Touring London

My first night in London, I forced myself to stay awake by taking the tube to SOHO, finding fish and chips for dinner, and deciding to watch an Italian film, “The Consequences of Love,” at the Curzon. Not the best choice for keeping one’s self awake after an 11 hour flight to London, but somehow it worked. Billed as a “psychological thriller”, this film’s pacing should have put me to sleep. But I managed to follow to the end.

Even though my presentations for @media were complete before I left San Francisco, I still needed to work on slides for a talk at Reboot in Copenhagen the day after @media ended. So I didn’t get to see much of London last week. A shame, considering it was my first time there, and I really wanted to see more of this city. All of my friends who have been raved about it, and had given me lists of everything I should see and experience.

Westminster Abbey Fortunately, I returned to London from Copenhagen one day before flying back to San Francisco, and got my second chance to explore the city. By the time I took the Stansted Express to Liverpool Street Station, then the Underground all the way over to Kensington to my hotel, it was already 2:30 in the afternoon. A half day still isn’t much time to see all London has to offer. But a tour around London on the top deck of the sightseeing busses at least gave me a good feel for what the parts of the city are like. I hopped off several times for places like Buckingham Palace, and caught an Evensong service at Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, no time to do things like visit St. Paul’s or circle the London Eye, so I’ll just have to return for those some other day.

Because of the sunny weather I got that last day, most of the pictures I took that afternoon (Gallery: London 2005) show blue sky, a rarity for London. The clouds moved in as evening approached, and the wind and chill came with them. However, for three or four hours that afternoon, it felt more like California weather than what I’ve been told to expect of London.

Bits and bats

A few interesting bits and oddities I noted while visiting London:

  • Despite the general decay and worn-down feel of the Underground, the Jubilee line has a few really beautiful stations south of the river. Walking through both Waterloo and Southwark stations felt like I had stepped onto the set of a futuristic movie.
  • Although you’re supposed to “keep to the left” on stairways, you’re supposed to “stand on the right” on escalators, or else you’re some kind of oversized toilet plunger. Despite driving on the left side of the road, there seems to be no propensity to walk down the left side of a corridor or sidewalk — British walk where they please and will become annoyed at you for walking on “their side”, no matter what side you try. Probably equally true for cities like New York and San Francisco though.
  • Apparently the 2-pound coin is of similar (enough) size to the 2-pence coin to cause me confusion. Not all 2-pound coins are two-toned. The cashier would either hand me back the 2-pound coin for paying too much. Or the cashier would continue holding out a hand, looking at the idiot on the other side of the counter (me) who didn’t know how to count his change properly when offering a 2-pence coin to pay for a pack of ibuprofen.
  • Taking the piss” is not generally done with the aid of a toilet or urinal, whereas “taking a piss” is just foul American slang, yet taking the biscuit is usually a good thing.
  • I couldn’t help noticing the signs on building everywhere which announced “TO LET” — I understood this was the equivalent of our “For Lease” or “For Rent” signs — however, they looked more to me like they were missing a single letter “I” right in the middle, which doesn’t do much to promote the place.


  1. Jeff Wheeler

    They still have those double-decker busses? I thought they got rid of those years ago, and replaced them with normal ones. I guess I must’ve made that up…

  2. Matt Southerden

    British walk where they please and will become annoyed at you for walking on “their side”, no matter what side you try. Probably equally true for cities like New York and San Francisco though.

    I feel for you Doug. My commute takes my right across London from Hackney to Wimbledon every day, so for half of that I’m heading ‘against the grain’. Boy does that get to you after a while!

    Still, dispite it’s problems, London is a wonderful City. You should really try to plan a stay longer than an afternoon some day.

  3. Sam Hastings

    Actually the Jubilee line was renovated quite recently (since 2000, but I couldn’t say exactly when). It is by far the cleanest and most efficient line on the Underground. Still, using that makes you miss the filth, doesn’t it? Or is it just me? Interesting fact: London is built on clay which made it a lot easier to construct the Underground. That’s why it is currently the biggest in the world, I believe.

    Never seen a non two-toned two-pound coin here. All the ones I’ve come across have had a silver centre with a gold ring around them. Perhaps they were really dirty. Being in London, that wouldn’t surprise me…

    Beautiful city despite its rather unappealing tube system, but you can’t ask for everything. If you ever go back be sure to check out Hyde Park and go on the London Eye — the giant viewing wheel on the South Bank, visible in a couple of your photos. The view over London is magnificent.

  4. Matt Southerden

    Oh. And we do still have double-decker buses on the normal routes as well as the sight-seeing ones. They still even have some of the old Routemaster double-deckers one some routes (they’re the old ones that you jump on and off at the back). Those new bendy buses just don’t have the same Je ne sais quoi.

  5. Mike D.

    Yep… the walking thing is about the only thing I don’t like about London. My own theory on it is that the cause of the problem stems from having so many Londoners and non-Londoners walking together in the same place. Our instinct is to walk on the right… theirs on the left… and unlike driving, it doesn’t cause deaths if someone breaks the rules. So it ends up just being a madhouse of leftwalkers and rightwalkers wherever you go.

  6. Marc

    As an immigrant who has adopted London as my home, I couldn’t resist commenting, in addition I’m feeling more and more that it was a real shame to have missed @media.

    The thing about standing on the right on the escalators on the tube is because most people are right handed and if the escalator stops suddenly they will be holding the rail with there strongest hand (or that’s the theory anyway).

    The Jubilee line extension was a land mark development, all the stations on it are quite stunning, the Canary wharf station is cathedral like and really worth seeing (absolutely huge). The stations on the line always remind me of alien with the exposed guiders and the grey and blue colors.

    As you can probable tell I’m a bit of an enthusiast about London, which proves I’m not British (they seem to have a downer about the place).

  7. joel

    If you’re ever in London again and have more time, I recommend the Jack the Ripper walking tour from London Walks. I also recommend not carrying your entire backpack for your two-week trip while on the walk.

  8. carl Fooks

    I don’t know what you’re on about with the weather! And your “Oddly, these pictures are mostly blue” jibe!

    Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t rain here all the time!

    Maybe it’s selective memory, but usually summer looks like your photographs do, with a humid heat that makes you want to dive into the nearest pond, lake or river! ;o)

    It is rare for a completely cloudless day; they number but a few and are usually around the height of summer, during late July and early August.

    Having said all of that, it seems that this year is so far living up to your expectations, sadly.

  9. Conan

    Blimey, you confused a £2 coin with a 2p coin? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a monotone £2 coin (I think they’re a commemorative issue), and 2p coin are at least half as thin and copper. £2 coins have a brass and silver look.

    I must say, I found U.S. coinage to be very confusing when I first encountered it, even though there are fewer denominations. There are only two tones and one shape: silver, copper, and round! British coinage might not make much sense in terms of size ratios to actual value, but colour, shape and size together help you to know how much you’ve got in your hand at a glance:

    Great photos by the way, and very interesting comments about the city. I’m glad you saw a blue-sky while you were here; That’s our Summer. :p

  10. Douglas Bowman

    After the fact, I realize the difference between the two coins. Especially if you have both with you at one time. But when you only have one of them with you at a time, and they both have a “2” on them, and you’re not familiar with either one — I was strictly going by size and their non-silver color. As I linked above, see the Wikipedia entry on the Two Pound Coin, which shows that prior to 1996, all 2-pound coins were made of one nickel-brass alloy. It wasn’t until 1997 that the bi-metallic 2-pound coin was introduced in Britain.

    Now, all that said, I’ve also heard from visitors that our [US] paper currency is way too similar (color, size, design) and near impossible to find the right bill when pressed to pay with a line/queue behind you.

    And speaking of confusing coins, look no further than the US one-dollar coin and all its variants to see that we don’t have our crap together either. Sometimes it’s silver, other times it’s gold. It used to be extra large and thick, then it was the same size and color as a quarter (big mistake), now it’s some kinda gold-looking manganese-brass alloy. As residents, we rarely see the one-dollar coin. But it’s popular in vending machines, especially those used in public transit centers. So foreign tourists suffer the most from our schizophrenic dollar coin design.

  11. Malarkey

    Doug, lor’ luv a duck! It was fork n plate ter see yew in London. Next lemon and lime yew visit, I’ll buy yew some jellied eels. Know wot I mean?

  12. Faruk Ates (KuraFire)

    Aha! I knew it, Malarkey was actually drunk the whole conference! So that’s why he was in a suit…

    Doug, a shame you didn’t get to see much of the city. I didn’t either (like, not at all even) but this was my third time there already.

    I didn’t actually know that about the tuppence and the 2-quid coin (at the risk of sounding like an idiot by using what I believe is more traditional british vocabulary for these things) – interesting!

  13. Michael Williams


    the pre-1996 two pound coins described in the Wikipedia article are all “commemorative”, which means they were only issued to people who ordered them from the Royal Mint. The only people who bothered to do this were coin collectors. This means that monotone two pound coins are rare and those people who have one are unlikely to spend it (although, in principle, they are legal tender). I have never seen one, although I was only 15 when the last monotone coin was issued, and had I had two pounds back then it would have immediately been spent on two bottles of alcopops.

    Commemorative five pound coins continued to be issued. Again, unless you’re a coin collector, you’ll never see one.

  14. Douglas Bowman

    Michael — If what you say is correct, I guess I should keep the one 2-pound coin I have that is monotoned then, eh? It doesn’t seem likely that I’d be one of the lucky individuals to randomly come across such a rarity.

    From what I can tell on Wikipedia, (and if Wikipedia is correct) there were no bi-metallic 2-pound coins until 1997.

    So I’m doubting the coin I have is any more valuable than 2 quid.

  15. Molly E. Holzschlag

    Doug, I’m so happy you got a bit more time in London. It was surprisingly beautiful the days we were here for @media, no matter what those defensive Londoners say ;-) It’s been gray and rainy since you left no matter where I’ve been. I’m in Brighton right now and the fog was rolling in as we were all walking home.

    Speaking of walking, I have to agree. I’ve actually been pulled out of the flow of things by at least three friends who noticed I was behaving like a dumb American tourist and disrupting whatever the direction is people seem to be wandering.

    My other gripe is drinking water and ice. There’s never enough of either. Ask for ice, you get one cube. What’s with that, my UK friends?

    I’m joking (mostly) – I absolutely love the UK and I agree – I cannot quite understand why the natives are so down on London especially. I think it’s an amazing city, one of the most interesting I’ve ever been to.

    Off to look at your pics – and don’t believe any of that Malarkey about jellied eels . . . ;-)


  16. Damon Stephenson

    wow, i aint seen a monotone £2 coin since i was about 7. my father collected the £5 coins that were given him when people bought booze ( i lived in a pub ).

    we only had a few or so of those in about 10 years of running the pub.

    £50 notes are pretty rare too. we have to rip them in work to check if they real :O

  17. Flo

    Doug, one thing I learned of three stays up there is that you should never trust the weather. I always had a suitcase full of warm and waterproof clothes and guess what? One week in Surrey and Sussex: 30C and blue sky; one week in Scotland: slightly colder but also blue sky; and during three weeks in Ireland it was basically the same. Whenever I talked to locals they said that the weather had never been so warm and friendly in the last years :)

    One thing I noticed about the London tube is that it seems to be warmer in the tunnels than it is in the streets. It’s a strange feeling when you stand in the aisle and the warm, thick and stuffy air is rushing past your head while the train is moving. Feels like someone is pointing a hairdryer right at your face…

    But London is a great city and is definitely worth
    a visit (or two, or three ;))!


  18. Reverend Dan

    Doug – I’d say you were lucky to get a monotone £2 coin, I remember them coming out in special editions every so often before they were in proper circulation.

    However, from my memories of working in an off-license (iquor store) we’d often get slipped these rarities, which we legally had to accept, and due to their obscurity no-one seemed happy to take them back in their change. That is, until we heard a foreign accent in the store…. ;¬)

  19. From what you said about walking on different sides, it doesn’t make any sense to me either and I’m from the UK. It appears to be a London thing to cause as much hassle as humanly possible. The only thing I can recommend for walking on pavements (sidewalks) is to move out of the way of the door you’ve walked out of then give it two seconds until you can figure out where you should be walking so you don’t end up getting elbowed. Its also marginally easier to walk across a pavement here than in New York.

    The sightseeing tours are great, I took one round my home town and learned loads from it so going on one when you are visiting must be really cool. I was gonna go on the London one but at £7 a pop or something equally ridiculous I decided not to bother.

  20. Ben

    On the subject of pedestrians, I concur with Rob’s view above; it does seem a London thing more than a UK thing that pedestrians in London are completely ignorant to others. Walking down Oxford Street when I used to live in London I was approaching the Tottenham Court Road and I noticed that the majority of the “problem” pedestrians were groups of tourists, wearing hawaiian shirts with cameras slung around their necks, walking in a group 3 or 4 abreast. They were talking English, but in an accent which was not native to these isles.

    Of course, I shouldn’t form any sort of generalised conclusion from this particular experience, especially given the reputation British tourists have for their behaviour abroad!

  21. Adrian

    Doug, your talks at @Media were fantastic, and it was good to meet you at the Friday Evening drinks. Glad you got a chance to see London in the end even if it was very brief.

    Next time check out the Westminster stop on the Jubilee line. It’s by far my favourite, and I think quite often used for movie shoots.

    As for the escalators/stairway thing, you are meant to walk on the left. Same way you drive on the left. So when you get to a stairway, ‘keep left’ means walk on the left. When you get to an escalators, you walk on the left. If you choose not to walk, i.e. stand, you can do it on the right. So their is some sort of ‘standard’. And with the millions of people who pass though the system daily, almost essential to keep the flow moving.

  22. Richard Earney

    As a Londoner, I get fed up with the Tourists who take up the whole pavement and then stop and slowly to a 360° turn. So I guess the walking in London thing works both ways :)

    re: Signs
    If you are really lucky and you pass by building sites with scaffolding, you occasionaly have the pleasure of a sign saying, “We are noted of our erections”

  23. Of course if you want strange british money come to scotland. Not only do we have the notes and coins (including the various £2 and £5 coins) made by the Royal Mint we have 3 other banks who can (and do) print notes. We also still have £1 notes (which are legal tender in England and most funny it is too) and £100 notes which you don’t see too often.
    Plus we get a lot of Irish visitors in Edinburgh where I’m based so there’s a good dose of Irish Notes floating about as well.
    Wish I could have made it down for @media it sounds like a great time.

  24. Knut Karnapp

    Well, I´ve been to London twice (in 2000 when the London Eye was opened and in 2002) and I totally agree with your impressions. It´s just a pity, that you didn´t have much time to spend I myself had 3 or 4 days each, so I could visit some more sights. For your next stay I would recommend the imperial war museum – it´s both impressive and very informative. Speaking about @media I hope I could make it next time, seamed like 2 pleasant days to me…

    cheers so far..

  25. Aleksandar

    My parent company is from London, so I got to be there on quite a few occasions. All in all, I was there for almost 2 months, in january, february, april, july and october, in various years. In all those visits, I had just two days of rain.

    They must be lying when said that UK is full of rain days. :)

    London is great and I really like the city feel. Not sure if I would be living in it, but definitelly great. Oh yes – the tube rocks! I wouldn’t see half the London I have seen if it wasn’t for it.

  26. Jan

    Yes, I must agree that London is a really nice city. I was there back in February this year with my older brother for three days, and we had some serious fun! The tube is really a great way of moving around in the city and really cheap too.

  27. steve

    Shame you had only a short time in London. I’m based in Exeter, in the South West of the UK which is about 3 hours drive away, and I haven’t been to the ‘old smoke’ for a while .. last time was 18 months ago on my girlfriend’s birthday, we had a ‘champagne flight’ on the London Eye, which meant we shared the capsule with just 4 others, which was cool.

    We are planning to visit San Fransisco next year (been promising a visit for ages now) .. when’s the best time to visit, I hear it gets a bit misty sometimes!?


  28. Eric Meyer

    Funny– two of your four observations (incredible annoyance at walking/driving side inconsistenciess; “to let”/toilet signs) were ones that came to me as well, when I was there the weekend before you. Kat can tell you that, several times on escalators and in Underground corridors, I’d snarl to mysef, “Jesus, pick a side and stick with it, people!”

    Almost the entire time I was in London, it was gray and chilly with occasional rain. It cleared up right at sunset my last day there, of course. So in my experience, London weather was just like I’d always heard. I’m jealous of your good weather… my pictures all came out muted.

  29. Andy Budd

    Molly, as Jeremy Keith likes to say – “The guy who has the recipe for ice left the country”.

  30. Nobody sparing a comment for the film?

    IMHO, really a great movie. OK, maybe not the right movie for that occasion, but still… I reccomend it to everybody. (And I’m quite surprised that it was not confined to Italian cinemas).

    If you liked the (electronic) theme, here it is. Enjoy!

  31. John Greatrex

    Fish and chips – always worthwhile, but you missed the ‘real’ experience by about 20 years. Fish and chips used to be served in yesterdays newspapers. Providing a taste fusion of grease (preferably animal based), salt, vinegar and ink to provide a true gastronmic delight.

    Liverpool Street – London’s Rockefeller. If you ever have half an hour before you get the next Stanstead Express take a quick stroll around the Broadgate, see the wonderful architecture or even skate on the ice rink.

    Weather – Everyone knocks British weather, it’s just too easy! We’ve just had a glorious weekend of sunshine and temperatures hitting 33-35C (90-95F). In fact the only true thing people can say about our weather is that it’s unpredictable, period.

    Money – a monotone £2 coin, possibly fake, possibly tarnished, possibly unique – possibly I’ve stopped talking about £2 coins……

    Pedestrian flow – Still gets me and I lived in London for 10 years. Treat it like a river, if you are going with the flow stick to the middle, it’s often faster and more free flowing. If you’re going against the current stick to the sides (either side works, but kerbside tends to be best).

  32. Michael

    The escalators on the Tube, as you mention, have their own convention: one side for standing; one for walking. But otherwise, no one is *expected* to keep to any particular walking pattern. It’s a free country after all. One walks on the right down a country lane if there’s no pavement – if one’s got any sense – in order to face the oncoming traffic. In town it doesn’t really matter. Traffic drives on the left, of course, since this country was never conquered by Napoleon. It’s what everyone used to do right across Europe, I believe. I think it has something to do with what would be easiest for a (right-handed) carter – how he would need to use his hands for reins and whips and so on.

    Stansted only has one “A” – if its the one in Essex where the airport is, at any rate.

    Some of the less spectacular architecture is attractive, too – for example the half-timbered buildings in Holborn and the Cheshire Cheese where Dr. Johnson used to drink.

  33. Olly

    Cor blimey guv’nor, strike a light. I’ve never yet come across a £2 coin that isn’t two tone.

  34. Andrew

    It’s funny seeing london from another person’s perspective! But my, one day in england and you go to London, stupid tourists hehe.

    London is generally warmer because of its density and that it is in-land. As there is alot of coast we get sea breezes, thankfully. For example, yesterday it was 33c in London, but 27c here on the coast.

    About the walking, what annoys is me when nobody moves out of your way. You walk down a high street and you swerve left and right to avoid people, especially old(er) people.

  35. I’ve never seen a monotone £2 coin myself either. Assuming it is a £2 coin you’ve got a rare treat there.

    The Underground can be entertaining, I often like to comment on the busy busy busy people who always know exactly where they’re going and how to get there — but it is possible to stop and stand still in the Underground (I’ve done it many times when reading maps) and the staff are very helpfull if you need to know which line/platform to use.

    I’d be interested as to where you got the “keep to the left” notion for stairs, I’ve never seen or heard anything like that and I enjoy walking where I please.

    One interesting thing about London, have a look at this photo I took in Liverpool Street station.

  36. Tom Jolliffe

    I’ve only ever seen one of those £2 coins in my 17 years, and that was before the introduction of the the two-tone one which is a very common sight.

    Someone mentioned Fish and Chips. You don’t want to get those in London, you want to come up to Yorkshire and get some proper ones instead (southern F+C just don’t cut it, despite what southerners always insist).

    I haven’t been to London for a couple of years now, but I do love capital cities. They’re great fun (for example, Paris or Berlin).

  37. Allison

    Beautiful pics! London is one of my favorite cities…

    When will that MT photo gallery template be up? I’m itchin’ to get my hands on it!

  38. Jan Brasna

    Ad “TO LET”) I also noticed the space is exactly there to fit an “I” letter ;)) …

    Ad Kensington) You stayed just few blocks away from me ;)

    BTW I was also surprised by the sky, I’ve never been there in such a great weather…

    Doug, you shloud take more days off the next time and see more of the city, I spent whole 4 days just walking around the city, it was great.

  39. Nick Reynolds

    Hi Doug,
    It was really interesting to read about your trip to London. It was a real pity we did not get to meet up, I would have loved to have you visit my little house in the east & enjoy a BBQ & a few English ales. From the sound of things your trip was quite hectic, so guess we’ll do that the next time you come over, which I hope won’t be too long.
    It’s amazing how many people write comments to your article (& yet do they even know you?) Drop me a line sometime mate. Good to see the pic of you & Kim. Roland emailed me the link. Nice Stop Design Web site by the way.

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