London in love

London is the most romantic city on Earth.  Yes, that’s right, more romantic than Florence, New York and even Paris.

Okay, I admit that I’m biased.  I fell in love here, so every single paving stone of this city is soaked through with associations.  Camden market might seem very unromantic to other eyes, but as I walk past I can see the day I met my husband.  That swooping feeling when you dream that you’re falling – it’s still there every time I pass by.  When I walk to the end of our street I can see us together seven years ago outside the hospital.  I’m holding a tiny scrap of a baby against me, Dave is wrestling with a car seat for the first time – a brand new family.  I walk past that spot almost every day and there we all are, a memory tethered to the doors of the hospital like a balloon – visible only to me, but none the less real for that.  That’s why for me, this is the most romantic city on Earth.

So you’re in love, you’re in London, and you want to go on a date… for free.  Where do you go?  My top five ideas…

1.) A Sunday walk along the South Bank  Again I have to admit my bias – my husband and I walked along the South Bank together the morning after he proposed.  But even for a first date you won’t struggle for conversation, with the river to watch and the book stalls to browse.  If the date goes really well you can continue it at Tate Modern.

2.) A picnic in Regent’s Park or, if you’re double-dating and want a more convivial atmosphere try Primrose Hill.  But Regent’s Park is perfect if you just want to lie on the grass talking and sunbathing- the park is big enough that you can have quite a big patch to yourselves.  Just don’t set up too close to The Hub or you’ll find that the lovely quiet spot you’ve chosen is actually the middle of a cricket match!

3.) A snowy day on the Heath.  If you’ve fallen in love in winter those endless days of lazing on the grass will just have to wait.  In which case, go to Hampstead Heath together in the snow.  It’s like visiting Narnia – right down to the lamp post in the middle of the woods.  Some of the pubs in Hampstead have open fires if you need to warm up afterwards.

4.) Meet me by the statue  Long distance is hard.  Meet by the statue at Saint Pancras after an absence – the perfect reunion.

5.) National Portrait Gallery – with every face, I think about who they were and who they loved.  Emma Hamilton is in Room 17.  Her memory of the day that she found out that her beloved Nelson had died at Trafalgar is in Christopher Hibbert ‘Nelson – A Personal History’ – “They brought me word, Mr Whitby from the Admiralty. ‘Show him in directly,’ I said. He came in, and with a pale countenance and faint voice, said, ‘We have gained a great Victory.’ – ‘Never mind your Victory,’ I said. ‘My letters – give me my letters’ – Captain Whitby was unable to speak – tears in his eyes and a deathly paleness over his face made me comprehend him. I believe I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear.”

Picnics in London

Food tastes better outside.  Sausages sizzling over a campfire, fish and chips on the beach, a Flake 99 ice-cream at the park after school, steaks on the barbecue… Hungry already?

This delicious alchemy even works on frankly substandard food – those campfire sausages tend to be a little burnt on the outside, don’t they?  And yet the memory of their taste is more vivid than any of the Michelin-starred meals I’ve enjoyed.

In the summer we often take our tea to the local park and eat there.  An average family meal turns into a celebratory event just by adding a few picnic blankets and the promise of an ice-cream from the van for dessert.  Restaurants in London do tend to be expensive, but you can ‘eat out’ very cheaply in this city.  My favourite venues are:-

  • Golders Hill Park which is beautifully landscaped, with lots of open spaces.  It’s particularly good for small children thanks to the free zoo, sand-filled toddlers playground, and adventure climbing frame. In summer there is often a free butterfly house too.
  • The area of Hampstead Heath just above the Vale of Health is great for picnics – head up the slope to be wowed by a view of London which stretches out past Canary Wharf and the Gherkin to the rolling hills beyond.  There is a wide open field sheltered by trees.
My son playing frisbee
Don't try this in a restaurant
  • Regents Park is a regular venue for us.  In another life, I remember lying on a blanket reading all day in Regents Park while my husband sketched the other picnickers.  Now that I’m a mother those ‘lying down reading’ days are over, but Regents Park is still a great place to be.  Each area of the park has its own attractions – if you’re on the edge that runs along London Zoo you can see the giraffes and the zebras through the hedge.  Whereas down by the ponds my son loves feeding his crusts to the rare breed ducks and herons and watching the rowing boats.
  • Hyde Park is convenient if you are sightseeing or running errands in town, and it’s extensive enough to find your own private patch of grass even on the busiest day.  My son and I watched some breakdancers practising there while we were eating our sandwiches last week.

Later this week I’ll be packing a picnic and joining my son and his primary school class on Hampstead Heath for a day out.  I’ll be responsible for four or five of his classmates so I doubt if I’ll finish my sandwiches!   But they will taste amazing.