I’ll be honest with you Khaleejis: there is a growing stereotype in London about tourists from the Gulf region. You know the type; they visit this expansive and cosmopolitan city, but never leave the confines of Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Mayfair.
That’s right, we’ve noticed. It’s not that this annoys us; we just want you to know that you are missing out on so much that London has to offer by staying cocooned in that uninspiring part of town you’ve made home. However, you’re in luck, dear reader, as I, your very own born-and-bred London tour guide, will open your eyes to the wealth that this great city of mine has to offer when you venture into London’s outer zones.
“London zones?” you ask. Allow me to explain. Aside from the eagle-eyed among you, it’s unlikely you’ve noticed this sprawling city is divided into six zones radiating out from the centre in concentric circles. It’s simple; the lower the zone you are in, the closer to the city centre you are. As zone 1 is home to almost all of London’s best-known attractions, the vast majority of tourists never leave this restrictive world of tourist traps.
While some may be satisfied with this sheltered existence, I sense a greater ambition in you, dear reader. So I urge you to keep reading, as armed with my privileged local insight, you will be enlightened to a wealth of opportunities in zones 2, 3 and 4 of this great metropolis.
Fine Dining in Zone 2
You are likely familiar with England’s reputation for bland, uninspiring cuisine. I’m sorry to break it to you, but it’s largely true. Geography must take some blame for this; for centuries, the choppy waters of the English Channel isolated our rainy isles culturally and physically from our gastronomically blessed European neighbours.
While our national staples – Scotch eggs, spotted dick, toad in the hole and haggis, to name a few of our more appealing offerings – still do little to ingratiate our cooking with the world, London’s reputation as a culinary wasteland is, thankfully, long consigned to history.
The city’s elevation to world-city status in the recent decades has brought with it fine gastronomy from quite literally every nation on Earth. With this has come a menagerie of the highest quality restaurants, with the city now awash with Michelin-starred restaurants – the gold standard of truly fine cuisine worldwide. Though a disproportionate amount of these restaurants reside within Mayfair and Chelsea, fine dining knows no bounds in the capital.
So it is with great pleasure, dear Khaleeji, that I welcome you to our first stop, zone 2, which is home to no less than seven Michelin-starred restaurants dotted in the south, west and east of the capital, each awaiting your gastronomic pleasure.
For high-quality seasonal British dishes in the traditionally working class East End of London, head to either Ellory or Pidgin in Hackney. For French cuisine, Chez Bruce in Wandsworth and La Trompette in Turnham Green serve up all of the perfectly executed staples of French haute cuisine one might expect in stylish modern settings. To enjoy Italian cuisine in a tranquil riverside setting, The River Café in Thames Wharf is your best bet. Finally Trinity, located in the picturesque Clapham Old Town, is famed to offer among the best-tasting menus in all of London.
While all of these restaurants are guaranteed to reward your boundary pushing nature with the highest quality fare, perhaps you remain unconvinced that they are worth venturing out of the cosy confines of Knightsbridge.
Thankfully, I have a trick up my sleeve: ranked number 27 in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants in 2017, the two Michelin-starred The Ledbury should prove sufficiently alluring. Situated on charming and vibrant Westbourne Grove in West London, Chef Brett Graham’s modern European offerings are in hot demand with the restaurant regularly booked up months in advance – planning ahead is therefore essential.
Who knew such elegance and luxury existed in zone 2?
Village life in Zone 3
Now that we’re fed, it’s time for some sightseeing. But, as you may have guessed, we won’t be heading to the well-trodden haunts of the city’s tourist circuit. We’re heading further out still, far into zone 3, looking for relics of a bygone era. I’m talking about the villages of London.
I sense your confusion, and to explain, allow me to provide some context about this city’s rich history. Until the 17th century, London was a walled settlement encompassing no more than the single square mile that is marked today by the skyscrapers of the financial district.
Beyond London’s city walls existed a scattered collection of small villages and market towns. These were consumed when London more than tripled in size between the 18th and 19th centuries in the great expansion of the Georgian era. As the metropolis swelled, the majority of these villages and market towns were seamlessly absorbed into the rapidly expanding urbanized landscape.
Thankfully for you and I, all was not lost. There still exist parts of the capital that act as living relics of this time, defiantly retaining a distinctly village ambiance in the face of the great urban sprawl around them. It is in these places that you have the opportunity to experience old English village life in the heart of the capital.
In West London, you have Kew Village, home to world heritage site the Royal Botanical Gardens and the British Royal Palace of Kew. In North London, you have two of the U.K.’s most sought after neighbourhoods, Highgate Village and Hampstead Village, straddling opposite sides of the famously expansive and rugged Hampstead Heath and presenting breath-taking views of London’s skyline. In the south-east you have Dulwich Village – an ancient parish incorporated into London in 1889 – boasting an elite boarding school, grand stately homes and the Dulwich Picture Gallery founded in 1811.
But perhaps the most deceptive of these urban suburbs masquerading as rural retreats is Barnes Village. A mere 40-minute drive south-west from the heart of the capital, you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into an idyllic corner of England’s famous home counties when arriving in the village centre. Greeted by quaint churches, a farmer’s market, period homes, a village pond and independent businesses galore, Barnes Village is at once a thriving community and refuge from the hustle of the capital. Situated on the sleepier western banks of the Thames, the town offers river walks aplenty and endless greenery, with the adjacent London Wetland Centre acting as a sanctuary for London’s flourishing wildlife.
However evocative my descriptions of the villages of London are, words alone can only do so much to capture the essence of these unique communities. To truly appreciate them in all their glory, you must venture out into the depths of zone 3. Better yet, rent a home and fully immerse yourself in village life.
Taking to Water in Zone 4
Now well and truly out of your comfort zone (pun intended), I’d like to introduce you to our final stop on this boundary-pushing locals guide to London – the waterways of zone 4.
Here we visit Richmond, where the scenic waterways of the Thames flow from the river’s source in Gloucestershire and pass through the counties of Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Royal Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Middlesex before meeting us on the banks of south-west London.
Less crowded by tugboats and tourist vessels, this section of the river bears little resemblance to the murky, fast-flowing monolith you are likely more accustomed in the heart of zone 1. Rather, this part of town is more reminiscent of a scene from a Jane Austen novel, as small yachts, rowers, houseboats and wildlife all coexist in peaceful serenity while the river meanders through leafy Richmond at a snail’s pace.
This is the prime location to become better acquainted with the pleasures of life on London’s water in two ways. For the adventurous and fit among you, it is possible to hire rowing skiffs (small, manually operated boats) at the Richmond Bridge Boathouses between March and October. These can carry between 1 and 8 people and are perfect for a family outing.
This also presents the opportunity to explore the myriad of fascinating, small islands that populate this stretch of the river. While many of these islands act as nature reserves and are therefore not open to the public, the most famous of these – the evocatively named Eel Pie Island – is accessible to visitors. Resting between the river banks in nearby Twickenham and only accessible by water, Eel Pie Island is home to boatyards, art studios and 120 permanent residents. It also earned a reputation in the 1960s as an unlikely hotbed for London’s jazz scene.
Alternatively, if you prefer your river cruises guided and leisurely, tour provider Turks offer 45 daily trips that depart from St Helena pier in Richmond, taking in all of the sites of this tranquil part of the Thames as they guide you upstream towards Hampton Court. This trip is worth doing simply for the marvel awaiting you once you’ve disembarked the other end, Hampton Court Palace. Built in the 16th century and open to the public, this royal palace boasts an incomparable combination of Tudor and Baroque architecture, as well as the famous Hampton Court Maze, planted in the 1690s.
And there you have it, my Khaleeji reader – this final stop on our whistle-stop tour signals that my job is complete. Sure, you could ignore these great unearthed pleasures waiting to be had beyond the boundaries of zone 1 and go back to tussling with Union Jack wearing holidaymakers and walking down Oxford Street if you wish. But when docking back into the pier at Richmond, belly full of world-class grub and fresh river air in your lungs after having seen a side to London you didn’t know existed, I promise you’ll wonder why you denied yourself all the pleasures this great city has to offer for so long.
Alastair McCready is a British journalist.