I have a good sense of direction. It doesn't mean I never get lost. In fact it doesn't mean I will ever understand how San Francisco is arranged. But it means I'm adept at finding my way, even when I don't know where I am.
When I first arrived in London a few weeks ago, I took the first few days to walk around the neighbourhood [the computer spell check is now wanting me to convert to British English. Good thing I read a lot of English cookbooks and novels.] I'm staying in. WC1.
I walked in circles, or shapes thereabout, and memorized details. Memorizing streets and cross streets is close to impossible because streets in straight lines do not stay the same name block to block always. But postal codes don't lie and either does the compass. Every street name has the first part of the postal code attached. And London is like a rectangle, repeating around itself. Each line crosses North to South, East to West, and so forth. And each concentric long box is a zone. Central London is zone 1 and the nether reaches extend to 8, and include "suburbs," also available by railways/ commuter trains.
In the last few days I have gotten on the wrong bus and ended up much farther from where I was meant to go, a few times. The Tube stops running a little after midnight so everyone who stays up or works late must take a bus at some point.
Every night/morning that I have realized the bus wasn't going where I should have been going, I got off and walked. Long walks. But I am so grateful that I spent my first days here memorizing buildings, parks, side streets and Mews. If I had not, I would have been doomed attempting to walk for an hour at 3 am in a city empty but for those who lurk in The Violet Hour their whole day through.
London also has a secret weapon. The A to Z. Or, as it is spoken, the A to Zed.
The A to Zed is London streets, in contiguous map form, an entire length of a book. Each page's streets run off onto a new page, pointing you in the correct direction, overlapping information so you can walk through the book with your fingertips and reading glasses. The A to Zed's index lists every street, every Mews, every Tube stop, etc. It is comprehensive. Full stop.
And the A to Zed is not just for tourists. Londoners own them too. In fact, the Black Cab drivers have to study it thoroughly for three years and memorize it almost completely before they get a license to drive London's famous city taxis. The test is called The Knowledge, and one can understand why.
Being from New York City means that I do well in cities with fantastic subway systems. Although I like the views buses give me, I find the tube better suited for getting on with transfers and switchbacks to various points along London's crazy map of frenetic adventuring possibilities. But my cousin who has lived here for 3 years now reminds me that a bus pass is a bit cheaper and it taught her how London was connected faster than the tube would have.
People in London will tell you to plan an hour one way to any destination by public transportation. The Underground pauses, has delays, and sometimes shuts down altogether. Traffic is mostly stop or travelling at 5 mph in London's central zones. Knowing how to Walk London is as important as understanding what trains have transfer points to what lines, and what number your Night Bus is if you're out late.
I try and take my getting lost in stride. Buck up, walk swiftly and pay attention to details. In the end they all connect and then I'm better educated for my next excursion.