I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining.
I have needed a break in my routine. This winter in Pennsylvania, until recently, has been all about bare trees, and overcast skies. Up to mid-January, there had been no skiable snow; one can only hike the same brown landscapes so many times before becoming bored, if not a bit depressed.
My usual remedy for this is my annual January sojourn to the Adirondacks. Here the inevitable snow and the coniferous forests, greatly improve my outlook. I am all about familiar places. The village of Lake Placid is a second home to me. A week spent there exploring new trails, with old friends, is very relaxing.
Every so often however, you need to leave your comfort zone. So over Christmas, when my younger brother Matt announced that he was leaving on one of his regular trips to London on my week off, I came to the realization that the Adirondacks would have to wait.
My brother Matt is an IT professional, who years ago visited London, and was immediately smitten. He has subsequently visited as often as possible. I’d like to think it was the remarkable history and culture of this very old and lovely city that have beguiled him. I’d like to think that. But it’s as likely his friends, the pubs, … and the English beers.
In recent years Matt has created a website called appropriately enough: The London Travel Planner. For a very modest fee (which you will likely save in wasted travel funds), he offers very specific guidance particularly for Americans naïve to the city, on travelling into and around London; where to stay, where to eat (and of course drink), and on the scenic walks that work best. The site and his services are getting rather popular.
So it was on a cold misty Sunday morning in mid January, that I emerged at 07:30 GMT somewhat bleary-eyed, from Paddington Station onto Praed Street. I’d gotten a little sleep on the flight from Philadelphia, but not much.
I knew what I had to do: stay up for the rest of the day, then collapse in a heap that night in the hopes that my somewhat inflexible circadian rhythms would reset to the Greenwich time zone. Meeting up with my brother who was already in town, we proceeded on a walk that covered much of the Paddington area, Hyde Park, and frankly some other areas that I don’t really remember.
We visited one of the neighborhood pubs (The Sussex Arms) in early afternoon, and I had my first English pint of the trip. More were to follow.
No I generally do not like large cities. Having lived in them from time to time, I prefer small towns and the country. It is undeniable however, that for the photographer, large cities and in particular, old capitals like London, present an incredibly target-rich environment.
Now my brother turned out, over the course of the week, to be an exhaustive guide. He obviously loves the city, and is fascinated by its rich past. The programmed tours he offers to his clients really do let you see the sights very efficiently, albeit with a lot of walking (but great exercise). By the end of the day, my feet were sore, and I was ready for a pint.
The problem I have with iconic cities, is trying to find new ways of looking at scenery that has been captured by millions of other photographers, some of whom are natives, and then published in multiple ways. Standing in a line to shoot a landmark, doesn’t really feel like art.
Matt did get mildly annoyed with me when I showed no photographic interest in the typical London shots, such as Big Ben from the Westminster Bridge, Big Ben from across the river, Big Ben behind a London phone box, or even the big Ferris wheel thingee.
It’s not that those images aren’t attractive. I was just looking for a more personal take on the town. I shot some of the scenes in case he needed them for his site.
As for equipment, I ended up taking two cameras: the Fuji X100s with the TCL x100, and the Sony RX100 Mark III. I considered taking my XE 1 with the 14mm, and the 57mm as a third body, but decided against it. By far, the majority of imaging was done using the Fuji with the teleconverter, which at 50mm equivelence was a very natural field of view for the urban environment. I actually preferred the handling of the X100s with the teleconverter attached, which gave me a more convenient place for my left hand.
My only issue with this combination was the autofocus performance. I was careful to change the camera setting each time I mounted or dismounted the converter. Despite this, I am firmly convinced that the converter lens significantly decreases focus sensitivity for the X100s, particularly in low light, to a degree that is a problem. This alone would be a reason to switch to the XE1 or 2 or the X Pro 1, with the 23mm and 35mm lenses for the same field of view choices, but better autofocus. How about a firmware fix Fuji?
The Sony worked very nicely, it was convenient to slip into a pocket in the evening, or to use during the day for it zoom reach and /or increased depth of field (because of its smaller sensor). In good light the image are wonderful. Indoors it struggled a bit compared to the X100s. Still however, a very usable, companion, if especially when formal shooting is done.
There are a couple of images that I like. This one was taken as I descended into a “Tube” station on Whitehall. On the other side of the railing several kids caught my eye, one sporting a Union Jack cap. With Westminster Abbey in the background, I paused and took several shots.
A particularly fascinating place was the “Tower of London”. If the original “White Tower” built in 1071 isn’t old enough for you, then there are on the property, Roman ruins that date back another thousand years. We took the “Beefeaters” Tour, run by a witty and knowledgeable Sergeant-Major retired from the British Army. It was both fascinating, and horrifying, given the Tower’s brutal history.
The pubs in London are a unique experience, particularly for those used to taverns in the US. In summary: food is fair-to-poor, the beers are astounding, and the atmosphere in each is generally similar: warm and inviting. I lost count, but I’m sure we visited 15-20 establishments over the course of a week.
Londoners take their pubs seriously. Near Piccadilly, one rush hour, we met with Joanne, a pleasant woman who gives historic pub tours in London. For her, this was far from a casual interest. She was forced to apologize for leaving us early to take a “pub” licensure test qualifying her to work in what sounded like only a tiny portion of the city. The time we spent with her was fascinating, and her depth of knowleddge impressive. I bet she passed.
Among the most unusual Public Houses was the Churchill Arms in Kensington. This placed positively oozed character. The walls and ceilings were decorated with 70 years of artifacts from British life; there was a snug fire in the back room. There we met young Melissa, a 19-year-old college student from northern California. It is a tribute to her parents what a lovely, poised, and well-rounded daughter they seem to have raised.
Among my brother’s friends was Charlie, a Paddington resident who has worked as an editor for various publications over the years. He was tolerant enough of two Americans that he would often accompany us on our nighttime “expeditions”. He has the well-educated Englishman’s grasp of their history, and was able often to add detail and context to sites we had toured earlier in the day. He is a boon companion indeed.
After 6 days in town, I boarded a very pleasant British Airway flight and returned to Philadelphia and ultimately home. In the interim, several snowfalls have transformed our landscape from brown to white. So I am ready to hike and snowshoe along farm fields and forests, recharged by my week abroad, but with one problem:
The beer here just doesn’t taste the same anymore.
For more images of London: visit my Smugmug site.