I’m missing London today, so I thought I’d take you on a tour of a few more discoveries in my favorite city. Perhaps not entirely off the beaten path, but likely not in your average guide book.
Changing the Guard, less crowded version
Changing the Guard at Buckingham palace may be a quintessential London experience, but the crowds are so huge that unless you arrive several hours early you won’t see much, if anything at all. The ceremony takes place behind the gates, and you have to be right up against them, or perched high on the monument, to see anything. (Although if you arrive 30 minutes early and stand near the staging ground at the barracks, you should at least be able to see the guards and band march over to Buckingham Palace, which is impressive in itself.) But there is another spot to see a little pomp and circumstance: at Horse Guards, either in the parade ground or in the courtyard on Whitehall. There’s no band here, but there’s a morning ceremony, there are mounted sentries in front of the building on Whitehall street all day, and at 4:00pm there’s a mini ceremony, known as the Dismounting Ceremony or the Punishment Parade. That one started in 1894 when Queen Victoria found her guard drinking and gambling while on duty. The 4:00pm inspection was a punishment to be maintained for 100 years! There are no barriers and the crowd is small, so you can get a good, closeup view. See https://changing-guard.com/queens-life-guard.html for details.
The Royal Courts of Justice
I passed by the Royal Courts of Justice dozens of times before finally going in, and I’m glad I did. The web site is confusing and implies that you have to sign up for a tour, but in fact you can just walk in during business hours, go through security, and do a self-guided walking tour. There’s a sense of solemnity throughout, and some interesting rooms and displays. Photography is not allowed inside.
The Sky Garden
Known as “the walkie-talkie” building, 20 Fenchurch Street is a prominent fixture in the London skyline. And at the top is a 3-story greenhouse garden with a great view. Reservations are required for the restaurants and often just to go up to the garden, but if you arrive early they usually do take walk-ins–and it’s free to go up and look around. There are a couple of coffee bars for a coffee/tea/pastry while you enjoy the view.
Fortnum and Mason, Liberty
Anyone who knows me knows I dislike shopping, so this next one is a bit of a surprise, even to me. I had of course heard of Harrods, the legendary department store in ritzy Knightsbridge. It’s certainly an experience. But there are two other department stores that I find much more fun and interesting: Fortnum and Mason, and Liberty. I’ve taken visitors to both and no one has ever been disappointed. They’re also more convenient than Harrods, near Picadilly Circus, Carnaby Street, and other places you’ll probably be exploring.
Chelsea Physic Garden
London’s oldest botanical garden was established in 1673. Located in upscale Chelsea, it’s not huge and not free, but there’s something magical about a 300-year-old walled garden. The plants are all medicinal, edible, or otherwise useful, and there’s a cafe and small gift shop. If you love gardens it’s worth going.
I’ve mentioned Guildhall before, city hall for the City of London, but there’s a newer, modern headquarters for the Greater London Authority, which comprises all the boroughs which make up Greater London. When you hear about the Mayor of London, they’re usually referring to the head of the GLA (as opposed to the Lord Mayor of the one-square-mile City of London). It’s a cool building (although I don’t think that opinion is widely shared), and although there was no meeting in session when I visited, I thought it was worth a peek. No charge to enter, just a security scan.
So much of London is upscale, polished and manicured–the above locations are testaments to that. Even the last of the grittier areas are quickly being gentrified. I found myself looking for down-to-earth pockets and found a few. While these are places I enjoy, I don’t overlook the fact that these are also the poorer areas of the city; I just find that they are more unassuming and less pretentious than many other neighbourhoods, and if I’m going to spend money I’m happy to do it here.
Ridley Road market
Whether you’re looking for a great price on tomatoes, fresh fish, sizzling kebabs, clothing, electronics, wigs, shoes, fabric with vibrant African and Indian patterns, or just about anything else, you’ll probably find it here. The market seems to have a pulse, alive with people and cultures from around the world.
Stepney City Farm
In the heart of the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has the highest rate of poverty, child poverty, and pay inequality in London, is a three acre working farm. It’s like an oasis in a desert, providing green space, showing city kids where food comes from, and supporting the community in a variety of ways. I first found the place when I signed up for a pottery class at the studio on the grounds, and quickly discovered the calming effect of visiting the goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, and chickens, and wandering through the gardens. There’s a cafe serving good coffee and homemade food, and I highly recommend the pottery classes!
The Painted Hall
You’ve probably heard of the observatory at Greenwich, home of Greenwich Mean Time. Nearby are the buildings of the Old Royal Naval Academy and one of those buildings has exquisitely painted walls and ceiling, and every bit of it illustrates a story, some part of the local history as seen by the artist–some of which was probably not pointed out to the sponsoring patron! The ceiling has been under conservation for several years, and just before leaving I bought a ticket for a tour on the scaffolding. What a treat to be so close to such a magnificent piece of art! They’re now in the process of removing the scaffolding, and the building will reopen to the public in March 2019. Even if you can no longer climb up to the ceiling, I’d recommend a visit to this remarkable bit of local history! https://www.ornc.org/painted-hall-project
Now I’m missing London even more! Time for a visit, perhaps?