A better version of London

The Travel Companion (TC) was with me once again this month, and we decided to make the 5-hour train journey to London from Edinburgh. I was adamant that he should be the one to write this entry because our last trip to London last December was pretty much accidental. My own memories of London spent in the summer of 2007 were exceptionally good, and I had desperately hoped that TC would have at least enjoyed that same privileged experience which I had.

This meant packing a heck of a lot of activities in the 3 days we were there (the majority of them consisting of visiting galleries in the day, in between sightseeing, and watching West End plays at night) and TC surprised me by enjoying the gallery visits as much as I needed to look at them for work’s sake.

It was even more pleasantly surprising to learn that TC had developed a fondness for art by Titian and Jacopo Bassano. In fact, he could not stop exulting their artistic techniques and the textures, happily stepping into the Scottish National Gallery after we returned to look at more.

Here, recounted in TC’s own words, are his feelings and memories –  eccentric, weird, mutedly funny and sometimes plain cynical.

It all started with a rush – which pretty much characterised all of our trips.

The journey to the train station consisted of The Babe (TB) and I running through the streets of Edinburgh to the train station, in pelting snow.

“Great”, I thought to myself. “A brilliant way to change my impression of London”. For those wondering why the title is what it is, my first visit to London was an absolute nightmare. On my way out of Edinburgh at the end of last year, my flight was cancelled and I was rudely diverted to Heathrow (which I had tried to avoid due to its infamous reputation for screwing up flights and luggage – and now to no avail). What followed was a mad dash from gate to counter to counter with an ill TB in tow, as one thing after another went wrong until both of us nearly ended up spending the night sleeping on the floor in Heathrow.

I decided there and then, that I was never going to watch the Amazing Race ever again, having just lived through it in the worst possible way. We eventually ended up getting back to our intended destination one day late, with our luggage still in limbo in Heathrow. Having decided that this first, foul tasting morsel of London was not a fair impression, I therefore declared this trip to be the “good” version of London. Thus far, the weather did not augur well.

As the National Express East Coast moved from Scotland to England (Berwick upon Tweed, Newcastle, York, Durham, Doncaster, Peterborough, and finally, London), the weather actually improved. Instead of the expected dull, dreary grey skies topped with steady drizzles, the sun actually made a rare appearance. By the time we reached King’s Cross/St Pancras, it was evident that the weather was doing its penitent best to improve my impression of London.

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1. By and large, transport seemed decent. The tube was, predictably, small, crowded and expensive with the occasional line breakdown (we had to make 2 transfers on 3 lines to get to our hotel because the line we needed to take was down for maintenance). It was fast, if nothing else. We soon discovered that taking certain buses at the right time of day was much cheaper and a much more pleasant way to travel – route directions were well laid out and easy to follow.

2. London House Hotel lived up to its reputation. The room was clean and fairly comfortable, the staff friendly, and breakfast was decent (although not fantastic). The only quibble I had was the noise from the workmen and other vehicles on the lane just below my room, a compromise for price and a central location in London (we stayed near Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens).

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3. Oxford Street had its range of interesting shops. Never much of a shopaholic myself, I nonetheless discovered the wonders of Primark. I ended up buying a number of things which cost a total of about 20 quid. At such prices, the shop was an absolute madhouse of people from various countries. TB and I ended up returning in the morning in order to get any shopping done at all. As usual, the stuff we needed to find was in fact, way nearer than we needed to go.

4. Our trip to two museums had mixed outcomes. The National Gallery was quite a surprise for me. The amount of famous paintings left me a bit stunned. It was rather surreal. I found myself standing next to the real Sunflowers by Van Gogh. I nearly ended up slapping myself to ensure that I was not dreaming. What I also discovered was that the various paintings by famous artists actually were in vivid colours. Prior to this, my visit to the Uffizi gallery in Florence left me convinced that the old masters only painted in a dull olive green and dirty yellow, with a very occasional grudging blue. I had just realised that the lazy buggers in Florence never cleaned or restored anything.

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The British museum, on the other hand, was overrun with tourist groups and school children on tour. The quality and variety of the exhibits on display was unquestionable. However, the fact that virtually everything was probably looted left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. With the crowds filling nearly every corner (they all showed a fascination with ancient Egypt), TB and I decided to leave there early, taking off for the customary sights of Westminster and the (gag) London Eye.

5. Meals were a strange thing. We went from eating takeaways at a kebab store to having lunch at a small quaint café frequented by locals.

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6. We naturally paid homage to Fortnum & Masons and Twinings.

I suppose London did its best to redeem itself in my eyes. I can say that this really was, London (good version).

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