London: First City of the Empire

London: capital of the United Kingdom and once the heart of the greatest empire the world has seen. I think English literary figure Dr Samuel Johnson said it best when he declared that, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life…” These are a few thoughts from my time living in (East) London, whilst completing my medical elective at The Royal London Hospital (Dec 2009 – Jan 2010). As usual, photo highlights are available on my Flickr photostream.

Old, new, borrowed, blue

I took quite a few photos whilst in London. Inspired by one of the memes from the final episode of Doctor Who this year (The Big Bang), I present here a small selection (with more available on my Flickr “Britannia” set).

Something old – Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, London

Something new – City Hall, SE1

City Hall, London

Something borrowed – King’s Library, The British Museum, WC1

King's Library, The British Museum

Something blue – police box, Earl’s Court SW5

Police box, Earl's Court

Getting around London

One of the first things to get to grips with when you spend a decent amount of time in London is the arcane British postcode system. Whilst the postcodes may look like bizarre jumbles of letters and numbers (e.g. my address E1 2DR), they’re actually derived systematically – the first half of the postcode (“outward code”) is composed of a letter sequence for the locality and a district number, e.g. OX1 for central Oxford and L4 for Anfield, Liverpool; and is helpfully marked on street signs. Central London is divided into EC (East Central) and WC (West Central), and the rest of Greater London is divided into the eight compass directions relative to the city centre. The “inward code” localises to a specific street/block/building.

Great Ormond St sign

The actual process of getting around London is quite an efficient (albeit sometimes painfully slow) process, thanks to city’s comprehensive public transport network (Transport for London). Perhaps the most essential item for the intrepid traveller is an Oyster Card, a stored-value smartcard that can be used on all Transport for London services and most National Rail services within Greater London.

Oyster Card

London’s red double-decker buses are one of the city’s icons. Travelling by bus is a great way of absorbing the cityscape. It can also sometimes be a rather frustrating experience, thanks to the notorious traffic congestion in the city centre – it once took me almost an hour to travel 9 km from Whitechapel to Euston aboard the 205. Some routes are operated using “bendy buses” (articulated buses) where, unlike Sydney, passengers are allowed to board through any door – one of my cousins jokingly refers to them as “free buses” since many passengers don’t validate their Oyster Cards when entering through the rear doors.

Routemaster bus, Charing Cross

Routemaster bus, Charing Cross WC2

The other iconic mode of public transport is the London Underground, referred to as “the tube” by locals. The tube was the world’s first metro system and it shows… you very quickly become familiar with the multitude of stairs and tortuous tunnels within the stations. Also, many stations have narrow platforms that aren’t able to accommodate crowds – I did NOT appreciate being caught in stampede on an overcrowded platform at Bond Street Station (initially away from a fight that had broken out between two chavs, then subsequently onto the train once it arrived). Living in Whitechapel, I was often forced to contend with the Hammersmith & City Line, perhaps the worst line in the network for service frequency and reliability – so much so that one of the other medical students at my hospital preferred to commute from Euston on the painfully slow 205 bus (see above). Another other major issue with the tube is that there seems to be no mobile phone reception in underground stations and lines. Nevertheless, the network generally works quite well with mostly frequent and reliable services. I found the deep-level underground lines rather amusing because of the diminutive size of the rolling stock made necessary by the small tunnel diameter (e.g. 1996 Stock in the photo below). It can get quite claustrophobic inside the tiny deep-level tube trains!

Bond Street tube station

Jubilee Line 1996 Stock train approaching Bond Street tube station

Engineering work on the tube network means that train drivers sometimes have to override the digital voice announcement system and make passenger announcements themselves. One time, as I was travelling on a District Line train, the driver decided to employ British dry wit to entertaining effect (much to the confusion of several tourists aboard). A selection of quotes:

“Due to planned engineering work, there is no DLR service from Tower Gateway today. There is a special replacement magical mystery bus service operating.”

“This train will attempt to stop all stations, taking the scenic route to Richmond.”

“Trains do not stop at Cannon Street on Sunday, due to a complete lack of interest. The next station will be Mansion House.”

Life in Whitechapel

Whitechapel in London’s East End has an interesting history. It is associated with such diverse people as Jack the Ripper and Joseph Merrick (the “Elephant Man”). The Salvation Army was founded there. The bells for Big Ben, the Liberty Bell, and closer to home the University of Sydney Carillon were forged at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. In recent decades the area has become known for its large Muslim population (predominately Bengali), with East London Mosque being one of the largest in Britain. It is an area of historical and continuing socioeconomic disadvantage, and it’s not without reason that Whitechapel Road is the cheapest property on the Monopoly board (see my previous Monopoly photos).

Whitechapel Rd, Whitechapel

Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel E1

I lived in Whitechapel for over a month and, despite my reservations, gradually became accustomed to the character of the area: traversing through the slum-like Whitechapel Road Street Market to buy my groceries at Sainsbury’s supermarket, the halal adaptation of English breakfast served in the local cafés (turkey bacon, beef/chicken sausages, &c.), the ubiquitous fried chicken stores, the old Bengali man who ran the newspaper stand at Whitechapel tube station from whom I bought my copy of The Guardian every day, the sight of the Gherkin looming to the west, etc.

Catching up with friends/family

During my time in the UK, a few of my medical friends were also completing their electives elsewhere in London and/or dropping by. I variously managed to catch-up with Athina (St George’s Hospital), Martina (Eastman Dental Hospital), Owen (Israel) and Aileen (Germany). It was hilarious sharing our experiences with adapting to the freezing weather conditions (one unnamed friend slipped-over multiple times on the ice outside her hospital), inquisition by the UK Border Agency, jet lag, terrible coffee, language barriers (even in the UK) and just being on the opposite side of the planet in general.

Jamie's Italian

I also caught-up with my English cousins on a few occasions. On the final occasion we had dinner at the London branch of Jamie’s Italian (as in Jamie Oliver) in Canary Wharf E14. The restaurant doesn’t take bookings, but it was well worth the hour-long wait. I still find the British concept of eating spaghetti with knife and fork quite amusing – as with coffee, the Brits clearly don’t have the Italian influence that we have in Australia – but then Jamie’s spaghetti bolognese was actually the best I’ve ever had!

Coffee – rewarding disloyalty

The general standard of coffee served in the UK is rather poor. I should’ve known it was a sign of things to come when my first cup of coffee on English soil was burnt to the point of being undrinkable. The second warning sign was when I discovered that the Brits consider the “flat white”, an ordinary Australian variant of café latte, to be a novel and highly regarded espresso drink. The first part of my salvation came when I discovered a café named “Flat White” (17 Berwick St, Soho W1) . As the name suggests, it’s actually run by an Antipodean partnership – who would’ve thought that we in the “colonies” would be the ones to rescue the Brits from coffee hell.

Coffee disloyalty card

The second part of my salvation came when I discovered the Prufrock Disloyalty Card, the brainchild of Gwilym Davies (World Barista Champion 2009). Gwilym’s idea was to promote the emerging East London coffee scene with the offer of a free coffee from him for visiting each of the places listed. Most of the places were a bit out of the way for me, however the places I managed to get to (The Espresso Room, Nude Espresso and the Whitecross Coffee Cart) were excellent.

Whitecross Coffee Cart

Whitecross Coffee Cart – Pitch 42, Whitecross St, Barbican EC1

The sun never sets…

While the British Empire may be no more, there are certain benefits from once being the centre of the greatest empire the world has seen. One of these is the vast collections of antiquities from across the world that are housed in Britain’s museums. Furthermore, in a rather enlightened public policy decision, entry to all national museums in Britain is free! I managed to spend several full days just at the stalwart British Museum. I also particularly enjoyed exploring the V&A Museum (art & design), the Wellcome Trust collections (history of medicine) at the Wellcome Collection and Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre.

Natural History Museum

Central Hall, Natural History Museum

V&A Museum

Paul & Jill Ruddock Gallery (room 50a), V&A Museum

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, British Museum

Merseyside

I ended up visiting Liverpool (Merseyside county) twice during my time in the United Kingdom. I decided well before I arrived in the UK that I would make a trip to Liverpool at some stage. My friend Martina described it as a “pilgrimage” (due to my football allegiance), but after the first few days of hospital accommodation austerity in crowded and polluted Whitechapel, the idea of escaping to Merseyside for a few days before starting my elective sounded rather agreeable. The second trip was the result of serendipity (see below). I came away loving the great culture of the city… even the Scouse dialect! Photo highlights available on my Flickr photostream.

Travelling Virgin

Despite the relative expense, compared to discount coach services, I decided to catch a fast train service to Liverpool on both occasions (the price of an Off-Peak Return ticket using my 16–25 Railcard was quite reasonable anyway). Virgin Trains, the franchisee for the West Coast Main Line on Britain’s privatised National Rail system, runs an hourly direct service from London Euston station to Liverpool Lime Street station (via Stafford and Runcorn). Virgin operates a modern fleet of Pendolino electric tilt trains on the route at speeds of up to 200 km/h for a typical travel time of 2 hours 8 minutes to cover the approximately 330 kilometres. This was the fastest land vehicle I’d ever travelled on and I was very impressed – there’s something very satisfying about whizzing through the beautiful English countryside at 200 km/h in relaxed comfort. Strangely though, Virgin Cola wasn’t available onboard (despite it being the only cola drink available on Virgin Atlantic services to/from Sydney).

Virgin Trains Pendolino at Liverpool Lime Street station
Virgin Trains Pendolino “Virgin Warrior” at Liverpool Lime Street station

Capital of culture

Liverpool is a city full of culture, from the listed historical buildings dating from the city’s heyday during the peak of the British Empire to the ever-present reminders of its four most famous musicians (e.g. Liverpool John Lennon Airport) to its two famous football teams (Liverpool FC and Everton FC) &c. – it was no surprise to discover that the city was named 2008 European Capital of Culture.

The Three Graces, Liverpool
“The Three Graces” – Royal Liver, Cunard, and Port of Liverpool buildings

Of course, the heart of Liverpool is its people and the Scousers (as they’re popularly known in Britain) I encountered were a great bunch. I even came to grips with the distinctive Scouse dialect (it’s not just an accent), however there were a number of occasions when I needed to (somewhat embarrassingly) ask people to repeat themselves. This apparently worked both ways – some of the locals had some trouble with my adopted Received Pronunciation accent. My favourite quote on this matter came from the owner of Kavanagh’s II coffee shop after I mentioned that I was Australian, “You don’t sound like an Aussie… Your accent sounds more ‘proper English’ than us!”.

Another Place

Another Place is a public art installation by British sculptor Antony Gormley. The work consists of 100 life-size cast iron figures (modelled after Gormley himself) facing out to sea, spread across 3 kilometres of coastline. After first being displayed in Germany, Norway and Belgium; its final permanent location is Crosby Beach, near Liverpool (actually in the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton, which is adjacent to the City of Liverpool). Although not in central Liverpool, it’s quite easy to reach Another Place – simply a matter of taking a Merseyrail train to Blundellsands & Crosby station and walking 500 metres along Blundellsands Road West to Crosby Beach. It’s a very interesting work – whilst each figure individually has quite limited artistic value, seeing dozens of them staring silently out to sea is a strangely mesmerising experience. Gormley’s official line is that the work represents “a response to the individual and universal sentiments associated with emigration, sadness at leaving but the hope of a new future in another place”.

Another Place by Antony Gormley
Another Place by Antony Gormley, Crosby Beach, Merseyside

You’ll never walk alone

The more famous and successful of Liverpool’s football teams is Liverpool Football Club, based at Anfield football stadium. As a Liverpool supporter, a stadium tour was practically a requisite during my time in England. Considering the notorious difficulty of getting tickets to matches at Anfield, I also thought the tour would be my only chance to see the inside of the legendary stadium.

Anfield stadium, Liverpool
Anfield stadium, Liverpool

Little did I know that a few weeks later I would manage to score tickets to an FA Cup 3rd round replay match between Liverpool and Reading (and the reason I returned to Liverpool). The atmosphere at Anfield on match night was amazing. Unfortunately the Reds played rather poorly that night (and both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres sustained injuries) and ultimately lost the match 2–1.

Liverpool v Reading, 13 Jan 2010
Liverpool v Reading, Anfield, 13 January 2010

The Baltic Fleet

I couldn’t leave Liverpool without trying some scouse, the local dish. Indeed scouse is so synonymous with Liverpool that the term came to refer to the people of Liverpool (Scousers) and their dialect (Scouse). Scouse is a meat stew containing lamb/mutton, potatoes, onions, carrots and potatoes; traditionally served with picked red cabbage and bread.

Scouse

I first tried scouse at The Baltic Fleet a pub on Wapping, near Albert Dock. The Baltic Fleet is also a microbrewery, so I tried their eponymous Wapping Bitter ale. Both were excellent. There’s nothing like a good bowl of scouse washed down with ale to lift the spirits on a (literally) freezing night.

The Baltic Fleet
33 Wapping
Liverpool
L1 8DQ
United Kingdom
wappingbeers.co.uk