What is it about London that makes it such a fascinating place?
We've just spent 3 weeks treading the streets (without our Slater Chartered Accountants hats) and have covered a considerable distance over that period. We've been able to do this because we work in the cloud and have developed a business structure that allows a Team Slater member to travel and work from the web from anywhere in the world. Travel and work at the same time. That sounds good to us and to small business owners.
So we took a long haul flight and headed off to the UK to its most famous city for a bit of a tour. We've had a thirteen year old in tow who's loved every minute of being here, and our unanimous family decision is...
London is simply brilliant.
It's a wonderfully mad and busy place full of so much variety and rich culture.
Of course, if you want cultural homogeneity and a carefully subdued, creamy status quo, then this place in 2015 will disappoint. That carefully cultivated and hierarchical world may be the old Britain, the near-mythical Britain, the one Anglophobes still fantasise about and view as the authentic version. For the most part the reality is the old traditional London is now relegated to a component part and a segment of a vast and expansive and exhaustive whole which some may view as a terrible shame and others as reason for celebration. There's no doubt the old guard has its place and is part of what makes this incredible city what it is. But these days London is a lot more than that. We discovered a far more pluralistic city that encompasses both old and new, all jumbled and tumbled together into one conglomerate whole. The conservatism is still there and indeed, there's something very fine about these traditions...especially when they're juxtaposed against the post-colonial, millennial "new."
Today's London is heterogenous and disparate. It's layered. It's where you can travel the tube and hear a rich cacophony of interweaving languages or witness a plethora of fashion statements and faux-pas's, or even enjoy a bit of cockney banter between two old codgers in the next seat, and all within the 2 stops it takes to get from Shepherd's Bush to Notting Hill Gate.
Yes, it's hectic. Yes, it's al little grimy. And yes, it can get overwhelming. But if you pace yourself and surrender to the inevitable crowds and unending stimulus, the city holds court on its own, quite independently of any royal or historical vestiges, and indeed, even without the obligatory visits to Buckingham and Kensington Palaces. That's not to say these pilgrimages aren't worth it. They are. But London's richness and regality are born out of a cultural pluralism and tatter these days; a very urban and street-savvy sensibility that rises out of the cobbled gutters and tower blocks, the street stalls and markets, as well as permeating the grander abodes of Notting Hill, Kensington and SW1. Heaven forbid, burka'd Arabs and blacks driving Bentleys and BMW's. This is London in its modern and cosmopolitan finery.
The rest, as they say...is history.
Five Places to Go - Five Reasons to Visit
We spent a lot of time getting around and came up with five of our favourite experiences that were both memorable and a load of fun. All these experiences are easily accessible and also suitable for kids and teenagers.
- Camden Lock Markets - A vibrant and earthy place to visit. Colourful stalls, some a little tired and others fresh and clever. Camden Lock Markets are a delight and make for a wonderful day out, very much suited for a family outing. The Camden shops adjacent are also filled with alternative fashion and London street wear. Young designers and more established brands line the high street and are worth checking out. In the market itself, (set in an old cobbled stables and warehouse area,) you can find an array of multicultural food stalls. Asian, Arab, West Indian and Indian stall owners jostle for your attention and the the aromas of freshly cooked food fill the air. Great coffee too. A walk around the markets will eventually lead the Amy Winehouse bronze sculpture on one of the market's outer pathways. The sculpture is a little tacky, but there's no doubting its celebration of an extraordinary singer with an extraordinary voice who died too young. Camden is a great place to purchase Banksy T Shirts or Mod wear. It's worthwhile foregoing transport on the way home and opting for a canal walk down to the London Zoo. Combine the 2 and make an great day of it.
- Canal Walks of London - In our humble opinion, taking a long canal walk is one of the delights of London sightseeing. Barge life is something to behold and the permanent and temporary moorings along the canal routes are a fascinating snapshot of a fascinating and affordable way of life that some have opted for in a city where real estate prices are through the roof. These linear villages are populated by bohemians, alternatives and some wily old gypsy types, as well as some more well heeled individuals who simply enjoy the novelty and delight of barge life in London. There are some two thousand canal moorings in London in 2015, with the 3000 barges exceeding this number considerably. Pets, families, potted petunias and deck chairs festoon some of the old barges and make great photographs. There's nothing quite like walking under a canal bridge and peering through the willows at a line of colourful barges up ahead. It's a timelesss and special experience. Take a walk along Regent's Canal in the north, or the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice. It's well worth it. Don't forget the camera.
- Winston Churchill Arms Hotel - the floral glory of this hotel has to be seen to be believed! This place is covered pavement to roof in potted petunias and geraniums in Summer and is worth a trek to Kensington just to see. It's a joyful, festive oasis of flowers in the centre of London's Kensington and if you're lucky enough to see the hotel in full bloom it is guaranteed to bring a lovely smile to your face. Rather priceless really!
The Winston Churchill Arms , Kensington
- West End Theatre and Dinner- A visit to London is only complete with a visit to a West End Theatre. Icing on the cake. Performance, set and lighting design is the best in the world. Hundreds of small and large old fashioned theatres dot the theatrical district and there is a pretty extensive selection of productions to choose from. Stage doors spill out onto cobbled streets a stone's throw from a Theatre's main entrance and stagehands and patrons mingle on the streets before the show. The district is also teeming with restaurants and bars so you can combine a show with a great little Indian curry or Italian meal, or head for a late night drink afterwards. A word of advice: steer away from the large family style restaurants as they're heinously expensive and poor quality. Head for the small restaurants in the back lanes where you can pick up a great, cheap meal before the show begins. We had a fantastic Indian curry. And for the choice of show? Shakespeare with Benedict Cumberbach in Hamlet? Or perhaps a musical such as Book of Mormon or Lion King? The production quality is astounding. We were blown away by Lion King, which was nothing short of a visual feast. The costumes were magnificent and there were many more elements included on stage than the productions that made their way down to The Southern Hemisphere. Brilliant stuff. Unfortunately however, the poor exchange rates can mean it costs a pretty penny for Kiwis to attend a show. That being said, at least one attendance is well worth budgeting for.
- Open Top Double Decker Bus Tour - There's a number of companies running "hop on-hop off" bus tours of the major London Tourist attractions. These are a wonderful introduction for first time visitors who are yet to tackle the tube or for return visitors who want to reacquaint themselves with the main sites. The accompanying audio guide is very informative and gives a good overview of the sights. It's sprinkled with interesting little facts and adds depth and dimension to the experience. There's nothing quite like rounding a corner and looking up at Big Ben from the open top bus. The Tower Bridge. Westminster. Past the Palace and The Mews. Piccadilly, Marble Arch and along Kensington and through Notting Hill. It's so worth it. For our 13 year old, The Monopoly board finally came to life! Yes, it is touristy and yes it is contrived, but as a well and truly reformed "tour snob" I can only say that it is one of the most helpful and enjoyable days our family spent on the streets of London. Tickets last a full 24 hours so you can spread the experience over two days if that suits.
- Buckingham Palace - It's another stalwart but can't be missed. New Zealanders and Australians have grown up with images of The Palace on television and in print and now web. From late July onwards, The State Rooms of the Palace are open to the public. From all accounts this is another tried and true favourite for those lucky enough to visit London when the Rooms are open to the public. If you can't get to London at this time, a visit to The Changing of The Guards is just as memorable. This happens every day at the same time. The working streets of London and the front of the Palace grind to a halt and traffic is stalled by a myriad of Bobbies who part the roads for the guards as they make their way through the Palace gates. It's pomp, pageantry and ceremony at it's British best. Crowds line the streets and everyone tried to catch a glimpse of the guards as they make their way in and as they perform their ceremonious changeover inside the Gates. It's interesting to take a look at the cross-section of tourist crowds who are from every corner of the globe.
London is an incredibly vibrant and fascinating destination that can offer so much more than the standard tourist hallmarks. While these comprise an essential part of any visit, there's another London living and breathing around the edges of the major sites that are well worth tapping into. Walking around London (weather permitting,) with an occasional tube ride from point A to point B, has to be one of the most beautiful ways to explore the city. Use Citymapper app and google maps walking routes and you'll be amazed at how easy it is to tour around. Stay tuned for more London tourist tips on the Slater Chartered Accountants blog in the coming weeks.
Millie Slater is the Marketing and Social Media Manager at Slater Chartered Accountants in Hamilton, New Zealand. She is also one of the resident bloggers and commentator on all things not related to tax, GST and Financial Statements.