The Chai Olympiad: RESULTS

 

Well well well. What a crazy few months it has been knocking about London reviewing Chai Lattes! I have had the secret insider scoop on the chai latte from a barista, been given free drinks as apologies for bad drinks, and moments of pure sweet spicy joy in a fictional Indian train station round the back of Kings Cross. It has been a journey!

If you want to re-read all the reviews they are here 

But here are the results, including the Gold, Silver, Bronze Awards and the Broken Cup Award for the worst Chai out there.

 

Best Corporate : STARBUCKS 

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Like a delicious comfort blanket

I know what you’re thinking, Starbucks is a soulless corporate giant who have aggressively taken over high streets all over UK and put numerous independent cafes out of business. They also make a really lovely chai latte. Two things can be true at the same time, you know! Morality aside, this one is delicious. A syrup mix with hints of ginger, cinnamon and black pepper, with a very sweet taste (though, possibly too sweet for some). This was always my favourite. This is my go to drink if I want cheering up or if I’m treating myself, so there is a strong psychological element to my fondness. I reviewed this one last to see how it stood up against all the others, although EAT’s Chai is a very worthy contender and I’ve even grown to like Costa’s strange powdery one (so long as it’s made well) the Starbucks Chai is the best one you’d be able to buy on any high street almost anywhere on earth.

 

Best Independent: YUMCHAA

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A great chai latte is sometimes an adventure

Yumchaa in general is a beautiful experience, they have a handful of shops in London but are still very Independent in ethos. They have a huge array of loose leaf tea to get through, as well as lots of lovely cakes. Chai wise they have both a black tea and a rooibos blend, I sampled the black tea and it is delicious and flavoursome. It is made using the proper tea blend of loose leaves and hot milk with a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg on top. You can taste the cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger, it’s spicy but not particularly sweet which might be odd for fans of Starbucks or EAT Chais. I can’t recommend this enough, try it!

 

Worst Corporate: CAFFE NERO

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DON’T DRINK IT!

 

Oh Nero. What have you done? In a way this awful drink is what gave birth to the Chai Olympiad. It was so bad it moved me to start reviewing. A sloshy powdery nightmare, with gobs of gummy unmixed powder floating about in the mix like unwelcome jellyfish in the sea. Even more unpleasant when combined with the milky froth. Unpleasant all around. What are you DOING?!

 

Worst Independent: STORE STREET ESPRESSO, LANTANA, FLEET KITCHEN 

 

I do not wish to disrespect or disparage independent cafes. Independent shops are important and vital to London and the rest of the UK.  However, this sorry bunch of lattes were a waste of my money. What’s the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It transpires this applies to these three unhappy chai lattes, they are all unhappy in their own ways. Store Street Espresso was the worst of the worst. I had to throw it away. This was the only chai I didn’t finish of all of them. It was just off milk and bitterness, no flavour at all. What makes it even worse is this cafe is round the corner from my work, I could have been a very regular customer! Fleet Kitchen on the other hand was syrupy, but the syrup tasted like it had been left on a windowsill for five years. It tasted of sour old cloves and horror. Lantana was bad because they need to learn from their mistakes. It was made so poorly (even though the service was lovely!) I paid 3.40 for a “large” cup of hot milk, there was no flavouring at all. As one of the most expensive drinks available, this made the disappointment even deeper.

To be fair to all three, I bet they are great for coffee, but please do NOT get a chai latte from any of them!

Best Service: GAIL’S 

 

When I finally did have a Gail’s chai it was nice enough, nothing too exciting but not bad at all. Better than the drink was their reaction to my first review, their first bland offering, it turned out, had been poorly made. The same day I was contacted by Gail’s on twitter, emailed an apology, a promise to retrain staff and a recipe for their chai latte! Later on in the week I was sent two fully stamped loyalty cards in the post which meant two free drinks to try again, which I did! What a brilliant service! Praise should also be steeped (tea pun!) on Yumchaa, whose wonderful and kind service made the tea all that better. Starbucks, though the service can often be patchy, consistently seem to make my chai lattes to the same standards as well, so praise is due here as well.

 

Worst Service: FLEET KITCHEN, STORE STREET ESPRESSO 

 

I am afraid to report that it is the independents who have been awarded this again. Fleet Kitchen were particularly odd when it came to customer service. First off on the chalk board it was spelled “Chai Lattee”. I ordered my drink and paid as per usual, then the person serving me walked off  without communicating my order to the other person making the drinks. I stood about as the person making the drinks made a coffee for the person before me and two cappuccinos for the people behind me. I continued to stand about and watched the person who served me return, tell the man making the drinks what I’d ordered, to which (for whatever reason!) he rolled his eyes. I had quite a similar experience in Store Street Espresso, not only was the drink undrinkable, but the two baristas were standing about talking about their paychecks while I was waiting around for my drink. I experienced this a few times during my noble quest, I felt like some baristas were not particularly excited or interested in making the drink. It wasn’t exciting or particularly skilled like making a coffee but it was more involved than just plonking a teabag in a cup and pouring water on it. In drink preparation terms it is, perhaps, the worst of all worlds, a bit fiddly and ultimately quite annoying, no surprise that I would be drawn to it…!

 

The Special Achievement in Chai Award: DISHOOM

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Of all the chais in all of London, this felt like the most authentically Indian, because it came from a wonderful Indian restaurant. It was sweet, spicy, hot and filling. Delicious and wonderful. You could tell it was made to a traditional recipe in a traditional way. It was amazing and in itself almost a completely different drink to all the others. It gets the special achievement award because it is better than all the chai lattes, it is a chai, not a chai latte. It is the source material that all the others are riffing off with varying degrees of success. I recommend it incredibly highly!

Chai Graphs

Over the past few months I have been keeping a spreadsheet of the running tally of chai data. Here are some relevant graphs.

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score v price

The Gold, Silver, Bronze and Broken Cup Awards 

The Broken Cup Award: FLEET KITCHEN 

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NEVER AGAIN!

“people often say chai lattes are too sweet. Well, my darlings, TRY THIS ONE. Sour like the face of an old drag queen. Not a moment of pleasantness for the whole beverage. I hugely regret even trying it.”

 

 

Bronze: YUMCHAA

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The beautiful Yumchaa Chai, I want another now!

“A drink full of overwhelmingly adventurous flavours! A real journey of a chai! Delicious, unusual and full of spirit. I must go back for another!”

 

Silver: STARBUCKS 

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A worthy second place goes to Starbucks

“this is my premier chai, this is where it all started. My fav from the beginning. As such I can’t be objective about it. I have had so much chai in my life, but this chai is like a delicious spiced security blanket. This is the drink I treat myself to on bad days and celebrate with on good ones. As such it is the taste of consolation or victory.  I find it delicious and reassuring. Love!”

 

Gold: DISHOOM

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The Winner of the Chai Olympiad, Dishoom

“PERFECTION. Hot, spiced, milky. Ginger, cardamom, clove, cinnamon all stewed together with the milk and sugar. A perfect balance of all these flavours. Authentic bite of spice, not too grainy (but clearly made with fresh spices). This is what  all the other chai lattes are trying (and a lot of the time, failing) to achieve! HOOK IT TO MY VEINS!!!!!!!!”

 

 

Thank you so much for reading my chai reviews! Do not fear, I will be back soon with another series of beverage reviews!

 

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Lunchtimes in Bloomsbury: Gordon Square

I20160509_122052 cross the very busy road at the zebra crossing at the top of Tavistock Square and as I walk the streets get quieter. Crossing onto a quieter corner, I’m in Gordon Square. The gardens here are like a wild meadow, overrun with long grass and flowers. Parts are roped off from the public and allowed to grow tall.

Today is a lovely warm day, with a breeze and I eat my lunch watching the people wandering about. The gardens are full of students sprawled on the grass, stressed out academics (who bring their mugs from their offices into the park) and men who for whatever reason need to sleep in the shade of the trees here. It’s the quietest square in Bloomsbury I know.

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group met in a town house in the square, now a part of the Birkbeck’s School of Arts. These days the basement of the building is the university creche.

 

There are two statues in the gardens, one to the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and another to the incredible Noor Inayat Khan, who was posthumously awarded the George’s Cross and the Croix de Guerre for her work with the French resistence in the Second World War.

After finishing my sandwich, I follow the meandering path around the square. By the cute kiosk which sells hot drinks, I notice a bench with a plaque which reads:

 

“Here beats the happy heart of

our emotional geography

Jack & Rachel

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Lunchtimes in Bloomsbury: St George’s Gardens

 

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St George’s Gardens is tucked away, down a side street across the road from the Brunswick Centre. When you enter the gates and walk down a small slope, you walk into what initially looks like a normal, sort of narrow park. It’s only as you walk further into the space it becomes obvious that this isn’t a normal park but a burial ground. The space opens out either side and the path splits and snakes about following a route that, I assume, avoids the graves that were once there. The further into the gardens you walk, the more it feels like a graveyard. There are large tombs scattered about, one totally surrounded by iron railings. Another raised up on a red brick plinth. One of the more ornate tombs belongs to Oliver Cromwell’s Granddaughter. Most of the names and dates on the gravestones have worn away now. On the right hand corner surrounded by trees is a grand obelisk that pierces into the lower canopy of the nearby tree.

Running down either side of the boundary walls are planted borders and small trees. On lunchtimes I’ve seen the same man from the council digging and tidying it all up. Gravestones are pressed against the boundary walls, grown up the walls like ivy. The man from the council digs away at the ground right by them.

I sit on a bench opposite a cluster of tombs, eating my lunch as others do. I wonder how much they think about our surroundings. It must have been a long time since someone was buried here. Mourners won’t turn up to question how appropriate it is to eat my cheese sandwich near to their Grandmother’s final resting place. The grass is generally undisturbed but I do wonder about the graves down there.

I decide to walk to the other side of the gardens and exit a way I’ve never been before, just out of curiosity. I walk down a quiet back street towards Mecklenburgh Square. When I walk round the corner, one of the houses has a blue plaque to the poet HD who lived there.

The Writer’s Walk: Hodge the Cat

Walk Duration: 1 hr 30 mins (including a few rests on benches on the way)

Starting from and ending at: Liverpool Street Station

Main Attractions: Postman’s Park, Dr Samuel Johnson’s House & Hodge the Cat

Church Tally: At least 6 (including a Cathedral)

 

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Start at Liverpool Street Station, outside by the Kindertransport Memorial.

Walk south down to meet London Wall, cross over the road and continue on your left along London Wall, towards the Barbican and the Museum of London. You’ll notice a few strange buildings along this stretch, a mixture of sumptuous Victorian faux gothic and new builds of plain blueish glass. You will notice parts of the wall, first erected by the Romans as a defence against barbarian attack. The wall was added to over centuries and used to mark out the boundaries of the city of London.

Once you get to the Museum of London, which is on this roundabout, turn left and cross over the road (at the Pret) You will notice this sign:

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This area of London is known as “Little Britain”

Turn into Postman’s Park, which is on the left hand side of this church, St Botolph’s Aldersgate. This park is named after it’s popularity with postmen from the nearby Royal Mail Offices and their fondness for eating their sandwiches here. In 1900 G.F. Watt’s installed his Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice, a series of ceramic tiles detailing the names and brief stories of people who died attempting to save someone else’s life.

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Rest here in the shade for a while.

Exit the park on the other side, and turn left. You will immediately notice St Paul’s Cathedral. Walk towards it, down Paternoster Square.

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There is free entry to the Cathedral during hours of worship, there is also free wifi in the cafe in the crypts.

Walk to the front of the Cathedral and continue walking downhill towards Fleet Street. You’ll notice St. Bride’s Church Spire as you cross over Ludgate Circus. This spire is said to be the inspiration for the shape of the tiered wedding cake.

Continue down Fleet Street until you reach the Starbucks (there’s also a sign for Dr Johnson’s House) turn right down this narrow alleyway. There is a metal plate inlaid in the pavement here, a front cover from The Sun newspaper, commemorating Fleet Street’s heritage as the birth place of British Newpapers. Follow the narrow alley around until you reach Gough Square, you’ll notice a few blue plaques.

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This quiet square is where Dr Samuel Johnson lived and where he wrote his famous Dictionary.

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The house is now a museum, detailing his life and his work writing the Dictionary. On the otherside of the square surrounded by benches is a statue to Hodge, Johnson’s cat.

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Johnson is said to have kept many cats but Hodge was his favourite, in Boswell’s Account of Johnson’s Life he had this to say about Hodge:

“I never shall forget the indulgence with which [Johnson] treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature”

The statue was placed in the square in 1997. It is said to be good luck to leave some change in the oyster shell on the statue. Hodge is perched on top of a first edition of the Dictionary, possibly something he used to do as Johnson was working. This is another nice place to have a rest.

Exit the square at the opposite corner from where you entered it and walk down Stonecutter Street and then turn left when you hit the main road. You’ll see the red viaduct crossing the road ahead, walk up towards it. This is the Holborn Viaduct. This was the first flyover in London and was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869, there are steps up on either side of the road:

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Once you are on the viaduct, have a look at the statues representing Commerce, Agriculture, Science and Fine Art. There is also a few large Dragons signalling the boundary of the City of London.

Turn right and walk down this road, you will pass more churches, St Sepulchre:

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And then a little further along Christ Church Greyfriar’s Garden, a church which was bombed in World War Two and has been retained as a lovely garden:

 

 

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Turn up this road (it should look familiar) as you are back at the entrance of Postman’s Park. Walk through the park again, exiting this time where you first entered it.

Walk down London Wall, via a little excursion into the Barbican Centre, if you wish (it is a very difficult place to wander about without getting lost)

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You will see more of the London Wall and also another Church, St Giles-Without-Cripple-Gate. If you can manage to get out of the Barbican Centre, walk along by Moorgate Station, turning up on the corner where M&S is. Walk down this street until you reach the entrance to Liverpool Street Station. Here there is a sculpture by Richard Serra called Fulcrum, which is five huge sheets of steel 55 foot high, which are free standing and only remain upright because each sheet leans on the next. You can stand in the centre of the sculpture, and look up to see a hexagon shape, rest here in the shade for a moment. This is the end of the walk.

Alone in Berlin

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Landing in the rain in Berlin, the first conversation I had in German was about how hilarious my long hair looked in my passport photo, with the man from passport control. Tegel Airport was tiny compared to the airports in London. I had just flown from Heathrow terminal 5, a stupendous, airy statement of a place, coming to Tegel was like I’d arrived at a regional college built in the late Sixites. Concrete, narrowness and no real space for queuing. A British person’s nightmare. The space between the gates and the waiting areas was, at most points, a series of glass walls, which made sense in terms of making the place seem a bit airier. I noticed lovers talking to one another on their phones on either side of the glass, a man waiting for his flight and the woman waiting to see him off.

In a fit of pique I booked a holiday for myself to Berlin for my birthday. My Birthday is the first week of January and I had to pay for the holiday before Christmas, which wasn’t, financially, the greatest decision. It was a little irrational, perhaps, but one of those things you end up doing around birthdays. My previous birthday had been heavy and painful, having just been broken up with not seven days prior.  A year later, I had wanted to make a break from the past. I didn’t want to remember that last birthday or that time in general. I wanted to go to Berlin and speak German for the entire visit. I had the money (only just) so I decided to do it alone.

Being alone doesn’t scare me as much as it seems to scare almost everyone else. I suppose a normal question to ask someone when they tell you you’re going on holiday is, “who are you going with?” the response people never hear is “I’m going by myself”  a follow up question being, “do you have friends out there?” to which I answer, “I literally know nobody in Berlin”. This exchange happened a few times in the weeks running up to the trip at work. I don’t know whether it’s just a part of how I am or whether it’s something about my upbringing but being alone is something that I can enjoy. I spent a lot of time throughout my childhood and school days waiting alone for buses (there being only 4 per day from the town to my village) I think I got so used to that solitude that I depended on it. Linked to this is my talent of spending a good hour or more in any bookshop available.

In Berlin, it rained practically the entire time. After chatting to a devastatingly attractive red headed German man who sold me my travel card for my stay (and whose directions to the correct bus stop I totally misunderstood) I boarded a bendy bus that would take me to the city centre. It was an old bus, everything was dusty and grey and the streets were concrete and broad. Like most journeys from airports you don’t see the best of the city at all. I started recognising the buildings and, rather incredibly, unexpectedly rounded a corner and hopped off the bus directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I stood there in the rain, unfurling my trusty umbrella and walked towards it through the square in front of it called Pariser Platz. All the headlines of German History seemed to have centred around the Brandenburg  Gate. Hitler had the direction of the chariot statue on top of it changed so it was riding out towards the West instead of facing east, an obvious statement of his intentions. The gate was damaged during the second world war and after the partition of East Berlin was inaccessible from either side due to the heavy military presence and the Berlin Wall. During that time of the two different German states, both sides could see the gate but it was actually in the East German side. It became a symbol of the difficulty of disunity. A little up the street from the gate I noticed the heavily guarded Russian Embassy. A point of pride for us British (and the French and Americans) is that these embassies lie even closer to the gate than the Russians, each being directly in Pariser Platz. In a running race, we’d get to the gate first, before the Russians, if it ever came to that again.

It’s a strange moment to walk underneath the arch. I stood for a long time sheltered from the rain. I thought a lot about my footsteps whilst in Berlin. Whether thirty years ago I would have been allowed to walk where I walked. On the other side of the gate is a cobbled line by the road, which runs alongside a cycle path. This is the imprint of the Berlin Wall. I noticed a man running along it’s path, part of his usual jogging route, something impossible 30 years ago.

Later on the first day (my birthday) after I had checked into my hotel I visited the Berliner Dom, a huge Cathedral on Museum Island. I could barely comprehend my place in the crypts amongst the coffins of long dead German Royalty, hundreds of years of ornate coffins of Kaisers. I climbed all the way up through the building to the top, I walked on the terrace at the top in the cold rainy night, with the TV Tower ahead of me through the mist with it’s East German, Soviet Space Age statement architecture. I couldn’t really believe I was there. Berlin was spread out below, through the rain and mist. I watched it from there for a long time, standing with the huge angel statues with their bugles. I stood in my raincoat, wanting to remember the feeling of going somewhere alone, being thrown out of the strange low-level depression I had had for the winter in London, working a boring job and living in a very cold and drafty attic room. Now I was in Berlin, alone. I could stay out and walk the streets until the cold dead dawn came if I wanted. I could walk ceaselessly through the wide streets thinking about the streams of people who crowded down the same streets as the wall finally came down.

Berlin had that sense of liberation in itself, the same way it had destruction and tragedy. Some parts of the city feel empty, because they were destroyed and never built up again. The opposite to London and how London recovered from the Second World War, London built itself back up again. Berlin, because of the terrible History that followed WW2 was left in utter ruin. Crossing the invisible borders, you walk around Alexanderplatz, the heart of the old East Berlin, you feel the rush of soviet buildings that came into this vacuum after the war. Those streets are even broader, the architecture has that slight ornate Eastern look to it. And you remember that East Germany existed for a long time, long enough for people to live and die not knowing Germany to be reunified.

On the Saturday morning I took a train to Nollendorfplatz and wandered in the light rain towards the market square. I took a turn down Nollendorfstraße and stood outside number 17 , a normal block of apartments. Walls painted an off-peach with ornately carved heavy wooden doors. This was where Christopher Isherwood lived when he came to Berlin to and wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin which were adapted into the musical Cabaret. This was Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic during a time of political unrest and economic decline just as the Nazis were beginning to take control. There’s a large sign on the wall describing Isherwood’s time living there. The street was quiet in the rain and I ducked into large old bookshop just across the way. Very old books were stacked up high, leather-bound, ancient things. The man at the counter was incredibly old and I fancifully wondered if he had known Isherwood or if he had grown up there and his Mother or Father had known them. I stood looking at those old books, books older than reunification, The Wall, The Second World War. I wondered if any had sat on those shelves undisturbed for those long years. I felt close to Berlin then. I felt like it was a city I knew, a little. I understood it in that bookshop. Finding an old leather-bound copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves translated into German, I bought it and smiled at the old man behind the counter. He probably recognised straight away as another strange Englishman coming out to see where Isherwood had lived.

Leaving Berlin, I knew I would return, hopefully during a spell of nicer weather. I had not visited all the Museums on Museum Island, but that morning before my flight I went to the top of the soviet-era Television Tower, a giant metal spike with a large orb at the top, the orb was a viewing platform and a restaurant. I stood looking out over the streets of Berlin, on one side more ordered and planned on the another, ancient and chaotic. Through the fog I could see the Reichstag in the distance. I love Berlin (and maybe London too) because of how odd and unfinished it is. It is a strange monster of a place which has grown randomly. It has a history you walk over, almost constantly. A history I met and understood, a little, for those few days in the rain.

11 Things I need to tell tourists about the London Underground

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1.You don’t need to press the buttons on the tube trains to open the doors this will do nothing AT ALL and make you look like a tit. HOWEVER you will need to press the buttons on DLR trains and if you don’t this will make you look like a tit.

2. Tottenham Court Road station exits: Far left back on yourself of escalators is top of Oxford Street, almost straight ahead is other side of road top of Oxford Street, next to that one is right outside theatre with Freddie Mercury Statue, further to the right and a bit of a walk is underneath Centre Point use this one to walk around the corner to Charing Cross Road.

3. There’s no point getting the Tube from Leicester Square to Tottenham Court Road, it’s a short walk. Also it’s a quick walk from Leicester Square to Covent Garden. Also Charing Cross and Embankment were at one time considered the same train station, so there are RIGHT NEXT TO each other. The walk from Moorgate to Liverpool Street really isn’t far either (they’re being linked together as a part of Crossrail)

4. If you need to get the right exit from Old Street or Bank I cannot help you, they are mad, labyrinthine stations. Bank is a huge complex of tunnels and I still don’t understand it despite the fact I go there every weekday. Old Street is a roundabout so you’re fucked if you end up on the wrong side of where you need to be.

5. The Waterloo And City line only has two stops and yet each carriage still has a map linking those two stops with a nice straight blue line.

6. Tourists will ALWAYS crowd on the platform and you can almost always get a seat (or a reasonable place to stand) even at a quite busy time if you can be bothered to walk down to the opposite side where there are fewer people waiting.

7. Green Park station has free (I think they’re free) toilets, which is a rarity.

8. It’s practically always quicker to change once or twice than to sit on a Circle line train. It’s possibly quicker to walk than to sit on a Circle line train. Plus it’s no longer a circle any more and be careful about getting it from Paddington because you could end up being thrown off at Edgware Road and waiting forever for another one. Bloody Circle Line.

9. The Victoria line is fast as FUCK. Use it if you can. Also it tells you what side the platform will be so you don’t end up embarrassingly waiting by the doors which don’t open. Londoners will silently laugh at you if you do this because I have both done this and laughed at people who do this.

10. Sometimes doors won’t open in the front carriage or the back carriage at all because the trains are too long to fit on the platforms, they will announce this just as you’re coming into the station. Don’t look like a tit and try to make them open and then violently push past everyone in your way because you weren’t paying attention. I once watched this happen to a huge number of drunken kilt-wearing Scottish men and they were NOT HAPPY. The platform at Highgate Station, rather wonderfully, is too long for the trains so don’t walk to the end of that platform as the train will run out before it stops in front of you (causing more silent laughter from surrounding Londoners).

11. The DLR is awesome and doesn’t have drivers and you can sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to drive. It has people on board who endlessly make announcements and who can drive if there’s something wrong with the computer system but for the most part the trains just totter along like a weird overgrown theme park monorail system. There’s even an exciting almost rollercoastery bit coming into Canary Wharf where it climbs up hill then rushes down the hill and round a sharp corner. Also the middle bits of the carriages are bendy which is fun if you have to stand up in them. If you need to change from DLR to the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf change at Heron Quays not Canary Wharf DLR as there is a bewildering Shopping Mall in the way. Heron Quays drops you off in the square outside the Canary Wharf Underground Station.