London Stories and Tips

A Fantastic Drive Around London

St Paul's Cathedral Photo, London, England

My partner works around London sometimes but it tends to be on the outskirts, recently however he had some stuff to deliver around the Spitalfields Market area and his sat nav took him along the 'scenic' route - he came home full of talk about how this route had taken him past some fabulous locations, making me slightly jealous as although I've spent weekends in the capital I've never really seen the sights. I had my usual birthday treats in May with the added extra of Mark promising me a day in London, it wasn't designed to be anything special but I decided I wanted to see this impressive route he kept telling me about!

We set off at around 9.30am and travelled straight down the M40, arriving in London a couple of hours later after a stop off at Oxford services. It was a sunny Sunday so the drive down was pleasant, we only hit any traffic after filtering onto the A40 and heading into London proper. It was just Mark and I travelling so I'd packed some sandwiches for the journey, a quick Starbucks for the livening qualities and I was ready to hit London.

The first thing I glimpsed (far in the distance) was the vague outline of the wheel. That was a nice sight as we'd been on the wheel during our last London visit so it brought back a few memories - we travelled past the 'normal' parts; houses, small high street shopping areas and various retail parks before reaching a narrow dual carriageway that held some grander looking buildings. We saw Harley Street which was smaller than I imagined it to be and unfortunately not photographable from the car (which is how I got most of my London snaps, as a passenger), but judging from the amount of Bentleys and top sports car this is one of the haunts of the rich.

It just got better from there; with each turn I saw something of interest and snapped away with camera and phone. We saw so much without even getting out of the car, things that probably (certainly!) wouldn't impress a Londoner or even a regular visitor to the city - but as a touring Brummie it was a lovely look at things without having to a) find a parking space, b) remortgage my house to pay for said elusive parking spaces or c) battle the hordes of people and incredible amount of bikes!

The Gherkin was visible to some degree throughout most of our drive through London, we ended up very close to the base and I can honestly say its more impressive from a distance! It's HUGE, much bigger than it looks on tele - I was surprised by the rotundness of it and how it sparkled so cleanly in the sun, the surrounding buildings were a bit grotty grimy but The Gherkin positively shone! Mark was impressed by the banks of Boris Bikes, a cycle hire scheme to try and get some of the traffic off the roads - this looks to be a pretty effective initiative as we saw lots of these bikes out and about.

I was reasonably impressed with Kings Cross Station, Waterloo Station being much more beautiful though, and saw a few parks and green spaces - but as the building became grander, and the roads narrower, I realised we were approaching the area I was most looking forward to. Central London itself is amazing, everywhere you look you can see *something* and the majority of buildings are wonderfully historic.

I loved the Financial District; the modern skyscrapers slotted in next to 300 year old mansion-museum hybrid buildings. The Bank of England building was easily recognisable and we got a lingering look at the imposing facade as the traffic was pretty bad; I much prefer this type of architecture to the towering Shard or clinical HSBC building and old style is in abundance in this area!

I adored the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, getting my only glimpse of the Thames as we crossed Westminster Bridge. It's a stunningly beautiful section of the city, bigger than expected and every bit as iconic as it appears when used as a movie or news report backdrop. As an avid news junkie I was excited to pass the grassy strip used by political correspondents from around the world - which is surprisingly small actually, thrown into shadow for the most part from the bulky gothic structures just across the road. By following the simple one way system you see all this; honestly, traffic is crazy busy in this part of London but considering the sheer volume of cars (and motorbikes, and push bikes, and people walking carelessly into the road) I think the roads are pretty well managed.

We drove past Westminster Abbey disappointingly quickly but it looked gorgeous in the early afternoon sun, I was happy to get a longer view of the majestic St Paul's Cathedral and thought of a friend who works there. When we visited it was the weekend before the big Jubilee celebrations and although I was disappointed that the roads around Buckingham Palace were closed, but the pill was sweetened by the pomp that was already being displayed all over London. The Queens portrait in shop windows, huge Union Jack flags forming bunting across major roads, giant images of the Royal family plastered on prominent buildings - wonderful reminders of the upcoming celebrations and a fantastic sight to make you feel 'part of it'.

We really did take a nice route around our capital city and after plugging the postcode for Spitalfields Market in were directed towards Trafalgar Square, where the Olympic countdown clock was still on 61 days! Nelson's Column is cool, but my favourite statue was the one of a boy on a rocking horse - a recent addition to the square, installed on the Fourth Plinth for 2012 and a stunning piece of work. Of course we saw the National Gallery, which manages to overwhelm the cityscape but also blends in with it's surroundings.

I spotted Madame Tussauds (with requisite massive queue), the Tower of London, Fortnum & Mason, Ripley's, souvenir shops aplenty, the Queens Gallery and so much more. We parked up and stretched our legs in Spitalfields Market, spending a couple of hours in Canteen restaurant and doing a little shopping. I hit Montezuma's chocolate shop for a few treats, intending to buy goodies for the kids but ending up choosing all my favourite chocolates! After this we decided to head for The Blind Beggar as my partner, being interested in British gangster culture, wanted to check out the old Kray haunt - this was actually a disappointing visit but I LOVED driving through the hustle and bustle of the East End!

We came out of London to get back to Birmingham and headed along a large dual carriageway. Seeing a large circular stadium I asked Mark if it was Wembley but he said no and concluded that it must be 'something else' - it was only when the Olympics started and I recognised the red curly structure that I realised it had been the Olympic Stadium! A highlight of my day came was when the now identified Olympic Park was in view (albeit a fair distance away) was passing a convoy of Bentleys transporting a beautiful Indian bride to her wedding - she was travelling in a horse and carriage, flanked on all sides by her obviously über rich family.

I really enjoyed seeing London like this, it was a little bit frustrating knowing we weren't going to be visiting the sights but we only had the day - having a drive through meant we saw much more than if we had to take hours out for an 'inside visit' somewhere. It slammed home one point to me, parking is an impossible nightmare in any of the really interesting parts of London - our original plan of going for the weekend and heading there on the train would have been good if we'd wanted to visit the Tower of London or hop on the Eye, but no way could we have seen such a variety of London life as we did during our drive through.

I took plenty of photographs as we traveled around the city, mostly through the open car window and front windscreen when I saw something that interested me. I liked an upmarket residential area we drove through and tried to guesstimate the price of the huge houses, we played a game of imagining it was an area where Chelsea FC players live - and I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of them do as it certainly looked exclusive enough!

Highly recommended as a way to sample this vibrant capital city - allows you to look around without spending vast amounts of cash (possible congestion charges and fuel money notwithstanding) and without having to get caught up in the relentless London crowds.

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