Today we had to leave the quirky wee Gospel Oak apartment that had been our London bolthole. We would be spending the next two nights at my parents’ house in Sussex – which meant hoiking our massive backpacks around London today as we saw the sites.
Husband thankfully helped us swerve this by persuading someone he knew to allow us to dump our bags in their office.
So son and I left our heavy gear with husband and daughter on a street corner waiting for a cab, while we pranced, light of foot, to catch the train to Stratford.
Wow, Stratford is a whole different moonscape.
It seemed as though this area of London had never quite recovered from the incessant bombing of World War Two; and any recovery there had been had resulted in the very unpretty square block architecture of the Sixties.
Now the area is a peculiar site of industry, wasteland and wealth, the Olympics having injected some investment into the area; investment that is still apparently being bestowed more than five years later. Huge, glistening glass and steel office and apartment blocks are being constructed; opulent trees in an up-until-now grey and arid jungle.
I’m probably going to be ripped to shreds for saying that. Stratford residents will wonder who the hell am I to call their homeland an arid jungle. I’m a nobody, it’s true, but I have an outsider’s objectivity. I was both pleased and impressed by the growth, but also concerned about the threat of gentrification – I mean, there’s a Mulberry shop in the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre. Who the hell can afford a Mulberry bag? (I’ve just done a bit of research and discovered to my amazement that the Westfield Stratford City is Europe’s biggest shopping centre.)
Son and I wandered open-mouthed through the shopping centre, and across the street to the London Stadium, now the home of West Ham Utd. I am very pleased the stadium is still being used.
We were headed for the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a vanity project1 that serves as both artistic installation and amusement park adrenaline-fest in the shape of a 178-metre long slide.
I had bought tickets for son and husband, daughter being too young and me too shit-scared to go on it. But husband was off depositing heavy rucksacks, so it was left to me to escort son on this terrifying adventure.
As we circled the Orbit, looking up at its interweaving steel structure, I said to son, “I might have to bail out of this.” Heights I don’t have a problem with, but the thought of being plunged to the earth from 80m up made me queasy with fear, and also the chute we were to be plunged down, which looked, from the ground, barely wide enough to contain son, let alone me.
It was a cloudy day. The view from the top, after our ride in the lift, was of a colourless terrain, the City of London and Docklands providing distant peaks in the skyline. The other folk in the queue for the slide were being fitted with padded sleeves and helmets, which didn’t do much for my nerves.
“It’s just a precaution,” said son, reassuringly. And suddenly I thought of everything I have achieved in the past year (which can only be gleaned from other blogs, but which include escorting the children around Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong with no knowledge of Japanese, Mandarin or Cantonese, and surviving breast cancer, chemotherapy and radiotherapy…), and knew that I could bloody well go down a bloody slide which bloody children were going down, without having a bloody anxiety attack. And when I noticed that riders were seated on a mat, with their feet inside and a handle to hang onto, I thought, this is nothing more than a helter-skelter!
Oh. My. God. It was amazing. Possibly it was amazing because I had been so frightened and so was fearing the worst. (The worst being death, so anything that avoided that could only be better.) The slide was said to take 40 seconds, so I began counting to 40 as soon as I descended into the first drop. There were long sections of utter blackness (not utter blackness – there were tiny lights dotted above one’s head, but these flew past in such a flurry that they were hardly noticeable), during which the slide twisted and turned and forced you sharply to left and to right – but there were no sudden drops, no stomach-churning blind descents.
When I got to 20 I thought, bloody hell, I’m only halfway through counting but I’ve been in here for ages!
But the next 20 seconds went like a shot, and I settled into the rhythm of speed and cornering. When I was jiggled to a halt at the end and dragged out by a worker, I was ecstatic, high, on endorphins.
Husband and daughter met me and son at reception; after a half hour or so in a nearby playpark, we caught the DLR to Greenwich.
“This is a driverless train,” I said to daughter on the DLR.
“Driverless? It doesn’t have a driver?” she asked. It turns out she didn’t think this was cool so much as scary. “What if something happens? Shouldn’t there be a driver in case something happens?”
I didn’t ask her what terrible things she defined as “something happening”.
“Well, look, there’s a guard there,” I said. “I guess he can help if there’s a problem.”
We had a quick pit stop in Greenwich Market for lunch (and oh! what a variety of nations’ foods!), then made for the Cutty Sark, which was tourist destination number six of our London stay. The Cutty Sark was something I had walked past many times, but never bothered to pay to see. It was fab. We learned a lot about tea (the Cutty Sark having been a tea clipper originally), and about the ship’s speed, and what ships’ flags mean… There was a great tour by ship’s captain Richard Woodget (not the original – he died in 1928. I think it was an actor), when we learned about the pet monkeys kept on board, and also that “cutty sark” means “short nightie”, from Robert Burns’s poem Tam O’Shanter, which I am ashamed to say I did not know.
This destination was a big hit with the children.
And then we dragged them up the hill at Greenwich Park (fuelled by vegan ice-cream) to see the view of London and also show them the Meridian Line, which unfortunately, shamefully and disgustingly, where it used to be accessible for free in the courtyard of the Royal Observatory, is now behind a padlocked gate, for us mere plebs to only gaze at, rather than hop across.
“My family and I would just like to see the Meridian Line,” I said to the clerk at the Observatory’s main desk, “can we just pop through?”
“It’s part of the Observatory estate,” he said with disdain, “so no.”
Tickets were £10 per adult and £6.50 per child, so we didn’t get to hop across the Meridian Line after all. We just gazed forlornly at it through the padlocked gate.
At least we didn’t have to pay for the amazing view across London, a view which seemed more impressive than that from the ArcelorMittal Orbit because of the emerald greenness of the park below (a colour that was notable for its absence in Stratford) and also the character and beauty of the buildings of Greenwich (the National Maritime Museum and University of Greenwich, for example.)
And then we had to rush for the train back to Chalk Farm to pick up our hefty backpacks. Unfortunately this involved rushing past a pedalo boating lake and playpark at the foot of Greenwich Park.
“Wow!” said the children. “Look at that! Can we have a go? Please! It’s not fair!” wailed daughter, who, to be fair, had been dragged round all manner of London sites she didn’t know she had any interest in, without any recompense.
We had to promise to put the pedaloes on the reserve list for our next London visit.
Having retrieved our luggage from the office near Chalk Farm, we met with some London friends for dinner in Greek restaurant Lemonia, which had perhaps the most amusing waiter in the world.
“Do you have wi-fi?” asked our friend, who arrived with fears that his mobile had been stolen from his pocket, and so wanted to track it down.
“No,” shrugged the waiter with the utmost contempt. “They might have it,” waving at the kitchen, “but I don’t. I don’t know.” He clearly thought wi-fi had no place at the dinner table. Normally I would agree, but there was a particular reason for needing it then.
(By the by, friend thought he had been pickpocketed, and his Find My iPhone app said his mobile was somewhere on a park bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Turned out it wasn’t – it was in his office desk drawer, where he’d left it. His wife called it the Law of Lost Things – they are where they should be.)
We mentioned our plans for the next day, which involved visiting the Palace of Westminster and Houses of Parliament.
“I know one of the architects involved in the refurbishment,” said a friend. “It’s going to cost more than the Olympic London Stadium to do. The budget is £7bn but it’s going to be closer to £15bn.”
And on that note, we left for the train to Sussex.
1 I’m being cynical. It could be seen as a philanthropic gesture.