I flew into London Gatwick airport from Amsterdam with Easy Jet, a budget airline. When I landed I was planning to take the National Express bus but ended up buying a £20 Gatwick Express train ticket instead. The buses don’t run as frequently and they are at least an hour and a half ride into the city, while the train only takes thirty minutes (once your at the train station.)
I decided to Couch Surf for my first time. I’ve always wanted to do it and London seemed like the perfect place because I wanted to experience the city like a local. My host lived in Zone 1, the touristy expensive heart of the city, aka downtown Central London. He picked me up at the train station and we got on the tube.We walked past the smallest Chinatown I’ve seen and stopped at a Wasabi sushi so I could grab a bite to eat.
We then went right nearby to Samuel Smith, a traditional English pub, which is exactly what I wanted. Here I met an American girl from Westport, CT who went to high school with an old family friend of mine. I also spoke to a group of guys about whether or not soccer is popular now in the states. They’re convinced it’s as popular as American football.
The pub shut down and we walked a block up the road to The Warick, a trendy English bar. Here I randomly met the Chinese Ambassador in Britain. On our way to the bus we stopped at a casino, which my host is a member of. I watched a bit of the Stanley Cup final that was on tv. Surprisingly the crowd at the casino was mixed male/female and most of the people inside were there for drinks and the tv.
My first Couch Surfing experience was a bust. My host snored loudly and the room was very bright. I ended up only getting about an hour of sleep and knew I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. So I booked a hostel and before I left for my new neighborhood we went for an Indian lunch at Needoo. My host then walked me down to the river. We crossed a few foot bridges and walked through a waterfront restaurant area that was packed with business lunchers and yachts. I got to see the Tower Bridge, the famous bridge in London; London bridge is actually a flat concrete pathway right next to this fancy bridge.
I took the underground at Tower Bridge to King’s Cross and walked to my hostel, Click 261 on Gray’s Inn Rd. The hostel is on the newer end and I stayed in the cheapest dorm, $28 per night in a 18-bed dorm. The room is cramped and smelled like feet. The showers are cramped as well, and the lounge/kitchen is in the basement downstairs with no natural light. However, I did manage to get the first bed in the room which meant I had some privacy, as long as the main door was closed.
I relaxed and did laundry then I headed back to King’s Cross and took the underground to Waterloo station by the south bank. [One of my Montreal friends is from London. She came to NY last summer and I showed her around, now she's showing me around her city.]
We spent the evening at South Bank, which is a massive outdoor waterfront promenade lined with restaurants and bars. We took a walk across the Golden Jubilee Bridge so I could get a great view of Big Ben, the Parliament and the London Eye.
For dinner we had chili ramen at Wagamama. It was prefect because I had been craving ramen but also because we love our spicy foods. After dinner I took the tube back home.
The next morning I took the free walking tour available through the hostel. The tour started outside the Covent Garden tube. First we went to Trafalgar square with the lions. I learned that the term “stiff drink” refers to when Admiral Nelson’s corpse was preserved in a liquor barrel at sea and the sailors drank from it anyway.
We walked to Waterloo Place. Then St. James palace and saw the changing of the Queen’s guards, a procession of guards with the traditional red coats and tall black fur hats. Down the road is Buckingham palace, and the flag on top announced that the queen is in the residence- it’s her birthday tomorrow.
We walked through the beautiful St. James park to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, where the royal marriages take place.
I left the group and had lunch nearby at The Old Star across from St. James Park underground. I ordered the Fish & chips board served with mushy mint peas. It was a must do while I was here, and it was worth it. The cod was fresh and the peas were chunky.
Afterwards I walked to Soho and down Carnaby shopping street. I went searching for a hat for Ascot but all I found were the same shops we have at home.
[Harry Potter] I walked to Cecil Court St. off Charing Cross Road, the street Diagon Alley was inspired off of. It’s full of used book stores. One store was selling an original signed copy of HP.
Later on in the evening I went to Clink78 Clash Bar. Clink78 is down the road from Clink261, and in the basement is a real bar where only guests are allowed. They were doing a Spain themed night so for my first drink I had cinnamon sangria.
I went to lunch at Wahaca near Oxford Circus. My London friend recommended it and she did not disappoint. I got the salmon sashimi tostadas and the Sonora chicken salad.
I met up with her for the second time on Oxford Street and we walked around that shopping area and to Selfridges department store near the posher side. After we took the train to Richmond (her neighborhood,) a town outside London proper. For dinner we went to Dehli Orchid, an Indian restaurant at my request. She knows her Indian food and we were able to get real spicy food, not the western version of spicy. We each got chicken murg xacuti, a dish she got my addicted to back in Montreal.
After dinner we walked up a hill to Roebuck pub, which has a view of River Thames and the lush greenery around. Many of the bars in Richmond have permits so customers can drink outdoors, in this case across the street on the park pathway. It was 9:40pm and still light outside. Another friend of ours from Montreal came for a drink; she also lives in Richmond.
I took the train back to London, then another train out to Watford, north west of London. I got off at the last stop, Watford Junction, and walked to Southern Cross, a bar with rooms upstairs. I got the cheapest room for $65, which had a single bed, a sink and a shower. However, the toilet is shared outside. It was a bit weird but overall a decent room with a comfy bed and a TV.
That night I went to dinner with a girl from my travels in Malaysia/Singapore who lives in Watford. We ate at Tarboush, a popular shisha restaurant in town. We then grabbed a drink at a bar on the promenade and I learned that Strongbow cidre is originally from the Watford area.
The morning I walked around town, relaxed on the lawn besides the church, and ate a bunch. At 2:45pm I caught the Harry Potter shuttle bus to Warner Bros along with a huge crowd of people. I had been incredibly excited to go to see the making of Harry Potter. When you first enter you see a 5 min. clip with the producer talking about how the movie blew-up. At this point I cried. Seeing the excitement in cities around the world over a decade of time, I was reminded of every opening night film I waited for.
Then we saw a short film and the screen lifted and the actual entrance to Hogwarts was right there. We walked through the massive doors and into the Great Hall. One thing I hate about movie sets is that everything looks fake and much smaller. On the tour I saw most sets including the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, Hagrid’s home, the Weasley home, etc. I saw tons of props and green screen behind the scenes. Especially with Harry Potter almost every scene is done with a green screen, which for me took away some of the magic. However, I was completely taken aback when I saw the massive model of Hogwarts castle (about 15′ tall,) and the videos on how they use it to do all castle filming. Every single shot of the castle is actually just of this model, and ever single shot of Harry outside the castle is with a green screen.
After the studio tour I took the shuttle bus back to the train station, and the train back to my hostel. I grabbed my bag from the storage room and moved to St. Christopher’s Oasis, inside St. Christopher’s Village, a party hostel near the London Bridge tube. Later on I went to the bar downstairs and met a few boys from Reno. All the guests were American or Australian, and I was by far the oldest person at the bar. The Oasis part of the hostel however was perfect. It was an all girls section and most of the women staying in the 12-bed dorm were long term.
In the morning I took the bus to Liverpool street station where I met up with a Brazilian friend from my travels in Thailand. We spent the morning walking around Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Old Street. The areas reminded me of a mix between the East Village and Williamsburg in NYC, except these neighborhoods are more unique and felt like the original. The people living and working around here also seemed more real, and tattoo’d.
We then jumped on a bus to go to Camden Town, her neighborhood and another area I was told to check out. All I was told was that there’s a big market where you can buy touristy things but I was pleasantly surprised to find a market that also had a massive gourmet street food section, tattoo shops, regular clothing, and mostly locals, not tourists. A canal runs along one side of the food market and there are a few outdoor bars on the other side. We grabbed a falafel and sat on the waterfront watching the Venice boat go up and down the canal. After eating we had a bottle of wine at The Ice Wharf, one of the river bars. Later on we went to The Elephant Head, her local watering hole.
In the morning I moved hostels again, this time to Holland House, a residential hostel near the Victoria station. The hostel is on a beautiful street of white townhouses across from a private residential park. My room had three beds; the other two girls in the room lived there and I felt like we were sharing a dorm room in college, or rather I was visiting them. There is a dining room downstairs and a buffet dinner is included in the £10 a night price. Not only was it the cheapest hostel I stayed in but it was also the nicest- if you’re not looking for a social atmosphere but just a place to get a quite nights sleep. I did get lucky with roommates though; one was fun and the other was quite.
I took the tube to Oxford Circus and met up with my Vermont friend who I met in Bali and traveled through part of Borneo with. The entire reason I stayed in the UK was because she invited me to the Ascot horse races. I shopped for a fascinator, shoes and a matching purse, which all matched perfectly with my pearls. We walked around all day and stopped at a pub in Soho for lunch.
The next morning I stopped at Sainsbury, a cheap chain supermarket, and I picked up lunch and two bottles of champagne. I met my Vermont friend at Waterloo train station at 9:30am. We took the one hour train to Ascot for Royal Ascot, the famous horse races that the queen attends. On this Thursday we had tickets for Silver Ring, the cheapest section where you can bring in your own food and beverages (one bottle of champagne per person.) The lawn was packed with girls in pretty dresses wearing big hats and fascinators, and the boys were very dapper in suits. We had an all-day picnic. We could barely see the track from where we were sitting but I did get up a few times to see the horses.
We spent parts of the day at The Stag bar near the race course. I tried a proper Pimms for the first time and I have to admit I’m not a fan. We met some Irish men at the bar after the races and ended up taking a taxi to Richmond with them. Here we sat at a bar on the waterfront and watched the sunset, then later on we went to Viva nightclub. Around 3am I realized that the tube and buses were no longer running, which is something I’m not used to, and I had a minor panic attack because we were in the suburbs. I ended up having to take a forty minute (and $60) taxi ride back into the city.
The next day I went to Topshop and finally did proper shopping for my first time in the past 8 months. One pair of shorts had a $50 tag and they rang up for only $5, a nice surprise sale. I only bought a few basic items but it feels great to have new things- a big white fascinator didn’t seem to do the trick.
I ate dinner with my roommate in the dining room and went to bed early. The next morning I woke-up, bought champagne, and met Vermont and a friend of hers at the Waterloo train station. This Saturday we got Grandstand tickets, the section in between Silver Ring and Royal Enclosure. This section consists of an interior stadium-like area with bars and food stands; however, it’s all classy. Outside there are tables and chairs on the lawn, and inside above the first two floors is the Royal Enclosure, aka the boxes.
The races don’t start until 2:30pm but there’s a parade for the queen and horses around 2pm each day. This time I actually made it to the track side to watch. I saw Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip pass by in a carriage only a few yards from me. She wore an orange outfit, probably to offset the rain clouds. At the end of the day I saw them again as they were vacating the Royal Enclosure. It’s amazing to me how they get so close to the public without intense security around.
I bet on two horses in one race and lost on both. I drank some more Pimms, ate a burger and fries soaked in vinegar, and enjoyed the outdoors a bit. The weather was grim with drizzles here and there; typical London weather but nothing I want to be outside in. The outfits in Grandstand were more extravagant than Silver Ring, and at the end of the day we watched the Royal Enclosure let out and then I got to see the designer outfits. Some of the hats were outrageously decorated with massive feathers, flowers, brims, etc. After the races there was a band playing in a bandstand, and thousands of fancy drunk merry Brits sang along to traditional songs. Then it started to downpour and we made a run for it back to the train. My free shiny red ballet flats had puddles in them, and I found out my fascinator is waterproof.
On the way home I picked up a large soup from Sainsbury, my millionth and final trip that store. I took a hot shower, watched West Wing and sipped on soup on my final night in London. The next morning I got a refund on my Oyster tube card, then took the Gatwick Express train to Gatwick Airport. I did my VAT refund and got £30 cash back- VAT refunds is something I just learned about. I flew Norwegian Airlines to Copenhagen, then to JFK.