Living in London - part III
by Pam Mather
Note: This guide was written in the fall of 1998 for a friend who was going to live in London on the BUNAC program. Therefore, some of the information will be outdated.
Pubs and bars
Note: letters and numbers in brackets  refer to the square and map number in the standard London A-Z.
Corner of Victoria Grove and Gloucester Rd [A3, 76]
This was our pub. It’s right down the street from where we lived initially, and even when we moved, we continued to make to trek. It’s an Irish pub, and there probably isn’t anything especially unique about it. It was just ours. Live music on Thursday nights starting at 9. A lot of American students go there because of a nearby American college. The best bangers and mash I ever had were here.
The Rat & Parrot
Gloucester Rd [A3, 76], St Martin’s Lane [7J, 61], more
This was our other pub. It was right across the street from Finnegan’s, and many nights we would split our time between the two pubs. The atmosphere is more ‘suitish’ than Finnegan’s, and consequently not as jovial. Excellent cheeseburgers and tuna melts.
The Moon Under Water
Leicester Square [7H, 61], Charing Cross Road [7H, 61]
A very crowded pub in Leicester Square. (The Charing Cross Road one is a bit nicer, but we rarely went there.) Since it’s in Leicester Square, it is full of tourists, but a lot of suits as well. There is (unusually) a non-smoking section, like all Wetherspoon’s pubs. (Usually have the word “moon” in the name of the pub. See also The Lord of the Mall)
The Builder’s Arms
St. Alban’s Grove [3K, 75]
Just down the road from Finnegan’s (Victoria Grove turns into St. Alban’s Grove). Basically avoid at any costs unless you’re feeling homesick and want to meet a bunch of loud, obnoxious Americans. Tuesday nights they have pound shots. Just like home!
The Windsor Castle
14 Campden Hill Road [1J, 75]
Located between Hyde Park and Holland Park in a residential area. The Windsor Castle is one of London’s famous pubs. The inside of the pub is darkly traditional and cosy, but the outside garden is the key to its charm. There are plenty of trees shading the many picnic tables, and an outside bar to expedite your drinking. The fish n’ chips are extraordinary and huge.
The Lord of the Mall
Whitehall [1J, 77]
A gorgeous pub, part of the Wetherspoon’s chain, which is a shame, because it sort of has that generic chain look to it now. The ceiling in this pub is gorgeous. Look up when you walk in.
All Bar One
Leicester Square [7H, 61], more
Lots of suits in this one, not so many tourists. Come early (before 8, I’d say) to avoid standing in a humiliating queue. Lots of beers on tap, and an enormous range of wines. Pricey, but if you’re a girl, chances are you probably won’t have to pay for it.
Somewhere near the Old Street Station, [4D, 62]
Apparently quite hip, but friendly enough nonetheless. Can’t say I remember much of this one,to be honest. Try it!
Pitcher & Piano
Dean Street, [6H, 61] and somewhere in [7J, 61], more
Large, airy pubs with light wooden floors, windows, and some comfy couches. A tad pricey, but a good alternative to a regular dark, Victorian pub.
The Punch & Judy
Covent Garden, [6J, 61]
Absolutely hellish. Crowded, hot, and absolutely brimming with tourists. It is the busiest pub in London, literally. However, if you stand on the balcony on the first floor (second to us) you get a great view of the street performers in the square below. If you’re going in the late afternoon, bring sunglasses, because the sun will be right in your eyes.
Off Oxford Street [6F-G, 61], off Leicester Square [7H, 61], more
A chain, yes, but an adorable one. There are several more O’Neills around the city, but these are the only two I visited. The one off Oxford Street is supposed to look like a milliner’s shop, and frequently the suitish crowd spills onto the street. The one off Leicester Square has a basement area with live music. We were there for the fourth of July and got to hear more Bruce Springsteen than I care to recall.
The Queen’s Arms
30 Queens Gate Mews [3A, 76]
Pathetically, I know nothing about this pub. Why is this pathetic? Because it was literally steps from our first flat. (We lived on Queen’s Gate Terrace, and Queen’s Gate Mews is directly behind it.) Genuine looking from the outside, though.
Long Island Ice Tea Shoppe
St Martin’s Lane [7J, 61]
A great place for huge American-style drinks like Long Island Ice Teas and other sticky, sweet, very alcoholic concoctions. Open late.
Kensington Church Street [2K, 75]
Jimmie's was where we spent nearly every Wednesday night while we lived in London, and we always go back on our visits. It has a tiny basement room with a bar along one side that sells wine and bottled beer, as well as spirits. There used to be a cover band that played everything from Britpop to "Sweet Home Alabama" which oddly, made us homesick, even though we a) weren't from Alabama and b) didn't like Lynyrd Skynrd. The band's gone now, though, but the place is still packed on Wednesday nights. Get there early (before the pubs close) to get one of the few booths.
I have to confess, the three of us were generally too poor to go clubbing, where the admission price alone can be upward of £10. We did go to a few small ones, but only when we went with people who would get us in for free. (What can I say?) However, Time Out can be quite useful in finding clubs appropriate to your interest, lifestyle, and preferred style of music. And since we were there four years ago, the trendy clubs have probably already changed.
The Hanging Tree
Edgware Road [6D, 60]
This is one of my favourite places to eat in London. It is extremely affordable, and the atmosphere is just right. It is light and airy, with bright colours and tables with tablecloths! The food is top-notch, with nothing over £6, if I recall correctly. My favourite was the ham and mozzarella baguette. The bread is fantastic, crispy on the outside and gooshy on the inside. The filling is hot, and the sandwich is served with a large portion of fries and a nice salad (although I don’t know that personally, because I won’t touch scary lettuce with a ten foot - er metre - pole, much less eat it.)
just off Camden High Street [near 1F, 61]
This is a small cafe located just off Camden High Street, near the markets. They have a board with specials for £5, one of which while I was there was Salmon with Saffron Mash.
Gloucester Road [3A, 76]
Yummy Indian restaurant probably like a thousand others across the city. I only mention this one because it was next door to our pub, Finnegan’s.
Kensington High Street [3J, 75]
And this place we only went to because of a) the name (aren’t we clever?) and b) it was down the street from a shop where a boy one of us was obsessed with worked in. Kind of snobby, but good pastries.
Pret a Manger
Nice handmade, fresh sandwiches. I only ever ate the mozzarella and tomato baguette, though, because of the aforementioned scary lettuce that is present on every other sandwich. On special days, I would pick it off. Pret is a bit more expensive than most takeaway sandwich shops, but it is higher quality than most. You can also get decent sushi there (or so I’ve been told.)
West End and the City
Benjy’s is, in my opinion, amazing. It is dirt cheap, with a huge selection of sandwiches as well as pastries, drinks, crisps and other items. In the West End, especially around Oxford Street and Soho, there seems to be a Benjy’s on every corner. Thank God for that! The branch on Wardour Street has a more exotic selection than the one on the corner of Oxford and Rathbone Place, including a delicious spinach and tuna roll. There is also a Benjy’s on Earl’s Court Road, right near the station that serves massive breakfasts (think fry up) for dirt cheap prices.
These are the museums I visited while in London. We felt like we should do the major ones, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the time or money to do some other smaller ones. Maybe next time. I do not include long descriptions of these museums, as I visited them only once (except for the Tate) and regular guidebooks can explain them much better than I.
The London Transport Museum
Covent Garden [7J, 61]
This was one of my favourite museums. You can trace the history of the public transportation systems in London by looking at (and climbing into) old buses and trains. There is a gallery with a photo exhibit and poster exhibits. For kids of all ages, there are some fabulous interactive activities. Finally, there is a cafe and (my favourite) the gift shop, with hundreds of items with the famous London Underground logo and map, as well as books on the history of London transportation.
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Exhibition Road [3B, 76]
The V&A is one of my favourite museums in London. Not only is it free, but there are literally miles of corridors and exhibits. It has been called the greatest museum of applied arts in the world, and after spending a day touring its many fascinating exhibits, you will probably agree.
Museum of Natural History
Cromwell Road [3B, 76]
A fun museum with lots of hands-on exhibits. There is a small admission charge, but bring your ISIC card so you can get in cheaply. The best exhibit in this museum is the earthquake simulation room that shakes and things fly off the shelves, just like in a real earthquake. Fun!
The Science Museum
Exhibition Road [3B, 76]
Although most of the museums I mention have some hands-on exhibits, the Science Museum is almost all hands-on. I spent a whole day in here and still did not see everything. This is a wonderful museum, and not just for kids.
The Tate Britain Gallery
Millbank [4J, 77]
My favourite art gallery in the world (even though I haven’t been to that many and I’m not a big art buff) if only because I discovered my very favourite painting in the world there, Chagall’s “Bouquet with Flying Lovers.” The last time I went, it was no longer there, because the Tate collection is far too large to fit in this museum. Even with its other locations around England, only a small percentage of the works are ever shown at once. There are plenty of famous works and artists represented here, to keep even the most art-ignorant (like myself) enthralled. Picasso, Monet, Dali, and the famous sculpture “The Kiss” by Rodin. The best part - it’s free!
The British Museum
Russell Square [5J, 61]
I found the British Museum rather dull, except for the book room, a vast hall with old books like the Gutenberg Bible and the original handwritten lyrics to Beatles songs. Otherwise, I was largely unimpressed, but that could have been because we were suffering from porcelain overload at that point. There are only so many ancient vases I can look at before they all look the same (about 5.)
The BBC Experience
Portland Place [5F, 61]
A fun trip, especially if you are as enthralled with the BBC as we were. You have to go through a tour which lasts about an hour before you get to the good stuff - the interactive exhibits. You can be in a puppet show, direct an episode of EastEnders, forecast the weather, and even control a camera that sits on top of the building. Fun and well worth the admission price, even though the gift shop was a bit dull. (A lot of videos that did us no good at all.)
National Gallery/National Portrait Gallery
Trafalgar Square [1H-J 77]
We actually didn’t spend much time in this museum, as we were just trying to cross it off of our list (shameful, I know.) I enjoyed the 15 minutes we spent in the Portrait Gallery, and the restrooms at the National Gallery are nice as well.
Parks can be found all over the city, from the huge “lungs of London” Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to the tiny garden squares enclosed within tall black iron fences. You stumble upon them in the most unlikely places, a burst of colour in an otherwise grey landscape.
You can always find people in a park, even on the coldest, windiest days, eating their lunch, walking their dogs, or just catching a few moments of sleep. On the rare sunny summer afternoons, a typical square will be filled with people, each claiming a square yard of grass to enjoy the warmth. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which run together almost seamlessly, are the largest of the London parks. Within their borders you will find bodies of water like the Serpentine, a manmade lake that winds through Hyde Park or the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, where little boys of all ages sail their tiny boats.
Not far from the Round Pond is the Elfin Tree, with tiny elves and other surprises carved into its branches. Kensington Palace is also on the grounds, the residence of the late Diana, Princess of Wales and other royalty. There are ice cream stands selling huge cones sprinkled throughout the park and a cafe at the tip of the Serpentine which is the perfect place to catch a sunset. On a warm day, the lake will be surrounded by people walking, rollerblading, biking, and even nude sunbathing. It is an ideal people-watching venue, and never short of colourful characters.
Other notable parks are Regent’s Park, with the London Zoo, and Primrose Hill, just north of the park, with an incomparable view of the city on a clear day. St. James’ Park and Green Park, both near Buckingham Palace, have wandering ducks and assorted fowl, as does Holland Park, with its peacocks. Not to be missed in the latter is the gorgeous Japanese gardens.
Pam Mather is a New Orleans-based Anglophile. She lived in London for six months in 1997 and goes back for a visit every year.