A Bonus Central London Layover–and How We Used It!

Strolling Through Central London–From Piccadilly to South Kensington.

            Going on a safari to Africa was on Llew’s Bucket List and after years of talking about it and planning, we were off and away in the company of some of our closest friends. It was an adventure that we anticipated with feverish excitement.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015: New York-London

            Thanks to out attempts to juggle air routes with the idea of gaining the most reasonably-priced fares, we flew out on Virgin Atlantic Airlines out of Kennedy airport at 9. 30 pm after going the usual convoluted route by taxi to the Metro-North train station and NYC Airporter Bus to Kennedy. We gave ourselves ample time and arrived, san stress, on schedule. A smooth check-in ensured that we were in our seats on time. But for the fact that the traffic assistant informed us incorrectly that our flight was indefinitely delayed (which was a false alarm), all went well. We ate a fairly decent dinner at 8.00 pm at Wild Buffalo Wings—a sampler that included said wings plus onion rings, mozzarella sticks and loaded nachos—a true greasy spoon standard! Not surprisingly, we barely hit our seats to discover that the flight was 50%  light. As soon as the Fasten Seatbelts signs were switched off, we raced to the back of the aircraft to bag the four-seater middle aisle seats and with Llew claiming one such set and me the other, we slept horizontally all night long.

 Thursday, July 2, 2015: London:

            It was not surprising, therefore, that we arrived at London’s Heathrow airport at 9. 30 am fresh as daisies after a picture perfect entry into the city. For our aircraft flew directly over Central London which allowed me to snap pictures of some of its most note-worthy structures from the Millennium Dome at Greenwich to The London Eye, from the Gherkin to the Houses of Parliament! I could not have been happier! Indeed flying over London is an experience I never tire of and each time I manage to see the city in a new light—again literally for I have arrived at various times of day and night.

We cleared Immigration and Baggage Claim by 10.45, made our way to the Piccadilly Line Tube station, spent a while getting our Oyster Cards topped up and then we were off. In an hour, we were at Green Park and, on cue, crossed Piccadilly to get to Fortnum and Mason, the gourmet specialty food store where we had made plans to meet our friend Bash at 11. 30. It was 12 noon exactly by the time we arrived inside the plush store that was in the midst of its 50% summer sale—Bash turned up a good 20 minutes later by which time I had sussed the joint to find that despite the sale, prices were still not too attractive. Perhaps by the time we return to London, they will be slashed some more and we shall be the proud possessors of bargains.

            A wonderful reunion with Bash followed a decision to leave the store and walk into full glorious sunshine on a day when the temperature was simply perfect. London had been reeling under  a massive heat wave which, thankfully, had abated by the time we arrived. We could not have asked for more perfect walking weather—and so we decided to take a walking tour of the area from say Piccadilly to Kensington. Llew was returning to London for an extended stay after a long while. He was happy and excited to be in the midst of back cabs and red double deckers and his energy seemed boundless—having slept the entire night away on a red eye flight was a huge bonus.

A Walking Tour of Central London:

            This past January, on a short trip to London, I had managed to pick up a reprinted edition of a classic London architectural guide by Ian Nairn called Nairn’s London. Nairn’s is considered the last word on London’s structures and with his observant eye and wicked sense of humor, he brings whole new nuances to one’s perceptions of T’Smoke’s well-loved buildings. So, it was with eagerness that I asked my companions, Llew and Bash, if they were up for an architectural walking tour of this small pocket of London that goes from Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington’s Little France—and hooray, they were also eager beavers!

Skirting the Royal Academy of Art:

We started off across the street at the Royal Academy of Art where a large installation filled the main courtyard. Entitled Inflated Star and Wooden Star, it is a massive piece of aluminum and teakwood by one of the most important contemporary American sculptors, Frank Stella. We encircled it, took a few pictures by the sculpture of Lord Burlington in whose grand private London home the Royal Academy of founded and is based.

Special Exhibition on Magna Carta:    

            We were then invited to a special exhibition held by the Royal Society of Antiquarians on the 800thbirthday of Magna Carta—one of the most important and significant documents in the world and the father of all legal writs. Inside, is a very solemn room that is filled with Plantaganet and Tudor portraits as well as furniture occupied by the office bearers of the Royal Academy at their meetings. We watched a short 7 minute film, then adjourned to the adjoining room to actually inspect the three copies of Magna Carta that were derived from the original. They were all very interesting to see and we were thrilled to be part of the exciting document that has continued to make its mark since 1215 when the barons forced King John to sign the agreement that limited his powers and made him accountable at Runnymede. We spent about half an hour there and then stepped next door.

The Burlington Arcade and the Piccadilly Arcade:

It always amazes me that sometimes people spend their entire lives in a fascinating city and know so little about its history or architecture—because we tend to take for granted those very aspects of our own environment that tourists flock from all over the world to see. This was the case with Bash who has been a Londoner all his life but had never entered or seen London’s famous arcades. There are three and they are all clustered in Piccadilly—the third is the Royal Arcade. These ‘arcades’ are covered corridors lined with upscale shops offering enticing and expensive merchandise in an atmosphere of quiet class. They were constructed in the 18th centuries when London’s ladies, flush with cash earned by their hard-working fathers or husbands, came out unabashedly to spend it. Shopping then was a social activity and the ladies wore their finest clothing to parade in these arcades as they inspected the goods, regardless of the vagaries of the weather—for they came to see and be seen. Today, the two arcades that are bang across Piccadilly from one another can be admired for their interesting architectural features, their beautiful tall bow fronted glass windows and the stained glass domed ceilings that let in abundant light no matter the weather.

A Quick Prowl Through Green Park:

            Our next port of call was Green Park just across the street—on a day that was so glorious and with lunch time tummies beckoning, it was not surprising that scores of Londoners had left their offices to lounge on the famed green striped easy chairs on the grass as they munched their cheddar and Branston pickle sandwiches! We walked a little in the park before crossing the street again to get into Half Moon Street:

Shepherd’s Market—a Little London Village Gem:

            Half Moon Street leads to the Third Church of Christ Scientist, a beautiful Neo-Classical structure at the junction of picturesquely named Half Moon Street and Curzon Street. It is here that the stroller will find an arch—you always feel the need to bend your head to enter the alley created by the arch. Over on the other side of it, you are in a part of London that is seeing better days after having served, during the 18thcentury, as the haunt of the ladies of the night. Today, it is hub of pubs, restaurants and specialty food stores so attractive that they are filled with office-goers tucking into pie and mash or pizza. We were hungry just watching them enjoy their food and began to think seriously about getting a bite ourselves as it was past 1.00 pm by the time.

 On to Hyde Park Corner and Apsley House:

            But, we decided to press on and make Knightsbridge the stop for a well-deserved lunch break. And so we returned to Piccadilly and the stop where it meets the Hard Rock Café—where Wellington’s Arch and the home that he was gifted by a grateful nation, simply known as No. 1 London aka Apsley House today stands. We did appreciate the fine architectural lines of these structures, aided and abetted by Ian Nairn, and then continued on briskly towards Harrods.

Lunch at EAT at Knightsbridge:

            Passing by the gates of Hyde Park, we arrived at “Harvey Nicks”, as the department store of Harvey Nichols is known colloquially and then there we were staring the grand Edwardian structure of Harrodsin the face. The idea was to survey the merchandise on sale—but with too many tummies rumbling, lunch became the main priority. We crossed the street and settled down to hearty comfort food—chicken and mushroom pie with mash and gravy for the guys and a delicious sweet potato and chilli soup for me—flavorful and very inexpensive.

Hitting Harrods:

Well boosted by our meal, we entered Harrods,always a joy no matter the time of year. Alas, there were no bargains to be had despite the summer sale—at least not the kind I wanted. After spending about a half hour there and using the restrooms, we made our way out and resolved to return on the second leg of our stay in London, two weeks from now.

Tea at Little Paris at “South Ken”:

            All that was left then, since we still had two whole hours to kill before we needed to board a Tube to get back to Heathrow, was to stroll idly towards Albertopolis—as the region that accommodates some of London’s most-famous museums is known—thanks to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, who devised and created it. With the Alexander McQueen exhibition entitled ‘Savage Beauty’ going on in full swing at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Llew (who had missed it in New York, unlike moi), decided to see it upon our return in two weeks’ time.

            We then headed towards the Tube station which is known as Little Paris at South Kensington or South Ken as this area is known—because this is where London’s tres chic expatriate French population has congregated. We passed by a number of coffee shops and tea rooms all churning out a mouthwatering array of French patisserieand since we urgently needed to rest our feet after our long wander, we settled down at Le Pain Quotidien and ordered a pot of tea for the chaps, hot chocolate for me, together with almond croissants and a chocolate tart that was simply scrumptious. All the time, we had the chance to catch up with Bash and to take in all the news about the recent goings-on in his life. We will be spending the day with him again very soon and as we sipped our tea and munched our goodies, we were able to observe the beautiful people pass by on the street their hands filled with iced tea or cups of gelato—for London’s summer is brief and its delights are grabbed with both hands—literally!

 Return to Heathrow:

            Bash got into the Tube with us by 6.00 pm and exactly an hour later, about 20 minutes after he hopped off at his stop, we arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 3–where I retrieved the strolley back pack that I had stored in the Left Luggage Locker in the morning (10 pounds for 1 item for the first 5 hours) and then we were off to our gate to look for our onward flight to Johannesburg.

            Our day in London had been ‘brilliant’ to use a common British-ism! We felt that we had made the most of it—we had enjoyed its architecture and its history, partaken of its gastronomic offerings, caught up with a dear friend, and, in the process, prepared ourselves for the next lap of our holiday.

            Once again, we lucked out for when we boarded our flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg in South Africa, we found it also half full. This allowed us to stretch once again on 4-seaters and spend the night away horizontal and able to fully enjoy a good night’s sleep. When dinner was done, we dimmed lights (I had finished watching Gone Girl on the in-flight screen) and then we were out like a light.
       Tomorrow, I shall be reporting from Africa– do stand by for my next bulletin! Until then, cheerio!

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