London has long been one of my favorite places, a huge yet walkable city steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. Not too long ago, a week-long trip to London was easier and cheaper than making similar visits to many locations in the U.S., at least from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days.
Jonesing for a return to London
During a formative semester abroad in England (1981), I visited London several times and was awestruck by it. It was just this fascinating, intimidating colossus. After that semester, I often daydreamed of returning. However, as a law student and then as a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, spare cash was in extremely short supply.
Throughout the 1980s, London had this weird hold on my imagination from afar. I even was drawn to “Ticket to London, ” a role-playing game for my Commodore 64 computer, featuring the city’s major landmarks and geography. The simple graphics allowed me to “interact” with the city, which felt like the closest I would ever get to going back there.
But in 1990, an opportunity to return presented itself. I was enrolled part-time in a master’s degree program in labor studies at Empire State College in New York, which was co-sponsoring a two-week, interactive study tour in British public policy, hosted by the University of Bristol. Given a chance to earn degree credits, see something of the U.K., and spend a few extra days in London, I signed up! (While still cash crunched, I had learned to juggle credit cards by then.)
It was a great trip. The formal program was excellent. I learned a lot about British public policy and labor relations, and I enjoyed the company of my American and British colleagues. Equally important, I was able to spend a few blessed days in London. The way I spent my time there — seeing a play with friends from my Bristol group, visiting museums, taking a walking tour, and searching out bookstores — would set the pace for future trips.
Spring Break trips to London
That return visit to England whetted my appetite, and fortunately air fares and travel costs were very agreeable. During the early to mid 1990s, I could get a round-trip ticket from either New York or Boston to London for around $300, book a safe, clean, modest B&B room for less than $50/night, and enjoy the city fairly inexpensively.
I did these London trips during spring breaks, usually on my own, occasionally meeting up with friends along the way. The total cost was a meaningful dent in a young professor’s budget, but it was a very good deal for a week’s visit to such a grand city.
I’ve always been a creature of habit, and my visits to London mixed routines with a little variety. Here are the recurring themes:
A quality walking tour is a great way to explore a city. A variety of commercial tour operators provided fun and affordable opportunities to see and learn about London. My preferred walking tour company was London Walks, which I’m pleased to see is still around. With London Walks, I went on ghost walks, crime walks, “hidden London” walks, and, of course, Jack the Ripper walks.
Of the various tours offered, the Ripper walk was my favorite. The city’s East End — site of the Ripper murders — was still rather gritty in the early 90s, which added to the walk’s authenticity. During my London visits, I went on several Ripper walking tours, some of which were led by were serious researchers tackling the still-unanswered question of the killer’s identity. (Sidenote: On any given Ripper walk, I would be one of dozens of fellow Americans, causing me wonder why we hadn’t had our fill of serial killers on our own side of the pond.)
One Ripper tour (not London Walks) turned out to be an unintentionally comic relief version. The guide showed up somewhat inebriated, a condition exacerbated by the ritual pub stop that is part of a typical London walking tour. Let’s just say that his commentary caused some to walk away in exasperation, while the rest of us stayed out of pure amusement and tried not to laugh too loudly.
The 1990s overlapped with the 50th anniversary observations of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War (1939-45), and as a history buff this was tailor made for me. I made return trips to the Imperial War Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of artifacts and displays about both world wars. Skillfully and tastefully curated, these exhibits made for one of the best historical museums I’ve ever visited. Also on the WWII theme, I went to Winston Churchill’s underground war rooms, where Britain’s leaders plotted military strategy while the city above faced attacks by Germany’s Luftwaffe and long-range rockets.
Further drawn by the city’s earthy history, I enjoyed the Museum of London, the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, and the Clink Prison Museum. Let’s just say that all these sites helped to illustrate how life for so many denizens of Jolly Olde England wasn’t all that jolly. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes‘s characterization of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind.
Its lack of aesthetic appeal notwithstanding, I loved spending time in the concrete jungle of the city’s South Bank arts complex, running along the Thames. I would arrive in the late morning to buy a cheap day ticket to a play or show at the National Theatre later that night. I would then spend the rest of my day poring over the open air used book stalls next to the theatre and hanging out at the nearby Festival Hall area, where I could buy a sandwich, catch a free lunchtime concert, or read a book.
Although I lived in New York for 12 years, my appreciation for the theatre was stoked in London, and the National Theatre had a lot to do with it. Starting with my collegiate semester in England, and proceeding into those 1990s visits, I was fortunate to see a lot of first-rate stuff there, including The Elephant Man, Murmuring Judges (a devastating portrayal of the British criminal justice system), and revivals of Oklahoma! and Carousel.
London is a book lover’s delight, or at least it was prior to the emergence of the same online competition faced by America’s brick and mortar booksellers.
Whether we’re talking huge bookstores selling new titles, musty old used bookshops, specialty sellers, or even museum gift shops, London’s offerings were the biggest threat to my budget. My purchases also made it hard to pack for the trip home. I recall two occasions when I had to buy an extra bag in order to bring my new acquisitions to the States.
Looking back, I realize how my 1990s visits to London transformed this giant metropolis into a comfortable place that balanced familiarity with discovery. This process was eased by the city’s subway system — the Tube — which could connect me to just about anywhere I wanted to go.
Since those trips during the 90s, I’ve been back to London on several occasions in connection with conferences and continuing education programs in the U.K. I look forward to returning again someday, though no longer with the haunting sense of yearning that drew me back there some 25 years ago. London is now a part of who I am, regardless of how many times I go back there.
I’d been working on this post for some time, but the inspiration to finish it up was this neat Yestervid.com video (about 11 minutes) containing some of the oldest known film footage of London, going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you enjoy London, then this is a treat: