Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

A Football Tourist’s Guide to London #1 – Part One

London. It has scared me for a long time.

The Backstory

The year was 1999 but tonight I was not going to party. This was my first venture into London in my first season as an exile, travelling alone to Blackpool matches by train from Walsall. I got to London Euston just fine but then had the Tube to tackle. I was terrified as I entered the packed underground. How did this work? I stepped hesitantly onto what I thought was the right train…and then recognised Blackpool stalwart Ossie and his mates on the train on the opposite platform. Shit! I tazzed it over to join them and followed them all the way to Craven Cottage (possibly via a pub – I can’t remember). We lost 4-0 and I probably followed them back to Euston as well. On every visit to London since, I have found/arranged for someone to follow (or found a non-Tube route to my destination, once involving five trains to Millwall). I have made no attempt to navigate London on my own.

Dear reader, that was 23 years ago and yet I have ever since been scarred and convinced that ‘I just don’t understand the Tube.’ I knew that was irrational and ridiculous. Google Maps was a thing now (I didn’t have a mobile phone back in 1999). I’d got 23 years more experience of train travel (and many microwaved train cheeseburgers, which I love for their moistness) under my belt now. Surely the well-travelled version of me that can conquer anything could master the Tube? Well, we’re about to find out…

Southbound

I spent all week planning this trip. Planning is key to everything. Planning my meals helped me lose 19 pounds. Planning would help me master the Tube. I had pubs planned, touristy stuff planned, tickets booked. This weekend would go to plan and all would be well. I calculated we needed an 0500 alarm and an 0600 departure on Friday. And Lee and I left the house (almost) on time.

I banged on a Favourites Mix that Apple Music had selected for me, which was brilliant: David Ford, Aztec Camera, Ocean Colour Scene, Suede, Starsailor, Buckcherry.

I selected a different voice for the satnav on Waze: English (US) Master Chief. I’m not sure what I was expecting (perhaps an American Indian?). But what we got was basically Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad. He was ace and, most importantly, didn’t irritate Lee – indeed he made him feel like James Bond, which was pretty cool.

When I tapped our destination into Waze (Premier Inn, London Stratford), it came up with this warning.

WTF was ULEZ? I’d checked in advance that we wouldn’t be entering the Congestion Charge Zone. Was this something else we’d have to pay? Had I fucked this up despite my meticulous planning? How were Northerners supposed to know this stuff? Frantic Googling ensued. But it seemed we were exempt, maybe because we had a new semi-hybrid car? Who knows what these stupid rules coming out of London are any more? But we were just relieved that we seemed to be escaping whatever this ULEZ was (perhaps someone can explain, assuming someone understands?).

As our journey was running smoothly in terms of traffic (the motorways busier than they have been but moving), we decided to make a pit stop for breakfast and a leg stretch at Norton Canes Services.

Sausage and caramelised onion chutney toastie with an Earl Grey.

I’ve gone off the rails with my diet this week, drinking every day and eating things I’d normally avoid like the plague. It has been kind of fun but there have been physical repercussions: migraine, spots, bloated tummy and indigestion. This toastie was lush (and just the right amount of food for me) but immediately brought on indigestion. This was my body telling me to stop and get back on the SlimmingWorld plan. I’ll get back on it soon (hopefully).

I recall being disappointed with the toilets on a previous visit but today I enjoyed the lighting and this plant.

Back on the road, shortly before 1000 my phone alarm reminded me it was time to buy match tickets for our next trip to London: a wacky midweeker at QPR. Buying tickets via the club portal on Ticketmaster is always fun. Today was especially so. I was buying five tickets for this match. The process goes something like this.

  • Go to eticketing.com/blackpoolfc
  • Enter customer number
  • Enter password
  • Select match
  • Select seating area
  • Select ticket type (note you can only pick one ticket at a time)
  • Add to basket
  • Go to checkout
  • Return to do more shopping
  • Select match
  • Select seating area
  • Select ticket type (note you can only pick one ticket at a time)
  • Add to basket
  • Go to checkout
  • Return to do more shopping
  • Select match
  • Select seating area
  • Select ticket type (note you can only pick one ticket at a time)
  • Add to basket
  • Go to checkout
  • Return to do more shopping
  • Select match
  • Select seating area
  • Select ticket type (note you can only pick one ticket at a time)
  • Add to basket
  • Go to checkout
  • Return to do more shopping
  • Select match
  • Select seating area
  • Select ticket type (note you can only pick one ticket at a time)
  • Add to basket
  • Allocate Ticket 2 to Lee’s account so he gets the booking history
  • Allocate Ticket 3 to Karen’s account so she gets the booking history
  • Allocate Ticket 4 to Seb’s account so he gets the booking history
  • Allocate Ticket 5 to Alex’s account so he gets the booking history
  • Go to checkout
  • Select payment method
  • Select preferred card details that Ticketmaster have helpfully remembered
  • Input card expiry date (not remembered)
  • Input three-digits from back of card (not remembered)
  • Navigate away to banking app to confirm purchase
  • Confirm purchase in banking app
  • Navigate back to Ticketmaster to confirm that I’ve confirmed the purchase with my bank
  • Complete purchase

And that’s not to mention that this transaction must be completed within a tight timescale, so the countdown clock is ticking to add extra stress to this fucking stupid process. I managed it with less than a minute to spare. Phew!

Is it any wonder that people get frustrated with online technology? It would have been easier (and possibly quicker) for us to turn round, drive back to Blackpool, pick up the tickets from the ticket office and head back south.

Our first planned port of call today had been the pub with the monorail that you can ride round their beer garden (The Holly Tree). As I mentioned in last weekend’s blog, they had called me to advise that the train didn’t run on weekdays outside of school holidays. I don’t want you to miss out, though, so here’s a little video that I found on YouTube (obvs ours would have been better, but this is better than nowt).

It was because of this pub that we were staying where we were staying tonight (nowhere near Fulham, where tomorrow’s match was) but all good plans and all that.

Premier Inn London Stratford

There was no parking at the hotel (being London) but the hotel’s website advised that paid parking was available at the adjacent Westfield Shopping Centre. I consulted Google Maps, decided Car Park A was the most convenient and Waze navigated us in there. It was a huge car park, so I took a photo of the conveniently numbered aisle so we wouldn’t forget where we had left the car.

Despite it now being 1130 and checkin not being until 1500, we decided to pop to the hotel to let them know we would be checking in close to midnight, if that was ok, which it was.

We entered the hotel on the ground floor and took the lift up (a looooooong way) to reception on the first floor (which felt like the tenth, the lift took that long to get there). We had a little mooch round (ooh the restaurant is part of the hotel) and I popped to the loo while we were here (no photo, so assume unremarkable). What was most exciting was the automated checkin machines.

I looked forward to trying these out later.

The Dreaded Tube

But now it was time to navigate our way into London for some touristing. Following the lunch cancellation at the Holly Tree, I had deliberately left our schedule with elements of flexibility, so as to ease the time pressure and make the travelling less stressful. But, negating that, Karen had invited herself to join us for lunch so, instead of being relaxed about our arrival time in London, I was now having to select a set time for arrival (1200) – and put it back to 1230 as we arrived a little later than scheduled, then put it back again (1300) as Lee was faffing about with something. I detest being controlled by time – whilst recognising that it does require strict management on these Football Tourist Guides if we are to make the most of our weekends. This time stress was not ideal ahead of the dreaded Tube experience.

I tried to make sense of the directions on Google Maps to take us on foot to Stratford station. Once I had got my bearings, I began confidently striding in the desired direction. Still relatively sprightly – and determined to enjoy London – at this point, I paused occasionally to take photos of joyful things I spotted when I looked up from my phonemap. It really was lovely round here – assuming all pretty new and built around the London 2012 Olympics.

I didn’t get it quite right, as we ended up unnecessarily crossing a bridge, but we got there, which was the main thing.

Google Maps had informed me that we needed the Central Line (red) to Chancery Lane, from where we could walk to the pub I had selected for lunch. Stratford station was mercifully quiet, so I was able to navigate this in a calm and relaxed manner, reading the clearly visible signs to the desired platform.

We boarded successfully on Platform 3a and took a seat. Once onboard, I consulted the map on the wall of the train, double-checked that the next stop was Mile End as expected, then proceeded to concentrate on which stop we were at all the way to Chancery Lane, where we disembarked. That really wasn’t so hard. What had all the fuss been about?

Chancery Lane station had two exits. Which one did we need? Karen called.

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m at Chancery Lane station. I don’t know which exit I need so the longer you keep me on the phone, the longer I’ll be. See you at the pub in ten minutes.’

Google Maps helped me out and we headed up onto the streets of London, where I again attempted to admire the view in between glances at the map.

Stunning pub. But not on my list to visit. This time…

Seven Stars

This pub was one of 19 that had been recommended to me following an appeal on Twitter. I had spent all week whittling this pub list down to places that served food that Lee and I could eat (we both have quite niche dietary requirements), served beer and were in the vicinity of our tourist stops. I had narrowed the list down to three potential lunch venues and three potential dinner/tea/supper/pre-theatre dining venues.

I selected this backstreet boozer because it was famed for its food, had a quirky landlady and – most importantly – had a pubcat. Going forward I am going to try harder to bring you more pubcats because they are one of my favourite things in the world – plus I have a huge bag of Dreamies to get through and I haven’t encountered one cat since I’ve been carrying around a little bag of Dreamies in my coat pocket.

I hadn’t told Lee about the highly anticipated pubcat because he’s allergic to cats. But he survived our night in the Mumbles AirBNB where a cat had accidentally spent all afternoon camped out, so I’m prepared to put this supposed allergy to the test. I’d rehomed my cats prior to moving in with Lee two years ago, so the least he could do was be in the same room as a pubcat for an hour. Besides, we’d been discussing on the way down how dramatic moments would be a great addition to his videos – and also be a good way to manage his stress, focussing on the video as opposed to the stressful incident – so this would be a great first test.

The beers were unexciting (you can’t have everything) but nonetheless I ordered a pint of Broadside. I had earned this for successfully navigating us here (nods to Google Maps and Waze). Karen had decided she wasn’t drinking anything until she’d had something to eat and Lee had a lemonade as he doesn’t drink.

Alas the chalkboard menu (which I forgot to photograph, sorry) had nothing on there today that was suitable for our dietary requirements. But I’d committed to my pint now, so we found a table and took a seat. There was no sign of the cat, other than the man in the corner with his newspaper instructing Karen to shut the door behind her so the cat didn’t get out.

Lee was sulking because this pub wasn’t the ‘eye candy’ he wanted for the video. He clearly wasn’t looking hard enough.

Karen was bemoaning the lack of food and I was being pestered for details of the other lunch options, which I duly provided.

‘There’s a chippy nearby,’ offered Karen, trying to be helpful.

‘I don’t want a chippy, Karen. I want to eat in a pub because that’s my MO for the blog. I get complaints if there aren’t pubs. Plus I’m trying to be on a diet…’

I felt I couldn’t relax in here with my pint (as I would have done if I had been on my own – sometimes, I think, the best way to fully be present and appreciate a pub), so I necked it and we headed off to the second pub on my list. It was a good job I had a list.

I knew navigating London on foot would throw up plenty to feature in this Football Tourist Guide, which was another reason why I hadn’t jam-packed today’s schedule. En route to Pub #2, we were distracted by a building of interest.

This was where Valeri Belokon had his historic court victory against our shitbag former owners in 2019, which led to their removal and the rebirth of Blackpool Football Club.

We passed through a streetfood market and were tormented by the most delightful aromas.

And then at last we were at the next pub on my list.

The Eagle Farringdon

With fish on the menu, we couldn’t lose here, right? But again this pub had daily chalkboards as opposed to traditional menus, so it was always going to be hit and miss as to what we were going to get. Also, I forgot to photograph them again (must try harder, sorry).

I did get the pump clips, though.

Another uninspiring selection.

I’d have been happy to eat anything by this point – we did have somewhere else to be at 1530 and, if we left it much later, I wouldn’t have room for another meal today. However Lee couldn’t find anything suitable on the menu. After months on SlimmingWorld, I’m perfectly used to asking for dishes to be tweaked to suit my dietary requirements, but Lee is not so well-practised at this art and decided that he couldn’t have anything off the menu, as opposed to making it so that he could have something. But time was against us and, instead of getting involved in that conversation, I made the snap decision to move on to Pub #3. I was getting hangry and intolerant of people (which I always am in London anyway – I think it must be something in the air?) and that needed resolving without further delay.

Union Tavern

We’d definitely find food here. There was a traditional menu and it had steak and fish and chips. That was everyone happy. We were eating here whatever. That was that.

Here’s what I had to drink.

This is the only pump clip on my camera roll. Not sure if there were others but I’m assuming not.
And relax…

There was a two-course menu on the table. I didn’t want two courses but Lee and Karen did. I was just pleased they had found somewhere they were happy with. And I had, after all, had a bonus pub crawl, which is never a bad thing, is it? I went back to the bar.

‘Is it compulsory to have two courses? I only want one.’

‘What are you having for your main?’

‘Steak frites.’

‘Well it’s £16.95 a la carte but the set lunch menu is £14.95 for two courses…’

So it was cheaper for me to have two courses than one? What sort of capital craziness was this? I duly obliged.

Potato rosti with a poached egg, tarragon & bearnaise.
Steak Frites, Hanger steak aka “the butchers cut”, French fries & chimichurri sauce.

Lee and Karen both went for the fish and chips, which came with an odd minted pea concoction. Karen set hers aside in disgust but I resolved to give it a try.

Revolting.

As for the fish?

How was this so smooth? It looked like it had been coated in wax and polished. It was plain wrong. I don’t know what Lee and Karen were thinking ordering fish and chips in London. They simply don’t know what they’re doing with this beloved dish down here.

There was some nice snackage on the bar, though – although I was, of course, too stuffed to attempt any of this.

Mmm biltong…

Over lunch, Karen had presented me with a badge that she saw and had to buy for me. And I loved it.

Fierce, of course, being my favourite brewery.

It was around 1445 by the time we’d eaten. We parted ways with Karen and headed across to our first official tourist stop of the day.

The Postal Museum

This place had been kindly recommended by Liz, who advised there was a little secret underground train. Well how could we not go and check that out?

There was a lot of building work going on around the museum, which made it a slight faff to get to, although this made me smile.

On arrival at The Postal Museum, we were greeted by a friendly man who advised us that there were two parts to the museum and the Mail Rail was in the other building. We headed back down and across the road.

We joined a short queue for the Mail Rail. As the little train arrived and the previous passengers disembarked, I observed the ‘stationmistress’ asking the people in the queue ahead to put their handbags in the lockers on the platform. I thought this was a bit odd. It wasn’t as if we were going on a rollercoaster. Plus, the lockers weren’t lockable. I was not at all comfortable with this. When I was asked to abandon my (tiny) handbag in the locker, I questioned this process.

‘Er…it’s in case there’s a fire and we need to evacuate…look, just put it in the locker please.’

I was angry enough (in the knowledge I was right) to continue this argument but instead capitulated, emptying practically the entire contents of my handbag into my coat pockets. I had no intention of leaving my bank cards, theatre tickets, match tickets, mobile phone and money unattended. If I did go again, I would not take a handbag with me.

The train carriages were tiny (even I almost bumped my head on the roof). This is because these little electric driverless trains were built to transport the mail (not people) on a little underground network.

Each carriage accommodated just two people and Lee and I learned about the history of the Mail Rail through a series of videos and displays as the train transported us underground.

We learned that this underground rail network was based on a similar model in Chicago. There were several little stations where mail sacks would be loaded and unloaded. It somehow seemed so much cooler than the Tube. It felt like a movie set (indeed it has been used for this purpose).

We also learned that postcodes were introduced in the 1970s. Postcodes are a specialist subject of mine and I’m still waiting for a postcodes round to come up in a quiz (that hasn’t been written by me).

After the little train trip there was a series of mail-related activities that we could undertake. If I’m being honest, a lot of these seemed like work as opposed to games. However I did get a surprising amount of satisfaction from sorting the mail. I think I’d have loved to do that for a living. Especially if it now involves postcodes.

On our way out (of this side of the museum) we pottered around the shop and the staff remarked on how they loved how much we were loving what they had in there.

Beer!
Are rats the new unicorns?

We then headed back across the road to the other section of the museum, where we were again greeted by the friendly man. He explained that this exhibition charted the history of the postal system from its inception by Henry VIII (what a king he was!) to the present day. Here are some of the highlights.

Cats – tick!

This was a delightful museum and I was so pleased we had visited.

It was now around 1630. We realised we probably wouldn’t have room for tea after that two-course late lunch. Thus we had regained a little more time. Which, it soon turned out, was just as well…

And that, dear reader, is where I’ll leave you for now.

Coming up in Part Two:

  • Nags Head
  • De Hems
  • Book of Mormon @ Prince of Wales Theatre
  • Jane v The Tube: Part Deux
  • Thames River Cruise
  • Fulham v Blackpool
  • Northbound
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