It is very easy to take things for granted because we think that we have oodles of time to do all we want to do. I have read that there are acres of diamonds to be found in your own backyard, but do we really take the time to find these? I was guilty of this very sin when many moons ago, I had the privilege of studying in the United Kingdom and calling this country home for a while, albeit as a student. I studied in Cardiff, Wales but took every opportunity to dash to London whenever my meagre student budget allowed it, however in the five years that I called this country home, I am ashamed to admit that I always thought that I would have time to do the things that I really wanted to do and so, when I had to return to Kenya after my graduation, there were many boxes left unchecked.
There are tonnes of blog posts and articles written about London but this is not one of them. I don’t think there could ever be a comprehensive enough guide about this fabulous city and so I won’t even attempt that herculean task. This is not meant to be a tour guide but merely my musings on London: re-discovering a city in a country I lived in for a chapter of my life, but never made the effort to explore or appreciate, taking it all for granted and thinking I would always have time. This is Harpreet’s Wanderlust, making up for lost time and being a tourist in a city in a place I once called home.
“When you are tired of London, you are tired of life”.
These words by Samuel L. Jackson ring so true every time I think of what is probably one of my favourite cities in the world. I cannot imagine a soul that has been to London and not been smitten by her charm. Despite the frequency of travel to London, back then as a student and now as a Wanderluster, each time I set Footsteps in London, I find that there is always something new to discover and I find myself drawn deeper into her charm.
The Sights and Sounds of London Town
It is fun being a tourist in a city you are somewhat familiar with. You know all the landmarks because you have seen them a thousand times before from various standpoints. As a student coming back to Kenya, I could rattle off all the places that are synonymous with London: the London Eye, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, St. Pauls Cathedral…you get the point. But had I ever taken the time to visit these places? Ummmm, No. Why? Because I assumed there would always be time to do this “next time”…
…and thankfully there have been countless opportunities to travel back to London! On one of my recent visits I decided to steep myself in a day of discovery of all those places I had seen a thousand times before but never taken the time to truly explore. So, without further ado, let’s get exploring, shall we?
Names you know: Park Lane, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Mayfair…
Do these sound like the names on the Monopoly board? A lil story for you all: as a student, I would come into London on the National Express, down Park Lane alongside Hyde Park and to the Marble Arch roundabout before hurtling through the City to Victoria Station and taking a train back out to a friend or relatives house in the suburbs. Looking out from the window of the bus, I would always wonder what it would feel like to stay in what I considered the “heart” of the City, especially Mayfair, on that purple piece of property on the Monopoly board that was always so coveted whenever we played the game…
Well, would you know that wishes do come true! What were once lofty dreams of a naïve young girl matured into an actual experience for a Wanderluster and it is heart-warming to think that I now know what it feels like to stay in Mayfair! Perhaps the nicest thing is being able to walk from the hotel to places like Hyde Park, New Bond Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus with its glittering billboards and spending hours on end just discovering what hidden gems the city has to offer…
A day of exploring the “Landmark Sights”
My day of adventuring starts off in typical British fashion: on a rainy note. This is meant to be the peak of summer and long warm days, but London has a nip in the air. I am Kenyan and anything less than 20 degrees is sweater weather to me, much to the chagrin of the Londoners who are dressed for summer despite the rain that is coming down like mist. Barely there but wet anyway. The wind blows, bitter cold and I remember my days as a student, battling the rain which insisted on being accompanied with blustery gale force winds and I would be struggling to keep hold of my Poundland umbrella that insisted on being pulled inside out as I rushed to get to lectures. Nostalgia. Only this time, I am rushing nowhere except to tour London Town and what I consider my “landmark list” sights.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Yes, I am finally going in to that beautiful white dome shaped Cathedral that I had passed many a time, ogling at the exterior but never having taken the time to actually visit! I am not disappointed. The frescoes in the Cathedral are as detailed as what I would imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to look like. The phenomenal work of art can only be appreciated by climbing up the 250 stairs to the Whispering Gallery: which are thankfully not steep but go up a winding staircase so by the time I get up I have vertigo, and am glad to take a pew and sit and admire the ceiling from a near. The colours are vivid, the gold stands out, and Jesus looks at you as if He is really there, looking down on you. Surreal. The kids around us however, are more fascinated with the fact that their whispers are carried around the gallery, and so when I can’t crane my neck looking up at the mural anymore, I sit back and chuckle at the whispers being carried around me!
150 steps more and we are on an outside balcony, with a stunning view of London. But, we want more and so tackle the last level: 180 iron steps to the top balcony of the Cathedral. And dull and grey as the day is: there is a saying that could not be more apt.
A bad day anywhere in the world is still a good day in London.
As I stand there and take it all in: the uninterrupted view before me, the skyline that has changed since I was a student with tall new buildings with apt nicknames: the gherkin, the cheese grater and the beehive – I can’t help but nod along. It may be cold and grey but it is indeed, a good day in London.
The Crown Jewels at the Tower of London
The Crown Jewels have always been something that I have wanted to see, making Tower of London next on the WanderlustList. Moseying around London would lack charm if it wasn’t on a bus and so Wanderlustmate M and I hop on to one of the old red busses and amble across the city all the way to Tower Hill. Thank goodness for pre-purchased tickets that let you skip lines because that is exactly what we did: hop off the bus and swan right in!
The Tower of London is actually a castle where executions were carried out in the yesteryears. I vaguely remember something about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from my history lessons, but I am unapologetically not a history buff and so head straight to the piece de resistance: the Jewel House, home to the Crown Jewels where they are kept under lock and key and under the watchful eye of armed guards. The line to get into this tower is a mile long: no skip the queue passes here I’m afraid, but thankfully moves relatively quickly into various chambers depicting the history of the jewels and the relation to the British Monarchy before we enter a proper vault, lock wheel and all that houses the pieces that we want to gaze open mouthed at. Indeed, these Crowns are fascinating. Set in locked glass cases that are viewed from a slow-moving travellator, I am tempted to travel up and down a couple of times to simply gasp in wonder at the treasures inside these glass cases. From their sheer sizes to the sizes of the jewels that are encrusted in them, some as big as rocks. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds and of course, diamonds. The Kohinoor is what I want to see, and I am gobsmacked when I see the size of the exquisite diamond, set in the middle of the Queen Mother’s Crown. Later, I learn that the Kohinoor was actually sent as a gift from India, in an amulet, and taken out and placed in the Queen Mother’s Crown. As there is no photography allowed, I have to rely on the images in my mind when thinking of these jewels, and as they are so bedazzling, thankfully reminiscing is not that difficult and I am excited that I have checked off another WanderlustList on my tour of London!
Ah, that one sight that is synonymous with London: the elegant suspension draw bridge with its two towers spanning the width of the River Thames. Unfortunately, it is turning out to be a blustery day and my visions of skipping across Tower Bridge in a little summer dress and hat have remained dreams. Tower Bridge is a sight I have seen many a time but never walked across: until now! Thanks to the wind, crossing the bridge is something that I do in a hurry to get to the other side but there is time to take it all in: the stunning architecture, looking across the Thames from the top and just being in awe of this magnificent London icon. What I wish I knew then but know now is that you can actually go inside Tower Bridge: and just like that, once again, this is something that is back on my WanderlustList!
Westminster, Big Ben and the Red London Bus
No trip to London is complete without seeing the golden hues of the neo-gothic masterpiece that is known as the Houses of Parliament, elegantly perched alongside the banks of the Thames, its reflection perfectly captured in the waters of the river.
The iconic Big Ben chimes stands tall at one end and up until recently, would chime on the hour indicating the passing of time. Time almost stands still for me as I soak it all in: the red London bus hurtling past, the plethora of tourists with their selfie sticks: but I just want to stand here and stare a while…
The last stop for the day is in Covent Garden, a super cute and charming part of London’s West End where you will find a pedestrianised piazza with shops and restaurants, as well as the Apple Market. Given that it is home to the Theatre District, similar to New York’s Broadway, it is unsurprising to find buskers of all sorts in its cobbled streets, playing awesome music, pretending to be statues and doing magic tricks: always fun to watch for a while!
And for this Wanderluster, no trip to London is complete without ambling through the aisles of Stanfords Book Store – what I think is the world’s largest travel book store (but I may be wrong). What better place to leaf through the memoirs of well travelled authors and see the world through their eyes? I have been known to cart away no less than 15 books at any one given visit, much to Wanderlustmate M’s chagrin, and I always want more! Which reminds me that I have to crank out a Booklust post for you guys soonish….
My tour isn’t quite done yet, not without indulging in some food and some quintessentially British traditions which I will save for my next post. Until next time, Happy Wanderlusting! xoxo