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Secret Circuits: London
As the city sleeps at 4am, automotive journalist Angus Frazer comes out to play in the early dawn, experiencing the UK’s capital in a whole new light.
There’s something special about driving in big cities like New York or L.A., and London is no different. And when you combine its tight city streets with a few hundred years of history, it’s downright magical. Approaching London from the south, I cross the river Thames over Westminster Bridge and head towards The Houses Of Parliament. Above, two yellow discs hang side by side in the dark early morning sky. The one on the left is the moon, the one on the right is the clock face of Big Ben.
The Circus is in Town
It’s 3:50am, six hours before the London Eye, the beloved ferris wheel, starts turning and tourists can take to the air. I’m here to find my own unique views of the city, drive on clear roads and prove that you don’t have to live next door to Germany’s Nürburgring motorsports track to really enjoy your car.
Ten minutes later I’m gridlocked at Piccadilly Circus. Big Ben may be telling the world it’s Sunday morning, but to the party animals here, Saturday night is still going strong. The roads are as busy as they would be at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. When a gap appears in the traffic, I head for quieter streets. With Trafalgar Square behind me, there are plenty of them.
West End Show
I drive clear of Fleet Street when Blackfriars Bridge carries me over the river Thames. I cut through the backstreets to Borough Market, just south of London Bridge, but there’s still no company to be found. Near The London Dungeon I have no choice but to follow the road into a long, dark tunnel, before heading to the theater district of the West End.
By the old West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, I crane my neck to take in the towering Canary Wharf. I soon drive back west towards the old town, worried I’ll never see the sunrise down at the bottom of this vast building. I park up on Waterloo Bridge and watch the sun appear slowly, sparkling off the grey waters of the Thames.
It’s time to try my luck at Piccadilly Circus again. Over Westminster Bridge the hands of Big Ben are now standing at half-past five and it’s just me, the statue of Churchill and the odd police officer patrolling the streets around Parliament. Past Trafalgar Square and I soon see the perpetual neon lights of Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London if you will.
Solitude in the City
The traffic that ruined my drive earlier this morning is gone. Amazingly, even Piccadilly Circus is deserted. A slow smile spreads across my face. The streets of London are all mine. No time to waste. Who knows how long this peace and emptiness will last?
Down Piccadilly I drive, then around the massive roundabout of Hyde Park Corner. From here, I take the long drag to the top of Park Lane, around Marble Arch and back down the other side of the two-lane highway to Hyde Park Corner, taking the Constitution Hill exit. Once again I’ve got the whole road to myself and things get even more surreal as I pass Buckingham Palace.
For the next hour or so I lose myself among the backstreets, neither knowing nor caring where I end up. In just an hour or two these streets will be so packed it’ll be almost impossible to drive them.
Soon enough the freshness has gone out of the morning and the driving. The streets are no longer mine and must be shared. Then I remember the old saying that all roads lead to London and if that’s the case, there must be plenty that lead out of it too. And there is no shortage of great driving routes easily within reach of the city.
Tips for Driving in London
London is an extremely congested city and driving in its center can be a challenge. Restrictions apply between 8:30am and 6:30pm weekdays and 8:30am to 1:30pm on Saturdays, for which you’ll have to pay a £10 congestion fee.
Take care when parking – cars are towed and booted every day in London, and visitors can be easily confused about the laws. Because tickets cost up to £80 and towing an extra £125, using commercial car parks is recommended. They are preferable to on street parking since many roads are reserved for resident permit holders. Car parks are abundant in central London and are marked on street signs with a white “P” on a blue background.