The World Will probably Survive 2012, But Will London?
The Mayans gave it a good shot: they started referring to it millennia ago. But even they can’t take the spotlight away from the one place on earth that can claim 2012 as its own: London.
It’s all happening this year: Will and Kate had their first wedding anniversary in April, Chelsea Football club won the Champion’s League in May (which might not seem as important as the other events, but anyone in Fulham that afternoon would tell you otherwise), the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in June. And of course, the main event: in July and August: the 2012 London Olympics.
I was there in 2005 when London won the Olympic bid, beating out Paris, Moscow, Madrid and New York. There were concerts in Hyde Park, parades in Trafalgar Square, and banners hanging from every lamppost. Like any other host city, London has spent the past seven years with a one-track mind headed straight to the Games. Millions have been spent in planning, building, advertising and recruiting. Formerly gritty east London boroughs such as Hackney and Stratford have been spruced up to host the events.
Posters and billboards have started popping up, asking people to help make the city more presentable: “Take your newspapers with you when you alight from the tube so they don’t end up underfoot”, or “Get out into your local community on weekends to help clean the parks and playgrounds”.
Ready or not, 2012 is here; unfortunately, London’s efforts might be in vain.
The locals, for one, aren’t impressed. Sure, they’re excited about the Olympics and getting tickets, but more importantly, they’re just trying to get to work. These are the same people who left the city in droves during the Jubilee because they love their Queen and all, but they’d rather not put up with the crowds during a bank holiday weekend. Every day for seven years, there have been newspaper articles expressing concern about the crowds, the cost, the threat of terrorism, whether the police can handle it, whether anyone will be able to get to work this summer, or anywhere else for that matter.
The Olympics are expected to draw 5 million tourists; add that to the 30 million who already visit the city each year, and that’s a lot of extra people trying to squeeze into a space fit to burst. However, crazy and frustrating though it might be, London will also be the centre of the world this summer, and you will be forever grateful if you’re among those who get to see it in all its glory. After all, London deserves every bit of praise that’s about to be heaped upon it, because there’s one aspect of these games that isn’t always remembered: On July 6, 2005, London won the Olympic bid and the atmosphere across every borough was jubilant. On July 7, 2005, four suicide bombs exploded on three tubes and one bus, killing 52 and wounding more than 700 people. Londoners, who just a day earlier had banded together in celebration, were now united in tragedy.
Somehow, as they were pulling themselves back together physically and spiritually, they also pulled together the Olympic Games. Over time, the Olympic banners that had hung from lampposts were replaced with a new campaign that paid homage to the feeling of unity in the city: “Seven Million Londoners: One London.”
If you’re lucky enough to visit this summer, here are a few suggestions to help you get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
1. Avoid the Tube whenever you can – Walk or Bike
One of the greatest things about London is that, unlike spread-out cities such as Paris, the most important sights are in the centre, making it easy, and enjoyable, to walk between them all. Unfortunately, the Olympic grounds are further away, so it’s unavoidable that the public transportation, which is already full with people commuting to work, is going to be packed.
The local government has come up with a few solutions to reduce congestion. One is a request to Londoners: ‘If you’re able to work from home at any point during the summer, please do so’. I haven’t met anyone yet who is able to oblige, though a few have come up with creative alternatives; one friend is hoping his boss will approve his plan to work out of the Portuguese office, and by office he means swim-up bar.
Another solution, which applies to us tourists as well, is the Barclays Bicycles. These shared bikes, which you’ve probably seen in other cities, made their way to London in 2010 just in time for this summer when you’ll want to spend as little time underground as possible. Many of my local friends are dismissive about the “Boris Bikes,” nicknamed after Mayor Boris Johnson, known to be an avid biker himself. But I wanted to explore Hackney, the newest hipster neighbourhood, and I figured this might be an interesting and cheap (one pound for the day) way to cover some ground.
Biking on the road was not an option, because no matter how many “Look Left” or “Look Right” clues are painted onto the pavement, I can never get used to cars driving on the “wrong” side. I found a bike path beside the river instead, and I was reminded, as so often happens in London, just how many surprises this city has in store.
2. Enjoy the Quiet Areas – there are many!
The bike path stretched along a secluded section of the Thames, past narrow canals with houseboats and willow trees that felt more like cottage country than the big city. It eventually brought me into Victoria Park, one of the city’s luxurious green spaces where, even this year, you can always find a quiet patch of sun or shade.
London is one of the world’s Top 10 Greenest Cities, with five Royal Parks, including Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James Park, right in central London but a world away from the chaos. On a sunny day – yes, London gets a few of those each year – you can rent rowboats and lawnchairs, toss a football around, or bring a picnic lunch and a couple of beers. There is no better place to take a breather and appreciate all that you’ve seen.
3. Venture into the Real London
I finally found a docking station for the bike (a tip: take note of where these are located before you start exploring or, like me, you’ll end up driving around for hours trying to find one!) then spent the rest of the day in the cool boutiques of East London.
Central London is where you’ll spend most of your time, but it’s where all of the other tourists will be as well. So once you’ve ticked a few sites off your list, venture a tube stop or two further – I chose to explore the east, but you can have the same experience in any direction – to a smaller borough, where the crowds dwindle and you can experience the most authentic parts of the city.
That’s where all of the real Londoners will be hiding out too.
4. Find Alternative Accommodation
Spoiler Alert: hotel and hostel prices have gone through the roof this year. If you know anyone who lives in London, take full advantage of them.
If you don’t, there is hope. AirBnB is an increasingly popular website where locals around the world can rent rooms in their house, or even entire apartments. It is a few steps up from couch-surfing, and a great way to see different aspects of a city.
I found my solution on a similar website, called VRBO: a private room for forty pounds per night – much cheaper than hotels and more comfortable than a hostel – with breakfast included. The clincher: it was located in Fulham, one of my favourite neighbourhoods.
My room was small, but it had all the space that I needed. Breakfast was tailor-made for me; the owner, Nadia, a forty-something year-old naturopath, had asked for my preferences in advance, including which type of bread I prefer, which type of yoghurt, cereal, juice, tea, coffee, cracker and cookie. One morning, we watched bad British reality shows together over tea. It was like staying with my favourite, slightly kooky aunt, and I felt right at home.
At the end of a busy day, you can’t ask for much more than that.
This summer, there will be nowhere more exciting to be than in a London pub, or on a London street, or even stuck in line in a London tube station, which is better than not being in London at all. When the celebrations that were cut short seven years ago finally re-commence, I suspect that even the most cynical Londoners will feel their hearts swell with pride for this city that – on certain occasions – they remember how much they love.
Seven Million Londoners, 35 million visitors, one magnificent London.
Written by Andrea McDonald for EuropeUpClose.com