This had been somewhat of an unexpected trip. Planned for only two weeks, which felt even shorter with rush to get everything done – visa, bookings and so on – it could fit the term “whirlwind”. In just a matter of days, London turned from that distant land where James Bond drank his martinis and took his girls, into “I am here now!”.
The flight from Manila took around 20 hours with a stop at Hong Kong included, but with all the long queues at Manila’s congested NAIA 1, the whole trip actually took a bit close to 24 hours. It’s still much, much more convenient, I would guess, compared to the days when the only way to get there was to sail on galleons or steamships, but still, 24 hours on the air (-craft or –port), will stiffen joints and send your body clock on a hideous tail spin.
Since I was in London for business, most of my escapades were done in the evening, in that thin span of time after people rush off from work, and before the streets get eerily empty. The time I had to go and see places was very limited, but it’s hard to stop a determined wanderer. It was a warmer winter than usual, but still – winter is winter, and the moment the sun drops from the sky I could feel the temperature cutting through my clothes, but still I persisted, chilly weather be damned. And so without further ado, let me show you…London by night.
THE LONDON CAB
It was my first time in London (and the UK for that matter), and my welcome party consisted of one taxi cab and its driver. I could have taken the train from the airport, but it was past 8 in the evening and I was groggy from lack of sleep during the long flight. Had I arrived when the sun was well up, I might have went gung-ho and took the train, then braved finding my hotel on my own…but not at that time. Discretion is the better part of valor as the say.
And so I after exiting Heathrow’s terminal 3, I went straight to the proper taxi queue (after dodging some illegitimate taxi operators milling about the arrival area – yes there’s such a thing in London too). My cab whisked me through the motorway conveniently, though it didn’t come cheap. The ride from the airport to the city center cost more than a whopping 70GBP – but I guess your London experience wouldn’t be complete without at least hopping on a cab once. They are after all, as much an icon of the city as the big clock and the big bridge are.
All of my explorations in London was courtesy of the city’s very extensive subway system – officially called the “London Underground”, but more commonly known simply as “The Tube”. A multitude of subway lines criss-cross beneath the streets of London, and there is barely any place of interest, especially in the northern bank of the the River Thames, that is not within walking distance of a tube station.
Compared to other countries I’ve been to that also have extensive subways, London’s tube is quite expensive. Using a pre-paid card called the Oyster Card, each trip within the city’s zone 1 (the central area) costs 2 GBP, and would cost even more if you purchase only single trip tickets. However, since the tube was responsible for showing me the best of London, I’m not one to complain.
THE CITY OF LONDON
London is one huge, sprawling metropolitan area, and within it is the City of London. Confused? It’s like a city within a metropolis, or a city within one huge city, which is also called by the same name. Think of it as Metro Manila and the City of Manila (Sorry, I’m from the Philippines. If you’re not familiar with Manila, then there are many other cities with similar arrangements).
The City of London is the metropolis’ “Central Business District”, and is the country’s financial hub. It is home to the country’s largest banks, as well as of large foreign banks operating in the UK, and its skyline is decorated with tall and brightly lit commercial buildings. “The City” is actually quite a compact area, and one can even go from one end to the other on foot (provided you’re not the type who hates walking). Strolling along “the City” is also like a crash course in modern architecture, as the area is also known for buildings with unique designs, such as the conical Gherkin, and the eccentric Lloyd’s building, apart from others. These skyscrapers stand side by side with old emperial-era buildings, giving a delightful contrast of the old and the new.
THE TWO TOWERS
The Tower of London and the Tower Bridge are two of the landmarks within the City of London. The Tower of London, which is more of a castle or a fort than a tower really, is the center of medieval London. It was a royal residence as early as the 12th century, though through time its use also varied, and at one point it came from being a palace to being a prison.
The Tower Bridge meanwhile, is perhaps London’s most famous and recognizable (and probably most photographed) landmark. If the Eiffel Tower instantly reminds one of Paris, or the Statue of Liberty reminds one of New York, then the Tower Bridge can only be associated with London. Perhaps the most unique looking bridge in the world, it stands guard over the River Thames with both its towers standing perpetually in attention like two sentinels.
Both the Tower of London and the the Tower Bridge are within walking distance of the tube’s tower hill station. Both have guided tours inside during the day, but even though I did not have enough time to tour either, marveling at them from the outside (especially the Tower Bridge), was good enough.
Many great cities have scenic rivers running right through them. Shanghai has Huang Po, Zurich has the Limmat, Bangkok has Chao Phraya, and Seoul has the Han. In London, you have the Thames (pronounced as “Tems”). Most of the city’s landmarks are within walking distance from the banks of this great river. The Palace of Westminster and the adjoining Big Ben, the London Eye, the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, among various other notable government buildings, theaters and galleries. If I had the time, walking up and down its banks would have been a good way of soaking up the city.
THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER
The Clock Tower, that big clock that watches over all of London, is another very important landmark of the metropolis. The tower is sometimes referred to as the Big Ben, although officially “Big Ben” is only the bell inside the tower. Nonetheless, the tower itself is a beautiful and imposing structure worthy of its iconic status, whatever name you call it by.
Right beside the tower though (and actually attached to it), is an even more important establishment…the Houses of Parliament a.k.a. the Palace of Westminster – the seat of government of the United Kingdom. Beautifully bathed in light in the evening, the building looks as noble as the image of the Members of Parliament debating on their wigs (hear, hear!).
THE PICCADILLY CIRCUS.
No, not the one with the elephants and the acrobats. Piccadilly circus, on the city’s “West End” is often called the “Times Square” of London…a visual contrast of old buildings and bright neon lights. It gives a glimpse of London’s more youthful and “eccentric” side – a break from the prim and proper image that the city (and England in general) often exudes. This small corner of London feels like it’s what Las Vegas would look like if it got teleported into the 17th century (along with a multitude of generator sets to power all those lights).
Here you see people dancing on the streets, to the spectacle of tourists and passers-by, along with a few unscrupulous-looking fellows who look like they have a trick or two for unsuspecting tourists. Tip: It’s hard to not look like a visitor in London when you’re an asian with a camera dangling on your neck, but just look smart and appear to know your way…and of course study your map carefully before going there, so you don’t have to try hard to appear “not lost” when in fact you are.
* All photos taken February 2012, with a Panasonic Lumix LX5.