England is not the easiest place to travel around for a backpacker, and especially not for a backpacker from Australia.
For one, as soon as I go there the value of my money more or less halves. It feels like I have a hole in my pocket and everytime I check my bank account I have a fleeting moment of panic in which I think I’ve been the victim of credit card fraud, followed by the realisation that no, actually, if I convert all those pounds back into dollars, I’ve just spent it all.
And then you add to that the fact that hostels in the UK are, to put it nicely, just generally kind of awful. Kate told me that she heard that they put homeless people and, if I remember correctly (I might not be remembering correctly – don’t quote me on this), newly released criminals into hostels in the UK. From the strange smells and strange men I was exposed to in some of my hostel rooms there, I would not at all be surprised.
And yet, the UK is home to some of my favourite people, an English speaking Thai embassy, and they have a seriously banging drum and bass scene – so despite its shortcomings I decided, for the 5th time in my life, to return there once again: first stop London.
I’m not going to lie, I’m not a huge fan of London. Or at least, I’m not a huge fan of backpacking around London. It’s just so big and spread out, and public transport is really expensive, and there aren’t enough public toilets around. London, I really think, is the kind of place you should either visit along with friends, or to stay with friends, and where you bicycle around and you definitely do not stay at a hostel.
I don’t have great luck with hostels in London. I’ve stayed at a few different ones, and every time I found it hard to make friends because most of the people in them were non-English speakers, and out of that, a lot were looking to live there and were using the hostel as temporary accommodation. Maybe I just pick bad ones though, and other people have better luck.
This time, I stayed in Palmer’s Lodge, Swiss Cottage, which had great reviews on Hostelworld. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good in real life.
My dorm room absolutely stank. Always. I don’t know why it did, but there was an industrial sized spray can of air freshener by the door, and everytime someone came in, they would spray it for around 20 seconds until you had the smell of artifical jasmine pervading the air so thickly that you could barely breathe. Half the inhabitants were old men who slept with various pieces of headgear and made strange noises all through the night, which really added to the atmosphere.
The ‘kitchen’ was about 2m long and 1m wide, with just a sink, a fridge and 2 microwaves. Cups, plates and cutlery could occassionally be found there, but only at certain times of the day. It also smelt like something had died in it.
And the bathrooms….oh man. The girls bathrooms were being renovated on my floor, so we had to share the guys’ ones, and they were a bit of a nightmare. They were what I imagined prison bathrooms would be like, until I thought about it and realised prison bathrooms were probably cleaner.
Anyway, apart from the fact that my hostel was awful, and that the weather when I was in London consisted of a lot of rain, I suppose I didn’t have too bad a time of it.
My Mom, darling that she is, had paid for me to get a massage in Clapham. Getting to Clapham from my hostel was an adventure in and of itself. I was running to catch the tube and accidentally hit the side of the escalators with my oyster card and snapped it cleanly through the middle, which meant it no longer worked. The guard at the station I was getting off at wanted to check the card to see whether I’d paid to get on the tube, so wouldn’t even just let me leave. Then after standing in line at the ticket office to confirm that I’d paid, I had to go back to the end of the line to get my card replaced. Then I had to catch a bus, which supposedly came every 10 minutes, but while I was there, came after 25 (this is just my luck – all the other routes listed on the timetable came on time). I called up the massage place to say I might be late and they told me that if I wasn’t on time, I’d just have to forfeit it because they had a strict policy that they didn’t do last minute changes or cancellations.
The one saving grace of this whole trip was that when I did finally get on the bus, I had a lovely conversation with the guy sitting next to me, who was on his way home after he’d been volunteering at a school as part of a program where they give primary aged kids money to start a small business. His kids had made Christmas decorations, and he had a box of those with him, which he’d bought to give his friends as presents. We chatted a lot about our own school experiences and Christmas traditions. It was sweet. And people say that Londoners aren’t friendly!
I ultimately managed to get to the massage parlour just 5 minutes late, and they were actually really nice about it. The massage was not quite what I expected – I mean, the full body massage part was what I expected, and it was an aloe vera massage so I wasn’t surprised that they slathered me head to toe in aloe vera either. But at the end of it, they just wrapped me up in cling film, and left me to lie there, all done up like a plastic mummy. I guess that’s what an aloe vera wrap is, but I’ve never had that done to me before. It’s not the most comfortable sensation. Luckily, I fell asleep as soon as they lay me down and only woke up when the woman came to unwrap me and wipe off the excess aloe vera. First (and last) time for everything.
I mentioned earlier that the other reason I keep coming back to London is drum and bass. I have very wide musical tastes, but drum and bass is hands down my favourite genre to dance to – in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that nothing makes me as happy as dancing at a really good drum and bass gig. I just feel absolutely content and satisfied and like all is perfect with the world. A friend of mine from back home, Sean, had suggested we get tickets to Fabric’s Xmas Special, which was this amazing night of drum and bass featuring Chase and Status, Wilkinson, Loadstar, Hamilton and all these other brilliant artists.
It was the best idea. The music was so good, and atmosphere was fantastic and I was having the time of my life. Sean seemed to be on a bit of a different level to me, so I went off to find someone else who I could vibe off. Going dancing in London is not quite as easy as it is in Germany, where you can totally go out completely on your own and have a great time – they’re a little more reserved in London. But I spent ages with these two couples, who were just insanely fun to dance with, and then ran into this guy named Sam who also had some pretty excellent dance moves and was funny and just generally good company.
The thing I love about dancing to drum and bass is that it’s just so energetic and joyful, and when you find other people you all try to like, dance at each other, and try to pull out some more complicated footwork, and it’s honestly the most fun thing to do in the world. I also happen to be pretty good at it – which I know is boasting, but dancing to drum and bass is the only single thing in the world that I’m totally sure that I’m amazing at, so I figure I’m allowed to. There is no way that I can adequately put into words what the whole experience is like, but I hope that someone reading this feels the same way and understands.
Apart from that night, I did also have another pretty cool night with Adam and some of his friends. Adam is originally from Essex, but studies at UCL and lives in Brixton, and I knew him from the last time I’d been in London. We’d had so many really cool adventures together and Adam is also one of those people who I think is just a beautiful and rather poetic creature. We spent hours one evening just chatting, then went off to the Bussey Building, where we had a lovely time dancing and drinking red wine, before we somehow found ourselves at a house party that his housemate, Ben, had heard about – none of us knew whose house or party it was, but I don’t think most of the people there did either.
Adam was super sweet about letting me crash at his place, which I did until midday, even though he was leaving the country soon and needed to pack and run heaps of errands. I had a lovely shower at his before leaving, which spared me having to use the hostel’s, and he made me an amazing breakfast too. It was a good morning/afternoon; I wandered around Brixton afterwards, and it was very colourful and vibrant on a Sunday, with all these markets and Jamaican food.
I also spent a considerable amount of time at the British Library. I love libraries, especially big, old ones, and whenever I’m somewhere that I don’t find particularly tasteful, my default fallback is to go to the nearest library and hang out there. Sean came and hung out with me there one afternoon, and we sheltered there from the rain, drinking tea and talking about our future plans.
While it has lovely libraries though, London does not have an abundance of public toilets. I was meeting Chris for lunch one day – Chris being the friend I made in Jamaica who works at CEB London (I’d worked at CEB Sydney) and I needed to empty my bladder beforehand. You’d think this would be easy in a place like London, but no. There was a shopping center close by and I walked all around it looking for bathrooms until I realised, after asking some of the cleaning staff, that they just didn’t have public toilets! I bought a drink from Starbucks to use theirs, and it was flooded. Gross. I learned my lesson though and when I went into Carluccios next I asked to check their bathroom before I bought a drink. Clean. I’ll never complain about shopping center toilets again – they may not always be the nicest, but at least they exist.
The other reason I’d had to go to London was because there was an English speaking Thai embassy there, and I needed to apply for a tourist visa. Whenever I have to apply for visas or do anything at a foreign consulate in Australia, it’s always really easy. The website has clear instructions, I can email or call them and they’ll reply promptly, and I go in and get taken care of ASAP. Not so in the UK. They always seem to like to make you queue up and wait, sometimes in the cold and rain, and you have to take a ticket and they’ll be really particular about you being in the right line with the right things, even though the instructions are really ambiguous. Having visited foreign embassies on previous trips to the UK, I came prepared this time, went there early before the office opened, lined up, and got my application in about an hour after I arrived.
I was really fortunate to have company picking it up the next day. I’d met Ellie the last time I’d visited the UK too, at a music festival – Boomtown – where she was a friend of the friend who I was there with. Ellie’s this really kickass woman, she’s incredibly smart and independant and bold and I’d really liked her when I met her but I wasn’t sure she’d remember me – so I was super chuffed when she messaged me and asked if I wanted to meet up. We had tea and portuguese tarts at a cafe near Holborn before she accompanied me to the Thai Embassy, and we talked about travel and the objectification of women and shared stories about our lives. It was great – I always feel inspired to be better and braver when I meet other women who are being amazing, and Ellie is very brave and brilliant and amazing.
So that was London for me. It’s one of my favourite places when I’m around people I like and on nights out, but it’s also a place that makes me feel really lonely and depressed when I’m alone. I think I’ll only ever go back if I someone I really like is willing to travel there with me.