Two Days on the Road (Part 1)

In which The Author and his friend go on tour

Two weeks ago, I travelled almost the entire length of the M4 over a period of two days. I’ll tell you apart the first part now, and the rest next time. How’s that for planning, eh?
As I told you a couple of weeks ago, I had a hospital appointment at the end of September. Ordinarily that wouldn’t even be a subject for a blog entry, never mind one with photographs. I’m well used to the two-bus excursion to Prince Charles Hospital, barely five miles from my house as the crow flies but nearly two hours away by public transport. I didn’t mind the occasional trip to Llandough Hospital, the other side of Cardiff. It was a straight run through from Aberdare on the train, which meant that I could read and/or sleep going there and coming back. The new Ysbyty Cwm Cynon was something of a gift, therefore, as it’s only two stops on the train and a short walk across Peace Park.
My appointment was somewhere entirely different, though: Charing Cross Hospital. You’ve probably already guessed that it’s in London. You might be as surprised as I was to learn that it’s nowhere near Charing Cross itself. It’s actually in Fulham Palace Road some miles from the centre. I had the appointment letter several weeks ago, and went straight to the Transport for London website to check out the travel information. It’s served by several buses from Hammersmith, an area I’m reasonably familiar with, so getting there wouldn’t be a problem.
Getting to London wouldn’t be a problem either. Even though there’s no longer a direct coach from Aberdare (see Nice Work If You Can Get There), there’s a regular service from Cardiff and half-hourly trains from Aberdare. A combination of the two, plus my virgin Oyster card, would get me there in good time and at a reasonable cost. I booked the ticket online, made sure I knew the bus routes at the other end, and the job was a good ‘un.
A few days later, Rhian came into the pub. She’s working for Amazon again, in their warehouse in not-Swansea. She’s on the night shifts, which means she has every Monday and Tuesday off. Almost as a joke, I asked her if she fancied a trip to London. To my amazement, she jumped at the chance. She’d never been there before, and rattled off a long list of places she wanted to see. I fired up my Netbook and headed for the National Express website.
While my emails were coming in, I found one from National Express, offering 25% off my next booking. That seemed too much like serendipity to be ignored. I booked Rhian’s ticket, she gave me the cash, and I explained a bit about the Transport for London system. I left her looking very excited about the prospect – for the next couple of days, I had occasional texts and Facebook messages saying ‘London, baby!’ – and we started putting some cash aside for the big day.
A few days later, Rhian texted me to say that her Oyster card had arrived in the post. Shortly after that I had my own adventures with the TfL website, as I told you in Straightforward (Part 94). (I should get my refund some time during the next couple of weeks, it seems.) I didn’t bother trying to add any more credit to my card in advance. As it turned out, that was a good thing.
On the Monday morning, I met Rhian at the station at 6.45. It was still dark – it was the earliest I’ve left the house since finishing work, I think – and we both struggled to stay awake on the journey to Cardiff. I’d had breakfast and made some sandwiches before leaving the house, which Rhian later discovered was a very good idea. We arrived in Cardiff on time and stopped at W.H. Smith for a paper. They were giving away a free Daily Telegraph with every purchase, so I unexpectedly had a crossword to pass the time on the coach. We boarded the 507 service, along with about a dozen other early birds, and were on our way at 8.15 precisely.
After a brief stop at Chepstow, where a few more passengers embarked, we were soon on our way into England across the old Severn Bridge. The traffic was quite steady and free-flowing, and we made good time across Avon and Wiltshire. While we were passing through the low-lying area between Chippenham and Swindon, it became quite misty, and there was a distinctly autumnal feel in the air. It’s been the driest September on record, and a welcome contrast to last year’s washout. Maybe I shouldn’t tempt fate by even commenting on the fact.
The mist had cleared long before we reached Reading, where the traffic started building up to its usual London-outskirts levels. It’s also the point where the traffic from Heathrow Airport starts to feature regularly through the coach window. I’ve done the journey dozens of times in both directions, so I decided to point out the highlights to Rhian as we skirted past Slough and ploughed steadily into Greater London.
On my first solo journey into London on the tube (see Behind the Mask) I met a girl from Cardiff, who was also a first-year student. She commented that she hadn’t realised just how big the place was. She said that if you start walking from the centre of Cardiff, after an hour or so you’ve pretty much left the city behind. I’ve noted previously how quickly the train from Cardiff makes the transition from the suburbs to the countryside. That’s not true of London. Once you’re within the bounds of the M25, it’s suburbs all the way.
The approach road is lined by tall office complexes, notably the GSK building alongside the elevated section between Brentford and Chsiwick, and The Ark next to the elevated section in Hammersmith. There are familiar landmarks, like the Hogarth Roundabout and the Fuller’s Brewery, and Earls Court Exhibition Centre in the distance. There’s also a remarkable white building, topped by a blue onion dome with gold stars, tucked away in the side streets in Chiswick. I’d seen it every time I passed that way, and last time it occurred to me to find out what it actually is. It turned out to be the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. That was a very unexpected result.
We’d planned to alight at Earls Court, as I always used to do back in the day. Unfortunately, the stop has been relocated (as I found out in an email from National Express on Saturday morning), so we had to stay on the coach all the way to Victoria. (The £5.00 top-up on my Oyster Card has also been refunded this morning, as I hadn’t activated it within seven days at the nominated station – which happened to be Earls Court!) Next time I go up, I’ll specify Earls Court as my destination, to be on the safe side.
It only took an extra ten minutes or so to reach Victoria, and Rhian seemed quite overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place. I remember that feeling, too. It took me quite a few excursions to get to grips with the tube network, and to build up a mental map of the way the various districts sit in relation to one another. At least Rhian wasn’t trying to find her way around from scratch. We headed to Victoria Station, through the new shopping mall built to replace the section damaged by the IRA bomb over twenty years ago. Here we topped up our Oyster Cards (again, in my case!) and headed for the underground.
While we were on the down escalator, I outlined to Rhian the way that the different lines all mesh together. By following the colour-coded signs (and keeping a rough picture of the famous map in your mind’s eye), you can make quite swift progress through the maze of tunnels and escalators. We walked the full length of one platform and emerged at the foot of another escalator. Rhian was convinced that we’d gone in a big circle. I wasn’t entirely sure for a few moments, until I pointed out that the advertisements lining the stairwell were different. When we didn’t arrive back at the concourse, she conceded that we were, in fact, somewhere else entirely.
We reached the platform just as a train drew in. It was lunchtime, and we were towards the rear, but it didn’t seem to be as crammed as I remembered from my younger days. Rhian didn’t look too impressed as we moved off into darkness, but we weren’t going far – only two stops, to South Kensington. Rhian has always wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, so we’d decided to kill an hour there before heading out to Hammersmith.
We left the station via a very long subway, with branches heading off to the other museums in the area. After the Great Exhibition of 1851 had proved to be the wonder of the world, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A were founded to house the cream of the collection. Along with Imperial College, the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, they’re clustered just south of Kensington Gardens. Admission is free these days, and an hour’s browsing really just scratches the surface.
Eventually we arrived at the V&A without breaking the surface. We’d planned to have lunch there, but two things stood in our way. The first was the sheer difficulty of finding the café. The whole museum seems to be very poorly signposted, so we armed ourselves with a little map and followed our noses.
You could spend a whole week in there and still not see everything, to judge from the variety of objects in the small part we explored. We took in some enormous Raphael paintings in a dimly lit room. We admired a number of wooden sculptures from late medieval churches. We wondered whether to have a look at the special exhibition of wedding dresses through the ages (not that either of us stands much chance of getting married any time soon!) We passed through a gallery of South-East Asian artefacts, which I’d like to look at in more detail next time.
We eventually found our way to a room full of statues and busts of not-very-well-known British people, with a huge window looking onto the central courtyard. To our surprise, it was pouring with rain. Neither of had a coat, so we decided to stay under cover for a while. Finally we found the café, where we encountered the second obstacle to our plan: the price. Call me tight-fisted if you like, but I think £9.25 for a slice of quiche and some salad is a bit excessive. We decided against having lunch there, and found our way to the exit. The rain had eased off, so I suggested trying to find a pub nearby, expecting (as you do) that the menu would be a little more reasonable.
I heard an interesting feature on Radio 4 a few months ago, about the resurgence of ‘street food’ in London and other large cities. The presenter said that we’ve almost gone full circle in cultural terms. Up until fairly late Victorian times, ordinary people would buy their meals from street vendors, rather than cooking at home. Grocers’ and butchers’ shops catered largely for well-off people, who could afford staff to prepare their food for them. It was only when cookers and fridges became commonplace, relatively recently, that the majority of people started cooking at home. The presenter suggested that in this day and age, when a lot of working people are money-rich but time-poor, we were returning to the earlier habit of eating ‘on the go.’
Whether or not this theory holds any water, it’s certainly borne out to some extent by the preponderance of tapas bars, noodle bars, sushi bars, sandwich shops and other takeaways we found as we walked around South Kensington. It struck me later that another vital part of London culture seemed to be missing: although we didn’t see a single burger place (which is probably a good sign), we didn’t find an old-school chippy either. The snack bars we found were nearly all reflections of foreign cultures. I mentioned in an earlier entry that Tubby Isaacs’ jellied eel business in Aldgate closed down a while ago. I don’t want to sound like Nigel Farage here, but it seemed to me that the once-resilient soul of traditional London has given up trying to fight off the rampant tide of international capitalism.
We repaired to the Zetland Arms, one of those cavernous street-corner pubs which characterise London architecture. An information board outside records the fact that it was once owned Sid Chaplin, brother of the much more famous Charlie. We decided to have a look inside. It wasn’t anything special, to be honest – just an average suburban London boozer, with the TV on mute in the corner, a few middle-aged chaps sitting with pints in front of them, and youngish bar staff who clearly didn’t have English as a first language.
Our money-saving idea didn’t last long, needless to say. I ordered a pint of lager, Rhian had a large-ish glass of Pepsi, and I got just over two quid change from a tenner. I’m glad we decided to pass on the crisps. We looked at the menu, and found that they were offering cod and chips for £13.95. As I said to a friend afterwards, for that price I’d want to go out on the boat and catch the damned thing myself!
Suitably refreshed, we made our way outside. We were both highly amused when I pointed out the street sign opposite the pub doorway. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Marquis of Bute used to own half the land in Aberdare, and several street names (and one pub) reflect that historical association. It came as a surprise, therefore, to find this in the heart of South Kensington:

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We walked back to the tube station, and then decided to walk as far as Kensington Gore. The area is quite compact, and we were able to take in the exterior of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall. We also spotted a small road sign, advising drivers that only diplomatic vehicles were allowed to park outside the buildings flying vaguely familiar flags. Next time, we’re taking a little encyclopedia, to try and identify the various embassies dotted around the place.

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We emerged onto Kensington Gore and walked as far as the Albert Memorial. I must have passed it when I was travelling through London in my younger days, but I’d forgotten just how enormous it is. These photos, taken from the road outside Kensington Gardens, really don’t do it justice. It’s another place to revisit when I get the chance.

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We only had to wait a couple of minutes for the Number 9 bus out to Hammersmith, and headed straight for the upper desk to do the Tourist Thing for a while. We made steady progress along Kensington High Street, passing the big department stores, smaller specialist shops, and a surprising number of places selling outdoor gear. It crossed my mind that many Londoners would be out of breath after climbing Primrose Hill, and I wondered how they’d cope with the ascent of Pen y Fan. I suspect that, as with the Valleys folk who wear tracksuits to the Jobcentre, this new trend has far more to do with the labels than the exercise.
At Hammersmith we changed buses and took the short ride out to the hospital. Here we parted company for a while; I went to meet my consultant, and Rhian ensconced herself in the Southern Belle, just around the corner. It used to be the Greyhound, a famous music venue back in the day, but it seems to have changed almost beyond recognition. Giving Rhian the Doctor’s famous (and oft-ignored) advice – ‘Don’t wander off!’ – I headed for my appointment.
On my return, I wondered about getting a drink myself, but Rhian told me that it was £3.90 a pint. It was a marked improvement on South Kensington prices, but still a disincentive. We jumped on the bus back to Hammersmith and retraced our steps, taking the Number 9 bus back to the Albert Memorial and beyond. I’d done my homework about the buses beforehand, and knew that it passed through Trafalgar Square on the way to Aldwych. It was a good way to introduce Rhian to some of the tourist sights without forking out for the open-top bus tour. We cruised slowly along the south side of Hyde Park, past Apsley House (the former home of the Duke of Wellington), skirted the north side of Green Park, drifted past St James’ Palace and finally emerged at Trafalgar Square.
Once again, Rhian was blown away by the size of the statues here. Take Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous lions, for example. Just seeing them on the TV doesn’t really prepare one for coming up close and personal with them.

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I know Rhian’s only four foot and a fart, but that’s still quite impressive.
After taking some more photos, we headed to The Strand to catch the Number 11 bus, heading (believe it or not) back towards Fulham. It was nearly six p.m., but the usual rush hour crush
didn’t happen. In fact, the streets and buses both seemed far quieter than I remembered of old. The Congestion Charge has obviously done a great deal to reduce traffic in the city centre, but the whole place seemed a lot less bustling than I was used to.
In addition, the culture of the the place seemed to have changed. I was used to seeing people dressed in eccentric styles. Instead, most people were following whatever fashion was ‘in’ at the time. Similarly, the street entertainers seemed to have vanished from the scene. It only occurred to me afterwards that something had been missing from the subway leading to the museums – the buskers. Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, but to me it felt as though London had lost an important element of its culture and character.
The bus took us on the next part of the Tourist Trail: into Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Cathedral. We jumped off at Victoria Coach Station, in plenty of time for our return coach. It was twilight as we crawled back through Earls Court and hit the very long tailback on the A4.
Rhian dozed off when we were in Hammersmith, and slept through at least two phone calls from her girlfriend before waking with a start somewhere near Swindon. In the meantime, a chavvy family disturbed everyone else by wandering from seat to seat, visiting the toilet far more often than strictly necessary, and arguing loudly for the rest of the time. It seems to be a sad feature of public transport that a quiet journey is a thing of the past.
We were nearly half an hour late getting into Cardiff. We were between trains, so we jumped off by the students’ union and grabbed a pint in the Pen and Wig, just off Museum Place. This was the point where the whole plan very nearly fell apart. Useful tip: the Pen and Wig is further from Cathays Station than you think! Luckily, my long legs were able to get me to the platform just as the train was about to pull out. I called out to the conductor, and Rhian dived through the doors with seconds to spare. The conductor laughed as he checked our tickets, but if we’d left the pub a few moments later, we’d have been stranded. It’s certainly something we’ll have to bear in mind in the future.
When I say ‘the future’, I’m only talking about a few weeks’ time. We’re going back up early in December. This time, we’ll have the day to ourselves, and we’re planning on a pure sightseeing excursion. Rhian wants to see the Tower (from the outside, anyway), so we’re going to head east and explore the City for a couple of hours. Now she’s got a taste for the place, I daresay she’ll quickly become as addicted to it as I am. After all, Dr Samuel Johnson was dead on the money when he famously said, ‘He who is tired of London is tired of life.
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