London for beginners
From Gatwick Airport, there’s only one way to go – on to Victoria Station and London's Tube network. Years ago, three legendary explorers were invited to dine at the Geographical Club in London. Dr John Hemming, an explorer of Brazil, Sir Vivian Fuchs, leader of the first expedition to cross the Antarctica by land, and Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who had travelled up through Africa and down the Amazon in a hovercraft, met at the Royal Geographical Society, about a quarter of a mile from their destination. Within 15 minutes they were hopelessly lost in the back streets of Kensington. Indeed, it’s easy to lose your bearings in London – but not if you take the Tube.
At least you’ll know you’re going in the right direction – even if you have to walk part of the way. Going to London and not seeing the Queen is not something to be ashamed of – to have an audience with Her Majesty, you need to be really somebody and to schedule yourself in months in advance. But being in the British capital and not going on a walk round “The Royal Triangle” (Trafalgar Square –whitehall, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey – Buckingham Palace) is unforgivable.
Trafalgar Square is not even a fiveminute walk from Charing Cross Station, and there’s no way you can miss it. Dominating the square is the approximately 60 m (197 ft) high Nelson’s Column, surrounded by crowds of curious tourists and guarded by four huge bronze lions (said to have been cast from captured French-Spanish cannons). “If it’s good enough for Nelson, it’s quite good enough for me,” go the words of a popular London music-hall song dedicated to the admiral who led England to victory against the French Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), establishing British naval supremacy for more than 100 years. On the north side of the square is the National Gallery, home to one of the finest collections of West European paintings in the world, including masterpieces by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.
At the southern exit to Trafalgar Square is Whitehall, the street synonymous with Government. Once the site of a royal residence, Whitehall is now lined with government buildings. Horse Guards, the headquarters of the Household Cavalry that escorts the Sovereign on ceremonial occasions, is on the right side of the street, and if you happen to be around at 11 am you can watch the spectacular Changing of the Guard ceremony. Next come the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben. The Palace of Westminster is where the two Houses of the UK Parliament (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) meet. The foot of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in the Members’ Lobby (the hallway between Central Lobby and the House of Commons Chamber) is polished to perfection as it is said that rubbing the foot brings an MP good luck when they enter the Chamber. It’s easy to tell if Parliament is in session at night – a light at the top of Big Ben is lit whenever either House is sitting after dark. Big Ben which, strictly speaking, is actually the name of the 13-tonne hour bell cast in 1858 (the Whitechapel Bell Foundry where it was forged still operates from the same location today), is an excellent timekeeper – it continued to keep time and strike away the hours even in 1941, when an incendiary bomb destroyed the Commons Chamber.
Westminster Abbey, located to the west of the Houses of Parliament, has been the setting for every Coronation (bar two) since 1066. The Gothic cathedral, lavishly decorated with paintings, sculptures, stained glass and historic artefacts, is also the burial site of many monarchs and other famous Britons, such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Henry Purcell and Charles Dickens. If you turn down King Charles Street, you’ll soon reach one of London’s greenest areas, St James’s Park. The park was a marsh until King Henry VIII drained it and used it for hunting. It is modest in size, but offers an almost out-oftown atmosphere of peace and quiet, plus elect company – many civil servants from the nearby Government offices come here during their lunch break. The Mall, London’s great ceremonial avenue, will take you straight to the official London residence of the Queen – Buckingham Palace, a modest, but elegant building open to the public from August to October, when Her Majesty is at Balmoral Castle. The Royal Mews and the Queen’s Gallery, which has a collection of unique works of art, are just a few steps away. Hyde Park, where everyone can say their piece at Speaker’s Corner, is also within walking distance.
Having given royal London its due, treat yourself to a huge plate of traditional fish and chips and then take your time to enjoy some of the cosmopolitan city’s many delights and street shows. Crossing Westminster Bridge (behind Buckingham Palace and Big Ben), you’ll find yourself on the South Bank of the Thames.
The London Eye. Towering at 135 m (443 ft), Europe’s tallest observation wheel offers fabulous panoramic views across the whole of London and beyond. If you’re not too dizzy after your ride on the Eye, head straight to Tower Bridge. It is more modest in height, around 43 m (141 ft) high, but provides a truly memorable experience – below you the swirling waters of the Thames and the London docks, above you the lights of the city and gulls flying lazily across the London sky.
New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris the Eiffel Tower, and London – Tower Bridge. Built in 1894, Tower Bridge has become an iconic symbol of London. From here you can easily pick out your next destination. The crossing offers a good view of the Tower of London, The City and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Every self-respecting global brand has done its best to open a shop in Oxford Street or Regent Street. Elegant ladies and impeccably dressed gentlemen climb out of black cabs and head straight for the upmarket Selfridges (400 Oxford Street) or John Lewis (278-306 Oxford Street). Meanwhile, shopping crusaders storm Primark (499-517 Oxford Street) and TopShop (216 Oxford Street). TopShop offers collections designed by supermodel Kate Moss at more than reasonable prices, while at Primark you can buy a complete new outfit for less than 50 UK pounds.
In Regent Street you’ll find Mango, Zaraand Next, but the street is worth visiting foremost because of Hamleys (188-196 Regent Street), London’s largest and most famous toy shop, where children and their parents can spend hours playing with construction sets, trying out magical gadgets or choosing a teddy bear. Not long ago, Moulin Rouge CEO Jean-Jacques Clerico himself drove to Hamleys, but instead of going in to shop – he simply showed Londoners his favourite toy, a 1904 Renault.
Your shopping blitz will no doubt leave you famished. The Pret A Manger chain offers fresh sandwiches, Italian salads and warm soups. The chicken wings and sushi at the Japanese Wasabi fast food chain are very good too. If you still feel like walking, pay a visit to Soho, London’s Chinatown with a rich choice of gourmet restaurants, or to the bars in Salisbury sqaure. There will be crowds here too, but do try to take it easy. London is admittedly a hectic town but somehow it grows on you and you’ll actually find it hard to leave. The good news is that there'll be plenty of opportunities for another visit