13 Years On – Visiting London as a Teenager

Published on 25 March 2009 in , , , ,

September 2009 marks a rather notable landmark in my life. For at the end of the month, it will be ten years since I first set up home in the capital city of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But it wasn’t my first visit – that was a few years earlier in spring 1996.

It was on a trip organised by my sixth form college (my local area not having high school sixth forms – and based on my experiences, I’m a big believer in having separate sixth forms) and was perhaps more memorable for some of the unexpected things I saw, rather than the expected.

Despite owning one, I oddly (to my current eyes) I didn’t take a camera with me, but perhaps that makes the memories more vivid. As such, the photos below may bare little, if any, relation to what I actually saw.

I presume we came down by coach, although I have absolutely no memories of that at all, and today I wonder how I managed it because I get travel sick on them quite easily.

We came down on a Friday and stayed in a hotel near Russell Square tube station, and instantly got confused by the geography of London, not realising that it was just as quick to bus or walk between Russell Square and Oxford Circus than it was to get the tube.

There were a plethora of activities organised, many of which have faded from the old memory, but one was a trip to the Royal Courts of Justice, sitting in one of the courtroom galleries which was clearly meant to be educational, but gave me the resounding impression of boredom and the desire never to be a barrister, judge or juror as long as I might live.

In the first evening, there was chaos and confusion as everyone got split and separated in Covent Garden, before we watched what remains to be one of the best plays I’ve seen – the Woman in Black. It’s still playing in the same theatre to this day.

The following night, whilst most of the group were in a Chinese restaurant near the hotel, I ended up being dragged to sit at Grease – my then girlfriend having persuaded the powers that be that we were trustworthy enough to go off on our own. This didn’t really mean much as we were expected to make our own way between the different tourist attractions anyway. Can’t say I was hugely impressed with it, and it remains the only time I’ve ever seen Shane Ritchie on stage.

We also had a trip to Greenwich, and we “raced” Mark Parker back to central London. He went by overground, we went by DLR. He won.

But we got to see a different view of London.

Of a lone DLR train stranded high in the air at Island Gardens – unable to go anywhere because there was no track.

Of crawling through Canary Wharf seeing tower blocks with no windows.

London was not in a good state. Our visit was a few weeks after the IRA had left a bomb at Canary Wharf.

It was a patten I’d recognise as a resident of the city in 2001 when the Real IRA bombed TV Centre and blew up a pub in Ealing, and again in 2005.

And in 1996 it was the way you just accidentally bumped into the signs of destruction that really hit me. After seeing Canary Wharf shattered, ruined, we ended up on the Aldwych. We casually walked along, only to suddenly come up against the ruined remains of a double decker bus where a bomb had detonated prematurely a few weeks earlier.

Almost inevitably, seeing two scenes of just violent destruction stick in the mind. That and the tannoy at Tottenham Court Road booming out demanding that a busker leave the premises, because “we’ve got enough problems at the moment, thank you”. It’s all changed now, where it doesn’t matter what happens – there will still be a woman screeching with a guitar at Oxford Circus.

Non bomb related stuff saw me amazed when on a Piccaddilly Line train and hearing the driver suddenly proclaim “This is now a Heathrow train. This train is no longer going to Rayners Lane. This is now a Heathrow train.” For someone who had never used a high frequency metro service, this seemed amazing.

It’s funny the things you remember (Mark Parker in Pizza Hut ordering a pizza with just mushrooms on it on the Sunday morning before the coach took us north for example) because the rest of the tourist stuff we did has faded into memory completely. I do recall us going in an extraordinarily large number of branches of Burger King – it seemed like we ate nowhere else.

What else we did, well who knows? Even my article for Hydra at the time didn’t help. Apparently we went shopping to the Virgin Megastore. That doesn’t tell you much.

My tune has certainly changed since then though. At the end of my Hydra piece, I commented:

Looking back, I can’t see any reason why anyone should want to go to this horrendous place. People are cold and unfriendly, and the water tastes horrible, though not as bad as the water in Portsmouth, and the tube system is constantly full, no matter what the time is. And I’ll tell you something, The Big Issue isn’t nearly as good as The Big Issue In The North.

The London Trip, Hydra, Easter 1996

Who knew that just three and a half years later, I’d be moving to the place, and would still be there ten years later.

Mind you, the tap water does taste pretty rough compared to Manchester, and I remain convinced that the Big Issue in the North was always superior…


  • Francis Cook says:

    Don’t you remember the bomb in Manchester City Centre ?
    I remember the shattered windows and the strange deserted streets the day after and it was one of the most surreal scenes for days afterwards.
    The water does taste better in Manchester though.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    I don’t think the Manchester bomb really resonated as much with me, perhaps because when I saw the results (and after all, the results were around for a VERY long time in some parts!), I was expecting them. I knew where the worst bits were, and I’d seen the footage on TV. Plus I think it was a few weeks before I went back into the city. Would have to check my diary of the time!
    Funny, but somehow it seems easy to almost overlook that Manchester bomb now. But then the various London bombs of 2001 almost fade away too.
    Do love that the great survivor of the Manchester bomb is still there – that post box near M&S has a little plaque on it now.