6 things you probably didn’t know about East London

East London used to be strictly defined as within hearing distance of the bells of Bow Church. But as London expanded mightily since then, so we will expand the geographical area to cover most of the regions east of London and north of the river.

East London doesn’t have a good reputation to most people. From Jack the Ripper in the past to some of the most deprived boroughs in the country nowadays, it doesn’t have much to show off, except perhaps for Canary Wharf, an area which was derelict in the past and had a major uplift in Thatcher’s era. Even its most famous celebrity, Pete Doherty of Hackney, sees his name in the papers alongside drug use rather than music. But it’s not all doom and gloom with East London; here are a few more positive things you probably didn’t know.

Traditional pie and mash

This, after the cockney accent, is what defines East London. But it’s dying out, suffering from competition from McDos, kebab shops and all the other fast food outlets. So make the most of it while there are still a few shops still open. You can even get eels! You’ll find a very popular pie & mash shop on Barking Road, just off the A13.

Stratford as transport hub

The Olympics may well bring London to its knees but it has the advantage of developing the whole area. Stratford, the most important town in East London, is now getting even more important for travellers as it is being turned into a major transport hub in time for the Olympics and beyond. Stratford International train station has opened and serves High Speed 1 train services connecting St Pancras to Ebbsfleet International in Kent where you can take the Eurostar to continental Europe. Stratford tube station is also a major station to change tube lines as well as the DLR and there is also a major bus station next door. Finally, you can take a 40-minute coach ride to Stansted Airport. There are also other national coach services, ideal as a starting point for a coach holiday across Britain and Europe.

Westfield Stratford City

That’s the name of one of UK’s largest indoor shopping centres that opened not too long ago at Stratford, in close proximity to Stratford International and the Olympic Stadium, in time for the Olympic Games of course. Apparently, the world’s largest McDonald’s store is found there. Unless a bigger one opened since then elsewhere. In China perhaps?

Silicon Roundabout

The latest positive influence of the development of the Olympic Park in the area is a government initiative to encourage high-tech companies to open their offices in Old Street, akin to Silicon Valley. Google has already committed itself, and its great rival Facebook is expected to open offices there too. That’s great news for job-seekers living in the area. More details on London.gov.uk.

Follow Arnie’s footsteps

If you are a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you might like to know that he trained at Wag Bennett’s gym in Forest Gate for a few years just before he won his first international competition and moved to America. He also used this time to learn English while living with Wag and his wife, sleeping on the sofa. A biography even claims that he had an affair with the wife. He must have been around 18 at that time. What a way to repay the man who trained him! The gym is still there on Romford road and still opened. It is housed in a converted church and the equipment is old, probably the same ones that Arnie himself sweated on. The hardcore fan will be pleased to find pictures of him adorning the walls of the gym, maybe something to inspire gym-goers to train harder in a bid to become like him.

West Ham United Football Club

Fan of football? Fan of West Ham United? Their home stadium is at Upton Park and when they play at home, it’s easy to tell, whether it’s the familiar football t-shirt worn by most locals or the people converging to the stadium on foot from all over the place. Plans were floated to move the stadium further outside London because of the lack of space but hardcore fans wouldn’t hear of that. So for now, West Ham’s home stadium is staying put.

Bonus: the Greenway

Here is a helpful tip to get around quickly if you find yourself in East London, whether it’s for the Olympics, shopping, watching West Ham playing or even touring Wag’s gym. The greenway is a pedestrian walkway that spans several km with a wide but unkempt patch of grass growing alongside it. It runs from Stratford to Beckton and isa useful occasional shortcut for the locals and a nice place to relax and sit on a bench on a warm Sunday afternoon if there are no parks around your place.

Canary Wharf seen from Greenwich hill

16 Things to do in London in winter

Misty Big Ben

You might think winter is not a good time to explore this capital city as it’s cold and gets dark early. But there is always something to do in London. I’ve been living in this city for a good few years and can recommend you a few places to visit despite winter and sometimes, because of winter.


You’ll want to avoid attractions where you need to walk outdoors for a long time, such as the London Zoo and Kew Gardens. The cold will get to you and you’ll just want to end your visit quickly, missing out on many good things. Having said that, here are my recommendations.

The fountain of Trafalgar Square

Ice-skating

Winter is the only time you can ice-skate outdoors in the capital. Try the moat of Tower Hill or Somerset House, 2 places well-known for their ice-skating rink.

Historic pubs

There are pubs up and down the country but you’ll find the oldest and most historic ones in London. The city used to be a trading centre for centuries due to its location along the river and as a result, many pubs sprung up. Try the area of Soho for a start. There has never been a better reason for a pub crawl!

Sightseeing bus

Want to explore London but don’t feel like venturing outside? You don’t need to. Just hop on one of the London tour buses and it will take you across some of the most famous landmarks while you sit inside in the warmth and listen to the guide in your own language.

Madame Tussaud

Famous for its wax statues that sometimes look better than real life! The statues are usually replaced with the latest celebrity ones so by now Madame Tussaud will probably be full of Big Brother celebrities. There’s an overpriced coffee shop to conclude your visit at the end.

Theatreland

Just as Paris is famous for its cabarets and Hollywood for Sunset Boulevard, London is synonymous with theatres. Pick the show or musical that you want to watch or alternatively, choose your theatre first. A few famous ones: London Palladium, Shaftesbury Theatre, Theatre Royal, Royal Opera House and the Apollo Theatre.

Cinema premières

Leicester Square in the heart of the West End very often plays host to world premiers with the movie stars themselves in attendance to promote their latest movies. Fans will queue up for hours come rain or snow just to see them. Maybe not the best time of the year to queue outside but if you find yourself around, why not hop over for a look? Alternatively, you can go to the IMAX on the south bank of the river to view a movie in 3D.

Museums

There are so many in London that a single stay will not suffice to see them all, especially when they are mostly free. Decide what kind of person you are – culture vulture, science nerd – and pick the museum that tickles your fancy. The British Museum is the biggest and will take more than on visit to explore completely.

Greenwich

Canary Wharf seen from Greenwich hill

Greenwich is a nice little corner of London that can keep you busy for half a day or more. It has its own hill, observatory, museum (the National Maritime Museum), ship (the Cutty Sark which will reopen in time for the Olympics 2012), shops and market.

Fairs and Christmas markets

Ferris wheel in the Winter Wunderland at Hyde Park

Several fairs and Christmas markets spring up over the capital in the runner-up to Christmas. Do a spot of shopping, go out with friends for some warm mulled wine or have fun on one of the thrilling rides. Go to Hyde Park for the Winter Wonderland 2011.

London Eye

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland might have a Ferris Wheel – the giant observation wheel but the London Eye is much bigger – 135m high. Get in one of the small cabins and view the capital leisurely. You can also go for the VIP experience with a cabin of your own and champagne.

Fountain in Hyde Park

Chelsea Stadium

Are you a fan of Chelsea FC? Why not take a guided tour of its home stadium? You can even get it free with a London Pass.

The River Thames

It’s hard to avoid the UK’s biggest river when London is built on it. But what can you do on the river in winter? Well, there are always a few floating restaurants and some nightclubs for after-parties.

The DLR

Did you ever ride in a driverless train? The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) has no driver, just a ticket inspector who also opens and closes the doors. But at no time does he drive the train. Take a ride in the DLR into the Canary Wharf area – the tracks are laid high up in the air and you’ll have a good look at roads below.Horse guard in front of Downing Street NOT Buckingham Palace

Changing of the guards

Another big feature of London, many tourists come to the UK for its Royal Family. While they don’t get to meet the queen, there are plenty of other attractions such as the Buckingham Palace which opens its doors in spring or summer and of course the changing of the guards every two days approximately in front of the palace.

Westminster Parliament

Once the centre of the world when the British Empire ruled land and sea, Westminster Parliament is the seat of the government where laws are passed and history is made. And you can see it happening right in front of you by visiting in when it is in session: http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/.

Shop till you drop

London Trocadero Centre

Forget Oxford Street; there are plenty of venues to shop in the warmth: Harrods and Selfridges department stores but also Westfield Stratford shopping centre in East London, newly opened and also Westfield London Shopping Centre on the other side of London in the west. Further outside London, you also have Lakeside and Blue Waters in Kent, one on Europe’s biggest, so no need to go to Milan for the latest top-end fashion.

Your turn

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions about things to do in London? Share with us.

 

Cup of tea

Afternoon Tea in London

Cup of tea

The sheer number and variety of restaurants in London truly reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the city. From chic Pan-Asian celebrity haunts to French Michelin-starred establishments, there is something for everyone. However, there is one dining tradition that is quintessentially British, and that is the traditional afternoon tea. A celebrated national dining pastime, the British afternoon tea conjures up images both delightfully quaint and effortlessly elegant. The fine bone china, freshly baked scones and immaculately cut finger sandwiches, the theatre of it all is just as important as the food itself. London boasts some of the finest locations to enjoy this national tradition in superb style.

 

Tea at the Ritz

Renowned the world over, The Ritz is an essential first stop on our tour of London afternoon tea destinations. A London landmark in itself, The Ritz manages to offer an unsurpassed level of British elegance and tradition, yet remains at the forefront of modern hospitality and culinary skill. Afternoon tea here is no exception. Diners can truly get into the spirit of the traditional British afternoon tea at The Ritz, as it operates a strict dress code – gentlemen are respectfully asked to wear a formal jacket and tie, with no jeans or trainers allowed. After the pageantry of getting dressed up, diners are treated to surroundings that have been at the forefront of 5* London elegance for a century. Crisp white tablecloths cover the tables in a gilded room, filled with luxurious fabrics, rich colours, and an air of real history. In the warmer months, tea can be taken on the terrace, to give that true British summertime feel. So as many people as possible can enjoy afternoon tea at the Ritz, there are gluten free, wheat free and dairy free alternatives available, as well as diabetic, vegetarian and vegan menus.

 

Mauve Lounge at Swissôtel The Howard

The beauty of afternoon tea in London is that it can offer all of the traditional elements, yet add in contemporary twists along the way. Afternoon tea at Swissôtel The Howard is a perfect example of this. A striking, luxurious contemporary interior is intimately lit with vibrant colours, complemented by the dark, rich colours of the plush leather seating. As for the afternoon tea itself, the Swissôtel offers a special London-themed variety on this established tradition. The skilled pastry chefs prepare a selection of cakes, pastries and 3D chocolates in the shape of miniature major London landmarks and iconic sights.

 

Brumus

Next to the Theatre Royal, Brumus is another example of British decadence at its very best. Inside the Haymarket Hotel, the brasserie-style restaurant is filled with rich purple shades, photographic prints, and all-round chic pedigree. The glamour of a traditional British afternoon tea is given a fresh twist with the inclusion of several exotic speciality teas. From Green Jasmine Flower Blossom to Rooibos from the hills of South Africa, international flair is infused into the Brumus afternoon tea menu in superb style. The best of British is still showcased however, with fresh strawberries served alongside the selection of freshly made cakes and sandwiches.

Geographical London

The great city of London is often divided into the 4 cardinal points and each described, correctly or by assumption, in various ways. If you plan to visit London, it pays to know how Londoners describe their city.

East London

Historically known as the poor side of London, it is only barely changing nowadays, and much of that is due to the upcoming 2012 London Olympics which will take place in and around Stratford. In fact, the poverty of the area was one of the main factors for having the games there, the other being of course availability of space – this is provided by the previously neglected Lee Valley, now turned into a busy building site near completion where the stadium will be. Before the Olympic Games came to town, the only other prosperous area was part of Tower Hamlets, one of the most run-down area of London. This sounds contradictory but part of this borough is home to designers and artists, this is where Pete Doherty lives. If his drug habits are anything to go by, the rest of the borough is not much better!

The City of London is geographically on the east side. It is also known as the financial district and as its name describes, home to the head office of many high street banks, investment banks and other financial institutions such as Lloyds of London. This used to be the historical heart of London, where money changed hands, merchants prospered more often than not and business was made. The area is about 1 square mile in size but it is very compact and dense. The names of the streets themselves are historical, such as Threadneedle Street and just outside, Whitechapel Road where Jack the Ripper used to roam. St Paul’s Cathedral lies in the City of London and its roof, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in its modern form, is a feature of the rooftops of the city.

West London

Over to the other side, this is where the news are made. At the heart of West London is Westminster Parliament overlooked by this worldwide icon of London, the Big Ben. If you want to visit this area, the quickest way to reach it from the suburbs of London is by tube – get off at Westminster Station which is next to the Thames. Next to the Parliament building is Westminster Abbey. The abbey is over a thousand years old and is traditionally the venue where new royalty is crowned. The king is dead, long live the king! Sir Isaac Newton is buried there, with a globe on his tomb to symbolise his theory of gravity.

If money is made on the east side in the financial district, there is but a short distance for it to cover to get quickly spent on the west side, namely in the West End, the place where night never sets. This is because the place is crammed with theatres, night clubs, pubs and shops. It’s a hot spot for tourists and Oxford Street the mecca for shopaholics.

But the west is not all glimmer; parts of it are decaying as much as the east side. Further out west is Harrow, a place well-known for its multi-ethnicity and Indian food. It is rivalled in terms of ethnicity on the east side by the borough of Newham where the white British form in fact a small minority and the ethnic minorities are the majority. What contradictory terms.

Here flows a river

While the divide between east and west is not clear geographically, north and south of London are clearly separated by the largest river in the UK: the Thames. Famous bridges span this river such as Chelsea Bridge, London Bridge and Tower Bridge, another icon of London. Many hundred years ago, when the city was still weak and subject to attack from the mighty Vikings, the bridges were made of wood. The Vikings would tie their ships to the bridge and row furiously down river to bring the whole structure down. They didn’t earn their fearsome name for nothing!

North London

North London is neither rich nor poor yet houses both. The Islington area is now priced out for many people, this is where Tony Blair used to live before he became Prime Minister. The area around Hampstead Heath is a favourite among celebrities. Perhaps drugaddict George Micahel brings the area into disrepute but if you are a fan of his, you may find him there slumped at the wheel of a vehicle in the early hours of the morning. Camden town and its market is popular for its clothes and gothic shops. Beware the pickpockets operating on Sundays though.

South London

If you can forget about Lewisham and especially Brixton, a crime spot to rival America, then south of the river is a very pleasant place to be. The further west you travel, the brighter and more open it gets. As the east side of London used to be a port, it was crowded with people and buildings. The port eventually moved to Tilbury and factories moved up north where land was cheaper but the high density of buildings didn’t change much. Thus as you move from Greenwich and Lewisham, jumping over Elephant & Castle in the centre over to Streatham and then Wandsworth, Wimbledon and Richmond, streets open up and trees pop up either sides. Greenwich is famous for its observatory on top of the hill in the park of the same name. You will have an excellent view of London, canary Wharf and the Gerkin from there. Be sure to visit the observatory, it’s free. Down the hill is the Royal Maritime Museum, if you are into replicas of ships. And if you enjoy nature, Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park and its deers and of course Kew Gardens are all on the south side of the Thames.

Each quadrant of London cannot really be defined distinctively from its neighbours but Londoners living in their respective area love to set themselves apart from others – thus the north-south and the east-west divides. Now you can take part in that too.

London tube travel: mastering the ticket system

What is the tube? Many people new to London might not know that the tube is just another name for the metro, subway or underground train system. London’s underground train network is one of the oldest in the world, the oldest being probably Moscow’s.

You need a ticket before you get on the train. You can buy tickets at the ticket office or at the machines. On Sundays and bank holidays, ticket offices in smaller train stations are closed and if the ticket machine is out of order, you will be unable to buy a ticket before getting on the train. Fortunately, in these circumstances, you can buy a ticket at your destination before crossing the barrier.

There are usually guards at the barriers but again, in smaller stations, sometimes the guard is elsewhere, smoking a cigarette or on a platform. When they leave barriers unattended, they usually open these in case some people have a problem with their ticket and are unable to get in or out.

This means that if you cannot buy a ticket before getting on the train because the station is unmanned and the machine is down, the barriers will be open and you will be able to board your train. At your destination, if you are getting off at a quiet station outside central London on a Sunday or bank holiday, chances are the barriers will be open and unmanned. In this case you will be able to get out without needing a ticket, thus having travelled without having bought a ticket. For this reason, there are ticket inspectors operating.

There are ticket inspectors on board the trains but these are very very rare and you might never encounter them. Most often, ticket inspectors are within the station doing spot checks and during rush hours in order to catch most people. If you are travelling without a ticket on a Sunday and a ticket inspector stops you, then it is not your fault if you haven’t been able to buy a ticket at the ticket office because it was closed.

Oyster card

Prior to the introduction of oyster cards, it was easy to pass on a day or weekly ticket to someone else or buy a ticket at your destination and pretend that you got on just one stop before in order to pay less. There were also many ticket touts taking tickets from passengers who no longer needed them at the end of the day and selling these on for a profit to other passengers unwilling to pay full price for a ticket. London Underground was losing a lot of money that way and pushed hard for the introduction of Oyster cards.

Oyster cards are plastic cards with an embedded microchip which records all details of travel journeys. When you buy a season ticket, you have to hand over your personal details. London Underground is then able to track all the journeys that you make and also has your personal details to match them. Despite this massive breach of privacy, it was allowed to go ahead with the Oyster card system. The UK government also has a vested interest in this to combat terrorism, especially after the tube bombings of the 7th July 2005. With the Oyster card tracking all passengers’ movements, they can no pick the closest station as their point of entry when buying tickets at the gates.

Get a ticket receipt

The most important thing to remember when using the Oyster card is to get a receipt of the money you have put onto the card. If there is ever a mistake and the money doesn’t appear on your card, you cannot see it unless you go to a machine or the ticket office and get your card checked. Previously, when you handed over your money, you would get a paper ticket with the value on it. With an Oyster card, nothing shows whether there is money on the card or not. This is why it is very important to get a receipt when putting money on the card, even if it is for £1. That way, if someone inspects your card and says there is no money on it, you will be able to show the receipt and not have to pay a £50 fine because of £1.

Read more: Stratford transport hub