I love London. I love Great Britain. In certain states of mind I would rather be in Britain than anywhere else. As a writer, the country and culture is so dense with material that it is impossible not to have an artistic expression of some kind. I have heard London described as being ‘in the moment’, I agree with that sentiment, something special is happening in England, you can feel it in the air. You can’t walk down the street without being confronted with some historical monument, famous personages home, finding a fantastic ruin under renovation or fashion trend that is out of this world ahead of itself. My favorite part of London is Camden Town at the heart of everything quintessentially British and quirky. Two of my novels end with characters sitting at the bar of the Worlds End pub on Camden High Street.
It’s said the pubs basement is haunted by the former husbands of ‘Mother Damnable s’, a Kentish woman whose bad luck with husbands dying young was notorious. The pub is also the largest in the world with one of the best rock venues in the city attached to the rear. Just approaching the front door is an experience. The stone front step upon which the wooden door rests has been hollowed away out by the millions of feet that have trod over to enter since it was built in the 1700’s. The swirling lathe interior is crusty yellow with age after 300 years of of smoking . Every surface has been polished with elbow grease and glass bottoms. There is no better place to sit than at the cut glass windows fronting the high street to watch the world go by. When I go to London this is one of the first places I go to get ‘into the groove’ .
I have made things easy for myself. Over my many visits London I’ve befriended a London cabbie we use exclusively. ‘Ginger’, so named because of his red hair, is on call every time we pop in. He knows exactly what we want and where we want to go. A London cabbie is a specialist in the ways and means of this two thousand year old mish mash of parks, lanes, alleyways and one way streets that have never seen the hand of a city planner, instead the city grew around the cart trails and by ways laid down by the original inhabitants over the two millennium of occupation.
Cabbies possess ‘the knowledge’. Gingy can always find the most interesting routes through traffic and always makes the trip from Heathrow airport entertaining. I have learned more about London from my driver than any guidebook has ever printed. Our route from Heathrow to Camden Town leads us a merry chase through parks, down lane ways and around monuments. OK, it’s true, I do get special treatment in certain quarters when people find out that I’m a novelist with books in the market and writing about travel. Trust me, there may be no money in writing novels or travel writing , but the people you meet make up for the shortfall in income. Ginger turns the meter off and gives me a flat rate.
There is no way I could justify not staying in London for at least a few days so we booked our favorite room at the Holiday Inn overlooking the romantic iron bridge above the Camden Locks and settled in. You might notice this bridge in the background of many news reports coming out of London. This is because the CBS News building is right next door and the Camden Locks make a great ‘location shot’ for visiting reporters. There are so many things I love about this area that I hardly know where to start when I arrive. The first thing I want to do is visit the hugely entertaining Camden Market and get something to eat. Camden has to be he most incredible ‘everything’ street market in the world.
There is nothing like it. It’s steps away from the hotel I stay in. After the plain food of Finland I head straight for the kiosks, there are three massive food courts on either side of the high street market. I like the combination dishes where three choices of anything heaped up generously into a tin take away plate is had for three pounds. Small and enterprising restauranteurs fill the market with delicious smells of everything from Thai to Mexican, Turkish to Indian. If Belgian waffles float your boat, you can get that too. The competition between vendors is fierce and they have taken to hiring smiling young ladies who entice you over to their kiosk with offers of samples . Sitting in a Camden Market retro scooter seat with a curry in hand must be one of the top culinary treasures of any major city.
If you want the lifestyle, culture and trends of England all in one place, Camden Town is where to come. There is a fantastic selection of merchandise available to pick through from all over Britain . My favorite thing is the high street itself. There is an eclectic mix of stores, restaurants, cafe’s and pubs strung out from Camden Market to Belushi’s comedy club. The side streets are jammed with kiosks and small shops. Hyde Park is within easy walking distance if you want a few moments away from the hustle and bustle. A trip to the London Zoo may suit you, I get a kick out of joining the locals in their everyday affairs. if you like to sit and people watch there are coffee and sandwich shops ‘three to a block’ along the high street, everyone from Starbucks and Nero’s to Pret a’ Porte’ and everything in between.
Going to the big museums and galleries is like a pilgrimage to me. I always visit at least a few. You’re going to choose the ones that appeal to you the best. They are all free by the way. The great London Underground ties everything together so that sites are easily accessed by ‘the tube’. I love the British Museum, The National Gallery, the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert. I like pictures , curio’s and antiques. Want to see the best of what a world class gallery has to offer? Then you must go to London, no one does it better. London’s perpetually quirky nature may bring out the eccentric in you. I began to collect metal cookie tins from Marks and Spencer. If you do visit a ‘Marks and Sparks’ be sure to find the cheese section and try a slice of ‘Cornish Cruncher for 90 pence’, it’s positively delightful. It always seems to early to leave London, but leave we must.
When I first started to travel to New York City in the 1970’s I didn’t know what the big deal was. Manhattan is quite small really and ‘the boroughs’ seem so far away, but then it starts to grow on you, and like every other New Yorker you become fixated on knowing your way around. Any good New Yorker can tell you exactly what the cross streets are of any location you can mention and which train will take you where you want to go. The ‘L’ is the best one for going up and down Manhattan . It seems geography is an obsession for every good Manhattanite. They pride themselves on local knowledge of the best dry cleaners and deli’s in town.
I am most familiar with Park Avenue from ‘The Battery’ downtown to 85th Street ‘uptown’ where the Guggenheim sits across from Central Park. The route takes me on a winding route through all my favorite haunts, Chinatown, Little Italy, Washington Square, The Flat Iron Building, SoHo, Bryant Park, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, East Village, Time Square and Grand Central. I like to stop and talk to the street vendors, poke in and have a coffee or doughnut. I’ll use any excuse to try and open a conversation. Contrary to most reports, New Yorkers are as friendly as people anywhere and willing to ‘shoot the breeze’ if you have something to say.
I am a true bug-a-phobe. The bed bug infestation of tourist hotels in Manhattan and the prospect of bringing them home has me staying in White Plains , Westchester County rather than risk Manhattan. I take the train in, it’s inexpensive, takes about thirty minutes, gives me a very pleasant tour of the small towns along the way and how the traditional American architecture has preserved the revolutionary spirit of the state. Above all I get piece of mind. I hate bugs. sorry. The train takes us all the way through Manhattan from the north side , crossing into Harlem at 125th Street and proceeding south to Grand Central.
I like to walk in the great cities I visit, I take comfortable shoes when I travel. I find you see a lot more from ground level rather than atop a tour bus or rapid transit. From Grand Central, after coffee in one of the many great cafe’s they have on the track level below ground, I head off towards the New York Public Library next to Bryant Park at Park and Avenue of the America’s. Today’s Manhattan is a very different place from when I first visited in the late 1970’s. The sidewalks are clean of litter and you’ll rarely be confronted by any panhandlers or street veterans these days.
The police are out in force. Watching the police briefings in the early morning is like watching an army unit getting ready to stake out higher ground. I feel very safe walking in in Manhattan these days. Time square has been designated a National Park. Gone are the skeazy days of hookers and peep show parlours. Come at night for the full effect of the neon lights. The sidewalks are now littered with pretzel vendors and knick knack stalls selling memories.
My irregular route from uptown takes me through Chelsea past the Empire State building. There’s a great McDonald’s across the street from the ESB with window seating, it’s a good place to take a break before heading off again. Walking downtown towards Greenwich Village through Union Square is really a slice of New York life. There is an admixture of residential life with little green grocers and coffee shops amidst the high towers of commerce that dominate the skyline. As I go along I stray between the connecting streets of 5th Avenue and Broadway. I may rest again in the park at the foot of the Flat Iron Building. If I’m lucky there will be a farmers market or other passing venue, there is always something happening in the public areas of Manhattan.
My destination of choice is the wonders of Washington Square surrounded by the campus of New York University. The fountains and the young crowd are delightful any time of year. Street musicians move piano’s into the park, performers bring entire stages including external props, all for donation. It’s the perfect place to spend a quintessentially New York afternoon. Aside from airfare and accommodation, we spend very little money when we travel. We eat in local restaurants seving basic food at the prices locals pay. We accept that travel is growing more expensive and try to squeeze as much out of our budget as possible. This usually means that we frequent grocery stores more often than restaurants, just like we did when we traveled Europe in the 70’s and lived on prosciutto, cheese , bread and wine.
Pat and I travel for the sights, highlights and the experience of ‘being there’. We try our best to stay off the tourist trail and find the special little things that make our trip unique to us alone. New York is the end of a spectacular month on the road. We successfully fulfilled the dream of a lifetime and circumnavigated the planet in one trip. We brought back a few cheap souvenirs but whats really important is that we gorged ourselves with fantastic memories, enough to last the rest of our lives. Our conversation quiver is replete with stories about the time we traveled around the world in thirty days.