Learning to Love London

It sounds so easy, right? The city's charms are legendary. But as Dave Herndon found out when he moved there for all the right reasons, the dropping dollar has London playing hard to get.

By Dave Herndon, Tuesday, Mar 22, 2005, 11:49 AM

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

(Clive Frost)

What you'll find in this story: Lodon restaurants, London culture, London attractions, London bargains, London flea markets, London apartments

After a season in the African outback, the homeward itinerary read Nairobi-Paris-London-New York, but I got seriously snagged in London: I fell in love! Not with London, but with a foxy French girl who was living there. We embarked on a whirlwind transatlantic romance, and six months later I found myself living in London--whereupon I promptly fell out of love. With London.

It was the $15 chicken that did it. I'm not talking about a nicely prepared dish in a naked celebrity chef's restaurant, mind you, but a jaundiced-looking specimen from a local shop. Multiply £8.25 by the $1.80 exchange rate--which has since gone up to $1.88--and that's what you get. It was as if I'd been slapped upside the head with the thing, like a stooge in a vaudeville act.

There's no way around it: London is pricey to begin with, even for Brits, but for those of us operating in good, old, depreciated Yankee dollars, it's almost twice the price. For just about everything. By simply deplaning with a resident visa in hand, my net worth had virtually halved.

I reacted badly--went into a deep funk as I contemplated my new life as a pence-pinching coupon clipper. Unsurprisingly, the Foxy French Girl did not find the new, blue me very appealing, and the romance was in jeopardy. What did I do? What could I do? I resolved to learn to love London, to find a way to keep the romance alive. Not at all costs--because going broke isn't very sexy, either, and doesn't have a whole lot of future in it--but at costs nice middle-class people like us could afford.

I consulted an expert, a lifelong Londoner who's an editor at a tourist magazine. She shared lots of insider tips and, just as important, two paradoxical truths about surviving and thriving in London on a budget. One: "You can do things cheaply, but you have to think about what you're doing." And two: "Sometimes you just have to forget about what things cost and get on with it."

So I threw myself into the fray of that sprawling, higgledy-piggledy city, and the more I did, the more I found haughty ol' London to be accommodating, even generous. London knows it's too expensive and actually does something about it, doling out freebies and discounts on all sorts of attractions and cultural events. This is especially true in summer, when the historic streets and squares, the opulent parks, and the resurgent riverfront come alive with markets and festivals of so much street-theatrical entertainment value, it's as if the wildly animated spirit of a medieval fair had been updated and set loose on a citywide scale.

The Foxy French Girl and I became eager tourists of the town we lived in, poring over the weekly Time Out magazine (bursting with listings that put New York City to shame), planning dates and outings and explorations. When we got home at night, happily exhausted, we'd keep the lights low and dance to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day": "Just a perfect day, problems left all alone/Weekenders on our own/It's such fun...."

Romance was alive and well. Before very long at all, "Perfect Day" would be played as our wedding song. (Everybody say "Awww.") We live there no longer, but we'll always have London--and the precious baby boy who was born there. (Gimme a double "Awww.") So it is with great fondness and nostalgia for London Towne that I share one erstwhile expat's recent and thoroughly successful journey toward enjoying some of the best of what that great city has to offer, while keeping the expenses real in a town that's just too bloody expensive.

To live in London without going to the theater would be like living in the Alps and not skiing, so that was an obvious point of entry. And when I learned that the National Theatre sells steeply discounted tickets to lots of shows for $19, I logged on to its website and signed up for e-mail alerts to on-sale dates so I could snatch up seats. Once a month, we'd attend a world-class production of a new or classic play for about the price of a movie ticket. Brilliant, as the Brits say.

The National became our home base even when we didn't have tickets; it was always putting on free, high-quality music and theater in the lobby and outside by the Thames. We weren't the only ones: Londoners and tourists alike throng to the river's South Bank, a promenade that must be the most culturally rich boardwalk anywhere, with everything from skateboarding to classical music to mind-bending art installations.

One of our more Perfect Days began at Borough Market, near London Bridge, a Friday and Saturday food extravaganza that has existed in some form since before the Roman era. After a pint of ale at the legendary Market Porter Pub, we grazed the stalls of the covered market, picking up various picnic supplies--serrano ham, focaccia, olives, and artisanal cheeses--and headed toward the river. There we had a quintessential London moment: Just after we passed by the 14th-century Westminster Hall, an amphibious Bond-mobile came skimming across the surface of the Thames. (As Austin Powers says, "Groovy, bay-beee.") Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the Bard's artistic residence, spilled its matinee audience onto the riverside walk, where it mingled with the crowd emerging from the Tate Modern, a temple of contemporary art (admission is free, as it is at many of the major museums), and perhaps with patrons of the nearby Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre. But the high-caliber street musicians and a bird act worthy of Ed Sullivan were pulling crowds as readily as the bastions of official culture.

As usual, it was the National Theatre that captured us, with a café table available for our picnic, ringside of the amphitheater, where a troupe of young thespians performed a raucous entertainment. They were followed by a Congolese Soukous band that knew all about good vibes and how to spread them. As evening advanced, we were overwhelmed with choices--two discount plays and some sort of multimedia rave later on at the National, or the Japanese art-film festival next door--but we'd had enough. It was dusk, time to stroll across the Millennium Bridge, into the wide-open arms of Central London's cityscape.

The more I resisted the reflexive urge to mentally convert pounds to dollars, the happier I became. Cruelly, the credit card company did it for me: It took me exactly one whopping monthly statement to realize that dining frequently in London's restaurants would quickly earn me enough miles for a return ticket to New York, alone and in debt.

And thus we hatched the genius strategy of building excursions around days at the market, where comparatively inexpensive delicacies compete for attention. We cultivated our picnic technique in London's abundant and extremely well-appointed parks. When it was time to splash out, as they also say, we had to plan ahead or fall into the ever-present trap of an $80 pizza lunch or a perfectly mediocre $120 dinner for two. Our favorite park in Central London quickly became St. James's, between the Thames and Buckingham Palace, initially because we went there to neck on our first date, and thereafter because it offered a full menu of options.

As with all the London parks, St. James's enjoys the rain dividend and the benefits of being in a land where the arts of gardening and landscaping are staples of prime-time television. The resulting bounty of luscious habitat is not lost on the bird population; some 47 species of waterfowl call the place home at one time or another, if you believe the placard next to the lake.

Also on the lake is a wonderfully clever mixed-use restaurant, Inn the Park, catering to a clientele of businesspeople, ladies who lunch, and clued-in tourists. Modern but comfortably so, the Inn has pondside alfresco seating and a versatile brasserie menu. The beauty of the place is that it also provides exactly the same prime seating to consumers of take-out drinks, snacks, and meals from its organic sandwich and salad canteen. How very democratic.

Being in a celebratory frame of mind--our first meal out with the baby, on the day we took him to the embassy to become officially American--I went for the splash-out option: gazpacho, oysters, steak, wine, dessert. Okay, it was not a cheap meal ($150), but it was an occasion. Afterward we sunbathed on canvas deck chairs of the kind provided in many of London's parks at the entirely reasonable fee of £1 apiece, and purred like a little lion family after a good feed. (Until our son erupted in an inconsolable, high-decibel crying jag, shattering the peace and quiet of the entire park, scattering cormorant, coot, and great-crested grebe alike.)

Other of our most memorable meals took place before the arrival of the turbo-lunged one, in gastropubs. At its best, this category, indigenous to the Realm, represents a melding of two worlds: pubby atmosphere and an ambitious kitchen, with prices far lower than at comparable proper restaurants.

"With this exchange rate, if I can't put it in my mouth, I'm not gonna buy it," said a visiting foodie friend, so I made sure we had a suitable dining destination on our day trip to the north of the city. As promised, Hampstead has oodles of English-village charm, despite its in-town location. Sidewalk planters on tiny lanes and mews overflowed with geraniums and impatiens in a way that seemed generous rather than self-conscious; the shops were lively with personality, refreshing in a town that can feel choked with dreary chains. And the Holly Bush provided everything we could have wanted for an early-summer-afternoon supper. Downstairs is a venerable pub, reliably dark and smoky inside, with a gang of bright young things quaffing pitchers of Pimm's Cup on the sidewalk. Upstairs, a light, high-ceilinged dining room serves a very British menu (sausages, lamb, meat pies) with adventuresome ingredients in the sauces and salads (and even some vegetarian options). The three of us had a wonderful meal, notable for the warm, easygoing vibe of the entire experience, which retained its nice afterglow even when the credit card company did the math ($126).

To me, shopping for its own sake holds about as much allure as outpatient surgery--so it says something that I'd happily go with the Foxy French Girl through London's famous markets. Notting Hill's Portobello Road to the west and Spitalfields to the east are variations on a funky-chic theme, both awash in legions of fashion-aware young women with eyes set on original designs at bargain prices. And both markets are in cool neighborhoods, worth checking out even when it's not market day. Notting Hill is like New York City's Greenwich Village, boho-gone-upscale, with more in the way of collectible bric-a-brac that you buy when traveling because you simply won't find it elsewhere. Spitalfields is more heavily tattooed, with an accent on home and fashion accessories. It's also the gateway into the very "now" neighborhood of Shoreditch. This is the place to go cool-hunting for streetwear like limited-edition hip-hop sneakers that come with certificates of ownership proclaiming them to be "one of only 70 pairs worldwide."

I'll pass on those, thanks--but it's fun to know they're there. These excursions were never really about the food or the shopping, anyway. They were about urban adventure. Yes, I was armed with clippings and guidebooks, but, in fact, that was all a matter of putting ourselves into position for the unexpected: We were never disappointed when we simply relaxed and let serendipity take over. London is endlessly rewarding that way.

On the first of our many trips to Richmond--a posh movie set of a village on the Thames at the southwestern city limits--on our first picnic on the first weekend we ever spent together, we settled in for a nap under a tree by the river. We were joined by a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen and a few charming children, whose energy and volume levels were running a bit higher than our own. Before long, the senior member of the party loomed over us, and, in a courtly tone, said, "Good afternoon. We are from Baghdad, Iraq, and we would like to invite you to join us for some tea."

Soon we were sipping minty chai from tiny glasses, toking cranberry-flavored tobacco from a hookah, and discussing world events at a time of fraught relations between our home countries. At least we were doing our part for world peace. Then talk turned to London. The éminence grise expounded a bit, as was his wont. London, he said, was the crossroads of the world, first because of traditional patterns of immigration from the Commonwealth, and more recently from the new waves of strivers flooding in daily from Eastern European nations being added to the EU. Furthermore, as one who had lived in the U.S. and France during his long exile, he was of the opinion that London was the business and creative capital of the world, here in the early years of the third millennium.

The New Yorker in me recoiled reflexively, but now that I've lived there, I can't say he was wrong. London is all go, go, go these days; you can feel it everywhere. And when my boy is old enough to ask about where he comes from, I'll tell him, "Son, you are a child of the universe, your mother's a Foxy French Girl, your daddy's a Yank with itchy feet, and you were conceived at the end of a Perfect Day in the capital of the world."

The first places to look for London deals

General: Londontown.com is a comprehensive tourist site with lots of special offers on tickets, rooms, etc. It's particularly strong for attractions and events listings: Enter your dates and get a menu of what's happening, or click on the annual calendar. Visitlondon.com, the official tourist site, is promotional rather than critical, but also full of useful information.

Dining: At squaremeal.co.uk, an authoritative restaurant site, you can search by neighborhood or ethnicity, browse readers' favorites, or just click on Best Gastropubs.

Markets: Try Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, for antiques and clothing (portobelloroad.co.uk); Spitalfields for goods by young designers of fashion and home accessories (visitspitalfields.com); Borough Market, located near London Bridge, for food, glorious food (boroughmarket.org.uk).

Theater: London Theatre Guide (officiallondontheatre.co.uk) provides one-stop shopping for the West End, including daily listings for its discount TKTS booth in Leicester Square. For the National Theatre, go to nationaltheatre.org.uk--and note in particular the $19 Travelex Season offerings and the summertime series of free events called Watch This Space.

Transport: The Tube starts at $3.75 per ride, but the map is not to scale--walking may be quicker. And buses are cheaper ($2.25 per ride). Find info on both at tube.tfl.gov.uk. --D.H.

Live like a local--by renting yourself a flat

Apartments aren't cheap, but you'll get more space than at a hotel, and you'll save money if you eat some meals at home. (Restaurants may charge 10 percent less for take-out orders.) Apartments have compact kitchens with appliances, dishes, and utensils, and some throw in amenities like newspapers or Internet access. "Serviced apartments" come with daily maid and linen service, and generally rent by the night, while unserviced rentals tend to require a week's stay and include weekly cleaning. When renting, be sure the price includes the VAT of 17.5 percent and any charges for maid service. You can usually get a deal on stays of longer than a week. And if you require an air conditioner or elevator, ask: Not all older buildings have them. June and July are the most popular months, but everyone offers specials in the off-season.

Emperor's gate apartments: Eighteen simple studios and one-bedrooms in two Victorian buildings near the Earl's Court and Gloucester Tube stations. Studios have Murphy and sofa beds, from $169 per night; one-bedrooms have twin or double beds and a sofa bed, from $188; service and VAT included. apartment-hotels.com

Astons apartments: In three Victorian town houses on a South Kensington side street. Studios are tight, and it's worth considering an upgrade. From $122 per night for a single studio to $310 for a four-person executive apartment. astons-apartments.com

Nell Gwynn House: A modern building housing 180 apartments in the leafy Chelsea neighborhood near Sloane Square. From $884 a week for a small studio to $2,002 for a two-bedroom apartment, not including a $103 (studio) or $113 (one- or two-bedroom) per-week maid-service charge. nghapartments.co.uk

Sloane apartments: Full eat-in kitchens and plush decor. Studios start at $216 a night, two-bedrooms at $470 a night, plus VAT. sloaneapartments.com

The Independent Traveller: Run by Simon and Mary Ette since 1981. Over 100 unserviced apartments in suburban and central London. Studios start at $818 weekly; two-bedrooms at $1,222. gowithit.co.uk

The London apartment net: Search more than 100 central London apartments by location and price. http://londonapartment.net/

Other resources: TouristApartments.com (touristapartments.com), Coach House London Vacation Rentals (chslondon.com), Home From Home (homefromhome.co.uk). --B.J. Roche