I "grew up" in London. Not in the usual sense of being there in my childhood, but in the sense of going from a somewhat protected late developer to a mature adult capable of managing her life on her own. I lived there for over three years from 1969 until 1972. Peter and I have been back since, but only for short periods, and for the longest of these we stayed in the centre of London and didn't stray much further afield. So one of the joys of our most recent trip was rediscovering London, and becoming aware of how much it has changed, and how much it hasn't in the last four or five decades.
The Thames for me is one of the key features of London. In the 1970s I lived in East Molesey, in a house with a view of the Thames from the back window. And I spent many an interval at concerts in the Royal Festival Hall staring out across the river. On this trip we stay on the Isle of Dogs, right in the bend of the Thames, and we have a lot to do with the river, travelling beneath it by tube on multiple occasions, and even by foot through the tunnel from Greenwich, walking along its banks, crossing it on foot by most of the main bridges, including the new Millennium Bridge. Living in the East End we see all the reconstruction of the areas around the old docks, making this area an interesting mixture of new expensive apartments and older housing estates. We become aware of the huge amount of tourist traffic now on the river every day, as well as the commuters using it as an alternative to the tube. The "arts precinct" on Southbank that began with the building of the Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s has now extended to the new Globe and the Tate Modern, but the Southbank Centre itself is now old enough to need redevelopment, so two of the smaller concert halls are closed.
From the splendid vantage point of the top of the Tate Modern you can look over the London skyline. On the north bank are the familiar shapes: the dome of St Pauls, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. But there are also a series of extraordinary modern edifices sticking up from amongst the old: the Eye, the Shard, the Gherkin, and others whose nicknames I don't know but whose architecture is just as challenging. Some, like the Walkie-Talkie, seem to be larger at the top than they are at the bottom, which leaves one wondering how the structural engineers have managed it. These new structures don't really blend into their surroundings at all - quite the reverse - they are very "look at me!". But somehow it makes London look modern and vibrant, rather than just making it look like a hotch-potch. Living on the Isle of Dogs we are of course in the midst of the new high rise: sixteen of London's fifty tallest buildings are here.
Meanwhile, back at ground level, what else is new?
The parks: Hyde Park, Regents Park, are still the same wonderful green oases. There seem to be more people than ever using them, but that may be because we are there in the height of the tourist season. Peter and I are slightly disconcerted on one occasion to see a large group of fully-covered Muslim women coming towards us, then settling on the grass like so many huge black crows. They proceeded to picnic, lifting food up under their niqabs.
Muslim women are also strongly in evidence in the posh department stores in Oxford Street, although fewer of these are fully covered, most are just wearing headscarves. No doubt there are migrants from the Middle East who are not well off, but equally there must be lots of rich shopaholics, as they almost outnumber the uncovered. London's stores once seemed to me to be magical places, but on this trip we find them disappointing. Department stores everywhere now seem to be stocked with the same big brands - rather dull if having designer labels on your gear and goods doesn't turn you on. Places like Fortnum and Mason are now ludicrously expensive - we cannot bring ourselves to buy afternoon tea there (price £26 to £45 per person). And I am totally defeated in my search for a paper napkin holder as a present for friend Laura who has many a garden party. (On return to Australia I find a choice of three in the South Melbourne Market). The only shopping we really enjoyed was in the Greenwich Market, which had lots of interesting and original stuff. If we return to London I will make a point of visiting more markets.
One of our favourite spaces was a reclaimed dock area on the South Bank, with a fabulous sculpture that did all kinds of interesting things, mostly driven by falling water (see left).
We found lots of good cafes in London, but it's hard to get a decent coffee if you like your coffee black. The long black seems to be a peculiarly Australian invention. Cafes in the UK and many in Europe offer black coffee in two forms: Espresso and Americano. An espresse in France is a short black, but in London and in places like French Autoroute cafes, asking for an Espresso gets you about a half inch of very strong coffee in a very small cup - one is not sure whether to drink it or inject it. The alternative Americano comes in a huge cup, and tastes like a bucket of slops from cleaning out the espresso machine (if that strong). In one very pleasant cafe in Bank, I actually resort to instructing the barista on how to make an Australian long black. Since he is a Dane, he is open to learning something new.
But overall, I love London, and would go back in a heartbeat. Peter says he couldn't live there, but I think I could probably last as long as I did first time round - after three winters I couldn't face a fourth.