Jun 13, 2012
It may have been buffeted by the GFC’s ill winds, but even in recession London remains the closest thing the world has to a capital. From the Square Mile to Oxford Street to the West End, the riverside metropolis has it all. Greater London contains 7.83 million people with more than 300 languages spoken throughout its 32 boroughs. And as one of Europe’s most-visited cities, its knack for resilience and reinvention ensures returning tourists experience both a reassuring familiarity (black cabs, Big Ben, bobbies) and an urge to discover London’s latest Michelin-starred eatery or to-diet-for fashion label. As London basks in the glow of the Olympic torch, we explore corners of the city within discus distance of the Olympic Park and others where, on a perfect day, you can escape the crowds.
Start with an outdoor swim. In London? Yes, really. The refurbished 1930s Lido at leafy and gentrified London Fields in Hackney, east London – about 5km from the main 2012 event – is the city’s only Olympic-size outdoor heated pool. After a few laps to get the juices flowing, stroll south through the park to Broadway Market. Short and sweet, it has gone from derelict via hipster to baby stroller territory in barely a decade. There are more cafes, food outlets and knitting shops than you can shake a baguette at. Have breakfast here or pop into roasters Climpson & Sons (climpsonandsons.com) for a takeaway coffee to Australian standards (still a rarity in London) and a toasted crumpet, then carry on south past Hackney City Farm (hackneycityfarm.co.uk), an educational project that gives urban kids a taste of agricultural life, complete with golden Guernsey goats and ginger pigs.
Find Columbia Road (on Sunday mornings its flower market evokes The Day Of The Triffids, with armfuls of greenery on the march in the crowded street). Head to Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Spitalfields where the ramshackle East End bumps up hard against the glittering skyscrapers of the City of London. The area is a mixture of the semi-derelict and the highly fashionable, including the Old Truman Brewery (trumanbrewery.com) where the excellent Rough Trade records is still shifting vinyl and hosting the odd gig. Redchurch Street may still be crumbling, but that hasn’t stopped Terence Conran opening The Boundary hotel (theboundary.co.uk) or Labour And Wait (labourandwait.co.uk) doing a fine trade in elegant utility homewares. And while it wouldn’t do to run a white-gloved finger over the grubby surfaces of the Brick Lane Beigel Bake, it does possibly the biggest and best salt beef on rye in London, with an eye-watering English mustard.
Opposite Spitalfields Market is Christ Church, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s restored Baroque masterpiece and now a concert venue. Detour south for the always interesting contemporary art at Whitechapel Gallery (www.whitechapelgallery.org) or go west into London’s banking heartland. Head past the silver dragons that guard its boundaries and explore the City of London’s monumental stone canyons as you are drawn towards the booming bells of mighty St Paul’s Cathedral. Poke your head in the Guildhall to see the giants Gog and Magog, traditional guardians of the city. There are dozens of other churches that have survived fires and world wars, such as the kookily dedicated St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (on Queen Victoria Street) and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate (at the junction of Holborn Viaduct and Giltspur Street). Visit www.cityevents.org.uk for church tours and recitals.
Veer north to Clerkenwell and the mediaeval gateway of St John’s Priory. Just north is Lamb’s Conduit Street on the edge of Bloomsbury. The pedestrianised strip has become something of an enclave away from the chain stores for fashion-forward menswear, with shops that emphasise British design and cunningly twisted tailoring traditions. There’s Folk (www.folkclothing.com), Private White VC (www.privatewhitevc.com), Simon Carter (www.simoncarter.net) and Oliver Spencer (oliverspencer.co.uk), with great accessories at Darkroom (www.darkroomlondon.com). At the top of the street is the children’s playground at Coram’s Fields. Turn left for Russell Square Underground station. Just west are the mighty portals of the British Museum, south the intimate, 18th-century home of Sir John Soane on Lincoln’s Inn Fields (www.soane.org). Soane collected antiquities and his house is a fascinating layer cake of surprises including Hogarth’s oils of A Rake’s Progress hung on hidden panels. Take a lift down to the Tube and rattle north via Kings Cross up to Hampstead and lunch.
Hampstead Heath is not so much a park, but rather a 320ha patch of countryside surviving within the city limits, with its murky but much-loved swimming ponds among the trees.
Hampstead is a Georgian village – more Americans in SUVs than old Jewish intellectuals these days, but still very pretty. Find the Holly Bush pub on Holly Mount up a flight of stone steps from Heath Street for a pub lunch in a 200-year-old hostelry, still lit by gaslight until recently. Museums include Keats House (www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk) and the Freud Museum (www.freud.org.uk), which displays Sigmund’s collection of antiquities alongside the famous couch in the house where the great psychoanalyst died in 1939.
Walk it all off up Parliament Hill to a panorama of London at your feet and then down the other side to explore the creepily overgrown Highgate Cemetery (www.highgate-cemetery.org), Hammer Horror film location and burial place of Karl Marx.
Heading back down Parliament Hill to Gospel Oak Overground station (all inner London’s above-ground lines are now integrated into the Underground’s pay-as-you-go Oyster card ticketing system) you can take a train back to London Fields and settle in for an evening’s food and drink at the Dove (www.dovepubs.com) or the Cat & Mutton (www.catandmutton.com), both on Broadway Market. The mothers and babies have gone home and the evening now belongs to London’s hipster set, who have taken to the area with enthusiasm.
Alternatively, whizz back down on the Northern Line to Waterloo and discover the Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk) which, as the name suggests, is beside the Thames. Here you can listen to chamber music, poetry or innovatively programmed pop concerts, or catch an indie flick at the British Film Institute (bfi.org.uk). The Thames-side walk is the urbane Londoner’s choice for an evening stroll past second-hand booksellers, skateboarders and urban climbers twisting off the concrete slopes.
Nip upstairs and take a riverfront seat in the Royal Festival Hall’s glamorous Skylon bar (www.skylon-restaurant.co.uk) with its spectacular floor-to-ceiling windows. On bright midsummer evenings there is still plenty of time for a sundowner and fine food before the lights strung through the trees below wink on.
Find airfares to London and check out our destination guide for more popular things to do.
SourceQantas The Australian Way July 2012