There is no doubt that London has more attractions than anywhere else in the UK, all in a fairly compact centre. There is only one way to go there – by train! So many foreign tourists have told me that the UK is expensive to visit, and London by far the most expensive of all. So, travel by Caledonian Sleeper train and you save two night’s hotels in London, plus you will be travelling in a relaxed style and comfort, which takes you directly into the centre of London, rather than out at Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton and then have to take a train or bus all the way into the centre.
The Caledonian Sleepers run from both Aberdeen and Inverness. I took the evening train from Keith into Inverness, had a cup of tea and a snack in the Lounge, just across the road from the railways station. This is an oasis of calm. It is just a few minutes walk across to the station and onto the train, where the attendant greets you takes your order for breakfast and settles you in. There is wheelchair access to the train, with a special berth available next to the Lounge Car, with direct access to it. The Lounge Car (it gets busy so go there early) is right out of an Agatha Christie novel. The train glides out into the darkening night, the attendant serves food and drinks (at very reasonable prices too) and you see and meet the other passengers if you wish, or just sit back and people watch. It is always a mixture of people travelling and a great experience.
After breakfast, either in your berth or, as I prefer, in the Lounge Car watching the grim rows of commuters waiting for their crowded trains at the suburban stations you sedately rush through, you stroll along the platform at Euston. To get about London they always try to persuade you to take an “Oyster” card. This is like a credit card, but you “buy” one by putting some money on it, say £20, and every time that you get on a bus or tube train, you swipe the card and the appropriate fare is deducted. What I don’t like is that you will always have some credit left on the card. In theory you can send off and have it refunded. Personally I prefer to buy a day card at the railway station – and you get a discount if you have a Scotrail card, or are a pensioner. These cards work the same way as the Oyster card, and give you free access to transport up to midnight on the day you buy it – note – not for 24 hours, just for that day.
Using our cards, we went to our hotel, the Novotel at Paddington. This is an easy level 5 minute walk from the Underground, in an area beside the canal that has been newly redeveloped. The hotel is quite new, very well laid out, with friendly and efficient staff. I would certainly stay here again, it ticks all the boxes! We left our luggage there, to check in later, and went off to explore.
There are just so many things to visit, see and experience in London. On a previous visit we had been to the Royal Albert Hall. During the day there are guided tours around it, and this had convinced us that we must go there to a concert. We went in the evening to the annual organ concert. This is very popular and we were glad that we had bought our tickets online months earlier. The Hall is circular, with entrances all clearly marked and noted on your ticket, so that you enter just where the stair case is to your area on the seating. The concert was absolutely superb. The acoustics are, of course, top notch. When the organ was playing crescendos, the vibrations were coming up through our feet! What an experience! In the interval there are bars at each level, very popular (but expensive) and there is a café in the main entrance area.
Just across the road from the Royal Albert Hall is the huge Albert Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in memory of her beloved Albert. This is always surrounded by tourists having their photos taken beside it. This is on the edge of Kensington Gardens. These lead, via Rotten Row where you can exercise your horse, into Hyde Park and to the famous Hyde Park Corner where speakers rant and rave freely. From here, you can keep going on to Green Park and Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace, with the large Queen Victoria monument on the roundabout in front of the gates.
From here you can continue down past St. James’ Park, along the delightfully named Birdcage Walk, to reach the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. These always look like they are under siege to me, with the concrete barriers, security fencing, and guards everywhere. I have visited several continental parliaments, and not seen this level of security – is our parliament so unpopular? From here, a walk along the Embankment will reveal many naval ships tied up as floating museums, particularly HMS Belfast. She is now operated by the Imperial War Museum (another museum worth visiting!).
There are many pleasure cruisers offering trips along the Thames. You may remember back in 1989 there was a collision between the “Marchioness”, a pleasure cruiser, and the “Bowbelle”, a dredger. This resulted in 51 people losing their lives. As a reaction to this disaster, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) was invited to set up lifeboats along the Thames, today there are four stations, at Waterloo Bridge (near Cleopatra’s Needle) Chiswick, Teddington and Gravesend. I am told that salmon are to be found in the Thames again, after an absence of many decades, as the water is purer. To me, it is always the colour of soup, so I cannot comment!
If you continue along the river, you will see the famous Tower Bridge, leading of course to the Tower of London. This was started in 1066 by William the Conqueror, and opened in 1078. It was designed to subdue the Londoners, and show them who was in charge.
Retracing our route back to Buckingham Palace, leading directly away from the front of the Palace is the tree lined Mall. This takes you through the Admiralty Arch and on up to Piccadilly Circus, where Eros is still aiming his bow and arrow to any unsuspecting lovers. (With Fortnum and Masons just off to the left on Piccadilly) From here, curving away northwards is Regent Street. Parallel is New Bond Street, and you come to Oxford Street. This whole network is dedicated to SHOPPING! As a man, I can’t understand how shopping has become a leisure activity, but it certainly has. I read that Oxford Street is the UK’s number 1 shopping street, by any measure. (Also, that Glasgow’s Buchanan Street is the UK’s number 2!) Down Oxford Street you will find every price tag, every label, and shop that you can imagine. If you do make it all the way down, you are back at Marble Arch, near Speaker’s Corner, and the biggest Marks & Spencer’s in the world.
If you have made it this far, you will be desperate for a cup of tea. Eating and drinking in London can be very expensive indeed – but it can be reasonable of you shop around. It would pay to do some homework before you go, and some of the national / international chain restaurants can be reasonable. A good cup of tea is hard to find, as London water is dead. It lacks any sparkle, and your cup of tea will have a scum floating on it and a flat taste. Just going back to the Novotel hotel for a second, the tea there was good as they give you good quality tea and they filter the water.
There are a great many attractions in London that are free to enter – easily found online. To get around on the Underground is usually the easiest. For example, walking down Oxford Street, the buses just kept pace with me – never any faster, and taking a taxi to get to the free lunchtime concert in St. Martin’s in the Fields church just off Trafalgar Square was an expensive waste of money – as we moved forward in short bursts between traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and traffic jams, a man walking the same way kept pace with us! Be aware that the Underground is normally at 30 degrees C, always crowded, sardine like conditions anywhere near the rush hours, and not all stations are step-free.
On our last morning we went to Hamleys toy shop on Regent Street. Originally founded in 1760, it is the oldest toy shop in the world, and is usually open until late. There are several floors, and there are events, demonstrations, activities and spellbound children everywhere (and parents too – it is a wonderful place). There are bubble machines, flying things, aeroplanes and drones, all winging about, and cars, trucks and various things dodging around the floor. The building is 19th century, so you are constantly turning corners and stacks of toys to discover new things. Thoroughly recommended.
We recovered our bags from the hotel, took the Underground back to Euston, and in the post-rush hour calm that descends there in the evenings, strolled along the platform to our coach. This sleeper train is the longest train in the UK. It has portions for Fort William, Inverness, and Aberdeen with lounge cars and seating coaches as well as sleeper coaches. Settled into our berths, and once again in the exclusive club atmosphere of the lounge car, we relaxed and had a wee drink or two as London slipped away behind us. There are still loads of places that we didn’t manage to see – maybe next time!