We recently spent a vacation week in London and were constantly reminded of the similarities and differences, large and small, between that great city and New York City that we now call home. To avoid any wrong impressions from what follows, we had a great time in London. Among many other things, I rode on the London Eye, my first time on a “ferris wheel” in many decades. Very good experience.
The first afternoon we took a bus tour of the city, something I would normally not want to do, but the tour guide was a semi-retired lady with sharp English wit who provided many comical moments as we drove through the relatively calm Sunday afternoon. We walked along the south bank of the Thames, now a thriving public space for foot stalls and buskers. And, of course, we paid a visit to Harrods and Selfridges for a little shopping.
One of the largest differences between the cities cannot actually be seen from the ground – London occupies almost exactly twice the square mileage of New York City including the boroughs. If you look at a map while you’re there, it’s clear that London is simply enormous. At the same time, it is not as vertical as New York City. There are a few very tall buildings, but most of London is open to the sky.
The most obvious similarity is the traffic congestion. It actually seemed worse in London because there were so many times when it did not seem to move at all for long periods. New York’s congestion does usually creep along, albeit with much horn honking and other irrational responses to the frustration. Oddly enough, there was much less horn honking in London. We quickly realized that the only smart way to get around during the day was The Tube, the London equivalent of the New York subway.
Except that the Tube and the New York subway are not equivalent. The list of differences is long and important; in London’s Tube,
No trash on tracks or in stations High frequency of trains
Padded seats Did I mention padded seats?
Clean cars Large windows
Light traffic most places during day No foul smells
Lifts and escalators mostly working Trains relatively smooth & quiet
On the other hand, the Tube had
No air conditioning in the cars
No disabled access
Small signs to the lifts where they existed
The lack of air conditioning resulted in very hot cars most of the time and compounded the failure of many young Englishmen/tourists to use deodorant. Thankfully, the scale of the Tube combined with its frequency, at least at the stations we used, meant that we could get around the city very quickly and, in our experience at least, reliably. Access to the Tube made our entire trip work.
I noticed a few other things. This may well be “eye of the beholder,” but the English are justly famous for frumpy clothing and it was on full display during our week there. Because of the crowds in the main shopping areas especially, Londoners exhibited another tendency we’ve seen a lot in New York City – the commandeering of sidewalk space by people who suddenly decide they have to consult their phones, a map or just stop to chat with each other. Likely, many of these were tourists but it was so common that I strongly suspect the indigenous population was also guilty. It was early summer, so, of course, there were plenty of tourists on hand. You’d think many of them had never been away from home before.
There were a few other rough spots. One was what I will call the VAT tax refund scam. It turns out the only way you can recover the money at the airport is to have in your possession the physical items you purchased, which means holding them out of your suitcase when you check in.
Rough spots aside, we worked very hard to avoid what is known as “British cuisine” and were, for the most part successful. We ate at some fine restaurants and while they were generally a bit expensive, this was a cost well worth incurring. We largely enjoyed most of our meals except a forced lunch at a pub on Sunday, the only eating place open in the immediate area on a Sunday. The food was simply awful. Not so at the Richoux tea room for lunch during the week. Great food and ambience. We enjoyed a fabulous fish dinner at Milos before a show and the last night an incredibly tasty Indian cuisine at Matsya in Mayfair. Bill’s in Islington was funky but very friendly people and interesting food.
London has a thriving performing arts scene, which we undertook to enjoy to the fullest on our short visit. We saw what I can only describe as a largely “experimental” dance/ballet performance at the somewhat remote Sadler Wells Theatre, as well as two traditional shows, Mama Mia and Les Miserables. The musicals were wonderful, marred only by the necessity for the house manager to threaten to remove some of the teenagers who came en masse to see Mama Mia but mainly to talk, check their phones and generally act like jerks. Les Mis was presented in a small theater, magnifying the power of the show even more than usual, a spectacular performance.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Churchill War Rooms, covered, very partially, in the photos below; it was a genuinely unique experience. One important note for anyone interested in seeing the War Rooms: make your reservations weeks or even months before you arrive. If you don’t, you’re likely looking at a multi-hour wait in line, outside.
Finally, we spent an entire day on a private tour of the Cotswolds, a beautiful section of English countryside that is well represented in the photos at the end of this post. We highly recommend this to anyone visiting London.
Finally, finally, I have to add in closing that our hotel and room were among the more bizarre designs I’ve seen in many years of traveling. there was no way to plug the sink to create a pool of water for shaving. The shower had a sliding door that resulted in water accumulating on the bathroom floor. We tried everything to stop it, without success. The hotel restaurant had a decent menu, but for breakfast the buffet was the identical collection of items for seven straight days.
So, that’s it in summary. The photos, a fraction of what was shot, follow.
Churchill War Rooms