One year ago, Ben Wallace picked up a copy of Time Out – and found 101 reasons to be a tourist in his home city. But how did he get on?
This time last year I was in a cultural black hole. Despite living in one of the greatest cities in the world, I was managing to dodge anything that resembled a cultural experience. I’d been in London for two years and had yet to visit any of its major attractions, sample the many cuisines or visit its green parks.
Then last June, Time Out did something that changed my life: it published a list of the top 101 London attractions, a compilation of museums, galleries, bars and restaurants that people travel from all over the world to see – and which I had never visited, despite them being just a short trip from my Stockwell front door. Along with Fliss (@Flissfontaine), my partner in crime, I hatched a plan to visit all 101 attractions on the list. But how many times have you promised yourself you would visit a museum, then found an excuse not to go? We needed a deadline.
We decided that we would visit all 101 top London attractions in one year, before the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony on July 27 2012. We no longer had a list, we had the 101 challenge! In the year since, we have documented our progress at wherethatbenwent.com and @benwallace10. In the sober light of day it was clear we hadn’t thought it through: 101 of anything is a lot; 101 attractions in 365 days is quite a commitment. To beat the 101 we needed to visit an attraction every two or three days for a year!
But we did it, and last Friday, a week before the Olympics, we gathered with friends at the Palm Tree pub in Mile End Park for number 101 on the list: an East End knees-up. Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t have travelled to Mile End to visit what looked very much like an ordinary pub. But it made the list and so we had to go. The Palm Tree is an old-school pub, almost a relic among London’s trendy bars. The bar stools are occupied by locals who have probably been drinking there for 30 years. If anyone is visiting for the Olympics, then Friday night at the Palm Tree is the place to witness London pub culture at its best.
As the bar filled up with punters, a four-piece swing band led by the amazing voice of Moon Williams started to play the family favourites. They were brilliant, as were their mates who occasionally took the stage to belt out a jazz standard. The performance was excellent and steady rather than wild, but there was a twinkle in their eyes that told me these old boys could tell a few stories. As our friends arrived and the beer and bubbles started flowing, the noise levels began to build. Inhibitions were swallowed as quickly as the drinks. By 10.30pm a good old fashioned knees-up was under way as we danced and sang along.
As with all good nights, closing time came around too soon, leaving the crowd clapping, whistling and shouting for more; we will be back. So what have we learned in the past year? I have learned it is okay to be a tourist in your own town – but you have to commit to it. We sacrificed lie-ins, spare time and healthy bank balances, but we can say we did it. The challenge has come to an end, but we have by no means exhausted what London has to offer us. In fact, we recently got a Time Out book called ‘1001 Things to Do in London’… See you on the other side!
THE BEST OF THE 101
I’ve done the activities; I’ve written the blog; now here’s a list of the best of them…
Sports White Water Rafting Lee Valley White Water Centre will play host to the canoeing and kayaking competitions this summer, but is open to the public from September 8. Runner up The Walk Eat Talk Eat walking tour of East London
Nightlife King Gong At this monthly event amateur comedians see if they can last five minutes in front of a baying crowd. If they do, they leave the stage as heroes. Runner up Learn to jive at the retro Rivoli Ballroom
Museums London Transport Museum The entry fee allows the holder a year’s entry to one of London’s best museums. Runner up See the evolution of London homes through time at Dennis Severs’ House.
Food & Drink Gordon’s Wine Bar This is all about the vine. You can choose red, white, madeira, sherry or port, with the house varieties poured direct from the barrel. The port in particular is divine. Runner up Scoff a snack from Brick Lane Beigel Bake.
Shopping Columbia Road Flower Market Ladies should expect to be addressed as ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’ and ‘my lovely’ by the characters manning the stalls. Runner up See a magic show while you browse the tricks at Davenports Magic shop.
Around Town Highgate Cemetery It’s not all about solemn reflection. There’s also humour: see Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Malcolm Was Here’ headstone. Runner up Creep up on the deer in Richmond Park.
To see more of Ben’s escapades, see wherethatbenwent.com.