My Peregrinations

Winging my way through life

Tag: london (Page 1 of 3)

College Hall, London

I’ve been back from London for a few weeks now, but haven’t found time or inclination to write about my trip. I very nearly didn’t go, as we had a scare with one of the girls on the evening of my flight. But we managed to sort things out, and I left on the encouragement of the husband and a good friend, both of whom said I should just take the time away to recharge.

The Malaysian Airlines flight to London was pretty uneventful. I made my KUL-LHR connection without delay and was glad that I had paid more for an upper deck seat on this leg, as there was more legroom, and the cabin was much quieter with fewer people seated in the section. I was seated next to a teenage girl who spent most of her time watching movies and sleeping, and she did not move from her seat at all for the duration of the flight. The only one doing any moving about was me, because I felt stiff and wanted to prevent oedema. I managed to watch a couple of movies, including Hidden Figures, which I’d wanted to catch when it was showing in Singapore. Caught some decent shut-eye, too.

The flight landed at around 6am, and I cleared immigration quite quickly as being on the upper deck means I got off the plane before the rest of the passengers in the lower deck. I had 2kg of Australian honey in my luggage, which I’d bought for my sister because it’s not easy to find in the UK, so I went through the “goods to declare” customs channel. There was no one there, but there was a red telephone in a corner with instructions to lift the handset and wait for someone to answer. A grouchy voice came on the line and told me that I did not need to declare the honey, and that I should just walk through the green channel. So I did.

After that, it was a simple matter of buying an Oyster Travelcard at the convenience store next to the entrance of the Tube station, and taking the Tube in to the city to get to my accommodation.

I don’t believe in spending too much on accommodation while travelling, so I always try to find the best bang for my buck without sacrificing too much in the area of privacy and hygiene (read: decent bathrooms). I know some people have hangups about staying in places without en suite bathrooms, but I feel that if I can use the toilets at my gym with no issues, I can stay in places with shared bathrooms – as long as reviews say they are clean.

I’d booked a single room with no en suite at College Hall, which is quite centrally located in the Bloomsbury area of London. The hall is served by three Tube stations – Goodge Street, Euston Square, and Russell Square on the Piccadilly Line. I took the train to Russell Square, because it meant not having to change trains from Heathrow. It did involve a slightly longer walk to get to the hall, which was a bit bumpy because of cobbled roads. Note to self: Next time, you’re travelling with a backpack.

It was too early for me to check in, so I left my luggage in the front desk’s store room and headed out. Here are some pictures of the room and bathroom, taken later.



The room was pretty basic, but it had a washbasin and a cupboard with a personal safe. Plenty of room for just one person. It had a radiator, but no air-conditioning. But it can get chilly at night in August, so opening the window just a crack made it just right temperature-wise.

College Hall: View from my window

This is the view from my window. I couldn’t take a better picture because the window cannot be opened fully – I think it’s to discourage people from jumping from it. Below the window, near the floor, is an safety anchor for rope rescues. They think of everything!


The bathroom was also basic, but spotless. So spotless, in fact, that if not for the fact that the toilet seat was occasionally left up, I might have been the only person on the floor using the bathroom. I later learned that most of the rooms in the hall have en suite bathrooms, which explains why the shared ones were not more heavily used.

College Hall breakfast

The hall’s dining room is located in the basement, and breakfast is served every morning from 8am to 9.30am. It’s a pretty good breakfast – eggs, ham, bacon, hash browns, beans, breads, cereals, yoghurt, fruits, and decent coffee too.

UCL Building

College Hall is located smack in the middle of a university campus, so it’s surrounded by faculty buildings. I liked this, because it made me feel like a student again. I’ve always wanted to go overseas to study, but have never had the opportunity, so I pretended I was a UCL student for the few days that I stayed in the hall.

I paid S$310 for four nights in a single room (shared bathroom) with breakfast and free WiFi, and thought it was a very good deal. The only thing that could be improved is the lumpy mattress, which was so thin that I could feel the springs. Other than that, College Hall is a pretty good choice if you’re budget conscious, and still want to stay in a central part of London.

London in five days: Alternative London Street Art Tour

If you want to go off the beaten track and see a different side of East London, sign up for the Alternative London Street Art Tour. It’s a 3-hour walking tour that explores the East End from the perspective of its colourful street art.  I took a tour led by artist Ben Slow, who has lived in the area for years and is very passionate about ensuring that the area’s heritage is not lost as a result of London’s warp-speed redevelopment.

The tour started near the Old Spitalfields Market, about five minutes from Liverpool Street Station. It was pouring when we started, which was a bit of a bummer, but then the skies cleared. Ben gave an introduction to the heritage of the area and how it came to be a hive for street artists as a result of the Banksy effect. He cautioned that because street art is ephemeral and few pieces stay for long, there was no telling what we would see but that it was unlikely that we’d come across a Banksy.

Within minutes of the start of the tour, we realised that we really had to keep our eyes peeled to spot some of the pieces that dot the area. At one point, Ben told us to look up and see if we could spot something. It took us a while to realise that he wanted us to see this piece by an artist in his fifties who goes by the name of Jonesy:

A bronze sculpture by an elusive artist named Jonesy, perched atop an utility pole.

A bronze sculpture perched atop an utility pole.

The wings on this piece by Jonesy were moulded from the wings of a dead pigeon.

Another piece by Jonesy. The wings were moulded from the wings of a dead pigeon.

There were also large pieces painted on the sides of buildings. Ben told us that artists in London don’t have many opportunities to do big murals in the city, so they travel to other countries such as Argentina to work on much bigger canvases. Four stories or so is about the tallest they get to work on in London.

The stork by Roa

The stork by Roa.

Street art has been predominantly the domain of male artists, simply because it’s illegal and also physically risky. However, more female artists are coming on to the scene and making their mark, such as the one below. It’s covered in glitter and sparkles at night!

A rare piece by a female artist

A rare piece by a female artist

Famous artists do come to the area to work as well, among them French artist Clet Abraham, who’s renowned for his quirky hacks of street signs, such as the one below, which has turned a no entry sign into a dining table:

Street sign by Clet Abraham

Street sign by Clet Abraham

The artists find all sorts of ways to get around the laws against graffiti. They hide in plain sight by donning reflective jackets to look like workmen, which somehow makes them invisible to passersby. They also create pieces that aren’t technically vandalising surfaces, such as the installation below, which is quite similar to what you’d find in play areas in IKEA. It’s actually pretty amazing that they can get away with what they do considering the number of cameras trained on the streets to deter crime.

My tour mates turning the pieces to create differently dressed people.

My tour mates turning the pieces to create differently dressed people. Our guide Ben is second from the right in this picture.

Of course, street art isn’t the only thing that’s fascinating about the East End. There were quite a few shops and eateries that I would have loved to have been able to check out, such as the row of curry shops along Brick Lane, the Cereal Killer Cafe, and vintage shops such as Rokit 101. Unfortunately, the Alternative London Street Art Tour is pretty intensive and there’s no time to wander freely, so it’s best to come early to explore the shops before the tour starts, so you can maximise your time there. I’ll definitely be back on my next trip to London.

The Alternative London Street Art Tour runs on a pay-what-you-like fee model, so you pay as much as you think the tour is worth. I think at least £15 is fair for the amount of heart put into making the tour a memorable and educational experience.

I couldn’t end this post without sharing a piece by Ben himself, which is a tribute to a man called Charlie Burns, who was a fixture in the neighbourhood until his death a few years ago. This is a portrait of Burns done on the facade of a shop owned by the family, who commissioned the piece.

Portrait of Charlie Burns, by Ben Slow

Portrait of Charlie Burns, by Ben Slow

Bookings for the Alternative London Street Art Tour fill up pretty quickly, especially in the summer. Dates open up three weeks in advance, so it’s best to keep an eye out for your preferred dates on the website.

London in five days: Visiting Highgate Cemetery (East)

Visiting Highgate Cemetery was literally and figuratively the high point of my trip to London. Going to a cemetery isn’t high on many people’s list of things to do when they’re on holiday (especially if you’re Asian and superstitious), but I like cemeteries and Highgate promised to be quite a memorable experience.

Set into a steep hillside with commanding views of the London back in the day, Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as a response to London’s rapid population growth, which brought with it numerous problems, including cholera. Highgate was one of seven cemeteries commissioned during that time to try to solve the problem of overwhelming demand for burial plots. Because of its location and landscaping, it was marketed as a premium good, so only posh people with money to spare could be buried there. However, the cemetery was largely forgotten and went into decline until it was rescued in the 1970s by a group of people who formed the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust.

Since then, the trust has put in a lot of effort to restore some of the more prominent graves in the cemetery while maintaining the site’s status as a nature reserve. This, of course, costs a lot to do, so visiting Highgate Cemetery involves a fee of £4 for adults to visit the East Cemetery, where Karl Marx and Douglas Adams are buried. To tour the West Cemetery, the fee is £12 and includes admission to the East Cemetery. The tour can’t be booked on weekends, so I highly recommend visiting on a weekday – it’s less crowded anyway. You can book the tour online here.

I turned up bright and early at 11am to tour the East Cemetery. To get there, I took the Tube to Archway, then caught a bus two stops to Waterlow Park. It was a pleasant stroll through the park to the entrance of the cemetery.

There were few other visitors when I arrived, so the pathways were peaceful and all one could hear was birds chirping in the trees.

There were few other visitors when I arrived, so the pathways were peaceful and all one could hear were birds chirping in the trees.

There are over 50,000 graves all told in Highgate Cemetery, and a good number of them are in the East Cemetery. Here are some of the more notable ones:

Douglas Adams' grave

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I had trouble finding the grave because it was so nondescript – tucked into the side of a small knoll amid much more imposing gravestones. But Adams’ fans obviously have no trouble finding his headstone.

Malcolm Mclaren's grave

Malcolm Mclaren – the man who claimed to have invented punk. Interesting choice of quote.

Harry Thornton was a concert pianist who died of influenza in 1918. He is thought to have entertained troops during World War One.

Harry Thornton was a concert pianist who died of influenza in 1918. He is thought to have entertained troops during World War One.

Anna Mahler was the daughter of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. She was a successful stone and bronze sculptor.

Anna Mahler was the daughter of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. She was a successful stone and bronze sculptor and led a rather dramatic life, which included five marriages.

I took so many pictures at the East Cemetery, I could go on posting endlessly, but I will stop with this last one. This is the one grave that you cannot miss. Karl Marx’s grave is huge and imposing, and stands along one of the main paths near other graves of like-minded thinkers such as Hekmat Mansoor, who was an Iranian Marxist theorist and founder of the worker-communist movement. Marx’s original grave was somewhere deep in the bowels of the cemetery, but it was moved out to the main road, as it were, because so many people wanted to see it.

Larger than life and twice as natural.

Larger than life and twice as natural.

I spent nearly three hours just walking the winding paths and stopping to read inscriptions on gravestones. Before I knew it, it was time to visit the West Cemetery, which I shall write about in a future post. If you’ve got time to spare, visiting Highgate Cemetery should definitely be on your to-do list. It’s off the beaten path for most, but it’s well worth a visit.

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