Debra's Diary ~ August, 2009        As I have had a love affair with London all my life, writing a short and snappy description of our walking trail was never going to happen - consider yourself warned.  Most of us think we know London, but I think it would take many lifetimes before we could comfortably say we were familiar with all its nuances and complexities.  I've been lucky enough to live most of my life within an hour's journey time to London, but I can't honestly say I've walked much of it.  I've always taken a tube or a taxi to the place I wanted to go to, so eschewing public transport altogether was a new one for me - and I suspect, Dave as well.  As usual, we visited the experts, VisitLondon at the glass and steel MoreLondon complex on the South Bank opposite the Tower to kick off our DVD.  Typically, our knowledgeable and charming contact was German, Eileen, and her enthusiasm for London was as genuine, perhaps more so, as a native.  Whilst we were filming there, Tower Bridge decided to perform for us, so I chatted with Eileen as Dave captured this serendipitous event.  Trying to co-ordinate a filming trip with opening times had looked set to be a nightmare, so it was luck indeed that morning.  We were inordinately lucky, too, to have such fantastic, wonderful weather to do this in.  Filming in London could prove expensive and permission to set even one leg of your tripod on solid ground is required, but once the lengthy process of contacting each individual borough or authority was got through, it all worked pretty well, although I pity foreign crews navigating their way through the maze.

We walked from Carnaby Street - always a fun stroll, although it has to be said, it isn't the same as gazing teenaged saucer-eyed at the trendy and outrageous in the Sixties - and down Oxford Street (we were on a mission, so nothing other than some furtive window-shopping) to Marble Arch, where we officially started our 12 mile stroll through London.  If I've ever noticed Marble Arch it would have been a quick glance, so to actually stand underneath it and scrutinize it for once, I was surprised at its ornateness.  We set off through Hyde Park, the largest of the Royal Parks, and therefore quite a lot of ground to cover in the time allowed.  In fact, we were hurrying past Speakers' Corner with about ten minutes left when we were accosted by Parks' staff, checking our permit.  To be fair, once they realised they were holding us up, they let us go pretty sharpish.  There's a lot to see in Hyde Park, I think; Princess Diana's memorial is better than I thought it would  be - it hadn't sounded very impressive when I read a description of it - and it was full to the brim with children and their adults splashing and walking barefoot in it.  The Serpentine is serene, and I have many happy snaps of me (at various heights) and my family feeding the wildfowl.  The elegant gates and arcade mark the end of the park's tranquility, and you are out and at one the busiest roundabouts, where the traffic hurtles down from Knightsbridge, Piccadilly, Park Lane and Grosvenor Place.  There is also a rather handy public loo to the right of the gates, past the bus stop. No point in taking your life in your hands trying to cross the roads, so we went down to the underpass, which has some brilliant and informative tile paintings about the Duke of Wellington.  

I sat and ate an ice-cream whilst Dave toiled to the top of the Arch; I've been up before, and to peep into the Queen's back garden is better in winter as you can see more through the leafless trees.  There's a good museum in the Arch, and I had a close look at the Iron Duke's statue atop Copenhagen - he's a personal hero of mine, so anything to do with him gets my attention.  His London house - Apsley House - is here too, but not on the roundabout, obviously.  The Australian and New Zealand war memorials are very close and their representations are unique to those nations, I thought.  We set off down Constitution Hill (which is a misnomer in my opinion - no hill to speak of in sight, more of an incline) and past a war memorial new to me - to the five million Commonwealth volunteers that fought with Britain.  It has a distinctly Eastern flavour and brought me up short to think of so many that chose to fight for us - quite a humbling thought.  We had to pick up the pace here as we'd lingered a bit too long with Wellington (well, who wouldn't?) and in front of Buckingham Palace, presented ourselves smartly to the police person on duty, who checked his clipboard and ticked our name off and told us where we could set up, which impressed me enormously.  I had rather poor-spiritedly expected 'Grindel-who?' to be the response.  We had three cameras to do this justice; one in front of the ceremonial gates, one on the Victoria memorial and me in amongst the crowds pressed up to the railings of Buckingham Palace - guess I drew the short straw on that one.  It really reminds me of my childhood when we used to 'come up to Town' with my visiting grandparents, and being held up to see over the crowds in case the Queen was there, which of course she wasn't.  The crowds have hung about for hours, you can feel the build-up and then the tension, the alertness of the people as the police come on point and you know something's about to happen.  Then the first strains of the military band, but you don't know which direction they are coming from - the Mall or Birdcage Walk, and then the RSM comes into view, leading the procession. It was all so well done, the music toe-tapping, the precision - nobody does it quite like us, do they? Sorry, it had to be said.  With all the pomp and circumstance marching off as smartly as it arrived, and the music fading down the Mall, the crowds mill about, take more wonky pictures and then disperse; it's a bit of an anti-climax really.  We checked our cameras to make sure we had recordings, and then said goodbye to our third camera, and carried on into St. James' Park to cool off - the weather was gorgeous. 

In Whitehall, the architecture is a bit ponderous and rather impressive down to the Cenotaph, which somehow always seems smaller in real life than on the Remembrance Sunday parade and the memorial to the war women is suitably stark.  Downing Street is always worth a stop, if only to notice how small and unimpressive our Prime Minister's residence actually is.  Trafalgar Square is one of my personal favourite spaces in London, and although I accept pigeons can be a nuisance, somehow it just isn't the same without them.  As a child, it was a lot of fun buying a bag of food and seeing if you could get a pigeon to eat out of your hand.  I'm rather fond of St. Martin's in the Fields too - it's a lovely 'little' church, and the crypt is surprisingly interesting, and then there's the National Portrait Gallery with free entry.  You can spend the whole day just in Trafalgar Square!

Walking this trail, I found we came upon little pockets of London that I know quite well; I used to work in London when I came back from ten years in the USA, and spent many a lunchtime wandering about.  But linking up these pockets was a joy to do, almost dipping into old memories - remembering people as well as the places.

The river is always a draw; I just love it and anything to do with it.  For someone who can't swim, I do seem very drawn to water!  We had a brilliant river cruise, which afforded us some wonderful shots, with a very entertaining guide, whose superb East End accent probably rendered his jokes incomprehensible to the foreign tourists, but made me smile.  I could spend all day on the Thames, but it's not something we tend to do - we're always on a mission, always on our way to an appointment or a venue, so I really took advantage of this trip.  The pace of life seems to slow down when you're on the river - you just turn your face to the sun, enjoy the scenery and relax.

I particularly enjoyed the Museum of London and its exhibit on the Great Fire, and finding the Golden Boy and the Monument and Pudding Lane.  Walking the narrow streets that were rebuilt on the medieval plan of London was a bit like walking back in time - if you look up at the street and alley names, it does bring it all back (not that I was there, I hasten to add!).  All those history lessons, when you sat either sweltering in a classroom with windows firmly shut or in your coat because the heating wasn't working again with, perversely, the windows open - trying to retain all those dates.  I loved history, but spent more effort colouring in my 'illuminated manuscripts' then actually taking in the information - and here I was, too many years later, strolling through that history.  Of course the Tower is breathtaking, with Tower Bridge beside it, and it still hits me between the eyes every time I see it.  It's difficult with all the tourists to find a quiet spot to just take the moments to drink it all in and think about its history (the bits you can call to mind!) before delving into your reference book to remind you.  But there is a rather good pub on a corner a short distance away from the tube station which is huge and serves relatively good food, where you can take the time to reflect on our history.  Tower Hill tube station is also the starting point for lots of London Walks, and on another occasion, we took the Jack the Ripper walk with friends, that was really informative and entertaining.

I certainly have never spent much time on the South Bank, so was looking forward to exploring. There was never any danger, however, of my being lured into any of the gory attractions at London Bridge - it all looked carefully designed to scare the living daylights out of anyone foolhardy enough to allow themselves to fall into the clutches of the suitably dressed touts.  The replica of the Golden Hind is impressive, close to another good and ancient pub, and it's pretty much the Jubilee Walkway all along this side.  There was so much more to see than I realised on this side, but I was surprised to see tiny Southwark Cathedral absolutely packed with tourists - maybe it was the connection with Harvard University in the US, I don't know, or perhaps it was the spillover from Borough Market.  Now that's a terrific place to visit - such a vibrant place, and the food!  We spent quite a long time in there.

I come from the days when Bankside Power Station actually was a power station and a permanent blot on the landscape.  How strange then, that since it is no longer used for its original purpose, it should suddenly become a thing of beauty and on another occasion, we actually made a walk just to see it! The Millennium Bridge is fascinating, and if you stand in just the right place, facing across the bridge to St Paul's with your back to the Tate Modern, you can get a really clever picture with a different perspective - which Dave included in our film.

Westminster is fabulous if you really look at the architecture (Budapest copied it for their Parliament), and Big Ben is so iconic, especially at night when the clock face is lit up.  I never tire of seeing it.  One of the best parts of preparing for this film was the research - you think you know your capital, but end up realising you only know the popular bits.  It might sound hopelessly romantic, but there is something about remembering Wordsworth's poem 'On Westminster Bridge' when you are actually on Westminster Bridge - with the skyline, it all suddenly comes sharply into focus with such evocative and apt words.

The problem is, I could go on and on about London, I just love it.  I don't care about the dirty streets, or nearly getting mown down by cyclists on the pavement along the Embankment.  I used to stare out of the train windows into the windows of the houses that lined the railway - I still do.  I like the suburbs, walking the unfamiliar streets of districts of London that were always just words on a map; it doesn't matter if there is litter or food splattered on the pavement - I just like to look.  There is an atmosphere about London that I don't find in any other city in the world that perhaps only I am aware of, I don't know. Maybe it's because I spent eleven years of my life living on the Continent and the US, and I suddenly see it all with fresh appreciation.  Somehow I don't think so, I think it's just London - for me, it encompasses all the epochs in our history, which makes it so much more special.  There's nowhere else like it in the world.

Post a comment:  blog your experience in London 

E-mail Debra at: