This year has been a different year. By circumstance not of my choosing, but not displeasing, I’ve more personal time than usual, but also, for a time, income. So each of our children got to pick a trip with Dad. My 13yo daughter, #3, chose London.
I was thinking Chicago, or perhaps Manhattan, but she was being mischievous, so London it was. We spent six days touring the city. By the city I don’t mean only “Zone 1”, the city of Old London and West London, but all the way out to Zone 3 and 4 — we stayed in an Airbnb in Mitcham, an utterly unremarkable bit of the megacity sprawl about 25 minutes of overground south of Blackfriars station. For my own reason I’m going to make a few notes about our experience, but these must be hasty notes. Life spins on. So they will be roughly sectioned, and made of bullets rather than paragraphs. There are two parts - impressions of the city and practicalities of modern travel.
Impressions of the City (mostly my surprises)
Emily and I spent a day or two in London about 30 years ago. That’s almost halfway to post-war London, though we didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t know much about the city, we basically visited a museum or two.
This time I was better prepared. I purchased a Great Courses (Teaching Company) audiobook course on the the History of London. It was superb; the device of replaying walks through London of various times guided our travel. My favorite travel book was Fromer’s London Free and Dirt Cheap, and my favorite map was an old map once published by London Transport, the “London Map”. It's now a secret but still available from Visit Britain. I had difficulty finding a good map of London, the era of paper maps is passing quickly. I think it is also true that the scope of London is a challenge to map makers.
It took me some time to grasp the scope of London. Guide books and most descriptions fail here. London is a mega-sprawl like Atlanta, but unlike Atlanta it has a central Core. The Core, better known as Zone 1, is morphing from a place where people live and work and visit to a place where people work and visit — but do not live. Zone 1 is a kind of urban singularity — bending light and threatening to fall out of the scope of normal human interaction. The expenses of operating there are pushing food and recreating prices out of the scope of most humans, but it still defies gravity. Last year was another record breaking visitor year. Older museums remain free — but that accessibility seems to be at risk. Newer museums, and even some older ones like the Monument (to the Great Fire) charge high fees. On the other hand perhaps part of London’s modern attraction is the opportunity to watch the wealthy at play, a kind of zoo for bankers and billionaires.
London has some attractive and charming areas — we visited many of those. I think it has less than many European cities though, probably less than Leeds. It is a city of power and commerce, thrusting and urgent. The 19th century swept away much of old London, rebuilding in a confusing array of faux-oldness that recalls the changes of modern Beijing. WW II destroyed a lot, and rebuilding was rough. A bit, as is often noted, like the rapid reconstruction after the Great Fire. For a city with a lot of history London has some of the ahistoric callousness of Los Angeles.
Happily, London is also a city of vanity and show. We only walked through the theater district, but we did visit most of the “great” museums. No irony in those quotes, they are everything they claim to be. (Note to British Museum — please get some local banker to cough up 50 million quid so you can affix an artist’s picture of what the artifacts would have looked like with paint and context. Also, London’s Chinatown rarely gets a mention, but it has great food in the midst of the theaters.)
I’d read that London real estate was emptying out — that empty rooms are traded by billionaire speculators who want a bolt hole or a spot to stay when doing business. That felt true, but also lazy. This is true of Zone 1, which is not so large, and, I suppose, bits of Zone 2. There’s a lot of London where billionaires don’t go. We stayed in one of those parts, and traveled far East to visit the Dr Who Shop in another. (Our itinerary was largely set by my daughter, with a focus on Dr Who and Harry Potter and a bit of Sherlock. And shops — especially museum shops.)
This wasn’t our original plan, but I wanted to stay in a quieter place where we could visit grocery stores and save money and sanity by making our own breakfast and dinner. That meant Airbnb, and thanks to a bit of a mixup of mine we ended up in an utterly generic and relatively distant part of the London of Ordinary People. A place of vast sprawls of narrow homes and many languages — our particular area seemed to specialize in blue collar English, Poles and other Slavs, and 3rd generation south Asian. A similar region out East was more Islamic. Learning our residential neighborhood was one of the more remarkable parts of the visit. I think by British standards these are somewhat scary neighborhoods, but we are urban Americans. They are benign by our standards.
Londoners smoke. This really surprised me. Americans don’t smoke, particularly after teenage years. I felt like I’d taken a Tardis back to my childhood — adults of all ages smoking in the streets, but at least not indoors. My daughter was shocked. I wondered if part of this came from migration from cultures were smoking is widely accepted, but I feel it’s also a part of local culture — much as cocaine use was part of 1970s America. The urban air quality is also poor by our standards.
Other surprises — how car-centric London is. Capacity pricing works, so the cars do flow, but they flow at full capacity all the time. Which is, really, a triumph of the market. A market triumph with an unintended consequence; a city full of wealthy drivers who pay heavily to drive is a city that will be utterly dominated by the car. I’d gotten a hint of this from reading a London Bicycling blog, but it was still a surprise given London’s reputation as a walking city. We walked 8-12 miles every day, and the streets are very crowded with walkers even in the off-season, but all of us pedestrians are second class. There are no crosswalk laws (de jure or de facto) — one crosses if a car allows or between gaps in cars. The city is not friendly to the weak — walkers need to move quickly and be alert.
The transit system does it’s part to screen out the unfit — “mind the gap” is a serious warning. Getting on and off the tube is similar to boarding a bus or train — only a few places can handle a wheelchair. Many tube stations work on escalators or stairs alone. There is nothing like the American accommodations for disability, even the much weaker Canadian accommodations.
Despite all of this, there are many cyclists. They are, however, serious commuter cyclists. With the exception of a few suicidal tourists on Santander cycles they are fast and fit cyclists wearing high visibility clothing and moving, when possible, in coordinated packs. There is no room to pass, bicycle commuting in London is a blood sport. Aside from a dull path through Hyde Park we saw no protected bicycle lanes — nothing like our home town of St Paul, much less Minneapolis, much much less Munich. They ride, I presume, because there are many transit advantages to London bike commuting, and because traffic often moves at the speed of a fast and fit cyclist.
London is much less safety conscious than an American city (perhaps our safety fetish is a response to our violent culture?). We are used to doors that open outwards for fire exit, in London doors open in and out. Some tube stations would be death traps in an emergency. The cars move slowly but implacably. The infrastructure is a mix of expensive deluxe (Heathrow Express from Paddington is a touch of wealth) and less-expensive-but-still-not-affordable rickety. Google Maps was brilliant at rerouting around broken underground links — the London transit network needs its switching redundancy.
Incidentally, some of the core attractions in London are effectively unavailable to normal people. My daughter wanted to do High Tea at the Ritz — but those tickets appear to be entirely purchased 6 months out, presumably by hotels. Same thing with theater tickets — I think if you want do theater you need to queue at Leicester square for the last minute openings. We did our High Tea at Fortnum and Mason instead — which worked well.
Practical and Geeky Things I learned (in bullet points, because geeky)
- Google Maps for iOS and web are magical. I knew that, but in London, particular given our remote Airbnb residence, we depended very much on Google maps and ThamesLink.app. From ThamesLink we reviewed “overground” trains from Tooting station to Blackfriars, then used Google to evaluate transit options at various times or on the fly. When creating walking tours we could add point-to-point direction and have Google pick interesting routing and show us geographically related transit options. It’s not quite perfect — I’d like to be able to mix transit and foot connections when plotting routes — but it is a kind of magic only the old can appreciate.
- I thought we’d put in a SIM card and connect to London’s GSM network. Our hosts picked up a set of SIM cards for us to try, but I discovered that we couldn’t activate online them with an American credit card. We’d have had to visit something like a Carphone Warehouse and buy a GB there, or perhaps pick up a card at Heathrow. Instead we used AT&T’s Passport option. At roughly 0.25/mb it’s not cheap, but that’s nothing compared to London transit costs — and we didn’t feel like spending an hour getting kitted out. I locked down cellular use and turned on Data Roaming only when needed - usually for a Google Maps consult. The museums often have quite good WiFi, in the end our data costs were modest. London has some sort of citywide WiFi but it never worked for us, it’s just a source of interference. I found i was getting low speed 3G data until I allowed a Carrier Profile update; after that I had LTE. (There’s more complexity with GSM swaps than most of us imagine. I see why smart people don’t swap GSM cards but instead purchase a mobile hotspot device and swap cards in that.)
- Google Drive kind of sucks if you don’t have a constant data connection. It’s very awkward to force documents to be locally stored on an iPhone. I’m migrating to Dropbox for a variety of reasons, but for this trip I’d plot out our walking plans on my laptop using our Airbnb host’s excellent data connection, then print with maps to PDF in Google Drive, then on my iPhone I’d migrate the PDF to iBooks. Awkward, but it worked.
- I mentioned listening to the Great Course on London history (hint: much cheaper to buy via iTunes from Audible than from Teaching Company). I wish I’d created a short reference outline of English history in Simplenote that I could hang things off of. A list of key London events, related rulers, etc.
- We traveled with my 2015 MacBook Air (non-Retina and I love it), two iPhones and one iPad. Instead of hassling with lots of chargers I brought a 5 device charger (Anker makes good ones), a single UK plug adapter, and a simple 3 outlet extension cord. Worked perfectly. (Of course voltage adapters are no longer needed, with a few exceptions modern devices switch between 110/200 automatically.)
- I’ve had my issues in the past with Airbnb, but this time it seems to have worked out well. Airbnb encourages use of their system for communication between host and guest, but I wasn’t getting much in the way of responses that way. Once I started using direct SMS/iMessage instead the problem resolved. Young folk don’t do email.
- London is a city of Apps. Apps for transit, Apps for museums, etc. Pick up a few. I wish I’d tried History Pin.app or Localscope.app (or the equivalent) but I more or less forgot I had them.