Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

19 London cliches in less than four hours

August 23, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Less than a day into my journey, traveling without luggage paid off at my very first destination: It afforded me the opportunity to cram as many generic tourist experiences as possible into a three-and-a-half hour London layover.

My No Baggage Challenge kicked off the evening before, in Manhattan, where I met up with a few friends at the Bleecker Street Bar before heading off to JFK airport with my cameraman Justin. The six-hour flight into Heathrow was blessedly uneventful, if a tad uncomfortable (after all these years of travel, I still have trouble sleeping in airplanes). Nobody in U.K. customs hassled me about my absence of luggage (thankfully) and when we hit the arrivals terminal Justin’s English friend Richard Lai was waiting to accompany us on a whirlwind tour of the city.

Normally I’m an advocate of going slow and getting off the beaten path when I travel, but for a couple reasons I was keen to do a barnstorm-tour of London’s most obvious and popular tourist attractions: First off, I wanted to test how my newfound lack of luggage could make me more mobile during these types of layovers; second, I was genuinely curious about London’s iconic sights, since the only other times I’ve traveled through the city I’ve have been on quick, work-oriented trips to other parts of the U.K.

Moreover, I never want to become the kind of travel-snob who avoids tourist-attractions simply because they’re popular with other tourists. As Tony Perrottet wrote in Pagan Holiday, the whole notion of seeking to avoid the beaten path when you travel is a purely modern trend:

For those first [ancient Roman] tourists, the whole point of travel was to go where everyone else was going — to see what everyone else was seeing, to feel what everyone else was feeling. There was a virtual checklist of tourist attractions as well as an appropriate response to them. Sight-seeing was a form of pilgrimage. It’s a modern notion of travel to seek out unique and private visions of the world.

“Checklist”-driven travel continued to be in vogue during the aristocratic “Grand Tour” excursions of the 18th and 19th centuries — and one British tourist of that era gained notoriety by waking up before dawn to race through the streets of various European capitals so he could check off all the major attractions in his guidebook without having to fight traffic or wait in line.

I certainly didn’t want to be that extreme in England’s capital, but I did want to make the most of my layover — so I used Richard’s local expertise in getting around London.

The bonus, of course, is that I didn’t have to tote a bag around (or store it someplace) while I raced around the city. I was wearing my travel vest (which is actually a SeV Tropical Jacket with the sleeves zipped off — my standard transit-day outfit), and despite the fact that it was loaded with all my travel gear, the only time I thought much about it was when I was running to catch double-decker buses or hackney carriages. The vest didn’t even look that full, though it does bulk out my upper body enough that (when combined with my cargo pants, crew cut, and black SeV tee) I sometimes look like I’m an earpiece and an Uzi shy of passing for “Henchman #2” in some straight-to-DVD action movie.

Anyhow, my whirlwind tour of London managed to incorporate: 1) eating fish and chips; 2) eating bangers and mash; 3) drinking a pint of Carling lager; 4) sipping English tea (with milk); 5) watching football on the telly; 6) riding the Tube; 7) visiting Harrod’s department store; 8) saluting the the Union Jack; 9) riding a double-decker bus; 10) checking out a red phone booth (a sadly outdated structure, which seemed to exist purely as an advertising space for prostitutes); 11) visiting Buckingham Palace; 12) watching the changing of the guards in front of St. James Palace; 13) posing with the guards behind St. James Palace (they were off-duty, apparently, so I manned the guard booth myself); 14) visiting Trafalgar Square; 15) getting caught out in the rain; 16) visiting Piccadilly Circus; 17) feeding the pigeons alongside other tourists in front of Piccadilly Fountain; 18) taking a hackney carriage; and 19) crossing the street with three other people, Beatles-style, outside of Abbey Road Studios.

I almost made it to twenty, but Richard and Justin determined that impulsively snickering when you hear place-names like “Cockfosters” or “St. John’s Wood” only counts as a cliche if you’re 12 years old.

Ironic highlights from the adventure include: a) when the Polish barmaid at Heathrow recommended Stella Artois as her “favorite English beer,” and I was forced to tell her that Stella is actually Belgian; b) walking the famous crossing at Abbey Road with Nadia and Jen, a couple young Australians who had been taking pictures there for ten minutes, yet couldn’t name a single member of the Beatles; and c) watching British teenagers in combat boots and giant Mohawks charge two quid per snapshot so that tourists could capture an iconic, late-1970’s vision of what Piccadilly Circus is supposed to look like.

We hit our train at St. Pancras Station with about three minutes to spare — classic London layover accomplished!

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  • I lived in London for 4 years and still snicker at Cockfoster's :)

    • Hey, I lived in London for 2 years, and I had to live at Cockfosters! ;-) Seriously. And I attended synagogue in St John's Wood. How's that for odd…

  • Sharon Miro

    Glad to see you didn't add spotted dick to the list of English treats.

  • Bastian Kroehnert

    Awesome! I love this whole series! Can't wait to see more videos. It's almost like a small TV show you're doing here. Really inspiring!

  • Accentjim

    We just returned from London, so it was wonderful to see all of these sites as a recap of our trip. It's almost worth riding the tube back and forth just to hear the posh announcer's voice say “Cockfoster's” over an over again…

  • Even tho Justin isn't required to participate as a no-luggage participant, I'm wondering if you've been inspired to pare down your things as well, in the spirit of the mission?
    Thanks, Robyn

    • Hi Robyn, yep! I have to carry a bag for my laptop and camera equipment to keep the show going, but other than that I'm mostly following along with the spirit of the challenge. Plus, it makes it easier to keep up with Rolf if I'm not bogged down with heavy bags. I go into more detail about this on my Video Rig post:

      • Ah hah. I was wondering how Rolf Potts was taking video and uploading it without a laptop and camera as part of his luggage :)

        I love travel vests. Use them all the time to cut down luggage and to organize all those little things that get lost in the backpack.

    • Actually, we compared notes the other day, and Justin is bringing one fewer shirt than I am (2 shirts instead of my 3)! He is however, carrying more underwear (7 pairs, to my 2!), though he swears he's going to toss a few pairs out once a few souvenirs take up their space…

      • His tossed underwear may become souvenirs on their own accord.

  • Love the blog! It's inspiring me to do something similar. I've just booked a one way flight to Bulgaria in December from here in the UK. I'm going to spend a few months learning to snowboard, to try and speak the language and then head off to Asia.

    Think I'll take a little backpack though, not quite brave enough to go totally backage free as this will be my first solo travel experience!

    Looking forward to your next update.


    • That's great! I've never been to Bulgaria. It's always good, I think, to give yourself a challenge or goal on your travels — learning to snowboard sounds perfect.

  • Excellent! Kudos to Justin for editing the video so professionally so quickly!
    And great points Rolf about the importance of not skipping the main sites. I get infuriated with anti-tourists I meet who have a short time in a city and insist on not seeing its best parts just because others do too.

    • Hey, thanks a lot for your kind words. It's a lot of work, but it's fun.

  • Alastair Humphreys

    wish I had known you were in London today! Sorry about that.
    Enjoy the rest of Britain…

    • Rolf

      Cheers, Alastair! Good luck in your own travels…

  • Wiz30pa

    Did you “mind the gap”? If so, you made cliche # 20

    • Brent

      Bobbies or Coppers! You were there, but you didn't “Mind the Gap!” Harrod's was mentioned, but missed it by blocks. Tower Bridge, your a bit late for London Bridge, and the Eye. I cann't think of the name for it, the other castle or prison that has had Royal “guests”, the one with the Beefeaters and crows.

      • Zina

        I think perhaps you're thinking of the Tower of London. :)

  • Epiphanie Bloom

    I would count the red double decker buses as a cliche… but I guess you've got enough already. :o)

    • It's already counted! :)

    • Richard is right — notice cliche number increases with a *ding* as they step onto the bus.

  • Awesome trip so far. Cool thing that you are doing. I'm enjoying the daily postings and videos! Keep it up.

  • Peatt

    I was really hoping for an elephant joke.

  • My favorite part: Q: What do you call underwear in the U.K? A: Underwear. Ahhh, you should have said Mick Jagger was a Beatle to see if one of those girls would have believed you. Happy travels!

    • Rolf

      What I love about that whole situation is that it has come to the point where Abbey Road Studios is one of the places people go to in London because it's on the list. What was once ostensibly a pilgrimage for Beatles fans is now just a fun-standard London activity, like feeding pigeons at Piccadilly Circus…

  • Tam

    Given that you corrected the Polish barmaid I feel I must add own correction. Carling lager is Canadian, you should went with Boddingtons or John Smiths if you wanted an authentic cliche.

    I am however really enjoying this, keep it up. Sounds awesome.

    • Rolf

      That's great! Richard, my guide, told me it was British. He actually said he doesn't like it, that it's the kind of beer dumb college guys drink. And I said, “oh, like Coors or Molson?” Turns out it's owned by Coors-Molson! I thought it tasted pretty good, though.

      I had a Boddington's when I was in the Falkland Islands — though most of the local there were drinking Budweiser. There could almost be a whole book about the cultural relevance of beer…

      • James

        Half of being British is merging with other cultures. That said, the UK does have a fantastic set of ales made my microbreweries, if you come back I would stay away from the big names – see if you can find a CAMRA pub and ask the bartender.

        I love what you are doing by the way. I'm heading off for my RTW trip soon and, thanks to your advice, my bag is under 20 lbs but has everything I need. I'm thinking of writing up my advice and packing list too. Not that I expect anyone to see it but It would be a shame for all my research to go to waste.

        • Brent

          I looked for a CAMRA pub back in the 90's and had a hard time finding one. I did find one that was part of Campaign For Real Pub Food. Had a lovely Steak and Kidney pie. Tender and very tasty. Think it was across the street from Harrod's. Most pubs had the same industro-brews along with Bud and Guiness chill (?). Ice cold Guiness Stout. Have CAMRA and CFRPF made any advances in 20 years?

          Do you know why the Brits like their beer warm (cellar temp, as opposed to US near frozen)? Because Lucas, Prince of Darkness, also makes refrigeration! Sorry, as former USA CAMRA member I should be flogged for that one.

        • Brent

          James, post your list on a blog. I'd love to see a good light-weight packing list and some of the research that went behind it.

      • Gah… my bad, although Carling's founder was actually a British who moved to Canada, plus the beer's made with “100% British barley.” I guess that still makes it a fairly British beer. :D

        • Rolf

          No worries, Richard!

    • Brent

      Oh, if your a WW II history buff, the Polish Fliers were very important to winning the Battle of Britain, and then Churchill and Roosevelt let Poland get gobbled up by Stalin, after promising to help them after the war. You might have had a obscure cliche with the Polish barmaid.

      Is my heritage showing?

  • Great idea – where was Big Ben….

    • Thanks to the closed St. John's Wood Station, we ran out of time. :(

  • BK

    Justin, Your audio is working well.

  • I first heard of your adventure on Tim Ferris' blog on Sunday. I don't know why but I was immediately inspired. I bought the Scotte jacket and cargo pants (your sponsor will be happy). Then I had to tell my wife I was going to go on a luggage free trip. she almost checked me in to mental hospital I am sure of it.

    Anyway, my next step is to clarify my 'Why'. Why, do I want to do this, what will I accomplish. Not sure, I hope to get it by following the blog which I will do daily. I have a vest and a pair of pants and an urge, heres to me setting a date and a destination in the near future. Please help me clarify the WHY. And Thank-you.

    • Rolf

      Good luck!!

    • Zina

      Why? What's wrong with “because I can”?

  • Clive

    Great video. Yorkshire tea in London! And those girls at Abbey Road – didn't know the names of the Beatles. Our musical history is going to be non-existant for future generations!

  • Gert

    Thanks for defending our belgian beer ;-) Good luck with the rest of the travel

  • Miss Moffat

    So fun to be traveling with you! Looking forward to the next post.

  • Ed

    We spent a week in London and vicinity last June; it brings back the memories; especially St. Pancras, the tube and walking around with our gear; one bag only. Saw the changing of the guard with our bags on our back. Until I was enlightened; I thought that Stella Artois was an English brew. Really enjoying your posts.

  • RCAQ

    Jet Lagged after a six-hour flight? Come on, it's not like this is your first East-bound transatlantic flight.
    Anyway, nice blog. I've been waiting for this entry for like days. Looking ff. to your Paris coverage!

    • Rolf

      Well I can't sleep on airplanes, so the red-eye factor complicates things for me, even on six-hour flights. Feeling great now, though. Paris coverage to come soon!

  • You should've had Richard tell you a joke, so you could've counted “dry British humor” as your 20th London cliche.

  • FriendlyBloke

    How honest will you be about the usefulness of the vest since ScotteVest is your sponsor? I wouldn't mind buying one, but at those prices it would be good to have an objective review.

    • I've never owned a vest before, but as a guy who hates bags and also having seen how Rolf uses his, I'm really tempted to get one now.

      Not sure about cargo pants, though — I've been told that they make my legs look even shorter. :/

    • Rolf

      The journey has only just begun, but the vest (actually a SeV Tropical Jacket, with the sleeves zipped off) has been very impressive so far. The inner pockets are cleverly designed and quite intuitive for hassle-free access, and they hold most everything I'm bringing without making me look overstuffed. I will continue to report on the clothing/gear as the trip plays out, because I'm as curious as anyone how it will all work out. I'm under no obligation to shill the product, and will be as objective as possible about reviewing it. No complaints whatsoever so far; the vest it doing exactly what I brought it to do…

  • Excellent video and post. I'm thrilled to have discovered you, blogged and told all my friends, and we're excited to follow your adventure! I've been meaning to do a round-the-world trip for a couple years now (feet getting itchy again), and I'm already learning a ton about doing it efficiently, economically, and creatively. Have a brilliant trip, and many thanks.

  • Finditout

    Let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? What's the “Laundry Schedule?” How much time do you need to keep your gear in passable condition in a typical hotel sink. A well worn pair of pants and shirt need a bit of washing now and then, so let us in on the nitty gritty part of this travel strategy wont you? Or are you having the laundry done by the hotel? Either way, a spare pair of shorts, easy to pack, might make a useful addition to the kit, since you could drop off your clothes to the wash and still roam freely without actually having to go naked.

    • Rolf

      The Paris video will touch on laundry — Justin is editing it right now, and it go up soon. The “laundry schedule” will vary depending on where we stay, though, so even the washing “system” I lay out in that video is subject to change…

      • NICE! I've been really curious about the laundry aspect.

  • Bdillahu

    Yes, please include some background (laundry, hygiene)… nothing graphic necessary :-)

    Some of us would love to travel that way, but I at least am a clean freak and just can't get my head around staying “clean enough” to enjoy any of the trip for feeling grungy all the time.

  • It would be cool if you inspired your other sponsor “Bootsnall” to create some “suggested itineraries” for a different length “no luggage travel” excursions. I really want to do this, but in addition to clarifying my WHY it would be helpful to get some ideas of itineraries and or discounted packages created.

    Had a tough day today with friends and family challenging me on WHY I would want to do this as I proudly declared my intention. Oops, I should have been ready to defend this before I blasted off. Oh well it is kind of my way. thanks again for the inspiration…

  • Larry Riendeau

    Greetings from the Mojave Desert, California, USA! Great blog!! I came across it and was hooked right away. BK (before kids) my wife and I enjoyed many lightly packed excursions, but around the world!? Wow! I look forward to watching your adventures. If you come out this way (Death Valley-ish), feel free to stop by for a free place to stay.

  • Bubu

    I am unable to take five steps without my bag so what can I say? Respect! :)
    Have a great journey Rolf!

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  • edemaine

    Richard Lai from Engadget! Cool!

  • allright matey, shoulda downed that pint and puked all over yer trainers for an extra couple of easy clichés.

    the vids are awesome, continue having fun :)

  • Robinlynch

    London Pride or Fullers would have been a suitable beer for London. Maybe next time…

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  • joeturner

    I like this amazing experience you shared….
    The videos are really good and wish to participate in such type of travel…
    Impressive one…
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