No.11 -- London's cheapest sightseeing bus review
London sightseeing buses (the open-top ones with a guide at the front) are ridiculously expensive these days. A family of four can easily blow the best part of 100 quid on a two-hour ride. So if you don't fancy the idea of spending a small fortune on a sightseeing bus, but you still want to go on a sightseeing bus, then the No.11 bus is for you. The No.11 is just a normal everyday bus that happens to drive past all the London landmarks. And because it's a normal bus you can just pay a normal bus fare like you would on any other route -- a couple of quid each.
It's not the easiest of bus stops to find if you want to start at the beginning -- it's round the side of Liverpool Street train station. The best thing to do is to walk inside the train station itself and then head round to the lefthand side. You'll see the entrances to the bus stops along the upstairs wall.
When the bus gets going the first thing you'll see is the Gherkin and a few skyscrapers up ahead, and then you'll be heading towards the Bank of England and Mansion House. Remember to twist your neck around to the left when you reach the Bank because you don't want to miss the columns on the front of the Royal Exchange. You'll probably have time to take a few photos around here because you'll quickly clog on to the end of some traffic. This is the centre of The City (the Square Mile), where all the businessmen and women work, so you can do a bit of people watching in the street... watch them pulling their six suitcases of financial reports and piles of papers out the taxi before the traffic lights change. Oh dear... this guy has just dropped all of his homework on the pavement! More haste, less speed, mate. Pick it up quick, before the bus runs over it. Half of the people you see will have a cardboard coffee cup in their hands or a mobile phone ringing and binging by their ear. The rest will be trying to hold back the traffic with the palm of their hand, or pointing this way, that way (they haven't got a clue which way) -- trying to stop a taxi or a bus when they're still fifty feet from the stop. It's frantic down there in The City. I'm glad we're up here on the bus.
Then you head down Queen Victoria Street towards the back end of St. Paul's Cathedral. You'll get a great view of the dome from here, and hopefully you'll be going slower than it's possible to go so you can take some more photos. If you have quick look to the left then you'll see the Tate Modern across the Millennium Bridge. Then twist your neck around the other way as you pass around the front of the cathedral to see the famous portico.
The first half of Fleet Street is a bit bland, but wake up when you get near Temple Bar (that tall brown monument in the centre of the road). You need to keep your eyes open around here because there are some very fine Tudor-style shopfronts on the lefthand side. Everyone makes the mistake of staring at the Royal Courts of Justice on the right with its Camelot-like turrets, but you don't want to miss all of the great buildings on the left. Some of my favourite buildings are down here -- skinny little shopfronts with black oak beams and overhanging eaves, and lovely old pubs with darkened windows. Try and find St Dunstan's on the right (did you see the old statue of Elizabeth I above the door?). That's where Sweeney Todd was supposed to have had his barbers shop: next door to that church.
Hopefully your bus will get snarled up in the traffic and you'll be sitting here for five minutes waiting for a space to open up. These buses are extremely fidgety when they're idling over -- the windows are vibrating. They remind me of those joggers standing at the traffic lights, bouncing up and down to keep their muscles moving.
When you pass the two churches in the middle of the road you'll be heading down the Strand. There's not much to see down here except the Savoy Hotel on the left and Nelson's Column peeping over the rooftops up ahead. When you reach Trafalgar Square have a quick look through Admiralty Arch as you turn into Whitehall, and you'll get a distant look at Buckingham Palace at the far end of The Mall.
The first thing you'll see when you turn into Whitehall is Big Ben above the trees and then Horse Guards on the right. Depending on what time of day you come you'll either see some Foot Guards or the Household Cavalry guarding the gates. You'll also see about three million tourists queuing up for a photo. A short distance down the road are the iron gates of Downing Street, with more tourists and machine gun coppers standing outside the front. You'll probably drive past it too quickly to see anything, but try and look over the top of the gates and down the righthand side of the street. That's where the Prime Minister lives -- at No.10 Downing Street. Hopefully there will be another copper standing outside the front door to pinpoint exactly where it is (it's halfway down the road, on the right).
When you arrive into Parliament Square you'll see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the left, and Westminster Abbey behind the trees. The bus will whizz around to the right and you'll be cursing that you didn't have enough time to see it all, so take my advice: get off the bus. Ring the bell and get off outside Westminster Abbey, because you'll run out of famous landmarks after this.
If you decide to stay on then you'll be heading towards Victoria station. The only thing worth seeing up here is Westminster Cathedral on the left. The rest of Victoria has been rather ruined in recent years with all the glass box buildings and concrete offices going up, but it starts to pretty up considerably once you pass Victoria Coach Station. The buildings will gradually turn from concrete grey to ruddy red bricks and green trees, and you'll be driving past the millionaire's mansions in Chelsea. There are lots of posh little shops around here selling thousand pound handbags, hand-carved armchairs, mosaics made to order, and sports cars revolving slowly on a circular floor. This is where the other half lives -- the half that can afford to spend 100 quid on an open-top sightseeing bus.
Don't go any further than Chelsea because you'll just be wasting your day. Chelsea is the only place I know where the sixty-year-old women still have long blonde hair, and wear the same old bohemian clothes they had in their hey-day. They're all sitting on the benches in Sloane Square flicking their feet at the pigeons, trying to shoo them away. They just want to sit here and stare at their memories walking past -- younger versions of themselves.
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