10 Tips for tourists in London

10 Tips for tourists in London

  1. Buy an Oyster card for each person in your group. An Oyster card gets you on the underground and busses. It’s a plastic card that can be topped up at any underground station and most news agents. Beware, the tube is quite expensive, but thanks to the tube map very easy to navigate. Buses can be a bit more of a challenge but are far cheaper. To figure out bus rides click here for the very handy Transport for London route planner. You may have already done this but download the City Mapper app on your phone, it’ll drain the battery but will help get you around. Tube etiquette: stand on the right when riding the escalators and let people out of the carriages first. If you don’t you will be subjected to a drive-by of tutting.  London is a great walking city, but it is very spread out and there are places you will likely want to visit that are not in the centre.

  2. The City of London is not the city of London. The City of London or Square Mile as it’s sometime known is home to the financial sector and not the city centre. The tourist centre of London radiates out from Piccadilly Circus.

  3. Ask a Londoner. If you know someone who lives in London, ask them where they would take someone on their first visit and be clear you don’t mean Madame Tussauds or Buckingham Palace. Now you may want to go to those two places but there are a lot of hidden gems out there that are not always in the tourist guides. My suggestions? The Courtauld Gallery and the Brick Lane Bagel Bake.

  4. London can seem very expensive, but there’s lots of free stuff. Most of the major museums and art galleries are free and just ask for donations, which if you are poverty struck backpacker you may eschew. But of course, you’ll make up for that in later life when you have a job, right? Tate Galleries, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A, National Gallery and many more – all free.

  5. West End theatres are very expensive so check out local theatres such as The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. If you want to see a West End show, then try the Tix app where with persistence you can see shows for a little as £15. Top tip: At the Old Vic you can often get standing tickets for less than £10. An usher will usually allow you to take a seat as inevitably someone won’t show up or the place is not sold out.

  6. Despite what some people think, Londoners are friendly. Ask for directions and advice and you’ll be surprised how forthcoming people are. Just check to see whether they’re wearing earphones. Having said that don’t be dumb as pickpocketing and other scams do exist and there’s been an epidemic of kids riding mopeds, snatching phones from people’s hands. Use your common sense, watch your valuables and you should be fine.

  7. Go to the parks, they are free, provide us with air we breathe and are beautiful. My particular favourite, which most tourists don’t visit is Battersea Park, but right in the centre you have Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Green Park and St James’s, plus a host of smaller green spaces. As much as I love the place this is where we beat New York hands down as they only have Central Park.

  8. Time Out, once the great listings magazine, is a shadow of its former self but still a handy resource. It’s now a free publication (available in print on a Tuesday) go here for the online version.

  9. Don’t eat at chain restaurants, though I have to admit I’m quite often found inside Pret a Manger at lunchtime. There are thousands of small eateries waiting for your custom. Seek them out in the neighbourhood you are staying in. And at least once, eat a Full English Breakfast.

10. Speak English! Here’s a quick guide.


  1. Loo means toilet or bathroom/washroom
  2. Ta means thank you as does cheers
  3. Chips are french fries and crisps are potato chips
  4. Petrol is gas
  5. The Boot of a car is the trunk
  6. Fag is a cigarette
  7. A biscuit is a cookie
  8. A hole in the wall is a cash machine or ATM
  9. The underground or tube is the subway or metro
  10. Queuing up means standing in line

The Unwelcome Guest: Get outa here

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that on occasion I talk about my prostate cancer treatment under the title The Unwelcome Guest. It’s been pointed out that this more serious stuff sits uncomfortably with the flippant flim-flam and fol-de-rol that I usually turn out here.

That being the case, The Unwelcome Guest has been packed into a removal van and dragged kicking and screaming to its own blog. If you want to keep up with the little bastard this is where you need to be as The Unwelcome Guest won’t be appearing on A Little London Life in the future.

Dressing Down

Dressing Down

Warning: Rant blog on the way men dress

I don’t think I’ve ever known a time when men dressed so badly. Blokes in London seem completely lost as to how to dress. Get on the tube and first of all look up. Can you see any man present who has given any thought as to what he’s wearing? Then look down to check the shoes. Oh god it’s pitiful: At best scuffed trainers and fake leather slip-ons. Nobody will be wearing shoes or boots that you actually have to polish.

When I was growing up all we had was music and clothes, both of which were equally important. Music clearly still matters, but clothes seem to have fallen off the map, giving way to apps and Google maps. Once you weren’t properly dressed without a tie, now you’re improperly dressed without a smart phone.

I was speaking yesterday with Guy Hills at Dashing Tweeds, a firm which as the name suggests make fantastic tweed suits. He made the point that in days gone by people used to aspire to dress well. They dressed up. Just think of Teddy Boys and Mods. Both tribes were largely working class but wanted to escape the tedium of work wear and found ways to look fantastic. Teddy Boys did this by dressing like aristos, mimicking the style of Edwardian dandies. Clothing was aspirational. Now people dress down, not up and there’s the horror of ‘Dress Down Friday’. What if we had ‘Dress Up Friday’ with men coming to work in their finest threads?

In SW8 where I live, there are many clubs, most of which are located under the railway arches at Vauxhall. I see the kids lining up to get in on Friday and Saturday nights and there’s a kind of tatty conformity to it all. Jeans and T-shirts are about as good as it gets. Guys, you’re going out, you’re probably on the pull, don’t you want to look your best?

As readers of this blog will know I’m a huge music fan and love gigs. Once again slacks and T-shirts rule, this time among musicians. I want to yell at them, it’s showbusiness guys, you are on show, you’re not popping down to Tesco. You may be the best sax player on the planet, but I have to look at you as well as listen to you. This is particularly true of jazz players and all the more tragic when you think of the style legacy left by the great jazzers from the past like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. They didn’t just sound a million dollars, they looked it too.

Up until recently, men had to wear suits to work and the suit acted as a useful fix. The suit does two good things, it gives a man an indication as to what to wear and most men look good in them. Suits were effective clothing shorthand. Work suits may have been greasy, badly cut and often ill-fitting but even a bad suit can make a man look acceptable. Of course, a good suit can make him look sensational.

In these days of fast-fashion or what is effectively anti-fashion I have no idea how this problem is going to be fixed, largely because I suspect most men don’t see it as a problem. They don’t have a clue what to wear, and they don’t much care anyway. Today, blokes probably spend more on their tattoos than they do their clothes.

First Blog Birthday

First Blog Birthday

Today is my blog-anniversary, A Little London Life is exactly a year old. Thanks to all of you who have been reading and commenting, I hope you’re enjoying the ride. I relish the writing process and it’s great to see that the blog is starting to build a sizeable readership. Spread the word if you feel so inclined and if there are stories out there you think I should be covering, let me know.

I finally went to see the RA Summer Exhibition today just before it closes. The collage above has some of my favourite bits.

The Unwelcome Guest – Radio Days (1)

The Unwelcome Guest – Radio Days (1)

Probably like you, I’ve been sizzling in sun rays this summer, but very soon, as part of my prostate cancer treatment, I’ll be bathing in radio waves. I’ve known for some time that radiotherapy, the pointy end of my treatment, would start in September. It was established early on, that my prostate was not ripe for removal, so I’ve been on hormone therapy to shrink the Unwelcome Guest and that treatment, despite some irritating side-effects, seems to be working well. Now it’s nearly time to enjoy seven weeks as a guest on Radio Therapy.

You, dear reader, have almost certainly never had radiotherapy and I hope you never do, but this is the kind of cancer stuff that rarely gets talked about except among family and friends. So, I thought some of you might be interested to know what goes on. If you’d rather hack your arm off with a blunt penknife, I totally get it. Go find some more pleasant, diverting activity: take the dog for a walk, play guitar, read a book – I would probably do the same.

Anyone still here? OK well, it all starts, as does just about everything these days, with a PowerPoint presentation. To which you might say, Christ haven’t these poor bastards suffered enough? At 10am on a bright, clear, sunny day, the cancer contingent all trooped into a room in the urology department at Guy’s Hospital to find out our fate. Most were surprisingly chipper, though some looked as though life had taken a couple of chunks out of them. We all had a question on our lips: Radiotherapy, what’s that like then?

Jenna, the bright and breezy Urology Advanced Practitioner, had the answers. I’m to have radiotherapy five days a week for seven weeks at the same time and place every day. I get weekends off for good behaviour. The treatment doesn’t hurt and I’m not walking round like some kind of mobile Chernobyl, I’m safe to handle, but there are side effects. More about those in a moment.

I’ve never been a tattoo kind of guy. In my youth it was squaddies, crims and sailors who got inked, not nice middle-class boys like me. All that’s set to change. I’m now getting three tattoos, one on each hip and one just below my navel. These small dots will be used to line me up on the Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy do-dat in the same, correct position each time. Fairly soon, I have a terrible feeling I’m going to start talking about my ‘cancer journey’. If I do, a sharp blow to the head should fix it.

Us prostate people will also be drinking gallons of water over the coming weeks to enlarge our collective bladders (that might be an image you’re going to struggle to forget). This pushes the healthy organs out of the radio beam’s intrusive gaze and makes sure it’s just the prostate that receives both barrels. In fairness that’s not exactly the words Jenna used.

But hey, it’s not all just fun stuff. While the treatment may be pain free it does come with some baggage. It seems that about a month into the treatment I may start to feel dog tired and will have to take to my basket. I may be hopping to the loo twice a night and also my bowels…. whoa, whoa, whoa, actually you know what? You’ve suffered enough, if you want to know more Google it.

After the seven weeks the cancer should be nailed, but cancer is nothing if not a slippery bastard, so I’m then monitored every few months to see if the Guest has checked out or has decided to dash back because it had forgotten something.

Towards the end of the talk a little wizened man at the front who hadn’t said much suddenly piped up: “Can we drink alcohol during the treatment?” It was a sort of cartoon moment, there was total silence and total concentration as the room collectively held its breath. Well Jenna, well, can we?

I’ll keep you posted.

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

It’s one of those places you have a vague idea exists, might be fun to visit, but can safely be put off until some unspecified time in the future. In reality it’s stuffed in that bulging file at the back of your mental filing cabinet marked ‘never’. Could be a laugh, but never going to happen, not in this life.

And then it does. Last Saturday I went for an invigorating dip at Hampstead Pond.

When I moved to London some time during the late 70s, I lived in Camden Town and with Hampstead Heath up the road, rumours of pond based aquatic activity came our way, but somehow when you’re in your twenties swimming isn’t right up there on that pressing list of ‘things to do’. In those days, verbs ending with -ing were usually prefaced by the words pub and club.

A close neighbour, he lives two doors down, waxed lyrical about Hampstead Pond life at a drinks party last Christmas, but with snow on the ground and ice on the water I said thanks, but no thanks. Ice has its place, in a gin & tonic, I don’t want to be encased in the stuff. Then came this long hot summer and with the mercury locked on 30c, I finally decided to take the plunge.

The four swimmable ponds at Hampstead Heath, which were originally reservoirs, are set aside for: Mixed bathing, Women, Men and Dogs. Yup that’s right, if your pet pooch fancies a doggie paddle walk this way. It’s mixed bathing for dogs, but the place I came to visit was the Men’s Pond, which officially opened for business 125 years ago this year.

Right from the outset it was very popular and started to attract hardy year-round swimmers. The Times, at the time, called the pond ‘A heroic form of the Englishman’s morning tub’ and said winter bathers were ‘an inoffensive kind of lunatic, who harm nobody but themselves.’ They were known as ‘The Barmy Club’.

Eccentricity still prevails with one set of regular visitors, mostly comprising American bankers, calling themselves ‘The East German Ladies’ Swimming Team’. They meet at 9am every Saturday and Sunday, take a brisk trot round the Heath and then descend on the Men’s Pond for a swim. They are easily spotted on account of their natty, branded togs and their boisterous behaviour.

The neighbour and I pitched up at 8.30am on a warm, bright, blustery day when there were perhaps fifteen people present. Apparently, during this tropical summer, the afternoons get mobbed which is why the old-timers I met, turn up early.

The Pond is looked after by the Corporation of London and they don’t exactly splash the cash on the facilities, which are basic in the extreme. The showers are cold and there are no lockers to secure your valuables. But such was the amiable bonhomie of the place, I find it hard to believe that pilfering takes place at that hour of the morning.

There’s a jetty and diving board that juts out into the pond from where I took the plunge. The water was a balmy 25 degrees and felt more like a warm bath as I bobbed and swam around the pond. To enjoy the place, you need to be a reasonable swimmer. The pond is deep, there’s nowhere to stand and there’s no pontoon on which to lounge, but not exactly being Mark Spitz myself I occasionally hung on to some strategically placed life savers that mark out the swimming area.

We swam for around twenty minutes in idyllic surroundings, changed and showered (brr!) and then a bunch of us, the neighbour knows everyone, repaired to Bistro Laz on Highgate Hill West where the coffee is excellent and the wild swimmers a kindly bunch to engage in conversation for the first time.

It looks like the bug has bit. I’m going back tomorrow.

Pond update 4.8.18

Diana sent me this great little Pathe News film from the 30s of the Women’s  Pond. Click here to watch. 

Funfair stinking up the park

Funfair stinking up the park

I like funfairs, I’ve been going to them all my life. A particular favourite is the Dodgems, but I’ve done time on the Waltzer and even the Wall of Death.

So, I was happy to hear that Bensons Family Funfair was setting up shop in one of our local green spaces, Kennington Park. Well, I was happy until I went there.

We live in a pretty polluted part of town, I shudder to think what the smog levels are on Harleyford Road or Clapham Road. Fortunately, the London parks act as the capital’s lung combining the absence of traffic with trees performing that magic of absorbing carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses, and then releasing pure oxygen back into the air.

This morning, the mutt and I walked into Kennington Park and were hit with the acrid stench of diesel. I’m assuming that without a nearby electricity supply the funfair is forced to run its rides with power generated by its trucks. This means diesel motors are running constantly.

Funfairs have probably done this forever, but we didn’t notice or if we did, we didn’t care. But now we know about nitrous oxide (N2O) and particulates and all the other evil stuff that engines pump into the air and what it’s doing to our health.

In London we accept the inevitability of heavy traffic and look to the Mayor and Transport for London to help reduce pollution, but now the very place we seek solace from the stink is being stunk up.

What about the council providing an electricity supply so the trucks can power down? What are your thoughts?