I was awoken at 6 in the morning by the tumbling of suitcases and ruffling of plastic bags. The French delegation were checking out. Clink 261 was by far the most crowded hostel I stayed in throughout the entire trip.The 16 bed dorm was filled to capacity by a large majority of Romanian men. I found out later that these guys had made the hostel home for a month while their search for employment continued.There was an Australian girl above me who was also searching for a job. I was one of the few, if not the only occupant in the dorm who was staying for purely leisure purposes.
Since these guys had made the dorm their home for the past month, it was filthy. Bags strewn all over, half opened jars of food, laundry left on top the heater to dry…well you get the idea.The layout of the room in itself was peculiar and exacerbated the condition of the room.There were two sinks located within the room itself and the Romanians used it for almost everything from brushing their teeth to washing their clothes. All these things collectively left a damp musty stench to the room. Like I mentioned in my earlier posts, a hostel experience is largely dependent on your bunk-mates and mine unfortunately were an unhygienic bunch. All the more reason to spend more time out of the hostel exploring the city!
An Unexpected Surprise
If you’re still unaware, London is an extremely expensive city. I knew this beforehand but I never anticipated the degree of how expensive it would be.The SGD to pound conversion rate just made everything worse. Transport took up most of my already dwindling budget(since this was my last stop on the trip) and that left very little for food. For the past two days, I survived on cheap bar food & Mark’s & Spencer’s takeaways/microwave ready-made meals.
I didn’t plan anything specifically for my last 3 days in London. I had a vague idea of the places I intended to visit so I left it at that. Close to broke, I did the only thing I could do – I signed up for the free walking tour. Similar to the Edinburgh tour, the London walking tour is run by Sandemans. The tour was not a last resort option. Well OK in this case it was but I honestly would have signed up for it even if I was loaded with cash. As I mentioned earlier in my previous posts, a free walking tour provides a great orientation to the city and allows you to get your bearings.The Edinburgh tour left a good impression and I held high hopes my 2nd walking tour.
The meeting point was set at Hyde Park. I arrived rather early, all thanks to my rude awakening earlier on in the morning. Hyde Park also known as Duke Wellington Park( I’m kidding…it’s not). It most certainly can be referred by that name since it houses two tributes to the Duke himself.
The first is a bronze statue of the Duke on horseback
And the Wellington Arch inspired by the Arc de Triomphe
If you’re wondering who in the world the Duke of Wellington is, here’s a Wikipedia link( I’m not going to bore you with this guy) 1st Duke of Wellington
” The early bird catches the worm ” . The age-old proverb could not hold more true. It really pays to be early(well…sometimes).Thanks to my new found punctuality *coughs*, I was treated to an unexpected surprise. I managed to catch the Queen’s life guard en route to the changing of guard ceremony.
Men in full ceremonial attire complete with sword in hand riding majestically on beautiful horses galloped past me in formation. For those interested in witnessing this historic spectacle, the Life guard usually passes by Hyde Park at the following times: 1028HRS-1050HRS(Weekdays) & 0928HRS-0950HRS(Sunday)
It’s a small world after all
A large crowd began to gather at the centre of the park. I spotted the familiar red shirts among the crowd. (All Sandeman guides are outfitted with a red tshirt) As I was wandering through the crowd in search of my guide, I recognized a familiar face. It was Carla! What were the odds?! There were two tour timings that day itself! We caught up on what we did since that night at the bar. According to Carla, the Loch Ness tour was not up to expectations. That made me feel a teeny bit better. Carla and I parted ways temporarily when the tour began. She went with the Spanish guide while I went with the English one obviously.
The tour group was a diverse mix of nationalities similar to the one I had in Edinburgh. I noticed the unmistakable Singaporean accent earlier on in the crowd and true enough a group of Singaporean girls joined the group at the last minute. A booming voice called for order and we were introduced to our guide. Decked in a trench coat complete with a grandpa’s cap and accompanying peter rabbit cane, John broke the ice instantly with his enthusiasm and wit. He proved to be an eccentric and humorous character as the tour moved along.
As usual, none of the Singaporeans acknowledged me as one of their countrymen so I had to make the first move.The three girls were students on teaching scholarships at various London universities. I spent most of the tour receiving tips and suggestions from them while sharing the latest happenings back home.
Here’s some of the highlights of the tour in pictures:
I even managed to snap a picture with one of the horse guard!
The tour halted for lunch at a nearby bar which served delicious fish & chips( according to them at least). It was average at best.
The bar had large communal dining tables so most of group sat together. The Spanish tour group joined us not long after. I met some of Carla’s new found Spanish friends. I had a rather interesting conversation with two Italian ladies over lunch. At the time of the trip, Europe was hit with the horse meat scandal. Scrupulous producers were mixing other meats(mainly horse) into beef and passing them off as pure beef. The Italians were not shocked by this. According to the two ladies, it is common in the smaller towns for horse to be served as a main dish! Another weird food item to add to my checklist.
Over beer at the bar, I had a nice talk with John. He was doing another an Old London tour in the evening and invited me along. Since I had nothing planned, I took him up on his offer and parted with 10 quid.
The tour resumed after lunch and we covered more of London’s famous attractions.
The tour ended at Westminster. I bade goodbye to my fellow countrymen and followed John to the starting point for the next tour at Covent Garden. We stopped for coffee at his favourite joint and boarded the iconic red double decker London Bus to Covent Garden. Woohoo! Another one crossed off the checklist! I got to know John better throughout the journey. An aspiring actor, he does freelance tours in between jobs. He was well travelled too. He visited Singapore a few years back and was very impressed with our country!
There was some time before the tour started so I did a little bit of exploring around Covent Garden. I left John to do his business in the bar. It seems like all Sandeman’s guides operate out of a bar. The meeting points are always near one. The main attraction of the area is the market which was massive. Three markets are situated in the main piazza selling a wide range of artisanal wares. Just a head’s up- There’s not much of food produce.
When I returned to the starting point, John was conversing with a rather tall Asian girl. John introduced me to C who was also from Singapore. John went back into the bar to check with his colleague on where the other participants were. I began talking with C. She was mixed like me. Swiss-Chinese. A chemistry major from NUS. As the conversation went along, I found out that she was Joanne’s friend! Yes the Joanne I met in Edinburgh! They both did an overseas semester in Germany before travelling together for a bit after that. They parted ways in Krakow.C went to visit her relatives in Switzerland while Joanne continued on towards Edinburgh. It’s a small world indeed. Bumping into Carla in the morning and then now this….WHOA! I’m starting to believe that we’re all inextricably connected somehow. I couldn’t help but wonder if Joanne had relayed my embarrassing incident atop Calton Hill to C. (If you’re wondering what happened, read my previous post Enchanting Edinburgh Part II where I bared all) I certainly hope not. Even if she did, I guess C was way too nice to bring it up.
Old City Tour
The tour commenced once John’s colleague arrived with the rest of the participants in tow. London is divided into two distinct districts or cities – City of Westminster & City of London. Each has its own governor and system. The Old City tour’s focus was on the City of London. One of the oldest districts of London, it is regarded as the birthplace of the city. Unfortunately much of the original city was destroyed in the great fire of London in the 1666. The City of London today is rather small. Only occupying a square mile, it’s the heart of London’s financial services.
The layout and architecture of the City of London is distinct from the rest of London. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a whole different city. Beautiful architecture. Victorian and modern steel-glass buildings coexist alongside each other in harmony. The streets are narrow and buildings close together giving rise to a vast network of alleyways. Central courtyards are a prominent feature in many of the complexes.
We veered off the main road and into the intricate maze of alleyways. The City of London is home to some of the oldest structures in London- The oldest house, Oldest Bar and Oldest church just to name a few. There are a few notable places you have to visit in the City of London and the Old City tour covers most of them.
Enter into the secretive world of Knight’s Templar Order. The Temple served as their London Headquarters from the 12th to 15th Century. It’s round structure distinguishes it from the conventional church. The church provided refuge to pilgrims and was also an integral part of the Templar banking system, protecting its member’s wealth from the authorities and thieves.
St Bride’s Church
Widely credited as the inspiration behind the iconic bridal wedding cake we have today. Standing at 69 m tall, the spire of the church resembles the tiered bridal wedding cake. No surprise it’s fully booked for weddings all year round. It’s also rumoured to be the oldest church site in London dating back to the 7th Century. The current church dating back to the 17th century is the seventh church to occupy the site.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Set at the top of Ludgate Hill, St Paul’s Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Church of England. Reconstructed in the late 17th century by Christopher Wren( who also designed St Bride’s), it’s baroque architecture facade and spires continue to dominate the London skyline. A key setting in the history of England. It has played host to funerals of British nobleman and royalty, royal jubilees and weddings amongst other religious events. St Paul’s also holds the record for one of the tallest domes in the world.
The City of London today mainly serves as a working district with few residential units. After office hours, the city gets pretty dead as the working population return home.The shops too close by 6 pm. Not much to do here at night!
The tour ended at the Tower of London. I didn’t get to visit it since we arrived way past opening hours. Well, next time!
C and I didn’t want to return to the hostel just yet so we set off to explore the famous Oxford Street. It really is a shopping paradise. Be sure to check out the unmissable massive Primark!
We decided to have dinner at a Nando’s close to our hostels. C was staying at the sister hostel of mine similar to Carla. Today was also the day of the FA Cup final between Swansea & Bradford. A large group of Bradford fans walked in not long after we settled down. They were still in high spirits and were boisterously singing their club songs. For a moment I thought they’d won but a quick chat with one of them proved otherwise. Unfortunately their giant-killing run came to an end today.