Thursday 27 June 2019

London: Take the stress out of a trip by flying through Southend

UK City Breaks

A fog hanging over the Thames almost masks Tower Bridge
A fog hanging over the Thames almost masks Tower Bridge
Never too early for cocktail o'clock in the American Bar at the Savoy

Joe Corcoran

The Dublin-London air route is the busiest in the western hemisphere, attracting some 4.5m passengers each year. Sounds like a bit of a head-wrecker?

But in all my time participating in this avalanche of people, I have never found the process of getting from touchdown to downtown more stress free and easy than I did on my most recent trip through London Southend Airport.

It's the kind of place you almost don't want to tell anyone about if you're a regular visitor to the UK capital.

Located just a short train ride from the city centre but a world away from the taxing hustle and bustle of Heathrow and Gatwick's 300,000 plus passengers per day, the award winning international flight destination has, since its 2008 renovation under new owners Stobart Air, become one of the UK's best kept secrets.

A standard bearer of efficiency with return flights from as low as €23 - it can be breezed through in less than five minutes if so desired - it makes London the go-to destination for overnight shopping trips and weekend getaways.

The only problem then is figuring out how to pack everything you want to do into the time you have available. The key is finding somewhere to stay that's near enough to all the best spots the city has to offer. True, given the London Underground's peerless efficiency and connectivity, you'll never find yourself truly very far from wherever you want to get to, but even still certain locations stand out above the rest.

Never too early for cocktail o'clock in the American Bar at the Savoy
Never too early for cocktail o'clock in the American Bar at the Savoy

For fans of the theatre, the place to be is the Strand Palace Hotel. A century-old landmark of hospitality located in the heart of the West End, the hotel is within walking distance of Docklands and the City, and surrounded by some of the most famous attractions in London, including St Paul's Cathedral and the London Eye. After checking in, the first place I set out for was the National Gallery, about three minutes up the road.

The gallery, open free to the public 361 days a year, is home to one of the most prized collections of paintings on the planet.

There are more than 2,300 works here organised in sweeping arrangements that give equal weight to all of the major traditions in European painting - from the gothic work of the late medieval period right the way through to the French impressionists of the 19th Century.

Its impressive collection of Van Gogh paintings, including his iconic Sunflowers, is said to be the gallery's most popular attraction, but it also houses works by a host of other artistic giants including Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Picasso.

You could spend days exploring everything the gallery has to offer. As it was I had to make do with just an afternoon. The evening had been reserved for a trip to the theatre.

With the possible exception of New York there is nowhere in the world with a richer theatre scene than London. Shakespeare's former home today boasts more than 240 professional venues, and it is estimated that eight million more people attend plays in the city each year than do every Premier League match of the season combined.

Staying where I was, almost everything 'must-see' could be reached within a few minutes walk. Ultimately I went with what was right next-door; the Vaudeville Theatre and its production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman Of No Importance.

The theatre, first established in 1870, is one of the West End's lesser known venues, just as the play, which will be performed until at least the end of the year, is one of Wilde's lesser known works, but in this case the relative anonymity was a virtue.

The Vaudeville is an intimate setting whose walls, built narrow and high in the traditional West End style, radiate a kind of theatrical history which is often missed in larger venues, and the actors seemed to thrive especially well in its close quarters, which only amplified the intensity of their performances as the story built to its much acclaimed climax.

When it came time for a drink or two to close out the night, London left me spoiled for choice. Among its so many other honours the city is widely recognised as the cocktail capital of the world, with dozens of the world's finest drinking establishments all clustered in and around the West End.

Names such as the American Bar and the Connaught Bar are institutions known worldwide by cocktail enthusiasts and they are all within arm's reach of the London theatre goer.

If you're staying overnight and plan on really seeing what this reputation is all about, you should probably make sure your flight home is a late one. After all, you'll want the time to get in some shopping the next day.

London's retail scene is even more legendary than its nightlife. No matter what you could possibly want there's a place in the city that does it better than anywhere else.

In Westfield London, it lays claim to one of the world's best shopping centres, in Covent Garden to a myriad of street markets selling an endlessly fascinating selection of unique homespun items, and in the likes of Savile Row, Bond Street and King's Road to the very finest in designer fashion of all styles and labels.

With so many options those pressed for time would be forgiven for being just a little bit intimidated. Thankfully, I managed to beat the clock. My morning was spent strolling, coffee in hand, down Oxford Street, as a new business day sprang into life all around me. The shopping was great but the atmosphere was priceless.

London is a city with nearly nine million people to its name from every walk of life and every corner of the earth.

Sometimes it feels good having the world at your doorstep.

Get there

Flybe, operated by Stobart Air, operates a direct service up to three times daily from Dublin to London Southend Airport, with fares from €19.99 one way.

The service is a new, convenient and smarter route to London. London Southend Airport has a dedicated railway station. Passengers can get from plane to train in as little as five minutes with direct transfer to London Liverpool Street station in just 53 minutes.

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