London by footpower
2017 was a rough year for many reasons. Chief among them – my parents died in the spring, 20 days apart. After months of sharing daily care with my sister, I was suddenly left with a lot of free time. I was sad and a bit at sea, so when I got an email about an amazing deal on a nonstop, round trip flight from Los Angeles to London, I jumped on it "“ even though my usual travel partners would not be able to join me.
It's been years since I've gone abroad solo. I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I'd found a great place to stay near Kensington Gardens "“ a five-minute walk from where I was staying.
There's nothing like traveling solo to get you in touch with yourself and your personal travel style. I call myself a slow traveler because I don't like rushing from site to site, checking things off on a list. I prefer meandering my way through new places, taking my time to let the place sink in. I like to get the feel of a place. I was in London for eight crisp November days and, though I probably could have seen three times as much as I did, I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it half as much.
Here are some of my favorite memories from my London idyll "“
The Changing of the Queen's Life Guard
This was a treat and a lucky break for meandering me. I'd taken the Circle Line from Notting Hill Gate station to Westminster with the intention of circling from the Banqueting House to St. James Square to Buckingham Palace and back to Westminster. However, my penchant for investigating every shiny thing in my path quickly led me astray. In this case, particularly shiny horses atop which sat shiny guards. By the time I'd gotten this far on my stroll, it was roughly 10:45am. A sign said that the Changing of the Queen's Life Guard ("The Queen's Life Guard" is a squadron of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment) would occur at 11. Now, while I'd heard all my life about the Changing of the Guard, which takes place at Buckingham Palace, I'd never heard of this ceremony "“ ever. When I went into the enormous, packed dirt grounds where the ceremony takes place and saw people milling about around a ring set off by a single, heavy chain, I had to confirm with several people that this was in fact where the ceremony would happen. There are no fences, no additional guards keeping people away from the ring. As I was to soon find out, you can get close enough to touch the horses "“ but don't. That would be dumb. The ceremony lasts 30 minutes. This was my first look at the high regard in which the British hold their traditions and ceremonies.
The Churchill War Rooms
This is a fascinating peek into the secret bunker inhabited by Winston Churchill's cabinet and staff for six years during WWII. I'm not into a lot of wartime history, and neither is the friend who recommended this to me. But there's something about walking through this narrow warren of rooms, punctuated by a Churchill museum, that brings home the sacrifices made by so many in a way no regular museum possibly could. Listening to Churchill's resonant voice as he makes his iconic speeches brought home just how crucial the man and his inspiration were to the spirits of a country that was being barraged nightly by Nazi bombs. The audio tour puts you in the middle of things as they were, making it clear that just one bomb could end, not just the operations, but the lives of the people who lived and worked in the war rooms. Visiting this place is humbling.
One day I took a walk along the Regent's Canal which starts in an area known as Little Venice. People live on houseboats along the canals and in beautiful townhomes and mansions in the neighborhood. Along with the canals and waterside cafes, the area is also known for its Regency-style architecture. At times I walked on the towpath right next to the canal and where the towpath is restricted to locals I walked on sidewalks and footpaths. It was an easy, picturesque stroll that took me from Little Venice to the London Zoo through Regent's Park to Camden Lock Market. The walk was so quiet and peaceful. I'm positive this was because I was there on a weekday, when most people who live in the area were at work. The birds floating on the canal, the boats quietly bobbing on the water, the cool, gentle breeze all worked in concert to sweep me along and lose track of how far I'd walked. (If you want to replicate this walk, get the book Walking London, by Andrew Duncan. A friend who knows me and my fondness for wandering gave me this book and it was the starting point for most of my walks. I didn't always stick to it, but it gave me great guidance.)
While walking through Regent's Park, I crossed Primrose Hill Bridge and explored a bit of Primrose Hill, one of many beautiful, green parks that are all over London, and strolled past beautiful St Mark's Church. I wound my way back to the towpath that took me past Pirate's Castle, a youth club, and some intriguing graffiti. Shortly after, I ascended a short flight of stairs, crossed a street and arrived at Camden Market. My first mission was to find Poppie's, acknowledged by many to be the best place for fish and chips. I'd worked up quite an appetite with all the walking. That lunch was so satisfying, with crispy, breaded crust enveloping tender, flaky white fish sitting atop delicious thick cut chips. If fish and chips aren't your thing, there are countless other options "“ all manner of international cuisines and plenty of options for vegans and carnivores alike. After lunch, my energy was renewed, and I explored the carts and shops throughout the labyrinthian market. My souvenir from the day was a beautiful blanket scarf. I wasn't sure what the protocol here was, so, seeing that the asking price was Â£12,90, I said, "I'll give you Â£10." The shopkeeper said, "Okay," and I immediately knew I started the negotiations way too high. Ah, well. Live and learn, right? I spent a few hours wandering around. I even found the famous Cereal Killer Cafe, but the notion of filling up on Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms after a delicious lunch didn't appeal to me. It's on my list for my next visit, though.
Parks & Gardens
There are so many beautiful parks and gardens all over the city. I loved that every day I was in London I could spend a few hours exploring a famous site or museum and then spend an hour or so out in nature. I'm the kind of person who feels renewed and ready to take on anything after a breath of fresh air, so walking along the Serpentine in Hyde Park or searching for the famous Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens was both grounding and invigorating.
Taking the river bus along the Thames is a wonderful, relaxing, and fun way to see the city from the Thames. It's not a tour. It's genuinely transportation for residents and visitors alike. I found it an enchanting ride, especially at night when the city lights are reflected in the river. My plan for my next visit is to take the river bus up to Hampton Court.
There are more than 20 free museums in London. I made it to four "“ The Natural History Museum, The Victoria & Albert, The Tate Modern, and the National Gallery. I could spend a month in London and still not have enough time to see everything in these museums, much less the rest of them.
- Professional photography session – I'm not usually the type of person to treat myself to a private, professional photo session, but I was intrigued by the collaboration between vlogger Jessica Dante (@loveandlondon on YouTube & Instagram) and vlogger/photographer Charles Carter (@wandergasm on YouTube & Instagram). They've teamed up to provide visitors to London with a beautiful way to commemorate their trip. Perfect for groups or couples or solo travelers like me. My selfie game was good in London, but there's no way I could have gotten the shots that Charles got.
- Oyster Card – I purchased a Â£40 Oyster Card before I left the US. The Oyster card is used for the Tube, the buses, and the river bus. Even with all the walking I did, I made good use of the Oyster Card and it lasted me the entire eight days I was there.
I haven't even mentioned The Tower of London, or Covent Gardens, or the Globe Theatre, or the pubs, or the Hop On Hop Off bus tour. Trying to narrow things down reminds me how London has stolen my heart and how I can hardly wait to return.
When you go:
The Changing of the Queen's Life Guard: www.householddivision.org.uk/queen-life-guard
Camden Market: www.camdenmarket.com/
The Churchill War Rooms: www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-short-history-of-the-cabinet-war-rooms
River bus: tfl.gov.uk/modes/river/
Professional photography: loveandlondon.com/london-photo-sessions
Oyster Card: tfl.gov.uk/fares-and-payments/oyster
Marsha Lenox is a postpartum doula who loves traveling, photography, and her dogs.