Picture this: It’s 4am. It’s dark outside. You’ve been drinking the night before and had a bit of a late one (and that midnight cup of tea did nothing for your sleep quality). You could go back to sleep. A voice in your mind suggests wearily, hoping with every fibre of its being that you comply. It’s too early, and you probably look like shite. It all sounds very reasonable, with its soft, dulcet tones, beckoning you back to slumber. But there’s another voice – a sensible one that, while sleepy, does have your best intentions at heart – that contradicts: Take a shower, that’ll fix you up.
You let them battle it out as you hit the snooze button, five minutes slipping by in a heartbeat as they play their mental tug of war in your mind, the tired voice beginning to wail as the sensible voice grows more and more stern. Of course, the latter eventually dominates, celebrating with the deafening siren of your alarm, forcing you to get up. It’s probably for the best; after all, it’s the day of the Unite Students 24-hour Challenge. And you can’t really miss that.
— 30 minutes later —
Surprisingly perky post-shower, and with no leftover signs of the night before (what magic a dab of good make-up can do), I was up, ready, and raring to start the day. Though I’m unsure my pre-5am pep was appreciated by everyone, it DID mean I had sufficient energy and concentration to climb to Unite Stratford One’s Sky Room to set up our camera for sunrise (we’d use that later, in a time-lapsed view over the city).
Upon demolishing a breakfast feast of croissants, cake and coffee, myself and “the gang” (we’d decided the day before that Team Bueller fit well with the movie-themed itinerary we had planned) were ready to embark on our adventure, exploring as much of London’s hidden (and not-so hidden) gems as we could find in the 24 (ahem, *22) hours to follow.
Juggling total control of the Unite Students LDN Twitter page as we wandered the streets (and underground) of our grand capital city was a task and a half, although appeared to release our competitive sides as we raced to our first destinations in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. Long renowned for their alternative tastes and fantastic gastronomic options, we chose perhaps two of the quirkiest eateries around: the brand-spanking-new Jonestown Coffee for (you guessed it!) our caffeine fix, and Cereal Killers Cafe (because there’s really nothing quite like reliving your childhood at 8am on a Wednesday morning).
Believe it or not, but due to my faultless (ha) sense of direction, I’d been appointed “Operations Manager” throughout the project. Using the powers bequeathed upon me the night before, I suggested a way to go “tube-free” (bearing in mind this WAS the day of the dreaded tube strike), and together we’d created a plan to walk between destinations – this way, not only would we avoid the disruption, but we’d also see much more of ‘ground-level’ London. Wandering from Brick Lane to Fenchurch Street for our next attraction, we managed to pass some incredible street art, two of London’s best flea markets (at Spitalfield’s and Petticoat Lane), and the Great Fire of London Monument before we arrived at our destination: the Sky Garden.
Standing 160m (525ft) tall, 20 Fenchurch Street – or, the ‘Walkie Talkie’, as it’s colloquially known – isn’t what we’d call pretty. Rightly so, then, that it was named Winner of 2015’s Carbuncle Cup for the UK’s worst new building in the past 12 months earlier this year. However, we discovered a secret: inside this architectural monstrosity is not just a unique three-storey public garden space, an open-air terrace, or classy restaurants and bars with enviable views over the city – oh, no. It’s all free. Taller than the London Eye, and sitting comfortably in the Big Smoke’s Financial District, we’d argue this is THE place to take in the views of the city from. Do as we did and get in quick (and early!) before the hoards of tourists arrive – not that they’ve discovered it yet.
Once we’d pulled our heads out of the clouds, we took back to street level, wandering past St Paul’s and across London Bridge (cue the unavoidable brief “London or Tower?” argument and a terrible, alfresco rendition of the awful Fergie song of the same name) to one of my favourite parts of London: Borough Market.
Considered the ultimate foodies’ market in our capital, Borough Market is a haven for all those who care about the quality and origins of the food they eat. It’s no wonder then, that as massive grub lovers ourselves, we took this opportunity to take advantage of the selection on offer, and see just how many freebies we could get a hold of. In ultimate Supermarket Sweep style, we sped off – some of us faring better than others (with yours truly blagging an entire box of delectable vegetarian fruit marshmallows from independent chocolatiers Artisan du Chocolat) – eventually returning satisfied with our efforts, and having made an extra friend or two along the way.
With a table booked at Pieminster for 1pm, we were in a bit of a hurry by this time so had to make a move. Wandering along Bankside past The Globe Theatre (where a certain member of our team may have gotten a little overwhelmed in awe), Oxo Tower and Tate Modern, we managed to add a little something extra to our footage by paying homage to some of our favourite films. Inspired by the art gallery pose in Ferris Bueller, that famous bench scene featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill and the group jump in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, we managed to film our own versions before arriving at the gorgeous Gabriel’s Wharf for our well-deserved pies.
There is something to be said about social media, and it is this: never, EVER, underestimate it. In our wait for lunch to be brought out, we have to say we got very creative with our never-ending list of pie-themed James Bond puns. Man with the Golden Crust, Piefinger, Tomorrow Never Pies… Yeah, you get the idea. Revelling in our genius, we took to Twitter and sent our clever nuggets of wit to Pieminster themselves. Not only were we retweeted, but our pies ended up on the house, and we MAY have given them a few marketing ideas surrounding the release of Spectre (#justsaying). So, Pieminster, thanks for being great sports. And for the pies – they really were fantastic.
Sated from our lunch, we decided our next stop was to be Covent Garden – accessible across Waterloo Bridge just a little further along Bankside. Waddling our way there, we discovered some unexpected delights on our journey in the form of yet more street art, buskers and even a little social psychology – finally stopping at a suspicious-looking bus labelled SNOG. Expecting something far more sinister on initial impression (with bright lights strobing from all windows), we discovered upon closer inspection that this bus was indeed something pretty special, because out of it, SNOG (whoever they were) were serving frozen yoghurt, and hosting a disco on the top deck. Hey, only in London, right?
After taking advantage of the delicious desserts and then dancing out surplus calories with a surprise mid-afternoon bus rave, we were ready to commence our tour, next stop: Covent Garden. A sophisticated plaza with myriad retail outlets, restaurants and some of the best street performances in the city, Covent Garden should be high priority on everyone’s list during their trip to London (so, for us, it was really a no-brainer). Though we could easily have spent the remainder of the afternoon there we’d reached halfway through our 24-hour challenge and had to keep moving, so decided on the Moomin Store for our sole shop visit (besides, we figured we needed a mascot!), before resolving to head to Leicester Square to indulge our inner nerds at Forbidden Planet.
By this time, with the tube strike looming and the good five miles we’d covered by foot, we were eager to find another mode of transport by which to reach our destination. With some members of our team not 100% confident with riding a Boris bike through the city, we’d ruled that one out earlier, however it seemed our prayers were answered when we heard beckoning, and turned to see a stampede of rickshaws inviting us for a race. And how could we possibly refuse?
Following unforgiving speeds over road bumps, dangerous undertaking and overall questionable means of traffic dodging, we emerged predominantly unscathed (give or take a bruise or two) from the wacky rickshaw races, with just about enough time to explore geek utopia at Forbidden Planet. Imagine every fandom you could ever think of – Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Pokémon, Marvel, DC – and then imagine every possible piece of merchandise that could exist for that fandom; it’s all there. As twenty minutes soon passed, I begrudgingly tore myself away from a Portal-themed cookie jar, knowing we had to leave. Luckily, my need for sweet treats was soon satisfied when we came across Hardy’s – a traditional/American sweet shop situated near to Leicester Square Underground Station. With everything from Wonka’s Nerds to Parma Violets and flying saucers, we gained a much-needed sugar boost as we got ready for perhaps the most iconic attraction of our day. But first, we had to survive the tube strike.
Dear reader, I don’t know whether you’ve ever experienced one of these before, but tube strikes are much akin to the pain of being consumed by the fire of a thousand suns – at least, that’s how it feels as you’re packed like sardines into a tin can with 500 other people – each sweat bead dripping off of you infused with only the most potent of burning rage. It genuinely feels like a zombie apocalypse – two hours of immense panic as people rush amid the chaos to the safety of their homes and then, as 6pm passes, an eerie silence as the Underground is reduced to black. If you can, always, always avoid this experience. If there ever was an indication of hell on Earth, I think this would be it. This, or the abomination that is the entire cast of TOWIE (and not forgetting the devil reincarnate, Katie Hopkins).
I feel it’s only fitting, after discussing people I would gladly throw into an active volcano, that that’s where we head to next. Though the Natural History Museum may not actually possess an active volcano amongst its plethora of prehistoric offerings, this is the place where imagination can run free – in fact, it’s highly encouraged that you use it. Arguably the best free museum in London, there’s heaps to see here for big and small kids alike, even if you’re not daydreaming about the giant Diplodocus skeleton coming to life and chomping old Katie’s head off. With exhibitions and features known the world over, we just couldn’t skip this from our list (but we had to make it pretty snappy if we were going to catch the pedaloes).
Two minute’s uphill from the NHM, you’ll find the most famous green space in London: Hyde Park. Home to some of the best summer festivals in the city, Hyde Park also makes an ideal bike route if you feel like escaping the buzz of urban life or, if you’re water babies like us, you can take a pedalo out onto the Serpentine for a float by dusk. By this time, we were well and truly knackered; it had reached 7pm and our collective energies were waning – fast (I’m relatively sure I keeled over at some point). With Kensington High Street just around the corner, we were tentative – though only a short distance away, Kensington, Chelsea is recognised as possibly the most expensive and exclusive part of the city. As luck would have it, we’d barely touched our budgets all day, so convenience gladly won out, as we began our search for dinner – passing the beautiful Kensington Palace along the way.
If there’s something London does well, it’s variety, and that certainly doesn’t stop at its food. Tucked away behind Kensington High Street and just a short walk from the Palace itself is Maggie Jones’s, a family-run hideaway serving traditionally wholesome British cuisine. With homely meals accompanied by soft lighting and a comforting atmosphere, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped out of urban London and into a more (dare I say it) suburban setting. We were hardly complaining, however – it was an incredibly welcome sight amid the restaurant and coffee house chains that tend to line London’s thoroughfares. In fact, with our tired feet, aching legs and growling bellies, it turned out to be exactly what we needed – 15 hours in, we were knackered, but decided to spend our hour at Maggie Jones’s technologically dry, with only each other for company, rehashing the day and replenishing our energy for the nine hours yet to come…
Miraculously, it worked. As 8.45pm approached, we readied ourselves for our imaginary movie date with Kiefer Sutherland at Kensington Palace, as we pulled up Directors’ chairs and patiently awaiting his gloried, leather-clad appearance on the outdoor cinema screen before us. Eventually, at 9.10pm, he appeared, fresher than his Jack Bauer days, and yet perhaps even more enticed by the dark side, speaking softly: “They’re only noodles, Michael.” Perhaps we were in blissful, food-induced delirium by this point (or just complete comatose), but we’d found this line absolutely hilarious and continued to parody it for the remainder of the night. The previous day, we’d managed to blag ourselves heavily discounted (read: free) passes to The Luna Cinema’s showing of The Lost Boys. Cue a blissful 97 minutes of vampiric comedy bliss – it was more than worth it if only for the gags.
Credits rolling, it had almost reached 11pm. Nineteen hours in, we had to say we felt incredibly impressed with ourselves, and were still buzzing (although that may have been due to the free drinks we’d blagged at Luna Cinema). Regardless, we weren’t ready to give up just yet. We’d heard a rumour of a place where you can “visit the Mayor”. Though BoJo would possibly be the only politician likely to keep up with us in our inebriated states, the Mayor of London was not the one on our list. No, ours was much more important (and arguably far more impartial to a good time, regardless of what the Bullingdon Club would have you believe)… We were off to see the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town.
Blinds shut, lights dimmed, two workers sat either side of the cashier bar ignorantly playing cards – this is the sight that welcomes us as we enter Spitalfields’ The Breakfast Club and, not to end our tour on a disappointing note or anything, but it looked closed. Had they noticed us come in? We looked to each other with confused glances, eventually shuffling haphazardly towards the two men, when one of us eventually piped up, “We’re, er, here to see the Mayor?”. Alas, the magic words. Lazily, one of the men rose from his chair, the other rolling his eyes. “You’re just in time,” he said, as he led us back to the retro Smeg fridge we’d passed on the way. As he opened it, we were expecting to see a few shelves of orange juice, maple syrup, ketchup, whatever standard breakfast fares that happened to be on offer. Instead, we were met with a sinister set of stairs that seemingly led to darkness. “Just go down, and turn left,” he told us, as we ducked through the ominous opening.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired (and, okay, perhaps a little tipsy), I become terrified of the dark. And this was all starting to feel a little too teen horror for me. However, upon wandering down those stairs (sandwiched between everyone else, just to make sure I was protected on ALL sides, I hasten to add), I soon realised there was nothing to worry about, as we discovered the trinket of London treasure that we’d been promised. A moodily-lit speakeasy with exposed brickwork, great music and a wide selection of cocktails, where patrons chatter excitedly in cosied huddles, shrouded in an air of exclusivity, The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is a spectacle to behold, an alcoholic Narnia of sorts. We took to our table, where we were met with an unusual menu of cocktails (I went for “What’s the Dilli’o”, a fresh, tropical concoction of Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, pineapple juice, a dash of egg white, muddled with fresh dill, which was delightful), and left to our own devices. Except our devices didn’t work in here. Oh well, suppose we’ll update social media later.
Through two hours of giddy conversation, recounting wistful reminders of the hours that had passed, we finally decided to leave The Mayor’s and make our way back to Stratford. Verging on 1.30am, we’d heard about a rave occurring in a multi-storey car park. With the tube well and truly done for at this time, and buses relatively sparse (not that we could be bothered with them anyway, at this point), we drunkenly wandered the streets of Aldgate, singing Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody to the skies, before advancing on our very first Uber adventure.
Somewhere between bundling excitedly into the car, talking loudly over each other to our driver, Mabub, and arriving back in Stratford, however, we suddenly all seemed to be hit with a terrible affliction: exhaustion. As we resolved to opt for a little “Netflix and chill” (but, like, the real, non-euphemistic kind) instead, we sadly never did find out whether those rumours of a stacked car park rave exists.
So, with the other teams seemingly retired for the night, and the clock reading 2:04am, we took a victory lap, eventually falling asleep to the boyish charm of a young Matthew Broderick. Team Bueller: over and out.
A 24-HOUR GUIDE TO LONDON.
5am: THE SUNRISE: Unite Students’ Stratford One Accommodation, Stratford.
Gorgeous sights over East London from Zone 3 – probably the furthest it’s worth travelling out to.
7am: THE FIRST FUEL: Jonestown Coffee, Bethnal Green Road, Bethnal Green.
The brand new instalment from the Brick Lane Coffee franchise; come here for the best iced coffees and Kiwi-style flat whites.
8am: THE NOSTALGIC NOVELTY: Cereal Killers Cafe, Brick Lane, Aldgate East.
Relive the early 90s in this breakfast utopia – I recommend murdering some Apple Jacks topped with Party Rings for the utmost in sugar highs.
10am: THE VIEW: Sky Garden, Fenchurch Street, Monument.
Though locals may hate the building, it’s undeniable the Walkie-Talkie’s top floor is a worthwhile visit. Skip the eye-watering prices and queues of the London Eye for a panoramic views of London from “the City”.
11.30am: THE ‘BLAG’ TEST: Borough Market, London Bridge.
For samples and street food galore, look no further than Borough Market, London’s most renowned food market, where mid-morning munchies will be kept at bay (without even parting too much of your hard-earned cash!)
12pm: THE ISOLATED ARTS: Bankside, Waterloo.
The walk along Bankside to the South Bank area is a vibrant one, abundant with galleries, gardens and historic greatness, yet is much quieter than its counterparts on the north of the Thames. Don’t miss the Hayward Gallery, Tate Modern or the South Bank Centre for some much-needed London culture, or step back in time into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or the London Dungeon – all with a view of the Thames and the London skyline as your backdrop.
3pm: THE SHOPPER’S PARADISE: Covent Garden, Covent Garden/Leicester Square.
Wander through the Central Piazza, where you can expect to find inspiration from all corners of the world – from Chanel and L’aduree to Moomin and Kate Spade New York – all the while serenaded by talented musicians as you shop.
5pm: THE MUSEUMS: Natural History Museum, South Kensington.
Where history and nature collide – explore ancient volcanoes, face devastating earthquakes and stand under gigantic dino-skeletons – anything is possible at the NHM (look out for Dino Snores for a true Night at the Museum experience!).
6pm: THE NATURAL HIGH, Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake/Gallery, Hyde Park Corner.
Step off the beaten track for one of the city’s most understated art galleries and a stroll around the gorgeous Serpentine Lake (if you arrive early, we’d recommend taking a pedalo ride around the waters). In the summer, keep an eye out for free events in conjunction with British Summer Time Festival.
8pm: THE GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCE: Maggie Jones’s, Kensington High Street
Tucked just behind Kensington High Street, this hidden gem offers fantastic British food with a quaint atmosphere and super-friendly staff (putting all those rude Londoners to shame). Possibly the best lamb we’ve ever eaten. 5*
9pm: THE GREAT OUTDOORS FILM CLUB: Luna Cinema, Kensington Palace, Queensway
Blag your way into a Luna Cinema screening at the beautiful Kensington Palace grounds during the summer months; if you can, we wholly recommend getting a Premium Pass (the directors’ chairs may just be the best part).
11pm: THE SECRET BAR: The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, Spitalfields, London Liverpool Street
Ask to see the Mayor at The Breakfast Club in Spitalfields, and you’ll be led through a Smeg fridge into what may be London’s worst-kept secret – but there’s a reason it’s so popular. The intimate Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is gorgeous, and one I’ll certainly be returning to time and time again.
1am: THE PARTY: Shoreditch/Dalston/Hackney, Various.
Does the night still feel young to you? Kudos! We didn’t make it this far, however there’s a reason these areas are famous for their nightlife, and we doubt you could wander far without stumbling upon a warehouse party or similar.