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
Something new – City Hall, SE1
Something borrowed – King’s Library, The British Museum, WC1
Something blue – police box, Earl’s Court SW5
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.
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.
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 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!
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 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.
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.
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 – 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.
Central Hall, Natural History Museum
Paul & Jill Ruddock Gallery (room 50a), V&A Museum
The Rosetta Stone, British Museum