I wanted to title this page “36 hours in London” but, without any nightclub activity, I opted instead to focus on our major activity of those 36 hours (besides sleeping) – Walking!
London is a great city for walking!
The backbone of this day of walking (Sunday, May 19th, 2019) was a walking tour of the East End. Fabled for anarchists and immigrants, the area and its history are colorful and lively.
We met Robyn, a friend from our Syracuse University days, for brunch at a little place called Salt & Pepper for brunch. She had arranged our entertainment for the afternoon, one of the many walking tours that are offered in the city. (Actually, they are now offered in many of the bigger European cities.) We had a bevy of tours from which to choose; Unfortunately, our first choice, one of the Bloomsbury area, where we were staying, would not to be given that day. Instead, we opted for the Unknown East End Tour.
My interest in the East End stems from having watched various seasons of “Call the Midwife.” Robyn explained that the series is not shot in the East End, but no matter. It was the personality of the real East End that I wanted to delve.
I didn’t take notes on the tour and wish I had because it was fascinating and fun. Our leader, Matthew, was quite a performer and he had unique sights for us to see and peculiar stories for us to hear. (I recommend you try a “Walking Tour”! Here’s a link to the company that conducts the walks.)
In addition to colorful, the history of this area is also long. London started here, in the East End; This was the Roman Londinium. There are a few traces left. You can see them if you know where to look (check the link). The city expanded to the west from this point, stretching out along both sides of the Thames.
During our tour, our guide explained to us, and Robyn expanded upon, the extreme contrasts of old and new buildings in the city. These are a result of the bombs of the Blitz. Whole blocks were wiped out and replaced with modern (post-WWII) structures that are mostly boxy concrete. Many have been prettied up or just disguised with new signage and awnings but, look carefully, you may find a few gems. Our day was a bit hazy, threatening rain that never came. The ultra-modern buildings like the “Gherkin” took on an ethereal, ghostly aspect compared to the vivid color of the shops along the streets.
The tour wrapped up in Brick Lane, the street for curry! An early dinner in a Bengali restaurant called the Standard Balti House was quite good. Afterwards, because it was early still and doesn’t get dark in London at this time of year until well after 10, we talked Robyn into walking back to Bloomsbury. “Just a 45-minute walk” we assured her. (Except if you’re meandering…) I mentioned that London expanded westward from the East End, so our westward walk to Bloomsbury might have been a walk through history.
Still in the East End, near Brick Lane is Petticoat Lane, where we found an active market of inexpensive clothing. This is the cloth district, known as Spitalfields. In past centuries, the houses in this area were owned by French Huguenots, mostly silk merchants and weavers. The area is architecturally very pretty, though some of the buildings have yet to be rehabilitated.
We saw the Old Spitalfields Market, just closing up at that hour. It is a mixed market venue, with some known stores around the outer edges, and artisan and miscellany vendors in temporary booths in the center. It is a big market – I will put it on my list of places to return to explore at leisure.
Wending our way back to our hotel, we passed through the Barbican Centre complex. Inside, I saw advertising for two enticing exhibits – one about artificial intelligence and another about sound. Outside, in the large central “square” near the “lake” we had just missed some live concerts, but there were still many people milling about. It has quite a “happening vibe.” (I am dating myself!) The complex has theaters and exhibit spaces and is ringed by residences; like a city within the City.
We saw the Smithfield Market. It was closed at 6 pm on a Sunday, but on a weekday the activity here starts about 3 am when the sellers arrive with their wares – MEAT. By 6 am all the restaurateurs have arrived, along with the grocers, and things are in full swing. Not sure I need to see that, but it does sound like there might be a lot of photo ops…
It was a wonderful day, and we logged almost 23,000 steps!
More about our London logistics:
Our hotel was a disappointment. The photos on the internet made it look much more “posh” than it actually was, and imagine our view – we were in the basement. Literally. And each time we left the room, we got a good look into the linen closet, left open in the hallway (which was about 24” wide. It was the Grange Beauchamp Hotel in Bloomsbury. The location was excellent, right around the corner from the British Museum. We were right in the thick of things, within easy walking distance of many of the major sights (even without logging 10 miles). I probably would not stay there again without making sure I got a decent room. However, the entire street (Bedford Place) was filled with hotels in townhouses so there are many options in this great location.
The decision to stay in this area was a literary one – you know, the Bloomsbury group, and all that. It was a good neighborhood for walking, and we made the rounds – Bloomsbury Park, Russell Park, the University of London. We managed to find our way to Drury Lane and back, too.
And, by the way, Uber is a good choice for getting back and forth from the airport. You might also try Wheely – chauffeur-driven cars, available in London and Moscow.