I love London. It seems about as far from Dubai as you can get. Beautiful old buildings and architecture, quaint little shops, alleyways and side streets you can get lost on. My first escape from the desert, for my visa run, was to London. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I actually spent about four days in the city before heading to Bruges for the weekend, but I did spend one day wandering through Kensington, up through Knightsbridge to Piccadilly. It’s a bit of a hike, but you can see a lot on the way!
I started my day at the Design Museum. It was relocated to the former Commonwealth Building in 2016, on High Street Kensington. If you like architecture, the building interior is gorgeous, with light shining down through to the central alcove. I visited the free permanent exhibit – Designer Maker User – and was pleased to find information there on Harry Beck, the designer of the iconic London Underground map. I also visited a paid exhibition – Imagine Moscow – which explored Moscow as it was imagined by architects and designers in the 1920s and early 1930s. My favorite part of the exhibition was about the proposed Palace of the Soviets – I’m currently in Moscow, and about 500m away from where that mammoth structure was supposed to be built.
After visiting the Design Museum, I wandered down the back of the complex to Holland Park, until I found the Kyoto Garden. The Kyoto Garden was built in 1992, a gift from the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto. It was lovely and peaceful to visit – there was hardly anyone around. The Japanese-style Kyoto Gardens have a pond in the middle, with lots of koi carp swimming under a waterfall. Oddly, I came across a random peacock – who seemed pretty tame – and as you can see, let me take his photo. I also found the tamest squirrels I’ve ever seen in London.
KENSINGTON HIGH STREET AND THE ROOF GARDENS
I then took a wander up Kensington High Street. If you can avoid the charity collectors, it is a pleasant walk up towards Kensington Gardens – although admittedly, it is mainly chain stores that you will find. Take a minute to visit the Roof Gardens – just around the corner from the Kensington High Street metro. Located on top of the former Derry and Tom’s building and now owned by Richard Branson, you are able to visit for free, as long as you register at the counter downstairs (and it’s open on that day!). On top of the building are three resident flamingos and some very fancy looking restaurants – well worth a snack if you can afford the price! If you want to be as cheap as I was, you can always buy a ham and cheese sandwich at Boots to eat in the park….
HYDE PARK GARDENS
I have been to Hyde Park gardens many times, but always the end near Hyde Park gate. This time, I was determined to spend some time in the Kensington/Knightsbridge end! Unfortunately, Kensington Palace was completely booked up due to a very popular Princess Diana exhibition taking place, so I didn’t get to visit. I did wander through Kensington Gardens, then up the Flower Walk to the Albert Memorial. If you want to experience a bit of history, you can aways take a detour here down to the Royal Albert Hall and to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’ve been to both before, so I wandered up to the Princess of Diana Memorial Fountain (underwhelming!), visited the Serpentine Gallery and walked towards Harrods.
Harrods is the height of tacky. When I was younger, I thought it was pretty cool – everything there was obviously very expensive, so it was clearly going to be full of important people, right? Instead, I’ve come to realize it is actually just full of tourists. In saying that, I always seem to end up there when I arrive in London! This time, I was bemused to find an exhibit selling apartments in Dubai, near the Burj Khalifa. The sales rep was not impressed when I pointed out to him that the diorama looked nothing like downtown – and that half of the buildings weren’t even finished. I scuttled off quickly before getting kicked out.
Okay, so I like parks. After walking up Knightsbridge towards Hyde Park, I called in to the Wellington Arch, the New Zealand War Memorial and RAF Bomber Command Memorial. Wellington Arch was built as the original entrance to Buckingham Palace, but later became known as a victory arch commemorating Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon. The New Zealand War Memorial isn’t particularly exciting, a pile of iron bars, unveiled in 2006, which supposedly form a particular shape… but it’s really hard to see if you don’t know. The iron bars were apparently cast in Lower Hutt, so kind of close to home! The RAF Bomber Command Memorial was much more interesting – it commemorates the crews of RAF Bomber Command who embarked on missions during WW2.
I ended my walk at Piccadilly station, after walking up Piccadilly itself. Piccadilly is a shopping mecca, and features some gorgeous London hotels – including the Ritz. It was closed when I walked past, but I’d recommend a trip to the Royal Academy of the Arts – its right on Piccadilly and an interesting visit. The Fortnum and Mason flagship store on Piccadilly is also pretty impressive, having stood on the site for 300 years. I had no idea the original Fortnum and Masons started when William Fortnum, a footman for Queen Anne, realised that the Royal Families insistence on having new candles every night meant there was an awful lot of half melted candles thrown away. He started selling them for profit, starting his retail empire. If you are looking for mens shirts, pop over to Jermyn Street to pick up some lovely – if not expensive – clothing.
While this trip wasn’t exactly a historical visit, one of my favorite parts about London is to wander the streets and parks and enjoy being in the outdoors – something we can’t do much of in Dubai! Best of all, the day – excluding the paid exhibit at the Design Museum – was free. So if you are largely museum-ed out – this is a great walk for a sunny day, and still involves a fair amount of history!