Ellie-Jo pops down to the big smoke for some steak, a show, and a good old dose of the Friday scaries
Have you ever crammed a boat ride down the Thames, a Canadian musical, some burnt cheesecake, afternoon tea on a landlocked ship, a graffiti tunnel, and Vincent Van Gogh into one staycation? How about a tour of the dungeons when you're slightly hungover ?
No? Well, have I got the city break itinerary for you, and the blisters from my Doc Martens to prove it.
A well rehearsed tableau of flames and huge hunks of meat
Being a tourist is one of life's greatest pleasures. Strolling aimlessly, looking up, spending too much dollar on a souvenir you'll never actually use, trying new lunch spots. I live for it. Get me a skyline fridge magnet now.
Well overdue a British city break full of the novelty stuff, I booked an off-peak return to London for me and a pal, and embraced everything the city has to offer from the West End to Greenwich Pier and into an underground speakeasy in Soho. The big smoke didn't know what hit it.
Our trip was planned around one of the lesser-known West End musicals, Come from Away, and we stuffed our faces and indulged our cultural egos along the way. I'll never forget you, Lina Stores panzanella and giant painting of a horse in The National Gallery.
Park Plaza or Black Mirror?
We were invited to stay at the Park Plaza London Waterloo in Lambeth, right opposite Lambeth North station. If you know the song from Me and My Girl about "doing the Lambeth walk" you'll have it stuck in your head for the foreseeable. Soz.
Coming from someone who breaks out in hives at the thought of navigating the underground with a wheelie suitcase, the Plaza is really easy to get to from Euston train station, and its surroundings are all tree-lined, smooth paved bliss. The whole place gives off a White Company-esque scent the minute you pass through the revolving doors, and you could see your face in the floor. The view from our room looked out over the Hercules Pub with its outdoor wrought iron tables and post-work pint drinkers.
Giving slight Black Mirror vibes with its interiors, the rooms are controlled by an interactive keypad on the wall that allows you to dim the lights and turn on the telly etc. and everything lights up with slim lines of coloured LEDs. There's also a matte black bathroom with Elemis goodies and the hallways feel like a gothic cruise ship. Very sleek.
A hotel being "central" is handy on any city break, but Lambeth is home to the actual geographical centre of London. Like, the proper centre. Most people think its Charing Cross, but its Frazier Street, which is just a four minute walk from the Park Plaza's entrance. The phrase "smack-bang in the middle" couldn't be more applicable, and it's an ideal spot for attractions like the London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
Panzanella and mint
Once we'd dumped our bags, we went for lunch at Lina Stores on Marylebone Lane. There's loads of Lina Stores scattered around London, and the first one opened back in 1944 on Brewer Street in Soho thanks to "a formidable lady from Genova" called Lina. Love you, Lina.
We watched in doe-eyed anticipation from the pass as they prepped our panzanella and carciofi fritti (deep fried artichokes with aioli and pangrattato), sippin' on two Sicilian Polara soft drinks as we waited. Keep the bottles and stick a candle in them when you get home.
Pasta then came in its droves with a portion of the gomiti with peas, guanciale and pecorino, and a lean, green plate of seasonal pea and ricotta ravioli with mint. Speaking of mint, Lina Stores is doused in signature pastel green stripes with matching chairs and crockery, and the interiors are reminiscent of a 50s style ice cream parlour on Disneyland's Main Street. It's really affordable for a quick lunch packed with fresh, authentic ingredients, and if you fancy some retail therapy, it's only 10 minutes walk from Oxford Circus.
Burnt cheesecake and Come from Away
Our evening plans consisted of deep dark desserts and a heart-warming musical about the events following the 9/11 attacks in Newfoundland. I know, it sounds like a strange plot for a musical, but stick with me, there's fiddles.
The closest tube stop to the West End is Charing Cross, or you can stroll in around 25 minutes from Lambeth via the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee bridges if you fancy taking in a view of the London Eye and the Southbank by night.
We had a swift pint at The White Horse on Rupert Street, a proper no-frills boozer with dado wood panelling and a fireplace, followed by a 5pm pre-theatre dinner at Sophie's steakhouse just around the corner.
We sat in the dining room beside the open fire pit, and although the show was planned for after dinner, the open kitchen feels like a well rehearsed tableau of flames and huge hunks of meat. Sophie's specialises in native breed British beef and giant martinis. 10oz martinis.
The bar area is very Gatsby, all art deco lighting and jewel tone velvets, and opting for the pre-theatre menu, we indulge in three courses of padron peppers and brisket bonbons, steak frites with peppercorn sauce, and a wedge of burnt cheesecake with wood roast berries. "Cows are delicious aren't they" my mate says with a merlot-fuelled grin.
The cheesecake is burnt in the very best way, a crispy, sugary outer casing with a mega-soft, creamy inside, and the dark chocolate brownie with peanuts and salted caramel ice cream could hold the front doors of our hotel open. Two large glasses of vino are sunk, and if you're looking for a cracking set menu before heading to theatre land, its two courses for £15 or three for £18.
Before leaving, our host Natalie hands over four poker chips and tells us to pop into the underground speakeasy next door after the show - we'll get to that Turpentine tipple later.
Tissues, accordions and a true story
Come from Away is a permanent resident at The Phoenix Theatre, and it's a joyous, tearjerker of a true story. I've been lucky enough to see a lot of West End musicals in my time, and I've cried at every single one. Yes, I cried at the Angry Dance number in Billy Elliot, however; the plot of Come from Away just hits different.
The theatre is smaller and more intimate than a lot of its neighbours, and was built on the site of a former factory having opened in 1930. Big stagey names like Dirty Dancing, Chicago and Guys and Dolls have occupied those four walls, but there's not an illuminated staircase or flourish of jazz hands in sight at Come from Away. The set consists of 10 chairs, some tree-like posts, and a cast of 12.
As 38 planes carrying around 7,000 passengers land at Gander International Airport following the 9/11 attacks, the people on the island come together to welcome the international visitors and make them feel at home. The characters are all based on, and in most cases have the same name as, real Gander residents and stranded travellers. Yes, you need a packet of Kleenex, and you'll be chanting "I'm an islander, I am an islander" on the train ride home.
The music is all provided by a small group of musicians playing traditional Celtic instruments such as the fiddle, accordion and something called the uilleann pipes, and if a cast of 12 can transform a small stage and 10 chairs into a plane, a bus, a school hall, an airport, and a whole towns worth of incredible people, I'm sold. Just go, it's on at The Phoenix 'til January 2023 and it'll make you laugh and cry simultaneously whilst restoring your complete faith in humanity.
After Come from Away we stopped at Jack Solomon's Club, the underground speakeasy next to Sophie's with a dead cool DJ and bevvies like the Turpentine with cucumber vodka and elderflower, and the Yorkshire Lady with Yorkshire-tea infused gin. You can take the girls out the North, but we'll still find the closest thing to a brew before bed. We paid for the drinks with our poker chips and had a post-theatre debrief in one of the dimly lit velvet booths.
Don’t do this hungover
Our break included a trip to The London Dungeons at 10am the next day, and to soothe my Yorkshire-Lady-fulled hangover, I had a chunk of chocolate babka and an iced oat latte from Gail's Bakery on York Road en-route. If I've been in London for over 24 hours without something from Gail's in my gob I start to hyperventilate.
The queue for the Dungeons was littered with families and young children, and a couple of dads here and there who were committed to seeming un-phased throughout the entire experience. Us, on the other hand, had a strong dose of the Friday scaries and jumped at the man asking us to put our bags through security. Lots of fist clenching and shrieking came shortly after.
The dungeons tour is about an hour long, and takes you through different rooms full of blood, guts, gore and real historic tales. Think Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes, the Bubonic plague, the Great Fire of London, and a court trial where they call up some brave volunteers. It's not for the faint-hearted, and if you're the kind of thrill seeker who loves a horror film at the cinema, it's like that, but in 4D.
Boats ’n scones
Post crapping our pants, a stroll over to The National Gallery eased things off a bit, and you can queue up to see the permanent collection for free between 10am - 6pm.
The gallery is about a 15 minute walk from the dungeons over the river and you can tick big names like Monet, Van Gough and Rembrandt off your "to-see" list if you're willing to wander around for an hour or two. Whistlejacket by George Stubbs was a big highlight, and we had some time to kill before our reservation for afternoon tea on Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
Getting to a boat on a boat only seemed fitting, so we hopped on a Thames Clipper from London Eye Waterloo Pier to Greenwich Pier. Like an Uber on the water, this is a perfect opportunity to get your camera out, as you do a real whistle-stop tour of Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf and the South Bank on the way from pier to pier. The journey is about 40 minutes from start to finish and you feel like you should be sporting a straw hat and a pair of Chanel shades, weather depending.
Cutty Sark used to be a British clipper ship, one of the latest and fastest British clipper ships to be precise, and we were invited to have afternoon tea under her hull. The ship used to be responsible for the trading of tea and then wool, and now its got a permanent home right by Greenwich Park with a visitors centre, a gift shop and some mini Victoria sponges.
The boat itself is 150 years old, and as well as being able to visit the deck and climb the riggings, the site is home to the world’s biggest collection of figureheads – the carved wooden figures that sit on the front of ships.
Afternoon tea had sarnies, loads of cakes and some earl grey cuppas, all served on Burleigh cups and saucers. Right by Cutty are other sights like the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory if you fancy a full day out in Greenwich, but fuel up under the boat for sure, I've not had a scone like it since.
Farewell graffiti tunnels
If you're looking for some another sight to tick off in Lambeth, Leake Street Arches are the former railway arches below Waterloo station, and are now home to London's longest legal graffiti wall. A couple of indie bars and restaurants are also scattered along the walk, and everyone is sporting either Carhartt or a pair of Nike SB Janoski skate shoes. A good spot for a street-art photoshoot with added skaters.
The tunnels were our final pit stop, and we got the bus back from the Park Plaza to Euston before arriving back in Manchester with city break blues and loads of pics ready for an Instagram dump. Good food, great theatre and a brew under a boat in Greenwich. Thank you London town.
Ellie-Jo took the Avanti West Coast service from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston with an open off-peak return ticket.
She stayed at the Park Plaza London Waterloo on 6 Hercules Rd, London SE1 7DP.
Tickets for Come from Away are available via ATG tickets for showings at The Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0JP
Tickets for The London Dungeons are also available online, with both standard and any-time ticket options, but pre-booking is essential before your visit.
Afternoon tea on Cutty Sark includes a selection of teas, sweet treats, finger sandwiches, and admission into the ship itself. The site is a 1 minute walk from the Thames Clipper stop at Greenwich Pier.
Read next: Harrods for hippies: Lush Liverpool's surprising spa and store
Read again: 14 indie theatres in Manchester you should know about
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