Getting on down in Chinatown

After spending around five hours in a fun bilingual bubble in a London business school, I was back on the tube again, ready for another magical mystery tour (i.e. I randomly got off somewhere that sounded exciting) Throughout the morning and afternoon, I had met some really fun people – including an awesome girl who bonded with me over French camp sites, Dinard airport (read my very first ever blogpost for an insight into the Dinard airport experience!) and… disney princess impressions. Everyone I met had a lot of tips and tricks on what to see and do in London – including where to buy tickets for shows. In fact, the subject of shows and musicals was a great ice breaker and sparked up some lively debate on the best shows to see in London. After saying goodbye and exchanging numbers with my newfound friends,  my first idea was to go and see the ‘half price’ musical ticket booths around Piccadilly Circus to see if I could score any last minute matinee deals – however, at over sixty pounds for an average restricted seat, I wasn’t sold….

Yet. Better deals were to be had later in the week!

Lunch was found at Mcdonalds in Leicester Square – I was originally looking around for ‘Five Guys’, an American burger chain that opened in the UK earlier this year. ‘Five Guys’ is a chain which I’d heard a lot of hype about online (and on “The Londoner” blog), but I eventually caved into my hunger (and the offer of free wifi) and went to McDonalds instead. Casual NB. for the future – Leicester Square actually offers free street wifi to passers by anyway. So if you ever find yourself in London with an unreliable 3g connection and don’t feel like sitting on a coffee shop, head for a stroll into Leicester Square for free wifi! Oh, the excitement…

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As with any city, the London skyline has an interesting fusion of architectural styles! Glass edifices and older buildings from the 1800-1900s nestle together side by side in Leicester Square. After a couple of minutes spent gazing at rooftops, I made my way to Gerrard Street in Soho. Gerrard Street is home to Chinatown, which is only about a minute away from Leicester Square by foot but definitely feels a world away in terms of look and ambience.

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A delicious and odorous combination of spices, meats and sweet treats permeates Gerrard Street. Enthusiastic personnel wait outside their respective businesses in an attempt to entice the passer by to take a seat and indulge in a heady mix of herbal teas, peking duck, sumptuous cakes and… cuttlefish. I was intrigued by the window displays food along the street, displays which often had one or two ‘casual cuttlefish’, tentacles and all hidden amongst a throng of Peking Duck. I wasn’t hungry, thanks to McDonalds – shame on me for not holding out on my hunger and embracing an opportunity to try something different.  My parents visited Chinatown for a meal earlier this year and told me before my visit that the food there is incredible – £20.00 per head will guarantee you an impressive, tasty and unique meal in the heart of London. Next time I go to London, a visit to Chinatown is definitely on the cards… however I might give the cuttlefish a miss. Not a fan of those tentacles! See if you can spot the cuttlefish in my picture below… The character of Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama springs to mind.

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 Taiyaki (top left image) is a little waffle or pancake batter cake which is shaped like a fish – the literal translation of the japanese word  ‘Taiyaki’ means baked sea bream. However, the design is misleading (… is it too cheeky to refer to it as being a red herring?) for the cakes are not fishy in the slightest, being filled with cream and intended to be a sweet pastry accompaniment to coffee! From what I recall, it was around £1.50 for four or five cakes, so definitely a bargain. I was really impressed by the ornate icing which was piped on to the Chinatown cakes and cupcakes – it’s wishful thinking to hope that all the berries cancel out all the calories from the icing, right? Bottom right, you can see ‘Doraemon’ cupcakes.  Doraemon is a blue futuristic robotic cat from a Japanese manga which dates back to 1969. In the bakery windows, Doraemon was a figure that cropped up often as a cupcake topper, only rivalled in number by his popular pal Hello Kitty.

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I did not succumb to iced temptation, but headed back to Covent Garden to gaze some more at the indoor market shops and beautiful christmas lights – I especially enjoyed the 15ft topiary reindeer placed outside the market. Giant baubles adorned the inside of the Piazza, glittering and glinting magically like disco balls in the evening lamplight. I felt a little bit like one of the Borrowers.

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After Covent Garden, I met up with Ollie and his girlfriend Lucy to check out a Blues Bar behind Hamleys toyshop called “Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” – it’s an intimate venue with cool blues and overpriced nachos – we listened to the live music and had a drink. We decided to refrain from buying nachos*, instead we found some food  round the corner at a takeout noodle bar called (rather questionably) “Wok to Walk”. We had a few jokes over the name – do you really want savoury noodles on your morning commute? There is also a noodle bar in Durham, our old univerisity town called “Woksup” – it seems to be a running theme or trend for noodle bars to have puns in their name. The noodles from “Wok to Walk” were great though, and I had a lot of leftovers thanks to the portion sizes being so generous. After saying our goodbyes, I was even stopped by a woman boarding my train back to Croydon who found the pun on the noodle box amusing… I guess the marketing ploy worked! On the journey back to Croydon, my thoughts were full of daydreams of Chinatown – I’m already looking forward to a return visit sometime in the future!

*(this could have been a massive mistake! Perhaps the hefty price tag of £8.95 was justifiable. Perhaps we missed out on the best nachos that London could ever offer. I guess  it will remain a mystery for now. The mystery of the ‘potentially’ overpriced nachos.)

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The Bright Skies of London

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On Sunday 10th November I headed tentatively into central London, expecting large crowds for the Remembrance day ceremonies and parades.  Apart from having acquired a handy app of the London Underground tube network on my phone – something I wholly recommend to any London tourist – I had not really prepared a plan for my first day of sightseeing, I thought it would be fun to see if I could just walk around the city and ‘connect the dots’ on foot between famous landmarks. At East Croydon Station, I hopped on to the first train that I saw on the platform. It was headed to London Bridge – however I got off at Elephant and Castle, a station which is named after an old coaching inn and is situated near the Imperial War Museum. My stop off was a spontaeneous decision based purely on the novelty of the name – you can definitely tell I’m not a Londoner! – but I must of looked quite confident in my decision as it wasn’t long before I was being asked for directions by American tourists… I loved the red elephant placed on a pedestal outside the station, a statue which dates back to the 1960s.

From Elephant and Castle, I was off on the tube to Charing Cross, the stop for Trafalgar Square,  home to The National Gallery (a monument in its own right, most recently filmed for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode). Trafalgar square also plays host to the four iconic bronze Trafalgar Lions, placed around Nelson’s Column. I had previously visited the nearby Canada House on a school trip way back in 2007, and it was an awesome feeling to relive the excitement of the busy area again. Trafalgar square has four plinths, one in each corner of the square – the fourth plinth is dedicated to temporary contemporary artworks (that rolls off the tongue!) and this colourful cockerel was installed on the plinth in July 2013, making it a relatively new addition to the Square! It’s a cheeky statue which fully embraces British humour (although I think it looks a bit Gallic in nature and it was in fact created by a German Professor of Sculpture!).

Instead of heading into The National Gallery, which has over 2,300 paintings on display and (… perhaps most importantly for a girl on a budget) offers free admission, I got sidetracked spotting the flags of various Embassies that flank the streets around the square. I soon found myself outside Her Majesty’s Theatre, which has hosted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera” since 1986. The original novel, written by frenchman Gaston Leroux, is one of my favourite books. Being a hopeless romantic with a passion for gothic novels, the story of a tortured artist who sulks for his lost love in Parisian catacombs was always going to be right up my street. When I accidentally came across the theatre, I  definitely felt a frisson of excitement and promised myself that I would return later in the week to watch it. The theatre box office is open from Monday – Saturday from 10am-6pm and I definitely recommend buying your ticket in person if you are a lone ranger, rather than purchasing online or from a half price ticket booth – some amazing deals can be had at the last minute and the attendants at the box office desk are extremely kind and helpful.


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I sauntered onwards from Haymarket to the Mall. Again, not knowing the streets of London very well, I ended up in this area completely by chance – I didn’t even realise that I was near Buckingham Palace! Due to the Remembrance Day parades, I was met with a Mall closed to traffic and full of pedestrians quietly enjoying the Sunday sunshine. The autumn leaves of St James’s Park looked glorious against the bright blue skies and the calm serenity of the area was fitting for such a poignant day. London is famous for its beautiful parks and St James’s Park is no exception. It is an iconic location, having served as the backdrop for many films, including the James Bond film ‘Die Another Day’ and the live action version of Disney’s ‘101 Dalmatians’ – I was half expecting to see dalmatians frolicking under the trees! London is renowned for being an expensive city, however if you are willing to put on your walking shoes, there are many sights and locations that can be enjoyed for free.

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It was great to be able to approach the Palace on foot via the Mall. As it was November, the Queen’s guards were wearing their grey Autumn/Winter coats over their famous red tunics – the overcoats are thicker and longer in length than the tunics, providing more warmth and protection against the oncoming British cold. I thought that the Guardsmen were looking rather stylish…
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I had made plans on Saturday night to meet up with Daryl, a friend from University, for an afternoon of ‘adventure’. Just before he came to meet me outside the Palace, I chanced upon a Canadian Remembrance ceremony by the Canada gates in Green Park, just to the side of Buckingham Palace. I mentioned earlier in this post that I’d participated in a 2007 school trip to the Canadian Embassy in London.  This excursion was later followed up by a trip to France and Canada, thanks to a project run by the Imperial War Museum called ‘Their Past Your Future’ – the aim of which was to analyse the way in which Canadian soldiers, who fought in World Wars 1 and 2, have been commemorated from the past to the present day. The Canadian Remembrance ceremony at Green Park in 2013 brought back emotive memories of the war stories from that 2007 trip and I feel grateful that I was allowed to observe the ceremony and have a quiet moment of contemplation on the sidelines.

Daryl found me at the gates of Buckingham Palace and we were off to meet another friend from University at Trafalgar Square… however, we got a little bit lost on the tube but eventually, via Piccadilly Circus, ended up at our intended destination. From Charing Cross, we hot footed it to Covent Garden Market, which is one of my favourite areas in London. It features stunning architecture in the form of the Piazza,  which is surrounded by the lively buzz and hubbub of ‘Theatre land’, buskers, acrobats and musicians, making for a animated and magical atmosphere which changes from day to day.

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Daryl took a moment out from our frantic tube hopping to pose by the Piccadilly Circus underground signage…

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Now, I knew that the Moomins had their own theme park in their native Finland, but I was intrigued (and thrilled) to see that there was a miniature Moomin land within my reach in Covent Garden! The shop is accessed by a set of stairs, flanked by artistic Moomin silhouettes and postboxes for ‘Moomin Valley’ with beautiful attention to detail. I didn’t buy anything… but was definitely impressed with the concept! Definitely head to Covent Garden and have a look at the quaint market shops if you are looking for unusual christmas gifts or stocking fillers.

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After a brief dash into the Disney Store, we hit the road once more, this time I was told by my London savvy companions that we were headed to a magical place on Regent Street…

Hamleys Toy Shop! I was told en route that it is a childhood rite of passage for British children to go to Hamleys – the world’s oldest toyshop which has thousands of toys spread out over an impressive seven floors. Not being a frequent visitor to London as a child, I obviously missed out on that experience, but don’t weep for me too much… 😉 As you can tell by my enthusiasm for Moomins and the Disney store, it wasn’t too late in life for this big kid to visit the flagshop London toy shop.

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And I clearly wasn’t the only one to enjoy the experience! I wonder if anyone will wake up this Christmas with this £2000 + Bear from Steiff under their tree?! (Perhaps due to size issues it might have to be placed alongside the family tree!) I loved the displays and the peppy enthusiasm of the Hamleys staff who were to be found on each floor performing demonstrations of all the gadgets they had on offer to wide eyed children… and their equally wide eyed parents. It must be impossible to go into Hamleys with children and leave empty-handed, but luckily there is a choice from thousands of toys that cater for every budget. I can vividly recall reading about the exciting London toyshop experience in Jacqueline Wilson’s books when I was about nine… Now 14 years later I have finally experienced the Hamleys magic – and seen Prince William, Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge incarnated in Lego.

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After the excitement of Hamleys, it was time to head to Ellie’s parents in Bromley via London Victoria for an amazing Sunday roast – I really was spoilt by Ellie (who had spent the entirety of her Sunday slaving over lesson plans) and her family! After dinner, we returned to the Ritz of East Croydon, I gratefully removed my heels and already started thinking about what activities to take on next…