Our travel day to London was a long one. We had a 2.5-hour drive from Paris to Calais, France; then a 3-hour ferry ride from Calais to Dover, England; followed by another 2-hour drive to London. The last leg was also fraught with anxiety since we were now driving on the other side of the road in our little French car. Kody has some experience driving on the left-hand side because he lived in Japan, but it was still an adjustment. Navigating the busy and narrow streets of London was especially stressful.
The traveling portion was exhausting, but we were so excited once we arrived! We stayed in an area of the outer city called Lewisham, which is home to a university, lots of brick townhomes, and many pubs and shops. We had only rented a private room in someone’s house, so rather than stayed cooped up for the evening, we ventured out immediately. Our first stop was a pub up the street for a couple of pints.
Kody’s friend, Dougall, told him that at pubs in the UK, you don’t have to say, “I want a Guinness,” you can just say “I want a porter” and they’ll automatically bring you a Guinness. When I went up to the bar to order our pints, I found out this is not the case at all. The bartender just stared at me, so I repeated myself and he said, “Okay. I still don’t know what you want.” I finally asked for a Guinness like a normal person and got one.
The university had a public movie theatre and we walked there to enjoy a hilarious showing of Booksmart. We were on a bit of a native-language high – being able to understand everyone and be understood by them after spending over a month stumbling through Spanish-, Arabic-, Portuguese- and French-speaking countries was wonderful, as was watching a movie in English without necessary subtitles. After the movie, we stopped in a small Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. It was a great first evening after a long day.
Coming to London felt like a return to me since I had lived in the Tower Hamlets area for a little while before Kody and I met. There were two Londons I wanted to see – the one I used to know, and the one that had developed since then. It’s a city that I could never tire of; there’s so much to explore! I was looking forward to sharing my past there with Kody and doing things together that I hadn’t been able to before.
We started the Reminiscing straight away after breakfast the next day by taking the tube to Brick Lane, center stage of my memories. When I lived there, Brick Lane was an eclectic mix of people and cultures, mostly Bengali. The street always smelled like Indian food since there were about 20 Indian restaurants at the end of the road with their menu hawkers and heavy spices drawing people in. There were two bagel shops then, right next to each other, and it mattered very much which one you were loyal to, even though the difference between them was too subtle for me to ever taste. (Still, I chose the one on the right and I stuck to it once the choice was made.) Every Saturday back then, there was a large flea market that took up the sidewalks on both sides of the street and threatened to bleed out into traffic. People sold all manner of bits and bobs and some wandered up and down Brick Lane in elaborate costumes. Every surface of every building was covered in street art. A mishmash of styles and colors and messages that described the neighborhood perfectly. Being there made you want to be a part of it, whatever “it” was.
Now, it was different to me in that way that you can’t name, but that you know when to return to a meaningful place. Brick Lane had lost in authenticity what it had gained in popularity. The street had become known for its eccentricity and was thus punished for it with gentrification. Where there once was a shop owned by someone who lived in the neighborhood, there was now a chain restaurant that served only cereal and had a line outside before it opened. The Indian restaurants were fewer in number and in fervor – no one called out specials or held out samples, they seemed somehow subdued by the now-guaranteed customer base of people seeking out the charm of Brick Lane. The bagel shop on the right had won out and the one on the left was abandoned. The flea market was still held on Saturdays, but now in a warehouse with stalls rented out and wares sanitized. It seemed that by becoming famous for being Brick Lane, it had become less of what made it Brick Lane. The walls were all still scarred with paint and angst, but the words battled with each other now. The chaotic cohesion was gone. Everything was too clean, too purposeful, and too cultivated.
Of course, after an 8-year absence, any place can be built up too highly in our memories and might lose something in the harsh light of returning. The flat that I had lived in was still there, but the flowers on the windowsill were gone and the Chinese restaurant below was out of business.
I felt all of this on my own, obviously. Brick Lane taken at a first viewing was still actually quite a spectacle, it’s so different from the rest of London. Kody and I wandered up and down the street together before continuing on into the financial center of the city just a few blocks away.
We walked through a massive food market filled with stalls selling snacks and lunches. We were surprised how many of these we found throughout the city – London loves a good food stall market! We only tasted with our eyes at this one though, because we were heading to a very specific one for lunch. Along the way, we saw The Duck Truck (which has been featured on the show Million Pound Menu), the Leadenhall Market, and the Monument to the Great Fire of London.
Before crossing the River Thames on the Tower Bridge, we passed the Tower of London, one of my favorite historical landmarks. I have done the tour of the walls and the torture museum inside before, but it was nice to see the structure not completely covered in scaffolding. The view from the Tower Bridge is so interesting because you can see how seamlessly London has incorporated its medieval past and modern present. Every glance in London is a treat.
From the Tower Bridge, it was only a short walk to the Ropewalk or the Maltby Street Market. I’d been following this weekend food stall market on Instagram for months absolutely salivating over all of the offerings. We did a walk-through together to see what our choices were and then split up in the crowded alley to choose our lunches. I got a bento box from The Gyoza Guys that came with five mixed gyoza, kale salad, and udon noodles. It was so delicious and inexpensive! If I lived in London, I would definitely be traveling to Maltby Street to eat that once a week.
After our satisfying street food selections, we were ready for a spot of tea. Kody found us a pretty unique tea house to enjoy which was inside of an active cathedral. We shared tea and a Bakewell slice while we listened to the mingling sounds of church bells in the courtyard and agitated soccer fans in the pub next door.
We finished the day off with a light dinner and pints at the pub near our Airbnb where I asked Kody to take a ridiculous picture of me looking through the cellophane window on a five pound note and he begrudgingly obliged. We had truly hit the ground running in London and we were both really excited for the rest of our time here.
Our stay had already been pretty near perfect when we came up with our plan for a Perfect London Sunday. It started as all Sundays in England should start: with a proper Sunday roast for lunch. Just up the street from our Airbnb we found a great little pub with a roast lunch offering and it did not disappoint. This was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip (and quite a lot for one person to eat). The roast was accompanied by broiled root vegetables, roasted potatoes, and a lovely Yorkshire pudding. The whole thing was topped with and gravy and… 🤤 We both thoroughly enjoyed stuffing ourselves with Sunday Roast.
From there we did what every good London tourist should do and boarded a double decker bus. We sat on the top level all the way at the front – you know, the worst place to be if there’s an accident, but the best place to be for the view. Our destination was The Vaults, also known as the Banksy Tunnel.
The Banksy Tunnel is actually Leake Street, a road tunnel in Lambeth where the laws against graffiti in London are lifted. The 300 meter tunnel is completely covered in colorful art. I wonder whether sanctioned graffiti is somehow a different category of street art altogether or whether art needs permission to exist at all, but I digress. While we were there, we got to watch a graffiti artist at work on a new offering for the wall.
Across the river from the Banksy Tunnel is Westminster, the governmental center of London and England. St. Stephen’s Tower (which houses Big Ben) was completely covered with scaffolding, so we made our way through the area toward another food hall.
After a light snack, Kody decided to head back to our Airbnb while I made my way to the House of Minalima, a graphic arts museum run by the company that collaborated on the Harry Potter films. The museum is in a four-story pink building and is free to enter. The walls and stairs were covered with original art from the films, as well as concept pieces. Understandably, most of the places in London that were involved with the filming of the movies are trying to make a buck any way that they can, so it was nice to take my time and wander for free. I picked up a couple of souvenirs on the way out, though.
I traveled back to where we were staying and, after a little disco nap, Kody and I left to attend a Sunday night double-header comedy show that he had found online. Kody is a big comedy fan, so we were planning on taking advantage of being in English-speaking countries for the next 6 weeks by trying to see as many shows as we could. The comedians were both in London polishing their sets for the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The venue, Up the Creek Comedy Club, had a burger joint attached, so we loaded up on burgers, fries, and beers before heading in to find seats that were close-but-not-too-close.
The opener, Catherine Bohart, had a rough start. Her material wasn’t ironed out at all and she seemed really unsure of herself. At one point, someone in the audience starting talking to the person next to him and she lost it. She kept pointing it out and tried to make fun of him, but it came off as insecure and a little mean. We were a little worried that we weren’t in for the night of laughter and fun that we had been hoping for.
Luckily, the headliner, Adam Hess, was hilarious. He had come to the show completely prepared and was utilizing a slideshow for most of his show. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get the projector working and, since all of his material was based around the visual aids, he couldn’t practice the set he was going to do at the Fringe Festival. Adam started a total stream of consciousness narrative about a real date he had been on recently which led to other amusing anecdotes and observations about London, his life, and social etiquette. It felt completely off-the-cuff, like when your funny friend gets really drunk at a party and starts doing a prolonged and preposterous monologue that keeps everyone in stitches for hours. We laughed so much. He spoke faster than anyone I’ve ever heard before and some of the UK-specific cultural references went straight over our heads, but we had a lot of those awesome moments where you’re dying laughing and then you look over at the person you’re with and they’re laughing, too, which makes you both laugh more. It was the fun and funny evening we had wanted. The perfect way to end a perfect Sunday in London.
The next day Kody and I each did our own thing. I took to exploring and a second round of the Reminiscence Tour, while Kody decided to stay in the neighborhood and seek out that back home type of feel. The area where our Airbnb was located reminded him a lot of Norman, OK – a lot of young people walking around, coffee shops, and pubs; a liberal university which attracted many of those young, lost types of people who are more concerned with global warming than things within their immediate control. Good folks for people-watching. He took our journal and a book, and returned to a coffee shop that was his style. Kody stayed for hours collecting espresso cups, caffeine highs and tasty specialty sandwiches. He told me he felt like a local for the first time in a long time by simply sitting around, enjoying the slow-paced style of a good coffee shop.
Meanwhile, and in my typical fashion, I had a scheduled list of to-dos and must-sees. And, yes, there really was a list, complete with travel instructions (I even checked things off as I enjoyed them, as if they were assignments or tasks). One of my favorite things while traveling is figuring out all the logistics – what to see; what order to see everything in to prevent undesired backtracking; how to get from one place to the next; and what there might be to see/do/eat between.
As you can see, my first stop was the lovely Fabrique bakery, where the cardamom bun was so delicious and warm that I scarfed it down without grace or decency and immediately order another one to try to savor with a cup of tea. These baked goods were not breakfast, however, but simply a warm-up. Breakfast was a bagel and lox from the Beigel Shop on Brick Lane. Nothing better to whet your appetite for bread than bread from somewhere else. I strolled slowly between the two shops, noting the grocery store I used to shop at and some funny street names along the way.
I found a comfortable bit of curb to settle into while I waited for the Brick Lane Bookshop to open for the day. The area is a hub for artists and writers, so the shop has an excellent section of fiction and non-fiction books written in or about Brick Lane and Tower Hamlets. I love getting local novels or cookbooks as souvenirs. Once inside, I found a book, a tote, and a couple other small items very quickly and then spent some time chatting with the cashier. I was about waist deep in the Reminiscence River at this point, so everything had a misty, nostalgic look and feel to it reminding me of the many days before that I had walked into this shop for a good read or a chat with a fellow bookworm. I walked out into the sunshine feeling happy and at home. It’s interesting to me that Kody and I were having this similar feeling at the same time for different reasons.
I wanted to find more Harry Potter attractions to go to while in London and decided to do the cheesiest of them all – waiting in a massive line to take a picture at Platform 9 3/4.
I’m not joking at all when I say the line was MASSIVE. I was also probably the only woman in her 30’s there on her own. A lot of people were dressed up and there were kids that were so adorable and excited. I broke in my fresh new book while the line moseyed and people made their way to Hogwarts. The final picture was cheesy and wonderful.
This wasn’t really a meandering day for me and things sped up in the afternoon. I was doing my own London highlights reel and trying to see/do as much as possible. Next was a trip to the (unfortunately, not photogenic) Rosetta Stone at the British National Museum. As a former linguistics student and a forever linguaphile, this was a really special and fulfilling experience. I walked straight to it when I entered the museum, took in my fill of the symbols so patiently etched into the stone, and then left. It’s sort of a interesting feeling to walk into a museum like that for one item and then to walk right out.
I wanted to walk from the museum to the Sherlock Holmes pub through a very colorful (and fortunately, photogenic) area known as Neal’s Yard. The buildings are brick with trim painted in clashing primary colors that make them riot against the neutral-in-comparison sky. It reminded me of how I might have filled in a page of that scene in a coloring book when I was younger, without reservation or rigidity.
I stopped briefly in the Sherlock Holmes pub to get some photos for my sister, use the loo, and enjoy a gin and tonic.
My last stop on my tour was Dominique Ansel Bakery, another place I’d been wanting to visit for years. It was a perfect summer day and I ordered like a food critic – a watermelon soft serve, baked-to-order mini madeleines, an After the Rain mousse cake, and a salted caramel eclair (to split with Kody at the apartment). I luxuriated in the watermelon soft serve, such a perfect fresh watermelon flavor and served in a slice of the actual fruit. The mousse cake had a beautiful pear and ginger gelee nestled in a jasmine mousse with a praline feuilletine base that was a textural treasure. The store itself was perfectly styled and I sat out on the patio which had a wall of bright purple flowers.
The bus back to our apartment took about an hour and I passed it pleasantly with my new book and some warm mini madeleines.
Kody and I closed out our separate days our favorite way: together. We had a light dinner at another local pub (are you sensing a theme?) and then went to a bar to play a game of pool. Neither one of us is particularly good, but we had fun.
Our last day in London was upon us faster than we were expecting. It began bright and early with a delicious and terrifying trip to a 24-hour brunch spot called Duck & Waffle… which happens to be at the top of a 40-story skyscraper in the middle of the city. I’m not great with heights that aren’t natural. Weirdly okay with, say, looking over the edge of a cliff or climbing up a very large tree (if the opportunity or necessity presented itself), but terrified of being on high bridges or in very tall buildings. I’m so nervous in elevators, no matter the length of the trip. So I was questioning my desire and insistence to eat at the restaurant immediately when I found out that the direct elevator was all glass and attached to the outside of the building. I thought I was going to faint and all I could think of going up was that I was going to have to get back into it to go back down. Why did I want to go here again?!
We ascended at a moderate speed up and up… and up. Soon we were higher than all of the buildings that we could see… and still going up! I took a video of the ride (in order to detach myself a little by watching it through a screen) and it starts to wobble at the end because I was really starting to lose it. Kody, meanwhile, was cool as a cucumber, taking in the sights, and supporting his scaredy cat.
Kody had eggs benedict and I had the signature dish, duck confit with waffles. We decided to do the tea pairing, which was actually pretty good. I did not go up to the windows to take in the view or for a photo. I was pretty much glued to my seat once we got in, remembering terra firma and meals that were less stressful to get to.
I felt a little shaky after riding the elevator again, so a nice, long walk was in order. We had just enough time to wander from where we were over to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards. For us, this was a sort of uninteresting and lackluster diversion. The crowds are so huge that it’s a little impossible to enjoy or get a good view unless you show up hours early, which we were not prepared to do.
I remembered a huge tree in Kensington Gardens that was carved with tons of little playful figures and I wanted to show it to Kody. Once again, this was bigger and more impressive in my mind that it was upon seeing it again. I had forgotten there was a fence surrounding the tree, or it might not have been there years ago, but it made looking at the figures difficult. Along the way, we got caught in an English drizzle and hid out for some perfect moments under a tree in the park waiting for a break in the rain and enjoying some stillness together.
Kody closed out his time in London at our apartment while I took in a showing of The Lion King on the historic West End. I don’t think I can really describe the show in a way that does it justice. I was awestruck by the costumes – they were incredible and so inventive! I think my mouth actually dropped open when the large elephant appeared at the beginning. The set work was so great. The way they were able to create movement or shifts in scenery was really creative and fun to watch. And, of course, the music was amazing! I sat in my seat enjoying some animal shaped gummy candies and was pretty giddy the entire time.
I came home and told Kody all about it while we prepared ourselves for the next part of our trip – WWOOFing in Wales after a brief stop near Caldicot.