It’s been a busy few weeks for me when it comes to travel. I expect a lot of people think a travel writer is always travelling, but I choose to work part time and limit the number of trips I make so that I can be here for family and my beautiful dogs. Nevertheless, travel is always a privilege. Kyrgyzstan really blew me away, but 16 hours after stepping through the front door it was off to Devon, having written three articles and done five loads of washing – oh how glam! As we drove across the Dartford Bridge, a Eurostar passed beneath us, reminding me that travelling by train really is the best way to travel. So I was very pleased to have a day out in London courtesy of Greater Anglia to look forward to.
One of the most frustrating things about train travel is when there are no trains. The dreaded words “rail replacement bus” strike fear into us all, so I was really pleased when Kerri from Greater Anglia informed me that there is almost no engineering work planned on our lines into Liverpool Street all summer. She told me:
“Network Rail has paused its engineering work on the mainline for the summer with only a couple of exceptions – Sunday 16th June, when all journeys will involve a change at Stratford for the Underground into London, and Sunday 8 September, when there are buses between Colchester and Chelmsford during the morning.”
So if you were thinking of a trip up to London, then this summer’s an excellent time to go. For this week’s visit, I decided to focus on the South Bank. It’s a great area for families as there are a number of kid-friendly attractions. The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure and Namco Funscape are all located close together. I opted for a visit to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and a ride on the Coca Cola London Eye.
First up: the aquarium. What used to be the London Aquarium, housed in the bowels of County Hall at Westminster Bridge, was bought by Merlin Entertainments in 2008 and reopened a year later with a new look. It receives mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but I was interested to see what it was like for myself. I’m sorry to report that my visitor experience didn’t get off to a good start. The member of staff who dealt with me on the ticket desk was rude and her manager wasn’t much better. Fortunately the other members of staff I encountered were more helpful and enthusiastic.
The SEA LIFE London Aquarium exhibits are arranged IKEA-style. Once you’re in, there’s no going back and even though I was assured it was a quiet day, there were some bottlenecks. At the penguin enclosure, two large primary school groups meant that it was difficult to see the birds, who’d taken themselves off down to the far end of their space, presumably for a bit of peace and quiet! The huge shark tank was very impressive, however, and I thought that it was well designed as you could get access to the tank’s windows on two different levels. Most impressive were the jellyfish, mesmerising as the lights illuminating them changed colour.
Throughout, there are a lot of opportunities to interact with the exhibits. The kids I saw really enjoyed being able to stick their heads into the perspex domes to get a 360° view of the marine life swimming around their heads. However, it isn’t a cheap day out. Standard tickets cost £27, though families could save a little by purchasing a family ticket. Adults would pay £26, children from 3-15 £22 and under 3s free. To snorkel with sharks for 15 minutes would set you back £150.
Next: the London Eye. This was a completely different kettle of fish if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ve been before and it never disappoints. Their customer service is excellent. Every member of staff I spoke to couldn’t have been more friendly and genuinely wanted to ensure I had the best time. And it wasn’t just because I had a complimentary pass; I listened in on a few other conversations and was delighted that staff were so polite and helpful to everyone. Though they offer a VIP experience, it seemed that those staff managing the queue to board treated everyone like a VIP.
The flight was great, even though the sky was threatening rain with dark thunder clouds in all directions. It brought to mind my first ever visit to the London Eye, not long after it opened, when an elderly lady behind me in the queue was rocking a hat she’d fashioned from a John Lewis carrier bag. This time, the rain held off and visibility was pretty good. We were a mixed bunch in our capsule, with visitors from the USA, Brazil and New Zealand all giving it the thumbs up.
“Best day ever!” one lady said.
Big Ben of course is covered in scaffolding, but it was interesting to see how much the skyline had altered in those almost two decades since my first visit. If you don’t know your Gherkin from your Walkie Talkie, there’s a useful 360 degree map that will cost you £2 on top of the price of your ticket which will help you identify what you’re looking at. Prices are pretty much the same as for the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and there are occasional special events for a similar entrance fee, like Time Out’s smart phone masterclasses. Of course, you can opt for a champagne experience too, for something extra special.
The trouble with London, understandably, is big city prices. Finding somewhere reasonably priced to eat in a city with such high rents can be a challenge. Fish and chips from the wagon on the South Bank would have set me back £10. If the weather’s fine, there’s another option. The Jubilee Gardens Trust work hard to maintain a sizeable patch of green space right next to the London Eye. There’s a play area for young children and the Trust have just purchased what was once a car park and have plans to turn it into an adventure playground for older children. It’s perfectly located for a summer picnic on a dry, sunny day.
Around ten minutes walk further east is one of my favourite spots this side of the river: Gabriel’s Wharf. This eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries has a more local vibe than the tourist traps closer to Westminster Bridge. Spend your £10 here, and it will buy you a delicious sit down lunch rather than an average takeaway. It’s worth checking out some of the independent stores here too. The House of Eunice works with artisans in India to create some unique clothing designs – the owner runs trips to India too if you’re keen to learn about the processes for yourself.
We really are lucky to have such a magnificent city on our doorstep. Thanks to the speedy trains, from my Essex village by the coast I can still be in the City of London in under 70 minutes door to door (as little as 48 minutes on the train). That is always a good feeling, particularly on the way home! The recently launched Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in under 60 services bring East Anglia even closer to the capital.
Need to know
If you buy your train ticket in advance you can travel to London from Colchester or even as far as Norwich for just £10 each way. From Southend, getting to London can cost as little as £6 single if you are flexible with dates and times. You don’t need an Oyster card to score the lowest fares within the capital, as you can tap in and tap out with a contactless debit card in the same way.
You don’t need me to tell you just how many visitor attractions there are in London. Greater Anglia offer a range of 2for1 deals which can add up to some pretty significant savings. Museums, theatre tickets and even bike tours are included in the promotion – dates and specific savings vary so check on Greater Anglia’s website for more details. While the SEA LIFE London Aquarium isn’t participating, their sister attractions in Southend and Yarmouth are. The current London Eye offer with a valid rail ticket is a 2for1 deal for £30.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for my train ticket and to Merlin Entertainments for complimentary passes to SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the Coca Cola London Eye. I appreciate their generosity. All views expressed in this blog are my own.
This week I was fortunate to be invited to a press event to promote Wicked the Musical and The Broadway Collection. We were treated to a champagne and canapés reception at the splendid Aster restaurant, munching on smoked salmon blinis and bite sized chicken rolls. I’d been working hard at World Travel Market all day so it was a joy to put my feet up and relax.
Wicked’s UK Executive Producer Michael McCabe provided a bit of background to this well known tale. It’s been a while since I saw the movie, I’ve never seen the stage production or read the book, so his contribution was useful in explaining a little more of the story. In the musical, for instance, the witch is named Elphaba – named for the book’s writer L. Frank Baum, who apparently didn’t like his first name and insisted on being referred to as L. Frank. But it was the key theme that Michael highlighted that got me thinking: are we born wicked or instead are we shaped by our surroundings and the events that involve us?
The musical itself was enjoyable and entertaining. Wicked compared well to my previous favourites Evita and Les Misérables. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget the performance is live when it’s as faultless as this. The characters soon engage and endear themselves, even Elphaba (though of course she’s meant to!) and there was enough humour in the script to stop it from drowning in schmaltz. And let’s not forget the incredible voices – this is talent that doesn’t rely on audience votes and celebrity endorsement to make you appreciate what you’re listening to.
The highlight of the evening for me, however, came at the end. We were invited up on stage to handle some of the props and costumes from the show. I had no idea baby Elphaba would be so heavy or that the witch hat would be so uncomfortable – to my relief I’m not a natural witch after all! The costumes were weighty too, each reflecting the hours and hours of work that had gone into their design and manufacture. All credit to the actors who’d be wearing them under the house lights in November, let alone in summer in a city that barely knows what air conditioning is.
Where to catch Wicked
If you are in London, I’d definitely recommend hotfooting it over to the Apollo Victoria to see it. You’ll follow the millions that have seen it since it began its run in 2006, many of whom have seen it more than once. In New York, you’ll find it at the Gershwin Theatre right near Broadway on 51st Street.
It forms part of The Broadway Collection, together with favourites like Blue Man Group, The Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon and The Lion King. You can purchase your tickets in the UK before you leave from a number of tour operators and agents including TUI, Virgin Holidays and Lastminute.com. There’s more information on their webpage at http://www.broadwaycollection.com or check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/BroadwayInbound and tweet them at @BroadwayInbound.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Made Travel, particularly to their most welcoming press rep Anthony McNeill, who invited me to the event and took care of the tickets and refreshments during the evening. Find out more about them at made.travel.
Mention weather and Britain in the same breath and cue much eye rolling and sighing. You don’t go to the UK for the weather, sure, but it’s not as bad as the naysayers would have you believe, and you certainly shouldn’t be put off visiting.
The UK is influenced by a maritime rather than a continental climate and when it comes to the rain, that means our hills give a north west/south east split. So don’t panic if you’re headed to the UK capital and your news feed is full of flood pictures. Whilst the disruption is dreadful for those affected, London, in the drier half of the country, has had an average rainfall over the last three decades of just 557mm. 400mm or below would qualify it as a desert. If we compare that rainfall total to some of the major US cities, it’s less than half that which falls on Boston or New York City, and only a couple of hundred millimetres more than Los Angeles.
Clearly, at 50°N of the Equator, no one’s going to come to Britain in search of the scorching temperatures you’ll find in the Med, but sightseeing in big cities is no fun in sweltering heat. Here in the UK, we don’t see really hot temperatures often enough to warrant the expense of air conditioning, so if the mercury rises, London isn’t the best. If you do find yourself here in those circumstances (and you’ll know about it, believe me, because the newspapers will splash it all over the front pages), then avoid the Tube, grab a couple of cold drinks and head for one of London’s many green spaces.
Fortunately, average temperatures even in the warmest month, July, rise only to about the mid-twenties (that’s Celsius and not Fahrenheit!). In the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn, it’s a comfortable 15-18°C and even in winter, the temperature rarely dips below about 5°C. Not for us those biting Arctic winds or toe-numbing blizzards. This year, it was a balmy 19°C the week before Christmas – exceptional but not a record.
So, remember what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation. Timing your London visit to miss the summer season gives you a chance of avoiding the worst of the crowds, so why not take a chance on the weather and come out of season. Enjoy your stay!
In my first blog on Heathrow layovers, I dealt with how you should go about getting into Central London. You can find it here:
Depending on how much time you have, there’s lots to do between flights – it’s London, after all – and you won’t be encumbered by heavy bags. If you have something in mind but aren’t sure if it’s feasible, and it’s not featured here, drop me a line via the comments and I’ll give you some advice. Note: the time available is measured from when you emerge landside after landing to when you need to be back at the airport for your next flight. Allow at least 60 minutes to get through security and to your gate; you don’t want to miss that onward flight!
Time available 4 hours: NOTTING HILL
You’ll need to keep a close eye on your time and realistically use the Heathrow Express to get into Central London. With this short a layover, you need to restrict yourself to the west of the capital.
My suggestion is a quick visit to Notting Hill, a vibrant neighbourhood where Julia Roberts once filmed, Jimi Hendrix died and The Clash called home. Take the District or Circle lines two stops from Paddington to Notting Hill Gate and walk via Portobello Road, where you’ll find the famous market (stalls can be found in the area most days but it’s best to visit on Friday or Saturday) and there are some great eateries including the Hummingbird Bakery. If you have time, the excellent Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising on Lancaster Road is worth a stop.
When you’re done, there’s no need to walk back to Notting Hill Gate. Head back to Paddington from Ladbroke Grove tube station via the Circle or Hammersmith & City lines.
Time available 5 hours: MARYLEBONE
Marylebone, a neighbourhood squeezed between the West End’s shopping streets and beautiful Regent’s Park, is fast becoming the fashionable place to be seen in London. With an extra hour for your layover, you should have time to pay a visit to Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Located between 237 and 241 Baker Street, it’s just a three minute walk from Baker Street Tube, linked to Paddington via the Bakerloo Line.
You’ll most likely see a policeman in a cape on the door, but be warned there’s often a queue to get in. It’s open from 9.30am to 6pm. Walk north from the museum and it’s only a few minutes to London’s beautiful Regent’s Park. With its elegant Georgian mansions framing the park and a mixture of manicured lawns and open space, this is one of the capital’s most beloved green lungs.
Cross over York Bridge, keeping an eye out for the herons sometimes seen here, and skirt the southern part of the park. When you’re ready to leave, use Regent’s Park station, one stop along from Baker Street on the Bakerloo Line. From there, it’s four stops back to Paddington or, if you have time, one stop down to Oxford Circus, still London’s main shopping artery and home to Selfridges & Co. department store, west of the tube station just past Bond Street. Alternatively, Marylebone High Street and its neighbouring streets have plenty to offer in terms of quirky boutiques and historic landmarks.
Time available 6 hours or more: HAMPSTEAD
With longer between flights, the whole of London is at your fingertips, so why not try somewhere that’s a bit off the beaten tourist track? Hampstead requires a change of Tube trains but is well worth the effort; take the Hammersmith & City or Circle Line as far as Kings Cross or the Bakerloo Line to Embankment, and then change to the Edgware Road branch of the Northern Line to travel to Hampstead station. Total journey time is about 35 minutes, so don’t be put off.
Hampstead feels more like a village in parts, but with phenomenal views from its vantage points across London, you can tick off the capital’s landmarks all at once. Try the view from Holly Mount, just down the road from the excellent Holly Bush pub or continue up to the Heath.
Hampstead Heath is well worth the trek up the hill. Walking across this huge open space will make you forget you’re in one of the world’s largest cities and help you realise why it’s also one of the world’s most liveable cities. On your way, take a detour along Hampstead Grove and you’ll pass a small observatory run by the Hampstead Scientific Society. Inside is a 6″ Cooke refracting telescope dating from the turn of the 20th Century.
On your way back to the High Street, stop to take a look at the house once inhabited by Ernő Goldfinger of Trellick Tower fame, who lived at Number 2 Willow Road. Local resident Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, hated the modernist structure and allegedly took his revenge by naming one of his Bond villains after the man responsible for the eyesore.
Of course, if you don’t fancy Notting Hill, or Marylebone, or Hampstead, then there’s always St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace or Big Ben. One short layover just isn’t going to be enough, of course, but these ideas surely beat staying in an airport lounge drinking coffee and browsing duty free shops.
And if you are tempted to come back, then why not try my Unanchor guide to London’s Villages, which consists of three day-long walking tours, one in each of the three locations featured above. Packed with ideas and information, it’s available on Amazon as well as direct from Unanchor.com and can be downloaded as a PDF or straight to your Kindle. Here are the links:
Flying via Heathrow this winter? There’s no need to stay at the airport. Instead, take a trip into London and have a taste of what the British capital has to offer.
Part One: Getting to Central London
Take the train. Don’t be tempted with taxi or bus transfers; London’s traffic is too unreliable for you to risk wasting valuable layover time stuck in traffic. Instead, you have three options.
Most expensive, but fast, is the Heathrow Express. It takes 15 minutes to get from LHR to London Paddington station, from where you’re well connected by Tube to the centre and its attractions. But because you won’t want to buy your ticket in advance in case your flight’s delayed, you’ll have to buy your ticket from the machine and a return will set you back a cool £35. Don’t be tempted to buy it on the train instead as you’ll pay an extra fiver. Machines (and conductors) accept cash as well as credit and debit cards.
Cheaper, and leaving from the same platforms, is the Heathrow Connect. It takes longer, around 25 minutes, stopping at intermediate stations, but it gets you to the same place, London Paddington. Check the timetables in advance; Heathrow Express services normally depart every quarter of an hour, so if you’ve just missed one, you won’t be much worse off taking that departing Connect. Tickets are a more reasonable £20.20.
Cheaper still is the Tube. The Piccadilly line connects Heathrow to popular tourist destinations such as Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Hyde Park and Leicester Square. Journey times can feel tediously slow as the numerous stations aren’t far apart, but on average you’re looking at around 45 to 50 minutes to get into Central London. Fares vary according to the time of day and whether you have an Oyster card. Heathrow’s in Zone 6 and Central London is Zone 1; a cash single is £6, single at peak times with Oyster is £5.10, off peak £3.10. A day’s Travelcard, so long as you avoid travelling at peak times is £12, so depending on your flight, you could hop on and hop off all day for the price of a standard cash return.
Heathrow Express: https://www.heathrowexpress.com/
Heathrow Connect: https://www.heathrowconnect.com/
London Underground: https://tfl.gov.uk/
Tube and rail map: https://tfl.gov.uk/maps/track
Tube fare table (subject to change from January 2016): http://content.tfl.gov.uk/tube-dlr-lo-adult-fares.pdf
Heathrow transport information: http://www.heathrow.com/transport-and-directions#
And if you really want to take a cab: http://www.heathrow.com/transport-and-directions/taxis-and-minicabs
For some well-known and more unusual suggestions for what to do once you’ve reached Central London, read my next blog: https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover-part-2/