Special Six: London Surprises

Walks around London’s numerous historic streets and avenues, visits to interesting museums and palaces, cruises on the Thames, picnics in the numerous, lovely parks are must-try experiences in London. Often though, it is the unplanned or unexpected experiences that become the most memorable. So here are some of my favourites of the pleasant, diverse surprises that London welcomed me with. Perhaps you might want to try out one or more of them?

  • Clipper Round The World Race:

My friend liked the restaurants at St. Katherine docks and suggested we go to the Turkish restaurant Kilikyas for lunch during the last weekend of August 2015. We noticed that there was a huge crowd, loud music and a carnival spirit outside the restaurant. Since it was the first time I was going there, I initially assumed that perhaps this was a vibrant spot in London which celebrated each weekend. It was when the drum beats started and announcements were made that I realized that some special event was going on. So once we finished lunch, we decided to go and have a look and realized that it was a race, the launch of the clipper round the world race. We managed to find a little spot where we were able to view the dock area from where the clippers left one by one.


It was so much fun cheering the boats as they left for the 8 leg, 14 race, 11 month journey of over 40,000 nautical miles around the world. Apparently, the race does not require team members to be experienced sailors. The selected teams undergo a four level training in the UK or Australia.


Our favourite was Team Britain’s beautiful clipper, with its 54 member crew, participating in different legs of the race and sponsored by the UK government’s ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign since 2013.

Team Britain

Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

We then walked over the tower bridge to see the parade of the sails as the twelve clippers waited for the Tower bridge to open. Qingdao sponsored by the Chinese city of Qingdao, which is the longest serving team sponsor and host port since 2005/06, led the parade.


The race of the Americas from Panama to USA, race 11, was completed last week and the teams arrived in New York with Team ClipperTelemed+  winning this race. The website has a page for viewing where the clippers are in the ongoing race as well as a table with the team positions for the overall race. Currently, Team LMAX Exchange is in the overall lead and Team Britain in the third.


Race 12 from New York to Londonderry will start on June 20th. The final race, race 14, is expected to finish at St. Katherine’s docks in London on July 30th when the teams sail in from Den Helder, The Netherlands. So, if you are in London that saturday, do visit St. Katherine docks, enjoy a meal at one of the numerous restaurants there and welcome the returning clippers.


Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

Don’t you find the clipper race exciting? If you want to participate, you can actually do so by sending in your application to join a team in the 2017/18 or 2018/19 clipper races.

  • London School of Economics (LSE) Public Talks

Universities do have a tradition of hosting public talks but while at LSE, I found that the LSE calendar for public lectures was packed each term. I found it amazing that so many interesting leaders and influencers from around the world were invited to give a talk almost each evening. The lectures are free and usually on a first come, first served basis, so generally there are long queues. For some talks, registration and collecting the free tickets prior to the day of talk is required.


So, why not check the public events page of a universit(y)ies specializing in your areas of interest and go for one of the lectures? I liked the LSE public events the best and I am somewhat biased here.

  • Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

Inspired by the New York jazz scene, Ronnie Scott and his friend Pete King, both tenor saxophonists, opened up the jazz club in 1959. The club moved to its present location on Frith street in 1965. Jazz legends Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery and many more have played here and contemporary ones continue to drop by. The jazz club was recommended to me as the best place in London for some great, live jazz music by one of the baristas, at my favourite coffee shop in London, who is a part-time jazz musician.


Photo credit: Kat Arney@ Kat Arney

I went there twice to try out both the jazz bar and club. The main club venue downstairs hosts ticketed jazz events and it is a special experience where you can enjoy some wonderful, live jazz music while dining on some delicious food. Upstairs @Ronnie’s is a bar where live jazz music is played every evening. While the doors to the bar opens at 6pm, and you can enter free till 7pm after which there is a small cover charge, live music only begins at 9pm. Upstairs bar is a place which you can go to regularly with friends or on your own.


Photo credit: Chelsea@ Chelseas40before40

  • Taiko Drumming

This activity will definitely not be something you think of when considering a London experience. However, given the multicultural essence of the city, it was fitting that I was able to try it out while in London. My friend and I had gone to Festival Asia at Tobacco dock in Docklands. While there, we tried out a mini taiko drumming workshop by Mark Alcock. Mark taught us to play a short, original composition as a group. Not only did I find it so much fun to try out the drums, I found it such a wonderful team-building/ de-stressing activity that I contacted Mark at Taiko Meantime, and organized a workshop for a group of friends at university to celebrate the end of exams. Taiko Meantime conducts regular classes as well as special workshops, at their premises or at a location of your choice, if you are in a large group. So, do contact them if you want a taste of Japan, in London, through some Taiko drumming.


Photo credit: Riddhi Shah

  • Pottery café

I came across the pottery café when I was searching for a special fun activity to enjoy with my friend and her daughter – something that both adults and children could participate in. The café offers group sessions, where you are given instructions, before you paint the pottery using child safe, water based, non-toxic paints. There is a studio fee of £5.99 per person, for the use of the materials, plus the cost of the hand-made pottery that you have selected to paint on. The cafe also serves hot and cold beverages, as well as some cakes and cookies, to enjoy while painting. I booked us a session at the Fulham cafe branch one weekend. Once you finish painting, you hand it in so that the painted pottery can be sent to their workshop to be finished in the kiln. You will receive a collection receipt and you can collect the finished pottery, normally a week later.


Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

  • Crown Court Church of Scotland:

This church has been active in London since King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. The church has been at its present site in Covent garden from 1719, though the present building was built in 1909. I came across an online article mentioning the Crown court church of Scotland in Covent Garden as the place to celebrate St. Andrew’s day in London. I looked up St. Andrew’s day and found that it was the day of the patron saint of Scotland, Greece and a few other countries. From the what’s on calendar on the church website, I also found the Rambling and Social Club entry mentioning a St. Andrew’s night party on November 29th and that all were welcome.

Since it was indicated that all were welcome to the party, a small group of friends and I decided to drop by the church that evening. What we came across was not quite what we had expected, something in the lines of a church service for St. Andrew’s day, and neither were we what the endearing group of elderly church members expected. Though surprised, they warmly welcomed us to join in for the tea and shared a little background about the church history as well as gave us a quick tour of the church chapel upstairs. We were also invited to join in for their future monthly club gatherings, especially for the Burns night celebrations. I was touched by their warm hospitality and wanted to make them something for one of their monthly gatherings as I noticed that each person had brought some homemade food to the tea party. So, I made a Sri Lankan semolina sweet dish and revisited the group for the club’s christmas party at the church in December. It was a lovely tea party with a trivia quiz at the end.

I found the experience delightful, not only because it was unexpected, but because it provided the space for meaningful interaction. I also received suggestions of places to visit in Scotland.

The church is definitely worth a visit, when you are in London, and as the Rambling and Social Club page mentions, all are welcome to attend the activities mentioned in their calendar.

Which of these surprises would you want to try out, during your next visit to London? What is one of your favourite travel surprises?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful WednesdayThe Weekly PostcardCity Tripping #36, and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

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A Hole In My Shoe

Special Six: London Cafés

I enjoy trying out cafés. I love it when I find a small independent café that does not only serve great coffee with baked treats, or great brunches, but also has wonderful ambience and customer service. When it comes to London, like many cities around the world, one is spoiled for choice. The below six are my favourites from the ones I tried out several times during my wanderings.

  • Ground Control Café:

I was walking along Amwell Street one lovely Spring morning, when I came across this little gem of a coffee shop. Conveniently located to where I lived then, Ground Control in Islington serves great Ethiopian coffee and delicious baked treats. Bustling with a constant flow of customers mostly from the neighbourhood coming in for coffee to go, the more I visited the place, the more I felt a sense of community around the coffee shop and the street. The café soon became my favourite coffee place in London. As exam time approached and I avoided the packed university library, I found it easier to do my reading here. The staff was friendly and welcoming of my spending a few hours there each morning, studying at my little corner at the window, taking short breaks for boosts of coffee and a cardamom brownie or almond croissant or a lunch of toasties and a little chat. When I had to move to another neighbourhood for the summer break, this was the place that I missed the most in Angel.


Photo credit: Bex@Double Skinny Macchiato

  • FreeState Coffee:

When I came across this coffee place on Southampton Row, I immediately liked the decor of the cafe and of course, the coffee. I was introduced to the V60 drip and piccolo here. As FreeState was conveniently located near Holborn, this was the place that I usually suggested for meeting with friends and acquaintances. I also came here to catch up on my reading sometimes.


Photo credit: Fatma Al-Baiti@Fatma vs Food

  • Counter Cafe

One of my friends, Fatma, enjoys exploring and reviewing restaurants and cafes. She found this cafe in Hackney Wick and organized a brunch meet up here one weekend. It took me nearly an hour, and a change of two buses, to travel to this place and when I saw what looked like a warehouse at the end of an empty street, I wondered why anyone would want to travel so far to have a sunday morning brunch here. I tried their food and felt that it was the best brunch I had in a long while. Despite the distance, their food alone pulled me back a couple of times before I left London. The canal side cafe and roastery, with views of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, shares building space with an art gallery and workshop.


Photo credit: Fatma Al-Baiti@Fatma vs Food

  • FoxCroft & Ginger

Cruffins were what drew me to this cafe in Soho. As I had never tried them before and an online article mentioned that their cruffins sold out each morning very quickly, I had to try them out. The cruffins were delicious but I also found that they had a delicious brunch and lunch menu, which included a delicious kimchi burger.


Photo credit: Jinghua Zhang

  • Bagariet

Bagariet in Covent garden is actually a bakery with a tiny seating area, where you can enjoy fika, with a cup of Swedish coffee and baked treat. Ever since I was introduced to kanelbullar in Stockholm back in 2000, I am quite fussy about cinnamon buns matching the Swedish taste. So, I was delighted to find this little bakery hidden away in Rose street.

Photo credit: Fatma Al-Baiti@Fatma vs Food
  • Dishoom

I had read great reviews about this place and so, one day, some friends and I decided to try the one in Covent Garden. The cafe, styled on the Irani cafes of Bombay,  is a visual treat with old photos from Bombay crowding the walls. They also serve tasty food and great spicy chai. It is an all-day cafe/ restaurant, with a few branches around the city, and which gets crowded in the evenings so best to make a reservation in advance.


Photo credit: Fatma Al-Baiti@Fatma vs Food

What are your favourite cafes in London? 

To view this article in the GPSmyCity app, please follow this link on your iPhone or iPad.

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #31 hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]


Special Six: London Theatres

To be able to return to university, after a decade of immersing yourself in an intense and hectic career, is like being given a cherished gift. I was given that opportunity to return for a year to university life in 2014 and best of all, to my university of choice in London, through the Chevening scholarship programme. So of course my travelling soul perked up. In addition to looking forward to the academic studies, I was looking forward to exploring London’s nooks and corners as well as travelling around the UK. I had actually mapped out lists of places I simply had to visit during my year there before I even left Sri Lanka. Arriving in London during the chilly fall season, to a room on the top floor of a building whose lift was undergoing repairs that term, resulted in old injuries from a road traffic accident acting up. Having to undergo osteopathy to deal with the pain, and experiencing limitations in my mobility, dampened my travel plans. So, I had to shift the expectations of my mind to let go of travel plans and simply enjoy the moment as it came wherever I was, when I could.

That is when I looked again at London, all the attractions that I had wanted to sample, and see which ones were still feasible for me. What I immediately focused upon was the theatre. Of all the cities I have lived in or travelled to, London for me is most synonymous with the theatre. You practically come across a theatre (s) on every street in the west end. As a huge fan of the theatre, I prioritized experiencing not just different theatre offerings but also different theatres.

So, here’s my list of six theatre favourites from the twelve I had the opportunity of experiencing and some tips on discounts, where applicable, as theatre experiences are quite expensive.

  • The National Theatre:

Photo credit: National Theatre/ Philip Vile

This lovely theatre on the South Bank, supported by the Arts Council England, is my favourite not only because it puts on great plays but also offers great discounted tickets. I enjoyed Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Dorfman theatre, an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman at Olivier theatre and the ultra-long George Bernard Shaw play Man and Superman, with Ralph Fiennes, at Lyttelton theatre. The theatre’s £15 travelex and £20 Friday rush tickets make the experience more affordable. For those interested in theatre productions, the Sherling High-Level Walkway in the Dorfman theatre offers visitors a glimpse into the production workshops and there are regular free exhibitions held in the Lyttelton lounge and Wolfson gallery at Olivier theatre. A further bonus is that all three theatres at the National are very accessible.

  • Theatre Royal Haymarket:

Photo credit: Theatre Royal Haymarket

I liked the origins of this lovely theatre with its modest beginnings and tumultuous history – a theatre started in 1720 by John Potter, a carpenter, without the royal patent required then for being able to run a theatre but which soon built its reputation as a professional theatre. Located close to Piccadilly, it is quite easy to reach. I watched the moving play by Hayhurst, Taken at Midnight, with Penelope Wilton and Pomerance’s The Elephant man with Bradley Cooper. The only hitch is that accessibility is only for the stall seats, which are very expensive. I had to climb up two flights of stairs to reach the more affordable upper circle seating area so it was good that I waited till my leg had recovered fully in spring to go to this theatre. While there weren’t discounted tickets on offer like the National Theatre, booking in advance might help with access to the cheaper priced tickets available.

  • Theatre Royal Drury Lane:

Photo credit: Theatre Royal Drury Lane

The historic theatre, the oldest theatre in England still in use since the 17th century, is worth visiting. While the popular, long, running musical at this theatre currently is Charlie and the chocolate factory, I went here for a concert of Celtic Woman. Here too, one needs to climb up the stairs to go to the relatively cheaper seating areas.

  • Lyceum Theatre:

Photo credit: Lyceum Theatre

With a history going back to 1772, the theatre became the first in England to incorporate a balcony projecting over the circle, when it re-opened in 1834. After a fire destroyed the theatre, the present building was re-opened in 1907. I went to see the Lion King musical, my favourite musical, with one of my best friends and her daughter back in 2010 during an earlier brief visit to the city. My friend’s kid loved it so much that she declared she was going to be Nala when she grew up. The musical, a definite must-see with kids, is currently in its 16th year and still going strong.

  • Royal Opera House:

Photo credit: Royal Opera House

The beautiful Royal Opera House is located in Covent Garden. The present theatre was built in 1858, after the first built in 1732 and the second built in 1808 was burnt down by fires. Experiencing this beautiful building and a ballet or opera performance inside is a must-do for the London visitor or resident. For those with UK student IDs, there is a special package called the ROH student, where highly discounted tickets for certain performances are provided. I understand these discounts are often sponsored by ROH patrons. One of the two ballet performances that I went to see was the Paul Hamlyn Christmas Treat, Alice in wonderland, for which the tickets were subsidized by the Helen Hamlyn trust fund. My stall seat ticket was at the token cost of £1. The place is easily accessible and does not have difficult stairs to navigate.

  • Arcola Theatre:

Photo credit: Arcola Theatre/ Miriam Mahony

I was searching for smaller theatres that staged small productions on contemporary issues and came across Arcola Theatre at Dalston, in the east of London. The theatre has small, cosy studios and there is very much a relaxed atmosphere there with audience members often interacting with each other. I went for three performances at Arcola and each was unique and focused on contemporary issues. From a musical about a cancer patient going through a transformative experience at her clinic (Happy Ending) to a triad of short plays on women and the Arab revolutions (The Singing Stones) to the ultra-controversial (Sex workers’ opera), the Arcola offerings are bold and thought-provoking and generally draws extreme reactions from the audience. The tickets are priced around £10 to £20, though there is a ‘pay what you can’ tuesday evenings and the Arcola Passport for £50 allowing you a choice of 5 performances.

Bonus tip for groups: It is also worth it to contact the theatre and see if there are special group discounts. I went to see Miss Saigon at Prince Edward Theatre at a discounted group package of £10 pounds per ticket. Not sure if the discounts are for student groups but definitely worth checking out, if in a large group.

To check which shows are available this week or the official ticket prices, click this link to London Theatres.

To view this article in the GPSmyCity app, please follow this link on your iPhone or iPad.

[I am linking up my London theatre wanderings Wanderful Wednesday and City Tripping #49]

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