I am back in Malaysia and already in the real world of work, bills and responsibilities. My break in London was a good one though and i come back well rested and recharged.
As promised, I will be posting about this adventure. To start with, I thought I would give you an introduction and a general review which I will call the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of London today compared to the London I knew 25 years ago.
There were quite a few pleasant surprises. I arrived at Heathrow Airport at a terminal that I had never been before and was pleasantly surprised at the ease and efficiency of the place. This was quite different from the chaos that I remember from 13 years ago and given the increase of security procedures since 9/11, quite impressive. It was rather a long walk to the Underground train station but then the train whisked me effortlessly through the early morning right to Piccadilly Circus. I walked out into the crisp cold morning air and into a city that was just awakening to the rhythm of a new day. It was a good start.
Just a short 200 m walk and I reached the hotel and had a great reunion with my wife who had been traveling separately for the last fortnight on work assignment. I don’t like it when we are apart so the re-union was very good.
I spent the first few days in and around Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Soho Chinatown and Covent Garden. Generally, all of these experiences were good. I was particularly impressed with Trafalgar Square. It used to be pigeon and dove infested and felt very cold and unfriendly. Visitors spent their time avoiding the stale bird droppings on the ground and on the statues and ducking the aerial bombardment with the hot and fresh variety. Well, the birds are mostly gone and the space is very people friendly now. It feels more like a space that belongs to the people and to be used by the people.
I got a similar impression about the museums and the parks. They have begun to lose their stiff institutional demeanor and become more of a place to serve the public needs. Hence there were Christmas fairs in the park and open air ice rinks outside the august Natural History Museum. London has become less stuffy and more alive. Covent Garden too has become more organic and brimming with innovation and spirit. This new London is more fun and youthful.
The food scene has also improved tremendously but that still doesn’t mean that London is where you would go for a culinary experience. The improvement is in the fact there are more reasonably priced variety available with an increased emphasis on fresh ingredients. For example, the chain, Pret a Manger, offers exciting variety of sandwiches which are a world apart from the traditional fried foods of yesteryear.
As time has marched on, London has also lost some of its traditional charm. The traditional fish and chips shop has become a rarity. Most have either closed down or have morphed into a more up-market establishment (meaning costlier). I finally did find one traditional chippie way out in Fulham Broadway that served it just the way I remembered it. You are more likely to find Indian food round the corner.
I had hoped that the quaint but functioning fresh produce market that I used to shop at near Fulham Broadway would still be there with its individualistic and colorful stalls scattered along a narrow lane. A form of the market can still be found but it no longer lies within the atmospheric side lane but on the pavement of the main road itself. The supermarkets also seem to stock less of fresh produce and more of ready meals.
I went to visit my alta mater and had mixed feelings seeing the old student’s residence (which was a dump) converted now to choice apartments along the swanky King’s Road in Chelsea. Good to see the fire station which was the scene of many student-firemen water fights during orientation week is still there though.
And finally, there was the ugly. Well, there wasn’t really a lot of that. I guess the ugliest thing was the cold, wet rainy weather that I had to had to contend with for most of my stay and which resulted in me having a bad cough. But then again, cold wet rainy and miserable weather is part of the quintessential London winter experience so one really can’t complain, can one?