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A Typical Saturday out in London

BY Boon Koh
Published 20 September 2009

Looking for inspiration on things or what to do on a sunny Saturday in London? Need some help deciding where to go or what to see? The one thing about London that still surprises me after 5 years of living here is that there are still things to do, even after one has visited all the tourist places and done all the things that one “must” do while in London. Yesterday, I had set out to explore what London had to offer off the beaten path on a Saturday afternoon.

The first stop on my bike was the Car Free Day organized by the Islington council. They had closed off the entire Liverpool Road (behind the N1 Centre near Angel), and had rolled out a fake grass carpet, as well as a stage and lots of deck-chairs for shoppers to lounge on. When I was there, a random guy was playing on a drum-set that was also his bicycle. Yes, you heard that right! His bike was essentially the drum kit frame, with drums, cymbals and other instruments attached to it. Pretty good concept, but unfortunately none of the audience was paying much attention and just enjoying the sun.

Back on my bike, I headed into the City towards 120 Fleet Street, which used to be the headquarters of the Daily Express newspaper. Let me say on thing first; cycling in London is a bit hit and miss… some roads are a pleasure to cycle on, with proper bike lanes and not that much traffic. On other roads, it was a massive headache and many a time I thought I was going to be hit by an oncoming cab. Anyways, back to 120 Fleet Street; this weekend were the only two days of the year where many buildings in London are open to the public. It is called London Open House 2009, and literally 700 buildings around the capital, which are normally closed to the public, open their doors to those wanting to pry and peek. At 120 Fleet Street, there was a small queue forming outside when I arrived, but they had marshals that handed out leaflets and assured that the wait was not going to be long. Indeed, it only took 5 minutes to get in. The building from the outside looks very bland and homogenous, like the rest of the buildings on Fleet Street, but inside… wow! The lobby was a thing of beauty. I think if I worked there, I would spend half an hour every morning and evening just admiring the lobby while walking in and out. According to Time Out magazine, the Daily Express building is one of Britain’s best examples of art deco style, and indeed over the decades they have kept the 1930’s style but restored it so that it looks just like it would have all those years ago.

Next, I headed towards Piccadilly Circus to pick up tickets for Mamma Mia that I had booked a few days ago. I’m a bit paranoid about having tickets lost in the mail, so when I booked online I opted to pick up the tickets direct from the box office. But I lost my way, and ended up by the riverside, where to my surprise the entire road was closed off. The whole stretch of the river was closed for The Tour of Britain, and the final stage (no. 8 ) was being held on that Saturday. I waited for a while, but I think the cyclists were on another part of the circuit, so I got on my bike again and headed back to the Strand, where it was 10 minutes of hell trying to navigate through buses, cabs, and blind tourists who don’t look before crossing. Honestly, Yanks, I know you are all envious of our free NHS healthcare system, but its not worth getting into an accident while across the pond just to make full use of it!

So on my way from the riverside to the Mamma Mia theatre in the West End, I passed by Trafalgar Square where there was a giant chess competition happening. Part of the London Design Festival, there was a giant chess board, complete with big chess pieces that were higher than a full grown man. Just when I arrived a chess match was starting, but after 10 minutes it started losing my attention as chess is still boring chess, regardless of whether its big chess or not.

I had a bit of trouble finding parking in Piccadilly Circus, and as my bike was quite new I was rather paranoid about finding a public space to park where it won’t be nicked. I managed to find one near the Prince of Wales theatre (where Mamma Mia was being shown), but had to wait while ticketholders for the 3pm matinee showing went in. There was a group of middle-aged women who were all dressed up to ABBA costumes entering to watch the show, which was a sight you don’t see every day!

After picking up the tickets I headed for a bit of lunch, and came across The Pastry Pilgrim, where I had a lovely beef bourginon pie with mashed potatoes and baked beans, washed down with a coke. The portion was quite big, although the pie’s crust was a bit white and could have been crispier. Nice place for a bit of quick lunch, and relatively cheap too, at £4.95 for the above set meal. Right across the road from The Pastry Pilgrim though was a Coffee Republic shop that was still open! It must be the only one that survived the bankruptcy of the company, and I used to love their iced coffees and sandwiches, and I recommend everyone to try their Oreo shakes!

Full and sated, I headed towards my final destination of the day, which was the Foreign Commonwealth Office down in Whitehall, which was also open to the public as part of Open House weekend. Shockingly, it took me forever to find bicycle parking around there, and I had to chain it to a parking sign pole in the end. You would expect that as a government area, they would follow their own propaganda about cycling and actually install some cycle parking! Luckily, I made it in just before the closing time at 4:30pm. There’s a massive courtyard inside, not unlike the one in Somerset House, but the truly spectacular sights are inside the long corridors and gorgeous stairs. Every room had a history to it, and everywhere you looked there were paintings and frescos. However, certain areas were a bit dilapidated, and it looked like a cross between an old university building and a museum.

After that, it was a hard bike ride back up the incline towards Highbury, which almost killed me after a hard day out! But my day wasn’t over yet, as I had to shower, get changed, and head out in the evening for a friend’s Birthday party, which was being held at an Indian restaurant called Mela near Covent Garden and Leicester Square. He had chosen that place as they were offering a 50% discount off the food bill, which seems like an amazing deal (especially on a Saturday night), but in fact turned out to be a bit of a con! Although the food was half price, a Tiger beer was charged at £5.50, which is probably the most I have ever paid for a beer in an Indian restaurant. In addition, the 12.5% service charge was on the original food amount, and not on the amount after the 50% discount… which meant that in reality they wanted us to pay 25% service charge. It was ridiculous and after much complaining they management reduced the charge by a bit, but definitely not a place to go back to again just because of their unethical service charge policy. The food was good though I must say and came in rather big portions, but with so many Indian restaurants in London why should one support one that tries to cheat with the service charge?

Anyways, with that I headed home for a good night’s sleep after a long, but exciting, Saturday day out in London!