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Australians in London, A Guide For The Bewildered.

I have been meaning to write this for a while, but since Brian and Louise are coming over in a few months I’m spurred to get it done. This semi-structured rant is a keyboard-dump of some of the things I’ve learned since being here in the mother country.

Let me get one thing out of the way first. London is big. Really big. You have no idea how immeasurably big London really is. In very loose terms, take most of the population of Australia, including all those awful people you wish would leave, and pack them into an area about the size of Brisbane. It is dirty, busy, loud, frantic, endlessly exciting, smelly, permanently under construction and entirely nerve-jangling. Don’t expect many quiet and peaceful moments unless you are comatose, or very adventurous.

Unless you’ve hopped across continents, you will arrive at Heathrow after a flight that can only be described as excruciating. You will be tired and your inner clock will be ten hours out of phase with the sun. The walk from the plane to border control is long, usually there’s no accessible toilet, and there is definitely no coffee. Also, keep your camera in your bag, they are a bit nervous about photos. When you get to border control you will understand how little the Commonwealth means. There’s a quick short queue for returning Brits, a slightly longer and slightly slower queue for people on EU passports, and an eternally long miserable grinding queue for Everyone Else. Guess which one you get in. Like you, this line is full of people who have flown for days, and everyone is grumpy, tired, caffeine-deprived, and desperate for a loo. When you do get to the border control officer, don’t try to be jolly. They’ve heard it all, and have no souls or sense of humour. The best approach is to exude a strong air of being well off, white, and definitely leaving in two weeks. It helps if you can remember the address of your hotel, but at this point you will have trouble remembering your date of birth, and in extreme circumstances your name.

Weirdly, on the other side of the border control the baggage check and import control is virtually non-existent. They do not worry too much about contraband coming in people’s bags by plane here – it’s much more of a concern that it will come in a lorry from the continent in industrial quantities. Good news though, there’s coffee at the other end. Just Costa coffee, but drinkable.

The next part of the adventure is getting to the center of London. Because you don’t know the geography of London, you’ve got a hotel somewhere in the middle in a area whose name you recognise. Victoria or Kensington or Hammersmith or Shepherds Bush or similar. You will be taking the Picadilly line (that’s the dark blue one) because taking a taxi will set you back £80 or more. When you get down toward the line, consider getting an Oyster card. If you are going to be in London for a few weeks, then it’s cost effective to get a season ticket on the Oyster card. Otherwise, if you have a contactless debit card like a Visa, you can use that for exactly the same price as the Oyster card – although of course you will be getting hit by exchange fees. The Oyster card is a stored-value card, and just works. Throw £20 on it, and you’ll be absolutely set for the first few days. When you get to the Tube platform, go down to one of the extreme ends rather than boarding in the middle. Unless you have been lucky, you have probably arrived in the middle of either morning or evening peak hour, and the Picadilly line is a commuter line, and the commuters will hate you and your bags. Don’t worry, it’s not personal, they hate everyone who is coming to or from Heathrow with suitcases. If you’re at the very front or back of the train it’s less crowded, and they will hate you less.

Phones and tablets are the best thing that ever happened for the Tube, it allows everyone to retreat as much as possible into their own bubble to try to shut out the awfulness of the commute, so anything you do which may break that bubble will be viewed with alarm and horror. Speaking of which, get the “London Tubes” and “Real Tube” and “Met Office” apps for your phone if you have an iPhone. Enjoy the first 15 minutes of the tube ride. Yes! You are really in LONDON! Riding a real TUBE TRAIN! The people have ACCENTS! Do try to maintain that enthusiasm for the whole trip, it’s a long one. Anticipate spending more than an hour getting from Heathrow (it’s no quicker by taxi). If you are getting off at Victoria station, be aware that it’s a disaster area as it’s disappeared under construction, and none of the roads appear to match anything you can see on a a map. Other stations will be a lot more calm. Oh, and mostly don’t expect that there will be a lift or escalator – generally you should anticipate humping your suitcase up and down several flights of stairs and along long corridors. Victorian design sensibilities you see – most of the stations were constructed over a century ago, when only the brave and the strong used the Tube.

You want another coffee now. Despite what you may have heard, coffee in London is pretty good, or to be precise, pretty good coffee is available in London. There are two pervasive chain cafes – Caffe Nero and Costa – which do reliably OK coffee (for my money, I think Caffe Nero is better, but only just). Of course, Starbucks is everywhere, but I am guessing you want coffee. Don’t get coffee in a pub, it will be horrible. There’s also good coffee at small independent cafes, frequently run by Australians and Kiwis. If you see Monmouth Coffee, run in and hug the ankles of the barrista, sobbing quietly, because the coffee is superb. The hipster colonies are a good bet for decent coffee, so you can judge the likelyhood of good coffee by the presence of irony, piercings, lots of tattoos, braces, and declarations that the beans are fairtrade and washed in the tears of Peruvian virgins.

You may or may not get good food at hipster cafes, it’s hit and miss. Cafe Nero and Costa do ok food, but it tends towards cakes and pastries, and can be expensive for the quality. Do trust some of the chains – Itsu, Pret, Marks and Spencer, Leon, Benugo and Abokado all do good healthy food at McDonald’s prices, and the quality is reliably good. ‘Eat’ is also not bad, but I don’t think as good as the others. Avoid the fried chicken and kebab shops unless you want to flirt with food poisoning, but consider getting food in pubs, it can be good. It can also be awful. Also, while in London treat yourself to a fancy meal at a fancy place. These may not look fancy, and may well be tucked in an alley in Soho, or next to a McDonalds, so use the internet to find them rather than looking for them on the high street. If you are prepared to pay, you can get a life-changing and unforgettable meal here.

Pubs! Yes, someone mentioned drink, didn’t they? There are some chain pubs. Do not go into an “All Bar One”, they are absolutely hideous. Avoid Wetherspoons, they are the McDonald’s of pubs, but at least not as bad as the “All Bar One”. Look for places with minimal, or no, television screens. Look for places that have cask ales and ciders, and if you find a place with a Campaign For Real Ale sticker you are in luck. Very often the good pubs are not on the high street in London, but tucked away a bit from the tourist zones. Oh, and don’t expect to find a good pub right near the Trafalgar Square / Picadilly Circus / Leicester Square / Covent Garden zone, you will need to wander across the river, or a bit further afield.

Don’t expect to find somewhere for a quiet drink on Thursday night. That is when London goes drinking, and everywhere will be absolutely packed and spilling out onto the streets. Friday night can also be pretty full on, but Thursday is the big night. No, I don’t know why, but most businesses operate on the expectation that everyone is hung over on Friday morning. And another thing. When you get that pint (which may be room temperature, meaning somewhere around 10 C), do not drink it like an Australian. A pint is a lot of alcohol, and it’s probably 4.5 – 6.5%. Sip it. Nurse it. Cradle it and spend a leisurely hour with it. It’s not unusual for a Londoner to down six or eight pints on a Thursday night, but they have had years of training. Trust me, Australians are rank amateurs when it comes to heavy drinking, and trying to match a Londoner drink for drink will be a regret-filled experience that may lead to Scotch Eggs or dubious fried chicken.

Being Australian, you will want to go to all the usual things – British Museum, Tower of London, Big Ben, The Eye, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus. Here’s the trick – all the ‘good’ stuff is within a small area, and it’s very often quicker to walk from one place to another rather than mucking about getting on and off the Tubes. Do take note of the real-world map when thinking about taking the Tube, as the Tube map has no geographical meaning. There are famously a few interchanges between lines where emerging to ground level, walking 5 minutes and descending again can save 30 or 40 minutes of mucking around on the train. The same goes for buses – you can probably walk faster than the bus.

As an example, as I am going past it now, it is entirely feasible to spend three or four hours walking from Westminster, across the bridge, past the Eye, Festival Hall, South Bank, the Globe, back over the Tower Bridge to the Tower, through the City, back to Leicester Square/Picadilly Circus, down to the Palace and up to Hyde Park. All the attractions in one stroll, no waiting. There, you’ve done London. Even doing something like taking the tube up to Holborn to the British Museum and then walking back to Soho is a pleasant stroll.

A note on being a pedestrian in London. You can expect the crowds to be stupidly dense and composed of stupidly dense tourists at certain key places, but that’s not the real risk. Londoners treat pedestrian crossings and pedestrian lights as mild suggestions, not obligations, and will stroll across through all sorts of traffic. Don’t attempt this yourself, you will die. London taxis and buses treat traffic lights with the same sort of contempt, and indeed have a right (granted by Charles II) to run you down and bill your family for the cost of cleaning the vehicle.

Now I’m sure you will want to go to Oxford Street to do some shopping, because everyone else on the planet does. Please, don’t. Just don’t. It’s a mile or so of crazed crowds, bad food, dull department stores and misery. Do yourself a huge favour and explore the back streets and alleys just adjacent to Oxford street – particularly around Carnaby Street – if you want great shopping and food. Or stroll over to Seven Dials. Or do both. Just avoid Oxford Street, it’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy the likes of which you will not experience elsewhere.

Much the same can be said of Picadilly Circus – the half of the planet that is not in Oxford Street are in the Circus at any one time. Take a photo, push through the crowds to Leicester Square and take another photo, then head over toward Covent Garden instead (by the way, New Row Coffee in New Row is outstandingly good, and oddly enough not run by Kiwis). One thing worth seeing is the carillion donated by some Swiss canton to London as you head toward Leicester Square, outside M&M World. It is gloriously silly and incongruous.

When you are tired of London, you can take it as a sign that you are not entirely mad. Getting out of London is reasonably straight forward as there are a good number of semi-functional train lines heading in various directions. Be aware that there is no single central station these depart from, you will have to lug your suitcases on the Tube to any one of about 8 different stations, depending where you are going. If you know that you are going to be taking a train, book well ahead of time. Months if possible. Otherwise the price rises with an interestingly steep curve the closer to the time you are hoping to depart, up to the point that it is probably cheaper to buy the train. This is because of an insane philosophy of managing the crowding of services by making train travel hideously expensive unless you book a long time ahead. Driving is a reasonably good option as long as you are doing nothing on London roads except escaping – head to the M25, go around it to whichever motorway is taking you to where you need to go, and blast off. By the way, the speed limit on the motorway is theoretically 70 MPH, but it is widely known that the speed cameras were turned off years ago. Beware of Audi and BMW drivers, they are trying to get their money’s worth out of their cars.

The weather can vary wildly from day to day, but you can absolutely trust the predictions from the Met Office. The great thing is that, unlike Melbourne, the weather throughout the day stays pretty consistent. The likelyhood is that it won’t be raining (much) if you are here in summer: interestingly the annual rainfall in London is quite a bit lower than Brisbane, and it is very unusual for there to be constant rain over several days. On the other hand, that seems to happen whenever any Australians I know turn up, which makes it hard to convince people just how good the weather usually is here.

The same goes for crime. Being brought up on years of BBC shows on the ABC, Australians expect to be menaced by (insert bogey man here, depending on which decade you graduated in) in every back alley. Absolute bollocks. In general terms the streets here are as safe as any Australian city, with one caveat. Most crime is, of course, property crime. There’s a certain amount of gang violence in some spots, but if you are not in those spots, and not a gang member you have nothing to worry about. I do however advise some caution with your wallet and phone in the key tourist areas, such as Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus and particularly Waterloo Bridge and the area around the Eye. There are always crowds of tourists here, and naturally their predators pool in the same patch.

When the time comes to go back to Heathrow, allow a lot more time than you expect. Just take whatever allowance you have made to get from your hotel to the plane, and double it. Don’t take a taxi out to the airport, the drivers do the same with their fares. It will take at least an hour just to get to Heathrow, and the check in lines are invariably hell on earth.

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