Parks, pets and the past - just some of the things London is known for.
There’s an understated air of excitement in the city – not quite as in-your-face as in Beijing four years ago – but you can certainly feel the anticipation after speaking to the locals.
There’s a joke going around that says: “May your life one day be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook.”
I read an article the other day about how some people stopped reading their news feeds, as it’s depressing to see how exciting the lives of others are, on the world’s largest social network.
Well, confession time. Hand on heart, I have to say that the five days I spent in London in mid-January were as awesome as the photos I posted on my Facebook page.
Clearly the weather had a lot to do with it. For the five days I was there, the sun shone, the sky was a blinding blue and the days were refreshingly crisp.
I was also lucky to be in a hotel right next to a park, because if there’s one thing the English do well, it’s their parks. My room overlooked Kensington Gardens and every morning, I’d watch the sunrise play out like a movie. At 5am, a pale glow would tinges the dark winter sky and slowly turn orange.
And as soon as it was light enough, I would go to the park, bundled up to brave the cold. There’s nothing like that sharp air and a brisk walk to wake you up instantly and prepare you for the day.
I was not alone; there were possibly more dogs than people. If there’s one thing the English love more than their fish and chips, it’s their dogs. They ran about untethered and free, a joy to see.
I saw a woman put a water bowl in front of her poodle, commanding: “Quentin, you simply must drink.” Quentin was having none of that though, too busy sniffing the trees.
Kensington Gardens was once the private gardens of Kensington Palace and is now one of London’s Royal Parks. This, Green Park, Hyde Park and St James Park form the city’s green heart, and it is possible, if you have time, to walk between all four.
The Palace was covered up and under renovation. When Prince William and Kate Middleton eventually take up residence there, the park will inevitably become even more popular.
London hopes to receive more visitors than ever this year due to its hosting of the Olympics 2012. There’s an understated air of excitement in the city – not quite as in-your-face as in Beijing four years ago – but you can certainly feel the anticipation after speaking to the locals.
One taxi driver I met said, “It’s the biggest international event in London in my lifetime, and we certainly need it.”
London’s been through some tough times lately, politically and economically, and the Games will hopefully provide a unifying point to rally Londoners and imbue them with a new sense of pride in their historic city.
For if there’s another strong point London has, it is its history. One evening, I attended a dinner at the Royal Courts Of Justice. Walking into the 19th century neo-gothic building with its majestic arches, an Englishman said to me: “You have to admit, we do old well.”
The building housed 88 courts and we were given a tour of the Appeal Court – I love British courtroom dramas and this absolutely brought them to life for me. The case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hung in Britain in 1945, was heard there.
“In France, it would have been a crime of passion,” said our guide. “But here, when Ruth confessed to saying she wanted to kill her lover for flinging his affairs in her face, she was convicted and hung.”
On the radio, I heard a broadcast about the catering planned for the 2012 Olympics. Not only will it have the most diverse and impressive spread ever, but also a heavy emphasis on sustainability and organic foods – in stark contrast to the last Games held in London in 1948.
One English athlete who competed in the 1948 Games recalled that she and her teammates, who were on post-war rations, would envy the American competitors, who had so much food, there would be leftovers. “We’d take their lunch boxes and eat their scraps,” she laughed.
I left London with several invitations to attend the Olympics, one of them from a young girl from the National Youth Theatre who performed at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
She will be among those who will perform for the athletes in London. Her pride is palpable: “You must come. It will be the best ever.”
* Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard, London will open in 2013, bringing its style of hospitality to a great city.