On The Road Travel Essays

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There is something for everybody in London. It is Europe's most cosmopolitan city. In the much-quoted words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, "A man who is tired of London is tired of life."


Mr. Blue Sky, please tell me why you had to go away for so long  One thing London is not famous for is a bright blue, sunny sky. But it doesn't rain as much as you may think. It just feels as though it's raining almost all the time. The average annual temperature hovers around 52ºF. Temperatures rarely hit extremes of heat or cold. Londoners think that it's a heat wave if the thermometer reaches 80ºF and a winter emergency if it plummets to 32ºF. There's not much more to be said about English weather really. It could be better but it could be an awful lot worse.

March  Temperature 38ºF to 50ºF
Rainfall 1.5"
Daily hours sunshine: You're joking, of course

April  Temperature 40ºF to 55ºF
Rainfall 1.5"
Daily hours sunshine: This question is pointless

May  Temperature 48ºF to 65ºF
Rainfall 2.5"
Daily hours sunshine: A prize to anyone who can see the sun

June  Temperature 55ºF to 70ºF
Rainfall 2"
Daily hours sunshine: Maybe 15 minutes

July  Temperature 58ºF to 75ºF
Rainfall 2"
Daily hours sunshine: 16 minutes at a pinch

Synchronize your watches  Great Britain is 5 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 8:00am in Boston, it's 1:00pm in London. Great Britain is one hour ahead of its continental cousins (France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany) but in the same time zone as the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

Money, money, money  As all over Europe, the best way to get Pounds Sterling is to withdraw money from a bank using your ATM card. Paying wherever you can with a credit or a debit card is, of course, a pleasure. When it comes to changing money, banks are just as expensive as Bureaux de Change and can take for ever. In general, with the exception of some shops devoted solely to the tourist trade, traveler's checks in Europe cannot be used as a substitute for cash. There is no advantage in buying traveler's checks in Pounds Sterling. You will still have to change them. Remember also that exchange rates are often worse for traveler's checks than for cash. The main American Express office is located on Haymarket in the center of town near Piccadilly Circus.

No tips please, we're British  As a general rule, England is becoming more like France in that service is generally included in a restaurant bill. Where it's not, it should be clearly marked. Then 10 to 15% is the norm. You are certainly not expected to tip in pubs and bars. It is customary to round up a taxi fare to the nearest pound. The same is true for hairdressers.

Look right  Please. Beware the crazy British drivers who hurtle along on the wrong side of the road. They are not doing it to frighten you. They are doing it because in the topsy-turvy world of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, it's the law. Look after yourself. Look right every time you cross the road.

Goin' Underground  It is sadly beyond the capacity of these pages to explain the intricacies of getting around London by underground (or "on the Tube" as the locals say). Enough to say that in this large and spread-out city it is an indispensable tool for getting from A to B. The Tube opens from about 6:00am until about 12:30am. It covers pretty much everywhere in London you could wish to go. It need not be expensive, it's quick, safe and pretty efficient (though don't say this to a jaundiced commuter). Getting to know the Tube is the key to getting to know London.

Buying the Tickets: Tickets can only be bought at the Tube stations, either from machines or from staff manning the counters. Once you have your ticket you put it through the turnstile to enter the system, and keep it with you. You'll need it again to get out. If you've bought a single ticket the turnstile at the exit will eat it. Otherwise it will give it back to you, ready for your next journey.

Public transport in London has a reputation for being the most expensive in the western world. But it ain't necessarily so. Parisian-style carnets of 10 tickets will save you a little money. Day passes or travelcards for the buses as well as the Tube (available all day on weekends and after 9:30am during the week) can also be pretty good value. The best deal, however, belongs only to the privileged few who travel in a group. As long as you are traveling together and there are more than 10 people in your party you can buy group tickets, valid all day on the tube only for as many journeys as you like, for an absolute bargain. At the time of writing (early 2000), the cost for 18 year olds and under is 90 pence (about $1.50) and for adults GBP 2.60 (about $4.00). It almost makes traveling around London a pleasure.

BT phone home  The access number to reach an AT&T operator from the United Kingdom is 0800 89 0011 or 0500 89 0011

Home, sweet home  The address of the U.S. Embassy in London is
Grosvenor Square
Tel. 0171 499 9000


Tower of London (Tower Hill Tube)  If you only have time to make one visit during your stay in London, this is the thing to see. The Tower of London is the city's proudest monument. Begun shortly after the last successful invasion of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, it has overseen the life of England's capital city ever since. In its time it has served as a fortress, a prison, a place of execution, the Royal Mint, the original London Zoo, the Royal Armories, the Record Office, an arsenal, a museum, a place of worship and a residence of kings and queens. It is most famous as the home of the English Crown Jewels, the finest set still in use today. There is nothing more dazzling in the whole Kingdom of England. Follow the Yeoman Warders around the complex on a fascinating guided tour. Walk the sturdy, powerful walls. Dodge the ravens, whose forbidding presence keeps London alive, according to legend. Ponder the site of the scaffold where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were executed, among others. See the rooms where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned. Weep to the story of Edward IV's two young sons, alleged victims of the ruthless ambition of the future King Richard III. As you stand at Traitors' Gate, remember the parade of prisoners, rowed from Westminster to pass through here to their final place of incarceration and death. For more details about the history of the Tower of London, see the passports walking tour at the end of this section

St. Paul's Cathedral (St. Paul's Tube)  Etched in recent memory as the scene of Princess Diana's wedding with Prince Charles in 1981, St. Paul's Cathedral has long been one of the great symbols of London. This Baroque masterpiece was built after the Great Fire of London in 1666 by England's greatest architect Sir Christopher Wren. Its attractions are innumerable. The seventeenth-century woodwork and ironwork around the Choir is of unsurpassed quality and beauty. The Baldacchino above the main altar is breathtaking. The Whispering Gallery at the foot of the dome has unique acoustics that allow you to hold hushed conversation with your 'neighbor' 150 feet away. The view from the top of the dome across the City of London is spectacular. The crypt houses splendid monuments to the heroes of England's military past, from Admiral Horatio Nelson to Lord Montgomery of Alamein. The moving American Chapel recalls the roll of honor of the American soldiers who died on European soil during WW II. The greatest attraction, however, is the building itself. In the words of Wren's epitaph etched on his starkly simple tomb, "Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you."

Westminster Abbey (Westminster Tube)  If St. Paul's Cathedral is the people's church, then Westminster Abbey is the royal church. A jewel of English Gothic architecture from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, this has been the place of coronation and burial of British royalty since William the Conqueror was crowned here in 1066. Architecturally, the highlight is the inspired fan-vaulting, the finest of its era, to be found in the Henry VII Chapel at the east end of the church. Nevertheless, for most visitors, it is the extraordinary treasure-house of monuments, representing a proud parade through centuries of English history, that most captures the attention. From the eleventh-century shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, the monuments come thick and fast: the coronation chair, the tombs of sundry medieval kings and queens, the display of Britain's literary heritage at Poets' Corner, the monuments to Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and the quietly dignified Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These are just a few among the many wonderful discoveries to be made behind Westminster Abbey's hallowed walls.

Globe Theatre (Mansion House or Southwark Tube)  This is an amazing re-creation of Shakespeare's original theatre, the "Great Wooden O". It has been painstakingly and lovingly rebuilt with astonishing attention to detail. Completed in the late 1990s on a site only a few hundred yards from the original building, Shakespeare's Globe has quickly taken its rightful place at the heart of London's cultural life. The Globe is open to visitors all year round. A fascinating exhibition on the original theater and the incredible story of its reconstruction is followed by a visit to the auditorium itself. A workshop with an actor from the Globe's own theatrical troupe provides a fascinating and delightful insight into the nature of Shakespearian theater. To watch a drama unfold in the place itself is unforgettable.

Madame Tussaud's (Baker Street Tube)  The biggest, oldest and finest waxwork museum in the world. Whoever your heroes may be, you will find them here: from Wimbledon Champions, through Hollywood's finest to the great and the good of British society, past and present. Flirt with Princess Diana or Arnold Schwarzenneger, hobnob with JFK or Queen Elizabeth, bow to The Beatles, picture yourself with Pablo Picasso. The evil and the criminally insane are here too, in the eerily atmospheric Chamber of Horrors. The visit ends with a parade through London's history in open-top "black cabs". OK so it's touristic and hokey, but it's great.

Among London's superb selection of museums and art galleries, there is something for everybody. Military buffs will find endless fascination at the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth North Tube); the Natural History Museum (South Kensington Tube) has a world-class collection omitting nothing that pertains to the natural world; the Victoria & Albert Museum (South Kensington Tube) is the world's largest collection of the applied and decorative arts. In these pages, there is room only for a brief description of two museums that stand out from the rest.

The British Museum (Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road Tube)  Housed in a grand neo-classical building set back among the streets of Bloomsbury at the heart of "intellectual" London, the British Museum is the oldest public museum in the world. Two and a half centuries of bequests and donations have also made it one of the richest. The 94 galleries (soon to expand in number) contain so much that it is impossible to list their treasures here. Suffice it to say that the collection of Egyptian mummies is the finest to be found outside Egypt; the Rosetta Stone is the key that unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egyptian civilization; the Parthenon sculptures or Elgin Marbles represent the very pinnacle of culture of ancient Greece; the T'ang horses in the Oriental galleries serve the same significance for ancient China. A must for any visitor to London.

The National Gallery (Charing Cross Tube)  With over 2,000 paintings on permanent display in its splendid headquarters on Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is the biggest and best art museum in England. It contains collections of every major European art school from the birth of the Renaissance to the beginnings of modern art at the start of the twentieth century. The joy of the National Gallery is that each and every work is a masterpiece. The roll call of masters whose works adorn the gallery's walls is beyond reproach: Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian and Veronese; Jan van Eyck, Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer; El Greco, Murillo, Velázquez and Goya; Dürer, Cranach and Holbein; Constable, Gainsborough and Turner; Seurat, Cézanne, Manet, Monet and Degas. For its quality and scope in the coverage of European art up to the twentieth century, the National Gallery of London cannot be bettered.


London is changing faster than any other European city, with the sole and extraordinary exception of Berlin. During the course of the year 2000, a fascinating series of new projects is set to transform the face of England's capital city. Here is a little glimpse of some new attractions that may entice you.

The Millennium Dome  Until the early 1990s, the North Greenwich peninsula, jutting out on to the River Thames, was a no-man's land, polluted, ugly and inaccessible. With the new Millennium in mind, the area was cleared and decontaminated, and out of the wasteland has emerged an extraordinary new structure under a vast tented roof the size of Trafalgar Square. Inside this controversial place is an even more controversial exhibition designed to address the issues of the 21st century in an interactive environment that brilliantly combines education and fun. The Faith Zone, the Mind Zone, the Body Zone and the Living Island Zone are just four among the fourteen fascinating themed zones that make up the Millennium Experience. There's enough here to occupy anybody for an entire day. Get there by tube or by boat along the River Thames. For the year 2000 only.

The London Eye  An amazing new sight will greet your eyes from almost any vantage point in the city. Located across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament, the world's largest Ferris Wheel looms high over London, 500 ft. high, offering incredible panoramic views over the entire city as it makes its 30-minute rotation. On a clear day you can see even as far as Windsor Castle to the west and the widening Thames estuary to the east as it makes way to the North Sea. It has had some teething problems but is now scheduled to open to the public in April 2000.

The Jubilee Line Extension  London's new tube line is a hidden jewel of modern architecture, a state-of-the-art, award-winning creation, making London's system both the oldest and the newest in the world. It links Green Park tube in the heart of the West End to Stratford (no, not that Stratford) in the East End. From Green Park, go one stop to Westminster for the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey; two stops to Waterloo for the Millennium Wheel, the IMAX Cinema and the South Bank Arts Centre; three stops to Southwark for Shakespeare's Globe and the new Tate Gallery. Five stops more and you reach North Greenwich, gateway to the Millennium Dome. The Jubilee Line Extension is already up and running.

The Tate Gallery of Modern Art  In a once-derelict power station that looms dramatically over the south bank of the River Thames, a fitting home has been found at last for the English national collection of modern art. Formerly crammed together with the national collection of British art in an inadequate site in Pimlico, it has never been displayed in anything like its entirety. Now, the time has come for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art to take its place among the greatest modern art museums in the world, rivaling Madrid, Paris and New York. Every artistic movement of the 20th century (and now the 21st) will be on show, with masterpieces from Picasso to Dalí, Kandinsky to Klee, Rothko to Andy Warhol, turn-of-the-century avant garde to the endless controversy of contemporary art. Scheduled to open May 2000.

The Millennium Bridge  Designed by England's finest and most famous modern architect Sir Norman Foster, the Millennium Bridge is the first and only pedestrian bridge across the River Thames in London. Its sleek lines, stainless steel structure, beautiful lighting and elegant sculpted entrances by the Anglo-American sculptor Sir Anthony Caro will make for a splendid new addition to London's already magnificent riverscape. The bridge links St. Paul's steps in north London, at the foot of St. Paul's Cathedral, with the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art and provides easy access from north of the river to Shakespeare's Globe. A glorious victory for the downtrodden pedestrian in London's traffic-plagued heart. Scheduled to open in May 2000.

The British Museum Great Court  The British Museum has always been one of London's top cultural attractions. Housing such treasures as the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Sculptures, the collection of Egyptian mummies and the Sutton Hoo Burial finds, it is no wonder. But until now, the museum has always suffered from cramped and overcrowded rooms and corridors, no fitting environment for its magnificent collections. That is all in the process of being remedied. With the removal of the British Library to its new site a few minutes' walk away on Euston Road, a new scheme was drawn up to emulate the success of the Grand Louvre in Paris. The central courtyard is being opened up, crowned by London's second largest dome (after St. Pauls Cathedral), allowing for much-needed circulation space, new galleries for temporary exhibitions, improved educational facilities, a new museum shop and restaurant and the long- awaited return of the splendid ethnographic collections from their temporary home just off Piccadilly. With 2 new acres of public and gallery space, a museum for the 21st century is emerging. Opening September 2000.

Somerset House  London's grandest riverside frontage belongs to Somerset House, the masterpiece of the eighteenth-century architect Sir William Chambers. It dominates the north bank of the Thames to the east of Waterloo Bridge. It has always housed in a corner of the building one of London's loveliest art galleries, the Courtauld, with its small but superb collection of French Impressionist paintings. Now that the evil taxman has moved out of the rest of the building, it is soon to become much more. The riverside terrace is opening to the public, offering splendid panoramic views across the river. Cars have been banished from the lovely main courtyard, to be replaced by a mesmeric array of fountains. A hitherto unseen private collection of jewelry, said to rival the Crown Jewels themselves, is to be displayed in the building's vaults. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is is to use part of Somerset House as its British annex, a thrilling 'first' for the international art world. At last, a little-known treasure of London's heritage is to return to the public domain. Opening bit by bit from Summer 2000.

The Royal Opera House  At last, lovers of opera and ballet who come to London have a beautiful state-of-the-art theatre in which to indulge their passion. The Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden has undergone a huge project of refurbishment, enlargement and modernization. It now takes its place among the great opera houses of the world. The beautiful Floral Hall, where in the story of My Fair Lady Professor Higgins met Eliza Doolittle, has been re-erected and now serves as a splendid new foyer. The backstage facilities have been modernized to allow for theatrical effects simply impossible in the Opera House until now. The auditorium has been restored so that it glows once again in all its Victorian gilded splendor. Outside, the Royal Opera House Arcades fronting on to Covent Garden Market add a new dimension to shopping in central London's most vibrant and diverse shopping district. Already open.


Most stores in London are open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 or 10:00am until 5:30 or 6:00pm. In the center of town (Oxford and Regent Street particularly) Thursday tends to be late night shopping and the stores remain open until 8:00 or 9:00pm. More and more shops are opening on Sundays nowadays but even so it is definitely not the day to plan your shopping for, unless you want to go to one of London's famous markets. Around Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus especially, many souvenir shops stay open until midnight. Remember that London isn't the cheapest city in the world to go shopping in (or eating in, for that matter). You can probably count on most goods being much more expensive than in the U.S. Sales tax is always included in the price. The price you see is the price you pay. Some ideas on where to go:

a) Oxford Street is London's largest shopping area, though not its most appealing. It contains most of London's big department stores, including Selfridges, the biggest in Britain. It's the place to come for shoes and music stores as well. Running south from Oxford Street towards Piccadilly Circus is Regent Street, a notch up from Oxford Street in class. There are some great large stores here, including Liberty's, Garrard's, the jeweler's to the Queen and Hamley's, the world's largest toy store. The other great shopping street in this area is Bond Street, window-shopping only for the wallets of ordinary mortals.

b) King's Road, starting at Sloane Square in Chelsea, is perennially fashionable, stuffed full of cool designer shops. This was the place where the mini-skirt was invented in the '60s. Punk rock began here in the '70s. In the '80s this was the home of the English equivalent of the "preppie", the "Sloane Ranger." In the 1990s everything was fashionable in England, so everything was fashionable in King's Road. Who knows what will be happening in this glittering corner of Chelsea in the new millennium?

c) London's no.2 shopping area after Oxford Street and surrounds is Kensington High Street. Here you'll find more big department stores and small boutiques, enough to suit every taste and budget. Nearby Kensington Church Street has some of the finest antique shops in town.

d) Knightsbridge is a must. This is where you'll find Harrods, the most famous department store in the world. Harvey Nichols is here too, the most fashionable department store in London at the moment (this is where Princess Diana used to do her shopping). Glamorous boutiques lie at every turn. The most glamorous, though, are round the corner on Sloane Street, London's answer to the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré in Paris or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

e) The fun place to shop in London is definitely Covent Garden. This was the old fruit and flower market where Eliza Doolittle used to parade her wares (remember "My Fair Lady"). Now, it's a beautifully restored center for shopping and entertainment in the heart of London. There are tiny stalls selling all sorts of bric-a-brac, antiques, etc. from flea market quality to world class. There are designer boutiques all around and branches of well-known international chain stores. You'll find plenty of cafes, sandwich bars and restaurants, fabulous street entertainment and a great crowd.

f) The Markets: Two of London's many weekend street markets should be at the top of your London shopping list: Camden Lock (Sunday 9:00 to about 2:00pm) and Portobello Road (Friday and Saturday 9:00am to about 3:00pm). The traditional favorite of Petticoat Lane has lost much of its appeal in recent years. Camden Lock is a ragbag mix of stalls and stores, new and second hand, selling everything from Italian leather jackets to army surplus to wholemeal vegetarian kind-to-animals earwax. For the young and the young at heart only. Portobello Road is the market you saw if you watched the movie "Notting Hill." It goes on for ever, it has everything and it never fails to delight.


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