Posted in London on Saturday 8th March 2014 at 10:03pm


It feels like a long time since I've done this...as the train edges into Paddington, with a defiantly strong sun burning off the misty morning cloud layer, I'm strangely nervous to be back here. It's impossible not to remember the first, tentative arrival all those years ago as the power car comes to rest a few feet from the buffer stops, and there is a mad rush for the ticket gate. Life has been busy lately - and travel plans have focused on a trip west in a few weeks time - so we've spent time at home, making a home in fact. This escape feels precious and rare, but at the same time the sense of familiarity is welcome. It seems impossible to tire of London, just like the saying goes. Our first destination though, is entirely indulgent... We start on a 205 arcing around the edge of the City. The sun is up in earnest now, and the yellow brick is springing into life. The glass facade of the new University College Hospital building reflects a view of the bus back at us as we creep along the Euston Road. The confusion of Crossrail work around Moorgate diverts the bus into unexpected territory - the grim fringe of Shoreditch along Great Eastern Road giving way to the more chic side of shabby as we emerge from Holywell Lane and head for Liverpool Street. From here a grimy windowed train takes us the short hop to Cambridge Heath station where we emerge into a sun-baked Mare Street, turning to head along the Regent's Canal towards Broadway Market. Why did we take this convoluted detour on a day dedicated to being tourists? Simple... Coffee.

Passive Planning Objection, Mare Street, Hackney
Passive Planning Objection, Mare Street, Hackney

We lingered in Broadway Market long enough to enjoy two superb coffees from Climpson & Sons, before wandering north to London Fields. The park was teeming with people, with plenty of the local types in evidence. Cyclist careened along the path, dinging bells in frustration as families and hipster covens wandered, four or five abreast. It was time to move on, via London Fields station back to Liverpool Street and out onto the baked pavements of the city. Once out of the gravity of the station, the streets quietened. We slipped through Great St. Helens and into the plaza around the ancient church. Once away from Bishopsgate, the weekend quiet of the city quickly descended. Aside from a few tourists point cameras up the bulging sides of 30 St.Mary Axe, we were alone to wander the precincts of the curious 12th century building. A wedding was taking place inside, which gave a rare weekend glimpse into the interior, but we had to move on. Around the curve of St. Mary Axe and to the presciently named St. Andrew Undershaft. With the Lloyd's Building filling the view southwards, we almost failed to notice the sparkling upturned icicle of the Leadenhall Building towering above us. A tapering triangle of glass and metal, it is surprisingly elegant for a brutal, straight-edged edifice. We compared the work of modern architects before moving on into the maze of city streets. Billiter Street and Mark Lane brought us to St. Olave Hart Street, it's squat tower and gruesome doorway an old haunt I'd stopped at many times - but exploring afresh with company has become a new novelty for me. Finally we turned onto Great Tower Street and saw our goal glinting in the afternoon sunlight - The Tower of London.

30 St. Mary Axe
30 St. Mary Axe
Leadenhall Building
Leadenhall Building

Anyone who has read this sorry screed of travel details will know this is not a new part of the world to me. But, I'm almost ashamed to say I've never been inside the precincts of the tower. Today we ventured in - undeterred by the rude security staff and the high prices for audio guides, we shuffled along the cobbbled streets to Traitor's Gate. The White Tower glittered beside us, as we turned into the courtyard around the Wakefield Tower and admired the view. An accretion of architectural styles and periods, a building extended and refortified with passing years and growing threats. It felt like the foundation of modern empire: a continual shoring up of tradition with more and more martial superiority. Having watched a guard-changing ceremony while Raven's picked at unsuspecting tourists' picnics, we joined a crowd heading for the Crown Jewels. At last I'd see some of the fundamental tools of monarchy for real. We worked our way around the rather cleverly staged display, watching projections of coronations, and marvelling at the perfectly preserved artefacts. Of course the really old things were gone - destroyed by Cromwell in the revolution - but here were tokens of Carolingean splendour, designed to shamelessly announce the reinstatement of monarchy. At the key moment, as we passed the state crowns, orbs and sceptres we stepped onto a conveyor which slowly edged us by at a reasonable speed. Like some sort of gameshow with impossible prizes, we guessed the value of the Cullinan II diamond, and found ourselves out by the order of hundreds of millions. Blinking in the sunshine again, we sat awhile and appraised the situation outside the tiny, sequestered church of St. Peter Ad Vincula. Overwhelmed by royalty and the sense of enclosure we decided to head for the river.

The sunshine had brought the crowds here too, and we queued for so long beside the pier it seemed we'd quite literally miss the boat - but we made it comfortable, the crowds still lining up to board the vessel while we found a seat among a group of disinterested Spanish tourists. We finally set off, curving out into the Thames, before turning and setting off upstream with Tower Bridge and the exterior of Traitor's Gate receding behind us. Under London Bridge, and then to Blackfriars, where the Fleet was concealed today - with a Thames Waterman providing commentary along the way. Edging around the bend in the stream we left the City of London and moved along the Embankment towards Westminter Pier. The journey was all too short - a quiet, relaxing interlude before emerging again into a press of tourists around the Palace of Westminster. We made our way carefully around the confusion of pedestrian crossings at Parliament Square, looking for a good angle on St. Stephen's Tower, but continually finding ourselves thwarted by the low, early spring sun. It was chilly now, but still bright and we decided to walk along Whitehall, past the Cenotaph and the fortress-like gates of Downing Street and to Trafalgar Square where we could board a bus back to Paddington.

As we sipped champagne in a spot which has become a bit of a landmark to us, we reflected on the trip ahead of our train home. It had been a long, tiring and fulfilling day - a return to London after a period of absence longer than I can remember for a good many years. Once again, as life changes, so does my relationship with the city. I never thought I'd be a tourist in the traditional sense again - and certainly never thought I'd enjoy it so much. The memory of the boat bringing us west via the curving silver arc of river sparked an urge to be back again soon. There is an entire new park to explore out east, and many more of these tourist adventures ahead...


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Lost::MikeGTN

I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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