We arrived at London Heathrow airport on June 23rd. It was bittersweet leaving Iceland as it had so far exceeded our expectations. But we were equally excited to explore the UK even though it had big shoes to fill. Outside, England was exactly as I had always dreamed it to be…overcast.
(Rachel and I arriving at London Heathrow Airport)
We navigated through the busy airport and hopped on a shuttle to pick up our rental car. I was anxious with the impending left-hand driving…so unnatural! We exited the car lot collision-free and promptly missed the on ramp toward our accommodation in Forest Gate. After circling the airport, we made the proper exit and were on the highway.
(First time left-hand driving)
Aside from terrifying Rachel and other drivers with my lane positioning and hoping my way through round about lane changes, left-hand driving was doable. British signage, however, was awful. Even Google Maps was dithering uncharacteristically, advising us to take an exit only to change its mind as soon as we’d commit to it. Needless to say, we missed another turn off, adding about 40 minutes to our journey home.
(Scaring Rachel, and others…)
Arriving in Forest Gate offered the first impression of London. We had bypassed the downtown core and the highway was lined with thick green trees so we hadn’t yet seen much. Much to our surprise, the suburb seemed more consistent with our expectation of Adis Ababa…narrow, littered, unmarked streets crowded with people that looked anything but the stereotypical Brit. We were wondering and perhaps a little hopeful we had made a wrong turn, but Google was right this time. We made it to our flat, which didn’t look like much from outside but it had been recently renovated and was actually quite modern inside. We freshened up and decided to explore the area, in search of a good curry.
(Forest Gate accomodation)
As we walked, we warmed up to Forest Gate. It was clearly a very ethnic and not particularly affluent area, but it had a lot of character, reminiscent of Mission in San Francisco. We ate a delicious Indian dinner of creamy butter chicken, spicy mutton curry with egg rice and garlic naan bread. Very tasty!
(Dinner at Aromas – Forest Gate, London)
Curious to hear the local take on Brexit, we went to a nearby pub expecting to be overwhelmed with commentary on the vote. The polls had just closed after all. On the streets, there was surprisingly little chatter, with the exception of a couple old men handing out ‘remain’ leaflets. The pub was half full of a group who seemed to be gathering after work. Funny, no talk of Brexit! Oh well, the beer was incredibly good. Creamy, just the right bitterness, not too carbonated, not too cold, nice finish. I had forgotten how much I actually enjoy beer.
(Night cap at Forest Tavern – Forest Gate, London)
Although we gathered no more context of Brexit, we did thoroughly enjoy the pub. The building itself was very old, with exposed foundation and framing of varying brick and wooden beams, which had weathered and stained over the years to give it a character that would be impossible to reproduce. It was dimly lit with home made lights of retired umbrellas that dangled on wiring from the crack ridden ceiling. It would offend any electrical code, but it worked and somehow matched the decor of mismatched tables and chairs, assorted flags, currency and flea market knick knacks. Not the English pub I would imagine, but, in any case, a place to drink and socialize, which we were quickly confirming to be a central part of life here. We finished our drinks and headed home to plan our next day.
We woke up relatively early the next morning to discover the UK had voted to leave the EU! What a shock! We ventured out and again found that life was still moving along without much fuss at all.
(Brexit vote result)
At the metro station we bought an Oyster Card, which is the cheapest way to ride the tube, London’s subway system. A refundable deposit and a single day’s unlimited fare and we were immediately connected to all of London. Thanks largely to tech-savy Rachel and Google’s intimate knowledge of the train schedule, the tube was fairly easy to navigate.
First stop, Borough Market. Larger than expected, the market had stalls from all over the world boasting vibrant fresh produce, freshly baked breads, wide arrays of cheeses and cured meats, and enticing dishes that made us thankful for our empty stomachs. Where to begin? We wanted it all!
(Borough Market, London)
We started with a sampling of cured meats from Croatia. Cured truffle pork sausage was king among the selection and truffle hunting in northern Croatia suddenly became a possibility for the coming months.
Next, the olive cheese bread sticks, fresh from the oven. They had a light outer crunch but were soft and cheesy inside with salty bits of olive. We thought of Pam and Paul back home and the similar bread sticks from Bon Ton bakery they had recently tempted us with.
(Olive and cheese bread sticks – Borough Market, London)
Hand dived scallops from Dorset were the next indulgence. Three succulent scallops served on a bed of stir fry and crispy bacon. Heavenly.
(Scallops – Borough Market, London)
There were many selling British meat pies but one stood out having been crowned best meat pie in England for several consecutive years. The Melton Mowbray pork pie. We bought it cold to have when we got home as it was large and we didn’t want to fill up too early. To spare the suspense, let’s just say it’s time to unseat the queen.
(Melton Mowbray Pork Pie – Borough Market, London)
We turned the corner to find three sensuous legs clamped provocatively in Spanish stands. A bearded Spaniard with a sharp knife suddenly popped up from behind the counter and offered us a tasting of his Iberico ham. Each one melted in our mouths releasing their own symphony of flavours. They were all so incredible but our favourite had been raised on acorns and then aged to perfection. So much less porky than the cured ham we’ve had at home. We seriously considered skipping the rest of Europe to head straight for Spain.
(Iberico Ham – Borough Market, London)
We continued wandering, eating, and sampling. Duck confit – as decadent as always. Mead – an ounce was enough…not bad, but so sweet, it would be better as a desert wine. Cider – much nicer than the mead, but still not my cup of tea. Paella – bursting with flavour. Strasberries – berries that taste like a cross of strawberry and raspberry. So much food!
(Duck Confit – Borough Market, London)
(Mead – Borough Market, London)
(Paella – Borough Market, London)
(Strasberries – Borough Market, London)
We were slowing down but still had room for an ostrich burger, which tasted like a slightly gamier beef burger…nothing special. Then a scotch egg – a soft boiled egg encased in seasoned ground pork, breaded and deep fried. It was very tasty and the egg was perfect, but a little porky overall. Our treacherous stomachs were insisting it was time to stop eating. We protested and had a cup of goat’s milk ice cream. Rum raisin, if I remember correctly. A difficult choice as they were all so good.
(Ostrich Burger – Borough Market, London)
(Scotch Egg – Borough Market, London)
(Goat’s Milk Ice Cream – Borough Market, London)
Sadly, we missed out on fish and chips, Italian sandwiches, Malaysian chicken curry, grilled sausages, and perhaps the most tempting of all, melted raclette over potatoes. Of course there was even more, but all now reasons to go back to London.
(Italian Sandwiches – Borough Market, London)
(Malaysian Chicken Curry – Borough Market, London)
(Grilled Sausages – Borough Market, London)
-VIDEO COMING SOON-
(Melted raclette over potatoes – Borough Market, London)
We walked passed London Bridge along the River Thames, enjoying London’s contrasting mix of old and new architecture. The modern glass curves of City Hall, Walkie Talkie, and the Gherkin set against Tower Bridge, London tower, and the countless other relics that line the streets. In person, these sites immediately transcend the campy and relentless tourist trap marketing. This amusement park shaped the world and we both agreed we must come back for the rides when we have more time to savour them.
(Panorama near City Hall, London)
(Tower Bridge and London Tower, London)
We wandered for several hours admiring buildings, and resisting the overwhelming urge to shop the summer sales. Almost every corner housed a pub with thirsty patrons spilling out into the streets. It was pleasant. People were social, not drunk and obnoxious. Mature. We thought of having a drink at Sky Garden high atop the Walkie Talkie tower, but the lineup stretching around the building convinced us the city was pretty enough from street level. The dizzying view up the curved corner of the building was entertaining enough.
(Every corner in London)
(Walkie Talkie Tower, London)
Near Liverpool Street Station we saw a military parade forming. The marching band started with a bang and the soldiers were led back and forth, parting the crowd as they moved in unison around the square before disappearing into the London Guildhall.
(Military Parade at the London Guildhall – VIDEO COMING SOON)
We walked slowly along the Thames, toward Westminster. Passed the London Eye stood several World War 2 memorials. One was inscribed with Churchill’s eloquent summation of the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Those words echo loudly under the skies in which the battle was fought.
(The Battle of Britain Memorial, London)
(The Battle of Britain Memorial, London)
Finally, we arrived at Westminster, where we would meet Rachel’s friend, Joanne. We waited in the shadow of Big Ben and The Palace of Westminster, the seat of British Parliament. Much more impressive in person than as seen on TV. I considered the lively debates that would surely rock that house in the coming days, following the historic Brexit vote. But then again, if the streets of London were any indication, perhaps not.
(Big Ben and The Palace of Westminster, London)
Joanne emerged from the metro station and after Rachel introduced us we agreed to explore the area together before getting a bite to eat. We walked and talked, passing the parliament buildings and over to Westminster Abbey, the traditional place of coronation and burial for British monarchs. Rachel and Joanne knew each other from school in Malaysia and had been a fierce badminton pair. Joanne moved to London for work about a year prior, and was keen to be a tourist with us.
(Meeting Rachel’s friend, Joanne)
(Westminster Abbey, London)
We strolled along to Buckingham Palace, residence of the Queen. The regal mansion stood quietly behind black iron and gold plated gates. The Queen’s Guard stood at attention in their silly hats while hoards of tourists took aim with their cameras. At the base of the golden Victoria Memorial statue, we turned to trip-advisor to find the best nearby fish and chips. Happy Halibut had promising reviews and was a couple blocks away en route back to the metro station. Perfect!
(Buckingham Palace, London)
(Victoria Memorial Statue, London)
It was very nice for Rachel and Joanne to catch up and I enjoyed the stories from their high school and badminton days. We talked about life in London, our wedding, careers, and, of course, Brexit. To my surprise, Commonwealth migrants were eligible to vote in the referendum as long as they were residents of the U.K (example work visa, student visa, etc.). Very interesting, but I can’t say I agree with this.
The fish and chips were a bit disappointing (needed more salt), but the company was great! Joanne was even kind enough to treat us to dinner. We headed back to the metro station and boarded the tube, all heading in the same direction. We said our goodbyes to Joanne and carried on. It had been a pleasure to meet her and Rachel was happy to have caught up.
(Fish and Chips – Happy Halibut, London)
After some train delays we had to make an unexpected transfer at Canary Wharf. The courtyard amid the financial centre was lined with pubs and packed with cheerful people discussing eurocup, work and the goings on of their day. A curious contradiction to the banner updates rolling around the square.
(Banner update at Canary Wharf, London)
At last we made it back to Forest Hill and fell fast asleep, exhausted after a long day of exploration.