After a twelve-hour flight from Singapore, I got my first glimpse of London from the oval window of the plane. I liked what I saw. The beautiful coastline, rectangular pastures, ships entering the open mouth of a river, rows of houses, lines of trees, snaking roads almost clogged with traffic.
Yay! I was in London.
Our plane was on time, but it had to wait for fifteen minutes in the sky queue for its turn to land at Heathrow.
Once inside the terminal, my husband and I raced the older people (the younger one didn’t care) to get to the immigration line. We were duly rewarded by securing one of the earlier spots behind a mile-long line for an immigration check.
We snaked through the barricades nine times to get to eGates. Heathrow was making history that day. eGates opening today on the very same day as self-service immigration checkouts. We were out in twenty minutes. Impressive.
We collected our luggage and raced again to catch the Heathrow Express to Paddington station. The train was already at the platform when we got there. Equipped with WiFi, live TV, and very civilized passengers, it deposited us at Paddington station in fifteen minutes. Impressive again.
Paddington station was almost as majestic as I had seen in photographs. The arched glass ceiling covered several platforms giving it a look of a giant hanger. It must be a great engineering feat when it was built.
Railway staff was efficiently exiting the passengers from the shortest possible route. For us, they choose the longest possible one — via lifts.
Dragging our suitcases, we reached the lifts, where my highly held impression of English politeness came crashing down when a massive (English) man with a massive duffle bag and equally massive backpack pushed his way through in an already full lift, cutting a lady before him and squashing all those inside.
Once out of the lift and the Paddington station we queued for taxis. What looked like 1950s models, shiny black cars with no boot were picking the passengers at a snail’s pace. It took half an hour for our turn.
We found the reason for the slow service pretty soon. Our taxi driver informed us that the famous London Tube wasn’t working. “You see all these people on the pavement; they are walking to their work.”
After a while, I stopped watching people and started watching the old buildings. They were a visual feast.
The taxi driver needed to talk. After the first usual exchange about the weather, flight, and ‘where are you from,’ we got on to the economy. He told us that he was looking to work in Australia as a truck driver in the mining industry at one stage.
“If you could spell ‘mine’ and had a license, they would have taken you straight in.”
“Yeah, now you need a special license to drive a truck,” he said, “which is not a big deal, I would have got it, but I didn’t pursue.”
“It is very hard now. All big companies BHP, Rio Tinto, etc., are using ‘driverless’ trucks,” my husband said.
“Bloody robots! They keep bringing those. I ask them what people will do? How will they feed their families? I tell you, in fifteen years there will be so many unemployed people. Those big companies are there to make money,” he ranted.
“All these ‘driverless’ things I tell you, you won’t get me in any of those things. What will happen if the computer goes berserk.” he continued.
“It does. Not so long ago, BHP had to derail one of the trains which had gone rogue. It cost them millions of dollars to repair the damage,” said my husband.
Our driver was born and bred in London but was not living there anymore. “London is too expensive. I live in Thailand now, near Bangkok. I work here for eight to nine weeks and then go home for a few months. I have a young son; he is going to be six in August. It is getting harder and harder, leaving him back. I thought it would get easier, but it is not. But what can you do? You got to feed your family.”
My heart went for him — a Londoner who can’t afford to live in his own city.
The three Rs of London
I was dying to see the three Rs of London — the red phone booth, the red letterbox, and the red double-decker bus.
I didn’t have to wait long.
I spotted them in the first ten minutes of walking the streets. There were many in each street. Buses were fine but I couldn’t understand why phone booths and letterboxes were still there. Everyone has a mobile phone and nobody writes letters anymore.
But the buses were amazing. There was one passing every two seconds. Sometimes a whole row of them. London’s transport system is very efficient, better than many metropolitan cities (except when Tube breaks down).
I fell in love with massive trees lining the streets of Islington. There was one was right outside the window of my daughter’s unit where we were staying.
“They are everywhere in London,” told our taxi driver, “They cause Hay Fever. Everybody is allergic to them.”
In about twenty minutes walk from Islington, we came across two multicultural food markets that were open every day. The Leather Lane food market was more crowded and had mile-long queues in front of the popular stalls.
It seems Londoners love queues.
They will wait as if they have all the time in the world.
We thought maybe it was because one particular food stall was better was than the other, but when we bought chicken wrap from one with no queue, it was equally good.
Berries were in season.
Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries all were one pound a punnet.
I bought each kind, and they were all delicious.
So were the tomatoes. I have never seen such red and delicious tomatoes anywhere.
All in all, great first impression.
Next article, Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.