My favourite places in London
I grew up in the outskirts of London, and have been visiting central London regularly for nearly 20 years. While I don’t know my way around the all the backstreets, I’ve been to a lot of museums, galleries and historic houses. Not just the main ones, like V&A and British Museum, but some of the smaller ones like the Foundling Museum and the Geffrye Museum, the Florence Nightingale Museum and even the Garden Museum! I also really enjoy finding quiet places in London, and I have various books about all the secret gardens and peaceful cemeteries and little churches there are in London. I try to explore the city as much as possible because I want to make the most of living here.
Yes, London can be wearying. It’s dirty, smelly, noisy, and over-crowded. There are a lot of people who aren’t very friendly. The tube is horrible in rush hour. Loads of ugly overpriced flats are being built that no-one can afford. Precious cultural venues are being neglected. Relentless gentrification is isolating communities even further, with pop up galleries and fancy bars sitting alongside pound shops and chicken shops.
But London is also exhilarating. There are a huge number of museums and galleries. There are beautiful Georgian buildings and gorgeous mewses, houses that are full of history, expansive parks and woodland, canals and markets. There is always something new to discover. And some things never get old, no matter how many times you see them.
Recently, when I had a couple of days off work to catch up with some exhibitions I wanted to see, I started thinking about my favourite places in London. Here are my top 10 places/things in the city:
V&A. I prefer the V&A to most of the other major museums in London. It always feels a bit less crowded. I really love the garden/courtyard area, which has a little pond for families to paddle in in the summer (with an ice cream stall nearby!), and a grassy area where people can sit and admire the beautiful architecture. The V&A has excellent fashion exhibitions, and I’ve been to many over the years: wedding dresses, shoes, Hollywood costumes, underwear. It also has galleries dedicated to specific art forms: a photography gallery, for example (I went to a retrospective exhibition about Paul Strand which was good), and a lovely tapestry room containing huge luxurious 15th century tapestries. But probably my favourite thing about the V&A is the long sculpture gallery, which you enter from the museum’s side entrance (from the underground tunnel) - beautiful statues that are displayed in a long corridor, bathed in the light coming from the large windows alongside them.
Greenwich. I used to live in the suburbs of West London, and never really travelled to places like Greenwich as they seemed to far away. Now I am closer to the centre it’s much easier, and I really enjoy getting the DLR to Cutty Sark and walking round the maritime centre. I worked on the Olympics temporarily in 2012 and we had a post-Olympics party on the Cutty Sark, so every time I see the ship it reminds me of being there with my colleagues (and running to the train station afterwards to catch the last train). But my favourite places in Greenwich are the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College which never gets old (and is free to enter!), the two Wren-designed twin domes of the College (I love symmetrical buildings), the amazing views from outside the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill in the park, the bustling Greenwich Market where I’ve bought gifts for family and friends (as well as nice lunches for myself!), and the Picturehouse cinema which is one of my favourite places to see new films in London.
Regents Park. If I had to pick a favourite park, it would probably be Regents Park. I work right next to St James’ park so that one doesn’t feel particularly special, Hyde Park is a bit too big and a bit too central (you can still the surrounding buildings), and Hampstead Heath is nice but a bit too remote - both in terms of location and general feel (Hampstead always seems like another world to me, with its pretty houses and expensive shops - somewhere nice to wander round if I want to feel like I’m in a posh village, but not really somewhere that feels like my park). Regents Park is lovely. It has an open air theatre that I went to with my family for a number of years: we’d have pimms in the theatre garden, and go and watch something lovely and summery like Sound of Music or the Boyfriend. I like sitting by the fountain outside the theatre, and walking round the boating lake. I’ve been to the zoo a few times, and spent time in the pretty rose garden. I’ve also watched bands play at the Klezmer in the Park event at the Bandstand. But my favourite thing in Regents Park is probably the avenue gardens near the Regents Park/Great Portland Street entrance: perfect sculptured hedges, ornamental flower pots, fountains, and pretty flower beds.
Hayward Gallery. The gallery is closed for refurbishment at the moment, and I miss it. I’ve been to some really fun, interesting, and slightly strange exhibitions over the years. The last one I went to was the Carston Holler exhibition, which involved entering the gallery through a pitch black passage (you had to feel your way along the walls!) and leaving the gallery by going down the huge slide that started from the top of the building! I also liked the Ernesto Neto installations that were meant to resemble body parts: you had to walk through these luminous green fabric constructions. That’s one of the reasons why I like the Hayward: it’s really fun and interactive and provocative. Generally, I tend to like modern art rather than really contemporary stuff, but I always enjoy visits to the Hayward: another favourite exhibition was Psycho Buildings, where artists were invited to create installations that change perceptions of your surroundings. One room contained 200 illuminated dollhouses, while another had furniture suspended in the air. There was also a temporary boating lake on the roof of the building!
Les Miserables, Queens Theatre. Years ago, when I was younger, my parents went to see Les Miserables, and bought the soundtrack afterwards. We used to listen to it in the car, and I became a big fan. For my birthday one year (possibly my 12th or 13th, I can’t remember exactly), my parents treated me to a surprise trip to see the show. Back then the show was on at the Palace Theatre, and as we got closer to the theatre and I saw the famous Les Miserables image, I was so excited - I remember asking my parents in amazement ‘is this where we’re going?!’ Since then, I’ve been to see it a few more times, and (as part of a 30th birthday treat) I even got to sit in the front row. Les Miserables is a very dark show, and (SPOILER ALERT), almost everyone is dead by the time the curtain comes down at the end. A child is shot, a man commits suicide, a whole gang of friends are killed off. The misery is unrelenting. Set during the revolution, the musical features a number of fascinating stories: the story of Jean Valjean, a former convict trying to lead a normal life but being pursued by Police inspector Javert; the story of the single mother Fantine who turns to prostitution in order to earn money for her daughter; the story of Cossette who is in love with Marius, and - most importantly - the story of the French Revolution and the men who build the barricade and protest in the street. As well as having a great plot, Les Miserables has amazing songs. Rousing, powerful, emotional songs like I Dreamed A Dream, On My Own, Do You Hear the People Sing, and Bring Him Home. I think I probably know the words to all of them!
Kew Gardens. My grandad, who died when I was quite young, has a memorial bench in Kew Gardens. I found it once, after looking at every single bench I came across in the gardens. It was really great to see a plaque dedicated to Kenneth Crew, “who loved these gardens”. My grandparents all enjoyed gardening, when they were still active, and I think I would too, although sadly I live in a first floor flat without any outdoor space. But living in a very busy, gritty, grey place like Leytonstone makes going to somewhere like Kew Gardens even more enjoyable. Kew Gardens are expansive, and include some wonderful features: the famous Victorian Palm House, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, the Pagoda, and - more recently - the Treetop Walkway, where you can walk up high and get really close to the birds and insects. I think my favourite feature might be the Waterlilly House: it’s really hot inside and has a large and beautiful pond with waterlillies floating on the surface. It’s easy to spend a full day in Kew Gardens and use the map to explore every corner of the grounds.
City of London. I’m really interested in the history of London, and I like walking round some of the oldest parts of the city: the labyrinth of narrow lanes and cobbled streets that wind round St Paul’s Cathedral, one of my favourite buildings. I love all the old street names: Love Lane, Bread Street, Pudding Lane, (where the Great Fire of London started), Fish Street Hill, and Hanging Sword Alley near Fleet Street. It’s really interesting to see some of the old market areas, as well as beautiful churches. There are some really unusual features too, including the memorial wall in Postman’s Park which has a number of plaques paying tribute to Victorian heroes who sacrificed their own lives to try to save others, and the Golden Boy statue that was erected after the Great Fire of London as a warning for future generations (it was thought back then that the fire was a punishment for London’s gluttony!).
Barbican. The Barbican is a fantastic building, and one of my favourite places to see films, exhibitions and concerts. I’ve been to some really great photography exhibitions there, including Britain Revealed by International Photographers, and Everything Was Moving: Photos from 1960s-70s. The exhibitions are always worth the money, and are usually spread out over two floors with lots to see. The Barbican also has a really cool cafe which I’ve been to sometimes on days off work, as I like looking out at the gardens and surrounding buildings (as well as the arts centre there is also the Barbican estate which houses a few thousand people). It’s all very Brutalist, and I know a lot of people don’t like it (it was voted Britain’s ugliest building in a Grey London poll once), but I like the scale of it (it manages to be big without being intimidating), and the fact that it houses such a wide range of events - everything from classical music to contemporary art, family friendly activities to world music. And it is surprisingly peaceful. Despite its grey concrete exterieur, there are gardens and lakes, and even a secret conservatory.
St Katherine’s Dock to Canary Wharf. I only started going to Wapping when I moved to East London, and I really like the cobbled streets and old warehouse buildings. When I go there, I feel like I’m stepping back in time. I really love St Katherine’s Docks because it feels so removed from the rest of London. I like going to the Italian restaurant there and looking at the boats from the window because it makes me feel like I’m on holiday. The docks were used in the Victorian period, and are now a leisure complex, with expensive boats moored up outside bars and restaurants. A while ago I went to a breadmaking class in a cafe there. Wapping is a really interesting area, with great views across to the Tower Bridge and City Hall, and a nice pub called Captain Kidd (named after a pirate!) which has low beams inside, and a riverside garden at the front. Tobacco Dock is really interesting too as there is a replica pirate ship there. When I moved to Leytonstone I used to do a walk from St Katherine’s Dock to Westferry DLR, via Wapping, on Tuesday evenings after work. I like walking close to the river and listening to music, and the views of Canary Wharf are amazing: another place that feels removed from historic London, with all its skyscrapers and modern buildings.
Union Chapel: I’ve been to the Union Chapel a few times and it is one of the most beautiful live music venues in London. It’s a lovely Victorian church that hosts music concerts, and also acts as a drop-in centre for the homeless. I’ve seen Mark Lanegan and Secret Sisters there, and also Hem - one of my favourite bands. Unfortunately I didn’t know much about Hem when I saw them play there, so I didn’t recognise all the songs, but it was a really magical show and the acoustics of the church made Sally Ellyson’s lovely pure voice sound even more wonderful. I like sitting in the pews, drinking hot chocolate. I also like the fact that gigs there are so quiet and respectful - it really makes a difference when you are there to listen to gentle music that deserves to be heard properly.