I’m freshly returned from a week in London after getting cheap launch fares on Westjet’s new service to London Gatwick back in September, a lifetime ago!
Late spring is a great time to visit London. It’s busy, but not yet overwhelmed with tourists, and the weather is quite fine. We had sunshine and relatively warm temperatures most days, with only one day I’d classify as less-than-great. For more highlights, check out my did-it-myself “Last Day in London” craft beer tour. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though, let’s go back to the tape and check out my highlights of a terrific week in London.
Spotting the Knowledge
I first learned of The Knowledge back in 2014 after my first trip to London and have been obsessed with it ever since. A quick recap: London’s black cab drivers are London experts. In order to get their licenses, they must study for, and pass, a series of tests that take years to complete. These tests challenge the would-be cabbies to memorize 25,000 streets, thousands of landmarks, and 320 standard routes through London. It changes the shape of their brains. Nerd that I am, I was thrilled to bits when I spotted my first “Knowledge Boy,” studying the route along Fleet Street on a sunny Sunday morning.
Tower of London & the Ceremony of the Keys
One of the highlights of the trip, for sheer strangeness, was attending the nightly Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. The ceremony is 700 years old and performed every night in every condition. It’s only been delayed once, due to bombing during World War II, which is an impressive feat in a city that has sustained as much history as London.
The Ceremony is shrouded in mystery. The proceedings aren’t recorded and photographs are strictly prohibited. Before entering the grounds, we received a lengthy briefing about the rules from our Yeoman Warder for the evening. And then, a weird twist:
“Tonight, we have a rather unusual event, HRH The Duke of York will be here to receive the salute…”
Um, wut? Sure enough, we were paraded onto the grounds and waited. At 9:50pm, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and his dining companions at the Quad-Centenary Club Wee Dinner (this is a real thing) paraded out to join us for the locking-up of the Tower. Your faithful correspondent can report the Duke took the event very seriously, knew all of this lines (which consisted of “Yes”), and received a salute like the retired sailor he is.
I’d like to say my group was very cool about this, but we had several drinks with dinner and kept exchanging looks that conveyed our collective opinion: “What is even happening?”
After the Duke left us, the Yeoman Warder confirmed our random encounter with royalty was, in fact, a very unique Tower experience. He himself had never personally encountered a member of the Royal Family during his four years at the Tower before that night. We also took a few minutes to enjoy the White Tower bathed in strong light, still no photos allowed at this point, a real pity, because it’s stunning. Our Yeoman Warder also entertained a series of questions about life inside the Tower, mostly about what life is like for the 120ish soldiers and their families who live in quarters at the Tower. Note to visitors: make friend with a Yeoman Warder. You’re likely to hear great stories and may even snag an invite for a drink at one of the rooms inside the Tower.
Attending the ceremony is free (plus a £1 service charge), but you must book months in advance, as spaces are limited. Basically book as soon as you know you’re going to London.
Winning the Book of Mormon London lottery
Imagine my surprise when, on my last night in town, I got a text from my friend across town that she had just won the Book of Mormon ticket lottery. I had failed to win the lottery on my first attempt in London, but had seen the show twice in New York, including a lottery win of my own. I can report the London lottery remains the same as my 2014 attempt: tickets are £20 and our winning seats were right in the front row.
My first Book of Mormon in London was pure delight. Some of the jokes have been changed for a British audience and some of the line deliveries are different from the cast album (which I have definitely committed to the deepest recesses of my memory by now), but all of the changes yield the best possible result. I’m glad the actors have an opportunity to bring their own personalities and a bit of freshness to a show that a lot of us know very, very well by this point. I also want to give a special shout-out to Scottish actor Stephen Ashfield, who is now my favourite Elder McKinley of the three I’ve seen.
The Prince of Wales Theatre is smaller than the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway, so our front row seats meant we had a very intimate experience with the show, from completely different angle than the last time saw it in 2013. We were basically sitting with the musical director, and had lots of enthusiastic interactions with the cast. All in all, a perfect capper to a terrific week.
New life for old churches
On a sunny day with plenty of fluffy clouds, I discovered my new favourite thing about London: repurposed churches. I visited two on a particularly fine afternoon, who share similar stories.
Christ Church Greyfriars on Newgate St, a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s Cathedral, but pleasantly devoid of its tourists, is a welcoming, blooming garden on a lovely spring day. Its past as a parish church is unmistakable, but its present state, a garden, is due entirely to being bombed extensively during the Blitz in 1940. City workers on their lunch break sit around the garden’s perimeter chatting, reading, and checking their phones. Today, Greyfriars is a charming stop for a rest and brief respite from the relentless pace of the city.
I had already planned to visit another church in a similar condition, St. Dunstan-in-the-East, so encountering two in one afternoon was an absolute treat. St. Dunstan was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941 and redeveloped as a park in 1971. As a marker of growth of London around it, you can see both the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie buildings from different angles. Despite these jarring glimpses of modern London, St. Dunstan is a quiet park, filled with City workers taking a quick mid-afternoon break.
Getting out of Central London: Shoreditch
Admittedly, my first trip to London a couple of years ago involved hitting a lot – A LOT – of the usual tourist spots. This time, I had way more opportunities to see other parts of London, beyond The City, Westminster, and the South Bank.
We met up with a friend who was staying in Shoreditch, which was a great place to grab a drink, go for a wander, check out some outdoor art. I explored Brick Lane, marveled at the street signs in English and Bengali, and picked up some classic bagels – beigels in this part of the world – at the 24h Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. My brief visit to a less-visited part of the city convinced me that my next stay should be a little further out.
Getting out of Central London: Camden Town
My last day was spent exploring finer craft beer stops of Central London. However, before that adventure unfolded, I spent a little time exploring the quiet side of Camden Town along Regent’s Canal. It was a perfect day – sunny, hot, no wind at all – so I walked as far as the zoo. Compared with the relative chaos of Camden High Street during the day, Regent’s Canal was just what the day called for. In addition to the relative quiet, the canal area was full of small canal barges, suitable for living or gliding along the canal over to Little Venice. While I was enjoying my meander, I was surprised to discover a colourful tribute to famous Camden Town resident Amy Winehouse. Much like my brief foray into Shoreditch, this brief stop only convinced me to spend more time in London, and more time further out.
My week in London was another wonderful opportunity to get to know the city better and start to discover the parts of London that show me more about life in the city than the usual tourist stops. Still, I have much, much more to discover there. Stay tuned for more of my London adventure, and if you have suggestions for my next trip, leave them in the comments!
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