Five things to do in the capital in late Summer
The pandemic has taken us all by surprise. In London it has postponed major sporting and cultural events including Wimbledon Tennis and it’s disrupted others. The famous Albert Hall classical music ‘Proms’ will go ahead and will be televised but this year there’s no live audience. Things will certainly be different this autumn, but fret not … there’s plenty to do and still stay safe.
The city is gloriously crowd-free at the moment. It’s easier to get served in our pubs and London’s architecture looks amazing, bathed in the rich glowing light at the end of a late summer’s day. September also marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, so Mr Londoner – aka Antony Robbins – includes an aviation thread in this summary of things to do this month.
People tend to think of London as a huge city. Get to know it better, however, and you’ll realise it is in fact a series of villages, all with their own distinct identities and traditions. While the big tourist sites have been closed, many guides have been looking closer to home and exploring their own neighbourhoods. There’s a growing list of walks and talks available in Spitalfields, Clerkenwell, Bankside, Hackney, Islington and other locales. All are compelling neighbourhoods, full of character and history. Wimbledon Common is on London’s south-western borders. It’s nestled among picture-perfect pubs with rural appeal, good food and plenty of outdoor seating. Incredibly, the north eastern part of the Common served as a Royal Flying Corps airfield from 1915 to 1918, but the scene is altogether more tranquil today.
Within London’s villages there’s a whole lot of nature going on too. The Thames foreshore is a surprisingly delicate site of special scientific interest and home to hundreds of protected species from fish to plantlife. A tame and friendly seal has been filmed recently in the waters off Hammersmith. He likes to hitch a ride on the bows of passing canoes, bringing surprise and delight to those he encounters. In addition to the London river that everyone knows, this is a great time to explore the capital’s so-called lost rivers. These tributaries are of course not lost at all. Any local will soon put you right on that front. A bike comes unto its own here and these waterways are a great resource for wildlife, sport, exercise, history, culture and even archaeology.
The Wandle in south west London is eleven miles long and drops 100 feet in level. During the 18th century it powered 68 watermills along its course. In the 16th century, most of the mills produced flour but one manufactured a vivid red dye from Brazil wood. This was much in demand by local hatters and dyers who sold their wares to cardinals in Rome. Wandsworth thus became famous for its headwear across Europe. Ironmill Road marks the neighbourhood’s reputation for producing iron pans and kettles – skills brought into the area by Dutch and French immigrants.
The ‘canalised’ River Lea is on the other side of the city. It runs through Hackney Marshes, Walthamstow and onwards to Hertfordshire, passing canal barges, parks, marshlands, marinas and huge reservoirs. If you like wild foraging, the blackberries are particularly good this year. The marshes played a pivotal part in aviation history. It was here in 1909, in rented railway arches, that pioneering aircraft engineer Alliot Verdon Roe first flew the Roe One Triplane – known as the Bullseye. (The fetching name was inspired by a brand of men’s braces – or suspenders as they’re called in the US).
This flimsy-looking craft was held together by balsa wood and canvas. It was the first all-British powered flight and it seared Alliot Roe’s reputation as an aviation pioneer. In 1910 Alliot formed the Avro company. It went on to build one of the most famous British aircraft of WW2, the Avro Lancaster bomber.
Explore a museum in peace
As we emerge from lockdown, now is a good time to see London’s brilliant museums because they’re free of the usual crowds. All of our cultural attractions are following the UK Government’s Good to Go guidelines, to ensure visitor safety. Social distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings are the order of the day. Many museums’ trails are now designed as one-way systems to ensure the smooth and safe flow of visitors.
The British Museum has opened its doors again after the longest peace-time closure since it opened in 1759. It’s still free to explore two million years of world history but the museum now operates a timed ticketed system. The Tate Modern, housed in the glories of the former Bankside Power Station, is also back in business. Now’s a good time to see its Steve McQueen blockbuster. That’s the London-born, Turner Prize-winning film-maker and artist Steve McQueen – as opposed to the counter-cultural ‘King of Cool’ film star Steve McQueen. Also recently re-opened are the National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and, in time for Battle of Britain commemorations, the RAF Museum, near Hendon in London’s north-west.
Re-visit our finest hour
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz – the bombing of civilian targets and major cities across the UK. Battle of Britain Day itself is marked on 15 September. It was on this date in 1940 that saw the turning point in the battle. Hitler had failed to defeat the Royal Air Force and, two days later, abandoned Operation Sea Lion – his plan to invade Britain. Marvel at the intricately-detailed Battle of Britain memorial by artist Paul Day. It’s on the Victoria Embankment opposite New Scotland Yard. Or head to the Aldwych, where Fleet Street meets the Strand, to see the bomb-blasted walls of the RAF church at St Clement Danes.
If instead you stand at the northern end of Buckingham Palace Road, opposite the walls of the Monarch’s London’s residence, you’re right on the spot where, on 15 September 1940, Sgt Ray Holmes’s Hawker Hurricane fighter crashed to earth after ramming a German Dornier Do 17 bomber over Buckingham Palace. The Dornier came down in Victoria Station – with the loss of three of its five-man crew. Sgt Holmes bailed out to safety and lived into old age. Parts of his aircraft were recovered from beneath the city streets here in 1987.
You could take a stroll through chic-but-bohemian Stoke Newington in north-east London. Check out the Town Hall’s wartime camouflage paint, remnants of which can still be seen if you look hard enough.
Taxi to the shops
London’s best shops have been gradually reopening. To help customers stay safe, they have sanitising facilities and most offer masks for free. If you fancy splashing out, grab a piece of discounted punk-inspired fashion from the archives of Child of the Jago. The shop is the brainchild of Joe Corré, scion of punk nobility Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. If, however, you want to rock that Battle of Britain look, head to Belstaff for motorbike and aviation-inspired leatherwear.
Alternatively, make a bee-line to the Cromford Leather Co. in Marylebone. The company has reproduced a near-perfect facsimile of the famous RAF Irvin jacket, worn by pilots during the Battle of Britain.
It will be a while before things return to some kind of a new-normal, but there’s still plenty to do this September. There are options for folks with money to burn or those of us who are watching the pennies. This is the perfect time to enjoy crowdless shopping, a free museum or a family cycle ride along the river – lost or otherwise.
About the author: Mr Londoner is broadcaster, writer and former Museum of London director, Antony Robbins. All the images in this post are his.