Month: September 2023

  • A Visitor’s Guide to British Pubs

    A Visitor’s Guide to British Pubs

    Going to a British pub, for a beer or food, is one of those experiences that you have to have in London. Partly because it’s tough to avoid, but partly because you will never have a hope of understanding Britain unless you’ve spent at least a little time in the pub.

    Opening Hours

    Until recently, pubs closed at 11pm. There were other licensing laws that allowed other types of establishments to be open and serve drinks later (such as dance clubs, etc.), but pubs were limited to 11pm. A new law recently came into effect which allows pubs to apply to be open later. You’ll now find that some are open until midnight or 1am, and some have licenses to open around the clock. However, most still seem to close at 11pm.

    Ordering drinks & food

    It’s sometimes amusing for locals to see tourists at a pub. They’ll sit down at a table, and wait virtually forever to be served. But that’s the thing… there is no table service in pubs. If you want a drink, or even if you want food, you have to order it at the bar. I’ve heard stories of some people waiting nearly 45 minutes before they figured it out, but those people were also engrossed in a football match.

    When you order food, the staff will typically ask you where you’re sitting, and/or give you a number to display on your table. They’ll bring it out when it’s ready. (There are very occasionally pubs that do have table service, but these are rare.)

    Couple Chatting and Drinking at a London Pub


    Tipping is never an easy topic, except perhaps at British pubs. The general rule? Tipping isn’t done. The staff are paid well enough that they don’t need anything extra, and it’s culturally just not done. That said, if you really feel like you’re being rude by not tipping, just say something along the lines of “… and one for yourself” when ordering. The staff will buy a drink for themselves and charge it to your order. But even this is very rare.

    Queueing for Drinks

    The British queue for everything. This includes a queue at the bar getting a drink. Please be mindful of who was there before you. Typically bar staff are good about keeping track of who needs to be served next, but the last thing you want to do is cut in line. It’s a big offence to Britons.

    Pub culture

    Pubs are an integral part of British culture. Over three-quarters of the population go to pubs, and over a third are regulars (at least once a week). They often serve the role that coffee shops do in the United States, as a community meeting place. In smaller towns and villages, the pub is truly the centre of socialisation for the people there. Everyone in the country has an opinion about their “local,” the pub they are closest to or are a regular at. The only problem in London is that the city is so dense that any number of pubs could be your “local.” For example, I live within a ten-minute walk of at least 12 proper pubs, and I think of three of them as “local.”

    Drink on a Pub Table

    One of the best things about British pubs is that you can take drinks outside, and there are often tables and benches outside to sit and enjoy your drinks with friends. Walking around London on Thursday and Friday afternoons in the summer, you will see pubs with tens or hundreds of people spilling out into the streets outside. Scenes like the photos at the top and below are commonplace.

    The London Traveler Says

    Even if you’re not a drinker, you should at least stop by a pub for a meal. Pubs are really at the centre of British culture, and you’ll never truly understand the country unless you’ve spent some time at a pub. With around 60,000 pubs across the UK, you’ll always be near one!

  • The Less Protein Man – a Sight of Old London

    The Less Protein Man – a Sight of Old London

    The Little Man in Oxford Street

    Every time I went to Oxford Street, somewhere along it, I would see a little man, with a banner in his hand, shuffling along the pavement.

    He never seemed to say anything, never seemed to be with anyone, wasn’t part of a demonstration or a cult. He didn’t grab people to tell them their sins or try to convert them. He didn’t preach. He just seemed to be an oddity – one of those oddities for which London has always been famous.

    The Message

    The message on his board was strange, too. It said: “Less passion from less protein”, and then under that was a list of the bad proteins – “meat, fish, bird egg, cheese, peas beans”. I don’t think punctuation was his strong point.

    Besides, he seemed wrong for Oxford Street somehow. Not only wasn’t he some kind of religious revivalist or preacher, he just looked like the wrong kind of bloke to be walking up and down with a banner. He looked like a mild, rather worn old man, the kind who really ought to be on an allotment or taking the dog out for a walk. There was no crazy gleam in his eye.

    He always made me think of Pythagoras, who wouldn’t let his disciples eat beans. And yesterday, when I was writing about Govinda’s and Ayurvedic theory, I was reminded of him. So I looked him up on the internet.

    His name was Stanley Green. And my idea that he should have been on an allotment somewhere wasn’t far off; he had, at one time, been a gardener. But he started doing his ‘protein man’ work in 1968, and from then on, it seems to have been his entire life. He was still going strong when I started working in London in the early 1980s.

    The Protein Advice

    He took his own advice on proteins. He believed too much protein inflamed sexual desire – so he lived on bread, porridge and barley water. Alas, he is no longer with us – he died in 1993. (He now has his own entry in the  Dictionary of National Biography, bless him.)

    Although I’m afraid I couldn’t ever agree with him on protein – I like my steak tartare far too much and cannot resist a cashew nut – I think he had some interesting things to say to us. For instance, his little leaflet (the title page of which you see above, and which he printed at home) warns us about the perils of the mass media. And he’d never seen Big Brother!

    “BEWARE of the fun of indecent suggestions; of the amusement from the titillating scandal of private lives; of the diversion of the undress of low journalism, etcetera. These things erode our morals and twist young minds.”

    His devotion to duty, his steadfastness, and his utter burning integrity are impressive. But I never did quite work out what was the meaning of the last line of his banner;


    Photo credit: Simon Crubellier on Flickr

  • From Londinium To The Shard – And Everything In Between

    From Londinium To The Shard – And Everything In Between

    “Micky, I need help quickly! Can you think of an ancient or at least medieval place that I can take a small group of tourists to visit near the Shard? I have thirty minutes before they finish taking pictures. Need quick ideas. Kisses, Sis.”

    Before we continue, let me say I hate being called Micky, and one of the two people who can come away with it is Sis – a.k.a my older sister Helen. This single SMS is why I decided to create The London Traveler – or rather, the catalyst. When I received it, I was at the Tower Hill Gardens, drawing the remnants of the Roman London wall. If drawing is a frustrating hobby (I have never been quite able to master it), ancient history is a lifelong passion. Sitting a few yards away from the fortifications, built more than eighteen centuries ago by my favourite ancient civilisation, was a huge thrill. I’ve never been able to understand why the London Wall is so greatly underrated, and my only explanation is that many Londoners and visitors to the city are not even aware of its existence. 

    London Eye

    Apart from being my protective older sister, Helen is a busy travel guide. But if I can talk for hours about Roman Britain, Vindolanda, the Saxon invasion and the coming of the Vikings, she is an expert on the most modern and glitzy landmarks in London (like the world-famous London Eye, for example). I was not surprised at all that she had taken her group to the Shard – after all, who could resist the chance to take a shot of the London skyline from birdseye view? I didn’t have to think twice before I sent her a message back, tipping her to take her tourists (it turned out they were Japanese) to the Tower Hill Garden and the London Wall. After all, the two landmarks are barely a mile away from each other, and if you choose to take the walk, you will have to cross one of the two most iconic bridges over the Thames – either Tower or London Bridge. 

    With our brief message exchange done, I could go back to my drawing. But my inspiration had slipped away, and instead, I was in a contemplative mood. I couldn’t think of a better dichotomy to describe London than the Roman wall near The Tower and the Shard across the river. Eighteen centuries and at least four civilisations separated them, yet they were just a bridge apart. In between and around them, history has woven one of the most astounding urban chronicles in the world. 

    Roman Londinium

    London, or Londinium, was founded by the Romans in the mid-1st century AD – whether at the time of the Claudian invasion or shortly after, it is beside the point. The Romans, with their keen eye for strategic locations and trade, immediately recognised the advantages of the site – easy riverine access to the Channel and the Continent beyond, dominating the fords of the Thames and the main transport link on the central south-north axis of the island. Soon, Londinium was a thriving commercial entrepot and asserted its natural position as the capital of Roman Britain. It is no surprise, then, that the local military governors decided to erect massive ramparts protecting the burgeoning city on the Thames, probably in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD (by this time, Londinium had a population of at least 50,000 people). It must have been the same logic that accounted for the building of the much more famous Hadrian Wall – the Roman realisation that the local tribes would not be easily subdued and civilised the way Caesar forced the Gallic tribes into submission. From the late 2nd century AD to the end of the Roman presence in Britain in the mid-5th century, their strategy was fundamentally defensive. 

    Fragment of the London Wall at Tower Hill Garden.

    Having said all that, one would expect London to retain a bit more of its Roman heritage. Instead, the city is almost entirely modern, with a few wrinkles of medieval churches and the Tower of London. Unlike many European cities outside Italy, London has not retained even one building in its original form from its Roman period. Compare that to the magnificent amphitheatres in Nimes and Arles (France), Cartagena and Merida (Spain), the Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria or the stunning Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia. The best we can come up with is the St Pancras Old Church in Camden and St Bride’s Church at Fleet Street. However, both stand at the site of probable worshipping sites of the Roman period and do not represent the original buildings. If we compare them to other European cities, the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was consecrated in 532 AD and, to this day, remains a symbol of the unsurpassed architectural mastery of the late Roman empire. The St. Sophia Church in Sofia, Bulgaria, was also built during the reign of Justinian the Great (mid-6th century) and has remained the tallest building in the city since the early 20th century. 

    Why London Lacks Ancient Architectural Heritage?

    Even if we push the boundary to the Medieval Age, London cannot boast of too many landmarks. The legendary White Tower of London and Westminster Hall were built in the early Norman period (1066 and 1097, respectively), but the latter was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834. Which, of course, leads us to the logical question – why hasn’t London retained more of its ancient and medieval architectural heritage? 

    The London fire of 1666 destroyed the medieval heart of the city.

    I have already mentioned the word that holds the answer – fire. Although London has never been conquered by a foreign enemy since 1066 (we can hardly count the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a foreign invasion), apocalyptic fires have plagued the city and its historical landmarks throughout the centuries. None more so than the Great Fire of 1666, immortalised by Sir Samuel Pepys. The 4-day calamity obliterated the medieval city of London, taking down fabled buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, almost a hundred parish churches, numerous private houses and public buildings. Medieval London perished in the flames, only to give Sir Christopher Wren a tabula rasa for his creative genius. The city we know today was, to a large extent, planned and built by Wren.

    I was thinking about all this and more when I heard the clicking sound of cameras approaching me from the south. “You are daydreaming about your Romans again, aren’t you?” Helen asked, pointing her group to the Tower. No, I wasn’t. In fact, I was planning a blog about all things London, even the Shard.