After keeping one foot in London for almost twenty years, I’m finally planning on jumping both feet first into the, relatively unknown. I have to be honest, despite it sounding less dramatic as I grew up in Hong Kong, & you can read a little more about that HERE. But I’m going alone, as an adult, so far jobless, homeless and with no real plan. I may stay a long while, or it may be a short, but important stepping stone on to other adventures. I am just pretty excited to see what happens. The plan of plans!
An unintentionally self centred post, but I wanted to jot down a little memoir of my time and favourite things in and about this city…
The Serpentine/Kensington Gardens
My first swim in the Serpentine involved being eye rolled by a lifeguard after asking if the crayfish shaped object staring at me from the water was indeed a real crayfish. Still, in Ali & I went, and I’ve been hooked ever since. From May – August, in the centre of Hyde Park they open the Lido, where for £4.70 you can float amongst the ducks and geese, (after walking around their poo to get in), above, and sometimes through, the gloopy green seaweed, and potentially even come out with ‘swimmers itch.’ To me, it’s a paradise. On a clear day the sky is a bright blue umbrella, you have vibrant green trees at eye level and are surrounded by boaters and birds in the water. It’s magical. Thankfully, a lot of people don’t see it that way, and unless it’s an incredibly hot summer weekend it tends to remain a peaceful hideaway, even from the hectic Princess Diana Memorial Fountain a few minutes away. (Also check it out – free and fun… no one is too old to chuck off their shoes and get wet!) Hyde Park Lido Website
Kensington Gardens (adjacent to Hyde Park, though you probably wouldn’t even realise they are different) is my outdoor sanctuary. It’s where I run, roller blade, practice yoga, walk, contemplate life and all it’s craziness, and beauty. Breathe in the elements, soak up the sky, the air, the glorious nature all around. It’s where I sit in the cold sipping coffee, lie in the sun with ice cream (or in the cold, ice cream is for all seasons.) Walk in the winter mist, the summer rain, crunching over the leaves in autumn being utterly blown away by the colours. In every season, in every element, it is without a doubt my favourite place in London. There is a certain spot I call my ‘outdoor bedroom’ – half of my diary entries in the last few years have been written there, even when my fingers were burning from the cold.
So many memories were made in that park. I had my first London kiss on a bench there. One of those awkward, but wonderfully exciting early teenage moments. Built snowmen with my nieces and nephews when it was too snowy to get to work.. (I may have stretched the truth a little.) I learnt to cycle NO HANDS, spotted parakeets (yup – bright green ones). Enjoyed a fun bubbly picnic watching Flug Tag, an event in which contestants build their own aeroplanes, and fly them into the Serpentine. Genius. Saw Black Sabbath for £3, due to an online ticket error… along with most of my mates. As if all this wasn’t enough.. there is also a fantastic, and free, art gallery inside the park which this summer was exhibiting the amazing Grayson Perry.
I shall miss you, park of mine.
Tower of London
I’m not patriotic (or really agree with the concept of patriotism) but something about the Tower of London fills me with an unfamiliar sense of pride. I suppose what I feel may be more similar to the sense of awe I get looking at the Eiffel Tower, or the Colosseum; incredibly grand, beautiful, and interesting architectural iconic structures with a unique place in history. A relative of mine was a Beefeater living inside the Tower, with his bathroom overlooking where Ann Boleyn was beheaded. It was quite an experience washing my hands overlooking the execution site, and felt very cool to walk past the tourists and security guards into public off limit areas!
I went to visit the Tower during the Poppy Remembrance Installation in 2013. It was hugely moving, and truly beautiful. My Grandfather died in WWII and is buried in a War Cemetery in Brugge, Belgium. I felt incredibly blessed to be part of the removal of the poppies on my birthday, thinking of him, and all the others that fought and died for the freedom of this Island, and how many lives, including my families were shattered doing so. (You can read about my D-Day Tour with the British Legion here)
The 12 Bar was a small, independent music venue on Denmark Street (Tinpan Alley) that was forced to close in 2015 due to Crossrail. It was dark, dingy, hot, sweaty and oh man, the toilets! Utterly, utterly, rank. (Though TBF they were always fine at the start of the night!!) The space was a really, really awkward shape, with an obtrusive, but incredibly charming balcony. It was my favourite venue, and I imagine always will be. It was the first place my bands played. It was where I watched all my friends bands. Where I could turn up alone, and without fail, be greeted by friendly faces. It was the ‘local’ for my hardcore-punk family in London and I’ll forever cherish the friends and memories I made there.
Also – I shall MASSIVELY miss the incredible London Hardcore Scene.. But I won’t repeat myself as you can read about that HERE
As an adult, my relationship with Camden is one of love-hate. But if I told my teenage self that one day I would be working for a Human Rights Charity in Camden, I wouldn’t have believed that life could have turned out that amazing. IN CAMDEN. THE COOLEST PLACE IN THE WORLD. I spent a lot of my teenager years getting drunk there. I spent a lot of my adult years getting drunk there. Pubs, clubs, gigs, comedy shows. Tattoos, piercings, all my teenage punk gear was bought there, before it became widely available. A paradise for a little punk-metal-goth teenager.
It was a haven for punks, hippies, metallers.. as well as being full of tourists and drug dealers. It’s changed a lot in the last couple of decades, cleaned up, is more expensive, now full of chain stores and restaurants, but I think it’s soul still remains the same, and it’s charm often found in the lack of it, and is a pretty unique place.
More recently I came to love walking along the canal in my lunch-breaks. Being Camden almost every walk was a different experience, the shout outs from the local drunks, the canal campers, monitoring the progress of the baby geese, generally admiring the shit that floated along the canal. On some days my photos would show a cute, delightful British canal. On others..
Imperial War Museum
The first time I remember going to the IWM was to see the Holocaust Exhibition about 20 years ago. Due to the extensively detailed exhibitions, and the emotions invoked walking around them I generally only visit one at a time, and during the summer of my school finals I worked my way through the bus saver tickets my Mum gave me getting there and back. I vividly remember running out of the ‘Trench Experience’ after an afternoon of WWI history I was too fragile for it. I was the only one there and closed my eyes, trying to imagine what it was like, and after reading so many personal accounts I suppose I felt this too intensely. (Sadly this experience is no longer there.)
One of the curators noticed my regular appearances and gave me a little personal tour, where I learnt that the building used to be a mental asylum, and the easily recognisable dome at the top was the chapel. I’ve been back many times since, and it’s still my favourite museum. It holds so much history, so many tales of pointless and selfish greed, of so much destruction and so much hate. But coupled with that are the many stories of hope, fighting against the odds, and for humanity.
Most of the museums are free in London, and that is pretty amazing. The Natural History Museum building itself is enough of a reason to check it out. The Science Museum, is where I am constantly lining up behind kids because I WANT A GO ON THE INTERACTIVE STUFF is just, awesome. The Art Galleries. The Tate Modern. Free. So much history, culture, creativity, all that can be experienced for FREE.
My Dalston Days
6 months living in Dalston was such a pivotal time in my life. Such a short, but incredibly sweet part of it! It wasn’t until I moved there that I found out one side of my Dad’s family were born, lived, educated and worked around there. I discovered my great grandparents owned a shop at 162 Stoke Newington Road, now a Turkish restaurant. By this point the area had very much been gentrified; not completely, and not quite as much as now. I loved my Saturday mornings of buying way too much seasonal fruit and veg at the market, chatting with the real locals, watching some pretty interesting encounters. I felt a real sense of achievement when the barmaids at the local Irish pub (that became my local) eventually started smiling and talking to me.
Forcing friends to dance through the Ridley Road Carnival, or sing RATM Karaoke with me at the local on a Saturday night, learning to play pool properly, seeing random musicians at the non for profit Vortex Jazz cafe. (Though, to be honest I know so little about Jazz almost every musician would be a ‘random’ one..) I had A LOT of fun embracing and experiencing the old and the new elements of the area, living and hanging out with such beautiful people.
Another love-hate item. But that’s every football fans story no? I was lucky enough to experience the terraces at Highbury as a little one, eyes wide, grinning from ear to ear at all the chanting and craziness around me. I fell utterly in love with the game, and Arsenal. Even when I thought I didn’t care about Arsenal or football (in my late teens) I found comments in my diary about how they were doing! The past ten years have involved a lot of time at Emirates, weeknights and weekends in pubs, experiencing a lot of happiness, a lot of anger, and some tears. Not metaphorical tears, real tears. Don’t come at me with ‘it’s only a game.’
The exhilaration you feel, say, when you beat Spurs 5-2 at home twice is a year can’t be matched. Perhaps only by finding out that you beat them to third position on the last day of the season after it was pretty much certain you had come forth. I could go on, but I won’t. The camaraderie either in celebration or commiseration after games is something special, that really, you either get, or you don’t.
SO much random fun to be had!
There is so much to do in London. SO MUCH. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot, if at all. There is amazing fringe theatre everywhere. My most regular haunts; Arcola Theatre (Dalston), Tricycle Theatre (Kilburn) & Soho Theatre (Duh…) free/cheap comedy everywhere. Intro offers for all types of exercise classes. My personal favourites have been yoga at Good Vibes Studios, which I thought would be wanky and pretentious, but I loved so, so, so much I took up their 3 month intro offer. A free street dance class in Camden, trying out Olympic Weight Lifting with Strength Ambassadors, and sweating it out with much fitter people at the Int. level at Hyde Park with British Military Fitness.
I’ve been raving before work (Morning Glory), danced from street to street at Notting Hill Carnival happily having no clue where I was, or where I was going, enjoyed insanely cheap craft beer tastings at Whole Foods; £10 for about 10 beers, fancy bread, cheese and meats (not for me) leaving us drunk, and full. Ahh the food. London has it all, and dragging friends along to my obsessive new cuisine of the month was an easy task. Making Kimichi for the first time was easier than I thought too. Winning at Mecca Bingo! Being bitten by swans. WINNING CRYSTALS ON THE CRYSTAL MAZE!!
Half price Hammams, (groupon) followed by incredibly tasty and cheap Lebanese food on Edgware Road. Kayaking down the Thames at night was absolutely stunning. Waving to the drunk employees on their Christmas party boats whilst heading towards Big Ben, under the London Bridges has got to be one of my favourite London moments. Running over the London Bridges in a 10K running women’s history monument tour is also up there.
I also love the abundance of educational, interactive and workshop style events and festivals in London. Any thing, or cause you are interested in, is almost guaranteed to have a day or weekend dedicated to it. My two favourites are the HRWFF (Human Rights Watch Film Fest) – held in March every year, annoyingly at the same time as my other, The Women of the World Festival at Southbank. My first job was handing out Helium balloons to Japanese businessmen (they were the only ones that would take them) at a Computer Games Expo in Olympia. I’ve even been learning Latvian for free once a week at a London Latvian Community House. This city has it all.
My most random ‘I want to do this, who wants to join me?’ activity hands down is the London Bridge Experience. There was a little bit of historical learning involved, and pretty cool theatrical/interactive location replicas, but ultimately, and most memorably we ended up being chased and jumped out on for twenty minutes (or perhaps two, or an hour – you lose track of time when you are running and screaming.) It was hysterical – both in the funny, and petrifying sense. I have no idea if I would actually recommend it to people, but I am definitely glad I did it.
I started cycling in London about 12 years ago, and it was a little scary at first. But I did then, what I still do now, only cycle to the speed I’m comfortable with at that specific time. This depends on if I’m a little tired, what’s going on in my head, the road conditions, etc. Remembering that in every situation I WILL LOSE. So wait for the buses to pass. Wait for the green lights. Don’t take chances. Remember that every pedestrian might just suddenly step out in the road. The two times I’ve come off my bike has been pedestrians doing this and me emergency braking, injuring myself, but avoiding them. Remember Uber drivers in Prius’s and Add Lee drivers don’t like to indicate and make sharp turns whilst Black Cabs and White Vans tend to be pretty friendly. Ha – not projecting a good image of cycling there.
But cycling itself is beautiful and rewarding. I am sure there is a psychological explanation for why every time, even when I REALLY can’t be bothered, the moment I get on my bike and pedal I feel happy and balanced, start to feel energised and wouldn’t want to be on any other mode of transport. Even in the rain, sometimes especially in the rain. It’s by far the best way to get to know the city, and see so many little pieces of history. On a more practical level it’s often the quickest way to get around. Pedalling around London post 12am(ish) exposes the city in a totally different, fairly peaceful, utterly stunning light. Cycling along, or across the Thames is usually absolutely breathtaking with views of the water, the skyline, the buildings.
I love this tour company. The walks are all done by people that love what they do, and want to share this love and their knowledge with anyone that is interested. If you’re ever stuck for something to do, and fancy a little physical and mental exercise – check them out. I’ve been on about fifteen, ranging from various war walks, specific areas (Kensington, Highgate, Old City) as well as the Ghost/Ripper walks and not been disappointed with one.
Gate Picturehouse, Notting Hill
I first went to the cinema alone feeling a little self conscious and awkward back in 2005, because no one was interested in going with me to see a horrific genocide film. Despite the subject of the movie the experience itself felt a little magical. So chilled and liberating, a date with myself. Since then, solo cinema dates have become a regular thing, the quickest and easier way to take a break from my real world. A place in which I have to sit, and focus on nothing else but the story unfolding in front of me. When someone very close to me died I spent most evenings in the cinema that week. Shut off, but immersed in another world. When my head won’t stop buzzing and I can’t sit still but I’m exhausted and restless, I send myself to the cinema. I get different responses about going to the cinema alone. I CHOOSE to do this. People, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! (So go, go try it…)
I used to have a multitude of cinemas near me to choose from. The Gate, the Coronet, Odeon Ken High Street, & Odeon Whiteleys. The Coronet, formerly a Victorian Theatre, is a theatre once more, and a pretty nice one too. Since Odeon Whiteleys split into two creating ‘The Lounge’ the affordable section only shows total shite. The Odeon Ken High Street, once a haven for indie films, was sold to make way for (you guessed it…) luxury flats. On closing day I sat in the huge main screen, and with only one other person sat behind me, felt like I had the whole place to myself. Armed with free closing commiseration popcorn given to me after a chat about the marvellousness about solo cinema dates, my soul came out refreshed a little. I get that feeling every time I emerge from the Gate. A little confused, blinking, trying to adjust to the bright lights of the busy road it’s on, the noises, the franticness of the cars and people, transitioning from one world into another.
The Gate is now part of the Picturehouse chain, but still keeps its independent charm, and I’ve been to a couple of fascinating and lively Q&A screenings regarding history and social politics in the local area. And free pre-screenings for members.. which as long as you go four times in one year, covers the cost, so more than worth it.
The Spirit of London
What I love most about London though, is that everyone belongs here. Anyone can fit in and everything and anything goes. London is seen as a cold city. It can be. Everyone is busy, stressed, has long, shitty commutes, and so can appear a little tetchy and unforgiving. But when it counts, when it really counts, that’s not London at all. I walked home in silence with strangers from Kings Cross on 7/7. I felt, and saw the heavy gloom of (almost) all us Londoners after the Brexit vote. The solidarity in sorrow after the Grenfell fire. And, perhaps mostly importantly, the countless acts of kindness and compassion between Londoners daily. I’ve experienced them, see them all the time, and try to help out myself.
Imagine a group of friends sat in a pub. Most likely they will all look different, be dressed differently, have different interests, backgrounds, opinions, jobs, come from different places… But in London, that’s cool. If you read that and think so what?! you’re probably a Londoner yourself… ❤
They say you don’t explore your own city. Well, London has become my city and though I’ve still got a huge list of things to do, I’ve tried my best for now. I have so, so many more memories, but this post has been self indulgent enough as it is. This crazy city is one of a kind and I’m so grateful to all my family & friends that have been on this ride with me…