WE all know what Samuel Johnson said about London. And it’s gloriously, life-affirmingly, true: it is impossible to be bored with one of the world’s great cities. I found Covid-enforced absence has not only generated fondness, but actually given London the chance to up its game and reset the harshest edges of its notorious big city brashness.
Ditching Johnson – a notoriously grumpy travel companion (just ask James Boswell) – I switch writers and head south with legendary railway devotee Robert Louis Stevenson, evoking his ‘Not the destination, but the journey’ mantra. I’m tempted by the new Lumo service – which, with its budget fares, could revolutionise cross-border train travel – but I choose to travel in style. It’s been a while after all.
Some style it proves, aboard the Caledonian Sleeper. The much-vaunted overhaul has been marred by a swathe of bad publicity and indeed the first time I used the swish new train in 2019 we took out the overhead cables and spent four hours holding back all trains into Euston, before we were bundled off by the British Transport Police.
Rolling smoothly out of Scotland today the sleek Sleeper is a much slicker experience. Think a single malt before bed in a sharply designed lounge car, a toilet in your cabin – regular users of the old service will know just what joy this is – and a shower en suite. And, best of all, the new carriages have bogies that ease you to London rather than shudder you awake at Crewe.
Arriving in London in late autumn from Scotland is a Covid culture shock: mask wearers are outnumbered by the mask-free, from restaurants, to bars and on to hotel lobbies, and most strikingly the Tube, despite London Mayor Sadiq Khan imploring people to wear them. Not keen on the mask free-for-all of the Tube, I take to the airy River Bus service run by Thames Clippers and Uber.
It proves a good move, easing along the river ticking off old faves HMS Belfast, the Tower of London, Canary Wharf, and easing under the stately majesty of Tower Bridge. I catch sight too of a newer arrival: ‘Boaty McBoatface’, the sturdy new Antarctic research vessel more prosaically named, despite the public’s more comedic vote choice, Sir Richard Attenborough.
Getting off in Greenwich, I swap Canary Wharf’s forest of glass and steel for a much gentler London, one literally shrouded in time. And history. The Cutty Sark gleams after her post-fire resurrection and another older timer Goddard’s at Greenwich mercifully ploughs on too. I opt for double pie and mash, foolish as the pies here are the real proper pastry deals – a huge world away from cursory flaky roofs. I eschew the proffered jellied eels and push on for the real target: time itself. Greenwich is, of course, home to Greenwich Mean Time, the Royal Observatory and the world’s Prime Meridien Line. Not content with time I take in the cosmos at the Peter Harrison Planetarium. No cheesy generic film, this is the real deal with live commentary from one of the Royal Observatory astronomers. Very London.
Avoiding the Tube is proving a continuing joy. Returning to my hotel by King’s Cross I jump off the River Bus at Bankside, sweep over the no longer wobbly bridge in the looming shadow of the Tate Modern, before saying hi to old pal John Donne outside St Paul. You never see him on the Tube. Google Maps lets me know I’m only 34 minutes away, but I arrive two hours later via an impromptu stop at right side of hipster boozer The Eagle in Clerkenwell: it sports its own ale and was expertly grilling Balkan grills at the bar. I doubt I’d have ever chanced upon The Eagle in my life if I’d stuck to the Tube.
Both Johnson and Stevenson appreciated decent lodgings. As I’ve not been in the UK capital for over two years I conduct a broad survey with three totally different hotels. The Z Hotel Trafalgar is a budget bolthole just off the eponymous square. It proves brilliant value: compact, spotlessly clean rooms cheaper than what I’ve paid for a fusty B&B out in Edgeware Road before.
The new Westminster London, Curio Collection by Hilton, elevates things several notches. This chic newcomer is the polar opposite of my image of more perfunctory business-orientated Hilton hotels. We’re talking large rooms with floor to ceiling windows, the latest fool-proof Nespresso machines, a style bar lobby and proper can do service. It’s more Ian Schrager than regional sales manager; a hotel with serious style.
Last but certainly not least is a hotel literally built for Scottish travellers. The Great Northern Hotel harks back to the Golden Age of the railways, with direct access from King’s Cross Station. Retro posters and retro railway fonts on signage and room numbers set the tone. Their buzzy bar is alive with revellers grabbing a pint before a train; others savouring a bottle of Meursault and à point steak that would past muster at Le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon. Classy.
London is, of course, one of the world’s great foodie cities too – it was Johnson again who minded his belly ‘very studiously, and very carefully’. I follow suit, kicking off at Vinoteca Kings Cross. The highlight – harking back to home – is pan-fried Shetland cod fillet, coco beans, charred purple sprouting broccoli and aioli, washed down with a citrus-tangy Falanghina Beneventano 2019 Lapilli from Campania.
Even the hotels are stepping up their foodie game post lockdowns. The Westminster Curio serves up STK, a sassy steak restaurant where smooth Georgian red wines meet Wagyu picanha, via USDA Tomahawk bone-in steaks. The prime beef comes with a proper smoky sear; properly pink inside too. You can eat steak brilliantly well in Scotland – it’s hard to fault here too. Upstairs at the Great Northern Hotel’s Plum & Split Milk offers acres of space between tables in an elegant tall-ceiling dining room. A Modern British features fresh seafood, such as seared English south coast king scallops and dressed Dorset crab, with acclaimed Chris Fordham-Smith at the helm.
London is continually a literal feast and a feast for the senses; a place that always reels you in. It’s a city you think you know (once I arrogantly thought I did after four years there), but then you peel back several layers more. New for me this time is the Postal Museum. Not just a bright and breezy run through of the history of the postal service in Britain, but – this being London – it’s on a whole different level. I descend down below the earth and ride on one of the old 2ft narrow gauge post trains I’d no idea used to spirit post across the capital as recently as 2003, when I lived in London.
An ultra-modern new attraction is the View from the Shard atop London’s tallest building. It’s quite something peering down on swathes of the city from the open-air Skydeck. I celebrate with a glass of Moet and Chandon in their Champagne Bar. Even more breath-taking is the slide at the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Brace yourself on this as it consists of a dozen twists and turns, including a tight corkscrew named the bettfeder (‘bedspring’ in German), and culminates in a thrilling 50 metre rush to the ground. You’ll find a more relaxed experience at the new Sky Garden, another contender for the best views in London and the highest garden to boot. Dine here and gawp down at it all – you just cannot fail to be impressed by London.
Perhaps the most striking attraction of all in London 2021-style is the atmosphere. Lockdowns hit a city of singletons, boxy flats and tiny gardens hard. There is a new appreciation of life and living in London. The notorious harshness has discernibly softened. No one jostles me on Oxford Street this time, bar staff manage to crack a smile and waiting staff chat. And chat. It may not last, but for now it makes London even more of a joy to visit.
Back on the Sleeper I’ve time to slip in a wee dram after a lateral flow test before I head back north. It’s quite a treat having a shower in your cabin and then being tucked up in bed by the time you roll out of Euston. I’m sure Johnson – who endured a notoriously uncomfortable adventure through the Hebrides – would have approved. And I in turn firmly approve of his city. You really cannot get bored with London, a city in a state of constant change whose recent turbulence has added a polishing of warmth to its always impressive, sometimes gruff, façade.
Caledonian Sleeper – www.sleeper.scot
Great Northern Hotel – https://gnhlondon.com
The Westminster London, Curio Collection by Hilton – www.hilton.com
Z Hotel – www.thezhotels.com
Uber Boat by Thames Clippers – www.thamesclippers.com/plan-your-journey/route-map
Tourist information – www.visitlondon.com