It’s astonishing to believe, but here it is: apparently it is possible, if you are a Northerner, to get to the twilight of your second decade without ever having gone on the London Underground. It is apparently possible to never have ventured south to our great capital city and travelled under it, trapped in a sweaty human game of sardines, admiring the weird and wonderful names of the stops, and people-watching your fellow passengers.
I know this terrible truth only because Callum, the 19-year-old Northerner and part-time Ted Bundy lookalike who had the temerity to beat me on Countdown, had managed this in his lifetime. Shocked and appalled by his ignorance, I made it my mission to educate him on all the major glories of London within 12 hours on October 25th, armed with only a Tube map, a one-day travelcard, and some sturdy shoes.
1. Wembley Stadium
We start our journey from King’s Cross. Bundy looks nervous; the confusing labyrinth of tunnels that makes up King’s Cross St Pancras underground station does nothing to alleviate his fear, nor does the long queue for the ticket machines. Ticket bought and maze navigated, we’re on the Metropolitan line to Wembley Central. He seems to think the Metropolitan line map in the carriage is the full tube map of London; on seeing a map of the full tube network, he’s well on his way to a nervous breakdown. But it’s assuaged upon leaving the station, on standing at the top of the steps down to Wembley Way and seeing the iconic national stadium laid bare in front of us. There’s some kind of NFL game happening over the weekend, and preparations are in full swing, but aside from people setting up merchandise stalls we’re more or less the only people here. We walk around the outside for a while, passing the Bobby Moore statue, and I point out Canary Wharf and The Shard from afar, although we can’t work out if we can see the Gherkin or not.
2. Primrose Hill
Primrose Hill is not only my favourite place in London, but anywhere. Standing at the top of a hill in the middle of a park close to London Zoo with an amazing view of the London skyline, you get the feeling of being both in the city and out of it for free. It’s around 5 minutes’ walk from Chalk Farm station, and 15-20 from Camden Town. I’m always nervous about showing people the view in case they’re unmoved by something that always takes my breath away, but happily my companion seems to be impressed by a clearer skyline than was visible from Wembley (although, as you will later discover, him being impressed does not mean something is particularly impressive).
3. Camden Town
When you’re 14 and a minor-league rock chick, Camden is the coolest place in the world. I still like it (partly due to its proximity to The Good Mixer and The Dublin Castle, pubs notably favoured by Britpop artists at the movement’s height), but there’s not so much to like today because it is absolutely RAMMED with people. Instead of giving a tour of the markets, I opt just to take him up the main road, pointing out all the tattoo/piercing parlours, tacky tourist pop-ups and markets while being shunted in every direction by pedestrians. Apparently this is “much more” what Bundy expected London to be like; next time I’m taking him to Shoreditch for even more ‘London-ness’.
4. St Paul’s/The City of London
We get a Subway on our way from Bank, as it’s more or less the only place open in the City at lunchtime on a Saturday, and sit on a bench facing the cathedral. Nearby are some fancyish recycling bins that feature a flip-down lid with a tray on the inside. Bundy is utterly enthralled by these bins. He actually cannot believe his eyes. We go on into St Paul’s (we linger by the paying entrance and have a quick look around to see what we can see without paying), but he’s more impressed by the bins. I think this says a lot about Northerners. (It is very endearing though.)
5. The South Bank
This is an exciting moment for me, as the Waterloo & City line is the only underground line I haven’t been on before. Mainly because it’s a two-station line between Bank and Waterloo that I’ve never needed to use. My young apprentice has no trouble understanding this simple two-station tube map, and is even able to help out a woman who wants to know if the train goes to Waterloo. I nearly shed a tear of pride.
On arriving at Waterloo, we weave through Jubilee Gardens, past the London Eye (he is amazed it’s moving, seeing as it’s going so slowly), and up to the pavement overlooking the Thames. Apparently there’s much more greenery in the city than he expected. I warn him about the crazed gypsy women who sometimes inhabit the Hungerford Bridge, giving you flowers and cursing you if you don’t pay them, but luckily there are none to be seen as we cross the river.
6. Trafalgar Square
We’re into Strand territory, and lo and behold, Trafalgar Square… is off limits. Eh? Turns out it’s hosting an NFL rally for the Wembley game, except it looks like the world’s worst rally, because there are about 10 people milling around clutching pints. Through gaps in the fences I point out the most important plinth, the one that hosts a giant blue cock upon it. Nelson’s Column just doesn’t compare.
We head up Whitehall towards the building that hosts the sleaziest crooks in the country. No, not Wandsworth; I’m of course talking about the Houses of Parliament. I’ve been inside them before, and may or may not have ended up drinking taxpayer subsidised pints and climbing on the roof. There’ll be none of that today though; after passing the entirely unremarkable gate to Downing Street whilst deliberating throwing eggs at it, we’re content just to gawp from afar while Asian tourists get snap-happy around us. Whilst doing so, I notice that Big Ben has some Latin writing on it, and squint my hardest to decipher it. It looks like it says ‘Victoria’, but also like there are the Roman numerals VI. “Could it be to do with Victoria the Sixth?” asks Bundy earnestly. Having been obsessed with the history of the British monarchy from about the age of 5, I laugh so hard I nearly puke, and proceed to give him a brief rundown of all of them. Literally every monarch since William I is mentioned. It’s to no avail, however, as he can only recall about 10 of them hereafter, so I add this to my list of ways in which he needs to be civilised.
8. Stamford Bridge
We’re both Chelsea fans. However, as it’s not a match day, there is little to do but inspect the wares of the gift shop. Ever wanted a lifesized cardboard cut-out of Jose Mourinho? What about a John Terry face mask? You can buy both of them in the Chelsea merchandise shop. Bundy points out a mug bearing the likeness of my current ultimate crush, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and in my excitement I swoon, “Ooh, I could drink out of him!!” with no regard for how completely wrong this sounds. It’s his turn to laugh so hard he nearly pukes.
9. Hyde Park
Dusk has settled and it turns out the lighting at Hyde Park is abysmal in the dark. Still, we find the Serpentine and actually the dim lights come good, because it’s a clear night and there are an absolute shit-tonne of stars visible. I’m secretly a space geek, so we discuss constellations and far-off galaxies by the water’s edge, in between musing about the nearby swans that lurk threateningly and discussing that stupid gameshow he once beat me at. #notbitter
10. Buckingham Palace
I had never actually been to Buck Palace, and it’s quite weird to see it in real life after seeing it so many times on TV. It’s quite underwhelming, to be honest. Neither of us are particularly keen on the monarchy in principle, so there’s no reverence here; instead I make ill-judged jokes about assassination, and Bundy plans how he is going to seduce her. (Our friendship group has an in-joke regarding his love of old ladies.) Fortunately for Her Maj and Philip respectively, we do neither of these things.
11. Leicester Square
This is more or less a wasted trip, as the celebrity handprints on the ground near the flagship Odeon seem to have gone, and we instead fend off leafleters promoting plays and films by pretending we have Ebola. (We don’t.)
12. Covent Garden
On our way to Covent Garden, we overhear the conversation of two guys behind us. One of them is a Tranmere fan ruing his terrible taste in football teams. I turn round and smile. “Look, even the lady in front pities me,” he mourns, “Even she knows how terrible we are.” The temptation is too great. “At least you’re in the league, I support a non-league team and no-one’s ever heard of us,” I say. “Which team?” he asks. “You won’t have heard of them,” I assure him, “But they’re called Tonbridge Angels. They’re in the Ryman Premier.” He looks gobsmacked. “I’M a Tonbridge fan,” he says. “No you’re not!” I say, assuming he is trolling. “No, I actually am. I went to St Greg’s. I’m from near Tonbridge. Leigh.” He actually is from Tonbridge, then. Amazed by this happy coincidence, we discuss the Angels until I nearly miss the turning for Covent Garden because I’m too busy gabbing away about Step 7 football. There’s very little to see at Cov Garden this late at night, so it’s another pretty much wasted venture.
13. The Strand
This is less a planned stop and more a trip of convenience; we are both starving hungry, but I’m also on the verge of actually collapsing because my feet hurt so much. My phone pedometer – which has only been on for around half the day – claims we have covered 14 miles of London by foot; in reality it’s at least 20. Eventually, in lieu of agreeing on anywhere to eat, we end up at Holborn tube station and get the Piccadilly line to King’s Cross St Pancras so we can collapse and eat there, in that order, given that by this point we were both crippled.
Of course, you can’t do the entirety of London within a day, but we covered pretty much all the main sights. As we bliss out on a bench at King’s Cross, in raptures now our feet are unburdened, I ask the million dollar question: “What did you think of London?” The million dollar answer? “It’s good!”
And it must be pretty good, because he’s returning for further education in January. Stay tuned for Part 2…