Towering over London

During the Easter holidays, before the pandemic, I took my son to see the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden and promised to give him a tour of the Museum of London near the Barbican Centre the following year. However, it is the second Easter running that our museums and galleries have been closed. So I decided instead to show him the Tower of London from the outside. I have to confess that I myself have never been inside the Tower even though I have lived in London for the last 26 years. Perhaps a UNESCO World Heritage Site on our doorstep doesn’t attract us as much as one further afield. 

London has more than one museum dedicated to its history. The Museum of London is spread over two sites – one near St Paul’s and the other in Docklands that charts its history as a port. London is a genre of its own in both literature and films.

It is always exciting for my small son to change lines on the Underground and make sure that we are travelling in the right direction. This was the first time I exited Tower Hill station without being surrounded by tourists – a somewhat surreal experience. 

There was no one to be seen walking on the embankment outside the Tower but I spotted a few people walking or running on the opposite side. When I started to work in the hospitality industry in London two decades ago, there was only one big hotel in close proximity to the Tower and the hotel was known more for the unflattering opinions of the critics about its architecture than its reputation as accommodation for tourists. But this time I found two brand new hotels just outside the station. One of them, called ‘Tower Suites by Blue Orchid’, has received excellent reviews ever since it opened just before the pandemic. A former colleague, Zoltan Erdei, has moved on to work at this hotel. I popped in to say hello to him but he wasn’t in. It still felt like a homecoming to walk into a hotel at a time when most of the hotels in London are closed. 

A short walk from the station, you find a Leonardo Hotel in Prescot Street. This hotel chain has adopted Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as its logo. When I visited the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice in 2019, I knew they had loaned the drawing depicting the proportions of the male human body to the Louvre, which was hosting an exhibition, ‘Leonardo da Vinci:  500 years of genius’.

When crossing Tower Bridge, you can see Renzo Piano’s glass cathedral, also known as The Shard, and the Walkie-Talkie building on the other side leaning towards it as if lending it her ear. These two buildings dwarf Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s in the background. In fact I can see The Shard from as far away as Highgate in North London, towering over the city. The building is capable of swaying 20 inches in high winds. It houses the Shangri-La Hotel, which offers spectacular views of London. The name evokes the memory of James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, turned into a film by Frank Capra. Shangri-La, in this story, is a mythical place whose inhabitants enjoy unusual

longevity – the perfect abode to escape to during a pandemic. 

I always like to see a river when I travel to another city because water symbolises life, which is why many great cities in the world are built around rivers, the great highways for trade and travel. I was glad that I had ventured out of my neighbourhood on a dull day to show my son the Tower. The Thames had warehouses built on both sides during the Victorian era but now they have been converted into fashionable residences and there are a lot of newly built flats in the Limehouse area beyond the Tower. If you travel by boat from the Tower of London to Greenwich, you find yourself surrounded, when you get there, by futuristic shiny glass buildings. 

I don’t remember when the last time was that I walked along the river from Tower Bridge to London Bridge. This time I discovered a branch of the Ivy restaurant along the way. I had found a pop-up branch of the same restaurant at The London Book Fair a couple of years ago. A marquee pitched in front of City Hall is now used as an open-air gym. The Tower on the other side looks forbidding without the crowds that thronged there in pre-pandemic times, starkly revealing its true function as a purpose-built prison. There wasn’t a single soul loitering outside Traitor’s Gate, through which prisoners once entered this prison. A medieval banquet was enacted for tourists in the neighbouring St Katherine Docks.

At London Bridge pier I learned from an entrance sign that the Thames Clipper is now known as Uber Boat. The sign of a pub at London Bridge called ‘The Barrow Boy and Banker’ always makes me grin as a reminder of the age-old class system at work in The City of London. 

I walked down the road, looking for a fast-food restaurant to buy something to eat for my son. A crowd of delivery drivers in green and orange liveries who worked for the Deliveroo and Just Eat companies had gathered outside a McDonald’s. 

I recently needed to have an old satellite TV dish upgraded at my home. The man who came to change the equipment had previously worked as a banqueting manager in a prestigious London hotel. He was made redundant last year and had to learn a new trade to feed his family. He told me that he now earned only half of the salary that he received from his previous employer. It was a cold day and I offered him a cup of tea since he couldn’t come inside my home due to Covid protocols. He had to give me instructions from outside about how to connect the new set-top box. I felt a kinship with him because, like me, he had worked in the hospitality industry for a long time. The current pandemic has created a gig economy in which the distinction between a casual job and a career is becoming distressingly blurred.