East, West …
Crowded, mask-strewn, polluted – there’s a lot not to like about London. And yet returning to it after a holiday is somehow always a pleasurable experience. I suspect my parents may have fostered this attitude in my childhood, with their game of ‘Spot the first red bus’ when we drove home from Essex or the Kent coast after visiting one of the sets of grandparents. Here are some of the things I love about it.
For me, quintessential London is standing on the platform at Embankment underground station, where that smoky tube smell is at its strongest, hearing the distant rumble grow to a roar, feeling the draught, and seeing the lights swaying in the rush of air. Lights, motion, noise – all the hallmarks of city life distilled into a thrilling moment.
A million miles away from this experience, though only six as the crow flies, Gallery Road in Dulwich could be in a quiet village somewhere. You step off the din of the South Circular and it’s wooded on both sides, with a picket fence running the length of it. Glimpses of parkland and playing fields flash through the foliage. The prize at the end of the road is Dulwich Picture Gallery.
London is full of these unexpected pockets of peace, and my latest discovery, rather surprisingly, is the southbound platform of Higham’s Park railway station. It offers the traveller a beautiful flower-filled bower, complete with colourful bunting, and a bench on which you can sit and contemplate the fact that when you step onto the train, you will be crossing the International Reference Meridian – you will know this because of the informative plaque above the bench.
Now to a station at the other end of the scale: St Pancras, with its platforms on multiple levels and that unmistakeable feeling of being connected to the rest of the world through Eurostar. Add to that the amazing pianists, Sir Gilbert Scott’s inspirational architecture, and the temptation of a drink at the Booking Office, and it’s hard not to fall into a happy trance as you wander the vaults.
Somehow London’s bridges always set my pulse racing. I love Westminster Bridge on a pearly summer morning, but at twilight, crossing Waterloo Bridge on the top of the 68 bus gives you the exciting panorama of a city gearing up for an evening filled with delights and possibilities, presided over by the Royal Festival Hall, repository of all the hopes and dreams of the Festival of Britain.
Albert Bridge after dark is magic, lit up like a film star’s mirror, but with a hint of danger, in that the sign advising troops to break step as they cross the bridge is still on display.
Greenwich has countless attractions, but one not advertised is, appropriately, the element of time travel you can achieve while standing in the piazza between the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College: look out across the river, and the view is of a futuristic Gotham City of brutalist tower blocks; then turn 180 degrees and look up the hill to the Royal Observatory, and it’s still the 17th century.
Just let me make it clear that when I leave here it will be feet first – and I want my ashes scattered in the river outside the British Film Institute, followed by a screening for family and friends of The Lavender Hill Mob.