection of CDs, vinyl and music books and regular live showcases featuring new bands. Further along this street past the crazy indoor golf place (good fun) and another branch of the fabulous Ragyard, there is an open area of food trucks. Look up to see wall murals by American artist Shephard Fairey and Banksy’s pink car now enclosed in a tatty perspex box. There are other pieces here by Invader and other internationally known street artists. You can sign up for graffiti tours at a fee; just bear in mind that whatever street artists you see featured online, some are protected and remain whilst others are regularly overpainted by invited artists; many walls are leased out for certain periods of time.
Back on Brick Lane and down Hanbury Street I re-visit one of my favourite street murals by Belgian street artist ROA, his beautiful 3-storey bird holding strong. Hanbury Street is an outdoor gallery for street artists; murals, wheat pasteups, stickers, slapups…by their temporary nature they change regularly but ROA’s crane has been a feature for years. The day I’m back here British graffiti artist Stik, another favourite, still features along with a more recent piece by the New York street artist BKFoxx; she paints large photo-realistic murals using spray paint. Her work is stunning.
My trip back was about catching up with friends and family as well as cramming in favourite places. London covers a huge area, my friends are scattered across it, there’s a lot to pack in. Back in Kensington and a visit from my good friend Peter and his dog Archie. Directly behind the hotel is Kensington Palace Gardens, home to Kensington Gardens, The Orangery, Serpentine Gallery, The Italian Gardens and the Peter Pan Statue. One of London’s eight Royal Parks featuring ornate statues, ponds with gliding swans, acres of flowerbeds…and one muddy puddle which Archie immediately finds.
Proof that talking to random people on your travels can pay off for years. Catching up with our Algerian friend Lyes who lives in London but we met in Damascus when we travelled in Syria a few years ago. Brunch in The Ivy Kensington Brasserie one of my favourite brunch places in London followed by a long walk around the back streets of Kensington. Cobbled mews, painted houses, twisting vines of wisteria, exclusive car showrooms. You need millions to buy one of these houses. Dave hunched in his winter coat looking like an underworld boss whilst Lyes as his sidekick attempts to explain a disastrous mission – hah!
The guide books cover all of the obvious sites like Buckingham Palace, London Eye, London Houses of Parliament, Big Ben etc….but here’s some links to things featured here and some other favourites not featured.
Royal Albert Hall events https://www.royalalberthall.com
The Distillery Portobello Road Gin Pub. Notting Hill area. https://the-distillery.london
Churchill Arms Kensington Pub. https://www.churchillarmskensington.co.uk
Victoria and Albert Museum Kensington https://www.vam.ac.uk
William Morris 19th Century Textile Designer https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/william-morris
Natural History Museum Kensington https://www.nhm.ac.uk
Old Spitalfields Market London https://oldspitalfieldsmarket.com
History of Sptalfields Market https://www.spitalfields.co.uk/spitalfields-history
Hawksmoor Christ Church Spitalfields https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Church,_Spitalfields
Rough Trade East Record store Brick Lane https://www.roughtrade.com/stores
Rag Yard https://ragyard.com Instagram @ragyard for unique independent fashion
History of Brick Lane Market https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane
Gilbert and George New York Times article
Brick Lane in 1980s photographs https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/06/brick-lane-exposed-impressions-east-end-london-1980s-in-pictures
Royal Garden Hotel Kensington. Ask for a quiet room at the back. They are not sponsoring me to include them here, I thought the staff were excellent so I’m giving them a shout out. However, if you want a more independent experience of London, I would recommend booking an apartment or house rental through Air B&B. https://www.royalgardenhotel.co.uk
London Royal Parks https://www.royalparks.org.uk
Ivy Kensington Brasserie https://theivykensingtonbrasserie.com (reserve in advance)
London Borough Market http://boroughmarket.org.uk
Tower Bridge Exhibition https://www.towerbridge.org.uk
HMS Belfast https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast
Some other points of interest below, not covered in this blog post.
London Street Art visit Brick Lane and the surrounding streets and also the Waterloo Tunnels near Waterloo station. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/news/2017/11/16/londons-graffiti-tunnel-leake-street
Dennis Sever’s House Brick Lane area, a real treat book in advance. Small building limited capacity https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Sir John Soane’s House a personal favourite. City of London area, Holborn. https://www.soane.org
Lord Leighton House Museum Kensington area https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum1.aspx
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in the City of London Fleet Street; was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. Very atmospheric, open fires, sawdust on the ancient wooden floors, go down old winding staircases lower underground. Wonderful place to grab a beer. You will be in good company as allegedly Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle author of Sherlock Holms novels all drank here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Olde_Cheshire_Cheese
London January 2019 @thetraveldiarist on Instagram and Pinterest