A love letter to London and the British people
3 years, 1000+ Tube journeys, 100+ pubs, 50+ flights, countless memories, oh, and one spotting of Her Royal Highness, London you’ve stolen my heart. What follows are the 50 things I am going to miss about London and the British people. Thanks for having me these past three years as an honorary Brit.
My morning commute – 20 minutes door to door on ‘Ruby,’ my dearly departed red road bike. Zipping in and out of traffic, riding over Westminster Bridge approaching the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Cycling along the gleaming Thames past the London Eye, and doing ‘no hands!’ just because I can, whilst bemused cabbies look on.
My independent Afghani butcher that knows my name, smiles when I enter his shop and shakes my hand. Never has using the phrase ‘The usual’ brought so much joy to my face.
The quintessential British art of ‘queuing’ – from getting up at 5am for Wimbledon, or waiting on the steps for hours at Royal Albert Hall for The Proms, never has there been a more orderly way to get cheap tickets for extraordinary events.
The accessibility and affordability of London’s museums and art galleries – in North America, museums and art galleries cost money. And a lot of money at that. Visiting them is not cheap. But in London, you can pop in and out of world class museums and galleries whenever you see fit, staying for as little or as long as you like. Absolutely brilliant for students and culture vultures alike.
Having Europe on your doorstep. Brits don’t know just how lucky they are to be able to hop off to France, Spain, Germany or anywhere else on the continent for a weekend away. With competitive low cost airlines, short travel time and cheap destinations where you can live like a Prince on a Pauper’s budget – think Budapest, Turkey, Czech Republic, etc. – it often feels like you have the world at your fingertips…or at least within your reach. Us North Americans do not have ANY low cost airlines, most places are far to get to and anywhere remotely close by is just as expensive as home.
Country walks – Trudging through fields, hopping over stiles, navigating through ‘kissing gates’ and celebrating at the end of it all at a country pub with a pie and a pint – there is no finer day out in Britain than on a country walk. People in North America do not go for country walks as that is commonly referred to as ‘trespassing’. Every spot of land that can be owned is and there is no such thing as public right of way, whereas in Britain public rights of way are enshrined in law, allowing you to wander through farmer’s fields without fear of getting shot.
London’s parks – Hyde Park, Clapham Common, Regents Park, Brockwell Park. The beautiful thing about living in a place (London) where very few people have a backyard (or ‘garden’ to you Brits) or have any sort of outdoor space is that the parks are filled with people and extremely lively. In North America, most people have their own backyard in which they socialise, with the end result being that a) there are fewer parks and b) they are not as well maintained or used.
The Royal Family – Love ‘em or hate ‘em, no can deny the ubiquity of the Royal Family in modern Britain and the Queen’s incredible stoicism throughout her 60+ year reign. The energizer bunny of the family, she just keeps going and going. I thought the American’s knew how to do pageantry well but having been to the Trooping of the Colour the Brits certainly know a thing or two about pomp and circumstance. I am a Royalist through and through and am going to miss the entire colourful cast of characters including Pippa, Harry, Kate and Wills and of course Baby George – all hale our future King! And while not everyone supports the Royal Family, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t support the bank holidays given for weddings and jubilees. ;)
The British press – from the sensationalist tabloid rags (The Sun, Daily Mail) read by the masses to the right of centre papers devoured by big business and the Conservatives (Times, Telegraph) to the bleeding heart Liberals who pour over The Guardian whilst they sip their soy lattes, no country has as diverse or strong a press as Britain…and this despite the phone hacking scandal and News of the World downfall. Whether it’s the freebies given out at the Tube (Metro, Evening Standard) or the brick heavy Sunday Papers that are religious reads amongst PR’s, a newshound such as myself feels like a kid in a candy store (or ‘sweet shop’ to you Brits) every single day of the week.
How quaint it is when Brits say ‘I just need to pop to the loo’. Certainly shows up the North American equivalent – ‘I’m just gonna hit the can’
London’s markets – from the Cockney geezers hocking flowers at Columbia Road Market (Fiver! Fiver! Fiver!) to the butchers of Borough Market showcasing their freshly caught game (Pheasants, Rabbits, Venicen among others) to the nattily dressed gentleman of Portobello selling antiques from days gone by, London has some of the world’s greatest markets and quite simply, no city compares. You can happily lose a day of your life wandering around them (or a wallet full of cash) but at the same time emerge richer for the experience.
Brixton – my hood. The world’s biggest diaspora of Jamaicans outside of Jamaica can be a busy and loud at times but as residents know, that’s just part of it’s charm. Whether it’s navigating the high street amidst a throng of commuters, enjoying a picnic in Brockwell Park admiring the city’s iconic sky line or pushing past the preachers and beat boxers, there’s just something indescribably raw and real that makes Brixton one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods. And did I mention the Jerk Chicken?
Plus there this guy. – “This train is for all the Brixton crew. Service update, everyting irie, everyting cris. Chill out, kick back, no need let anybody cramp your style. Rastaman driver, take these beautiful people to their destination.”
Brixton Market – a textbook study in urban regeneration and gentrification, the famed market was at one point an abandoned building populated by squatters just a hop, skip and a jump from the notorious Brixton riots. Flash forward to 2014 and the market is one of London’s hippest, with cocktail bars sitting next to pizza joints, Portuguese BBQ’s sharing kitchens with artisanal coffee shops and over 40 restaurants to choose from…oh did I mention it’s a covered as well….so no matter the weather you can eat outside. How’d they do it? Give a group of enterprising entrepreneurs each their own space rent free for three months and if they can make a go of it, start charging them market value rates. Rinse. Repeat. Creative capitalism at it’s best.
Double decker buses – Iconic Britain at it’s best. The appeal for me of the Double Decker bus never gets old. The best spot? At the top of course. And at the very front, so that you can put your feet up and watch the world’s greatest city go by.
The curry houses of Brick Lane – coming over here I never would have guessed the sheer popularity of the humble curry amongst the British people. And if curry is Britain’s unofficial national dish then Brick Lane is the Taj Mahal of curry houses. You’ll be approached by many, each offering you a better deal than the last until finally you get so sick of their spiels that you settle for the closest restaurant, just so that you can get out of the mayhem that is the street. But once you’ve tucked into that first samosa or pappadum, you’ll know why India is known as the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.
Boris Johnson – our lovably lout of a mayor who can do the wrong, Boris is the people’s politician who is not afraid of telling it like it is or putting his foot in his mouth; refreshing for a politician and something that has engendered him to the masses who no doubt one day he’ll call upon when he makes the run (or should I say cycle?) towards 10 Downing Street.
The BBC – To inform, to educate, to entertain, the quality of the BBC’s programming is second to none and I have been absolutely blown away by just how good a publicly funded broadcaster can be. Muckraking documentaries, archival footage of Royal scandals, free entry to live radio comedy broadcasts, I’ve loved every minute and truly believe that all other public broadcasters should take their cue from the Grand Old Daddy of them all.
Sunday roasts – Growing up it was a long standing tradition in my home to get the whole family round the dining room table and have a Sunday roast so it was great to finally get over here to see where the tradition started. It would be folly to try and pinpoint just what it is exactly that makes a British Sunday roast so special but there is something so comforting about a hearty meal at the end of the week, whether a long lingering one at the pub or slaving over a hot stove all day and taken together with friends.
How Brits refer to ‘The States’ as ‘America’ as this mystical place where you go for a better life. Bigger cars, bigger houses, more space – there is no denying the Siren song call of the Good ‘ol US of A and the lure of ‘more’. ‘More’ of what exactly? More of everything. To this day, it remains the single greatest achievement when a British star of stag or screen (or music) is able to ‘crack’ America and the American market.
The Pub – Where to begin? Britain’s pub culture is something that exists nowhere else in the world and is such a part of the fabric of society that if you don’t embrace it, you’ll soon find yourself on the outside looking in, quite literally. As ‘Public Houses’ that served as community forums, accommodation providers and restaurants for hundreds of years, the history, heritage and importance of pubs in Britain cannot be stated enough. Put simply, going to ‘the pub’ is just what you do in this country, nuff said, whether it be to meet up with friends, enjoy a Sunday lunch with the entire family (kids in bars, yes it’s true!) or play a board game with a mate, any reason is a good reason to find yourself in a pub; all the more so for the pub grub, bar snacks, open fireplaces, cozy booths, beer gardens and dogs…every good pub has a dog.
The Thames – In London, everything revolves around the Thames. In fact, quite often the first question you’re asked as someone new to the city is ‘do you live/work north or south of the river’? For first time visitors and Londoner’s alike, the city’s beating heart is impossible to ignore with most people crossing it at least once or twice a day. Serving as the city’s principle highway and main mode of transport for over a millennia, the banks of the Thames are where London’s star attractions, best chefs and politicians all hold court, with a trip on the commuter Thames Clipper, one of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere.
Walking along the South Bank – With views of London’s most iconic buildings a walk along the South Bank is like who’s who history tour of the nation’s heavy hitter sites. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Shakespeare’s Globe and the London Eye, the National Theatre and the Tate, St. Paul’s and the Tower of London, every fifty steps there’s another view to marvel at our treasure to get lost amidst. All that walking and makes you work up an appetite so reward yourself at the smorgasbord of food stalls that is London’s poshest food market, Borough. A walk in the park this ain’t.
History and tradition – It’s impossible to deny the absolutely incredible influence Britain and Britons have had on the world we live in today, whether it be industrial, cultural, physical or – as any world map shows – geographical. Britain’s historical contribution to the world cannot be overstated enough, as a tiny island nation that has punched, nay, crushed, above it’s weight and living in the heart of it, it’s impossible to ignore, with the richness of it’s history evident and around every corner. Living in country as young as Canada this is something we just don’t have on the same scale whilst living in London, every street and building has an interesting story to tell.
The Duke of Kendall – London’s best kept secret – Not my ‘local’ but definitely at the top of my list of the best pubs in Britain. Sunday night at 8:30pm, 89 year old June sits down at the piano alongside her Octogenarian friends for a traditional old time sing along. Whether you’re a tourist, a Londoner or a tramp sitting outside, get in there early and be ready to be taken back to the days when people’s entertainment was sitting around the piano and having a gay old time, long before the days of Simon ‘The boob’ Cowell and American Idol. Not to be missed, you will not regret it.
Drinking in Public and being able to buy booze at the grocery store – Liberal Europe at its finest and something that most Brits take for granted. Canada is a very regulated, litigious country so making the move to a place where you can enjoy a picnic in a park with a nice glass of wine and NOT feel like a criminal has been a god send. So refreshing to live in a place that trusts it’s citizens to be able to enjoy a drink or two outdoors responsibly and doesn’t tax the hell out of it…
London’s department stores – Getting lost in Harrods never ending food hall, checking out how the other half live at Fortnum and Mason’s (the Queen’s grocer no less), or joining the Yummy Mummy brigade at John Lewis (my fave), there’s a surprise round every corner in London’s department stores and time spent in them is just that…time well spent.
British Food – Fish ‘n’ Chips, Bacon butty’s, the Ploughman’s lunch, Cornish pastys, I could go on and on and on. British food for as long as I can remember has gotten a bad rap, no doubt partly a hangover following the rationing of butter, sugar, flours, eggs by the British government during WWII (and which my Grandfather experienced first-hand). I would argue that that in today’s day and age British food and London’s ever changing restaurant scene can go toe to toe with any contender, any single day of the week.
Old family homes – A real novelty in North America, old family homes are just part in parcel of living in a city as old of London, with Edwardian, and Victorian era middle class houses making up the bulk of neighbourhoods as a result of the industrial revolution bringing working class folk off the farms and into the city. With huge high ceilings, decorative crown moulding, hard wood floors, coal holes and best of all, grandiose fire places in every room, these old family homes are true architectural treasures and to live in one is you really appreciate just how superior they are to the suburban cookie cutter model most of us in North America grew up in.
Pub quizzes – As a lifelong Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy fan, the pub quiz was yet another incredible ‘find’ upon moving to the UK…that is until I found out that they quite often include quite obscure questions on British literature, history, geography and celeb scene. Aside from the conviviality and competitiveness of the quiz, with winners lucky to enjoy a free round of drinks, more often than not, it’s the quizmasters who ‘make’ the Quiz. Always eccentric, often dishevelled and never shy about sharing their idiosyncratic knowledge, Britain’s pub quizmasters would give Alex Trebek a run for his money. Again, nothing like this exists in North America and is part of that undefinable quality that makes the British pub so appealing for a night out.
Regional and class-based accents – First day at my job and I jumped on a conference call with a client up in bonny Scotland. Thankfully I wasn’t required to say anything but immediately once the call had ended I turned to my colleague and admitted that I hadn’t understood a single word that the Glaswegian at the other end of the line had said. Ah, the many and varied accents of the English isles….whether it’s a proper East Ender, a Geordie, or a Yorkshireman, the sweet sing song lilt of an Irishmen or the refined RP of a public school boy, the richness and diverseness of the accents in Britain is something that I absolutely adore. Drive from 10,000 miles from coast to coast and you’d be lucky (bar the obvious Quebecois) to discern even the slightest difference between someone from Vancouver to someone from Halifax.
London’s canals – while hardly Venice, London’s canals are age old reminders of the days when they served as the nation’s principle transportation system, moving goods to all four corners of the British Isles. Offering respite from the hustle and bustle of the busy city, London’s canals are idyllic places to walk along, contemplating what life might be like living on one of the many narrowboats.
Brits ability to carry on regardless (Keep Calm and Carry On), their sense of fair play (That’s not cricket..), how they can have a Stiff Upper Lip and yet at the same time Lie back and think of England despite the potential to embarrass themselves and then get up the next day and be game for a Right Knees Up (party).
The Tube – No need for a car in London, you can get ANYWHERE on the Tube. And, more often than not, you can get their much quicker and more affordably than had you taken a cab. The lifeblood and veins of the city, the building of London’s railways a century ago literally laid the tracks for one of the world’s great public transportation systems. Grab your your Oyster (no, not a real oyster George Osborne…), stand to the right of the escalator and of course ‘mind the gap,’ the London Underground will take you wherever you want to go.
Oxford Street at Christmas time – normally a street I try to avoid at all costs due to the heaving crowds of bag toting tourists, Oxford Street at Christmas time is a whole other story. With each and every department store competing with one another as to who can build the most ostentatious window display, and spectacular displays of Christmas lights running the length of the main drag mixed with the smell of roasted chestnuts thanks to the roadside hawkers, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the festive (and spending) spirit. Lo and behold before you know it, you’ve joined the legions of Christmas shoppers whisked away by the beauty that is Oxford Street in December.
Foxes instead of raccoons – I’ll never forget the first time I saw a fox right in the middle of downtown London (my first week) and then how surprised I was when a friend of mine explained that foxes are the UK’s urban pests. What a majestic animal to be roaming the city streets after dark. In Canada, our urban pests are raccoons. Mangy, vicious, festering raccoons that root through your garbage and hiss at you if disturbed. You’d be lucky to see two raccoons in your entire life living in Canada but in the UK they are prevalent and it’s not uncommon to see a fox every night of the week.
Clapham – The perfect jumping off point for recent arrivals to the city, Clapham was my first address and is still I believe one of the most picture postcard neighbourhoods in London. Countless bars and restaurants, a lively high street and ‘old town’, an independent cinema and pedestrianized weekly farmers market, two tube stops, 20 coffee shops and a ‘common’ perfect for picnicking and running around – you’d be forgiven for thinking why anyone would even consider living anywhere else.
The weather. An odd choice I know. Despite missing HOT summers and snowy winters, there are aspects of British weather that have a lot going for them…and I’m not talking about the endless grey gloomy days or regular torrential downpours. However, sitting out on a patio, sipping cider in the middle of March is something we in Canada could only dream of but is not out of the ordinary in mild London. Moreover, being able to cycle to work year round certainly makes Canada pale in comparison when stacked up against gale force winds, slush and six months of winter.
Feeling like you’re in the centre of the universe and have everything at your fingertips– That is what it’s like to live in London. On any given day of the week you can take in world class theatre (50 West End shows every night of the week), world class shopping (Oxford, Regent, Carnaby street, Soho), world class museums and art galleries (Natural History, British Museum, The Tate), the coolest markets (Camden, Portobello Road, Broadway, The Rope Walk, Greenwich, Borough), the hippest bars and restaurants, sporting events (Wimbledon, Premier League, Cricket, Rugby 7’s), gigs, parks, exhibitions, comedy shows, opening parties, going away parties, any kind of parties…and have it all just a tube ride away. The world is your oyster*…and of course, that’s all you need. *Card, that is.
Train travel and train stations – The railway system of Great Britain is the oldest and most comprehensive in the world, responsible for near singlehandedly driving forth a technological and social revolution that opened up entire swaths of country to industry, development and most importantly opportunity. The Tube aside, in London, railways and train stations are ubiquitious – you’re never far from one of the capital’s great train stations with their huge cathedral like interiors, or from their whistling conductors, screeching trains and masses of passengers. With cities, towns and villages of all shapes and sizes just a short train ride away, the ability to get out of London and explore Britain by train is easy, affordable and enjoyable, unlike in Canada where train travel is expensive, infrequent and a novelty more than anything else.
The Great British seaside – The beach. The seaside. The water. I love it. I grew up making sand castles and running through waves. As a teen, I went through a period of being a ‘surfer,’ which meant I got on a surfboard a few times and wore Billabong t-shirts. Ever since moving to England, I got on the hunt for the perfect British seaside holiday and I can tell you from experience that a pilgrimage to the water is never a pilgrimage made in vain. Whether it’s paddle boarding and seal spotting off the coast of Cornwall, crabbing amidst the dunes and waterways of the Norfolk broads, or enjoying a newspaper full of Fish, chips and mushy peas on a pebble strewn beach in Brighton….willing the sun to shine, a trip to the seaside is a can’t miss experience and the archetypal British holiday.
Cuppa tea – ‘Teatime,’ ‘Cricket tea,’ ‘Afternoon tea,’ ‘ Tea rooms,’ ‘Tea ‘ toast,’ in Britain there’s always an excuse for ‘a cuppa’…something which I learned on my first day of work, when, upon sitting down for a client meeting was asked – “Shall I be mother?” Apparently…pouring tea is traditionally the mother’s role in a family setting, hence the question. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that no meeting can take place without tea, no meal finished until tea has been drunk and there is no better time for tea…than now! Now if only I could make a decent cup ;)
Being an expat – Not being a Brit you immediately stick out like a sore thumb the moment you open your mouth, whether it be at a bar, in a queue for the loo or on a conference call with a client. Again, this is something that happens both while traveling and while living abroad but as an expat it’s on an even greater scale. You get lost. You get homesick. You attempt to work out the exchange rate to find out if what you’re buying is a rip off or a good deal. You struggle with the language (Yes, British English can sometimes seem like a foreign language!). You’re forced to work out for yourself the customs, norms and values that bond society….and 99 per cent of the time you enjoy the journey, the process of figuring things out and revelling in the differences of the country that has adopted you as if you were one of its own.
Wimbledon – Tennis’ most hallowed grounds, a day out at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is truly one of the most surreal and serene sporting experiences I have ever had. With no barriers between players wandering around between matches and the fans, it’s virtually impossible not to bump into (or at least get within a few feet from) a Nadal, Federer, Murray or the like. And with a liberal admissions policy that allows you to bring in a full picnic basket full of food and booze, it’s an extremely cheap day out…just try doing the same at a Baseball, Football, Basketball or Hockey game. But at the home of tennis, anything goes, including the obligatory strawberries and Pimms…or if you’re feeling flush, Champagne. ;)
The child-like excitement that fills the city on the first snowfall of the year (before it quickly creates transport chaos for the entire Metropolitan area with every other person calling in to work saying that they won’t be able to make it in because there is two centimetres of snow on the tracks). Ah Londoners, you wouldn’t last a day in T.O. where the expectation is you come in no matter the weather and a ‘BIG’ snowfall is when the Army have to be called in.
Cabbies – Granted, all big cities have cab drivers, but London cabbies (and their iconic Black Cabs) are a whole different breed. I’ll never forget the first time I hailed a black cab, got in and sat down into the couch like backseat, complete with flat screen TV and free Wifi. Not that you’d ever need a distraction sitting in the back of a black cab with how enjoyable it is to have a conversation with a proper East Ender as they zip in and out of traffic, taking you down side streets and back streets – without a GPS. They even have to complete a three year degree called ‘The Knowledge’ to get their license which essentially imprints the entirety of London’s streets onto their brain. And if that wasn’t enough they even have their own little huts throughout the city where they can grab a tea and bacon butty and sit around with their other cabbie friends talking about how awesome they are.
British English – because it might as well be a foreign language although half the fun has been figuring it out. So for my North American friends out there, here’s a crash course – it’s crisps not chips, chips not fries, plastics not band aids, car boot not trunk, rubbish not garbage, aubergine not eggplant, dustbin lorry men not garbage man, biscuits not cookies.
The charm of a quaint English village – honeycombed houses, thatched roofs, cobblestone streets, the fact that every house has it’s own individual name as opposed to a faceless number on a street – there is just something about wandering around an English village that makes you feel that you’ve stepped into vortex and entered a simpler time; a time where the pace was slower, the people were kinder and the products were hardier…and then you stop and realise that you could only spend a day here before you went out of your mind with stir craziness and couldn’t get back to London quick enough!
Fancy dress – Another aspect of British culture that completely bewildered and intrigued me when I moved over her – the prevalence of dressing up, no matter the reason. In North America, you dress up once a year…for Halloween. If you said to someone in Toronto, “Oh we’re going to do ‘Fancy Dress’ on Saturday night,’ they’d get out their best clothes – a sharp suit or smokin’ dress, not a Sombrero or blue wig. Call me converted though, fancy dress for me through and through….no special occasion needed.
The people, the friends…until we meet again..