24 Hours in London
I can’t decide whether it’s excitement, my sleep pattern being out of whack, or the five inconsiderate French backpackers deciding to hold a war meeting at 5am right next to my head that’s done it – but I’m up and out of bed before 6.30am on my first day in London.
Having gotten in late the previous night, I’d managed to navigate the London Underground and find my way out to Upton Park (home of my beloved, but frustratingly absent West Ham United) with only minor detours.
My base for the week, the Globe Trott Inn, proved to be a remarkably nice place to stay despite its low price tag. A short walk from Upton Park Station and the Boleyn Ground where Bobby Moore once worked his magic, its rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the staff helpful. I couldn’t have wished for a better base in London, and I have to thank both them and Hostelsclub for making the stay possible.
After a short chat with a Korean girl and her French Canadian companions in the dining room while I leech the free WiFi, it’s time for me to venture off and see what my first 24 Hours in London can turn up.
The Whistlestop Tour of London
I’d read on a few sites that it would be worth buying a ticket on one of the hop on-hop off bus tours of London and using that as both a means to scout what I was interested in seeing and as a way of getting around, but with my Chinese winter belly overhanging my waistband and my wallet lighter than I’d have liked it, I decided to try it my own way.
1. Arrive at Waterloo Station
It’s good and central, putting me just a short walk from the London Eye and the many other iconic sights that lie along the unmissable Thames.
2. The London Eye and London Dungeon
I contemplated either shelling out the rather exorbitant fees for either of these tourist traps or even paying for one of those London day passes, but ultimately decided that I didn’t need to see London from behind a sheet of plexi-glass, nor did I have a great deal of interest in seeing actors shame themselves for money.
Instead, I took the opportunity to snap some photos and let it sink in that I was actually in London. I’d seen it on TV so often growing up that it was hard to believe I’d actually made it there.
Of course, had money (and time) allowed, I’d have at least liked to have ridden the London Eye. As it was, I figured I could better use the 25 elsewhere, and the line looked like it would have eaten up too much of my day.
3. The Westminster Bridge and Westminster Abbey
A quick stroll across the Westminster Bridge (itself, quite beautiful) took me to the stunning Westminster Abbey and the attached Big Ben. It’s not quite on the level of the Pyramids or the Great Wall, but there’s something to be said for gazing up at that magnificent, gothic building and realizing that most of this city is older than your own country by more than a little bit.
A visit to Westminster Abbey to see some of the many famous people who have been buried is definitely a must in London, and if you’ve an appreciation for architecture (or have read and loved Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth), there’s plenty to like about the abbey itself.
4. Walk the Thames
It’s mid-morning by the time I’m done with Westminster Abbey, and with no real concrete plan in my head, I follow the course of the Thames towards the distant St. Paul’s Cathedral.
It’s a typically London day – overcast and cool, and the walk is pleasant as I range from immaculate roadside gardens to inspiring war memorials highlighting the heroics of the men and women who died in service of Queen and Country during World Wars I and II.
Looking across the Thames at the London cityscape, it’s hard to imagine the planes of the Luftwaffe soaring overhead and the death and destruction they wrought.
It being ANZAC Day back in Australia and New Zealand, I pause to reflect a moment at a memorial that also mentions those Australian and New Zealand servicemen who died in defense of the Commonwealth.
5. Somerset House
It’s around noon by the time my meanderings take me past this large building, and eager to find a restroom, I’m drawn in by brightly coloured signage for something called Pick Me Up.
I’m not a huge lover of the arts, but the enthusiasm (and cute British accent) of the woman at the front door works its magic, and soon I’m wandering the aisles admiring all manner of digital art. It’s a tad underwhelming at first – just another art exhibit – but then I stumble upon the more interactive elements of the exhibit.
Artists and quirky start-ups are represented on the second floor, and I spend some time flirting with a cashier before I make a few purchases – greeting cards and a hand-made journal.
Then it’s downstairs to an area where guests are invited to actually participate in making some art. I’m not a particularly graphically minded lad, but I’m soon hunkered down around a long wooden table with a bunch of other grown-ups.
We’ve all got markers and glue and tissue paper in hand, tongues pressed between our lips, and looks of intense concentration on our faces as we create monsters to add to the exhibit. It’s not exactly how I imagined I’d spend my first afternoon in London, but it’s a fun diversion all the same.
It’s around 2pm by the time I’m done being an artistic genius, and so I wander on towards the distant and distinctive shape of St. Paul’s iconic dome.
I pass a man wearing a Newcastle Knights jersey on the way and shout “Go the Knights”, only to have him harrumph and shake his head.
“Bloody colonials”, I imagine him thinking as he continues on with his day of being a joyless jerk.
Unperturbed, I stop at a café and grab a cup of coffee as I peruse the menu. My old football buddy, Skye, has asked if I’d like to do dinner and drinks. A quick glance at my watch indicates it’s better I just hold off until dinner, so I finish my coffee and head off.
7. St. Paul’s Cathedral
Maybe I’m an idiot, but it took me a little while to figure out:
a). How to buy a ticket to St. Paul’s Cathedral
b). How to actually get in once I had a ticket
Thankfully, the grounds aren’t exactly dull, and I snapped some pictures before finally figuring it out and heading inside.
There’s no photography allowed inside, of course, but with my audio guide on I venture into the shadowy, hallowed depths of the cathedral to see its wonders.
I’m seated underneath the dome and gazing up its beauty when the choir comes out to prepare for the evening’s Eventide service, giving those of us in attendance a hauntingly beautiful backing to our roaming. I eventually cast off the audio tour in favour of hearing them sing.
With a bit of time to kill before Skye arrives, I decide I’ll head upstairs to check out the Whispering Gallery. It doesn’t quite live up to its legend, in my opinion, but the view is certainly impressive.
Many call their climb to a halt there, but I decide to press on up to the very pinnacle of the outer dome. The stairs are claustrophobic at points and steep throughout, and by the time I reach the top I’m both sweaty and sore.
The view, though, is worth the temporary tiredness. The whole of London stretches out in front of you in a way that I sincerely doubt the London Eye can match. The climb isn’t quite as convenient, but the cost is less and the wind whipping through your hair makes the moment feel entirely more tangible.
It’s arguably the highlight of my first 24 hours in London.
8. An Impromptu Pub Crawl
My friend Skye meets me not long after I’ve descended and cooled myself off with some lemonade, and we’re quickly making our way between the various crowded bars in the area for a few pints and a catch up.
We’ve not seen one another since roughly 2005 – but it’s not long before we’re cracking jokes and she’s putting me to shame with her ale drinking abilities. I’ve not yet come to terms with the fact that the beer is so heavy and warm in the Old Dart.
The pubs we pass are all older than the country I come from. I find this sobering, even as the beer is having the opposite effect.
We eventually stop for a surprisingly good Thai meal (and more beer), before heading back towards the Thames.
The sun has not yet set despite it being 7pm, so we alternate between stopping at bars and snapping photos of the river and its many (many, many) bridges.
Is anybody else surprised by how uninspiring London Bridge is? Jesus, it can fall down for all I care.
By 10pm and a good six or seven beers, we’re back by Waterloo Station and I’m doing my level best to keep my eyes open after a half-drunk beer. Despite wanting to party on, it’s just not happening, and I struggle to retain consciousness on my way back to Upton Park.
Dog-tired and thoroughly pleased with my first 24 hours in England, I crash out before midnight. Little do I know, tiredness or not, I’ll be up at 5am the next morning to do it all over again.
How would you spend 24 hours in London?