London is a world in a city with its own rules and customs, many of them unwritten. This Londoner’s guide will help you avoid some potential clangers.
For something whose sole aim is to get people from A to B, the tube is fraught with potential faux pas. One main rule is that you should always stand on the right on escalators. If you dare to break this, you’ll be met with a lot of muttering and eye-rolls, although no one will dare to berate you personally. You must also never, ever make eye contact with a stranger on the tube, or, worse, smile at them. This invades the Londoner’s sense of private space, even if you’re standing in a different carriage.
Pigeons come sprinkled with a touch of glamour when they’re gathered en masse in St Mark’s Square in Venice; not so much when they’re in Trafalgar Square on a drizzly Tuesday. Do not feed them, do not encourage them to come near you, and do not interact with them at all. They’re known as flying rats for a reason.
London may not quite be New York – although we’re certainly trying to keep up the skyscraper count – but it still loves its bagels. A fierce rivalry exists between the city’s two classic purveyors on Brick Lane; in-the-know purists head to Beigel Bake at number 159 for its hot salt beef with mustard, while its neighbour at number 155, Beigel Shop, does a mean smoked salmon with cream cheese. Beigel Shop has been here since 1855, while upstart Beigel Bake only started in 1974, but both are open 24 hours – and, boy, the service only gets better from two in the morning.
To outsiders, it’s still seen as a shopping nirvana: over a mile of high-street stores and the odd independent boutique. Londoners, however, know there are better options nearby for the shopper uninterested in souvenir stores (although hats off to Selfridges, a true gem). Try Spitalfields for an East End market buzz, or Dover Street in the West End for high fashion and price tags to match.
The Tower of London
Not many Londoners have actually ever been inside this, but they do know that it’s brimming over with history, stuffed with ravens, and there are some rather nice crown jewels inside. Oh, and that there are a couple of princes still stuck in the actual tower, although we’re not exactly sure what they’re doing there.
Crossing the river
Once you are friends with a Londoner, your allegiance is not only to him or her, but to the area north or south of the river where they live. If you are loyal to someone from the north, you must never go south, and vice versa. Crossing the river is something Londoners only do in an emergency (or for work, if their job happens to be on the opposite side of the Thames from where they live), and weekends must be spent not only in one’s designated compass point, but also bad-mouthing the other.
A Londoner will raise his or her head from theirs only if he or she is literally about to be run over by a bus. Otherwise, forget it. Walking down a London street is a bit like playing a game of Frogger, only you’re on a pavement, and the “cars” are phone-obsessed pedestrians. Don’t expect anyone to come and help if you’re looking lost, or start chatting if you’re in a pub; everyone will be on their phone, browsing Tinder, booking an Uber, or playing whatever the modern version of Frogger is.
One of London’s finest traditions is the illustrious black cab, immediately recognisable by their yellow illuminated signs, shuddering, noisy diesel engines, and adorably knowledgeable drivers, who love nothing better than to get into a debate about their favourite football team, and the performances of its starting eleven over the weekend – you can bank on the fact that each one would have played better if the driver himself was their manager, of course. It’s up to you whether you get involved in the conversation, although this may also depend on how many pints you have sampled at that other Great British institution, the pub.
London pubs tend to be full of history; this also sometimes means they are full of threadbare carpet, peeling wallpaper, and musty cellars. Don’t let that stop you buying a pint of possibly overpriced lager, however, because that atmosphere does not just contain damp; it also contains the breath of a thousand London icons – actors Peter O’Toole and Diana Dors, painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, gangsters such as the Kray Twins, and musicians from Dizzee Rascal to David Bowie.
Sometimes it’s nice to leave
As cosmopolitan and fascinating as London is, sometimes it’s nice to explore beyond it. London Northwestern Railway is your gateway to thriving centres such as Birmingham and Liverpool, with the advantage of free wifi throughout the whole train, as well as free online entertainment, so you can pass the time by watching the latest blockbuster or box set.