Few people equate a visit to London with ‘the outdoors’, especially in winter, yet a stroll along the Thames on a crisp, clear February evening leaves an unforgettable impression of this world-class city.
When, in the late 80’s, I lived in London, I rarely walked around the city centre, generally preferring to cycle although the traffic was terrifying and the air foul. On modest budgets, we lived, loved and got lost in edgier areas of this sprawling metropolis, public transport was ricketty, unreliable and after midnight scarce and scary. The skyline was less interesting with fewer tall buildings, almost none illuminated. There was litter everywhere, and the ‘cardboard cities’ of the homeless.
London has problems now, of course; disadvantage and violence seem once more to be increasing in some areas and Brexit raises huge questions for its economy. Runaway inequality has made it much harder for young people in normal jobs to live full lives and feel any sense of belonging in its inner boroughs. Nonetheless the recent period of finance-fuelled affluence and influence has bequeathed us a city centre which, at the moment and perhaps for just a brief window of time, presents a glorious aspect to the visitor after dark.
We also found there numerous friendly pubs, not all overpriced, clean pavements, food for all budgets, miraculously quiet streets (the ‘congestion charge’ has been a miracle), clean, efficient and affordable public transport at all hours and above all a relaxed, friendly atmosphere with scarcely a copper to be seen and certainly none bearing arms. I’d say the atmosphere was ‘warm’, but that would be a fib – it was a parky night in February.
The endearingly basic YHA Hostel at St Paul’s was our budget-friendly base and starting point.
Ambling out of this historic building like a pair of dazzled country mice we were immediately confronted by the iconic, monumental bulk of the cathedral. To be honest its presence wasn’t exactly a surprise as the bells ring every 15 minutes – earplugs are essential at this hostel.
More of a surprise is the steep admission charge. As pensioners not overwhelmingly interested in effigies and domes, we instead swallowed our heathen pride and sat through a service, in order to hear the choir and the organ and to get a sense of the authentic purpose and meaning of this staggering edifice. There was Rachmaninov and chanting, there was incense and a freezing draught; we could almost have been in St Basil’s.
Wandering down Ludgate Hill past a useful McDonalds and a handy Co-Op supermarket brings you to Fleet Street, long abandoned by the newspapers that brought it notoriety but have left it with characterful pubs. The Olde London is friendly but touristy, Ye Olde Cock Tavern is gorgeous outside but inside has a flashy, sporty ambience, The Tipperary is unsurprisingly Irish with numerous whiskeys, The Punch Tavern was friendly and, in the evenings, quiet while The Old Bank of England looked amazing but bafflingly never seemed to be open.
My personal favourite is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and not just because it’s ‘London’s oldest pub’, has a coal fire, a labyrinthine interior and a friendly, lively atmosphere. This Samuel Smith’s pub sells Old Brewery Bitter at £3.20 a pint! On Fleet Street, in 2018! Amazing. Not everybody likes Old Brewery, it’s quite characterful. I love it, having in my youth even made a pilgrimage to Tadcaster to view the Yorkshire stone squares in which its open fermentation imbues silkiness and savour. It’s one of our few important regional ales that has survived the inexorable onslaught of that oxymoron of contemporary ale culture, the generic micro-brewery, without being dumbed down or disappearing.
Steady on, this blog is about London, not beer from Yorkshire. Draining our pint, reluctantly leaving the warm fire and passing the Gormenghastly Royal Courts of Justice brings us to the Aldwych where Australia House and India House sandwich Bush House, former home of the BBC World Service.
Here this blog may briefly be about curry, as, above the frankly sleazy-looking Strand Continental Hotel, one can still at the time of writing find the world famous India Club, although possibly not for much longer as it’s threatened with closure. On a Friday night this was one of the noisiest places I’ve ever eaten outside India and not having booked we had to wait in the friendly, buzzy, little bottle bar downstairs where hip young global professionals rub shoulders (literally) with amiable academics from nearby Kings and creative types from nearby theatreland. The food here is not ‘gourmet’ but Indian family grub at real-world prices – an absolute institution. Approach the battered green chillies circumspectly, I would.
A few steps past the amazing Somerset House (which, in daytime, you can just wander into and around to an extraordinary extent), brings us to Waterloo Bridge where, due to it being February and due to the authentically subcontinental service at the India Club, Waterloo Sunset has long past.
Blessed with a clear, unfoggy night, it’s time to admire the view.