Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London Baby - Day One Part One - Funky London Childhood

So, where did I leave off my tale of excitement and adventure..? Oh yes, Crusaders had played their first leg match at home against Fulham in the second round qualifiers of the Europa League and the Yorkshireman and I had been making plans to go and see the away match the next week at Craven Cottage in London. And so we did!

On Thursday 21 July at ridonculous o'clock, we loaded ourselves and our backpacks into a taxi and headed to Belfast City Airport for our flight to London Heathrow. Everything went very smoothly and before we knew it we were touching down in London town and heading for the Picadilly line on the London Underground. What with the early start, the warmth of the day and the gentle swaying of the tube car we were both feeling a bit sleepy but I jolted awake when I realised that whilst we had figured out how to get from Heathrow to "London", we hadn't yet decided where exactly in London we were headed. Oops. Minor detail.

A perusal of the Picadilly line stations and brief discussion led us to Covent Garden. Neither of us had actually been before, even though it's quite a famous Londony place, and we were intrigued. Also I wanted coffee, like, yesterday. And so at Covent Garden station, we emerged from the tube and headed in the direction of the "Way Out" signs. And then the Yorkshireman uttered five of the most seemingly innocuous but inevitably horrifying words he would say all day…

"Shall we take the stairs?" And I agreed. And so up we went… up all 193 of them! But you don't realise that when you're at the bottom, do you? Oh no. There is no warning that this seemingly harmless spiral staircase ascends to heaven and beyond! We later discovered climbing said stairs on a list of weird and wonderful things to do in London - each to their own! Personally, by the time I reached the top I was gasping for air and, more importantly, that long-overdue coffee, so we set off in search of breakfast.

First of all we wandered around Covent Garden itself and the surrounding area and, although not much was open yet (it was only 9.15am at this stage), I had clocked the David and Goliath shop and an old favourite shop of mine Octopus en route and marked them for a visit after breakfast. The Yorkshireman, not really one for shopping, was more excited to stumble across the Drury Lane Theatre, which apparently has some kind of significance in the world of entertainment that had completely passed me by. As he merrily snapped a few photos, I started searching for a cupcake shop rumoured to be in the area (thanks Google!).

I should explain. I have a bit of an obsession with cupcakes. You may recall my previous endeavours to find the best cupcake in New York for example. Well, during a bit of general research on the London TripAdvisor forum, I came across a few threads where people had asked where to get the best cupcakes in London. As with all such debates, there were many suggestions and no consensus. I therefore decided that my search for the most awesome cupcake should move UKwards and that, if I happened to be in the area of any of the major contenders for the role, I would be duty-bound to give them a try.

So, after a quick Google Maps session, I established that Primrose Bakery was very close by. However to my dismay, whilst there were staff going in and out of the shop and pretty little cupcakes sitting in the display case, they remained resolutely closed. Oh well, never mind - it was time for breakfast! We found a little café (nothing classy) nearby and settled down to some toast and scrambled eggs. That and my latté were very gratefully received. We passed Primose Bakery again on our way back to Covent Garden but it was still closed, so I gave up on that idea. My research had happily revealed a cupcake rival in the area anyway.

When we reached Covent Garden again someone was actually setting up a stall selling mini cupcakes, so I figured if all else failed I could get my cupcake fix there before we left the area, but in the end I didn't need to. After a brief look around the shops, I stumbled across Ella's Bakehouse, another contender for "best cupcake" in London. By this stage I was really craving the sugary smooth sweetness of the frosting and the squashiness of the cake and I found it difficult to make a decision between my stock favourite (and comparator) vanilla and a coffee one that looked gorgeous… so I bought both - mwahahaha! The Yorkshireman selected a chocolate cupcake and we took all three to go.

Happily be-cupcaked, I took a quick look around the David and Goliath shop where I lusted after many things but could not justify spending the money on them, no matter how cute they were. And so we set off back into the Tube. This time we used the lift (!) and shortly thereafter were speeding underground towards the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. We'd decided to spend some time here because it was free, open at the right time and, basically, we are big kids.

We stopped in the Museum Gardens for a water and cupcake break before we took on the toys and games. My verdict on the cupcakes: the vanilla was nice but I've had better - the cake was moist and light but the sugar in the frosting overpowered the vanilla flavour; the coffee was absolutely gorgeous - the bitterness of the coffee perfectly juxtaposed with the sweetness and I think it might be one of my favourite cupcakes ever; the Yorkshireman, who is partial to the odd sweet treat but not really a cupcake connoisseur, said his was like a nice chocolate cake, so I think it was a general thumbs up there from him too. Overall I figured I would slot Ella's in alongside Magnolia, but Crumbs still had the lead as my favourite cupcake ever.

Happily fed and expecting an imminent sugar rush, we headed into the Museum. I really enjoyed it actually. I tend to have a short attention span in museums - if the subject matter is not something I'm interested in, I just stare blankly and slowly keep walking with one eye on the exit. However the Museum of Childhood held my attention the whole way around. It's not a huge museum but the layout is interesting and the exhibits are essentially big piles of toys - what's not to love? We exclaimed our way around, with yelps of "Oh wow I had one of those!" and "Do you remember these?!" and by the time we were halfway around I had regressed to being about 8 years old and wanted to go and play Barbies with my sister again.

Instead I made do with playing Snakes and Ladders with the Yorkshireman on the top floor, dressing up as a policewoman and clambering into a wooden police car and then later feeding coins into a model railway display to "make it go!" Most of the interactive activities are clearly aimed at children but I have no shame so my rule is that, if I am not too big for it, I will play on it (see, for example, the incident with the Big Piano at FAO Schwarz and my inability to walk past Custom House without jumping up and down on the musical squares in the ground).

In fact there were only a few disappointments in store for us at the Museum of Childhood. One was that I didn't get to play on the rocking horses, partly because I was probably a bit too big and partly because of the actual children who wouldn't get off them (bah!). A second, for the Yorkshireman, was their complete lack of Manta Force paraphernalia and only small display of video game stuff. The third is that it just wasn't big enough with enough things to play with for my liking - in fact we were back out on the street and seeking further entertainment after only an hour. That said, admission was free and I would definitely recommend it for anyone at a loose end in London who fancies reliving their youth or has young children to entertain.

Having exhausted the displays of toys and games in a shorter time than expected, the Yorkshireman and I went back to the Museum Gardens to regroup and plan our next steps. Again out came the smartphones and we searched away. Incidentally, as a side note, if you are ever planning a trip to London and you have an Android phone, I would highly recommend having both Google Maps and also the London Underground free app, both of which were invaluable to us on our trip. I especially loved the latter; you don't even need an Internet connection for it to work - you just plug in your starting point and your destination and it gives you detailed instructions of what line to get where, when and how often they run. Brilliant - saves staring at a tube map for about a year trying to figure out where you're going!

Anyways, after utilising our shiny apps, we had decided to head down to the river and walk across London Bridge. However when we got off the tube we couldn't find the pedestrian way on to it, so we gave it up as a bad job and headed for Tower Bridge instead, which the Yorkshireman had been across before but I hadn't. It was quite a nice walk actually.

Firstly we wandered through some kind of purpose-built business development, with shiny-fronted office buildings on one side and little cafés and restaurants for the little worker bees on the other. Upon Googling it seems to be called More London, just in case you're interested (probably not). I couldn't help but notice that, even though I thought it would be nice to have such amenities near my own workplace, the office workers out enjoying their coffee and croissants still looked as bored and miserable as I do when I'm facing a day at work, so perhaps having a M&S Simply Food within 100 metres of your desk isn't as much of a pull as I think it might be.

Next we meandered over to the Thames itself and walked along it, dodging joggers and mad groups of tourists en route. Actually, seriously London, what is with all the jogging?! Crazy, running people everywhere! They clearly also enjoy playing chicken with tourists whose reflexes are physically impeded by the weight of huge backpacks on their backs.

Man those bags were heavy! For some reason it reminded me of that old allegory they tell you in management seminars, Who's Got The Monkey, about everyone having metaphorical monkeys on their back all the time (i.e. their burdens) and wanting to offload their monkey on to someone else for them to carry instead, so for the duration of the trip our backpacks become known as our "monkeys." In retrospect that nickname could have potentially been construed as referring to something else, but we knew what we meant anyway.

Sorry for the tangents there… back to Tower Bridge. I quite enjoyed my little wander across the Thames, although I was disappointed not to have any huge boats coming in that would necessitate the bridge opening up, or any vehicles bursting through barriers to make the jump just in time. I think I've maybe seen Spice World too many times (i.e. once).

On the other side of the bridge we regrouped and then headed off in search of burritos for lunch. Mmmm, Mexican food... Feeling as stuffed as our tortilla wraps had been, we figured it was probably now time enough to set off to Fulham to find our hotel and prepare for a night of football frenzy. Back on went the monkeys and back underground we went.

To be continued…

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