Being Safe and Legal in London
The laws in the UK are similar to the US, so your usual law-abiding behavior will be OK.
London is a reasonably safe city, as long as you follow your common sense. While not as quiet as Charleston, we are not a raging hive of criminality (Don’t believe everything you see in Guy Ritchie films). I have lived and worked in London my entire life I have had my bag stolen once, ten years ago, in a non-violent crime. However, it would be appropriate to warn you about not becoming a victim through ignorance.
Despite conflicting media reports here, it is not legal to use narcotics in the UK. Certain drugs have been downgraded, but not legalized. It means you might not go to jail for a joint, but you may still get a heavy fine and a criminal record.
It is also illegal to carry any kind of weapon in the UK. Guns, tasers, and knives are all prohibited. You may carry a pocket knife with a blade of less than three inches, but we would advise that you do not do so. London has substantially less gun crime than the US as a result of our prohibitive laws, and you do not need to carry a weapon for your own protection.
Ladies, be aware that mace and pepper sprays are considered weapons, and may not be carried. If you want to have some kind of deterrent spray in your purse, carry a small can of hairspray, or perfume — both will do the job.
Make sure your wallet or purse is safe, and beware of pickpockets on very crowded tube trains. Don’t leave any bag unattended. Not only are you likely to have things stolen, you may also cause a huge security alert. London has more than three decades of experience in working against terrorism, and your bags will be removed and destroyed first, and questions asked later. Equally, if you see anything you feel is suspicious, please don’t feel silly reporting it to an official. If you have any fears about terrorism, rest assured that London is as safe as any large US city, and we have excellent security services.
With regard to talking to strangers in bars, please exercise sensible caution. Do not accept a drink unless you have seen it poured or the staff member has brought it over without the sender touching it. Also, do not leave your drink with a stranger while you dance or use the restrooms. There have been several incidences of people having their drinks spiked with narcotics inducing extreme disorientation, partial/intermittent unconsciousness and physical weakness. The result is the victim appears to be excessively drunk and incoherent, and unable to prevent whatever the attacker chooses to do. The result is often a robbery or a sexual assault.
Please note that men are the victims of this method of assault too. Sexual assaults on men are being reported in greater numbers, as there are fewer stigmas attached to male rape these days, so we have no idea if it is an increase in crime or reporting, but it does happen.
If you plan to dance, buy a bottled drink and keep your thumb over the neck if you stand around chatting. Do not leave a drink unattended and go back to it. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
Many areas of London are well populated until very late at night, so you can usually find safety in numbers if you are concerned. Policemen are approachable and helpful, and all stations and bus depots are staffed should you need to ask for help.
The main thing to remember at all times is simple — use your judgment. If you feel unsafe or insecure, get away. Walk into a pub, a shop, an office. Walk up to any uniformed official you see. If all else fails, knock on a street door of someone’s house and ask if they would call you a cab. People in London are often perceived as being a little unfriendly, but ultimately we will help anyone in a crisis.
To reduce risks of things going wrong and then getting worse, follow this advice just in case any of your items get stolen or lost: Before leaving home make photocopies of your passport, driving license, credit cards, and air ticket. Add a sheet of notes containing your credit card number, the Customer Services number for the card company and your booking reference for the airline. Leave a copy of all this with your family at home. Keep another copy with you in a safe place away from your cash and cards In the event that lose anything, you have a place to start, and copies to help prove your identity.
Should you lose your passport, contact the US Embassy at Grosvenor Square — 020 7499 9000.
Healthcare and Medical Insurance
Before you leave the States you’ll be required to buy health insurance provided by the University. It costs $30 – cheap.
Should you find yourself in need of urgent medical help, no National Health Service hospital in London would turn you away. Those with insurance are asked to give details for reclamation of costs, but those without are still treated in emergencies.
A walk-in doctor service is available at several locations for minor ailments or sicknesses.
Soho NHS Walk-in Centre
1 Frith Street, Off Soho Square
London W1D 3QS
Open Monday–Friday 7.30 am–9 pm
Weekends 10 am–8 pm
- St Mary’s Hospital, Praed Street, W2 — 020 7886 6666
- St Thomas’s Hospital, Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 — 020 7928 9292
- University College Hospital, Grafton Way, WC1E — 020 7387 9300
You can also call NHS direct for advice on 0845 46 47.
In the event of a serious emergency requiring an ambulance (or Police, or Fire Brigade) call 999 from any telephone without charge.
There are several dentists within a short walk of Gray’s Inn, should you require emergency dental care.
Drugstores are usually referred to as chemists or pharmacies and are often found inside larger department stores, and health and beauty outlets (Boots and Superdrug are two such shops). You can also find smaller independent chemists dotted around.
If you use a regular pharmaceutical, bring with you enough to last for all the time you’ll be out of the States. Unless you have a prescription from a UK doctor, no pharmacist will provide you with any kind of drug that cannot be bought over the counter. You can buy cold and flu remedies, basic painkillers (aspirin, ibuprofen), antihistamines and the emergency contraceptive pill amongst other things.
You may find that American brand names are not available in the UK. Make a note of any generic medications, and a pharmacist will be able to help you identify the items you need.
Things like insulin, beta-blockers and antibiotics all require prescription. For this reason, anyone on prescription meds should endeavor to bring sufficient supplies for the duration of the trip. If a diabetic has problems bringing three weeks supply of insulin, let me know and I will see what can be done. Basic prescription charges are £6.50 per item, and prescriptions can be issued by GPs or emergency room doctors.
Public Transport Information
London offers extremely good public transport with extensive bus routes, a subway system (the Tube) and taxis are available on a ‘hail and ride’ basis. Transport is generally clean and reliable, though extremely busy at rush hour (8–9.30 a.m. and 5–6.30 p.m.) Everybody uses public transport in London.
Both London Gatwick and London Heathrow have excellent public transport links directly into London, at reasonable cost. I have noted which train terminus is in which area of town to help you decide your journey.
London Gatwick (LGW)
The Gatwick Express will take you, at reasonable cost, into Victoria Station (south central). Take a cab from the station to your accommodation. The cab driver will know where you need to go!
The Gatwick Express allows you to buy tickets on the train and accepts credit cards. All other train tickets must be bought prior to travel. Machines and ticket offices are available on the station concourses.
London Heathrow (LHR)
Heathrow offers an express train service into Paddington Station (west) or has connections directly onto the Piccadilly Line Tube (everywhere). Again, go with the cab!
Gray’s Inn is on the Central Line of the London Underground. When you arrive in London, find your way to a train or Underground station and buy an Oyster card. This is a travel card onto which you can load money to pay Tube, train, and bus fares at a discount. Get one!
This is fare information only:
- Flat fare is £1.20 — whenever, wherever. (Payable to the driver or conductor, or purchase from a machine).
- A one-day bus pass costs £3.00, and give unlimited journeys.
- A one-day travel card costs £6.00 and gives unlimited journeys on all transport.
- A three-day Travel card pass costs £15.00 and gives unlimited journeys on all transport.
- A seven-day bus pass costs £11.00, and gives unlimited journeys.
- A seven-day travel card offering unlimited bus and Tube travel in Central London costs £21.40
Licensed Black Cabs are the pride of London! The drivers are trained extensively and have excellent local knowledge, and most are extremely friendly and helpful. Many of them like to have a chat with their passengers, and can be a valuable source of information if you get lost. During the day, prices are very reasonable for a ‘chauffeured’ trip through London, but be warned — fares increase substantially after 8 p.m.
Taxis available for hire have a lit sign on the top of the windshield. Simply stick out your arm and wave them down. The driver will roll down his window, and you tell him where you want to go. It is polite to do this before you get in, as it is his choice to accept the fare or not. It is your choice to tip him or not. It is not obligatory, and most cabbies do not expect it. I usually just round up the fare to the nearest pound, or add a pound if the driver has been exceptionally friendly and helpful. You do have to pay a small additional sum for large items of luggage.
Licensed cabs should always be used where possible. ‘Minicabs’ (private cars with untrained drivers) can be ordered from private hire companies. This is safe and cost-effective for pre-arranged travel.
Late in the evening in busy areas, unlicensed cabs often solicit or ’tout’ for business, offering cheaper fares than Black Cabs. This is illegal. These are usually not associated with any company, and are often unroadworthy or uninsured cars. I would advise that you do not accept an unregulated minicab. Without wishing to scare anyone, I would stress that lone travelers should not accept these under any circumstances. There have been incidents of assaults and robberies on unsuspecting passengers, both male and female. More information can be found on Transport For London’s website.
Public Transport Outside London
The UK has a fairly extensive rail and coach network. Prices and travel times are reasonable, although you should always check for engineering works at weekends before making a booking. Advice on rail travel can be found on Railtrack or you can call 08457 484950.
Tickets for trains must be bought from the station ticket office, or dispensing machines prior to travel. It is an offence to travel without paying your fare, and is punishable by a fine. You must have your ticket available for inspection, and larger stations have ticket barriers. You do not pay extra for luggage.
Public Transport Outside the UK
Anyone wishing to take a short break in France can utilise the many routes — a ferry service leaves for the French coast almost every hour from Ramsgate, Dover or Folkstone, or the Eurostar will take you from London Waterloo to Paris Gard Du Nord in three hours. Try Eurostar for more information.
Car hire is best done through reputable agencies and is very easy to arrange online. Try easyCar or search engines for deals. Remember that driving in Central London during the working week incurs a £5 daily fee or ‘Congestion Charge’. Non-payment results in a £40 fine. See the website for payment details. Parking in London is expensive and gas is exorbitantly expensive ($6 per gallon). To give you an idea, the day parking fee is £16 at Gray’s Inn. Parking on a public street is generally prohibited — you need to have a residential permit, or park near a meter. Fines for parking illegally begin at £80.00.
Pay-as-You-Go Cell Phones
There are lots of retailers here offering good deals, and you should be able to obtain a phone for less than £50 (with some airtime thrown in). However, I would suggest that you try to keep on the same networks, as charges for calls and SMS text messages can be cheaper that way.
Each network offers it own benefits, but T-Mobile and Orange are pretty good here. Avoid the store ‘Phones-4-U’ at all costs. I have yet to meet anyone who had a good experience there.
Social Life — Drinking and Eating Out
Bars and pubs are pretty much everywhere. Legal Drinking age is 18 (21 in some bars). Staff do not routinely ask for ID, but once asked you must produce it or you will be refused service.
Beer is sold in bottles, pints and halves (half pint). Spirits are sold in standard measures of 25ml, and lots of chain pubs do cheap double measures. For cheap eats and drinks, Wetherspoons pubs are good value.
London has almost every type of food — China Town is great, Covent Garden has some good Italian places, Asian restaurants are everywhere, Sri Thai is wonderful and the Bombay Brasserie has the best curry in town. I used to go to a great Polish-Mexican restaurant too — we cater for everyone’s tastes! You can get plentiful, cheap pub grub (burgers, pies, fish and chips etc) at most pubs at lunchtime. Some do two-for-one, or cheap deals if you select from certain menus. I think we have more sandwich bars per capita than anywhere on earth and being near the City we have plenty of options within a very short walk.
Coffee shops are everywhere, and you can grab breakfast from all of them. We have cheaper options than Starbucks. Benjy’s does a large cup of tea or coffee for a pound.
Please remember if you ask for tea here, it will be served hot and with milk. We also haven’t imported the free refill system on sodas, so don’t attempt to refill your cup.
Food — Home Cooking
We have lots of supermarkets for home cooking. Sainsburys, Tesco and Waitrose are the most common, with smaller stores like Budgens and independent shops useful for emergency items. You might be able to organize internet deliveries — check with Hampden House when you get there.
You could always skip the shops and try your hand at market shopping. Borough Market (Fridays and Sundays) sells the freshest fruit and veg, meat and fish, Smithfield Market is the largest meat market in town, Billingsgate for fish, and even the local Leather Lane has some good fruit and veg stalls and a fantastic butcher. Market veggies are also usually a little cheaper than supermarkets.
If you plan to work together on cooking then buying in bulk really does save you money. I would suggest that you club together at the stores for basics like pasta, rice, bread, spices and oils, and then visit the markets for veggies and meat.
Cheap Deals on Entertainments
Although most of you will not travel by train often, you might find that one person investing £2.00 in a short train ticket could save more than £10.00 on entry fees and £25.00+ on theatre tickets!
This is not considered obligatory in the same way as in the US. It is usually considered recognition of good service, rather than just a standard thing. Feel free, but don’t feel obliged to do it. Be aware that some restaurants add a an ‘optional’ service charge to the bill (usually 12%) and then still leave the gratuity spot blank for you to add more. If it says optional charge, you can ask for it to be removed so you can add your own amount.
You may find that smaller personal items (shavers, hair dryers etc) do not work well on UK voltage. Converters are available, but not always great. You can purchase most small items cheaply at a store called Argos (two minutes from Gray’s Inn).
While in Gray’s Inn during the day, please wear smart casual clothes. While in Gray’s Inn Do Not wear:
- Sports clothes, such as yoga tights
- Keep your shirt-tails tucked in.
In all respects, remember that when you’re in Gray’s Inn you are in a space that is comparable to the United States Supreme Court. The person you collide with on the stairs may be the Lord Chief Justice of England! We need to look respectable at all times.
Lots of large department stores have restrooms; all pubs and restaurants are legally obliged to have them for customers. Usually referred to as Toilets or Lavatories, the slang term is the ‘loo’. There are no attendants (mainland Europe has them), so no tipping is necessary and you should have everything you need in there.
England and America are two nations separated by a common language. Problems can occur when someone has a strong dialect/accent and uses slang language. If in doubt, ask what someone means, and don’t be surprised if someone asks you to repeat something you have said to them.
The obvious example is the slang English term for a cigarette — it really is a fag. There are a few potentially embarrassing ones out there, so mind your language!