A few months ago, I decided that I needed to take a break from everything – Edinburgh, my friends, my family, the stress of my (then-upcoming) festival job – and explore somewhere new, where I could completely dedicate my time to doing things that I wanted to do. So on Wednesday morning, I got up at the crack of dawn to set off to the airport…I was on my way to London, after many years of dreaming! I’d been once before, but admittedly it was for a single day in 2009 so not exactly the stuff that lasting memories are made of; my dad and I flew down early, quickly had a look at Buckingham Palace, ate some pizza, saw Wicked, then flew home again. This time, I wanted to try to cram in as much as possible to get the full London experience.
First of all, let me point out that London need not be as expensive as one might think! My flights were around £42 in total with Ryanair (Edinburgh-Stansted, booked three months in advance), my hostel (London Backpackers, next door to Hendon Central) was £12 per night, and £25 on an Oyster card was all I needed to get around without a hitch in the three days I was there. On top of this, many museums are free so there’s no need to worry about losing out on culture either!
It was the allure of cheap rates that drew me towards booking in at London Backpackers, an 18-35 hostel in Hendon. Sure, it was a bit out-of-the-way, but to be honest, I quite liked this – personal preference, I suppose, given that there are a few negative comments on Hostelworld about its distance from the city centre (you’d think it was a remote island for the way some people gripe!). For me, I liked being able to go out in the evenings then travel back to somewhere a bit quieter. When I arrived, I was greeted by a lovely guy on reception, who had good banter and offered me a big bucket of sweets that I could pick a little something from. The whole hostel had that cheap and cheerful vibe, with a book swap, games room, quirky London-themed decor and the biggest VHS collection I have ever seen outside of Blockbuster (RIP). However, my one gripe would be the shared kitchen. I am totally anal about washing up standards – as in, if I can’t see my face in a spoon, I will rewash until I can – and unfortunately, the state that some people had left the communal dishes in was enough to turn my stomach. It was easily resolved though by simply getting food on the go instead! Rates at London Backpackers start from £9 per night.
Shortly after checking into the hostel, I took off to explore Foyles (more on that later), but before I could get that far, I stopped off by one of the Leicester Square half price ticket offices to see if I could get a cheap ticket to see Matilda that night…Let’s just say London and I disagree on what “cheap” is, as what was offered as a £31 ticket came up to £48.5 once VAT and fees had been added. Although a bit of an unexpected sting, it was definitely worth it and I would wholeheartedly recommend Matilda to any literature lovers with a sense of fun! The music is so witty (thanks to the magical skills of Tim Minchin) that even those who don’t usually like musicals will find joy in this wonderfully funny, exceptionally British production.
The next night (Thursday), I went to the BBC Proms! It’s been an ambition of mine for quite some time to see something at the Proms, so when I booked my trip back in June, I was sure to pick up a £7.50 ticket as well. Thursday’s performance came from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with a programme consisting of excerpts from Nielsen’s Aladdin, the world première of B. Tommy Andersson’s Pan, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It was the Mahler that really sold it to me (I bloody love Mahler), but I actually really enjoyed the Nielsen as well and I’ll definitely be checking out more of the Danish composer’s work. As an added bonus, there were lots of seats left in the stalls so I got a free seating upgrade – result!
I had anticipated visiting a lot of museums, but as time wore on, I actually only had time for two. On Thursday, I went to the Wellcome Collection, which was quite quiet despite its fascinating array of exhibitions – perhaps it’s one of London’s more hidden gems?! The first exhibition I saw there was Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects (on until 18th October 2015), consisting of objects that had been “mummified” (the artist’s choice of words) with thin copper wire; in fact, visitors could take part in this process themselves and as I entered, a couple of people were helping mummify a Mustang. The idea behind Anderson’s work is that “both the making and display of works pose challenging questions about the comforts and consolations of creating and sharing memories.” Years ago, I would have told you this wasn’t my kind of thing, but I have evidently changed a lot as I felt really inspired to reflect on these objects…it even gave me an idea for a short story. I then moved onto Medicine Now (permanent), which explored current medical topics of discussion like obesity and genetics, as well as general anatomical information, and finally The Institute of Sexology (on until 20th September 2015, so be quick!). This finally exhibition not only covered the history of human sex and how it has been viewed in both artistic and sociological terms, but also more modern themes like the AIDS epidemic and what feminism means to young women nowadays. One of my favourite artefacts was a huge spreadsheet that one London artist had kept in the 1970s recording every minute detail of her every sexual encounter – ranging from physical description of her partner and their occupation, to frequency of sexual activity, to orgasm noise! I also quickly scooted around Medicine Man and the Reading Room, but I was short on time so had to cut my visit short.
Before I left on Friday, I had just enough time for a flying visit to the V&A. Unfortunately, I only had enough time to see a tiny fraction of it (you could easily spend a whole day there!), but what I did see was amazing. My favourite section was theatre design, which featured costumes from performances of all sorts – opera, musicals, Shakespearean comedy, ballet, punk gigs… – alongside stunningly intricate set designs. I’m really glad that I dedicated a bit of time to wandering around this section before I left, as it was right up my street. On my way out, I also saw Jacqueline Wilson on a little day trip with one of her friends – she was my childhood hero and the first author I ever really considered my “favourite”, so I was a bit starstruck! I didn’t speak to her though; staring in awe from afar was enough for me. And of course, I said hi to David…
Now, as a dedicated bibliophile, I deliberately only took a few items of clothing with me so that I could use my remaining 10kg luggage allowance to bring back a whole stack of books – and indeed, a whole stack of books I did buy! When I arrived, I decided to kill an hour or so wandering around Foyles‘ flagship store on Charing Cross Road. I honestly could have spent a lot longer here, but in an effort to save my money for a proper bookshop crawl the next day, I managed to limit myself to only two books – Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.
On Thursday, I ventured out on a proper bookshop crawl. My first shop was Ripping Yarns in Highgate, where the wonderful Jen Campbell works. Jen and I go way back, so it was lovely to finally meet and hug her (after first speaking online when I was 14)! I had intended on only buying a maximum of three books here, but because Jen is such an enabler, I ended up with four: Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith, The Mermaids in the Basement by Marina Warner (my new intellectual crush after hearing her in conversation with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of weeks ago), The Finishing School by Muriel Spark and The Day We All Ran Away by Cassandra Parkin.
Next I went to Gay’s the Word, which was super friendly and lovely (and despite the name, good fun for bisexual women as well). Here I bought The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Hood by Emma Donoghue. On Jen’s recommendation, I then went to Skoob, one of London’s top-rated second-hand bookshops (and yes, it took me aaaaages to figure out that “Skoob” is “books” backwards). My purchases here were a little more horror-themed, as I bought The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and Sliver by Ira Levin. I’m particularly keen to read the latter, as I absolutely loved both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, so I think that will be one for the short-term TBR. Finally, I rounded off my bookshop crawl with the beautiful Persephone Books. It took me a while to choose my books here, as they don’t publish particularly well-known titles so I needed to really read the blurbs and excerpts thoroughly to find out what each book was about. Let’s be honest though, their books are so gorgeous that if I could have bought them all, I would have. For those of you who don’t know, Persephone publish lesser-known titles from primarily 20th century women writers, and my oh my, are their editions wonders to behold. Not only do they feel lovely in your hands, with slightly waxy silver covers, but each one has a unique print on the end papers and a matching bookmark – and because the prints are unique to each book, the bookmarks also feature a blurb for the corresponding book on the back! Anyway, I took some chances with authors I’d never heard of and went with Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon.
Thirteen books in little more than a day is my biggest haul ever – and best of all, I managed to get them all back to Edinburgh without any problems!
Before heading out to Highgate on Thursday, I spent a couple of hours mooching around Camden, where I got a couple of t-shirts as well as a lovely heather and wild berry scented candle from Camden Lock Market, handmade in the north of England. I honestly could have spent a lot of money here, as it’s possibly the best market I’ve ever been to. Forget the eponymous-yet-tacky Camden Market that you come to first when you get off the Tube, Camden Lock is where the real treasure lies. I got fantastic service from a lovely couple of women selling handmade Arabian perfume, but alas, I couldn’t part with £18 for 6ml of the scent I liked best…I do feel slightly bad about it now, and I wish I’d bought some, because they put a lot of time and effort into matching different perfumes to my preferences. Maybe next time! Camden Lock is also home to a mind-blowing street food market, so I had a curry box from Sonita’s – Sonita (the stallholder) makes multiple types of healthy curry from her mum’s recipes, and you can mix and match them as you like in a box with salad, rice, Indian yoghurt and pickles for only £6.
I saved the rest of my shopping for Friday, when I went to Covent Garden for the Moomin Shop; you may not know, but putting Moomins on anything is a shortcut to my heart. I treated myself to a pen, a coaster, a pretty metal bookmark and some stickers for my scrapbook. After a few more little London-themed scrapbooking purchases from Paperchase, I walked to Oxford Street to visit the world’s largest Lush and sample some of their exclusive products, and let me just say, their customer service was out of this world. I must have spent at least an hour there as the staff gave me so many personal recommendations and sample treatments. I was particularly touched by one sales assistant, Lara, who was so moved by the fact that I lead music workshops with autistic children that she gave me a free bubbleroon as a random act of kindness! I don’t think I’ll ever forget her utter loveliness.
Other fun London adventures
My final activity before catching the bus back to Stansted was to go for a walk to take in all of London’s classic landmarks. Although I’ve seen Buckingham Palace before, I figured it was a good starting point so sat on the steps of the Victoria Memorial to enjoy some yummy vegetable gyoza soup from a local Japanese café (surprsingly filling for only £3.50!) before wandering along the outskirts of St James’ Park. It was like something from another era; there were pigeons landing on people’s heads and arms, hundreds of cheeky squirrels running around and eating from your fingertips, geese and pelicans (!) swanning around (see what I did there?) in the pond, and cute, anachronistic cottages perched on the water bank. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was dumbstruck – it was really that beautiful, and I couldn’t believe that such wilderness could exist right in the heart of the city. I then turned around to go down Birdcage Walk so I could get a good look at Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, all before walking along to Waterloo Station to catch the tube back to Liverpool Street for my bus.
So all in all, I had a pretty damn spiffing time in London. In my head, I had built it up to be a buzzing, grey metropolis (for no discernible reason – maybe because I’m still getting over the sour taste Berlin left in my mouth…), so I was amazed at how picturesque most of it was – give me friendly indie bookshops, culture on every corner, ornate architecture, green spaces and efficient public transport, and you’ve won my heart, basically. My only regret is that I didn’t stay another day or two to take in even more – I really wish I could have seen more theatre and visited more museums, especially the Natural History Museum. However, with fares as low as those offered by Ryanair, budget hostels aplenty, and an Oyster card taking up residence in my purse, I have a feeling that future London adventures are calling…