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!