“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Central London – even on a warm summer’s day – can be unquestionably bleak with its muddy river slicing along the Embankment, grey clouds shifting above and a thin layer of grime and pollution settled into the crevices of the concrete and bricks of all the buildings.
And then there are the hoards of tourists who flock to Westminster Bridge to take photos of Big Ben, ride the river cruises and thrust selfie sticks any which way into the crowds. Those who live and work here have heads down rushing to their destination in the straightest path possible. It’s not often I alight from the Tube at Westminster, walk up those steps and out into the light with a view of the famous clock tower stretching up into the clouds. I arrived just in time for the ringing of the hour.
Nearby, grumpy vendors sell anything with a Union Jack print alongside stuffed emoticons and overpriced Snickers bars. I wonder where the stall owner calls home, where he takes the bus or Tube to every night, where on the outskirts of the city he lays his head to sleep. I think about how those people bustling around his stand handing over recently exchanged currency will probably never see his London. In fact, this London is likely the only London a lot of visitors do see – and that’s okay – it leaves the city’s best secrets uncovered by the masses.
I found myself in Westminster the other day. I wandered through it slowly, trying to see it once again through tourist’s eyes, to be charmed as I was by these icons before I moved to London almost 10 years ago. I found myself watching people take it all in, watching them point their cameras for a quick and possibly blurry snapshot before rushing off to the next attraction. I noticed the locals, the construction workers lounging in the grass on a break, the tramps congregating in Trafalgar Square, the window cleaners and street sweepers of Chinatown at work. These people were nearly invisible to the tourists, but I bet they have stories that are far more entertaining than a whirl round the London Eye.
Near the riverboat pier, people hustle on to a boat waiting to whisk them east to Greenwich or west to Kew. Above their heads, a faded blue sign in a rusted frame announces “Thames River Trips”. Pigeons sit atop the sign, observing. The roof of the building is streaked with white and could use a good scrub. A photo shoot is taking place on the traffic island, a girl with pink curls and a blingy necklace practicing an excited jump in front of Big Ben, her over-exaggerated smile immediately fading as she hits the ground to check the results of each attempt.
Traffic backs up in the direction of Parliament and I cut up toward Whitehall and Downing Street to see some horses. A curtain waved and flapped across an open window. Serious guards stood by. Cameras and phones aimed between the gates. I moved on, up toward Trafalgar Square where I stopped for a browse in the Waterstones.
And this is where I found my favourite sight of the day: There was an EU flag draped over the equestrian statue of Charles 1 and the nearby traffic lights were changed to gender equality symbols. I read that there were 50 traffic lights changed in honour of Pride, but I didn’t think they’d still be live since that was over a month ago. I guess they fit in with the Mayor’s #LondonIsOpen campaign as well. I hope they are a permanent feature.
Horses featured quite a bit on this walk as there was also the current Fourth Plinth installation, the Gift Horse, in the opposite corner of the square. The skeleton horse was created by 79-year-old German artist Hans Haacke and has a ticker tape that shows the London Stock Exchange prices to highlight the rich-poor gap in the city. As usual, there were group tours learning about Lord Nelson, plenty of crumbs being dropped for the pigeons from the mouths of those stopping for a lunch break, and the usual ragged motley crew smoking cigarettes on the wall of the National Gallery, watching the show.
From there, I slipped up into rough and ready Chinatown, through the colourful gates, past restaurants where glistening golden ducks hang from lines in the window, where HSBC has Chinese lettering on the front, where open doors announce “model upstairs”. Men sit on the kerb puffing cigarettes in front of a betting shop. Women sweep doorways. Shop owners tidy their shelves of dried seaweed, black beans and tapioca starch into neat rows.
A man stands outside with a mug of tea on a break from work. By this point, I’m ready to do the same, though preferably sitting, perhaps in the park. And so I make by way over to Ganton Street, to pay a visit to my old reliable favourite, Sacred Café, and relax in the sun in (appropriately named for this day) Golden Square.
- Childhood summer memories!
- I always have a colourful notebook on my desk at work for my ongoing to do list. Just bought this super cheerful trio.
- Finally we’ve been having proper picnic season in London!
- On the cookbook wish list for summer (and for preparing for picnics).
- The latest vibrant blue print in my etsy shop (more to come soon). 🙂
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