*It was with equal parts anxiety and eager anticipation that I waited for the clock to strike 1 a.m on September 22. I heard the driver scream for the car keys from the ground floor of where I live. Soon, doors were shut and the big red suitcase stowed. I had my passport, visa, copies of all the papers and mixed bag of emotions that I always feel before a trip. I was off to London. My first international trip with two days of work and eight days of much exploration.*
London made it so easy for me to fall in love with it. I was taken by the city’s charm, its ready acceptance of me without question (except for my little foolishness at the UK Border Immigration when the officer held up his index finger to indicate that he wanted me to place my finger on the scanner, and I thought he was asking me to look at the camera above me. I smiled sweetly for five seconds at the camera above till he asked me what I was doing… and yes, he laughed his gut out), its history and quaintness. But above all, a handful of things won me over completely.
Underground, marvellous, marvellous Underground!
Should London be the body, then the underground is its nervous system, connecting every inch to one another. Not only is the tube the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get around London, it’s also the one place where you’ll see life in all its colours. Young and old, buskers and corporate men/women, heavy metal and operatic – everyone takes the tube to everywhere.
The weather’s volatile
Pouring like a burst water balloon one minute and sunny the next, London’s weather gives Bangalore’s a run for its money. Most people who visit or live in the city complain about the gloominess of the weather, but I think it goes very well with the…aura of London. But a combination of rain and strong winds? A fascinating experience, to say the least: On our second day of sightseeing, we walked in the rain across Green Park to Buckingham Palace and had to fight against the wind to get half-decent pictures. My umbrella turned into a receptacle for rainwater harvesting every two minutes and we had to walk with our back towards the palace to stop ourselves from almost flying. It was hilarious. No, really. We laughed so hard, the Queen could hear us! (She didn’t come out on to the famous Charles-Diana/Will-Kate balcony to shush us, though, what with her being too regal and well-behaved and all.)
The city is so quiet
There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in London, but people go about their work quietly. And drivers almost never honk. Traffic is so, so, so well-organised that my jaw drops even now, when I think of it. People stick to their lanes, let pedestrians cross, wait for other cars from other directions to cross, don’t jump signals and above all, never honk despite heavy traffic and rush hour. Like my colleague’s cousin told us on our way to the airport: “the accepted level of aggression on the roads is biting one’s nails, that’s it”. That’s why one can hear every drop of rain falling on one’s umbrella, birds chirping, the wind blowing and ambulance sirens screeching. But walk into a pub and it’s a completely different ball game.
Dead poets excite you
Westminster Abbey. It’s massive, beautiful and peaceful. It’s the place where generations of kings and queens have been coronated, married, baptised and buried. The prayer area is breathtakingly beautiful, with carved wooden pews on either sides of the wall for seating and flags of various knights hanging above. The ceilings are exquisite and the stories they hold, innumerable. There are chapels for noblemen and noblewomen, knights and ministers within the abbey. But what moved me most was the Poet’s Corner. Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, even Chaucer’s grave. To think that I was standing within arm’s distance of the literary geniuses of centuries past! It was a dream come true. Oh, and there was Isaac Newton as well.
So yes, three words to describe the Westminster Abbey experience: Don’t. Miss. It.
Every building is full of character
London’s best seen by foot. There are hop-on, hop-off tours that take you around the city in a day, but I would recommend walking. If you make Piccadilly Circus your base camp of sorts, all other landmarks are within 20 minutes walking distance from there. The advantage of this is that you’ll see other buildings that aren’t landmarks, but are just as old and just as beautiful. We walked down Parliament Street and, my goodness, that is one lane that makes you take a second – and a third – look at every structure you pass by!
Nature has so many colours in her London wardrobe
Despite the cold weather, there are fresh shades of green everywhere, interspersed with bunches of flowering purples, oranges, yellows, reds and whites. We were lucky to see the beginnings of autumn, so trees were turning a deep red, bright yellow or dull brown. It’s a lovely visual treat.
Fish and chips, mate!
The English Countryside is delightful
This is where London gets its charm from, I’m telling you. We managed to see some of it on our way to Bath. The countryside is everything you imagine it to be: lush green pastures with plump white, brown and black cows grazing, sheep heavy with wool munching away at the grass against blue skies and an endless vista of planes and mountains, wild berries and Lavender growing on the roadside, quaint little stone huts and bakeries and farms with vines growing all over dotting the landscape… *Sigh*
Bath is beautiful
It’s quiet, colourful and feels like you’ve entered a part of England that belongs in the 16th century. One can spend hours sitting on the benches behind the Bath Abbey eating ice cream and listening to random opera singers perform for gathering crowds in the hope of being spotted by a talent scout, or buying souvenirs, or walking the tiny lanes around the town, or admiring the glassworks that the place is known for.
London takes good care of its heritage
The respect Londoners have for their heritage and rich history shows clearly in how well they’ve maintained the city. Every bulb that lights up the London Bridge works, every street lamp shines, every road is free of potholes, every bit of the old architecture remains unblemished and every monument is well-preserved. The audio aids they provide visitors to places that need guided tours is amazing. Having never experienced it before, I wondered why we never adopted such a simple yet effective method of telling stories about our monuments. It was only today that I discovered that apparently, some places in India are starting to do that.
Windsor has some very pretty sights
Windsor Castle is apparently the weekend getaway for the Queen and pretty as a picture. It overlooks most of London and is full of richly furnished rooms and a whole hall of arms and artillery. St.George’s chapel has marble sculptures that are absolutely exquisite. There’s one in particular that I just cannot get over – a scene showing a dead maiden (a princess or noblewoman, I cannot remember) covered completely by a shroud, except for a part of her hand that peeks out from under, as women covered in shrouds mourn her passing and her soul, flanked by angels on either side, flies to its freedom towards Heaven. The craftsmanship is so delicate and detailed that the marble is sculpted to look like shrouds clinging to the bodies and a white sheer fabric falling along the curves of the free soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
We attended evensong in the prayer room, seated on pews where once England’s clergy and royalty sat, surrounded by shining plaques of several knighthoods and a mesmerizing tapestry of Jesus with his disciples. Add to this the church choir, and the whole experience gave me goose bumps.
Once out, there are lots of quaint little places to eat in, market streets to walk down and a part of the Thames to admire.
There’s a little bit of India everywhere
London is full of Indians, so you won’t really feel out of place. East Hampton, the part of London where most Indians reside, is like the map of India scattered over a handful of streets. Sarvana Bhavans, Anand Bhavans, Kerala supermarkets and food joints co-exist with Hyderabadi Biryani and much, much more. And yes, Indian bonding is big. When we went for an Indian breakfast one day, we were warned to not speak English because it’s frowned upon. People prefer speaking in an Indian language (preferably Tamil).
So that’s that. London’s a big city, so we didn’t cover a lot of places because we didn’t have enough time. Whatever I did see, I loved. My verdict? You must visit London at least once in your lifetime. And since I’ve done that already, I have all the time in the world to plan another holiday there!
Getting there: Flight only. Preferably British Airways because it’s damn comfortable.
Go if: You love history, architecture, cultural experiences, photography, food, the countryside and want to experience the lives of people who ruled us once. :)