What I Love About London and the Londoners
An insider's guide to London Town.
I’ve written a love letter to Paris on here and another to Los Angeles. I figured Provence was next, but today I happened to be reading a Debbie Johnson novel.
Debbie Johnson’s Comfort Food Café series is one of the few romance series I really and truly enjoy reading. While the plots are sometimes a bit (a lot) slow paced, the books are incredibly well written and filled with quirky characters that have real problems. That’s to say: they don’t tend to meet a bad alpha male who happens to be a billionaire with a spanking problem, that then becomes their problem. Not that I don’t like the idea of Mister Grey — who doesn’t like the idea of some sort of billionaire hottie with a spanking problem? But the execution of a certain Fifty Shades series is so appalling that you feel like you’ve committed a literary crime when reading the books.
While I love the happily ever after endings and romance as much as the next romantic, I like books that have real characters in them. And as a general rule, I find that British authors have one up on the Americans in this department. Maybe because the Brits, overall, tend to be a bit more down to Earth. I guess they get stuck in the mud while wearing their Wellies and can’t help it. It’s hard to be aloof when dragging your feet through mud. Working your way through Oxford Circus in rush hour also requires a level of close intimacy with humanity that, while leaving you with a wish to hide away as a hermit, certainly doesn’t make you feel like a Hollywood celebrity. There is no valet parking and trying to drive through Oxford Street is, if possible, worse than walking. You won’t get anywhere in the traffic. Trust me. 2am on a Saturday is particularly bad.
Reading a Debbie Johnson novel inspired me to write about London and the Londoners. Or Britain in general, but mostly about London because I happen to have been living there on and off for about sixteen years. It’s just, I never fell for London the way I did Paris and Los Angeles. Even Cape Town, for all the myriad of challenges I’ve experienced there, has palm trees and sunshine that feed my soul, while London is epically grey.
That said, let’s talk about the good things about London (I’m bound to take the piss ever so often too, but I shall try to focus on the good stuff mostly).
I love bookshops. In particular, I love Waterstones on Piccadilly. I can’t tell you that the decor is particularly inspiring. It’s not. Though it’s gotten better with the addition of different coffee shops and a rooftop bar. I particularly like the coffee shop in the basement and the shop of weird items on the first floor. Not that it’s technically a shop of weird items, I guess it’s more like a gift shop, but it has a long list of weird and wonderful things in it.
Being Swedish, I grew up with bookshops where you walked in to buy a book, then walked out again. Moving to London and seeing that you could take a book, then sit in the coffee shop inside the bookstore and read that book, was a revelation. It was like having another kind of library.
While I think Foyles, on Tottenham Court Road, is much cooler than Waterstones on Piccadilly — more eclectic I suppose — I prefer Waterstones because it makes me feel like a writer. It’s the place I go when I want to feel that I’m actually a writer. Never mind that I write every day, because that’s my job, Waterstones makes me believe I’m the next J.K. Rowling and that anything’s possible in the world of literary wonders. There’s just something about it. I can’t describe it. Many famous authors come there to sign their books (personally I only remember when they closed the entire area down because of Bill Clinton), but I don’t know if that’s why.
If you keep walking up Piccadilly towards Green Park, you’ll pass Hatchard’s which is a much posher, old fashioned, bookstore which always has me drooling in the window. Yet, when you go inside, I can’t sit down and write and it does not make me feel like the next J.K. Rowling. Still, I like it.
The second-hand bookshops along Tottenham Court Road also have me wandering in and out, but while they’re charming in a way old bookstores are, I never fell for their particular charm.
There is, on the other hand, a really charming second-hand bookstore somewhere between Blackheath and Hither Green (on Lee High Street to be precise), called Halcyon Books. They have really old first edition novels for like nothing and I may have caught myself wanting to buy half the shop at times. The upside to this little shop is that it’s quirky in a simple sort of way and it has coffee and tables. For us writers, it makes sense.
I’m a sucker for scones with whipped cream and jam. As someone who does not like jam (or, horrors: Nutella) on my sandwiches, I have a weird appreciation for scones. Already in my teens people would say that they knew I was stressed when they found me in the kitchen baking. Usually scones. The wholegrain version.
At any rate, a really good thing about Britain and the Brits, is their love of scones. You just have to make sure you find a good place. Normally it’s served as “cream tea” in the afternoon.
I am actually not sure where’s a good place for scones. I tend to randomly decide to eat them and therefore remember having them on country walks, in small villages and across London. I just never settled for a “scones place.” But the Ritz offers a ridiculously expensive afternoon tea on a Sunday. Supposedly what they offer is good.
Talking about scones, one needs to talk about tea. Brits love black tea. Personally, I’m not a big fan of black tea, but I do love the tradition of putting the kettle on and thankfully, these days, you find herbal tea almost anywhere.
Tea in Britain isn’t just a beverage, it’s a tradition that brings people together.
For example, after a terror attack in Manchester, Twitter was overflowing with people opening up their homes to strangers to help. A lot of them said they didn’t have much, but promised to put the kettle on. Because that’s what you do. If you need strength, courage, inspiration…you put the kettle on. If someone cares about you, when something happens, they put the kettle on for you.
While I may not like black tea that much, I must say it has a strengthening effect. It might be the caffeine, or the myriad of antioxidants it contains, but a strengthening cuppa really is a strengthening cuppa. And this tradition of sharing a good cuppa is so ingrained in the British psyche that they will point you to the nearest kettle the first thing they do. They suspect you will not survive without it, because they won’t.
Speaking of tradition, let’s talk about department stores. Department stores aren’t like malls, rather more like Macy’s. I mean Macy’s is a department store. And for those of you who have watched Mr Selfridge you know that they have a long tradition in Britain. The cool part? Some of them still look pretty much like they did back in the days of Mr Selfridge. The original Selfridge’s store still stands, but it has been greatly modernized. I still quite like it and there are many more wonderful ones like Harvey Nics, Harrods and Liberty’s, but my favorite is Fortnum and Mason. It’s pretty much right next to Waterstones on Piccadilly.
Walking into Fortnum and Mason is like walking into another world. It’s filled with everything from ridiculously expensive handmade candles, to ridiculously expensive handmade candies. Basically, you walk into an old luxurious house, filled with expensive brands, as well as Fortnum and Mason’s own delicatessen, chocolaterie, etc.
The window display at Fortnum and Mason also happens to be my favorite in town. I go past just to check out what they’ve done that month.
And here’s another tip: they have the best public toilets. Fanciest powder room in town. If in need, head to Fortnum and Mason. Sure as heck beats McDonald’s.
Jeremyn Street, which runs parallel to Piccadilly, is filled with old shops and fancy boutique’s for men. If you want to get dressed for the Ascots, that’s where you go.
I happen to like old-school, so I love that particular street. It’s one part of London that still feels British.
OK, so I have a thing for wrought iron lampposts and yellow lights during foggy nights. After going on a date in London last year, I decided to walk to Victoria station through Green Park, just to enjoy said lights.
The cool thing is, behind Jeremyn Street, you’ll find Pall Mall and The Mall — both streets filled with that old town feel and The Mall borders St. James Park which takes you back a couple of hundred years if you manage to hit it just as twilight sets in so you can’t see that everyone’s walking around in modern garb.
A bit further down, if you cross the park, you’ll find 10 Downing Street, Big Ben and the Thames. This area is altogether lovely. Strolling along here at night and then walking along the Thames is right up there on my list of favorite things.
Southbank and the Markets
On the other side of the Thames, you’ll find Southbank. This is where people hang out in summer. There are coffee shops, bars, the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe (though I was convinced that was in Camden, so I certainly haven’t hung out there, which is ironic given my love of certain Shakespearean plays, but to my defense, it wasn’t completed until 2014 and I moved to London in 2002), the National Film Institute and a number of pop up shops, bars and attractions aligned with the seasons. It’s also home to the London Eye.
On summer nights, this is the place to be. Weekends in general, this is the place to be. Some would argue with me and say that weekends are reserved for Spitafields Market (hipster chic market), Brick Lane Market (mixed ethnicities and boho market but with tons of food and vintage items too), Borough Market (best food market), Camden Market (new age market with a definite punk, vibe), Portobello Road Market (lots of vintage items) and whatever other market is on. Personally, I used to love the farmer’s market in Angel. It was real, fresh and for the locals. All the markets are great though and some of the above-mentioned ones are utterly amazing due to the sheer amount of people, stands and shops.
There are plenty of free museums in London. I dig this. A lot. I also like the paid exhibitions at said museums, but at least, on a rainy day, you can go somewhere to hide from the rain without paying a fortune. Which goes to say a lot in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The 99p coffee at Prêt à Manger is also a great way of getting out of the rain (Prêt is a national treasure in the form of a sandwich shop that has all things freshly made, including more healthy options like açai bowls, as well as the happiest shops assistants in the UK). As a lot of the museums are in South Kensington, you have the added benefit of being surrounded by beautiful architecture. One of the things I have a problem with in London is that a lot of the architecture is modern and not in a good way. Not in South Ken — here you’ll still find homes from the good old days.
Gordon’s Wine Bar
Gordon’s Wine Bar can be found in Embankment, next to Charring Cross and the Thames. It’s my favorite spot bar none for a glass of wine. Not because of the wine, but because of the atmosphere. It’s a tavern in a cave, pretty much. If you like dripping ceilings and flickering candlelight, this is the place to be. As it turns out, half of London likes this, so getting a table is akin to a miracle during after work hours and in the weekends. Thankfully, they also have a garden, which in summer is so full you can’t get a table there, either.
It’s not just the atmosphere and the wine, they also have a buffet where they serve you the world’s largest slices of cheese. It’s like dying and going to Heaven.
This place was established in 1890 and is said to be the oldest wine bar in London still standing (there is one in Italy from 1425!). It’s also where Ruyard Kipling penned one of his novels. Personally, I like the fact that Julia Stiles used to hang out there when she was acting in a David Mamet play Oleanna at the Garrick.
I may have said, once or twice, or a hundred times, that the best things about London are Gordon’s and its close proximity to Paris… London is totally doable, given you spend most of your time in Paris.
There are other things I love about London. I love how they think checkered shirts and striped suits go together with dotted socks and multi-colored brollies. I love the kookiness of mismatched teacups and whistling teapots. I do love a proper British accent. And if you venture outside of London, people may actually be nice to you. Edinburgh is a bit of an experience as well; at least if you want to experience a fairytale set in medieval Scotland. And the intellectual and somewhat bohemian vibe in Oxford is as priceless as the town is beautiful. There you truly experience what’s quintessentially English with gardens filled with roses and blokes who row, row their boats gently down the stream…
There’s something to be said for Britain. Particularly the way they can swear and poke fun at things. Definitively no Hollywood nonsense. It’s just too bad about the rain.