diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 14, 2003

London for the first time

view east from the eye

I can't remember the first time I visited London. I grew up at the end of the Metropolitan line, so being taken into the capital was almost second nature from an early age. Certainly when I was four I took my mum on the Underground on a journey to Putney Bridge because I was more sure of the route than she was (thank goodness they hadn't invented blogs when I was four - I'd have been unsufferably precocious). Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral have always been real places to me, not just visions seen in a book or on TV. For many children (and adults) around the rest of the country, London is merely a figment of their imagination, perhaps a town of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold, or maybe a scary rat-infested hotbed of crime.

Yesterday my nephews and niece (combined age 20) came down to central London from Norfolk for the first time. They were taken on a ten hour whistlestop tour of the capital, trying to experience as much as possible without overdoing it. From Docklands to the Eye and from David Blaine to Buckingham Palace, they saw the lot. Couldn't have picked a better day for it either. First impressions?

Lots of people for the first time: There are seven million people in London, ten times as many as in Norfolk crammed into an area a quarter of the size. And there are people everywhere here, squashed next to you on the bus, walking in front of you in the park, crowding around you down Oxford Street or barging into the same tube carriage that you're trying to get out of. It's a far more cosmopolitan mix of people than you'd ever find in Norfolk either, both the tourists and the residents. I thought the children coped well in what to them was a very alien environment.

London Transport for the first time: At Liverpool Street station more buses passed by in five minutes than they'd normally see in a month. In Docklands the concept of a driverless train proved hard to explain. At Green Park the escalator was ten times longer than any you might find in a Norwich department store. At Oxford Circus the experience of a jam-packed rush hour tube was completely alien, especially on a Saturday. And the whole day was spent travelling around without once getting into a car, most unnatural.

Looking up/down for the first time: Norwich may boast the second tallest cathedral spire in the country, but otherwise Norfolk is a county notorious for being flat and horizontal. The tallest tower at Canary Wharf (237m) is more than twice as tall as the highest hill in Norfolk (104m), and it's surrounded by scores of other contour-beating towers. For my visitors, London was looking up. Later we journeyed to the top of the London Eye (135m). Looking down revealed a capital city that appeared to spread as far as the horizon in all directions. London is all people with specks of green, whereas Norfolk is all green with specks of people. And yes, they do all look like ants.

Landmarks for the first time: It was hard to explain to a four year-old that this is Trafalgar Square and it's famous, when all it looks like is a big space with lions, pigeons and a welcoming fountain. Similarly the seven year-old was more interested in pulling the label off a bottle of water as we sailed down the Thames than in watching 1000 years of history pass by. As for the nine year-old, the house where the Queen lives lost out big time in the popularity stakes to the big toyshop down Regent Street. But hopefully, once back in Norfolk (where sorry, there are no world-famous landmarks) it should one day register that "I've seen that Tower Bridge" or "I've heard that Big Ben strike twelve".

Reality TV for the first time: "And, on your right, David Blaine in a box." The highlight of our sightseeing trip down the Thames was the opportunity to see a man suspended from a crane, previously glimpsed only on satellite TV back home. The Tower of London slipped by unnoticed as everyone gawped at the scene on the opposite bank. Beneath the bearded hermit stood an ocean of onlookers, a biblical crowd gathered to watch their Messiah, although somehow more 'Life of Brian' than 'Jesus of Nazareth". Our captain sounded the boat's horn and we all waved. David waved back. "He must be so sick of this boat," remarked our tour guide. Just so long as we were contributing to the charlatan's mental torture, I was pleased.

London for the first time: So, now my nephews and niece have seen where their uncle lives and works, and they have a mental picture of what London looks and feels like. Possibly quite mind-expanding, and I suspect they'll be back again soon. But I expect that back in school on Monday morning their answer to the question 'What was the best thing you did at the weekend?' will still be "David Blaine waved at me".

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