A January 2005 trip
to London by Mr. Wonka
Quote: A small glimpse into my first visit to jolly olde London.
"What would you do if you dated someone who was obsessed with a sport that never ends?" That was the question posed by our friend Beth, in reference to her football-loving significant other, Sam. Indeed, I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the football hysteria that engulfs London, which was further exacerbated by Sam’s willing commentary on every Premiership team, its reputation, and its history, every player, every coach, all the gossip... by the time I left London, the sport had been successfully ingrained in me. Pick up the sports section and you’ll see that 90% of it covers football. Turn on the tube and watch a game, or highlights from the games. It’s everywhere! Even if you aren’t necessarily a fan, do check the schedule for your stay, and if you can’t make it to a live game, make sure you at least allow time to stop in a pub, grab a few pints of bitter, and get wrapped up in a match. Just make sure you know which team to root for, depending on where you’re at. Londoners take these games very seriously!
Call me crazy, but one of the things I most look forward to doing in a new city is exploring its grocery stores. Looking at all the different products, sighing over the cheaper prices on premier cheeses, trying new beverages and candies... I could spend 2 hours in a foreign grocery store! In London we most often found ourselves in Tesco (or Tesco Express, which has some of the best-priced and tastiest sandwiches in the city) or Sainsbury’s, though of course there are others. Don’t forget to stock up on McVittie’s Digestives, especially the chocolate-coated variety. You can thank me later for the tip.
Last but not least, walking through Portobello Market on a late Saturday afternoon is highly recommended. Antiques, vintage clothes, produce, food, football jerseys... we even scored some delicious aged cheddar sandwiches for 10p!
It could soon change, but as of February 1, 2005, London’s law requires that pubs close at 11pm, so plan accordingly. Clubs that serve alcohol stay open until 2am, but I avoid dance clubs like the plague, so if we thought we might like to drink after 11pm, we bought a few beers or a bottle of wine and left them in our room to enjoy later over a football match.
Ubiquitous red, double-decker buses are another great way to get from Point A to B, and generally cost the same as the underground. Grab a seat up top in the front for the best views of the city. If you want a guided bus tour, you’ll certainly have no trouble finding one.
For tips on London transportation and more, please log on to the "Visit Britain" website. Read Less
Hotel | "Wedgewood Inn"
We weren’t expecting much from the Wedgewood: it was the hotel of choice for our package deal, and we’d read some rather unsavory reviews on TripAdvisor before we left. Still, www.go-today.com had never led us astray on any of our previous trips with them, so at the very least, we expected strictly budget accommodations. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find the hotel perfectly suitable to our needs, which were basically to have somewhere to sleep that was safe, clean, and free of bedbugs.
We arrived at the Wedgewood at about 9am, and to our dismay, the somewhat bitchy front-desk girl refused to bend the hotel’s check-in policy of 2pm. It’s not that we expected her to let us check in—it was her attitude that put us off. Oh, well—we dropped our bags in the luggage room downstairs, dipped into the dining room for a cup of coffee, and dragged our tired bodies around the neighborhood for a few hours. It felt a bit... odd to find myself in Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived before her untimely death, when just hours before I had been in Newark, NJ. Talk about an uneven culture trade! We also walked through Hyde Park and grabbed lunch at Cafe Diana, which goes heavy on the Princess Di kitsch... and I mean heavy.
Back to the Wedgewood. When 2pm finally rolled around, we ascended one floor to room 104, and opened the door. Damn! Who had stayed in this room before us? The Federation of London Chain Smokers? Though apparently smoking isn’t allowed in the rooms, ours smelled like a tobacco competition had just finished. Luckily, after opening the bay windows that faced the street, we completely flushed the smell out of the room... after a few days.
Other than that, our room wasn’t half bad: hairdryer (you have to hold the button down, which Trixie didn’t appreciate), television (with about five channels), telephone, space for your clothes, a large dressing mirror... all the basics. It was a little small, but the bed was surrounded by bay windows and a high ceiling, which was rather lovely.
Now, about the bathroom: it was really small. You basically sit on the toilet, lean forward, and look into the room. It’s a stand-up shower, and you’d better take it early in the morning, or else you can look forward to lukewarm water. And, of course, the toilet sometimes took eight or nine flushes to work. Brilliant!
Toast, coffee, orange juice, and cereal are served daily until 9:30am, and there are nearby groceries, ethnic restos, and pubs. All in all, the Wedgewood wasn’t half bad—but I never thought I’d say that I really missed my toilet back home.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 30, 2005
The Wedgewood Hotel
49 51 LEINSTER SQUARE
London, England W2 4PR
When we arrived for our 7pm reservation, we shared the large upstairs dining area with just one other table of patrons, though by 8pm the beautiful space had considerably filled up with couples. Dimly lit by low-hanging, wrought-iron chandeliers, and surrounded by warm, orange-colored walls, Destino’s main dining area creates a welcoming, old-world colonial atmosphere that’s completed by jazzy Brazilian beats emanating from the sound system.
After explaining that Destino’s food menu had recently changed to focus more on a "grazing experience," our knowledgeable waiter left us to peruse the considerable drinks menu, which includes just about any drink imaginable. Try a "Classic of the Golden Era," such as a mojito or whiskey sour, but the more adventurous should look at the "Contemporary Classics of the New Era" drinks, which include the Colraine Cooler, a stomach-warming mixture of Zubrowka bison grass vodka, fresh mint, sugar, apple juice, and Goldschlager cinnamon liqueur. Groups might try one of the "Destino Flights," which allow you to sample a range of South American, Cuban, or Mexican drinks. Of course, vino aficionados can choose from a list of over 100 wines, while the rum, whiskey, vodka, and tequila choices are almost equally extensive.
Encouraged to choose three to five dishes apiece since no main courses are served, I chose the escavilada ensalada (aubergine, romero pepper, tomatoes, and caramelized red onions with watercress, young goat cheese and sherry vinegar), wild mushroom and corn flatbread (served with olives, capers, and talegio cheese), and white asparagus gratin. Trixie indulged in the roasted corn on the cob, rainbow ceviche (salmon, snapper, and tuna layered over cucumber with a citrus white soy sauce), and sugarcane tuna.
Each dish was served on a differently sized plate, which further added to the artful presentation that was so carefully created by the chef. We exchanged comments such as "oh, this is so good" and "oh my god, you have to try this" throughout our meal, with Trixie raving about the sugarcane tuna, while I found it hard to share my wild mushroom and corn flatbread. Following the staff’s recommendation to order more than two dishes, the portions were just right.
For dessert we had the dulce de leche fondue, which comes with skewered strawberries, figs, pineapples, and bananas that are lightly fried in tempura batter and braised with cinnamon sugar. The warm pot of creamy dulce de leche with mascarpone and manchego cheeses had barely anything left in it by the time we were done. If there’s one must-try dish on Destino’s menu, it’s this.
Destino has quickly cornered the Latin American dining scene in London. Don’t miss out.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 30, 2005
25 Swallow Street
(020) 7437 9895
Trixie and I joined two friends for our outing to Brick Lane, which was nice because we left the haggling to Sam, a young schoolteacher otherwise known as "Mr. Weasel" to his students. Unlike in New York, where the Indian Row hosts only deliver their sales pitch directly in front of their place, here they freely wander the streets, to the point where it almost feels like you’re being solicited to buy drugs. Sam would literally be right in the middle of bargaining down one guy when another would walk right up and say something to the effect of "Yes, my friend, he says he’ll give you 25% off your bill, but the food is rubbish, mate. We’ll give you 25% off AND a bottle of wine." This is all part of the Brick Lane experience, so have fun with it, don’t go for the first offer, and don’t feel bad about turning down what sounds like an extreme act of generosity—these guys are used to it.
We finally settled on the Monsoon, for no other reason than that they offered us 25% off our total bill, as well as one round of drinks for everyone. No, I don’t think the "Best of Brick Lane" sign out front had anything to do with it. Now, whether it was the best, I’m not sure, but I was surprised at how good the food actually was. Back home on Indian Row, just about everyone goes there for the experience, not the quality of cuisine, but here at the Monsoon, we enjoyed tasty dishes, friendly service, and of course, our discounts.
We ordered a few servings of pappadum, which were served with five different sauces, as we looked the menu over. Brightly decorated with aqua-colored walls, wooden floors, and red-carpeted staircases, Monsoon was moderately busy during our visit, which is always a good sign. Looking to try something different, I chose the sag ureebisi gatta, described as "spinach and seeds of Bengladeshi runner beans, cooked in mild spice." We also shared a few orders of garlic-and-cheese naan for the table, both of which arrived piping hot.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our dishes, and were given small refreshers at the end of the meal, which was a nice touch. Our bill came to £30.65 total, which I suppose is reasonable for London. Afterwards, we went to a laid-back pub around the corner to catch the Chelsea v. Arsenal football match.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 30, 2005
78 Brick Lane
(020) 7375 1345
Attraction | "Ye Olde Mitre Tavern"
After practically fighting our way through the aptly named Holborn Circus in search of the fabled Mitre, we started to wonder if we had somehow read the map wrong. We’re here, but where in the world is Ely Court? We took a left off Holborn, hung another quick left in the direction we thought Ely Court must be, and were still left scratching our heads. And then, to our luck and amusement, we stumbled upon a kindred spirit who was more than happy to steer us towards the hidden Mitre. "Ah, you fancy a pint at the Mitre, eh? Well, I could go for a pint myself!" said a friendly elderly gentleman manning the gates in a private housing community. "Go right up there where that white car’s a-pullin’ out, and take a left. It’s right in there."
After graciously thanking him, we followed his directions, walked past the tiny alleyway, and finally, with our new friend shouting to us across the parking lot, discovered Ye Olde Mitre Tavern. Yes, these pints were destined to go down smooth.
At first glimpse, the tavern seemed to be one of the tiniest I’d ever seen, but once we discovered another adjoining room, as well as the "Bishop’s Room" up a narrow, winding staircase, we were able to find somewhere to pull up two stools and enjoy our beers. Obviously a popular after-work watering hole, the Mitre has a jovial atmosphere that was buzzing with spirited conversations. The staff seemed to sincerely enjoy going about their work of pouring Tetley’s, Adams, and Broadside ales, as well as toasted sandwiches for £1.50.
Elizabethan portraits speckled the walls, which were also adorned with various vintage photographs, old signs and menus, and long-expired alcohol licenses from the Mitre’s 460-year history. We couldn’t help but imagine how many people had passed through this tavern to grab an ale over the years, and were glad we were able to experience this popular pub for ourselves.
God knows there’s no shortage of pubs in London, but try to squeeze in a visit to Ye Olde Mitre Tavern. Here, you’re guaranteed to have a truly authentic pub experience. And besides... the Bishop of Ely wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ye Olde Mitre
1 Ely Court
London, England EC1N 6SJ
+44 20 7405 4751
Attraction | "River Thames Path"
Enter the Thames River Path. Stretching for nearly 200 miles through England’s countryside, the path starts in Gloucestershire, winds its way through various towns and villages, and finally ends on the outskirts of London. I know what you must be thinking... but no, we most certainly did not do the entire trek (though it might be fun to do it one day). We picked up the path near the Tower of London Bridge, and slowly made our way down to the Tate British Museum, which we were pleasantly surprised to find open late in the afternoon. By Trixie’s rough calculations, we walked nearly 8 miles over the course of a few hours, which not only gave us a good bit of exercise the day before we’d be sitting on an airplane for 9 hours, but also emphatically whetted our whistles for a few pints of ale later that evening.
One of only 13 National Trails in the entire country, the Thames River Path can be walked by just about anyone. All you’ll need is a comfortable pair of shoes and a trusty camera to snap photos of all the great views and sights you’ll see along the way: Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, the Tower of London, the Millennium Bridge, and Big Ben, to name but a few. You might also pack some snacks and water for the walk.
The signs lining the Thames River do a great job of steering you in the right direction, and there are a few historical landmarks to check out, too. We were especially intrigued by the monument to the World Wars, which pointed out that the clearly evident marks and holes in the statues and along the concrete walkway were caused by bullets, mortar shells, and flying debris.
Get out and burn off all those calories from last night’s pub crawl!
Along the River Thames
Besides the now-ceremonial Yeomans, one of the first things people come to the Tower of London to see are the British Crown Jewels, which have been held here since the start of the 14th century. Yes, the same jewels that Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, a.k.a Frank and Joe Hardy, once saved in the Hardy Boys episode "Assault on the Tower" back in the late ‘70s. Before you get to the jewels, however, visitors are led through a series of rooms with big projection screens showing various coronation ceremonies over the years. These clips are all well and good—but let’s see them jewels. They are quite impressive. Mmmm-hmm... those are diamonds, all right. Yep, that’s one heckuva 12th-century coronation spoon.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The Tower of London’s history dates back to the turn of the 11th century, when William the Conqueror built the White Tower, which is the biggest of the 20 towers located here, and was once home for the king and queen. Over the years, it was used not only as a royal residence, but also a fortress, dungeon, and execution site—that’s where the "daaaaaark side of London" bit comes into play. It was here that two of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded—you can actually see the staircase these two ill-fated women ascended on their way to their beheadings—though they were hardly the only ones to meet their maker within these walls. I highly recommend visiting the Tower of London website for more information about its history.
I didn’t stick with the Yeoman tour for its entirety, but I do recommend that those interested make time for the 60-minute history lesson on the tower. Our guide really hammed it up and made it enjoyable as he led us on a walk that hit all the highlights.
One of the other things that the tower is famous for are the omnipresent ravens. The legend is that Charles II once warned that if the ravens were ever to leave the tower, the British monarchy would collapse, and to ensure that would never happen, he ordered that a small population be kept inside. Nowadays, their wings are clipped so that they can only fly so far. I’d call that cheating, but hey—if at adds to the lure of the tower, then why not, right?
There’s much more to see at the Tower of London, including the Wall Walk, the Fusiliers’ Museum, and the museum within the White Tower. Discounted admission with the Great British Heritage Pass is £13.50 for adults, and the tower is open daily. To experience the nightly "Ceremony of the Keys," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to The Ceremony of the Keys, Waterloo Block, HM Tower of London, EC3N 4AB.
Tower of London
London, England EC3N 4AB
+44 (207) 709 0765
Brooklyn, New York