WHEN French writer Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell was other people, he wasn’t, as many people think, talking about vast crowds of them elbowing you and jostling for every precious millimetre of space.
But, coming from Paris, one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, he must have been familiar with that sensation of being hemmed in on all sides.
It was a sensation I felt for the first time since the pandemic last week, when I spent a week in London with the family.
Amazingly, there are almost ten million people living, breathing, and existing in the English capital - not counting the vast swarms of tourists - and each of them seems to have sharp elbows and a keen sense of purpose in where they’re heading, along with a keen sense that you are in their way!
Whether it’s crouching under the armpit of a sweaty banker on the Tube, or fighting your way past the armies of shoppers and their flailing bags on Leicester Square, the city is not a place where you ever feel lonesome.
All of which may make you think we had an unpleasant break in London, but far from it. We had an absolute ball.
I have been a regular visitor to the city, and lived there for two years at the turn of the millennium, but this was the first time I had visited it with the family, with the express purpose of doing all the touristy things that I hadn’t done since I was a child.
In many respects, London - the historic city of landmarks, arts and culture - doesn’t change, but in other respects, it is constantly evolving and providing new challenges for the occasional visitor.
With that in mind, I decided to provide an updated guide for those of you who are planning a trip to London in the coming months... things I learned, and things I wish I had known before we left Cork:
1. The Underground
Sometimes, I ponder on what London would be like if its famous Tube system didn’t exist. It hurts my brain. Five million people use it every day - imagine them clogging up the roads and pavements a few hundred feet overhead. Hell is other people, indeed...
Quite simply, the Tube is the way to travel in London. Cheap, quick, and fairly easy to navigate once you get your bearings.
Ah, yes, the navigation. There are 11 lines covering 402km and serving 272 stations. At peak times, more than 543 trains whizz around the myriad burrows.
But forget all that, the Tube Map - created by an Underground employee in 1931 - is your friend and companion in London. Just remember it bears no relation to the geography overhead - even its depiction of the Thames bears no relation to the river’s topography.
But deep underground, the map is a work of genius, allowing you to easily plot your journey.
A tip: Work out all the stations and lines you need in advance of any trip - and make a note of the final stop in each journey to allow you to check you are (literally) on the right lines.
You can get free WiFi on the Underground, but the technology is a work in progress and the signal can be poor - rendering your smartphone not so smart. Better not rely on it.
Paying for your Tube journey requires some advance planning.
If it’s just you and other adults, you can use your bank card to go through all the checkpoints and this will work out at a cheap rate. If you have children, remember that kids under 11 go free on the Tube. For those aged 11-17, check out the Oyster card options.
2. Plan your day
If you want to see as many sights as possible and beat queues, book tickets in advance - even for free attractions such as museums - and bear in mind the geography.
For instance, you can see (and book a ride on) the London Eye, visit the London Dungeons and Aquarium, and also see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and 10, Downing Street, all within a very short distance, in one fell swoop.
The Natural History Museum and Science Museum are side by side in South Kensington, so also can be visited on the same day.
The bus tours are a great way of seeing all the main attractions if you’re only in town a day or two.
3. Be prepared for plans to go awry
In a city of 10 million people, things can and do go wrong.
During our bus tour, we had to contend with a road closure that meant we had to hop off early, and when we rejoined the bus later, it skipped out the final attractions for no apparent reason!
Another time, a Tube station was closed due to overcrowding.
On such occasions, don’t panic. Whip out your smartphone and plan around the issue. The next Tube stop is rarely far away.
Oh, and you might think that asking for help is pointless. Not so. Londoners may well buy and sell you, but the ones who work in the travel and tourism industries are unfailingly helpful and polite.
This may have something to do with the fact they have more time on their hands now they aren’t dealing with tickets and cash.
You may also face issues if there are strikes during your visit - the British Museum was closed the week we were in London.
4. Cashless is handy - but can be a pain
I brought a £10 note as an emergency cash float to London, and returned with the same note a week later. Many places - even tiny coffee shops - are now cashless only.
We thought we were stuck when we saw the loos in St James’ Park, near Buckingham Palace, were 50 cents a time - but they take cards even for that wee amount!
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I was a bit peeved when I entered an ice cream parlour to enquire about what they sold, and the staff pointed me to a screen.
My middle-aged persona grappled with the baffling menu for several minutes before walking out defeated - to be greeted by a chorus of boos from the kids!
Oh, and if you have a good meal experience and want to tip the waiter, tell them as they may have their own card machine for that.
5. Avoid school holidays, and rush hour too
We chose our break to coincide with half-term here - but it was half-term in the UK too.
The family attractions were incredibly busy, to the point where I began to take issue with that old phrase about the man who is tired of London being tired of life. Clearly, Samuel Johnson didn’t try to navigate the Natural History Museum dinosaur section with a million tired and emotional kids and their parents!
Similarly, try to start your travels after morning rush-hour, and be safely ensconced in your accommodation or in a bar during the evening rush-hour, it will help your sanity hugely.
6. Walk when you can
Did you know you can walk from Covent Garden to Leicester Square, to Trafalgar Square, to Horse Guards Parade, to St James’ Park, to Buckingham Palace in about half ana hour? All while enjoying some of the most stunning architecture London has to offer?
At times, it pays to leave the Tube behind and see the sights in the fresh air.