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London

The most visible change in London that we noticed this time was the ubiquitous existence of bikes. There is a public bicycle stand wherever you go. This has been an initiative of London’s mayor, Mad Boris Johnson, introduced in the years since we last visited. The initiative, designed to make London more amenable while contributing to the movement of people around the city, is so closely associated with the mayor himself that he has now been dubbed ‘Boris Bikes’. Jean and I were confused for a while as to the cost of hiring a bike. We think we finally worked it out on our last day. It may be that you hire a bike for £1 for one day, and you pay a certain fee for the time used, but not when you’re not using it. But, we think you can have as many trips as you want on a bike for less than half an hour each ‘ride’, and pay nothing. Potentially a fantastic way to see London, its myriad tourist attractions, or at least enjoy cycling around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

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Last night, our final night in the UK, we went on a Jack the Ripper tour. You meet at Tower Hill tube station at 7.30 pm on any night of the year barring Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You don’t have to book. You just turn up. It costs £9, and it goes for about an hour and a half. The lady who took us through the streets of Whitechapel was very knowledgeable about the murders of the five women that took place in 1888. She showed the group of about 30 where the murders occurred, and gave plenty of insights into the characters and local circumstances of people living in the east end when Jack the Ripper struck. Jack was never caught, and no solid evidence exists to confirm Jack’s identity. But more than 100 theories abound.

We had a fantastic few days of partying in London, but the only downer was the regular rain. It seems that even on big royal occasions, the weather is long to rain over us. I loved the front page of the Sun newspaper the day after the flotilla on the Thames. It had a big picture of the Queen, with boats and river behind her, and the headline read: Drip drip hooray.

It’s been a great experience staying at the Baileys Hotel as a guest. I was one of the staff here nearly 30 years ago, from late 1982, working as a kitchen porter. From the outside, the hotel hasn’t changed. The front entrance is where it’s always been. Inside the foyer, or lobby, Reception is still to the right, the doorway to the lifts still to the left. But the old coffee shop overlooking Gloucester Road has been replaced by the more upmarket Olives, an Italian restaurant.

In my day, Baileys was owned by Indians, but they are long gone. Baileys is today owned by the Millennium group of hotels. But in 1983, while I worked here, the Indian owners established the Bombay Brasserie, nestled between the Baileys and the Gloucester Hotel next door, also a Millennium hotel. The Bombay Brasserie still exists, and is widely recognised as London’s finest Indian dining. I walked through the restaurant, and indeed it is very beautiful, the chandeliers magnificent.

I was escorted into the basement of Baileys for a nostalgic tour. The place has totally changed. The layout is nothing like it used to be. The kitchen I worked in, which serviced the old coffee shop above, no longer exists. And the quality of the basement itself is superior to the early 80s. Today, the floor is covered in lino, and the walls have the standard plastic attachments that seem to go with quality building work. In the old days, the basement was very rudimentary. The floor was concrete, and the walls bare, hard and no frills. The corridor leading to what used to be the staff canteen still slopes downwards. But, unlike before, the basement of the Baileys leads into the basement of the Gloucester.

We attended a Queen’s diamond jubilee street party in Folgate Street in London’s east end. Whatever purpose this normally narrow, little stretch of road serves, today it was closed off at one end by a red union jack-covered double decker bus, and played host to teeming hundreds of party animals. It was in some ways a repeat of yesterday; an ocean of British flags dominated the scene, as did pints of beer, glasses and bottles of varying ciders, other alcoholic drinks, stills cameras and video, and mobile phones that often had to be raised in the air to capture what their owners couldn’t see. Everywhere you looked, there were happy people, revellers, varying degrees of intoxication, pretty girls both foreign and English, and young children waiting their turn to receive a newly created balloon depicting the Queen or a crown or octopus by the cleverest balloon manipulator you’ve ever seen. Streams of men and women flowed in conga lines towards the bar, while stationery ‘conga lines’ of women waited patiently for their turn in the ladies’ toilets.

A series of tables forming one long row covered the length of the street. A single photograph captured the whole row, dominated by the British colours red, white and blue. At one end, a band played ‘Land of hope and glory’ to thunderous cheers and waving of union jacks from everyone present. It was like the last night at the Proms, an intense display of British nationalism that was intoxicating and heartwarming. A moment no one will forget in their lives. The only diamond jubilee in their lives.

We sat, together with old friends Mike and Edwina and kids Rebecca and Joshua. We owe them a debt of gratitude for taking us there.

Today, 3 June 2012, millions of words will have been written by journalists, magazine writers, columnists, Facebookers, tweeters, bloggers and others about the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the flotilla of a thousand vessels sailing along the Thames from Chelsea to Tower Bridge. So, I’ll describe the event from our own perspective instead. At about 11am, we camped on the north side of the river between London Bridge and Southwark Bridge. Thanks to crowd control officers and City of London Police, our little area was soon roped off, limiting crowd numbers around us.

A sea of union jacks confronted the eye. Union jacks were draped around shoulders, there were flags, union jack bowler hats, rain coats, and the odd person’s total attire was the union jack. Lengthy bunting flapped up and down with the wind, often matching the union jack Mexican waves flowing from right to left in front of us.

Young and old came, mothers pushing prams, and, a very British thing, people brought out their spaniels and other canine friends. Revellers snapped up coffees and hot food from the McDonalds at the top of Laurence Pountney Lane, while others whipped out their pre-packed fruit and sandwiches. One witticism I saw on a pram of all things said ‘Singing in the reign’. It did rain steadily, making the event even more British.

Afterwards, Jean and I ended up in the Mudlark, a pub with raucous revellers tucked away beneath London Bridge on the south side of the Thames, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral. Noisy, packed, we swallowed Carling as well as Pimms & Lemonade and had a ball.

Baileys Hotel – Cromwell Road – Grenville Place – Kensington High Street – Holland Park – Notting Hill – Kensington Gardens – Kensington Palace – Bayswater Road – Curzon Street – Green Park – The Mall – Green Park – Westminster – White Hall – Trafalgar Square – Piccadilly (Fortnum & Mason) – Piccadilly Market – Regent Street – Oxford Street – Hyde Park – Hyde Park Corner – Knightsbridge – Cromwell Road.

We walked for all of the above today apart from Baywater Road (bus) and Green Park to Westminster (tube). Jean thinks we walked 10 miles (16 km). Soon, we’ll see some old friends at the Wong Kei restaurant at Leicester Square.

As a guide to the reader on what we ‘tourists’ are spending in London, so far today we invested £30 on Oyster cards for London Transport, £25 on lunches in a pub, including drinks, £15 on afternoon tea, £40 on a Pandora charm for Jean, £2.50 for postcards, and £10 on four scenes of London.

We are loving it here, re-living the 80s.