IF YOU ARE with me on social media, then you’ve probably been wondering who the eleven new friends and followers I have are, and what I’m doing having selfies with them atop skyscrapers and in random streets outside cafés and London landmarks. I would apologise for that abrupt burst of wall-posting and retweeting last week, but I’m not going to. The experience was far too exhilarating, caffeinated, edgy and great to be remorseful about. I’ll explain here, should you have the intrigue and patience to join me, Channon Gray, Harley Wild and Jack May on a very hectic tour around the capital.
I was one of the lucky twelve student bloggers invited to take part in the London Student Experience, a grand challenge organised by UNITE Students and Steak, to create a students’ guide to The Big Smoke. A guide that, moulded by a budget of £30 a day for things to do, would give students in London the chance to a side of their city that isn’t often seen, offering something different and off the tourist trail. The biggest challenge was the fact that it was for 24 hours – yes, a whole day – something that seemed perfectly doable when I said ‘yes’ back in June. Challenge accepted!
After an evening of mingling, burgers and bowling with the eleven other bloggers, and then a day planning and prepping our big adventure, Wednesday had arrived. For some reason I didn’t manage to get much sleep the night before, and so it was a large coffee when we woke at 4.30 and headed to the top of Stratford ONE, UNITE’s impressive student residence and our base for the week. From there, over the steam of my coffee cup, we had unbeatable views of London, waiting for us, and twinkling into life as the sun slowly rose behind us.
6.14am Coffee consumed, cameras prepared, itineraries devised. Before long, the four of us, leaders Frankie and Charlie, and cameraman Stu (collectively #DreamTeam) headed down to Stratford station, which was already starting to bubble with commuters. From there we headed south through the Isle of Dogs, right to the tip, to Island Gardens. The place was quiet, criss-crossed more or less solely by cycling commuters and healthier-than-me women stretching their thighs on benches in this quiet park just a short hop from Canary Wharf. Our aim was to cross the river to Greenwich – not by tube, car, boat or aeroplane, but by foot, taking the Victorian Greenwich Foot Tunnel. It’s a bit dank and doesn’t exactly smell like a field of lavender, but it’s pleasantly underused, meaning you can cross the Thames in minutes and see a very well-hidden chunk of London’s past.
At the other end is the Cutty Sark, looming majestically over sleepy Greenwich, backed by the ever majestic Old Royal Naval College, surely one of London’s most beautiful and inspiring pieces of architecture. It’s a beautiful spot, especially at 7.30am, devoid of tourists, but instead a group of wide-eyed bloggers filming themselves and taking plenty of pictures. Which we were told off for. Sorry. (Not.) Beyond is Greenwich Park, of London 2012 equestrian fame, crowned by the Royal Observatory, which provides some of the city’s most impressive views and the rest of the world’s concept of time. Except Spain. They have no concept of time there.
We wandered down to Greenwich itself, home to Greenwich Market and a charming array of shops and cafés, including scrumptious Peyton & Byrne, who kindly welcomed our desperately dreary-looking team for a Bakewell tart (Jack) and a coffee. No rest for the wicked, however; there were 20 hours to go!
8.43am London was wide awake. Commuters were pouring out of stations, suited and heeled, examining us with what I’m sure was suspicion as we made our way through London’s transport network looking underdressed and with a cameraman. Our next stop was the Emirates Air Line, aka. the cable car, from North Greenwich to Royal Victoria. Again, it was beautifully quiet, and the cable car, as excessive as it might be, is a truly unique way to cross the Thames, let alone see London – from the Thames Barrier and Dartford Crossings all the way to the London Eye in the centre. If you do find yourself in one of the cars with seven other people, be aware that there is a window you can open if you get a bit hot, and it’s best to do this at the beginning rather than 14 seconds before the ride finishes. Speaking from experience.
10.03am From there, it was DLR time again, this time westwards towards East India, where, after walking a rather long way round through scruffy, yet at the same time charming, East India Basin, we found our next destination – Trinity Buoy Wharf, hidden away amongst old warehouses and bizarre street art. It’s a completely hidden treasure, a former collection of docklands buildings now converted into cool artists’ studios, a café and an excellent diner. It was exactly the sort of thing we wanted to find. There’s also Container City, a collection of painted shipping containers rearranged like Lego and now completely inhabitable. Although such proximity to such a good diner would only end badly.
11.00am OK, so this is where we deviated from the ‘off the beaten track’ bit, because we made a trip to the top of the Walkie Talkie Building in the heart of The City, known as the Sky Garden. The View from The Shard’s less pricey cousin, the Sky Garden is perhaps one of the best spots to sit on London’s shoulders, mainly because the clumsy-looking Walkie Talkie isn’t in the amazing view, and you can sit with a drink beneath the ferns and palms and admire. Even for students, it’s great since it’s free – all you have to do is sign up and you can take the lift to the very top for no extra fee.
11.59am Back on terra firma, we crossed a few streets to Leadenhall Market, a nostalgic piece of the past set in the shadows of The City’s skyscrapers. It’s really very charming, and if you’re a clinically unstable, next-level Harry Potter fan, you’ll recognise it from the first film where Hagrid and Harry briefly walk to Diagon Alley.
But we were hungry. And we had food waiting for us with the lovely lot at pieminister at Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, who, unsurprisingly, provided us with much-needed pies. Very good, they were too – thank you, pieminister – even if I did have to eat mine holding up an umbrella. British stereotype fulfilled.
2.14pm We then wove our way through Waterloo to Lower Marsh, a gawdy and fairly unknown street behind Waterloo station, where we were greeted by the mixture of a Cuban fiesta going on in a bar in front us, and a drunk Irishman calling us social media users a ‘disgrace’ from the comfort of his wooden, Pinot-soaked bench. There’s the London Experience for you, students. Lower Marsh is known for its market, which seemed to be non-existent when we were there, but there are plenty of slightly off-the-wall places for clothes and food, including Four Corners Café, recently voted the UK’s Best Coffee Shop. And we had no idea it was there! So, if you find yourself waiting hours for a train to Portsmouth, do yourself a favour and enjoy the seriously cool ambience of Four Corners.
3.26pm From there we took the Tube north to the unrepentant vulgarity of Leicester Square, gladly not stopping at anything like M&Ms World (heaven forbid) but passing through Seven Dials to our next stop, Neal’s Yard. You might have heard of the Dairy or Remedies of the same name, but Neal’s Yard itself is a tiny courtyard off Monmouth Street, crammed with tropically-coloured buildings and tumbling flowerboxes. Even if you just sit and do nothing else here, it’s calmly reassuring to know there is relative peace to be found near Leicester Square.
4.00pm By foot we passed through Soho, grabbing a quick selfie with (a-clearly-trying-to-keep-a-low-key-but-it-failed) Billie Piper in a pair of dungarees, before calling at Lights of Soho. It might sound like an outrageously camp burlesque club, and the profusion of neon glowing from its windows would suggest so, too, but it’s far from it. It’s a sleek, understated and incredibly cool art gallery-cum-private members’ club, hosting art exhibitions under the light of plenty of eye-popping neon from God’s Own Junkyard. For an annual subscription, you’re free to take a seat, chill out, have a drink and come along to their events and exhibitions and feel simultaneously cool and cultured in the process.
We tried to get a shout-out on Soho Radio not long after, although we’ll never know if the smiling Caribbean man at the desk kept his word or not. If you heard anything about #uStudents24 through Soho Radio last week, do get in touch.
5.17pm By this point we had made our final tube journey of the day to beautiful Regent’s Park, albeit washed out slightly b y the lingering drizzle. We managed to find some Boris bikes, or whatever they’re officially called, to carry out the next part of the day. I’ve always been sure that Mr Johnson will be so, so happy to know he will be eternally remembered for his cycle hire scheme and his haircut. Anyway, OK, I know the bikes aren’t exactly ‘hidden gems’, but the route we took is rather under-explored – from London Zoo we followed Regent’s Canal westwards, past the colourful houseboats, which at times felt like walking through a garden centre, eventually to Little Venice. It’s a beautiful canal junction off Maida Vale, with swans and boats and romantic bridges between those tall, magnolia townhouses. I did think, however, that it looked more like Little Amsterdam than Little Venice, but I suppose the latter sounds less red light district-y, so I can understand the logic.
6.34pm The tube drivers had been on strike for four minutes. Our only hope at crossing town now was bus, or paying through the nose for overpriced taxis. But before then, we had a job at trying to find somewhere to dock the bikes, which on a muggy evening was not a particularly enjoyable task, but fear not – a dock was eventually found, quite practically located in fact, for the beginning of our bus journey.
7.20pm Three buses later from Westbourne Park, and a journey partly spent with my white shoes avoiding the puddle of tea on the bus floor, we wound up in Hoxton, stopping via Tesco Express for some light provisions (do sushi, hummus, carrots, crisps and M&Ms count as light?). I was lagging. It had been some time since my last coffee, and I was still faced with at least another eight hours on the go. The chap at the till in Tesco looked at us with apprehension.
‘You look propa rough, man, innit.’
Thanks! I thought, but I was too tired for sarcasm. ‘I know…’
We explained what we were doing, to which he said ‘cool’ with an apparent sense of ‘no idea what you mean, but good for you,’ before returning to me and saying ‘yeah, man, you look well tired’. Just give me the food, I thought, before I bite you.
8.45pm On the Tuesday we had booked ourselves two beanbags at the Pillow Cinema – a rooftop cinema – which is as dreamlike as it sounds, although on approaching the ominous looking building which looked like something from The Bill, I had a few doubts. Nevertheless we were welcomed in with a smile by a woman in a giraffe onesie and took our seats (or rather, beanbags) at the back of the rooftop, which was littered with lounging couples and friends sort of bedding down for the evening to watch The Breakfast Club on a big screen framed with fairy lights. It was probably the highlight of the day, something completely unique and an experience I can definitely see myself doing again. I’d like to say I enjoyed the whole film, although I was woken up halfway through by little drops of rain on my face, prompting me to put on the umbrella hat they had provided and catch the last half an hour. I can’t blame myself – what do they expect when they lay on comfy beanbags for an overly tired 22-year-old?
10.59pm After catching a quick (but heaving) bus down the road into Shoreditch, we attempted to find Pizza East, a pizza restaurant (quelle surprise!), and we did, opposite the trendy Boxpark, although they told us it was shut. So, instead, we wandered around the area in search of something to do – somewhere to drink, to eat, anything – which, on a Wednesday night afflicted with #tubestrike, is a hard task. Nonetheless as the clock struck midnight, we stumbled across Polo Bar on Bishopsgate, in glaring distance of Liverpool Street station. Walking in, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 10pm – the place was busy and the unusually chirpy waitresses sat us down and served us much-needed Prosecco. The best thing about Polo is that the really cool British café is open 24hrs! It’s as if they knew we were coming.
12.53am Well, I say it was a 24hr challenge, and we were free to let it run on until the wee hours, but frankly, we had covered so much ground in the last twenty, both metaphorically and geographically, that we were shattered. Luckily there was a TfL rail (soon to be Crossrail) train waiting to take us back to Stratford, and so we jumped on board and headed straight for bed. After walking from the station, of course.
And so that explains our social media assault last week. I’m still catching up on the lack of sleep from the week, but what an experience it was – I saw so many little nooks and crannies of London that I’d never seen before, and we didn’t exhaust our £30-a-head entertainment budget in all that time. It goes to show that even in one of the world’s most expensive cities, so much fun can be had with good company, average weather and little money.
Emirates Air Line – £4.50 return
Cycle hire – £2
Pillow Cinema beanbag – £25 per beanbag, (they’re made to share, so £12.50 each)
Total – £19
(We had a separate budget for food and travel)
It goes without saying that I owe a great big thanks to UNITE Students and Steak for letting me take part in this incredible opportunity and of course to my beautiful team-mates (many photo credits to them!) and the rest of the crew. See you all for #uStudents24NewYork?
The project was organised by UNITE Students and Steak, however all views expressed here are my own seedlings of thought.